Episode 1: Striking a bargain
This episode’s stories
A Few Seconds that Seemed Like Forever by Stuart
Ugly laughing and Being Weird by Tara
Be True to Yourself by Sunny
The Italian Job by Santa Lucia
Close the door and dim the lights. Let’s talk. I’m Violeta Balhas and this is Season 1, Episode 1 of Pillow Talking – Stories about the stories we tell each other when there’s no one listening. In this episode, Striking a bargain.
Welcome to the very first episode of Pillow Talking. The production of this episode is happening as Melbourne, Australia – my home – is emerging from months of strict coronavirus isolation. As we emerge, different countries are headed for their own lockdowns, equally severe if not more so.
There’s a lot to say about lockdown and isolation and a lot that has been said and I don’t want to add more except for this: hasn’t iso been a microscope for relationships? Under the microscope of isolation the good things have come up in sharp detail, and so have the bad. That’s my best metaphor for this whole mess except that’s not saying much because I’m not quite sure a microscope quite captures it. Sometimes it’s been more like a funhouse mirror. After all,– the first proper, all-out fight my husband Shane and I had in iso was about two hard-boiled eggs. Yeah.
Even in large, well-appointed homes people report living in each other’s pockets. It’s a lot of enforced closeness. But does closeness equal intimacy? The stories I’ve heard and read say no. But they do suggest that it’s had the power to both enhance it and destroy it. People have had to do a lot of navigating, stepping around, and negotiating to make the whole confined-together thing workable.
The stories I’m presenting today aren’t iso stories, but they are about negotiating. Negotiating is something that happens in most relationships to some degree.
Years ago a woman I used to know told me this:
“Early on in life I discovered that manipulation was all right as long as the person being manipulated got something at least of equal value out of it.”
Although manipulation isn’t in my skillset, at the time this seemed like genius to me. Everybody wins! But some years later, with zero manipulation attempts under my belt, might I add, I thought about her words again and what struck me wasn’t genius: it was arrogance. That’s how deciding what’s of value to the other person seems to me now.
Negotiating, and even bargaining, on the other hand, is a completely different kettle of fish. In an equitable relationship each of you has something of value to the other. Each of you gets to lay out what you want on the table. There’s back and forth. There’s thrashing out. And as long as no one says the c-word – compromise – it’s got the potential to end up pretty OK for all parties concerned.
The four stories in this episode feature bargains. Some of them small – the kind we make every day. Some with the potential to be life-changing. They all happened in the intimacy of the bedroom.
Ssh. Let’s listen.
Anna and I had been dating for about six or seven months at this point, and we’d fallen hard for each other. It felt like we’d been together forever. I knew all about her. She knew all about me. We knew we loved each other. Our dogs loved each other. We hadn’t planned moving in together yet or getting married but the relationship was serious and it was on the cards.
She was the most remarkable woman I’d ever met. Gorgeous, intelligent. And strong, but insecure. It sounds like a contradiction, but that’s how it was. Her insecurities weren’t the “Does my butt look big in this?” type. They went a lot deeper because she had overcome a lot in her life: a tough childhood, abuse, some serious shit. And I was ready for it because she was worth it. I wanted to be her safe place. Her rock. I know it sounds corny and I’m not the knight in shining armour type, but I figured she deserved to relax a bit, have someone to rely on.
Where her insecurities were a problem in the relationship was that regularly she’d ask me these questions. And they felt like a test that I always failed. I knew that she was looking for reassurance, but she was never reassured. Sometimes they felt like a trap.
This pillow talk happened after we’d had sex. Great sex, as usual. It was classic, post-coital talk, but then it turned.
Anna was asking me about my big relationships – again. She wanted to know about the last big one, which I’d ended. And of course she wanted reassurance that I wouldn’t end this one without trying to work it out first. I agreed. As usual, she didn’t seem satisfied no matter what I said, so I dropped it. It was spoiling the mood. There was some more talk, I forget about what. But five or ten minutes later she asked about my first great love, an “older woman” who broke my heart when she ended our relationship. Keep in mind that this happened when I was 18 and the “older woman” was 21 – and it’s been well over a decade at this point. And Anna’s tone is playful but a pretend playful that used to make me break out in a sweat. So then she asks me whether I ever got over her, because your first great love is your first great love. And didn’t give me time to answer before saying something like, “We’ve only been together 6 months, what would you do if she reached out on Facebook and wanted to see you?”
This was like a full-on trap, like those during the Vietnam war that were full of spikes and shit. All of a sudden I could see our lives together, marriage, kids, and her never feeling secure no matter what I did. And I like to think I’m a good guy. Never played around. Never would. It’s not me. But years of this sounded exhausting. And just not fair to her either, because obviously I couldn’t give her what she needed. I knew I had to confront it and risk losing her, or just do my best to reassure her now (even though I knew she wouldn’t be) and risk even more when we’d been together in the long term.
I got really serious and I think stern. Part of me stood aside and listened and I remember thinking that I sounded a little like my dad (who’s a solid guy, by the way, but you don’t mess with him). I said, “So let me get this straight. You don’t like the idea that I’ve ended a relationship because you’re afraid I’ll end this one, and you don’t like the idea that I was dumped because you’re afraid I’m not over it.” She tried to make a joke but I pulled her back. “You realize this is a no-win situation for me, right?” Then I said, “We’re adults. We have histories. What do you want?” She got serious. I think she got a little teary but I just kept pushing and pushing, just kept asking her what she wanted. And I wasn’t going to drop it. I had turned the tables but it wasn’t that I wanted to win – I just wanted to sort this shit out. I wanted her, and I wanted it to work. She wouldn’t answer, so I kept suggesting stuff and she kept shaking her head. I had a ridiculous thing pop into my head and I said it because I was running out of things to suggest, “Is it that you somehow want to be my first and last, my one and only?” And she shrugged and started crying for real.
Wow. It was a sucker punch. It literally felt like I’d been punched in the guts. I knew her history and I knew why she felt this way but she was literally asking for the impossible. I literally couldn’t win. So we lay there with our arms crossed and I didn’t know what to say. Or what I could do because if she wanted the impossible then it was over. Eventually I thought, “What the hell, here goes nothing” and I told her I loved her, and that I understood. And I said, “What if every day I work really hard to make you FEEL like you’re the one and only? Would that be OK?” It was probably just a few seconds but it seemed like forever. She nodded, and gave me this smile, and I took her into my arms, and I’ve never felt more relieved in my life.
We were engaged a couple of months later but to me that question felt like I was proposing. Like that question and answer was our commitment to each other. Our relationship changed. Also, looking back I think my relief was also because it gave me something to DO. I’m a guy who works with his hands and I used to feel trapped and helpless by Anna’s questions but after the conversation I had something to do – a plan of action.
We’ve been together now a little over three years and going strong. Marriage isn’t easy and there’s a lot of give and take but what is easy is acting like she’s the one and only. Which she is, in a way. She’s a one of a kind and I love her like I’ve never loved anyone else. She still has her demons and probably always will, although therapy helps, and she stopped asking those questions. But I can tell when she’s going down that road in her head and I just jack up the volume with my care of her and it passes. She’s worth it.
James is the love of my life. He is the kindest man I have ever known, and the best friend I have ever had. We have been together for nearly 7 years. We’re pretty quiet folk, happy to potter around home, in our garden, and with our two dogs.
We’re lying in bed reading, and quietly hanging out as we do most nights before we go to sleep. We hear one of the dogs get up and flap their ears, which means they’re restless and need to go outside before they go to bed. There’s a ‘bit’ that we do, inspired by the Himalayas scene in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. In this scene, at great altitude, Walter Mitty is trying to convince the Sherpas to take his gear up to the top of the mountain, and they emphatically are letting him know that he will continue up while they return down to the base.
On hearing the dog James immediately starts pointing vehemently at me, then down the stairs, then back at me again. “You go let them out”. I shake my head, then place my palms down, smoothing the air outwards. “No dice”. Then I gesture wildly at him, then down the stairs. “YOU go let them out”. He looks at my face and cracks up laughing, I’m folding my lips and making my “angry face” which never fails to make him laugh… and always escalates my annoyance!
On this particular night, on his next ‘turn’, James points at me then makes a gesture with his index and middle finger, like he’s shooting a basketball, which means “close your eyes”. We’d seen it recently in a TV show, it was quite a sinister gesture, and when he built it into this routine it cracked us up so much that we both laughed til we had tears streaming down our cheeks. On this occasion I put the dogs out – he earned the win!
This conversation made me feel so light and so connected. It’s fun that we have these routines, and the game of adding new gestures and surprising each other with variations is silly and sweet and makes us both laugh. He helps me to play when I have a tendency to be serious and introspective.
This particular pillow talk stayed with me because I LOVE those moments, when a “bit” pays off and there is some twist or turn that makes it VERY funny (even if it is only to us)! I love the ease that we have in each other; to ugly laugh, and to be weird, and for that to bring us closer.
He’s my boyfriend of four months. The day that this happened we were just chilling on the bed in my bedroom. He was looking at me, stroking my hair and face. It was one of those quiet beautiful moments. I was going to say “I love you” for the first time to but I was nervous. My ex had really hurt me, and I never thought I’d say it again or want to say it, but the day before I’d read this thing that talked about saying I love you not to hear it back, but to be true to yourself.
I really wanted to tell him, but I also didn’t want him to feel like he had to say it back. I just wanted him to hear it, and I wanted that moment. So I said to him, “I’m going to tell you something… but don’t freak out. And you don’t have to say anything. In fact, I don’t want you to say anything.” When I said this to him, he did look freaked out which made me even more nervous, but it was too late to back away, so I just took a deep breath and told him… “I love you.” He gave me just the most beautiful gentle smile and then held me. I felt like my heart was going to burst. Like I could sing, or fly.
Afterwards I found out that “I’m going to tell you something and don’t freak out” or “We need to have a talk” is guaranteed to make him freak out, so we made a deal that I’ll find a different way to start a conversation next time. And he hasn’t said I love you back but it’s the way he treats me and how he makes me feel – I feel loved and valued, and the actual words can come whenever.
This happened only a couple of weeks ago but I know I’ll remember it forever because it’s so different to when I said I love you to my ex. He was my first serious boyfriend and the first guy I ever said I love you to. When I told him, I felt ashamed. I can’t explain it. It was his reaction, and his energy. I got so little back when I told him that I felt stupid. It wasn’t that it made him uncomfortable or anything. I know the kind of person he is and I know he would have seen it as his due, like no surprise and what he deserved. Whereas to me, at the time, it was the most important thing in the world.
I still don’t regret saying ILU to my ex because I know was being true to myself. But if there are girls or guys like me out there, now that I’ve had both experiences, I’d like to say to them it’s a lot better when the other person thinks you have value.
I went to a nightclub and brought a guy home. He was just really sweet, a nice Italian boy. (This will become relevant in a minute.) So when we fell asleep after sex it was fine for him to stay the night. In the morning we woke up and it was lovely. A little awkward, but in a nice way, and he actually went out to the kitchen and made proper coffee with one of those Italian coffee pots that we never used (an old flatmate had left it behind). Even though he didn’t know them he made extra coffee for my flatmates and brought two cups back to the bedroom. Then he started saying that he had to get home and better get going because it was a hike. I didn’t get it because he’d already told me he lived pretty close but it turned out he was going back to the nightclub, which was where he had left his car, and that was far away. So said, “Let me drive you” and he flat-out refused. I tried again and he refused again and it was obvious that he wasn’t just being gentlemanly, it was him brushing me off because he was like NO. I was confused, and a bit hurt, but of course he was a hookup so I had to be cool. But the atmosphere in the bedroom definitely changed and now it was awkward in a bad way. There was a pause and obviously he felt as bad as I did because finally he sighed and said, “It’s not you…” I was expecting the “It’s not you, it’s me” line but he said, “It’s not you, it’s the car.”
What happened was he’d got showered and changed at work this time, and driven to the club in the delivery van. His family owned a bakery that made Italian pastries for cafes and restaurants so he was driving this van that said “ITALIAN CAKES. CANNOLI. TIRAMISU.” in huge letters all over it. It was totally uncool, so he’d parked well away from the club. He told me he hadn’t expected to get lucky that night.
I went from feeling hurt to laughing until it hurt in about a second. He looked so uncomfortable while I lay there laughing, pretending to laugh as well. Eventually the conversation turned to whether we’d see each other again and he said that it would be great if I could stand being with such a dork. I told him I could if he brought tiramisu. That broke the ice. Next time I saw him he had his own car – and tiramisu. Every time he came over he brought cake. My flatmates (both girls like me) loved him. LOVED HIM.
The conversation stayed with me because it was just so funny. Also because it was such a nice relationship to have. We were together for a few months and it was just fun, no fighting, not even when we stopped seeing each other. I think that when your relationship is based on cake it may be impossible for it to be a bad relationship.
Pillow Talking is produced, narrated and edited by me, Violeta Balhas, from stories by you, the listeners and pillow talkers. Music is by Radovan Jekic. This episode’s stories were:
A Few Seconds that Seemed Like Forever by Stuart
Ugly laughing and Being Weird by Tara
Be True to Yourself by Sunny
The Italian Job by Santa Lucia
This podcast wouldn’t exist without people choosing to share their intimate conversations. Whether they’re funny, heart-breaking, silly or thought-provoking this takes trust, vulnerability and some guts, and I consider receiving each story a huge privilege and responsibility. If you’d like to submit your story, please go to www.pillowtalkingproject.com. I’d love to hear from you.
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On the next episode on Pillow Talking, That was not what I was expecting: stories about bedroom conversations that took a turn for the unexpected, and in one case, devastating. Until then, please take care of yourselves. And each other.