A One Act Play
On Speaking Terms
By G. L. Horton
copyright © 2010
SET: An empty room off the main one where a family party is in progress. Arnold, a good-looking man dressed for success, is having a quick drink from his private flask when his ex-wife Serena enters, wearing a sexy party dress and high heels.
SERENA You're looking well, Arnie.
ARNOLD You're looking spectacular. Got a boyfriend? Or are you on the hunt?
ARNOLD Sorry. It's a shame!
ARNOLD For a dress like that to go unappreciated. Though judging from Uncle Morrie's reaction, if you do go on the hunt, you'll get plenty of attention.
SERENA I'm not about to "go on the hunt". (pause) I am seeing somebody, but he's not to the "boyfriend" stage. Yet.
ARNOLD Bring him along for family approval?
SERENA No, I did not!
ARNOLD Afraid he won't pass? What is he, a grad student? Musician? Tennis pro?
SERENA My -- acquaintances-- are none of your business! (pause) If you must know, Arnold, I didn't invite Ron because I was afraid my crazy ex would show up uninvited--
ARNOLD Uncle Morrie invited me!
SERENA And make an ugly scene!
ARNOLD Serena, if you think this is an ugly scene, you've got a very short memory! Plus, there'd be no scene at all if you hadn't come in here to start it. I've been avoiding you, because I understand that we aren't on speaking terms. We aren't, are we?
ARNOLD "What" what? You heard me.
SERENA Of course I heard you. I haven't gone deaf since you showed up uninvited at Janna's birthday. My "What" means "what do you expect from me"?
ARNOLD Words. Or the Silent Treatment. What's the ploy?
SERENA Clearly, I walked into this room to speak to you. And I spoke first. So it's up to you.
SERENA Yeah, what?
ARNOLD What's with that what? "Yeah", is what I said! You do that "what" thing to annoy me.
SERENA It can't annoy you more than you annoy me! You know very well my "what?" means I want an explanation, or at least a clue--
ARNOLD Then why do you say fucking "what"? Just ask me to explain, please, or--?
SERENA (intense whisper) Please keep your voice down! People will hear. (pause) When I try to communicate that I'm confused about what you're trying to communicate, I get tangled up; I grope for words. But then instead of explaining you'll do that thing I hate most of all--
ARNOLD That thing? What "thing" can you hate more than I hate your "what?"!
SERENA You cut me off.
SERENA What do You mean, "what"? If you hate "what"-- ?
ARNOLD I mean repeat! "What" means "repeat" just like the goddam red octagonal thing stuck up on a road means "stop"! If something falls out of your mouth that's so far out in left field my brain can't process it, repeating it for me is the first step---
SERENA "What" is pronoun, adjective, and interrogative: and "repeat" is far from its primary meaning! You know perfectly well that when I say "what" it means--
ARNOLD "Danger. Fight ahead."
SERENA But you repeat! Full stop! Force me to speculate, and then when I'm struggling with that, when I'm speculating, you-- cut me off.
ARNOLD (at the same time as Serena's "cut me off") -- Cut you off.
SERENA I Hate being cut off! I Hate you finishing my sentences!
ARNOLD Why? Once I know what you're going to say, you've communicated. Communication's what's it's about, isn't it? Not nattering on--
SERENA You think you know: but you don't! Because half the time I don't know myself until I hear it come out of my mouth!
ARNOLD Oh. For this I should put up with your stream of semiconsciousness? You want therapy? Hire a shrink.
SERENA I have! That is, I'm seeing a therapist…...
ARNOLD You know, there are charming old couples who finish each other's sentences, and people say "how adorable, they're so in tune!" You could save your shrink time and yourself money if you just knew yourself as well as I know you. You've got these basic ploys, ploys I can spot before you've said six words-- Or, hell, just by the tilt of your head. Here it comes! The Put-Down, the Misdirection, the Plea for Flattery, the Insult by Implication--
SERENA That game-playing put down thing! I hate it! I hate myself when I'm drawn into it. Verbal ping-pong, just to win points.
ARNOLD Ping pong's fine! Ping pong's fun, it's exercise! But ploys to put a guy in the wrong and trap him there? Not fun! If I've always got to be in the wrong--
SERENA You're not always in the wrong. You're just--. All right. I've realized that dealing with you brings out the worst in me, and that I'd be happier if I avoid you, or just keep my mouth shut when--
ARNOLD So! We're Not on speaking terms! And it's nothing to do with me: you'd made up your mind!
SERENA I had! At Janna's party! But then-- I realized that I can change, and it'd be better for everyone if we were-- on better terms. So, can we try? I'm ready. In therapy I've been practicing dealing with difficult people, and I think it's--
ARNOLD I'm not difficult! Nobody in the whole damn world but you thinks of me as difficult!
SERENA Really? (pause) What about your sister?
ARNOLD The only reason my sister thinks I'm difficult is because she could never understand why I married you!
SERENA That's not what she tells me.
ARNOLD O? What, then?
ARNOLD What does Annie tell you? About me? About the marriage.
SERENA (pause) She tells me she always thought we'd work it out. That you and I have a lot in common.
ARNOLD Both being difficult.
SERENA I guess. Annie says you aren't much like your father or your brother. She says she's had to try to figure out how to get along with you, because your ways aren't the family ways. That in a lot of those ways you're more like---
SERENA Like me.
ARNOLD I saw the two of you in there with your heads together. What are you plotting?
SERENA Nothing. Annie's not having an easy time of it, as you know. If you'd call her once a week, and let her know you care--
ARNOLD So you were plotting!
SERENA No! Or if it is a plot, it's not Against You, but For Her. She told me she appreciates your calling her, and I felt a -- a warm rush, you know? Because I think you really do care. You just have a difficult time expressing your concern for her because--
ARNOLD Because she was a brat. Always telling on me. Getting me in trouble.
SERENA But she grew into a good person.
ARNOLD How do I know? Annie says the right things to my face, but what does she say to Mom and my brother? Or you! What does she say to you?
SERENA She says she wishes the two of you were closer! The poor woman is in pain, she has muscle and nerve damage. A few loving words from you would--
ARNOLD Shut up, ok?
SERENA (shocked that her good intentions are rebuffed) What?!
ARNOLD I'm not going to repeat, or finish your sentence. Just saying: you're right.
SERENA (now shocked that her good intentions are accepted) What?!
ARNOLD You're right. You win.
SERENA You and Annie.
ARNOLD I'll do it.
SERENA Call her?
ARNOLD Call her. Support her. Show some brotherly love. I have some brotherly love, down a layer or two, and I guess I can dredge it up and find some words so Annie can feel it.
SERENA (warm smile) I knew you could. Thank you.
ARNOLD But why do you care? With the divorce, did you get custody of my sister? You never seemed particularly fond of Annie.
SERENA I wasn't fond of her. I thought her cold and disapproving.
ARNOLD Me, too. (warm smile) Something we used to have in common.
SERENA But the thing is, Arnold, what she was disapproving of was the way we treat each other! She says it makes her sad when two people who are so alike act like enemies.
ARNOLD Is enemies an act? Or what we are?
SERENA Really, we should stop.
ARNOLD (shocked and angry that his good intentions are rebuffed he begins to leave) All right! But you started it. You're the one who followed me in here, insisted on talking--
SERENA (pleading, perhaps taking his hand to stop him) Stop being enemies! We were in love, once.
ARNOLD Were. Once.
SERENA And your sister's right about us being alike. Hating you is like hating part of myself.
ARNOLD Right. The part that plays destructive, pointless--
ARNOLD Don't be an idiot! You know why you hate me. You've told me the top ten reasons a thousand times, and you'd go on to the next 900 if I didn't walk away or hit something!
SERENA You've never hit me.
ARNOLD Only because I've walked away.
SERENA I knew it! Under your bullying there's a threat!
ARNOLD And what's under yours? (SERENA mumbles something, turns away to go) (ARNOLD catches her, turns her back) What? (pause) What did you say?
SERENA Weakness. (ARNOLD laughs) It's not funny! If I don't resist, you take over my every thought, every feeling. I can't--
ARNOLD When we tried a separation, you weren't the one who stood naked in the rain begging.
SERENA I let you in, and we fucked for 72 hours!
ARNOLD You say that like it's something negative.
SERENA I'm the one who paid for it! Slept through the interview, lost my chance at that promotion-
ARNOLD And for that you broke my balls?
SERENA (laughs) That's really funny, that image. I can't imagine you with-- In fact, I don't dare imagine--
ARNOLD Me, either. (They both look at ARNOLD's crotch, then into each other's eyes. SERENA flings herself into ARNOLD's arms.) God, I've missed you.
SERENA Missed this. (kiss) O, God, I want-- (grinds herself into him, then pulls away) We can't.
ARNOLD No. (embracing her, kissing even as they talk about breaking off)
SERENA Not here. Somebody'll come.
ARNOLD I'm counting on it.
SERENA What if it's Uncle Morrie?
ARNOLD O, God! (backing away) Another time.
SERENA God knows I want you so much, but we can't risk--
ARNOLD Shut up, please?
ARNOLD The bathroom has a lock, doesn't it?
SERENA (with glee) So does the upstairs study! (she grabs his hand and drags him towards a fine and private place)