J.J. Voskuil - Binnen de huid

Nicolien emerged from the laundry room as I was getting dressed. ‘Why the nylon dress shirt?’ she asked.
    ‘It’s easier.’
    ‘I don’t think washing it every night’s easy.’
    ‘Otherwise I have to take an extra.’ I knew she was jealous and I felt guilty.
    ‘You never wear your nylon shirt to my parents’.’
    ‘We’re only at your parents’ for three days, and we’re at Paul and Rosalie’s for five.’
    ‘Four!’
    ‘It always ends up being more.’
    ‘That’s news to me.’
    ‘Okay.’ I took it off. ‘I’ll pack an extra shirt.’
    ‘No, just wear it.’
    ‘No way! I’ll wear one of my junky ones.’
    ‘I don’t see why you should dress differently for your friends than you do at home.’
    ‘You’re right, you’re right.’ I went into the laundry room and rummaged through the pile. ‘I actually prefer the shabby look. It’s nonchalant. Masculine.’
    ‘So why did you put on your good shirt in the first place?’
    ‘Because I don’t feel like looking like a slob in front of Paul and Rosalie. But that’s just stupid, of course.’ I dug out the two oldest shirts I could find and got dressed in silence.
    She went back into the laundry room.
    ‘You want me to wear my oldest sweater too?’
    She didn’t respond.
    We ate breakfast without exchanging a word. I was peeved. We packed our things, went to the station and found a place in the dining car. It was stuffy. As soon as the train pulled out I took off my coat. ‘It’s stifling in here.’ I dreaded the weekend and was feeling grumpy.
    ‘Then take off your sweater.’
    ‘Can’t.’
    ‘Why not?’
    ‘Because my shirt’s torn.’
    ‘Then you should’ve worn your nylon shirt.’
    ‘Oh boy, that’s a good one! Just now I wasn’t allowed to, because you were jealous!’
    She bolted upright. ‘Don’t tell me you changed shirts on my account.’    ‘Of course I did.’
    ‘And you said you’d just as soon wear a torn shirt!’
    ‘Why do you think? To avoid a fight!’
    ‘And now you’re picking one!’
    I nodded. ‘Yeah, now I’m the one picking a fight!’
    ‘Then I want to go back!’ She stuck out her hand. ‘Give me some money!’
    ‘I’m not giving you any money!’
    ‘Give me some money! It’s my right!’
    ‘Not a cent!’
    She gestured impatiently. ‘Then give me my ticket!’
    A man across the aisle looked at us. It gave me a reason to control myself. I suppressed my anger and handed her the ticket.
    ‘Can I exchange it?’
    ‘Don’t think so.’
    We glowered at each other.
    ‘Why not?’
    ‘Because it’s further away.’
    ‘It is not!’
    As we argued like this, I realized I loved her and was heartsick through and through. But I’d be damned if I let on. ‘You’re right, you can exchange it.’ I looked the other way, straight at the man who was watching us. He averted his eyes. We sat in silence. The train approached Amersfoort.
    ‘I’ll go home if you don’t take it back,’ she warned.
    ‘So go home. I’m not taking anything back.’
    She glared at me, but her anger was slight. I could see she was sad. ‘Why didn’t you wear your nylon shirt?’
    ‘Because you were jealous!’
    ‘So it’s my fault you’re wearing a torn shirt.’
    ‘That doesn’t bother me,’ I said spitefully. ‘Rosalie fancies me no matter how I’m dressed.’   
    She paused, reached over and handed me her ticket. ‘OK, you’ve taken it back.’ She tried to look assertive, but without success.
    The ticket was creased in the middle. I restrained myself. ‘You’ve crumpled it again,’ I said angrily. Too bad she hadn’t made good on her threat. The hell with Rosalie. I looked at her. ‘And I haven’t taken it back. I took off that nylon shirt because you insisted!’
    ‘Say what you like. You took it back.’
    ‘I haven’t taken anything back!’
    The train came to a stop. I stood up resolutely. If she wasn’t going to carry through, then I would.
    ‘What’re you doing?’ she asked anxiously.
    ‘I’m going home! I’ve had enough of your jealousy. I don’t feel like any more of this nonsense!’ I picked up the bag and got off the train.
    She followed me onto the platform. ‘Please come with me!’ She tugged on my sleeve. ‘I take it all back! I’m begging you!’
    ‘No! I’m going home!’
    The platform was full of soldiers. People were looking at us. Two policemen came in our direction.
    She started to cry. ‘I’m begging you! I’m begging you! I’ll get down on my knees!’ It looked like she was actually going to do it.
    I pulled her up. ‘God damn it,’ I hissed. ‘You’re making a scene!’
    ‘Then come with me! Paul’s waiting for us!’ She clung to me.
    ‘Let him wait.’ I tried to pull myself free.
    ‘I took it all back, didn’t I? It’ll serve me right, every time I see that tear in your shirt! Just come with me! It’s driving me crazy! I’m down on my knees!’
    I managed to restrain her. I wavered. ‘You’re blackmailing me with all this shouting. It’s a dirty trick!’
    She sensed my indecision and gave me a tug. ‘Look, it’s about to leave! Hurry!’
    We ran along the platform and squeezed into the train. It was chock-full. She pressed on, but I stayed put and stared stubbornly outside. Everyone around us could see what was going on.
    She looked over her shoulder and came back. ‘Are you going to stay like this?’
    ‘Yes’.
    ‘Then we should have stayed behind!’
    ‘Fine with me!’ I wriggled loose, opened the door and jumped onto the platform. She was right behind me. Just then the train pulled out. I stomped over to the timetables. She hurried after me and grabbed my arm. ‘You’re not really going back, are you?’
    Without answering, I scowled at the timetable to Amsterdam.
    ‘Let’s go have some coffee first!’ She tugged at me. ‘Come on! Don’t make me beg.’
    I walked along the platform and sat down on a bench. Damn, damn, damn, I thought. Put an end to it!—The platform began to fill up.
    ‘Come have a cup of coffee,’ she said.
    A train pulled in. I got up and walked towards it.
    She followed me. ‘Where’s it going?’ she asked fretfully.
    ‘To Amsterdam!’ I snapped.
    ‘Aw, don’t!’ She tried to hold me back. ‘Let’s go have a cup of coffee first! I promise I’ll never be jealous again!’
    The two policemen came towards us. People turned and looked. I relented. I was indecisive. We made our way to the cafeteria and went inside. It was packed with soldiers.
    ‘It’s too busy in here,’ she said. She was still clinging to me. Her face was tear-streaked. I turned around without saying a word. We sat down on a bench outside. She took my hand. ‘Let’s make up,’ she said sadly.
    ‘No! I’m sick and tired of your jealousy!’
    ‘I won’t be jealous anymore, honest. Anyway, it wasn’t that bad, was it? Come on, let’s have a coffee. They’ll be so disappointed.’
    We went back in the cafeteria and managed to find a table. She suddenly couldn’t find her bag. I went outside, but it wasn’t there. I went back in. We looked on the floor and once more out on the platform. Back inside again. We finally retrieved it from the Lost and Found. When I saw how pleased she was, I wanted to bang my head against the wall. I turned and walked over to the timetables for Amsterdam.
    She came up beside me and grabbed my hand. ‘You’re not still going back?’ she asked dejectedly. ‘Just come with me. We made up, didn’t we? Let’s go have a cup of coffee.’
    I gave in. We found ourselves a table in the second-class lounge. The next train was jam-packed too. I gave her the silent treatment. She held my hand. I thought of seeing Rosalie again. This couldn’t go on any longer. I had to put an end to it before it became irrevocable. I shouldn’t have given in. We should have taken the next train back and disappeared for good. Pack up and move to Paris. Better to die of hunger than lose your self-respect. When I was alone with Nicolien I could see us making a new start.
    At the same time there was a little voice that kept telling me I was being a coward. If I ran away things would stay unresolved forever. I would regret what I had passed up. Her body would pursue me. I’d become a bitter, vindictive man who had lost his decency and was forced to live in its shadow.