The Richter Scale of Instability
Magnitude Level: less than 1.0 to 2.9
Effects: Generally not felt by people, though recorded on local instruments.
The first time you watch him perform, you see him in the wings but you don’t recognise him. He’s wearing a costume, a suit and bow tie, small round glasses, hair slicked back. A 1930s music-hall entertainer. But he is taller. He seems more solid, more present, a dormant caldera. He becomes a different person to go on stage where he plays the ukulele, the saw, the wine glasses. And always the audience is spellbound, gazing and smiling or talking in hushed whispers. This person on stage is not the person you’ve had dinner with. This person is someone else entirely, and you realise that this is the person who fucked you that first time.
Magnitude Level: 3.0–3.9
Effects: Felt by many people; no damage
From the beginning he tells you dark stories from his past, the happenings that forced fractures inside him, so you feel unafraid to tell him the happenings that created your own tectonic movement. As you sit and smoke and drink, gazing across the city from the top of his tall tower apartment, he says you are rare people to have had these experiences. No-one can possibly understand what you have been through. You nod in agreement, but you don’t agree. Everyone you know has fault lines and tremors somewhere about their person. But he thinks he is unique. He thinks you are both unique, together.
Magnitude Level: 4.0–4.9
Effects: Felt by all; minor damage
At first, his silence is refreshing. Sitting outside a café to watch the world turn, walking through the backstreets to watch a film, listening to music in his red-painted living room, the silence between you is comfortable and warm. But soon you feel a compressional wave deep beneath the surface, something different to this silence or that silence, and if you ask him he may tell you but usually he steps into denial so you are left bewildered, detached from him and yourself.
When he is on stage he never speaks or sings. He plays, he juggles, he balances an umbrella on his nose. But always he is silent.
When you walk into a room of people he becomes a ghost, his silence so profound that you and the people around you forget he is there, but at the same time they notice this absence and later you make excuses for him.
You realise over time that he is a fugitive, barricaded against his own shifting plates.
Magnitude Level: 5.0–5.9
Effects: Some damage to weak structures
Your body is part of your own shifting landscape. Your osteopath asks him to come to your appointments where she demonstrates how to massage the thick ropes in your thighs that prevent you from walking correctly and builds the pain in your lower back. He learns dutifully, but when the time comes he’s evasive, tired or busy, and when he does apply the heels of his hands to your thighs, he makes clear how quickly this tires him, his reluctance something you can measure throughout his body, although, of course, he denies it.
One night, after days of going without the prescribed massage, you push him on the truth but his defence is a solid wall and you go to bed feeling yourself caught in cracks of confusion, pulling yourself to and fro in the epicentre of shear waves that shift and shake and all the while he sleeps in oblivion beside you. So you get up and dress, you pack your bag, write him a note and leave for your own home.
The following morning he is waiting outside in his car. You let him in and you lie on your bed together as he emerges from his barricade, open and truthful, and you feel relief as the tremors subside, the plates realigning to solid ground.
You believe this stability can remain, even with these spots of weakness.
Magnitude Level: 6.0–6.9
Effects: Moderate damage in populated areas
He lends you his car when yours breaks down. The day before you leave to return home he tells you the things that are wrong with his car, that he’ll take it to the garage to inflate the tyres before you go, but he doesn’t go. The morning before you leave he tells you he’ll inflate the tyres before you go, but he doesn’t go. You pack your things, load the boot, you are sitting in the driver’s seat, the engine on, and he looks through the window and says you should definitely inflate the tyres. You nod. You say nothing, but you feel the heat of molten anger that you try to tamp down. While you drive your body ignites, burns and burns into a rage that is fuelled by his silence, his inaction, your own inability to change anything. You are hot and shaking by the time you get home and you call him, tell him what you feel, that this has to be over now.
But when the rupture settles, you return.
Magnitude Level: 7.0–7.9
Effects: Serious damage of large areas; threat to life
Your friend believes you shouldn’t return. People don’t change, she says, her disapproval palpable in the dark scowl of her eyes. She was his friend once but now can’t bear to see him or talk to him, so new fault planes appear in your life, the ground shaking in places you’ve always thought to be stable. And because you don’t listen to her or do as she says, she finds more reasons to be angry with you, accusing you of taking things from her and she says You don’t realise you’re in an abusive relationship because your father was abusive. She believes you are comfortable with the familiar.
You say nothing but the breakage is permanent, a gaping chasm that will never be closed.
Magnitude Level: 8.0 and higher
Effects: Severe destruction and loss of life over large areas
The biggest displacement occurs at familiar fault lines and you leave again, saying terrible things. Wounded, he camps out in the woods to burrow deep inside his denial, and while he’s away you return to his tall tower to collect your belongings, but you sense there is something wrong, there is something very wrong. He has talked of death before, and now you feel this presence in the fabric of the walls, the tidiness of the things on his desk, your reflection in the shimmering wall mirror. He has ordered his affairs, disguised all evidence of damage. You rush home and call him, apologising for the things you said, and because you are afraid you agree to see him. He emerges from his hide-out and you keep seeing him, letting things happen because you are afraid, slipping into a summer of deception and evasion and distorted passion, a real but not-real relationship built on landslips that are forever moving so you find yourself dancing to keep yourself upright, performing tricks amongst the shadows and the glittering light.
At some point you forget you are afraid, but still you keep on dancing.
Guidance on Aftershocks
These are felt many rupture lengths from the mainshock. Repeated instability induces fractures in your mind and body, the forever shaking and sliding making you dizzy, lethargic, your body in pain and reliant on prescription drugs. You ask yourself too often, What is wrong with me?, until one weekend spent inactively alone with him and you know there is nothing between you, this man who disappears the moment he walks into a room. So you tell him you want to get well, you want to recover and you want to do it alone.
But still you edge away from him slowly, carefully, fearful of consequences. You remain friends and when he comes to visit he gives you an ultimatum, Tell me to leave now or I’m taking you to bed. You look at him steadily, feeling the unexpected surety of your own mantle, and you say Please leave now. He nods, puts on his hat, and as he walks away tears slide down your cheeks, the painful shift of plates finally aligning to a place of your own choosing.
Once the door closes behind him, solid ground returns.
Sally Gander writes fiction and creative nonfiction. Her work has appeared in Litro, Porridge, The Real Story, The Blue Nib, Elsewhere and A Word in Your Ear, and is forthcoming in Backlash Press. For many years she taught Creative Writing at Bath Spa University, and now teaches students from across the world at Advanced Studies in England. You can read more of her work at https://sallymgander.blog/publications/.
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