Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Space Between Words

I wrote this sort-of experimental piece several years ago and posted it here, but back then no one saw it.  I figured it deserved to see the light of day and thought maybe I could get some feedback on it.  I don't really know what to make of it, but I'd love to know what you think. 
The phone rings for three long, tormenting rings promising a voicemail pick up before a frazzled sounding voice answers. Part of me is glad I won’t have to suffer through the awkwardness of leaving a message and stumbling over my words. The other part of me screams inside my head as I realize that I will have to speak. But it’s been a year and he had called.  I had to call back.

“Uh, hey- hey, it’s Alex. How’s it going?”
“Alex, hello.”
And there it is already. The simple words, the lack of opening, the searching for what to say next. Everyday decorum usually dictates that a greeting will be immediately followed by a question that opens the possibility for a response. But he never makes it easy to start the conversation. I never really understand why, it’s just how he always is. Conversations are never normal, everyday things.
“Hi. How’s it going?”
“I was thinking about you, actually.”
No explanation as to why, just the statement. Odd. And I wonder what to say, other than the obvious question.
“Oh yeah, how?”
“I saw that movie we watched, Brazil. I showed it you, remember?”
Ah, a movie- something I can talk about.
“Oh yeah- God, that was weird.”
“Weird how?”
“Well, it was just all this fantasy world and… it was just weird.”
Ah, good. Two minutes into the conversation and I’ve already managed to sound like an idiot. My perfect record remains. And of course I’m greeted by the silence I would expect.
“I mean, I liked it. It was just weird.”
And the silence again, letting me know… well, nothing really. Our conversations are always filled with long, seemingly full silences. Not the kinds that you have with someone you’re so comfortable with that you don’t need to talk. The kinds you have when you’re thinking the other person must be thinking something. Probably something you can’t grasp. And you have no idea what it is.
“So what’s going on with your life? You don’t have babies, do you? I don’t think I could handle it if you had babies.”
And true to form he manages to throw me with a single question.
“No, no- God, no. Not married, no kids, not planning on having any.”

For just a second I get to sound as non traditional as he actually is.
“Really? You always struck me as one of those girls who wanted a family and all that.”

Of course it wouldn't last.  But that doesn't mean I can't sound a little grown up.
“I did when you knew me. Things have a changed a bit, I guess. What about you? You always struck me as one of those guys who didn’t.”
“Things haven’t changed.”
And he manages to answer my question without actually telling me anything. Always something he was skilled at. And I have to ask, out of morbid curiosity.
“So, are you single? Uh, I mean, you know- seeing someone?”
“Yes, I see her making grilled cheese sandwiches right now. You remember Sarah Kasone? I think you knew her.”
“Yeah, from high school? She’s your roommate?”
“She’s my bed mate.”
“Oh, wow... Wow, it’s a small world.”
It wasn’t that I was hoping that he was single. I got over that crush years ago and I’m pretty settled with my significant other. It's just the idea that he had reached one of those adulthood milestones before I did- living with the significant other. Something I've thought about for so many years, one of those ways you know you’re an adult. And there he is doing it. Him, the drifter. The one who never lived in the same city for more than a three month period once he left our hometown. The one who would sooner die than have an office job or a schedule. The one who has no interest whatsoever in a normal, ordinary life. There he is, cohabitating. And I'm supposed to be the traditional one.
“What about you?”
“Oh, I have a boyfriend. We’ve been together… three years? Yeah, three years.”
“Wow. Congratulations. That’s a big deal.”
And somehow he makes it sound as if that’s more amazing than living with someone. Then again, maybe it is. 

And the conversation builds into somewhat of a flow. I tell him about my crappy job, the 9 to 5 one he never wanted. He tells me he and his roommate/significant other are going to the New School and living in Brooklyn. I’m honestly happy he got back into school. He was always meant to be a scholar, whether he realized it or not.
We have the freedom to bluntly tell it like it is in that way that you can only do with someone who isn’t a fixture in your life. Or maybe it’s a dynamic I can only have with him. He’s the only person I know who I seem to give annual updates to.

Popping up out of nowhere, making me wonder about a different lifestyle and whether or not my choices are as inevitable as they seem, and then disappearing again.

The aftershocks are always felt for a least a few weeks afterward as I find myself looking at everyday, mundane events and wondering if he has any idea what they’re like. Or if anyone does, for that matter.
We talk as though we’re trying to ride a tandem bike. We both know how to do it, but doing it together is awkward and strange and you can never quite get the pattern down so you move in starts and bursts with the threat of falling over every few feet.

Or maybe he and I never were on the same wave length and I’ve always been trying to catch a ride I could never actually catch. I wonder all of these things during the long, deep pauses in between topics. And most of all I wonder what he’s thinking. I never had a clue.
In the end we descend into a passionate but safe discussion about politics. Safe because we’re both voting for the same guy for the same general reasons. Safe because it’s not about us. And that connection is gone again.
We say that we should talk more often, that it’s good to hear from each other. That we’ll call in sooner than a year. I doubt we will.

He’s been like Hailey’s comet to me for longer than he was anything else. Something that will come blazing through my atmosphere in a fiery, chaotic rush that makes my sky light up for a moment and casts a different light on everything that surrounds me before moving out of orbit again and leaving me standing still.

I wonder how things will look next year.


  1. The idea of unpacking the emotional and psychological baggage of a clipped phone conversation is great. It's also very hard to do, like any introspective fiction of its nature, because the instinct is to infodump (kind of inevitable in this format) and to leave one half or the other unstimulating (in this case, the dialogue seldom shines and we wind up waiting for the italicized narration to unpack meaning for us). So as an experiment I think it's cracking and worth taking another shot at - not necessarily editing this story, but trying the premise over with new characters or a new premise that the gimmick explores, to see where your composition is at and what you can get out of it now. I bet it'll be even stronger.

  2. I think you captured the awkwardness between them and the feeling that this is something they do but neither really know why they continue to do it.

  3. This worked. It worked well. I felt the unsynchronized relationship without getting too uncomfortably caught up in it. There's still some kind of connection between the two, staticky and echoey, but one they're both OK with in the end. Alex gets jarred out of her complacent thought-rut for a while, then moves on.

    Only bit that didn't quite work: she has had the same boyfriend for three years, and he acts like he doesn't know? Does he just erase the memory of the yearly calls?

  4. This definitely worked. The style matches the content in a very neat way.

    Somehow I don't think these phone calls are doing either character any good.

  5. I've been in this kind of situation before and sometimes it's just best to cut your losses and move on.


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