The Private Lives of Conflict – A Short Story by Joyce Chung

What are we really doing here? I asked quietly over coffee, black with no sugar. He did not care for the artisanal coffee kind, hand crafted with a layer of foam shaped into a heart or a tulip or a rosetta. I adored latte art, but I adored him more.

We’re drinking coffee.

No, I mean. What are we doing here. What are we doing? What are we?

We’re hanging.

Hanging? He described us as if we were a noose or worse, in one. For life? Or for now?

The tension was heavy, lingering, loveless.

Anyway, you know how I don’t like talking about this.

Something in me broke. My eyes started brimming and then they became deep wells of water. My contact lenses were little dams buttressing wave after wave of tears. I remembered that he hates it when I cry so I tried to slurp back the crumbs of saline.

The little dams broke like Kaloko. Everything was blurry.

The one-sided conversations that I long had with myself were unloosed in this moment. We are two complex people whose dreams and visions and futures do not collide. This isn’t a relationship, and it can’t be called a friendship. We are navigating the negative space in between commitment and casual, dedication and dabbling. The dangerous slip into convenience and consistency, where the lines of love and lust and like are blurred, where feelings are muddled and sometimes unacknowledged, left alone as lonely vectors and never intersecting one another. To persist with this, to continue hanging would only deepen this push and pull of wanting more and keeping still…

But I have feelings!!! For him. And couldn’t you take ordinary Euclidean geometry and add an extra object, a “point of infinity” where any two lines, whether parallel or not, can meet? Isn’t it a very real possibility that our lines could meet in space, that our feelings could cleave?


Drip. Drip. Drip. Coffee brewing on the marble counter. Drop. Drop. Drop. Her tears sliding down the rollercoaster of her cheeks and splattering on our table everywhere. Her sobs came in crescendos, escalating and then subsiding like a receding wave in the ocean and then escalating again.

I hate it when she cries. Not because I hate her crying, but because it reminds me of my mom crying after those explosive fights she had with my dad. I feel helpless now, just like I felt helpless then.

Please stop crying. It came out harsher than I meant it to. Please. Again, it came out a bit sharper, more concise and terse than I had intended.

The beauty of us was the non-status, the no-definition and the no-feelings. There is nobody else. But I don’t need to claim her or label her as mine. To define our relationship would open up wide the gates for vulnerability and hurt. I’ve seen the brokenness in my parents’ relationship, and I don’t want to recreate it, or invite it into our relationship.

I tried telling her this. I needed her. She was beautiful and sexy and adventurous, living without fear and with complete transparency. She had guts. And she saw people. One time I had found her sitting on a bench with a homeless woman, sharing a sandwich, deep in conversation. After we left that bench, she said, “I just live for the stories behind the face.”

What I didn’t need was the baggage of rules and complications that come with a defined relationship. Entering this terrain would inevitably result in pain. I tried explaining that it was a function of my past and not a function of her that repelled me from contemplating deep, rooted connection.

Hey. I-I-I can’t give you what you want. I can’t tell you what we are or what we aren’t, for how long or how short…Let’s not complicate things. Let’s just be.  

She stopped crying. Mascara mixed with tears and saline left long disastrous trails on her face. Let’s just be…friends??

No, let’s just be…together…hanging. Great job, idiot. Hanging? Why do I keep using that word?

No. She wiped her face with a napkin and tied her hair back in a neat bun. You want casual, but I have feelings. You’re operating from a place of fear…And maybe that fear is well-founded. Maybe we will both fuck this up. Maybe I’ll get bored or you’ll get bored and we’ll fall for other people. Or…maybe we won’t. Maybe we can defy logic and our shitty childhoods. We can choose to make it different…

I let silence linger. How do I say that this fear is arresting, too real and too personal? That I don’t really know what it means to be a man that honors or respects or loves. That relationship is a foreign construct, unchartered muddy territory. That I don’t have her guts.

Ok well. She choked back tears. Goodbye. And she walked out, glancing back once from the door and leaving me still grappling with the right words to say.


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