Jerry stared in the mirror; understanding. All he’d wanted was a little understanding, and now his world was tumbling down around him.
He’d thought that after twenty-three years of marriage, he’d understood Betty pretty well. They’d been high-school sweethearts; they’d grown up together. He’d seen her do just about everything she’d done.
“Understanding,” rolled dully off his tongue and leapt in a fog onto the glass. The glass hazed for three fleeting seconds before fading away.
Fear — fear and mean spirit was what had driven Betty. He hadn’t understood that, but he’d — he’d been seeing things in her that his understanding of her couldn’t explain. He made excuses for her for a while, but he was no Atlas to support the self-lies that piled high upon his back.
For a long while he’d hoped that she would crack first. That’s when he started praying — to God, he thought, but now he understood his mean and fearful spirit as well. He’d been praying to anything that would listen, blind and deaf. It took something truly opening his eyes to… to open his eyes. His eyes —
Jerry stared at his eyes in the mirror but he couldn’t see them.
He saw his self, naked, exposed, tender, floating, innocent — evil. He saw his true self and he was afraid of it. If he’d been more of a man he would have killed himself when his eyes were first opened —
When his eyes were first opened, he’d been making love to his wife.
Or what passed for love in their relationship at that point: Fear. Pain. Mean spirit.
Her eyes had been open but sightless; she lay on her back against the pillows and dreamed of people that weren’t him, times that weren’t then, places that weren’t there.
He knew that — he understood that; it hurt him every time, just like he hurt her every time. That’s just the way things were. Hurting each other helped them feel good; it helped them feel together. He hadn’t understood that, then.
That’s what he saw in her eyes — she understood. She understood one hell of a lot and did nothing about it. She was content. She was not going to crack, the way things were.
In one rush he understood every last little thing she was doing.
In one fell swoop he was floating around inside her, one step ahead of her understanding. He knew every button she had and what he could do with them. And he knew that if he used that knowledge, then she’d know too. Then, perhaps, she’d crack — but he understood at the same time that that wasn’t what he wanted. He wanted the pain because it was safe, same as she did.
It was dark, and cold — a warm, comforting cold with fuzzy edges.
He’d wanted to believe he was having a stroke, or finally understanding what a female orgasm was like, but it was all too clear.
He’d closed his eyes and pulled out; she’d pretended — he could tell now that she was pretending — not to notice. He’d pulled his clothes up from the floor and walked into the bathroom to put them on. He’d rinsed his dirty bits, put on his clothes and some deodorant, and left the house.
Jerry had been in major need of a walk. Understanding had been pouring into him faster than he could assimilate that, and just like that he’d understood that he needed to go for a walk. Every time he’d looked up he’d seen someone he knew; they’d smile and wave, but he’d fall into their eyes and — he’d understand them. And they’d all been like him and Betty. Sure, there were differences; some were more easy-going, less inherently mean, but they were just the sadder for it. Some were downright creepy. He hadn’t been able to wave back. He’d broken eye contact as soon as possible, until finally he’d stopped looking up, even when they called his name. Jim had tried to confront him, to see what the matter was, but he’d run, then. He’d run, and run, and run more than his old and tired body could have done without the fear so strongly conscious inside of him.
He should have killed himself then; it would have been easier. He didn’t think of it then — understanding only got you so far. And it dragged you, kicking and screaming, wherever it liked after that.
He could live with his wife — he understood her, and he’d lived with her for almost thirty years. They understood each other, and that was important. He understood his caseworker well enough to get on SSI; the old disability. He was old; the world was old. But it was safe, at home, so long as he didn’t get caught staring back into his eyes.
He understood that he would continue to do so from time to time, though. He couldn’t break the mirrors. He couldn’t do a lot of things. Wouldn’t, really. It was all the same. He understood.
Kaolin Imago Fire is a conglomeration of ideas, side projects, and experiments. Outside of his primary occupation, he also develops computer games, edits Greatest Uncommon Denominator Magazine, and very occasionally teaches computer science. He has had short fiction published in Strange Horizons, Crossed Genres, Escape Velocity, and M-Brane SF, among others. He invites you to try your hand at Twitter-sized fiction at http://twitfic.com/.