I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Once upon a time there was a man who did not have something and there was a woman who had something. Of course, the man had plenty of other things that the woman did not have.
When the woman met the man who had come across the ocean from an island far away, when they met on either side of a vast table in a room overlooking a quad stuffed with ancient trees, they sensed across the space that each had a thing that the other did not have, a component in their make-up that was missing.
Outside the windows the trees stood still, but inside the pigeon-grey room there were scrapings and murmurs and stirrings: the agitation of a meeting. After the refreshments, everyone took up their favorite positions to defend their favorite positions.
—“Complete honesty spells complete disaster,” one person would aver, to a round of knowing laughter.
—“When in doubt, stick to the rules,” ventured someone else.
—“That’s true, but I want to go one deeper,” would say a third.
—“I’d go deeper than everyone else,” said the chairman, “if there was anywhere to go. Let us begin.”
When it was the man’s turn to speak at the meeting where they met, a ripple of raised eyebrows passed around the table like a breeze rippling through a field of wheat, while the crusading blue of his eyes sang out like the blue of cornflowers in a field of wheat. And as he spoke her eyes held firm, and for a fraction of a second they held his.
And from that moment on, they sensed that there were things that they shared, which were the most important of all, and were not so much things as ideas about the way things could be. And because of those things that they shared, the man tried to have the woman work in the place where he worked whenever he could, since it was in his power to do so. And the woman tried to clear a space in her mind to which she could bring him, since it was in her power to do that.
Trains crashed and buildings crumbled and bridges collapsed in the great grey city where they lived, and battles were fought and lost or battles were fought and won, depending on which side you were. And the man moved his field of operations from the north of the island to the south of the island, because that was where they wanted him to be, and he had her be there with him.
—“I’ll take them as far as they want to go,” she said when he called in with a report from the field.
—“That’s exactly what I told them, in so many words,” he said. “And me too, you should take me.”
—“Yes,” she said.
—“And I’ll take you. We”ll take each other.”
—“Yes,” she said again, “how far will that be?”
Now when they talked his face would flush and his eyes would glisten and tear, either because of what he was saying or because he no longer had anyone to listen to his battle woes, which were legion.
Around that time, a job needed doing outside her own job to help move things along, which was writing out words on cards in bold type and slipping the cards inside plastic sleeves. It was a repetitive job, but she needed the work, and pretty soon relief segued into enjoyment without skipping a beat. And while she marked the cards, he would go through his papers and put them in order, and after the filing he would get to the letters and memos short and long, and there was always more to do and always more to be done.
When they were together in a room working on separate things there was no strain or strife between them and there was a kind of easy companionship that felt very akin to what you might feel if you were spending time with someone you knew well. It was a feeling of feeling comfortable with the person and of time going by very pleasantly and smoothly from early in the morning to late into the night with no obstructions and just light conversational gambits, off the cuff remarks that were neither too light nor too serious but in between and would occasionally open things that mattered to them in their work, and they would tell each other stories.
A feeling of being comfortable with. And the man would make suggestions as to what he needed. He would say, for instance, where can I get this thing fixed? Or, I wonder how to get this text translated? The woman knew where to get the thing fixed and how to change his words into the language that he wanted because it had been her language as a child. So she got the thing fixed because she lived in a factory where there was a worker who could fix things and who needed extra money too. And the man would act surprised and delighted when the dead inanimate thing he had bought for a dollar at the flea market suddenly sprung to life, its propeller blades spinning so fast it was like a whir of wings that took off and set him free and kept him cool during the long hot summer months. She couldn’t see the blades spinning, but she could see the happiness in his eyes, and it made her want to see it again.
And he would do things for her too. He would serve delicious coffee in fine cups and a light lunch with different colored vegetables and other good things on a flat dinner plate, and after they couldn’t work any longer they would go out from the lobby of the building where he lived and take off into the smoldering darkness of this grave city.
In between the end of the story and the beginning of the story the story had a middle, just as he had a middle, a circumference which would have been too broad for her arms to encircle if that had ever come up, which it didn’t, but which she’d always wanted to measure anyway because that was the kind of person that she was. He liked to count and she liked to measure. He preferred to call it a rotundity, and it was the reason that he hardly ever got up out of his chair except for the time when he came to see her, unshaven and with no socks on, one Sunday morning after he’d done the laundry and before he’d taken his shower, the time they were closest to anything happening between them. She sensed that something might happen and she was so determined not to let it, not to let anything happen that might disturb the fragile moments they had had between them that she didn’t invite him upstairs but went down instead to where he was waiting in the street, promising to herself all the while that nothing was going to happen. It can’t, it can’t, I promise it won’t, she said to herself. And so it went on for a while with her promising and promising but all the while wanting, wanting, wanting, nothing so much as a look, a smile, a word of recognition that they had felt comfortable together and that they would again.
There were plenty of things that happened in the middle between the beginning and the end and in looking back it seemed like an escalation, first of good things then of bad, like the steps of a staircase that went up and then came down though at the time they had seemed more like isolated discrete occurrences unrelated to each other but only to her and to him.
One day at the end of the summer when they were in season she bought a sunflower for a dollar at the corner store because she thought it would be nice to see it in the lobby of the building where they worked, with its sheath of petals glowing like a golden crown around the deep brown stamens in the center. It would make you think of all the things you didn’t normally think of when you stepped off the elevator and checked your mail in the mailboxes to the right before you sloped off down the corridor to your tiny office to the left, like whole fields of flowers and the mistral and pearly blue skies and sunshine waning your forehead like butter and the aquamarine blue of the Mediterranean. When she asked the receptionist, a nice woman, where she should put the flower, the receptionist said, oh, don’t put it here, give it to him instead, and she saw that the receptionist was right because the man loved the flower with real love, and tended it with care for many days to the end of its life, and even beyond.
Naturally, he provided a climate that was warm and welcoming for these things to happen, otherwise they wouldn’t have happened. And all the things that she did do were done to reflect her consciousness of where things were at at the time between them, and the things that she couldn’t say acted as the undertow or the subtext or the story: they were the story.
On the day that she called him up, it was a Monday, to tell him that the lamp which he had asked her to fix was fixed, but that you had to hold the switch down a long time before it went on, he said yes, that was all right, he knew, they were all like that, it was an old library lamp and you always had to wait a while, maybe ten seconds, for the bulb to be fired up. He said he would come over and pick it up himself the next day, a Tuesday, but she said if he was busy she could bring it over on Saturday when they would be working, and he said, oh no, he would pick it up long before that, he needed to get out and stretch his legs. Every time he said something to her in a certain tone of voice she believed that it represented a real intention, a real belief, and she expected him to act on it but he never did, he never did come to pick it up so she kept it lit on her desk until it grew roots and it really seemed that it belonged there and she was loath to relinquish it.
The lamp had a base and a fluted stem and a narrow fluorescent bulb shielded by a wide horizontal shade and it gave off this even shadowless bluish white light that was just the right amount of illumination for her desk. Because it looked so good on her desk, the woman photographed the lamp in different ways and gave him one of the photos. The photo showed the lamp surrounded by all the objects that were familiar to her but not to him, an Oriental fan, pencils and pens in a jar, spiral bound notebooks, a boy holding a goldfish at the fair, Hitchcock with his index finger on his lips, the sun in a total solar eclipse.
So now the man still did not have his lamp but he had an image of his lamp ensconced on someone else’s desk, her desk, surrounded by other images of things that meant something to her but not to him and gradually, gradually it made him angry that this thing which was his was there and not on his own desk at home, which was where it should be and why he had bought it in the first place.
One day the man got up and left his house and walked down the street and stopped in front of her building. In front of the building he stared up at the windows, yet he couldn’t bring himself to shout her name so that she would look out of the window and come down and open the door, because he knew that if he saw her he would not be able to break the news of what he was planning to do, which was to pick up his lamp but at the same time take away the thing he had given her because it had been in his power to do so and he had wanted to.
When he got back to his desk the next day the photo was still there, hinting in its own insidious way at what it was she wanted. Whatever it was, he wouldn’t be able to give it to her because he was in a place where everyone wanted something from him, and very simply it was impossible for them all to have it at the same time.
So the man thought up a plan. He would send someone else to pick up the lamp so that he wouldn’t have to confront her.
Things went well between the man and the woman and then things went not so well and eventually things became totally unstuck and then the man wielded his club with all his strength and took away from the woman the thing that he had given her in the first place which was an opportunity to work because, after all, that was all he could take away from her that would really hurt her, and by now he wanted to hurt her. Yes, he wanted to cut her loose and to cast her adrift in the outside world. He didn’t want her inside this world which he was trying so desperately to control and have go in a certain direction, he didn’t want her observing his actions, his reactions, his interactions. He wielded his club and it made him feel strong because he had done something clean and clearcut. He had made a decision and he had acted on it quickly. It was one of the few decisions that he could make on his own without consulting a battery of other people for their approval. He could do it on his own, without even consulting anyone about it at all. It made him feel he was in charge, that he had some authority in the place for once. And he could act unilaterally without fear of reprisal either from her or from anyone else.
Oh, she said after he had thundered at her from his throne, I’ve stayed and I’ve listened and I understand your fears and your suspicions and your dilemmas and that the ground is being pulled from under your feet but now may I speak? Now will you hear me out? I want you to breathe the air that I breathe. I want to let you into my world so that we understand each other.
—“If you turn off your stopwatch you can have as long as you want,” he said.
—“Oh,” she said, the woman said, “I know that you will let your better half prevail, your calm, sane, lucid half, your idealistic, generous, persistent, entrepreneurial half, your pragmatic, knot unraveling half, and that you will not let the weight of the system crush you, swamp you with the enormity of its problems, rob you of sunlight, of sleep, of meals, of quiet time, of productive days and peaceful nights, with its litany of incessant needs, its quibbles and complaints, its fiscal illogic and inherent contradictions, its constant betrayals and unpredictabilities, its shifts in gear and never-ending succession of crises, its irreconcilable demands.”
Oh, she said, when they parted and he handed her the letter, couldn’t they come up with something different, couldn’t they come up with something else since he had already let her go and brought her back twice from different institutions and for no real reason except he had let her slip between the bureaucratic cracks. He had let her slip between the cracks just as the people at the place they worked said they’d slipped between the cracks.
Oh, she said quietly now with the anger cruising deep down like a submarine, you’re trying to cut me out of your life. I live in your heart and I live in your head, and for that, for the place that I have in your head and for the place that I have in you heart, you’re robbing me of a livelihood. You’re robbing me of a livelihood because you have the power to do so, and that is the power you have over me.
So she took the lighter that was next to his cigarettes in their leather pouch and she set fire to the letter as though she was the match factory girl because she was livid with anger. She was angry because he had betrayed himself and he had betrayed her. She was angry because he betrayed those moments where energy strikes like lightning from one person to the other and back again and they are aware of it and he had betrayed the words which had passed between them which were about things that they both cared about in the place where they worked, which was a place where people are supposed to care about such things.
And the fire spread from the letter to the table and from the table to the chair and from the chair to the desk and from the desk to the shelves and from the shelves to the walls and the window shades and burned all the manila envelopes and the to-do files and the done folders and the letters and the memos, long and short, that he had typed and the cards with the big black words that she had written and they coughed and they choked and they sputtered from the smoke and pretty soon were engulfed by the flames.
Liza Béar is a contributing editor to BOMB and is working on a book of short stories.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee