I picked up a New Yorker from the pile of old New Yorkers last night and started reading a short story by Steven Millhauser called “History of a Disturbance.” His wife asks a simple question that disturbs his evening. His life is becoming complicated. I’m only a couple of pages into the story, but here’s a sample of where the main character is falling part:
All was not well. In bed I lay awake, thinking of my irritation, thinking of the silence, which had been, I now thought, not like some big swelling rubbery thing but like a piece of sharp metal caught in my throat. What was wrong with me? Did I love you? Of course I loved you. But to ask me just then, as I was taking in the night . . . Besides, what did the words mean? Oh, I understood them well enough, those drowsy tender words. They meant, Look, it’s a summer night, look, the lawn is dark but there’s still a little light left in the sky; they meant you wanted to hear my voice, to hear yourself ask a question that would bring you my voice—it was hardly a question at all, rather a sort of touch, rising out of the night, out of the sounds in the house, the flash of the fireflies.
But you said, “Do you love me?,” which seemed to require me to understand those words and no others, to think what they might exactly mean. Because they might have meant, Do you still love me as much as you once did even though I know you do, or Isn’t it wonderful to sit here and whisper together like teen-agers on the dark porch, while people are in the bright living room, talking and laughing, or Do you feel this rush of tender feeling which is rising in me, as I sit here, on this porch, at night, in summer, at the Polinzanos’ barbecue, or Do you love everything I am and do, or only some things, and if so, which ones; and it seemed to me that that single word, “love,” was trying to compress within itself a multitude of meanings, was trying to take many precise and separate feelings and crush them into a single mushy mass, which I was being asked to hold in my hands like a big sticky ball.