Ron & Louise
A short story about a narcissist.
"A man wrapped up in himself makes a very small parcel"
- John Ruskin
Ron was an artist. He was tall, handsome, ambitious, but somewhat lazy. Approaching thirty, he certainly possessed more charisma than most, but tragically, believed himself to be a genius and was mad at the world for not recognising his talents on the scale he thought he deserved. His works were very mediocre.
Ron often spoke without thinking first. If ever he caused offence, and he commonly did, he would pin it on his ‘passion for the truth’ and ‘freedom of expression’. Unfortunately, when he did not like what he heard from others, he lost his nerve and became scornful. This happened often. Ron was determined he was the smartest person in any room he graced. His personality was torn between two opposing notions; the first, that he was genuinely better than others; and the second, in that he cared far too much about what others thought of him. Ron’s biggest fear was to be irrelevant.
Ron worked hard, sure, when he felt the bolt of inspiration strike him. But sadly, it wasn’t enough to be industrious, he had to be seen to be working hard, and it was essential to be applauded for this every day that he did. Or else, if no one knew of his labour, did it even occur? How would people know he was a painter unless he had a carefully planted splash of colour on his hand, or perhaps, on his neck? He craved the assumptions of strangers at a party about his line of work, yet when they inquired out of curiosity, he would feign disinterest and brush it off with faux modesty. How he loved to play the struggling artist, the misunderstood prodigy, the tortured soul. On the mornings that he did leave for his studio, after thanklessly devouring the breakfast that his fiancée prepared, he would announce his immanent departure, as if he was the only painter to ever paint, and indeed the fate of culture itself depended on his talents.
His fiancée Louise, a somewhat dull, but delicate introvert, a little younger than him, was enchanted by Ron and would frequently caress his ego. He would patiently soak up all her praises, nourishing himself in kindness. But often, feeling fussy and ambiguously anxious about his latest work, Ron wasn’t quite in the mood to accept her compliments. He would brush her benevolence aside, (without asking her to stop), patronizing her about how little she understands modern art and the visual arts in general. After mumbling accusations of how little she cares about his vision, he would attempt to reconcile her feelings of rejection by confiding in her how glad he was that she wasn’t a true fanatic, for he could never be romantically involved with a fan ‘who would only love him for his art’. Alas, anyone who knew Ron, knew that this was exactly what he craved. Oh, to have someone restlessly worship and adore him! Oh, to be blessed with the company of someone who truly understood his genius and find every brush stoke remarkable and ground-breaking! Oh, how robbed he felt, how unfair the world was to him!
I invited Louise to a drinks party at a friend’s house and it was clear she was glad to be out of the house, if even for a few hours. Her auburn hair, finally loose, resting on her shoulders, shone vividly and highlighted her brilliant, pale complexion. She wore long-sleeved dresses with high necks, modest and complementary to her slim figure, but too conservative for her age. Louise was graceful, quiet, agreeable. However, that evening, after an initial outburst of energy while walking over with me, twenty minutes into the party she seemed absent-minded while nodding along to a story. Her pale blue eyes glazed over like fresh ice at the utterance of the punchline and she was the only one not to laugh. I suggested she accompany me while I top up my drink in the other room.
I never understood why they got engaged, what she saw in him. It was perfectly clear what he saw in her. Louise was an heiress. With one question, Ron resolved all his financial difficulties and started sleeping better at night. How he craved to be the struggling artist without the actual struggle. Louise, of course, never saw money as part of the equation. In spite of her intellectual shortcomings, she was kind and generous. Without hesitation, she was especially generous to Ron. But Ron dismissed her generosity as mere privilege. In his eyes, it was easy for Louise to be kind to him because she could afford it. It was almost, as if, she didn’t mean any of her gestures and gifts. Because she could effortlessly buy them, this rendered them hollow. In spite of his furious theoretical protestations, he accepted every gift, every holiday and every dinner Louise paid for. Ron gladly moved into the house Louise’s father bought for them in central London and her family even paid for some tutoring when Ron decided to dabble in watercolour. It never came to fruition. But with every gift she bought, Ron grew resentful. How callously he requited her generosity with bold claims of how he could never enjoy the fruits of someone else’s labour. How meaningless money was! How he would only be truly happy when he made his own fortune!
Yet, to suggest Ron proposed to Louise simply because of money would be crass and inaccurate. As an artist, Ron worshipped beauty and Louise was the human embodiment of it. She was a rare, magnificent jewel and he wanted to make her the centrepiece of his collection. To him, she was a divine, special individual, and if she were his, that would make him all the more special. However, what I didn’t understand is why he hid her away. Why entwine yourself with such a unique and beautiful woman only to keep her hidden from the world? Was he not proud to have her by his side? They have been together for almost three years and barely anyone knows this. The engagement was a quiet affair. It did not feature on any social media. As far at the world was concerned, Ron was a free man. But of course, Ron would protest, the status of their relationship was no one’s business! Oh, and how he would mock the ‘cretins’ (his word, not mine) that spend their time and energy building and consuming feeds. Ironically, but true to Ron’s hypocrisy, he would spend more time, money and energy grooming his own public profiles than anyone I know. Louise never said a word, at least, not in public.
I often wondered how Louise felt every time Ron unveiled a new portrait. He insisted on working exclusively with young, beautiful women and grew impassioned whenever anyone questioned this. How he adored his muses! How much he praised them, flirted with them over lunches and insisted on taking them out for drinks at Soho House. I don’t know whether Ron was ever unfaithful to Louise, but he certainly danced very close to that line in public. He certainly wasn’t forthcoming about his commitment to Louise either. Predictably, Ron refused to have a picture of his fiancée in his studio, citing it deeply ‘distracting’ and ‘unprofessional’. I bet it made her feel invisible.
“How are your philanthropical projects coming along?” I asked Louise, handing her a glass of wine.
“Oh gosh, very well thank you.” she took the glass off me by the stem and gently swirled the liquid, watching the skirt drop. “The team in Indonesia managed to remove one hundred thousand tonnes of plastic from the oceans and beaches last year” she replied mechanically – an automatic response she must have espoused more than a dozen times. But she flashed a smile. It was wonderful to see her smile.
“That’s fantastic Louise!” I took her free hand, shaking it manically in celebration, “I hope you’re proud, they wouldn’t have been able to achieve that without your funding.”
“Thank you, that’s very kind of you to say,” she began to blush, so looked down and sipped her wine. “There is still so much to do, but they seem to be doing a great job.” She added automatically, probably without meaning it, avoiding eye contact. It bothers me how reserved she is about the difference she makes to the world. It was tragically clear from her inability to take pride in her contribution that with whoever she attempted to talk to about this, either ignored it, or ridiculed it.
“Can I ask you a question?” Louise blurted out abruptly, looking up and straight into my eyes, so directly it almost startled me.
“Of course,” I replied. “What is it?”
The door opened, letting the music seep in from the living room, and a small group of friends poured into the kitchen, looking for alcohol. I picked up my drink off the counter and began to lead Louise to a less noisy part of the house. We squeezed past people laughing and dancing, lounging on the sofas and playing on their phones. I moved some cushions off the bay window at the front of the living room, the farthest part of the house from the speaker system.
“What’s your question?” I sat down, facing Louise.
“How do you know someone is the one?” She boldly enquired without reservation. It was clear this was rehearsed and on her mind for quite some time. I paused. I looked into her searching eyes, behind her clam demeanour, there appeared a woman hanging on by a thread, weary from neglect and apprehension.
“I’m afraid I don’t have a good answer to this,” I hesitated.
She crossed her arms as if she felt a chill. She began to tug at her sleeve.
“I think you just know.” I attempted to sound confident. “If you’re with the right person, you feel how happy they make you and they add value to your life in a way no one else can, right?” I was trying to be suggestive, mostly because I didn’t want to be blamed if Louise were to make a life-altering decision as a consequence of this minute exchange. She was staying quiet, gazing about the room with hollow, sad eyes. I tried to fill the silence between us.
“I’m no expert by any means, so please don’t take this as gospel,” I was making excuses to shake off any possible responsibility, “but, as long as your relationship is a net positive, and adds to your happiness, it’s worthwhile, right? As long as you both feel like the other has your best interest at heart, and is constantly nourishing you and helping you grow, it’s worth continuing?” I was trying to get at least a nod out of her.
“Thanks,” Louise said softly. She didn’t even look in my direction as she spoke. She finished her glass of wine. “I’m going to get another.” She flashed me a quick smile, swiftly rose and disappeared.
I don’t think she heard a word I said. I believe as soon as she asked her question she got lost in her own thoughts, as she already knew her answer, the only one that mattered. Perhaps she just wanted anyone’s reassurance that Ron is a catch, and for someone to tell her to supress her doubting questions and to see their engagement through? Well I certainty wasn’t the right person for that. But she knows that. Perhaps because she knows my low opinion of him, that was exactly why she asked me? I certainly wasn’t about to talk her out of her doubts.
As we were at a party, after all, I decided to put the episode out of my mind and continued to enjoy my evening. I don’t recall seeing Louise post our conversation.
A week later, over an unrelated phone conversation, I was informed by a mutual friend that Louise called off her engagement.
Months later, I checked up on Louise, only to see her beaming smiles with her new beau in Paris. And just like that, Ron became irrelevant.