Jessica didn’t show up that day. They would sit together on the bus every day after school, linked by a pair of cheap earbuds—one for her, one for him. He kept staring at the inward gliding doors, even after the bus had left the loading location, half-expecting her to materialize out of the stale cabin air. His speculation on the cause of her absence slowly boiled over, engulfed everything in its path, until all was as cloudy as billowing steam from a heated pot. He hadn’t felt this before, this sense of longing. When he was cognizant of his surroundings again, the bus came to a halt alongside the road.
Tucking blond ringlets of hair behind his right ear, Don lifted himself out of the double-seat. A sleep-deprived trudge through the recreation center awaited him. There wasn’t any use in prolonging the forthcoming trek—he climbed down the steps of the lurid school bus, aware of the populated swell of kids amassing behind him. Once outside, the smell of natural gas and mass-produced vinyl lingered above him like a cartoonish rain cloud.
He continued down the street in hurried strides, as if to escape this cloud. He passed trees along the sidewalk which had been young for as long as he’d been a teenager. Years later, he would see them uprooted by one of California’s rare torrential downpours that seemed more and more common with each passing season. And he himself would be willingly carried away, across the Sierra Madre and the Great Plains, along the Appalachian Plateau, and through the towering sylvan overgrowth of New England, to the labyrinthine concrete of New York City. But for now, here he was: teetering at maturity’s apex, insulated from the swaths of adult classification, from inter- and intra- personal estrangement.
He came to another crosswalk. Cars rarely drove down the three-lane suburban slope which intersected his path home, yet he refused to jaywalk. The area was heavily policed, despite its low crime-rate and high income median. The fields on the opposite side of the street were strewn with soccer and Frisbee players, and an incline at the furthest fringes of grass hid a fenced-off salt marsh which dried out seasonally; still, a bronze plaque assured those who walked past that krill inhabited its minute, silty refuges year-round. Of course, detailing all of these scenic elements in his mind made them seem like a laundry list of picturesque sentimentalities, none of which truly captured the spiritual emptiness of this place; he felt its well-sprinkled and daily-mown fields a poor facsimile of natural human habitat, nothing more than a well-maintained bio-dome of suburban, prepubescent upbringing. He knew this town was not made for him. But still, he occasionally overlooked the salt marsh as the sun went down during the summer. Without a car, it was the closest connection he had to anything resembling wildlife.
By the recreation center, he found a lanky guy, long-haired and towering, wrapping his arms around some girl. Her hair, a familiar auburn, contrasted against his white shirt and pants. She turned her face toward him. It was Jessica. She had always appeared affable, with the exception of a few brief lapses of concern in appropriate situations. He continued walking, as if he hadn’t noticed the couple under a sapling, but something parasitic had leeched all of his strength in a trice.
“Hey Don, how’s it going?” she asked.
He stopped. “Oh hey, Jessica, what’s up? Didn’t see you there.” The sun was a spotlight; Don was center stage, stumbling over his words, not convincing anyone with his performance. He stumbled over a small piece of granite on the sidewalk.
“Just hanging out.” She laughed, and her eyes widened. “Have you met Chris?”
“Uhh, no. Nice to meet you.” Don suggested the motion of a hand wave toward him, tried to stare into him, the way you might peer into the eyes of a father-in-law whom you’ve met for the first time and were now shaking (more like clutching) hands with. But the faux business-first firmness was believable only for a few short seconds—Don’s attempt at a hardened demeanor, along with the hyper-awareness of how ridiculous he might look, were taking up neurological RAM, his neurons and dendrites akin to overheating microcircuits, memory misallocation. And so, he found that he could not focus on what Chris was saying without dropping the look on his face, resulting in a vacillation between these two outward manifestations, no compromise willing to come to fruition. He felt an involuntary tremor pulse through his body as he waved back, as he managed to force out a “cool.” His hand took on the shape of a makeshift visor as he shifted gaze toward the sunset.
“Have to get going. Got a few things to work on.” He turned to walk away.
“You sure? Why don’t you bring your guitar down here with us?” He thought this was Jessica’s way of being inclusive or accommodating, and wondered if she knew how he felt.
“I would but…I have homework for Government. Fucking Bedslinger man.”
“Alright, call me sometime. We’ll all have to do something one of these days.”
“Right. We’ll all have to do something.”
His parents weren’t home. They never were, at least, not until eight o’clock. He went into his bedroom, the furthest from the living room, and turned on his computer. His desktop, a high-end Hewlett-Packard, housed a soundcard with a colorful array of inputs and outputs, one of which ran through a tube preamp and into a guitar amp, along with a leftover speaker from his grandfather’s old car. The cone, annular and caked with dust, looked anachronistic against his bedroom’s assortment of tools and hardware. He had re-soldered it and set in a wooden enclosure with nothing but electrical tape, making his creation appear haphazard; but it was the process of MacGyvering a loose assemblage of parts in his garage into something useful which enthralled him. He selected a playlist he had created earlier titled “Black Hearts in May,” and pulled open a drawer underneath his desk. There were a few rolling papers, a dugout, and a sandwich bag full of crumbled up weed—bottom-of-the-barrel shake which he had bought off of his uncle for twenty bucks. He tried rolling a joint, but failed. At last, he inhaled a few melted-carpet-flavored drags through the one-hitter out of desperation.
He got up and looked around the room, which unfortunately, looked the same as it did before he had become intoxicated, and fought back an irrepressible urge to excise his own heart. He bawled instead, as this was a more realistic option. He thought of Jessica’s stilted little fingers playing the guitar, and pictured himself behind her, showing her a how to play a few chords. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught sight of a cork bulletin board his father had given to him and his mother. The idea had been to post pictures or symbols of what each family member wanted the most in life. Seeing their goals every day would somehow remind them to “keep our eyes on the prize.” There he had posted the picture of a couple locked in a kiss, their silhouettes enveloped in a corona of light, set against the backlit harp of Brooklyn Bridge suspension cables.
He was in love. Or, at least, he thought he was.
This time she was a dark-haired seventeen-year-old, Genevieve. He would talk to her over the phone once a week, usually at night while they were both in beds separated by seven-miles-worth of franchise restaurants, ersatz tract homes, and languid roadways. They had a few of the same classes together, where they spoke jovially about music and old computer games; Don thought they had better chemistry over the phone though, maybe because they felt less intimidated by each other’s physical attractiveness. Still, they hadn’t kissed, and he was starting to suspect that they never would.
The thought occurred to him one night while they were lapsing in-and-out of a conversation about Windows 95 and the Smashing Pumpkins that he could touch himself as she talked. He had reached down his pants, trying to focus on her whispery elisions, and that tantalizing way she used to purr when she wanted him to make a promise or do something for her benefit. He held in his breath as she went on about being a Gemini or something, and then all at once, she stopped talking.
“So, you know what I think?”
“You think too much,” he managed to squeeze out a sudden exhalation.
“You’re funny. You would say something like that.”
“Well, yeah, I would. I’m myself, how else would I react?
“And you’d say something like that too.”
“Well, of course. My personality dictates that.”
“You’d be surprised how little that’s true sometimes.”
“What do you mean?”
“Almost anyone would do anything given the right circumstances. The right setting.”
“I don’t believe that. Come on.”
And on, they parried like this—until Don forgot that he was holding his flaccid junk with enough constrictive force to put a small rodent out of its misery. He let go, and, in a strange way, it further confirmed the veracity behind his affection, his limerence really, his adoration of Genevieve. This wasn’t just about lust; to him, their social chemistry transcended beyond base, biological imperatives. An almost religious impunity came upon him—it allowed him to forgive himself for imagining the most grotesque sexual consummation. How could he sully her image like that? He cared about her, why would he ruin that by masturbating behind her back? If she wanted him, she would have him.
Before school let out for winter break, he had hatched a plan to confess his love to Gen. The unrequited obsession had begun to take over his every waking thought, and each day was transmuting into a backdrop, something rendered for the sole purpose of giving color to their impending encounter. But he was too nervous about the ordeal, and her possible romantic rejection felt like the forthcoming sentence of an all-too precarious court trial. No, he would need some kind of distance between her and himself, some sort of intermediary, like that of a computer screen or a tape recording. He decided to write her a letter. He could place it on her car windshield in the senior parking lot, while she was still in class.
And the scribbled note was placed soon thereafter. But Don had not thought about the timing of his drop-off. Winter break was fast approaching, and he feared that his chances of a reciprocated romance were contingent upon his being in her immediate vicinity, as if their would-be relationship consisted of a unique sequence of he-loves-me and he-loves-me-nots, stored in volatile memory, at the mercy of a nearby power source. He’d expected an immediate reply—an acknowledgement from her that he had made some grave error. But the next few days were agony. Travel to any location of note outside of his neighborhood was nigh impossible without several hours of biking, and Don’s parents rarely let him borrow the car; the last time they did, he’d constructed a bong out of a ballpoint pen and a water bottle in the backseat and proceeded to smoke while driving back from his weekly therapist’s appointment (as might be expected, they could smell “Blue Dream” from a mile away).
Winter break began. He had to take his mind away from the situation somehow. Systematically visiting internet bookmarks was always an effective time-waster, but after the first few hours of escape, little could be done to refresh his perspective of the same fifteen web pages. Don wasn’t much of an outside person, but he figured all of this self-perpetuated misery could be channeled into an activity with more palpable results. He decided he would venture beyond his room.
Across a large flatland of auburn chaparral and abandoned cul-de-sacs lay a secluded area he used to visit with his friend, Justin. They liked to take a 30-rack of American piss-water and “knock a few cans back” along the fringes of a nearby copse, leaving their cans behind so that their aluminum dross would remain undetected by their “parental units.” He had rarely dropped by alone however, and almost never during the late-afternoon crepuscule. A rational person would stay in, maybe spend the evening self-medicating with an abundance of processed food and cuticle mastication. But Don’s impulses had already made the decision for him—his legs were halfway down the stairs, and then his hands were twisting open the bronze knob of the front door, and soon enough, he found himself peering off into the purple-tinged horizon, tumbleweed shadows like spidery cardboard cut-outs against dusk-painted scenery. He could make it there in no time, before the bitumen of nightfall had filled the atmosphere.
The area was deserted and prison-like. A ten-foot-high, steel interweave formed the diamond-patterned barrier between him and the rocks below. This was a familiar sight, and not a diminishing one. Underneath the fence ran a miniature ravine of stone-colored asphalt. He gripped the chain links above it and slid through the small sliver, as if he were a foreigner infiltrating a strange nation on the grounds of espionage. This wasn’t far off from the truth—a metal placard warned that trespassers would be prosecuted for infringing upon county land, and he did ritually come down here to “listen to Kenny G” (his friends’ colloquialism for smoking weed) to the lament of the surrounding homeowners. A downward momentum took hold of him as he stood up to brush minute concrete fragments off his trousers and legs, minor annoyances which left Don with itchy, pink craters across his skin. He was starting to slide on the loose bits of gravel, and his shoes had more shine than grip.
When he did slip—not face-forward but with legs bent cosmically upward—his phone sailed through the sky, the screen reflecting a small semaphore of coded glint from the moon, but in a message that seemed to be not one of hope; rather, it hinted that one should turn back before something else broke, like right then. He landed on his back, and stifled any grunt or yelp he might make. In a daze, he lay motionless for a few brief moments, awaiting some sort of nociceptive indication of serious injury or laceration—a broken arm, a cut elbow, maybe even a skinning—but his fears were assuaged after looking at the starry firmament above. Cloudless, open, free. It wasn’t anything like the suburban patch of land that stared back at it.
He got up in one fluid motion and looked down at his body. Nothing out of the ordinary. He looked in the direction of his phone, which had flown toward an assembled pile of granite boulders. Each stone, bleach-white and about the size of a medicine ball, sat atop the bed of a small creek. Looking down the stream into the autumnal overhang of still-yellow leaves (Southern California was always about a season behind), he felt an anxiety growing within him, a hot-air balloon filled with worst-case scenarios rising through the pit of his stomach. Yes, his phone might’ve fell down one of the deep crevices in which each boulder met—even landed safely on the surface of one of them. But another outcome was more likely: the device had fallen into the water, and had been carried off by the stream’s quick current.
His parents were going to kill him.
A frantic hands-and-knees search commenced, his eyes darting back-and-forth across the rocks, all-encompassing darkness greeting him in each nook and cranny of imposing stone. Low visibility under the copse prevented him from peering downstream. So he felt around blindly in the water for a few seconds, and then returned to a search of the rocks beside him. He did this several times, moving forward a few paces in each instance, as if working through the steps of a checklist that required the frantic drudgery of hurried repetition. Another fruitless attempt, and then another. On and on and on. Hope was drifting away from him, beginning to float gently beyond his clutches into the backdraft of time. An intrusive thought hit him: What if she called? The whole scenario was improbable, sure. Still, most of their phone exchanges had taken place after the sun went down, and maybe she had just read the letter now, believing earlier that it was an envelope containing advertisements or coupons or parking tickets or a bribe or something other than what it truly was—the only thing that gave meaning to his existence—and afterwards decided to open it at a more convenient time. This thought gave his search an almost dramatic upswing of determination—arm movements increased in speed, splashes echoed louder, his breathing became heavier, and his jaw clenched in recoil.
Five minutes passed in this din of coordinated movement. Five minutes of obsessive turmoil, of driven regiment, of excited monotony. And then he heard it: a MIDI version of Kashmir that he had set as his ring tone a few months back, still disappointingly tinny and unimpressive despite the original’s misguided aggrandizement of what a Pakistani sojourn might sound like. He cocked his ear to the side so could locate the sound, and saw a flashing light emitting from a pit where four bigger stones kissed.
It was there, alright. Hairline fractures stretched across the phone’s face in spidery tails and chaotic vectors. It was difficult to read past the shattered glass, until the text “Genevieve…Calling” crawled across the screen. His heartbeat skipped rope in his ears, tuned to the rhythmic involuntary convulsions of simultaneous hope and dread; he could hear his body’s acceleration in tempo—moderato, allegro, vivace. It was all over. This was a new beginning. Love was shit. But it was in the air, he was sure of it. He reached into the dark chasm towards the light, and found himself once again inhibited by his family. Had they superior genetics, perhaps they could’ve somewhat increased his odds of hitting the polygenetic jackpot height-wise. Instead, here he was, unable to reach his looming salvation, coming up short, figuratively and literally, with his outstretched hands only inches from what could be a profession of reciprocated, undying love, or an awkward “I don’t really think of you that way” sort of rejection.
And what the hell did this all mean? Here he had come to escape the dark nimbostratus of Genevieve hanging over his head (something he had envisioned as tousled and large as her intentionally disheveled coiffure), and yet even as she called to reveal her feelings, she still managed to keep him teetering in the liminal threshold between resigned dejection and joy. All was unreal, Truman-Show-like, but he felt himself playing the necessary role. He dove headlong into the crevice between the four stones. His fingers were barely able to slide across the screen to answer the call.
“Don? Hello? Da-onnn. Don. Don’t do anything rash now. What’s wrong?”
“Gen…I ca—” He grunted from the pressure of his bones against the jagged, micro-terrain of each rock. He had to speak loudly into the air, since he still wasn’t able to grasp the sides of the device.
“Listen, I got your note.”
“Did you want to talk about it?”
“I do.” He didn’t want talk about it. He wanted to flee into a future in which the hard part of his night was something he could sift through and analyze, as if they were the results of a faulty algorithm he could correct.
“I don’t really know how to say this…God, I’ve never had this happen be—”
Don heard a rustle at the bottom of the cavity. There were eyes, milky and jaundiced, staring back at him like two golden marbles in the tenebrous void. They blinked inhumanly. Their pupils dilated into two black vortexes, beguiling and seemingly magnetic; Don was transfixed not only by their striking emptiness, but the surreal nature of his predicament, and how Gen’s voice converged with the disembodied glare to almost form an off-putting face. What the fuck was this thing down there? He redoubled his efforts to save his phone.
“Look,” his voiced labored, “before you say anything, give me a second to pull this, oh—”
Whatever it was burst from its nook, indeterminate in shape, more of a kinetic suggestion than the distinct outline of a creature, the genus or phylum of which remained anyone’s guess. A sandpaper-lathered-in-vaseline texture impacted the side of Don’s head with the force of tossed orange, leaving him to believe that some sort of amphibian had leaped upward with elastic force. A gelatin-like residue was left behind on his face, and he felt his whole body shudder in momentary disgust. Before he could recollect himself, another hit blinded him. He did his best to scurry out backwards as he heard the ubiquitous choir of dozy croaks growing louder around him. A plainsong of ribbit and groan, a rhythm-less cacophony of mockery. He felt abused by nature, by what little there was of it. With his eyes closed, imagination supplanted everything else—all at once, toads and frogs were marching toward him with sword and shield, their faces sharing a Genevieve-like expression of temerity, her voice channeled through their mouths, distant and tinny, almost as if coming from a phone speaker underwater, drifting downstream in Doppler effect…
He opened his eyes. Higher frequencies fell away from their initial crest as memory took precedence over reality; the remaining semblances of her voice were encoded into electrical signals, neurotransmitters, synaptic longing. They ceased to fill the air around him.
The phone was gone. He never heard, or saw, Genevieve again.
He reread “Araby” for the third time on the plane ride to the east coast. Turbulence and half-imagined death scenarios were the theme of this expedition, and they permeated the cabin’s morale like corpuscular invaders, ready to induce cellular autophagy. But underpinnings of optimism had already been constructed in Don’s mind, and nothing could stir their foundations; he was ready to start a new life, one devoid of hardship, one that embraced the artificiality of man’s surroundings rather than cowering behind planted palm trees and park meadows. No, he was going to a place where he thought no such falsehood existed—Bronx, New York.
He had been accepted to Fordham University as a major in Computer Science. His parents were at first vehemently opposed to him leaving the state—out-of-state tuition was sky-high, and though his parents would never admit this for his sake, they knew they would miss him, but after a little cajoling and the employment of a few familial references to the past (his mother had moved to the Bay Area from Pennsylvania, in order to study English at Berkeley), as well as repeated promises that he would pay monthly for the DIRECT PLUS loans they would have to take out, they’d finally caved in. They made him swear that he would get a part-time job in the city, so that he could have a firm bedrock of saving by the time he graduated. This was an easy concession to make, given that whatever job he worked, there would be no hourly requirement—ten hours a week as an IT assistant for the university’s technical support line would do.
He was ecstatic for periods, but there was something else nagging at him outside the sudden altitude drops. Before he had left, there was another girl, another infatuation. He felt circadian, lapsing into depressive episodes whenever he remembered that he’d left her behind. Her name was Belinda, and he really felt things were going to turn out different after he had met her at a school football game. They talked for hours afterward (in person, no less) and met up every Friday in front of the salt marsh near his house. It seemed like they could chat about anything, and for once in his life, he didn’t feel like had to play a role, or try to act cool—he could be Don. But after a few months of “going steady,” making out under the pallid cast of cloudless dark skies, clinging to each other solely under the cover of night, he began to have that Peter-Weir-esque awareness of looming, romantic cataclysm; things were going too well for him to not to be part of a supernatural hoax or tomfoolery. Every corner he turned, he anticipated a presage of rejection, resentment, defragmentation—maybe an army of frogs this time or, even worse, another guy. He was guarded with her now, cautious but deliberate. He would organize tests of her affection, pushing the envelope as far as how outlandish their outings could be. Belinda had once received a text in the middle of the December, asking her to go to the beach with him at midnight. This was it, a trip so absurd that no one in their right mind would enjoy themselves. But she obliged, and they drove an hour west together toward the beaches of Trestles, a coastal frontline that should’ve been treacherous during this time of year: jagged sedimentary rocks were strewn across tidal topography, poised to slice up any newcomer’s feet; the so-called nuclear “titties” (a twin, globular pair of pressurized water reactors) were close-by; and the surrounding urban enclave would be all but quiet by the time they got there. But when they arrived, they noticed an effulgent sheen of crimson flowing throughout the tide as it smoothed itself onto the shore. Don had read about this—red tide, he was sure of it.
Belinda took this as a planned surprise, and she slipped his hand into his.
“It’s beautiful. I knew you had some reason of bringing me out here.” She kissed him on the cheek.
His test had no longer applied—she loved their get-together. So he would have to orchestrate another one. Soon, it was yet another one. And so on and so on. But he could never isolate the variable; he could never reach the level of clinical precision necessary to test his hypothesis, to transcend falsifiable results. There had to be a way to assuage his fears of abandonment. Maybe he could tell her that he loved her, and that he couldn’t hold back his feelings anymore. He knew it was too soon though. She would be flabbergasted, completely taken aback, nonplussed.
But these tests took their toll on Belinda. Soon, she was seeing him only once every two weeks, and while the occasional text or phone call provided Don with sustenance, he felt as if he were at the brink of exhaustion. This was his life now—balancing on a precipice, a sea of loneliness below.
And then one day in his room, she told him: “I didn’t get into Fordham.”
“Well, yeah. They sent me a rejection letter in the mail. I just opened it today.”
“Shit. That really…sucks.”
“I know.” She looked forlorn, but not crushed—not the way Don expected her to appear.
“You know what? Let’s just pretend this never happened. We’ll just spend time together as if nothing was coming in the future.” As the words left his mouth, he felt their hollowness between his lips, the peregrination of his thoughts as they traversed into a barren desert-scape of hurt. Clutching desperately at the past was an act of present denial, an unwillingness to face the issue at hand; he was aware of this folly, but still the impossible future outcomes were forcing their own hand, circumventing his thoughts, his feeling, and erupting into empty words.
He continued, “Look, I can go somewhere else. Maybe I’ll take a year off, head wherever we decide to go. Get a job, whatever. There are a lot of pos—”
“Don’t be irrational, Don. You have your future. You need to do what’s best for you.”
And there it was. She had failed the test.
He collapsed into a computer chair, and picked up the guitar by his bed. Despondence. The chord strums couldn’t be heard over the dissonant rush of thoughts swarming his head, gnat-like and ubiquitous in manner. She came over and hugged him.
“Look, you seem sad. I thought we weren’t going to get too attached in the first place. You know, keep things casual?”
He thought about this statement. Could caring about someone be filed into the dichotomy of casual/seriousness? Were things really divided this way? He imagined the whole “love” thing as more of a gut-wrenching gradient than anything else.
She stopped answering his calls at first. Then the rest followed: text messages, voicemails, Facebook messages. He received the breakup text two weeks before his flight to Fordham, the form of which was a multi-part scroll of at least four 160-character sections. There wasn’t an optimal method for breaking up with him—this he had calculated in various hypothetical scenarios—but the message’s arrival had run parallel to his friend Justin’s arrival in his driveway (they were going carouse along a few abandoned cul-de-sacs after their ritual imbibement). He tried to keep the news from his friend, but his demeanor was of one of disconnect, of social malfeasance. And as they drank together in the back of a pick-up truck, he couldn’t help but continue reading the series of text bubbles every five minutes or so, as if trying to decipher some maddening cryptogram, some cryptic gesture of “there still might be hope for you and I.” But he found himself grasping at something he could no longer clutch, much in the same way he had once reached for a certain phone a couple of years earlier. Justin did his best to cheer him up, but had little experience in bearing the brunt of a separation—he had always been the separator, and hadn’t dated anyone much longer than three months. His attempts to distract him floundered, yet Don recognized his friend’s good nature. After three or four beers, they were all at once bearing the brunt of a turbulent rainstorm, which Don found so pertinent to his overcast love-life that his situation felt, for an instant, more comic than tragic. He watched as momentary gusts of wind attempted to uproot the encompassing rows of columnar trees. And he imagined himself being pulled off of the ground, jettisoned into free-flight.
He nodded off in the airplane, catching his head before it fell onto his tray, which was not in its upright position, as had been recommended by the flight attendant over the cabin’s intercom. He looked out his window and saw urban development from some 30,000 feet below organized into clusters of light. There were intricacies he would never fathom, people he would never meet; he was scrutinizing NAND circuitry with naked eyes, unable to make out every bead-like capacitor, every microfabricated silicon cast, which formed together to produce something of value as a unified whole, rather than an anarchic tangle of mismatched switches and light.
He ruminated over the details of what had happened to him, but he could not bring them into a cohesive narrative. The only link seemed to be that he was the brunt of some omniscient trickster’s ill-timed prank. Or maybe there was something about him that turned people off, something repulsive that would have to be locked away, neglected, like the child of an abusive father, a man who would attempt to instill repressive behavior at a subconscious level, so that all was automatic, asymptomatic—less human, more ideal. He felt deeply that he was unworthy of love, and that his analytical nature was something to be loathed. This wasn’t him, his over-thinking was driving his brain to faulty conclusions.
“I noticed the seat next to you was empty.” A voice came from behind him. The abruptness of the delivery shattered the illusion that his thoughts were floating around in an empty vacuum, non-liable and non-repercussive.
“Yes?” He turned around. The voice came from a woman in a half-whisper. She was little bit older than he was.
“I was hoping I could move to this seat. To be honest, the guy in the window seat is like, huge and snoring. I’m just trying to catch some shut eye.”
“Well, ummm… Sure.”
She slid into the chair hurriedly, struggling to maintain a hold over several magazines and a tablet in her arms.
“What do you do?”
“I’m a student, I guess.”
“Oh, great. Me too. Where at?”
“Oh, love it over there. So nice.”
“I’ve never actually been. I mean, I’m a new student.”
“What do you plan on studying?”
“Really? Interesting. You don’t seem like a big computer guy.”
“I don’t really know what a big computer guy is supposed to seem like.”
“The stereotype. You know—glasses, patchy beard.”
For the rest of the flight, it felt like an interrogation. A one-way street. He didn’t want to talk about himself, his problems. He wanted the past to decouple from his existence. He wanted the world to bend to a single, systematic proof that spat out consistent results, quod erat demonstrandum. Her name eluded him five minutes into the conversation, and then the edges of existence began to blur as sleep deprivation worked into him like cheap wine.
He was just trying to be nice.
In the terminal, she gave him this kind of sad, sleepy-eyed expression. She told him all of the pleasantries: that it was really nice meeting him, that if he was in town, to stop by whatever college she had said she’d been going to, that she should get going now, that a cab was waiting outside for her, that she usually hated airlines, but that it wasn’t too bad this time, etc. Then there was a pause, as if she expected something; Don knew this was the social cue for an exchange of contact information, maybe even a brief embrace, without a doubt. The moments following were endless, spiraling, purgatorial. His mind churned as a creeping sense of the cyclical dawned upon him. He felt as if a pair of unwavering eyes were set upon his back, and a gladiatorial audience was cackling among the imaginary, curtained wings of the airport surrounding. Dilettantes and troublemakers stared down at him through Galilean binoculars. An MC in a terminal security jacket carried a long-tailed microphone to the center and said, “And without further ado…” All color-gelled lights focused their hollow radiance upon him at the departure gate.
He said and did nothing as she walked away.
Joseph R. Moore is a SUNY Purchase Acting BFA dropout who eventually graduated with a B.A. in Literature/Writing at the University of California, San Diego. His work has largely been in poetry, fiction, and cultural criticism, with verse and prose in online journals such as Bright Lights Film Journal, Switchback, Flatbush Review, and The Magnitizdat Literary. He currently resides in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he is working on a forthcoming novel.