Fiction

Noughts & Crosses

An unsent reply

by
• 3,997 words

  • – – – – – Original Message – – – – –
  • From: <[email protected]>
  • To: <[email protected]>
  • Sent: April 22, 2007 1:16 AM
  • Subject: RE: Hello?

n,

yes yes i did get your email but needed to reflect a little. i’m sorry. and i do think it might be best if i pulled back a little now, i seem to need some space to hear my own breathing, my own thoughts, it is hard when we are always in dialogue. i am sorry if this feels abrupt or my reasons feel vague, they just must be. for one thing, as i guess i implied, i have been asked to keep secrets and want to keep my word. i know you understand. you, after all, are one of my secrets. and as you know yourself and even said, maybe a severing, a temporary severing is what’s best now, for both of you. for everyone involved. please don’t worry about me, i will be all right, i am determined to get through this time. i promise i will get in touch again when i feel i can.

love always,

j

n

As in: never again, never again. That phrase with its cardiac cadence. Slight arrhythmia. A certain tunnelled clump of muscle misbehaving, missing steps or taking clumsy extras, a drunk at the top of the stairs in the dark. When you used the abbreviation before, that n, it was an intimate act, an adoring diminutive, as though to make the beloved compact enough to carry with you secretly. You always found me tall for a woman (too tall?). Now it’s as though you want to avoid repeating my full name: Arnella. Nella. nel. n. To deduct the name down to nothing. Nobody, no one, nowhere, nothing, nought, null, nil.

yes yes

The one thing you would never say in the act was Yes!—it was always O no O no O no O no! when you were getting close, and when I asked if it was because something was wrong, this “thing” was wrong, or was your pleasure (I would like to think so) intense to the point of pain, you went shy and said it was “just what came out—you know” (your favourite lazy phrase) “like when a song shows up in your head and you just, like, let it out? ” I didn’t press the point. I sensed you retreating into your separate memoir of intimate events. I didn’t ask if that was what always “came out,” or only with me. Separate memoirs, former loves. How crowded our bedrooms are these days. (Or not. Not my bedroom. Not these days.) For over a century there was a tunnel extending from the crypt of the main cathedral here, down to the Hotel Dieu, the old Catholic hospital, so the priests could stay indoors in winter when they were called off to see sick parishioners or perform the last rites. A few weeks ago I read about it and for some reason kept wanting to tell you. Why not now. Forty years ago they decided the tunnel was becoming unsafe. They sealed it off at both ends, but the passageway is still there, thirty feet under Brock Street, totally dark, of course, and empty. Sometimes now when I’m alone it hits me.

reflect a little

Five days of this little reflecting. Here is what gnaws me, besides the after-effects of five days of little reflecting on your part and much waiting on mine. What gnaws and haunts me is: whatever passed through your mind in those five (plus) days, all the stuff you decided not to voice, reconsidered, revised, rejected then retrieved, reneged on again, at last deleted. I want it back, the full census of your reflections, a crammed CATscanful, all those references to me, I can’t accept they’re gone, neural flickers like email never sent or lost in transit somewhere in the digital ether we’re all adrift in now. Or: whispers of a couple passing in that tunnel before it was sealed. A pair of nuns, let’s say, lovers on the down low, erotically revved up by the proximity of illness, death. Death’s weirdly elating ultimacy. Did they have torches? A medieval image, cinematic to the point of camp: dark figures hunched, capes wafting, torches in hand, flapping down limestone corridors propped with timber stays for safety, as in a mineshaft. Our lovers must feel unnerved, even so. They are crossing so many lines. The anxiety of the crime makes one notice other dangers everywhere. And safety measures always seem to whisper: some day we will fail! It feels safer where there are no measures. And either way, in their presence or absence, no safety.

i’m sorry

Sorry, maybe, because there were no reflections? You’d made up your mind? You’re sorry that you stalled about breaking the news, is all? They say that from the bottom of a deep hole, you can see the stars shining even at noon. I never trust those little factlets from the Globe; still, it’s good news for the dead.

and I do think it might be best

Italics mine. But even without the italics (it’s my ethnic privilege to overuse them) your implication here is that I made the suggestion in the first place! Actually, of course, I did: “If you need me to pull back now, I will.” Naturally I didn’t mean it, though. Didn’t want you to accept. Wanted you to say O no O no O no O no! What’s more, you must have known I didn’t mean it—you just pretended to take the words at face value to give yourself a convenient out. Lovers are the world’s only honest people, according to certain poets and sages. Ho ho ho. I’m nostalgic for the salad days, grad and postgrad in the late ’70s and early ’80s, York and ubc, when it was an article of faith (if not experience) in our circle that straight lovers, bourgeois lovers, were the only dishonest ones. T[he] on/lie dys/honest ones.

That stage of life when confidence depends on culprits.

Oh, to have both back.

i seem to need some space

But, but I thought we were bitter opponents of platitudes, you and I; we agreed that our love was not like any other love (italics mine, quote yours, email 64, line 17: I am now chief archivist of your intimacies), and to consecrate and, as you would say, “honour” this singularity, we agreed that we would never speak of our love in clichés. We smogged the air with exalted vows like that. Teenage summer lovers in a song by The Boss. So, maybe a return to cliché is a neatly symmetrical way to shut things down… to deconsecrate our love, the way they do with those churches whose flocks have died off or moved to Palm Beach, so the buildings can be converted to meeting halls or museums or daycares. Ever wondered how they deconsecrate a cathedral? I really should know, after a quarter century in my field. (A century, one learns, is a small thing.) A choir assembles for the last time, chanting in discord, an infernal chorus. At the altar a bishop exhausts the full roster of religious obscenities. The organist, wild-eyed, riffs on anthem-rock standards, Queen, Gary Glitter, the Sweet, as if playing at a hockey rink.

j, my j, you’ve recanted.

Shouldn’t “recant” mean “to sing again”?

to hear my own breathing

If I woke in the night, the precious nights I had you here, I was always taken aback at how hard it was to detect your breaths. Even when you were deeply out (pretty much always) your breathing was delicate; once or twice I almost panicked, you know how the mind works at night, and there were always those footlights of unease around our meetings, fear of your husband interrupting our, uh, tutorial with a call, so that panic could feed on puny fears and several times I actually put the back of my hand to your open mouth to feel the breaths. Then my mouth next to yours to breathe them in. That close, I found you breathing, of course, calm and profound, with the faintest alto wheeze low in your chest, under your bare breasts, which were pillowed one over the other as you lay furled on your side. Your breath smelled fine, spicy, with a subtle finish of garlic and Syrah. Then one night it changed. That’s how I knew we were coming to an end. More conventional signs had arisen as well—your canned laughter, diluted gaze, undilated pupils—but that was how I knew: the last two nights your breath turned sour in your sleep. Changes deep inside, where I couldn’t reach. I wonder about the air in that blocked tunnel, after forty years of disuse. Is oxygen stable or does it deteriorate over time? I wouldn’t know. Your husband would. Could toxic fumes have seeped in through the limestone? If the ends were unblocked tonight, could we still walk through it and breathe? How long does a closed-off tunnel remain a possible route?

always in dialogue

To you it may have felt that way. You’re the one with other allegiances. (More of them, maybe, than I thought.) A day came when I abandoned my latest stalled article to check email—still dial-up then—maybe thirty times, hoping for a reply. You must have been reflecting a little. Finally I just remained online, waiting. I answered a few other “urgent” emails that I’d left to ripen for days, maybe weeks. That took some time. I’ve never learned, like you, to crash out a reply, in lowercase, in the current electronic shorthand that I am still not used to—insulting!—though I see it all the time from my students : ) Did those. Waited. Stared at the empty inbox and willed a message to appear. For quite some time I stuck it out. Funny, I’ve never once sat staring at the phone, though you would sometimes phone me. Staring at a phone seems somehow goofier. A screen is meant to be stared at. Things are meant to appear there. Maybe I could induce you to write me. Eventually I took the modem cord and slunk the three flights down to the lobby and locked it in the morgue-like drawer of my mailbox. Came upstairs for a double Campari and soda. Left the cord down there for a good half-hour.

i am sorry if this feels abrupt or my reasons feel vague, they just must be

Oh and another nice thing about email: you are always sitting down to read it. No more Puccini swoons, buckling to the floor with the farewell letter clenched in one hand, the other cupping the brow. Instead, you settle deeper in your chair. The world stops entering your mind through the senses. You’ve been sealed off with your obsession, and shame. my reasons must be kept vague. I always knew there were truths you wouldn’t tell me, so I avoided entering certain corridors of inquiry; but there was also an implication, about the two of us, that we just knew—we UNDERSTOOD. William Burroughs said that gay love differs from straight love because a queer lover (“homosexual” was how he put it, I believe) always knows what the other is thinking and feeling, while a straight lover never does. Hmmm… better that I did my thesis on Bloomsbury and Woolf, instead of (a quip over cocktails, long ago) Bloomsbury & the Beats: Points of Unexpected Comparison.

as i guess i implied

Didn’t we make a pact never to do this sort of thing? To guess and imply? To become, in each other’s sight, hazy at the margins by delivering half-truths? That’s how people deconsecrate themselves, from human into something less. Spectres. Cyborgs. Didn’t I mention this opinion? Not that you listened well, ever. Speaking of blockages. Consider the ears of the egoist…

Now, as I listen, trying to peer through this blockage, I wonder if you are alone. There’s your husband, of course, but he doesn’t count. Two daughters. Neither do they. For the purpose of this madness only somebody else counts. (Especially if female.) You told me I was the first woman you had been with. Is there another now?

Have I created a monster?

i have been asked to keep secrets

The cathedral’s literature (I went and took one of their tourist leaflets; lit a lampion for the hell of it) gives no clue as to how, or with what, the passageway was sealed.

i know you understand

See above under Burroughs, William.

you, after all, are one of my secrets

One of your… excuse me? I thought this was an exclusive engagement! Now I’m no longer your secret, I’m one of your secrets? Um, are your secrets a clique now? A category? A women’s collective? All on the same level… Maybe your secrets should all be more civil about this. Maybe they should get used to one another. Your secrets are “all in this together”… no rank, no priority, no hierarchy of closeness… it’s a sorority, a full democracy of secrets!… The one exact thing that love isn’t.

as you know yourself

Oh, I do. One of us had to end it. The question is: who began it, Janet? Another reference that dates me and, by omission, you. We have all the particulars. The year (2002). The season (summer). The place (Kingston). The course (Religious Imagery in Popular Culture and Contemporary Women’s Fiction), and you in semi-attendance to steal time—admit it, finally, you’re a dabbler, a summer slummer—away from your aphasic husband and colicky twins. When you went back to Winnipeg in the fall, I assumed it was over, but the thing wouldn’t die. Since then I’ve propped everything on your annual holiday here in the Thousand Islands.

maybe a severing

New word for an old context. Feels more honest than “spend a little time apart,” anyway. And honesty is what we all want at such times. But severing—there is a hard word. I’d never noticed the “severe” in it before. Or really heard the sound of it before. SEVering. The oiled blade sliding down to separate head from body with a blunt, chunky sound.

a temporary severing

Whew! For a minute there I thought it was permanent! As if it was in the very nature of severings to be that way… But a moment’s reflection allows us to generate any number of counter-examples. In the fatal crash, the victim’s spinal cord was temporarily severed. As the glaciers retreated, rising seawaters temporarily severed Asia from North America. Alas, it proved necessary to sever the miner’s gangrenous limb temporarily. Somehow the bungee jumper’s cord was severed in mid-leap—but only temporarily!

for both of you

You always wrote your emails fast, furtively, late at night or early in the morning, and there were always misspellings or little misprisions like this one. “Both of us,” I assume you meant. You and me. Because there aren’t two people hereabouts, in my world, my room. All the same… maybe you did half-mean that I’ve been as split apart as you. Between wanting to respect your family commitments and wanting you all to my lonesome? Nope: between wanting not to violate the current student-teacher protocol (which I always supported and still believe in and which the dying white males of the department, just them, allegedly, still flouted when they could) and wanting to violate, repeatedly, you.

for everyone involved

Everyone! How did they get into this again? How I detest them! From the moment a love starts, Everyone is clamouring to get in, huffing and prodding, mobbing the door that a new couple seals fast and barricades—Everyone trying to peep through, push through, leaving messages, making demands. I should have known Everyone would get to us. They always do.

Over and over I’ve lived my life for those days before they do.

i am determined to get through this time

The ambiguity! It makes me insane! How many times have I been over this one, trying to uncrate it? You are determined to ride out this painful, severe time in your life? Or: you are determined, this time, to get through? Let it be the first option! Let it be that this hurts you as much as it hurts me. Let this not be yet another unacceptable revelation—that our affair wasn’t your first of the kind. You said it was. Now, you might be saying there was another time and you didn’t get through it—never got over him. Or her. Other times? Who. Who. This vision of multitudes barging into your inbox, your bedroom, your body.

i will get in touch again when i feel i can

What’s this if not a melodramatic way of saying, Don’t call us, we’ll call you? My people will call your people. My multitudes will call your solitude… but don’t hold your breath. (Whatever remains in that sealed place.) Cave exploration is something you always said you wanted to try out. I can hardly bare to use the correct, ridiculous term. Spelunking. I spelunk, you spelunk. We will spelunk. She had spelunked. So we’ll go no more spelunking. Partly this is why I keep bringing up that sealed tunnel. Not as some elaborate genital metaphor, but because I know you would be interested and maybe want to explore it. Count me out, though. Daredevils come in aerial or subterranean form. How many folks do you know who have both skydived and spelunked? Doesn’t happen. When you would talk about spelunking, I would counter with skydiving, my own potential deathwish-hobby. We had to compromise on the earth’s surface—on driving really, really fast those few times we were far from Everyone together. Rental cars are good for that: convertibles. A Thelma & Louise outtake, except people probably took me for your aunt, or duenna. Remember the highway into the Cypress Hills? How amazed you were that such committed flatness could collect itself into hills—small mountains, our ears popping as we drove—the way your life seemed to be climbing up from the plains of your comfortable present onto high ridges of possibility…

love always

But there’s hope here, isn’t there, there’s not just a name, and not just “love”—no, it’s “love always,” even if there is the one conspicuous, crushing change, the absence of your usual starburst of xxxxxooooo’s. Or xoxoxoxo. It always varied. I go back through the emails now (printed out, of course—there’s a paper trail after all, sweetie, though you prudently avoided writing letters)—I pore over them again, studying, tabulating the details of the x and o firework-finale in all your emails, 158 in all, but especially the last twenty or so. I am trying to track the decline. How does the end enter? Where does it get in? In your most passionate note (I won’t say email), right after the Cypress Hills Escapade, there were no less than ten x’s and seven o’s. (Why fewer o’s than x’s? Why stint like that on the o’s? And what are x’s and o’s anyway? Kisses and embraces, embraces and kisses. We argued about which were which. To both of us it seemed obvious, a matter of common sense and common knowledge, and we were stunned, in a loving way, by the other’s ignorance. You said, “O is the lips open for a deep kiss, X is the arms crossed over the embraced lover’s back.” Touched by this effort I replied, “Ingenious but wrong. O is the circle of the embracing lover’s arms, X is the eye of the lover, the eyes, closed, X-ed out in the rapture of the kiss.”)

Love as a game of noughts and crosses.

Nine emails before the end, I find all my love, j, xxxoooxx. Again this marked privileging of x over o. (Five and three.) Five messages before the end, Love forever, j, xxxxoo. (Four and two.) Three messages before the end, o makes something of a comeback, outnumbering x for the first time in many missives, Love, j, ooxxxooo. In fact, the total number of signs here, eight, suggests if anything a strengthening of passion! Next, email 156, where o makes its final strong showing, my love, j, ooxoo—with the lone x almost lost among those still fervent hugs (or kisses???). Number 157, the second-last, shows this tic-tac-toe showdown entering its endgame, although the salutation—yours always, j, ox—almost seems to cancel out that lack.

j

I’m to be spared the final humiliation. You’ll remain j to me, not Janet-Marie. In signing off, you could have withdrawn that intimate, tiny link between us, that hook lodged in my heart, and keyed in your full name. You chose not to; something does remain unsevered. And after all, if the Greek in the labyrinth (you never remember the names), slowly unwinding his ball of yarn so he could find his way back, had accidentally cut the thread—maybe on a cornering wall where a sharp edge of stone jutted—he might have sensed it break and groped his way back in the darkness, feeling for the lost end and finding it, splicing the yarn, persevering. We’re back in the tunnel, you see. Despite my fear, I think I would go down and explore it with you, if they ever opened it up again. I am drawn to a fantasy of fucking you there, maybe in a side tunnel or cul-de-sac, tugging you away from the tedious tour group with its silly costumed guide to make slow, wordless love in the kind of darkness people never really do it in. What would that be like? To have not the faintest glimpse or inkling of the one beside you, above you, below you? So the orgasm I’d give you, the way you liked it best, would star the gloom, seeming to project on the walls a brief, grand, enveloping galaxy. There we would be our own source of light. I don’t want to see anything now. Darkness is far from the worst. Your note is very short. Worst is the whiteness of most of the printout under that j. So I’ve filled it and other pages, your faithful annotator and emptied teacher, with these notes, endnotes, that our dialogue not die.

Steven Heighton recently added Workbook: Memos and Dispatches on Writing to his many works of fiction and poetry.