Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Mirage

Recently, NPR had been hosting a contest that they call the "3 Minute Fiction" contest, in which contestants were challenged to write a short story that could be read in 3 minutes (less than 600 words). A couple of my friends and I said that we were going to try and enter the contest. Ideas Man and Chet actually submitted an entry, unlike myself, and all three of us have posted our products on our blogs. (Ideas Man's entry is called "Pentaccosted" and Chet's is "Digging Holes." Both of them are excellent.) Anyway, the most recent qualifying round required authors to write a 600-word-or-less piece that included the words "fly," "button," "trick" and "plant." (According to the official rules, those words could be used in any way, i.e., as nouns, adjectives, verbs, etc.) I tried very hard to construct a fictional story that met all of the requirements before the deadline, to no avail. But, since I've got a sort-of piece written anyway, I thought I'd share. Fastidious readers will notice that it doesn't include any variation of the word "button" (strike one) and also exceeds the 600 word limit by a few words (strike two). I'll leave it up to you whether or not the actual quality of the piece costitutes a third strike. Anyway, here it is:


Often you said that I was too old to be behaving the way I do, but you didn’t mean it. What you meant to say, in that characteristically maddening and stubborn way that you have always not said what you meant, was that you were too old. I was not that old at all, nor was my behavior in any special way incongruous with whatever count you may make of the rings inside me, should you ever have bothered to cut me in half like a Virginia Pine and number my years by that vivisection. This particular time, though, the time right before I opted for rage in the form of betrayal, you also said you were disappointed. I believed that part. I believed that you weren’t tricking me, this time, into believing there was some secret approval, coy but affectionate, hidden behind your judgment.

You’ll remember, I’m sure, that we were to fly to Philadelphia together for the weekend. I was to leave my laptop and ungraded papers at home. You, as promised, your spreadsheets and files. But then my friend died, and there was the funeral. Your client balked at your committee’s proposal, and meetings were rescheduled. One of us probably fell ill, in that vague and undiagnosable way that people like us often do, victims of stress and exhaustion, not real pathogens. Our best-laid plans were derailed. And so we agreed, yes, it’s better to just travel separately. We’ll meet in Philadelphia, we said.

The seduction of that mirage was our siren song.

Of course, I’ll never know what really happened. And because we haven’t spoken of it since, because we haven’t spoken at all, because we most likely never will speak again, you cannot possibly know what really happened, either. My decision, the fateful one, was like a dive off a pier into an unfamiliar lake. Its unplumbed depth, its hidden dangers, invisible and unknown as they are to the jumper, inspire in equal parts seduction and apprehension. I was always like a moth to the flame of both those parts. You, or so I thought, never.

This is how I remember our last conversation. It wasn’t even a real conversation. We communicated with each other, that last time, through text messages. Curt, instrumental, ungrammatical, insensitive to nuance and need, all that the medium allowed. The last conversation always, unfortunately, stains the memory with a kind of chromatic deadness. I think it went something like this.

You said, “After the meeting, I’m going to happy hour down the street with my colleagues. I won’t be late. Stop by my place, since otherwise I won’t see you tonight and your flight leaves tomorrow.”

I said, “I’m going out with friends. We’ll probably drink a lot and stay up late playing music. I likely won’t make it to your place tonight.”

You said, “You’re too old to be behaving like that. I’m disappointed.”

I didn’t respond.

What I did do, instead, was feel guilty. As a consequence of that, I went to surprise you, or so I thought, by showing up at your happy hour. I saw you there that night, though you didn’t see me, and I had already had too much to drink. And so, what I thought I saw, though I’ll never know for sure, was a betrayal. I was enraged. I was enraged by what I thought I saw and I was enraged by your pretense of disappointment.

I didn’t board my flight in the morning, on purpose. And I thought to myself, as I did not board:

Stupidly, sadly, even when we don’t really believe it, we will still traipse through a desert to drink from a mirage.


DOCTOR J said...

I should have added: Comments and criticisms welcome.

rebelcellist said...

Just pointing out, that Idea Man's story is actually titled "Pentaccosted"... you've left out the 't'.

Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...

Ok, first comment: totally unrelated to the story but perhaps relevant as I'll argue in a sec: one of Ideas Womans' cousins won't text because of the fact that her divorce took place over text messaging.

Which gets me to the thing I love about this story --- I think you've done an amazing job in 600 words in evoking a universal (almost cliched --- but I mean that in a good, Blanchotian way) emotion in a totally contemporary setting --- the plan to meet somewhere via plane, the text messaging. But the ideas conveyed in them are universal, almost iconic.

I hesitate to ask whether if any of this is autobiographical, though I'll admit that I couldn't help but reading it that way. I don't know if that comes from knowing you and so conflating the "I" of the narrator with the author, or if it has to do with the immediacy, the knowingness of the way the narrator's "I" talks to the "you" (but then, I'm a sucker for second person --- see Soul Mountain)

And I totally agree that we should come up with a contest. Now that I'm freer than I was over the semester (and I think that'll be true for you and Chet too), we should have more time to figure it out.