Episode 5: Not the person I thought I knew
References and resources
The quote Con H. refers to is from Walden, by Henry David Thoreau: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”. You can read or download Walden in a range of eBook formats for free at Project Gutenberg.
If you’ve never heard the word “puttana” before, here’s a definition.
Kulfi is a a frozen Indian dessert found in several Asian countries; it’s flavoured with saffron, cardamom, and pistachios and is quite delicious. My favourite recipe for it is from Kitchen @ Hoskins
Finally, if you’re concerned (and I hope you are) about having diverse, accurate, and reliable media, check out what Kevin Rudd is up to at www.NewsRoyalCommission.com.
This episode’s stories
Hanging Out The Washing by Con H.
The Town Bike by Steve83
Cherry Sundae by Lina
On by Anonymous
Close the door and dim the lights. Let’s talk. I’m Violeta Balhas and this is Season 1, Episode 5 of Pillow Talking – Stories about the stories we tell each other when there’s no one listening. In this episode, Not the person I thought I knew.
If you listened all the way to the end of the last episode, you might remember that I announced this week’s episode was going to be “That Wonder Years Moment”. I plan a few eps ahead so that was definitely on the schedule, but there was a last-minute change of plan.
Before I explain what happened, I should explain a little about my process.
Collecting stories is most time-consuming aspect of Pillow Talking. I spent most of 2020 gathering stories for the first four episodes, because it took some doing for me to convince people to share their intimate conversations with me, particularly for something they couldn’t visualise – or rather, auralise.
From the beginning, I decided I wasn’t going to decide on the themes that pillow talkers should write to. I didn’t want to restrict them, and more importantly, I wanted the challenge and excitement of finding common threads among often disparate stories. There’s an unknown quantity to this, and finding clues among story cues is the closest I could ever come to real detective work. I dig it in a big way.
Back to That Wonder Years Moment, which had four stories all lined up that featured a “growing up” moment, a small but important loss of innocence. And then something unimaginable happened. I received a postscript to a story I’d received weeks prior. It was only three and a half lines, but it was a real sock to the jaw, and it changed the story completely – I had to include it.
Looking at this handful of stories, the feel was suddenly different. They didn’t fit quite as easily. But I wasn’t going to be defeated by three and a half lines, dammit. I can make them fit the theme! I will make them fit! The committee in my brain thrashed it out, and finally I decided that no, I wouldn’t.
So then I had some choices to make. Put together a different set of Wonder Years stories, or change this episode? And if I changed this episode, should I go back to the previous ep and re-record the ending so I didn’t mention The Wonder Years Moment? Sounds like a small thing, right? Except one of the golden rules of podcasting is to tell your listeners what they should expect, and then be ready to deliver on it consistently.
It just so happened while I was trying to decide what to do that I read a tweet from Kevin Rudd, former Prime Minister of Australia. He was responding to an attack in the media – I’ll let you guess whose media – about what he did years ago that contradicts what he says now:
“Yes, Ben, I’ve changed my mind. Guess what: thoughtful people do change their minds.”
So I decided to make like KRudd and be a thoughtful person. I changed my mind, and I’m fessing up.
People change their minds because people change. And people change because they have either undergone a change or because they seem different to us, like when they are suddenly revealed to us in new and unexpected ways.
When my mother died, we buried two people. The first was the one that her nearest and dearest buried: the strongest and most singular force any of us has ever known. And the other was the person the people in town buried; person after person came up to us after our eulogies and said, “I had no idea”. Because my mother had only a basic command of the English language, she couldn’t adequately convey her personality when everyone was speaking English; put her next to my loud, bombastic father, and she appeared meek, mild, and deferent.
Likewise when I left that same town. There was the person that some people were sorry to see go, and the person that, according to the rumour mill like in one of these stories, deserved to go.
Revealed, or not revealed: it depends on whether or not we want to see.
The stories in this episode feature people suddenly seeing other people completely differently: sometimes clearly, like turning on a bedside lamp, sometimes like in that haunting New Testament line, “through a glass, darkly”. These conversations all happened in the intimacy of the bedroom.
Ssh. Let’s listen.
I learned something about my wife, and it was something important, although as you’ll see, it was painful getting there.
Background: We’re two middle-aged people, both employed and almost finished raising our almost-adult children. She’s an active, successful woman with a far better social life than I have ever had or ever will. I’m also active, largely to keep a mid-life crisis at bay: I’m determined to not become a cliché and wreck the life and relationship I’ve spent years working on. Both of us, I believe, have earned the right to stop being so busy and start enjoying life a little more.
The scene: both of us sitting up in bed on our phones before going to sleep. Checking the weather app, I remark that tomorrow is going to be the first sunny, warmish day in weeks. What follows isn’t verbatim, but a faithful-in-spirit representation of the conversation that my remark about the weather initiated.
“Oh! A good day to hang out the washing!”
“Well, yes, I suppose.”
“What do you mean, ‘I suppose’?”
“It’s that… when did we get to this point, that the first thing we think of on a beautiful day is that it’s good for hanging out the washing?”
“We didn’t get to this point.”
“We have. You just said…”
“Exactly. So I got to this point. You haven’t.”
“Hey – I hang out the washing too.”
“Yes you do. So did you think that tomorrow was a nice day for hanging out the washing?”
“So we haven’t got to this point. I have.”
“Babe, I didn’t want to start a fight.”
“And I’m not fighting. I’m just sorry about being so boring about a warm sunny day.”
“All right, this is starting to sound like the makings of a fight to me.”
“Well, it’s not meant to be. Just go ahead and ignore little ole boring me.”
“You’re not boring, you’re amazing, you know I think that. I just meant… there was a time when we’d get so excited about the first sunny day. We’d plan a trip out on the bay, or hire a big fat American convertible on impulse. Remember that?”
“I do. And we can still do that tomorrow if you like.”
“After hanging out the washing?”
“No. [PAUSE] We can hang it out when we get back.”
“You’re still thinking about the washing.”
“Because I am.”
“Because I am! Because I do! Because even with you hanging out the washing I know you won’t think of hanging it out unless I tell you, and neither will the kids. Even when you’re cooking three meals a week I have to remind you, and I have to think of what we’re having for dinner and make sure the groceries are there. Which of the kids needs dropping off at the train station this week and who’s doing that? I have to make sure each one of us has the right car. Did you make an appointment to check your blood pressure? Will you do it before you have a stroke? We go on holidays and I have to organise a whole bunch of details, including making sure that a son who is old enough to vote in a government has actually packed underpants. And a million other little things. This is my brain when working, this is my brain when I’m doing chores, this is my brain during 90% of my down time, and I don’t know any woman who’s different. No, not true. Any woman who is different is what my mother my nonna and my aunties used to call a putana. But they never went near a putana, and I wasn’t allowed to have friends whose mothers were, so I never got to know one. But I wish I knew how a putana’s brain works. I’d love to be a putana! Even for an hour! You hear that, nonna? May she rest in peace.”
“Well, she won’t rest in peace now.”
“Can you rest in peace? From your brain? Can I help?”
“I don’t know, and I don’t know.”
That was the end of what I hope is part one. Part two hasn’t happened yet, and I’m working towards having a better ending, hopefully. But what struck me is that you think you know your wife, you think you understand her, and how she thinks; what gives her joy and peace and what drives her insane… and it turns out you don’t. The guy who said that most men lead lives of quiet desperation: I wonder if he ever really talked to his wife.
I’d had a crush on her since I was a teenager doing my mechanical apprenticeship and she brought her Mercedes in for a service. She was always nice to me. Not flirty, just chatty and nice. She was the wife of a well-known businessman in town, and to me she was the most glamorous, mysterious woman I’d ever met.
When I heard that their marriage ended after nearly 20 years, I couldn’t believe it. But after about a year I couldn’t believe the gossip going around about her. Apparently, she was sleeping with any guy with a pulse. Someone even called her the town bike.
Well, I had a pulse. I was also an adult and owned the workshop now and it was three times the size it used to be, so I had a fair bit of confidence. And she was in her 40s now but she was still hot. I decided to go for it.
I won’t go into details, but after a lot of perseverance, for months, I got there in the end, one weekend when her kids were at their dad’s. For me, it was literally a fantasy come true. But afterwards in bed she turned away from me and I realised she was crying quietly. I asked her what was wrong. She said she was OK… it’s just that I was the first man she’d slept with other than her husband in 20 years.
I’m glad she wasn’t facing me because my jaw just about hit the floor. I hope I was sensitive and comforted her, because I tried. Eventually she turned back towards me and we talked. Subtly I asked her about other guys she might have been seeing. She said she’d just been dating. She hadn’t gone out with anyone for more than two dates. None of them had come to anything.
I didn’t have any reason to not believe her, so it made me think about what had happened. I’m 99% sure I know. In our town, there’s no place to go on a date where others won’t see and talk about it. If you make an effort to go where people can’t see you, that’s even worse. Our town is in the country but forget farming: its real industry, the thing that never stops, day or night, 375 days a year, is gossip. And although it’s come a long way it’s still stuck in the past in many ways. The expression “the town bike” still exists – that should tell you something.
I felt rotten. And like a real jerk. But I cared about her, and I felt responsible for her, so even though we didn’t have heaps in common, I stuck around. Our relationship lasted about six months.
In that time I learned just how shy she was. She had moved here when she married and had never made many friends here and didn’t have many people to confide in, so hardly anyone ever knew what was going on with her. People could just make up whatever they wanted. Even worse, I found out that her husband had been having affairs on and off most of their married life. I personally never heard any gossip about him. That’s the benefit of having a certain status and reputation in our town, and being a “local”.
I love my town, but this really opened my eyes. Once I saw it, and what it had done to such a really great woman, I couldn’t unsee it. Even after we broke up, I couldn’t chat about people for entertainment anymore, even if it wasn’t anything bad. The irony is that I know for a fact that the less I gossip about people, the more gossip there’s going to be about me. But I’d rather that than contribute to the reason someone ends up crying in bed.
Is this a pillow talking story? I hope you’ll think so. It is to me, although it goes is to other times and other places and back again.
It was date night and my in-laws had the kids overnight. Bonus! I can’t remember exactly where we went for supper but I do remember that there was a lot of talking and it didn’t involve talking about kids this time, and when we got home and to bed it was unhurried and we didn’t have to worry about keeping quiet. It was more like it used to be before we were married and it was bliss.
We were lying in bed and my husband suddenly gets up: “Wait here!” I do and hear the unmistakeable sound of Reddi-wip squirting. I’m thinking oh-oh, because by this stage life has taught me that whipped cream in the bedroom isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, but a few minutes later he appears with two enormous bowls of ice cream with all the fixings. Sundaes in bed! We were giggling like two naughty kids.
He asked me what my earliest memory of ice cream sundaes was and I didn’t have one, because ice cream hadn’t been a huge part of my childhood growing up. This was in an Asian country and it was a rare treat. (At the risk of sounding boastful, I can’t mention the name of the country because it could identify my family.) We were better off than most people but we weren’t rich per se and only very occasionally would have kulfi; Western-style ice cream was even rarer.
My husband told me his family’s Sunday sundae tradition, where the kids were allowed to make one for themselves after church, even before having lunch. The amount of ice cream was limited to three scoops, but the kids could go nuts on the toppings, so the sundaes always ended up massive, even if your ice cream allowance had been reduced. The rule was if you’d been naughty at church the penalty was a scoop of ice cream for each instance of naughty behavior, although none of the kids were ever so bad that they ended up with no ice cream. On the rare occasion one of the four kids ended up with a single scoop, my father-in-law Roger loaded up that scoop with so much ice cream that it might as well have been two. Typical Rog.
Thinking about Rog, whom I dearly love, made me think of my father. They’re so different. Rog is openly affectionate to all his family, including his children-in-law, and I’ve just drunk that up like a thirsty plant. It’s always given me a pang of longing when I see my father-in-law and mother-in-law together. They’re just so in love. While my parents are just… so polite with each other. Did they love each other? Were they ever in love? I never knew. And it haunted me.
But now here comes a memory. I am tiny, and my father is a diplomat in Washington. It is probably our first weekend there and we’re having an outing. We go into an ice cream parlor, and I can’t believe my eyes. I have never, ever seen so much ice cream in my life. It seems to stretch out as far as the eye can see. All the surfaces gleam. The young man behind the counter looks impeccable in white. It’s like a dream! A total Charlie and The Chocolate Factory moment. And my father orders a cherry sundae for my mother. Cherries were my mother’s favourite fruit, and the luxury of luxuries, something we might have, in tiny quantities, once a year. But this young man scoops cherry ice cream into a bowl, and then what I remember as being mountains and mountains of real cherries, and I just can’t believe it. Then my father brings the sundae to my mother and with great ceremony presents it to her with just one word: “Madame,” And she giggles and blushes.
I told my husband this and he pointed his spoon at me and said, “Watch them next time”. I did, and I noticed little things. Like the way he would lean forward and whisper something to her as he helped her push her chair in at the table, triggering a small smile on her face. How when she entered the room dressed up to go somewhere fancy he stood up and did a little formal bow – that blush on her face and the faint smile, once again. And more. These little things had always gone right over my head. I felt like an idiot. Or maybe not an idiot – more like a naïve child who suddenly grows up in a key way, except that this growing up didn’t take something away: it gave me something.
I guess it might seem weird for someone to be thinking about her parents while in the conjugal bedroom on date night. But don’t all people look at their parents and think that this is what they either want or don’t want in their relationships? That night I went from running away from what my parents have and pining for my idealized view of what my in-laws have, to taking a more balanced view of both relationships. And perhaps not as important but perhaps so, deciding that sharing sundaes in bed, along with stories and memories, would be a new tradition for us on date night.
This is a very short story, particularly for something that affected me so deeply and I don’t understand why. I’m hoping that writing it down will help.
A couple of months ago, I agreed to have a threesome with my husband and another woman. Looking back I think he’s been gradually introducing the idea for over a year. I don’t mean to say this is all his doing and all his responsibility – I’m a grown woman and I agreed. But it was definitely his fantasy. We put a whole bunch of boundaries and rules in place, so although I was more nervous than excited, my husband assured me our love and our relationship were safe. The thing he’d always said was “No one enters our relationship without an invitation from both of us”, and I always thought it was something that safeguarded us from extramarital affairs. Now he said it about this.
The threesome was OK. What bothered me was afterwards – the pillow talking. Normally after sex my husband normally goes quite quiet. He makes sure I’m OK, that I have a glass of water and anything I need, and then he cuddles me until we’re asleep. I don’t know what I expected after a threesome but it wasn’t this.
It’s hard to describe. He was ON. Like this was a performance. He was kind of hyperactive and trying to be funny, sexy and charming and it left me cold. I didn’t like it. I didn’t like him. It seemed completely fake to me and to me the bedroom is the place to be authentic, raw. And it’s all I’ve thought about since. I don’t resent him bringing another woman into the bedroom, but I do resent him bringing FAKENESS into the bedroom and it’s killing me inside. I’ve also thought, what if this is the real him after sex and what he normally does when we’re alone is the fakeness? And that hurts just as bad, if not more.
I don’t know what to do. I don’t know many relationships that can function in a healthy way once there’s resentment you can’t budge. He’s recently started talking about us doing it again. And there are no boundaries or rules for what I’m feeling.
I’m writing again and I hope it’s not too late, because I’ve worked it out. It wasn’t about the fakeness. It’s that there was an uninvited person in the bedroom that night. It wasn’t the woman. It was him. The person he became. Or becomes. Or actually is. I wasn’t safeguarded, and it’s hurt me beyond repair.
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:
Hanging Out the Washing by Con H.
The Town Bike by Steve83
Cherry Sundae by Lina
On by Anonymous
With this episode it will be a month since Pillow Talking has been live, and I’d like to say a massive and heartfelt thank you to all of you who have been tuning in, sharing, recommending, rating, reviewing, and sending stories in. Some of you are of course much-loved family and friends, which is fair enough for someone with the most mind-bogglingly supportive family and friends. Even more of you, though, are people I’ve never met, from places around the world I can only dream of visiting at this strange and difficult time in our lives. I’m equally grateful to you all. A month in podcast history isn’t counted like dog years – it’s counted like a nanosecond of a nanosecond of a nanosecond in the geologic time scale. But to me it feels like I’ve lived lifetimes, and that’s because I do, every time I read the words sent in to me. That’s the power of storytelling, and I hope you get a sense of that too.
If you’d like more information about this week’s podcast, head over to www.pillowtalkingproject.com for my show notes, and drop me a line if there’s something I didn’t answer for you. That’s also where you can submit your story, and it’s super easy – I even talk you through it.
On the next episode of Pillow Talking, Red: that colour that symbolises so many things, makes an appearance both literally and figuratively. Until then, please take care of yourselves. And each other.