The Difference Splitter
by Matthew Harrison
Sam was always cheerful, even though he got into dreadful scrapes. Situations that would have floored a lesser man seemed hardly to ruffle his bespectacled composure. Friends envied him. Yet beneath his calm exterior, Sam was already beginning to come apart. And that had consequences which were quite unenviable.
It all began with a rather intimate situation in which, to be fair, most of us would have been rather torn. “Do you love me?” Rita was saying at Sam’s flat one evening.
“Yes, of course!” Sam had removed his glasses and was breathing into her auburn hair. “Could you.... Mmm!”
They were on Sam’s sofa, and matters were coming to a head.
“Truly love me?” Rita insisted.
“Yes! Yes!” Sam was gasping now. “Please! Just here! Please!”
“And you mean it when you say you want to marry me?”
Sam swore that he meant it. And Rita, who had a fair streak in her stern make-up, then obliged him rather thoroughly and painstakingly.
A little later, Sam had recovered enough to unwind himself from Rita, put on his glasses and stagger off to the bathroom. He returned to find his tall girlfriend, auburn hair in place, standing up and studying a little booklet she had got out of her handbag.
“What are you doing, sweetie?” Sam said, although he really wanted to sleep.
“I’m looking for a good date, Sam,” Rita replied. She flicked through the pages of what he now saw was a diary. “What do you think of September?”
“A good date... for what?” Sam asked dully. It was March, and the day had been cold and windy. He thought of his warm bed. Would the girl never leave?
“A good date for the wedding.” Rita smiled. “Let’s say the sixteenth, Sam. If you’re sure, that is?” She looked at him sharply.
Sam quailed. “Of course I’m sure,” he said as stoutly as he could. “I love you, don’t I?”
* * *
There was one small problem with Sam’s commitment to Rita. And that was Susan.
Petite, dark-haired, vivacious and thrilling by turns, Susan fascinated Sam, and he spent every minute he could with her, when he wasn’t seeing Rita. Sometimes there were schedule clashes, but Sam was able to talk his way out of them. And who could call a young man to account for all of his time?
Susan sometimes wished that Sam could be more available; Rita sometimes got impatient with Sam’s “photography classes,” and both of them wondered when they would get to meet Sam’s friends and go to pubs in their respective London suburbs where they knew people. But these were minor frictions, and Sam’s dedication made up for everything. That is, until it didn’t.
“Sam,” Susan began, in a voice that he knew meant trouble, “I’m not happy.”
“What is it, dearest?” Sam asked.
“You don’t love me.”
“I do, I do,” Sam insisted. They had been through this many times, but although he had got through each time, it was with a diminishing margin.
“I really think we should break up,” Susan said. Her back was towards him, her slender shoulders heaved, and there came the sound of a stifled sob. Fumbling in her handbag for a tissue, she was moving towards the door. In a moment, she would be out in the street.
“Wait, wait!” Sam said. “Give me a chance.”
The slender figure had reached the door.
“I have something to say,” Sam cried out desperately.
Susan turned, and looked at him. There were tears on her cheeks, and her eyes were resigned: it seemed that she had no hope. Or was that a tiny glimmer?
It was now or never. “Susan,” Sam began firmly. He strode forward, caught her small hand, and went down on one knee. “I want you... I want you to marry me.”
Susan stood still, her eyes on him, waiting. He thought he saw the glimmer of hope grow.
“I mean it. Will you marry me, Susan?”
Susan shuddered, and withdrew her hand. “Yes, Sam,” she whispered, “I will.”
* * *
It may sound strange — and perhaps already a sign of what was happening to him — but it was not until his second proposal of marriage that Sam really saw his predicament. How impossible it was! How preposterous! That was his first thought. His second was: How to get out of it?
Of the two women, he thought he owed Rita less, since she had pressured him into proposing. But then, Susan had induced his proposal by walking out! The more he thought about it, the more it seemed six of one and half a dozen of the other. Should he just dump both of them? Sam decided to sleep on it.
The next day he woke up late, with no time to think before the appointment with the first of his intendeds. Rita wanted the wedding date confirmed, and then Sam had to buy her an engagement ring with a nice diamond.
He agreed to meet her for dinner that evening at Rossini’s. And when he met Susan that afternoon in a different part of town, Sam found her radiantly happy and just had to buy her a ring. But the jeweller’s didn’t have one that she liked.
When he met Rita again that evening at Rossini’s, Sam’s brain was getting overloaded. “I know just the place to get the ring...” he began.
Rita stared at him. And at that moment, under the steely gaze of one of his intendeds, Sam really did begin to feel that he was coming apart.
“What do you mean, ‘get the ring’?” Rita demanded. “We have the ring. Here it is, in case you’ve forgotten!” She put forward her finger, embellished by its band of gold and accompanying diamond.
“Yes, of course we have the ring!” Sam rallied as best he could. “And what a lovely ring it is!”
Somewhat mollified, Rita tossed her auburn hair. “If you’re not even interested in the ring that we’ve just bought—”
“I absolutely am!” Sam insisted. He kept on until Rita took the ring from her finger and they admired the stone together as it flung out coloured rays from the candle flame.
The two young people parted on good terms. Sam spent the evening completely focused on Rita. He even started thinking about the wedding. It was not until he fell asleep that the troubling image came to him of Susan.
* * *
The following day, Sam awoke from disturbing dreams, anxious again about his two fiancées. In the afternoon, he steeled himself and met Susan at another jeweller’s. This time, the rings were more to her liking, and they chose one with little trouble. Sam paid —money was the least of his worries — and, as they left the shop he felt relaxed.
“Can I see it again?” he asked, thinking to please his fiancée.
Susan was indeed pleased, and held out her delicate hand.
In the sunshine, the diamond glittered mesmerisingly. Sam became confused. He said, “I think it looked better in candlelight.”
Susan glanced at him strangely. “You don’t like it,” she said. And she turned away.
“I do!” Sam tried to regain control of himself. “I just meant that I... that it... I mean, I just want to take you for dinner, and see what the ring looks like by candlelight.”
It took a while, but eventually Susan agreed to be taken for dinner that evening to — Sam couldn’t think of another place with candles — Rossini’s. He thought it should be safe enough, since Rita would surely not go back there a second night.
As the evening began, Sam made a real effort to focus on Susan. But it was difficult, the candlelight somehow cast auburn highlights in her dark hair, the shadows made her seem taller, and he kept imagining that it was Rita sitting opposite him.
He got confused over the rings again — in fact it seemed that the harder he tried, the more confused he got. It was almost as if his personality was coming apart. Yet it wasn’t that he didn’t love Susan, he told himself. It was just that he loved Rita as well. Sam shook his head, and sipped his soup.
When he glanced up, he saw a middle-aged woman entering the restaurant. He thought, idly, that she looked familiar. The door was held for her by a tall auburn-haired young woman — and she looked very familiar indeed! Shaken, Sam snatched up his napkin and held it over his face.
“Are you all right?” asked Susan anxiously.
“Fine,” Sam mumbled through the napkin.
“Are you sure?”
Sam lowered the napkin — he could hardly hide his face all evening.
“Sam!” cried a familiar voice. “Fancy seeing you here!”
* * *
Copyright © 2017 by Matthew Harrison