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"What Do You Want Me to Say Here?" short story excerpt

Saturday 7/2/22

Have you ever known someone whose most viscerally true form of interaction with you feels like it should induce a response that goes, “What do you want me to say here?”

After several periods of much breakage, over which my central and abiding knowledge of myself consisted of how fractured I had become, I met a woman a dozen years my junior. She was someone you had to try and get yourself to call a woman, because it was hard not to think of her as a person who’d always be a girl. She’d be a girl at thirty-seven and fifty-three. The context in which she’d grown up, though, and the school environments where she’d been placed, meant that she didn’t talk the way other people talked. You could have mistaken it for more meat on the bone. A casual, unforced reference to Tolstoy was her ordinary. She used words instead of abbreviations.

“I’m so embarrassed to tell you about my past,” she said, meaning the course of the last year. “It was so debauched.”

I had a feeling I was at a dress rehearsal in which clothes were donned for the purpose of being ceremonially removed, but I had already decided to stick around, and come back tomorrow for the proper show.

“People change,” I thought, not really meaning it. “They grow,” I supplemented, meaning that less. “I can hasten and inform the change!” I’d shifted to myself by then. Not because I wanted to, but because it wasn’t going to work, though I was still going to try.

“I’ve been with two guys at the same,” she asserted. “And a boy and a girl a different time.”

It’s hard to encounter someone who may be different than most people. In any way. If that’s what you need, because you are. They would be someone you “chance upon.” Which sounds Medieval, the stuff of a quest. Epic. Souls sag and souls sigh. They do both with quests—which isn’t to say quests are bad, but rather that they take a lot out of you, let alone a quest that feels like it is always just starting.

I had grown used to thinking of my heart as having a spreadable component. You could put it on things. Bread. The wall. A stuffed fish. The webbing between your fingers. We were getting to know each other as people who had an itinerary. The way an itinerary works is, some people are really committed, and other people view it as a framework they can ditch, because it’s just a piece of paper in your pocket, same as the receipt from the CVS, or the gum wrapper, if you’re fastidious about not littering.

I tried not to think, and halt the envisioning, though I do more of it now, and imagine the arrangement of the bodies, the sentences spoken, the sight lines and patterns of eye contact, the instructions if any, and it frustrates me that what I see in my head isn’t close to how I’m able to believe any of it went down.

Later, and for years after I knew her, I recalled the quality of boast in her voice. The triumph. It was a nice achievement for her. You know what it reminds me of, actually? Duke Ellington. He had a compilation of his music called Never No Lament. I think of that title, and how the truth of anything often emerges in the form of double-negatives. You don’t even need words.

There’s a teenage girl in my building. Arty girl. Wears Sticky Fingers-era Rolling Stones shirts and watches Bergman films. She tells me about the books she reads and music she’s listening to because she knows what I do for work. We give each other a fist bump in the hall in passing. I ask how she’s doing or what’s going on. I’m not just greeting her. I’m actually asking, if she wanted to answer the question. Sometimes she’ll text. She has a list of films she’s watched, with the names of the director and the year they were released next to them. She’s proud of this list.

I used to keep lists like that. For the baseball cards from the 1930s I wanted to acquire someday. The birds I’d seen in person over the course of a summer. The Bob Dylan bootlegs in my collection.

She’ll text me the updated versions of her list every twenty-five films or so. I’ve never asked for these installments, but I like to see them. She’s on a Tod Browning kick now. A few days ago, she told me she was listening to a lot of Bad Brains, and was worried she’d pop her arm out of her shoulder socket because she danced so hard to them in her room, and they were the shit.

“But they’re probably too loud for you,” she said.

I texted her back some links to a few shows and records with a high-volume quotient: the Jesus and Mary Chain in 1985, a Sonics LP, the Who at Charlton in 1976, the first Blue Cheer album. She didn’t say anything other than the Sonics were rad. She already knew them.

I have this nightmare about my ex-wife. She was the person I trusted most in the world. More than my parents. More than my closest friend. Normally when someone says that there’s some reservation they have with those other people, because you’ve known your parents longer than anyone, and have both faith in, and knowledge of, their unconditional love for you. Your best friend has been in place for an age, too, and you’ve been through a lot together. You talked to them when there was an issue with your parents, but not the other way around, which has a curious way of leveling the playing field—not that any playing field is every completely level. There are examples one can think of, in theory, where the trust might have dipped. It can be over something they did for your own good. I suspect when someone has an intervention staged on their behalf, that they don’t quite trust the person behind it the same way again. Even if it plays a role in saving their life. There will always be that ambush connotation. They got you to come over their house under false pretenses. The air conditioner did not really need carrying up to the attic for off-season storage. But I didn’t have any such examples. I had a lot of trust.

We’re in a jungle, but the jungle is in a capacious room of ill-defined width, which is partially because of the darkness, for it is a moonless night, or it could be that the moon hammered into the ceiling has been painted over.

We’ve been dropped in a situation where we are about to die. I know we are being pursued, but I am not sure by what. Lions. Men. I have a sensation of the relevance of teeth and spears, but more so this infiltrating theme of incoming sharpness. Triangulated points of piercing that one cannot predict. They won’t be what you think they’re going to be. All theories will be vaporized.

It’s the first time we’ve seen each other in ten, twenty years. I just know that the amount of time is however long it has really been, and will always be. I want to look at her and see if she looks old, but I’m concerned I’ll still find her beautiful. Or the age is a new element to beauty. Or if I can’t see her as any way but beautiful, and I need to either never look again, or accept it.

We’re locked in the room. I’m hesitant to try and wrestle with the door as hard as I might in order to get it to open. It’s going to let in all of this light, which is one thing, but then we’ll also be in a different spot once we step free and shut it behind us, which is another, and I don’t want to have that conversation in comparatively calm, stilled air, because I don’t know if I’ll curse her, or just walk away, having so much to say that I don’t say, and which I’m already thinking about saying the next time, knowing there won’t be one. I can go back, but I will stay on the path I find below my feet, counting down the seconds where I know it’d still be possible for us to turn and see each other.

She’s yelling so loudly—but her voice nonetheless registers at a low level so that I have to strain to hear, stilling my breath to do so—that blood comes out of her mouth, from whatever it is that has torn inside.

“We need to get out,” she says. I can’t tell if the spittle on my lips is hers or mine. Everything else can wait until later, is the implication. But there isn’t anything else.

“What do you want me to say here?” I ask.

I only let the words be spoken in this dream. They sound reasonable, but also like words that would not work in real life, and that is another jolt of the terror.

She scratches at the edges of the door, frantic. She exists to get away. Her fingernails start to break off, her hands flake into balls and shavings of wet clay, and part by part her body dissolves. In that process, she’s moving through the crack at the edge of the door. I don’t know if she’s dead or a ghost. Or if she were really there, even in the dream. I know I’m having the dream, but that does not reduce the immersive totality of the experience. It’s just a thought, like when you first consciously note that it has started to rain, and you put your hand out to check, but you 100% know that you’ve begun to get wet.


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