Episode 15: Suddenly, strangers
References and resources
Remain in Light remains a brilliant album. And if you’re a music nerd, you’ll hear Brian Eno’s influence all through it. The man in the big suit is, of course, David Byrne. And here he/it is in ridiculous glory:
The song in question is Once in A Lifetime. Here’s the original, with The Talking Heads, but I’m also fond of this new version he does live.
And in my defence, the peanut butter and pickle sandwich may be weird, but I’m not the only fan. See? The New York Times says so.
This episode’s stories
The Songbird And Me – A Bedtime Love Story by Paul Steven Stone
When Good Neighbours Become More Than Good Friends by Brilliant
You Have Hoes by Anise Jeremiah
Alarm by Evelyn F. Katz
Submit your story
First things first. I acknowledge the Traditional Owners and Custodians of the lands on which I live, work, and record Pillow Talking, the Bunurong and Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation. I recognise their connection to and care of this land, and thank them for the space I share with my family. I pay my respects to Elders past, present and still to come, and extend that respect to all First Nations people who are listening.
Please keep in mind that Pillow Talking contains adult themes and sometimes strong language, so use your discretion for where and how you listen, and who you listen with.
Close the door and dim the lights. Let’s talk. I’m Violeta Balhas and this is Season 2, Episode 15 of Pillow Talking – Stories about the stories we tell each other when there’s no one listening. In this episode, SUDDENLY, STRANGERS.
Hello again! Well – that was an abortive start to Season 2, wasn’t it? Want to know what delayed me? Yeah… didn’t think so. It’s boring. So let’s get into it, beginning with the man in the huge suit.
Remain in Light by The Talking Heads was one of those albums that really did a number on me when I was in my early teens. It arrived in our home, where it blew the tiles off the roof just like it blew my mind, with my brother. It had been given to him by the only girlfriend he ever had that I didn’t think was a complete and total idiot. She was the coolest, and the album was solid vinyl proof. But he didn’t appreciate either girlfriend or album, so when he dumped the former I stole the latter. And I still have it today – thank you Nadine, wherever you may be.
I was fairly unbearably precocious when I was a kid so I understood a metaphor, but I was missing the life experience. And because of this there were two lines in one particular song that used to make my blood run cold. If you’re familiar with the skinny man in the bowtie and glasses, you’ll remember him shouting the lines in desperation:
“And you may say to yourself: This is not my beautiful house! And you may say to yourself: This is not my beautiful wife!”
Because I was so young, I took these lines quite literally. The idea of someone suddenly realising they are alien to the place that should be most familiar, and to the person that should be the most intimate, or the other way around, filled me with a primal fear that I haven’t ever quite been able to explain. (Although that’s pretty much the case with primal fears.)
But whether you take the lines literally like I did, or assign them to some sort of dissociative experience because of stress, or take them figuratively as a man waking up from the trance of the daily capitalist grind, there is something discomfiting about the person you know so well appearing a stranger.
There are many definitions of intimacy, many of them beautiful, but to me, intimacy ultimately comes down to a simple formula of profound knowledge plus absolute safety. And it might sound simplistic but when I say knowledge and safety I mean emotional knowledge and safety, mental knowledge and safety, physical knowledge and safety, and spiritual knowledge and safety – the presence of one of these, some of these, or all of these. So simple yes, getting there… not so much. I wonder if it’s because it’s such a simple formula, that when you take away an element, it rocks the foundations of the other.
I don’t mean suddenly discovering that your spouse or partner has a secret penchant for peanut butter and pickle sandwiches – although confession, that now not-so-secret penchant is mine – but I mean the big stuff. Imagine the person you are most intimate with, the one you have entrusted with your vulnerability, suddenly acting like a complete stranger. Maybe disappearing from your life as though they’d never been, maybe staying and acting in a way they never would have before, maybe revealing a part of themselves that hints at something that was not, and can never be, part of the deal. The profound knowledge of that person is gone. And because of this, your sense of emotional, mental, physical or spiritual safety are teetering on the brink as well.
Maybe you don’t have to imagine and you know exactly what this is like. In my divorce support group thankfully many years ago now, everyone’s story had its own peculiarities but the plot was pretty much the same across the board. And one particular detail was true for the hundreds of people who were there: looking into their spouse or partner’s eyes and not recognising the person behind them. As if an alien had taken their place, body snatcher style. For many of us, the difficulties of uncoupling notwithstanding, that was by far the most traumatic thing.
Unless… that had been them all along and we’d never realised it? Did that make us the aliens?
Interesting, right? But I guess normal to question yourself in a situation where you’re suddenly strangers. Pop psychology talks a lot about the self in relationships. Modern western culture abounds in advice to truly know yourself before you embark on a relationship, to be careful about losing yourself in a relationship, and/or to be with the person who will allow you to find yourself. Whether this advice is right or wrong one thing is for sure: identity and relationships are inextricably entwined.
These four stories feature those times when the other became a stranger, disappearing in the flesh or emotionally, or revealing themselves in a whole new way, sometimes leaving questions, and always changing things so they can never be the same.
These conversations all happened in the intimacy of the bedroom.
Sssh. Let’s listen.
“Tell me again,” you whisper softly, “about the songbird.”
The words rise out of the darkness of our shared bedroom, and I know if I turn around I’ll find you staring at me.
“Again?” I complain into the pillow. “Do I have to . . .?”
“Tell me again,” you tenderly insist. “I want to hear about the songbird.”
I shift under the covers, turning slowly, until I’m lying on my back staring up at the ceiling.
“Okay,” I sigh, vaguely aware of something stirring inside me. “We are all searching for the same thing . . . “ I begin.
“Happiness,” you declare like a proud schoolchild.
“Yes, call it that if you wish—happiness, love, contentment —we’re all thirsting for it, but sadly we never learned how to find it.”
“And why is that?” you prod.
“Because nobody knows where to look. Or what to look for. Because each person is searching for something different, and most look for it outside themselves . . . ”
“And you can’t find it on the outside?”
“No, you can’t,” I reply softly, the words carrying their own strange sadness.
“So where can it be found?”
“Where it lives, on the inside—inside yourself—waiting to be discovered.”
“So when something from the outside touches you, and seems to bring happiness . . .?” you ask playfully. “Something like a songbird?”
“You must learn to let it sing, and be grateful for what you are given. As soon as you try to capture it, or own it, or demand more, it’s like catching the songbird in your hand. How easily you can squeeze the life from a songbird when you try to capture its song.”
“How sad,” you say, your voice filling with regret. “To kill the very thing you love by holding it too tightly.”
“Yes, it is sad,” I agree. “Very sad. The moral of the story is to look to yourself for your happiness, not to others. Which means looking to yourself—and yourself alone—for whatever love you need. Learn that, or spend the rest of your days squeezing the life from each songbird that flies into your world.”
“But tell me again,” you whisper, “about the songbird!”
“Again?” I reply, confused. “I just told you.”
“I couldn’t hear,” you sadly insist. “I was too far away.”
Too far away . . . ?
As questions begin to rise, something shifts in my understanding. A veil has been lifted, and suddenly I am no longer confused.
I lift my head from the pillow, awake enough now to remember where I am, and to recall with a familiar ache that you no longer lie here beside me in our bed.
Your words are not real, I must now admit to myself. They are merely echoes in the mind calling out in love’s familiar voice. And though it may be the middle of the night, it is also weeks since you left–flew away–from this bedroom and this life of ours.
There is a part of me that wants to hold onto the things that bring me happiness; to hold them in my hand so they won’t fly away. But there is also a part of me that knows you have to free all songbirds and let them fly away–if fly away they must. That is the part of me I value most, the part that needs more room to grow. The part that will one day discover that the love I’ve been seeking on the outside has been waiting for me, all along, on the inside.
But until that day—until I come to know that love as well as I know this hollow ache in my chest–I will lie here each night listening for your song.
Only to hear a familiar voice softly calling.
“Tell me again about the songbird.”
I met zez in 2005. We wrote the O’ level examination in the same school; it was love at first sight, or so I thought. Wee had a beautiful love story and we were the best couple in the eyes of everyone who knew about us. Matching outfits, being together all the time, romantic dates and beautiful bedtimes.
We got married in 2009 and lived happily together without money. We worked hard to make ends meet and skipped meals to make sure our first child was well-fed then. Our best time was bedtime, we discussed everything that happened in the course of the day, we giggled, smiled and laughed out loud sometimes. We were inseparable or so it seemed. One night, we were on the bed talking when his phone rang; it was our next door neighbor calling (we live in a twin flat bungalow).
He was reluctant to pick up the call. I was shocked. I couldn’t believe what just happened. Is my husband dating my neighbor whose husband left on the basis of catching her cheating on him? Wow! I said shaking. I was shocked to the bones, asking myself is this happening? I managed to calm myself down; he asked me what was wrong with me and I asked him why he didn’t pick up the call, he said he did not feel like it, moreover, it was too late to attend to such calls.
Deep inside me, I knew something was wrong, I tried to calm myself down, I held my tears and I was strong enough that night. I closed my eyes and pretended to be asleep until morning.
Three days later, I came home without calling my husband and behold, I met my husband and my neighbor together in my apartment behind locked doors. I had to wait for the door to be opened; the situation was tense and it was their turn to shake. I just went inside the room and shut the door behind me.
This was the neighbor I gave a job in our organization to;, this is the husband I gave an equity of 50% in my organization to, We became strangers ever since. I have not decided on what to do. I have four children with him; my parents and I don’t talk because of him. He started complaining about everything that I do, he nags and snaps at me for no reason. He is a complete stranger!
“I love you.”
“I love you too?”
“No you don’t. You have hoes.”
He stops moving completely. He rolls off of me, sheepishly, but keeps his arms around me.
This is the opposite of what I expected.
Rashad and I have known of each other since middle school theatre. I was a chubby, improv comedian full of Tumblr memes and a raised hand that only an English teacher could love. He was a skinny class clown, a fellow comedian who liked to make English teachers cry.
He was from Texas and I was from Jersey. We were both in theatre camps, me as a writer and him as an actor. I was a year older but he was more successful. He had won camp and theatre awards since he was 12 years old. I wouldn’t know what to do with the world handed to me on a silver platter like that; my brain likes to remind me I don’t know what I would do because I never auditioned for a musical. I had a fear of rejection.
When Shad did a college tour for my university, even though I was a freshman, I was part of the group meant to show him around. He auditioned for a lot of the same clubs as me and got in.
For me, this was someone I always saw from afar: on a screen or across a room. For me, it was infatuation at first sight, maybe love at second sight. The day he left the university for NY, he left me a note for finals, telling me “now go do my thing!” Something about that note led me to believe that he would end up being my classmate, or as someone I would know for a very long time, and in a way I wasn’t wrong.
5 years later, we were in my basement bedroom in New York City. It was tiny as a shoebox but it was mine. He had helped me move in. Then he went on the train and I had not seen him since. I find out later that the day after I left the state of our university, he changed his work schedule so he could see Celina, his work wife.
But that day, he had been 10 minutes away from my house, at a bar with his friends. Mindlessly, and probably out of instinct, he drunkenly texted me that he wanted to see me. I sent him his Uber chariot, which he missed twice. The third time I call this Uber, I swear is the last time. But some part of me knows that there is a version of myself calling him 10, 20, 30 ubers to get to be in the spot I was in that day, if that was what it took.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” passes through my lips the moment he is in my living room. I’m drunk but he is drunker.
“That is for white people.” he says, somehow confirming how drunk he is to me. I hesitated, because his body was way too familiar so I knew something was bristling underneath. Shad was my classmate, my scene partner, my best friend at one point, my smoking buddy, my wingman, my team of 1, and more. We won a lot of theatre awards together, especially the year he was a college freshman and I was a sophomore. There’s no better feeling than winning something you cared about and worked hard for with your best friend. There was a time where I told him that if he ever needed to bury a body, it would be a secret I kept to my dying day. The first week at school he had cheated on someone who thought they were exclusive and I had said nothing..
After our performance obligations were over, we had decided to ruin everything and be best friends with benefits the first chance we got. There was too much dip on our chip and little did I know there would be love, actual genuine love. I came to college as a virgin, and just wanted to fill my pitcher.
Our fights would start with his assumption that I was in love with him and wanted him to be my boyfriend, while also telling me that if Congress passed a law and said people had to be married–I would be his wife of choice. That was my fate in his fuck, marry, kill. Gun to his head, he would let me live, out of the kindness of his heart.
In my mind, the day the pandemic started had to be a sigh of relief for him, where he thought he would never have to see my face. The day I moved, he must have been overjoyed. But here, the drunk version of a man I loved told me that he loved me, without invitation or prompting. Not only that, but telling me that I couldn’t love him because of the attention I had from other men, something I would have given up for just a fraction of his time.
We had kissed, barely fallen on the bed, when he brought out the pet names, calling me “baby” and asked me if I knew that I was his boo (I did). Quiet as it was kept, and trust me, it was kept quiet, the man was romantic with me. It embarrassed him then and embarrasses him now.
“I love you.” he says. I bristle. My body feels a stone fall from my throat to my stomach.
“I love you too?” I manage to breathe out. He clocks my indecisiveness instantly.
“No you don’t.” he mutters into my neck. “You have hoes.”
“What?” I say, baffled and choking on audacity.
For years, through actual boyfriends and other friends with benefits, we have fought day in and day out about how much exactly we cared for each other. If this was not happening in my house, in my room, I would not have believed the man on the bed next to me. Once he had told me that we stopped being friends the day that we kissed. Once he told me that I was wack because I confessed that I kissed someone in the frat I knew he wanted to join, even though I was the one who told him before he could find out in a group chat. Once he told me that he would not have “offered” me to another man if he saw me as important. Once he told me that I needed to stick to not talking to him, because he was deadass going to stick to not talking to me. Each time, he apologized. Each time, I forgave him and accepted him for who he was every single time. And 10 years of knowing him later, he was there, with his head laid on the Tweety Bird pillow on my small bed. I remember the day that I told him that if we could not be friends, I would prefer the benefits, which was an answer he must not have been prepared for. After all, today, I had expected a quickie, 30 seconds at most, one where he stayed just as long as it took the uber to get him back home. He ended up staying for hours, and we talked as two hearts.
Months later, I invited him to my birthday party. We had not seen each other since that May night and I was born in September. He agreed. Excited, I drank some mushroom tea from a fellow hippie friend and waited. Hours before it wasn’t my birthday anymore, he Facetimed me. I’ll never forget the first thing I saw was Celina, his work wife: long black hair, glasses, fair skin, arm wrapped around him. That’s how he liked it. I told him that she was his type. He drunkenly said happy birthday.
“That hurt.” I texted him.
“Why lol” was the response.
“Fuck if I know,” I typed back, empty.
“Okay.” he said
Then he says that he didn’t know how he got the phone. He didn’t know that I could see her. He didn’t know if he meant it when he said that he loved me. He said he was drunk, and sorry. Devastated, I forgave and accepted him for who he was immediately. I don’t know if there is any other way that I can be sane without doing so.
Sometimes I have this desire to witness what I’ve partially built: a man in a happy, secure, exclusive relationship with a woman he thinks he is going to be loyal to. I understand that I can’t bear witness when I believe there is room for us to be together, even still, because it’s impossible for me to limit myself. You would think it would hurt me to see him with someone else, because he keeps saying sorry because the “dynamic was bad.” I accepted his apology but refused to issue my own; if he wanted to say I was bad for him, okay, but I wouldn’t.
I told him that I forgive him so he could start to forgive himself, and the only thing I asked of him was to take back what he said that night in my bed.
He responded saying he loves me, will always love me, and has always loved me.
“We got so many things done together and we’re friends. Come on, now.” he said, after restating that he loved me.
We still haven’t seen each other since that day. It’s funny because he first said he liked me in person, said he loved me in person, and now, he cannot bear to look at or talk to me.
I realize I’m forever doomed to be trapped here, searching for his ride back.
I’d caught my husband standing on the terrace moments earlier, the morning sun catching and holding glints of wiry gray tangled in the remaining rust of his hair. He had been cupping his cigarette, turning his head towards the street, blowing a steady stream of broken promise out the corner of his mouth.
The bedroom is a mess of boxes punctuated with mismatched dressers.
“We should unpack the bedroom today.”
He smooths the bristle of mustache with thumb and forefinger, releasing invisible capsules of cigarette smoke into the air. My cheeks turn inside themselves like the flesh of rotting fruit.
“We can do that,” he says, rubbing his hands together until the friction creates thin, black dustings he shakes onto the comforter. My voice lurches but is eclipsed by sirens piercing the Prospect Expressway. My head snaps towards the window where I notice his jeans strewn across a box. I see him sitting on the corner of the bed, threading leg through pant leg, only in the dark.
“Did you go somewhere in the middle of the night?”
“Yes. I woke up to firetrucks under the window. When I went to see what was going on everyone on our floor was in the hallway. Evidently there was a gas leak in 1P, that crazy old man’s apartment. The one who wouldn’t let me out of the elevator when he got off on our floor? He closed the door on me…”
“Yes. Really. You slept right through the whole thing. That’s not good.”
“I would like to think if the building were about to explode, you would have woken me up.”
His eyes slide sideways. He takes a sip of coffee and gets out of bed. In the three seconds it takes for a building to explode, I hear the terrace door open and close. It takes only another two seconds for the smell of cigarette smoke to meander through the bedroom window I had cracked open the night before.
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:
The Songbird And Me – A Bedtime Love Story by Paul Steven Stone
When Good Neighbours Become More Than Good Friends by Brilliant
You Have Hoes by Anise Jeremiah
Alarm by Evelyn F. Katz
Special thanks in this episode goes to my secret producers, Shane and Marc Teamaker. Like the skinny man in the bowtie and glasses told me I might, I did find myself in a beautiful house, and I asked myself, well, why aren’t my recordings as good as they used to be? If you’ve been following Pillow Talking for a while you’ll know that Shane built a beautiful recording booth for me in the old house that gave the exact intimate sound I was looking for, but when we moved here the setup wasn’t the same. That, combined with some equipment woes, has meant the quality of the previous two episodes hasn’t been the same either. But Shane has taken time over the past couple of weeks to make me another recording booth. Not quite the cone of silence like the other one, unless it’s that portable cone of silence in that particular episode of Get Smart, but the sound is still… well, you can hear for yourself.
For his part, Marc has been advising me on the technical side of things. Friends, Marc has the best ear of anyone I know, and believe me, I appreciate someone with a good ear. He has been making and producing music for so long that he’s been able to help me pinpoint my issues precisely and has provided invaluable guidance and support. It was also his idea that I have a miniature booth. But I don’t know if that’s because of his professional expertise or because he knows exactly what a portable cone of silence is. Either way – brilliant. Thank you both!
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And that’s it for tonight!
On the next episode of Pillow Talking, Who do you think you are? More on the theme of identity in relationships. And I don’t know if I should say this because I know I’m meant to at least pretend all the stories I receive are my favourites, but the kick-off story of this episode is one of my favourites so far if not the favourite, so I hope you’ll join me.
Until then, please take care of yourselves. And each other.