Twin Beds In Rome by John Updike, 1964
The magic trick:
Starting and ending the story by stating the conflict; demonstrating how it has mutated throughout the narrative
Updike starts this story by clearly laying out the conflict. The Maples aren’t particularly happy together. “Bleeding, mangled, reverently laid in its tomb a dozen times, their marriage could not die,” we learn. “Burning to leave one another, they left, out of marital habit, together. They took a trip to Rome.”
So, no, things aren’t good. But they’re in it together. It’s a mutual conflict.
We follow the couple around Rome throughout the trip. Then at the end of the story, we get the conflict restated. “She was happy, and, jealous of her happiness, he again grew reluctant to leave her.” This is a very different situation.
The story didn’t solve the conflict; it only changed the conflict.
And that’s quite a trick on Updike’s part.
“Twin beds,” he said. They had always had a double bed.
Joan asked, “Do you want to call him back?”
“How important is it to you?”
“I don’t think it matters. Can you sleep alone?”
“I guess. But – ” It was delicate. He felt they had been insulted. Until they finally parted, it seemed impertinent for anything, even a gap of space, to come between them. If this trip were to be kill or cure (and this was, for the tenth time, their slogan), then the attempt at a cure should have a certain technical purity, even though – or, rather, all the more because – in his heart he had already doomed it to fail. And also there was the material question of whether he could sleep without a warm proximate body to give his sleep shape.
“But what?” Joan prompted.
“But it seems sort of sad.”
“Richard, don’t be sad. You’ve been sad enough. You’re supposed to relax. This isn’t a honeymoon or anything, it’s just a little rest we’re trying to give each other. You can come visit me in my bed if you can’t sleep.”
Subscribe to the Short Story Magic Tricks Monthly Newsletter to get the latest short story news, contests and fun.