I have just finished reading Nadine Gordimer's excellent new story in the New Yorker about a month ago. The story is titled "The First Sense" and is about a white South African couple, the husband a successful musician and the wife a white-collar worker whose musical ambitions never panned out.
The couple forgoes children for the sake of the husband's career, and it in this context, it seems an understandable decision that the wife, when pregnant, terminates the pregnancy without telling her husband:
One month—when was it?—she found that she was pregnant; kept getting ready to tell him but didn’t. He was going on a concert tour in another part of the country, and by the time he came back there was nothing to tell. The process was legal, fortunately, under the new laws of the country, conveniently available at a clinic named for Marie Stopes, a past campaigner for women’s rights over their reproductive systems. Better not to have him—what? Even regretful. You know how men, no matter how rewarded with success, buoyant with the tide of applause, still feel they must prove themselves potent.But this dishonesty between them seems small compared to the lie she eventually feels him harboring, senses in the playing, in fact, of his cello:
But, when she goes through all the possibilities in her head, she decides not to confront him about it - or doesn't decide, really, but just waits, and never receives a confession. "She waited for him to speak," Gordimer writes.
He makes love to her. Isn’t that always the signal of return after he has been away?
There’s a deliberation in the caresses. She is almost moved to say stupidly what they’ve never thought to say to each other: Do you still love me?
He begins to absent himself from her at unexplained times or for obligations that he must know she knows don’t exist.
The voice of the cello doesn’t lie.
About what had happened. To trust the long confidence between them. He never did. She did not ask, because she was also afraid that what had happened, once admitted, would be irrevocably real.But confession, or at least confirmation, comes in a different form. And I must here quote the entire conclusion of Gordimer's story, lest I take anything away in the retelling:
I am not quite sure whether to take this ending as a hopeful or a resigned one. A full reading of the story doesn't make it clear: is this a disfunctional relationship, or have they reached the limits of "function"-ality? Is this new lovemaking at the end actually better for being better, or is it worse for being so? Does the experience of "a different instrument to learn from" mean things will be better in the future, and even so, does that undo or allow forgetting of the past?
One night, he got up in the dark, took the cello out of its bed, and played. She woke to the voice, saying something passionately angry in its deepest bass.
Then there came the time when—was it possible, in his magnificent, exquisite playing?—there was a disharmony, the low notes dragging as if the cello were refusing him. Nights, weeks, the same.
So. She knew that the affair was over. She felt a pull of sadness—for him. For herself, nothing. By never confronting him she had stunned herself.
Soon he came to her again. The three of them—he, she, and the cello against the wall—were together.He made love better than ever remembered, caresses not known, more subtle, more anticipatory of what could be roused in her, what she was capable of feeling, needing. As if he’d had the experience of a different instrument to learn from.
Though many relationships with infidelity fall apart irreperably, I am not sure that is inevitably the case. And it's not even clear to me how often it is that when things do fall apart, the infidelity that occurs is to blame (it may, for one thing, be the effect rather than the cause). Nadine Gordimer, who has lived fifty years longer than I, simply brings these questions back. She makes no pretense, I think, at answering them.