“ALL RIGHT,” SAID THE MAN. “WHAT ABOUT IT?”
“No,” said the girl, “I can’t.”
“You mean you won’t.”
“I can’t,” said the girl.
“That’s all that I mean.”
“You mean that you won’t.”
“All right,” said the girl. “You have it your own way.”
“I don’t have it my own way. I wish to God I did.”
“You did for a long time,” the girl said.
It was early, and there was no one in the cafe except the barman and these two who sat together at a table in the corner. It was the end of the summer and they were both tanned, so that they looked out of place in Paris. The girl wore a tweed suit, her skin was a smooth golden brown, her blonde hair was cut short and grew beautifully away from her forehead. The man looked at her.
“I’ll kill her,” he said.
“Please don’t,” the girl said. She had very fine hands and the man looked at them. They were slim and brown and very beautiful.
“I will. I swear to God I will.”
“It won’t make you happy.”
“Couldn’t you have gotten into something else? Couldn’t you have gotten into some other jam?”
“It seems not,” the girl said. “What are you going to do about it?”
“I told you.”
“No; I mean really.”
“I don’t know,” he said. She looked at him and put out her hand. “Poor old Phil,” she said. He looked at her hands, but he did not touch her hand with his.
“No, thanks,” he said.
“It doesn’t do any good to say I’m sorry?”
“Nor to tell you how it is?”
“I’d rather not hear.”
“I love you very much.”
“Yes, this proves it.”
“I’m sorry,” she said, “if you don’t understand.”
“I understand. That’s the trouble. I understand.”
“You do,” she said. “That makes it worse, of course.”
“Sure,” he said, looking at her. “I’ll understand all the time. All day and all night. Especially all night. I’ll understand. You don’t have to worry about that.”
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“If it was a man—”
“Don’t say that. It wouldn’t be a man. You know that. Don’t you trust me?”
“That’s funny,” he said. “Trust you. That’s really funny.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “That’s all I seem to say. But when we do understand each other, there’s no use to pretend we don’t.”
“No,” he said. “I suppose not.”
“I’ll come back if you want me.”
“No. I don’t want you.”
Then they did not say anything for a while.
“You don’t believe I love you, do you?” the girl asked.
“Let’s not talk rot,” the man said.
“Don’t you really believe I love you?”
“Why don’t you prove it?”
“You didn’t use to be that way. You never asked me to prove anything. That isn’t polite.”
“You’re a funny girl.”
“You’re not. You’re a fine man and it breaks my heart to go off and leave you–”
“You have to, of course.”
“Yes,” she said. “I have to and you know it.”
He did not say anything and she looked at him and put her hand out again. The barman was at the far end of the bar. His face was white and so was his jacket. He knew these two and thought them a handsome young couple. He had seen many handsome young couples break up and new couples form that were never so handsome long. He was not thinking about this, but about a horse. In half an hour he could send across the street to find if the horse had won.
“Couldn’t you just be good to me and let me go?” the girl asked.
“What do you think I’m going to do?”
Two people came in the door and went up to the bar.
“Yes, sir,” the barman took the orders.
“You can’t forgive me? When you know about it?” the girl asked.
“You don’t think things we’ve had and done should make any difference in understanding?”
“‘Vice is a monster of such fearful mien,” the young man said bitterly, “that to be something or other needs but to be seen. Then we something, something, then embrace.” He could not remember the words. “I can’t quote,” he said.
“Let’s not say vice,” she said. “That’s not very polite.”
“Perversion, ” he said.
“James,” one of the clients addressed the barman, “you’re looking very well.”
“You’re looking very well yourself,” the barman said.
“Old James,” the other client said. “You’re fatter, James.”
“It’s terrible,” the barman said, “the way I put it on.”
“Don’t neglect to insert the brandy, James,” the first client said.”
“No, sir,” said the barman. “Trust me!”
The two at the bar looked over at the two at the table, then looked back at the barman again. Towards the barman was the comfortable direction.
“I’d like it better if you didn’t use words like that,” the girl said. “There’s no necessity to use a word like that.”
“What do you want me to call it?”
“You don’t have to call it. You don’t have to put any name to it.”
“That’s the name for it.”
“No,” she said. “We’re made up of all sorts of things. You’ve known that. You’ve used it well enough.”
“You don’t have to say that again.”
“Because that explains it to you.”
“All right,” he said. “All right.”
“You mean all wrong. I know. It’s all wrong. But I’ll come back. I told you I’d come back. I’ll come back right away.”
“No, you won’t.”
“I’ll come back.”
“No, you won’t. Not to me.”
“Yes,” he said. “That’s the hell of it. You probably will.”
“Of course I will.”
“Go on, then.”
“Really?” She could not believe him, but her voice was happy.
“Go on,” his voice sounded strange to him. He was looking at her, at the way her mouth went and the curve of her cheek bones, at her eyes and at the way her hair grew on her forehead and at the edge of her ear and at her neck.
“Not really. Oh, you’re too sweet,” she said. “You’re too good to me.”
“And when you come back tell me all about it.” His voice sounded very strange. He did not recognize it. She looked at him quickly. He was settled into something.
“You want me to go?” she asked seriously.
“Yes,” he said seriously. “Right away.” His voice was not the same, and his mouth was very dry. “Now,” he said.
She stood up and went out quickly. She did not look back at him. He watched her go. He was not the same looking man as he had been before he had told her to go. He got up from the table, picked up the two checks and went over to the bar with them.
“I’m a different man, James,” he said to the barman. “You see in me quite a different man.”
“Yes, sir?” said James.
“Vice,” said the brown young man, “is a very strange thing, James.” He looked out the door. He saw her going down the street. As he looked in the glass, he saw he was really quite a different looking man. The other two at the bar moved down to make room for him.
“You’re right there, sir,” James said.
The other two moved down a little more, so that he would be quite comfortable. The young man saw himself in the mirror behind the bar. “I said I was a different man, James,” he said. Looking into the mirror he saw that this was quite true. “You look very well, sir,” James said.
“You must have had a very good summer.”
Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) was an American author and journalist. This short story, “The Sea Change,” is similar in style and convention to a more well known story, “Hills Like White Elephants.” In each of these, Hemingway writes about controversial topics without being controversial.In the former story, the topic is abortion; in “The Sea Change” the topic is bisexuality.
Visit Hemingway’s website to learn more.