Con Artists

He stood on the roof of his red Volkswagen and yelled at the neighbour. He chopped the air with the French kitchen knife a friend of mine had given me as a housewarming gift.

I don’t remember what got him on the roof of his car, but I’ve kept the knife. After so many years it still lives in my kitchen drawer, unused.

Did he ever…?

Of course not. That would have made it far too easy.

I remember thinking: I can fix this.

*

He vacuumed the house in the grey light of dawn, making as much noise as possible. Not to annoy the neighbour or get rid of the dust. He vacuumed to rob me of sleep. The previous night, I had refused to stay home and watch soccer with him, so I must have been whoring about. His revenge was typical. He knew I had an important exam on Derrida coming up and he wanted me to fail. Failure would ruin my self-confidence and the more my own story faltered, the more my belief in “us” would grow.

*

I am not strong.

I am not smart.

I am not brave.

I am not detached.

*

Left in my mind are scenes and anxieties and insufficient understanding. What did we say to each other over breakfast when things were temporarily pseudo-okay? How could I have slept with a man who locked me out of the house and made me stand without a coat on the walled patio in the snow?

*

I was in college at the time, a philosopher in the making. Whenever I read a text, I applied my cognitive tools to distinguish baloney from logic, fact from fiction. I would look at the statements, debate them with others, question the author’s authority, and try to determine how a hidden hypothesis could be falsified.

At home I was stubborn and irrational, rejecting all the evidence that would contradict the one belief in which I had invested myself.

I believed we loved each other.

*

Our studio apartment was on Trouwlaan, Marriage Street. The place was too small and too expensive, but there wasn’t much available on short notice and somehow he had convinced me that living together was urgent. The name of the street was a good sign, he said.

*

A con artist, according to the Oxford dictionary, is a person who cheats or tricks others by persuading them to believe something that isn’t true.

*

After we moved in together, he began to talk about babies, the ones he wanted me to have. He was older than me and in a hurry to ensure the survival of his genes. Or was he trying to ensnare me? I was twenty and not ready for anything so permanent.

Babies became a popular topic for us to fight about. My ambition to work and write before I would turn myself into a mother was selfish in his eyes. People who were involved in an intimate relationship were supposed to pursue dreams they could share.

To stop fighting and prove my love for him, I promised to have his children as soon as I would graduate from university.

In the months that followed my promise choked me at night. I knew myself to be someone who kept her promises.

*

In The Confidence Game, a book on con artists, Maria Konnikova writes: “We believe because we want to, not because anyone made us. And so we offer up whatever they want – money, reputation, trust, fame, legitimacy, support – and we don’t realise what is happening until it is too late.”

*

One Saturday I had an appointment with my father at our shabby apartment on Marriage Street. All morning I cleaned the place so I could at least pretend I enjoyed living there.

Just before my father showed up, my home-terrorist picked another fight. He complained we weren’t a real couple if we couldn’t spend weekends together. He ordered me to cancel the appointment and stay in his arms on the couch.

I refused – my father had driven over an hour to get here and I saw no reason not to see him. Predictably, the argument spun out of control. I was the egomaniac who did whatever she wanted and never paid attention to his needs. He threatened to end it all. He yelled until I cried.

Although this was standard behaviour for him, I left the house in turmoil, forgetting my phone, my wallet, my sense of self.

I met my father in his car, where we sat and talked. Only after he had consoled me, did my father tell me about his sister. She had died of breast cancer the previous night.

*

There were tears when he repented. Mostly his. He knew he was wrong and promised to be better. Somewhere deep inside was sweetness, he said. Just look at my baby picture.

I looked and looked. One baby eye always met me with the expected innocence of a child. The other one was brutal and dark. That’s my evil eye, he said.

We agreed that my patience and determination would have to seduce his sweetness to rise to the top and conquer his evil. Loving, after all, was a verb. It required movement and effort.

I remember thinking: I can fix this.

*

I also remember thinking: I should call the whole thing off.

This was before we moved in together and after a night of hell. When he ran out in the dark, I followed him, as though playing my part in a prewritten drama. My costume: nightgown, boots, and raincoat.

Did I tell myself that this was passion? Going deep and climbing high?

No, I ignored the hell because I was practical and would not allow regret to complicate my life. I had already made my decision, I told myself. Cancelled the lease of my student room. Used my savings to buy a stove. Reassured my friends that I knew what I was doing. Signed a new rental contract on Marriage Street.

I was a go-getter, not used to failures or giving up.

What I feared more than him was my defeat.

*

Before all this happened, I questioned men and women who stayed with abusive partners, especially when the abuse was “only” psychological. Why were they so weak and fearful? I blamed them for not standing up for themselves, for not having enough self-assurance to recognise an asshole or bitch and get out.

But who goes out on the street screaming they have been swindled? Shame forces you to keep it a secret and try to fix things against the odds.

*

After two months of living together, I bought a black notebook in which I dumped my resentments. Anything I didn’t share with my college therapist. My fantasies of revenge, my hate. I bought the notebook because I didn’t want to soil my diary with the darkness I felt inside.

Writing comes before acting. Writing tells you something must be done.

*

My anger is foul. It resembles peacefulness at times. What I want is to be furious and lash out. But my anger remains internal, directed at me instead of him – it’s useless.

*

Another day, another fight. He hurled my books from the shelves and flung them across the room. He knew me well and took advantage. I begged, please don’t, yet refused to bow. His eyes were merciless: your stubbornness will cost you. Broken spines. Bent front covers. Pages torn.

I’m going, I said.

I should have just gone. He grabbed the glasses off my nose when I tried to gather my things and leave. Due to my myopic eyes, I was unable to find my bicycle key.

*

Often I wondered: what had happened to that fiercely independent woman who won debating contests and scaled down steep mountain cliffs? I couldn’t remember what autonomy felt like. I was an undead ghost, haunting myself, dying by degrees.

Was I waiting for things to get worse? Would a fist in my face have turned the bleak picture of our relationship into a black-and-white negative? Would a knife have done it?

When I finally walked out, I brought almost no luggage with me so as not to raise his suspicion. I took the black notebook, though, and the French kitchen knife.

*

The costs of ignorance are slow to surface, writes Robert Trivers in The Folly of Fools, a book on the logic of self-deceit. He also states: the benefits of self-deception are immediate.

For far too long, I told myself what I wanted to be true. As long as I believed everything was under control, I would not need to face a future in which I had failed.

Consciousness comes in degrees, Trivers tells us. We don’t like internal contradictions.

I was aware that he wanted to harm me, but was unable to grasp why. His behaviour didn’t make any sense. We loved each other, right? So what could be his goal?

Failing to understand my situation, I conned myself into believing that the harm I experienced wasn’t real.

*

After I left him I stored the black notebook in my new home behind the radiator, out of sight and victim to dust. The notebook wasn’t allowed to live in the box with my other diaries. Even though the words were exiled behind an ugly back cover, they might still contaminate my other thoughts.

For years I didn’t open the notebook. I feared what was inside. My own weakness and downfall spread out on the page.

A recent renovation forced me to remove the black notebook from its hiding place. Not wanting to be childish, I reluctantly read its contents. How hard it was afterward, to not destroy the evidence of my defeat.

*

         I am angry at myself. For

                   being blind and trusting him

                            ignoring my feelings

                                     my incessant giving-in

                                               not being cruel in return

                                                        calling our torture “love.”

                                                                 being weak-willed and ready to forgive

                   lending him money to pay off his gambling debts

                            having allowed myself to be touched, hurt, changed

                                     having to experience what it is to hate

                                              being angry with myself.

*

We were still living together when the phone call came in. Lucky for me, he wasn’t home at the time. The phone call came from my father’s wife who told me that my father’s biopsy had come back positive. There was a malignant tumour growing in his stomach. They would operate as soon as possible.

Three years later he would die.

*

Each time I see the knife in my kitchen drawer, I am reminded of my shame. How complicit I had been in my own undoing. How long it had taken me to acknowledge my mistakes. The threat of my father’s mortality jolted me back into what was real: I was living a lie.

*

You’re an asshole. Not me. You.

Asshole. Asshole. Asshole. Asshole.

Do you know how much I hate you?

Despicable blind self-destructive idiot.

Don’t take your frustrations out on me. I have a life.

Dope-smoking masturbating savage fool.

*

Since I began writing this essay I have stored the black notebook with my other diaries in the box at the bottom of my wardrobe. The story inside is still the softest flesh on my body, easily cut, already bleeding when I merely think of the knife.

Claire Polders

About Claire Polders

Claire Polders is a Dutch author of four novels with a debut in English on the way. Her flash fiction and micros appeared in Okey-Panky, SmokeLong Quarterly, New World Writing, Necessary Fiction, Connotation Press, The Offing, Hobart, matchbook, and elsewhere. She lives in Paris with her American husband who is also a writer.

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