Love Story in an Alternate Universe in Which Small Talk Is Answered Honestly and in Detail

by Daniel Paul

I run into her on the street. We haven’t seen each other in a few years. “The weather is really nice today, especially for winter,” I say.

“I know,” she says. “It’s been so gray and depressing lately that I’ve been thinking a lot about how much I hate living here. Or at least I hope I hate living here. Otherwise it means that I just hate living in general.”

“No,” I reassure her. “I’m sure you just hate living here; this city is terrible.”

“I feel a bit better today,” she continues, “though it’s probably only warmer outside because of climate change, which makes me feel like enjoying a day like this is stealing joy directly from future generations . . . which I guess is okay, because I don’t want to have children: babies look like aliens, and I can’t even keep a houseplant alive; honestly, sometimes I don’t even want to keep the plant alive; I’d rather lord over it with my power to decide its fate, though that’s probably just a way of rationalizing the fact that even if I did want to keep a plant alive—to feel like I was contributing to the cycle of life and warmth even if just in my living room—I’m sure I would fail somehow and it would die anyway.”

“Yeah,” I say. “The weather today has been a lot nicer. Also, I know what you mean about sometimes wanting to kill things. A few years ago, I got really hard into the CIVILIZATION game, you know, where you build societies on your computer? Anyway, one day my society—which had been peaceful, at least since the early levels where you have to massacre your neighbors with rocks or you wouldn’t be able to protect your sheep—developed nuclear weapons. And I didn’t really have any enemies—it isn’t that kind of game; in theory I could be playing online and collaborating with other people to build a better world of interconnected societies, maybe in the process giving people a model of how to cooperate in real life—but I still couldn’t resist testing one of the nukes; I even called them that, nukes, which felt gross even then, but was seductive in the same way that the weapons themselves were. I don’t remember where on the game map I chose to test it . . . Cleveland, maybe? . . . but when I used it, the screen showed an elaborate mushroom-cloud animation, as if the programmers knew that at some point I was going to become genocidal and wanted to make sure the gameplay reflected this. Anyway, so I had just nuked let’s-call-it-Cleveland, and immediately I had two conflicting emotions. One: I am an absolute monster, and—since I am pretty typical both as a CIVILIZATION player and as a citizen, or, if ‘typical’ is problematic methodologically, we can at least agree that I am not particularly ‘special’—by extension, we are all monsters who will convert curiosity into barbarism given enough time and opportunity. And, two: The bomb only had the effect of downgrading Cleveland from a ‘level-5’ city to ‘level-4.’ I was expecting it to be wiped off the map. Meaning that I was paying the price of all this moral anxiety, and I didn’t even satisfy the morbid curiosity that had led me to this cliff in the first place. So, I haven’t played CIVILIZATION since, which, in a way, means I have given up on civilization itself as an organizing principle.”

“Yeah, that’s pretty fucked up,” she says. “How are your parents doing? I guess I haven’t seen them since that party that time.”

“Divorced,” I say. “My mom says that they only stayed together as long as they did because of me and my sister, which is a pretty hard guilt-trip, and also my dad says that he discovered in alcohol treatment that my mom is the reason that he started drinking in the first place, which really complicates the simple act of enjoying a beer after work. And I don’t really care about the breakdown of our family in the present—Thanksgiving is already terrible; none of them can cook, and we spend half the day trying to find the Scrabble set amongst the detritus of their assorted mid-life crises—but it is a little sad to be able to view my childhood through the lens of their simmering hatred: to know that the subtext of small fights about directions on vacations was actually sexless contempt; I’ve looked back over some of the photos from that trip to Disney World, and I swear that I can’t find one in which both of my parents are smiling. Though the thing that really worries me is thinking about how much harder it will be when they get old and decrepit, how instead of them taking care of each other, my sister and I will have to take care of each of them alone, and my sister is such a flake.”

She nods. Perhaps in deference to the weight of my poignant Disney World anecdote. Perhaps in confirmation of the fact that my sister, whom she was briefly a softball teammate with years ago, is indeed a flake. “How about your parents?” I ask.

“Still together. Seemingly happy. My big thing with them right now is trying to figure out which of them I hope dies first.”

“Oh, the death sequence is everything,” I agree.

“Right? If my mom dies first, I think my dad will probably just drink himself to death. Which could be messy. Interventions. And you know I hate organizing shit like that. Plus, I’m sure my aunt would want to be involved—she might even want to run it—and I cannot stand the sound of her voice; a cousin of mine said it sounded like if Mitch McConnell inhaled a bunch of helium, and now I can’t unhear it. But if my dad dies first, my mom might run for city council or something. Maybe take up pottery? There’s no way to know. But she will obsessively fill her time, and she will want company doing so. I’m conflicted. Do you have any plans this weekend?”

“Not really,” I tell her. “Recently I’ve been spending most of my free time just lying in bed and imagining that I woke up five years earlier, and making all the right choices this time. Cutting out gluten. Buying a bunch of Bitcoin. That kind of thing. Or I imagine being a space pirate: blowing up freighters and shit to steal their Neutronium. Also, I’m finding masturbation to be increasingly time consuming. Not the act itself—thank God, some things are constant—but the calculus of whom to fantasize about and in what context has grown from a basic decision-tree into a dense and terrifying decision-forest: I swear, I spend more time contemplating the problems with ‘authenticity’ than actually getting off. Though I think there’s a party over at Dave’s tomorrow night. Are you going?”

“No, Dave and I don’t really hang out anymore. We had this really weird interaction a while ago where we were on a maybe-it’s-a-date—there were certain date-like qualities present, but we were each maintaining plausible deniability of the official dateness of it all in case it was a trainwreck—and we went to a lecture about child soldiers, which is a terrible thing to do on a date, even if you fetishize your ‘wokeness,’ like Dave does, and even if it is only a maybe-it’s-a-date. Anyway, the guy giving the lecture was just so fucking boring and incoherent, and afterwards me and Dave were talking about how terrible it was for like five minutes before we realized that was talking about how terrible the lecture was, and he was talking about how terrible child soldiers are, like as a human rights violation. So that was awkward, and I resented him for having the moral high ground, so I didn’t return his texts for a while. Then, a few weeks later, I heard a rumor that he had gotten really drunk and creepy with one of my friends . . . well, really I heard that someone-named-Dave had gotten drunk and creepy with someone I sort of knew though didn’t like, but I was already kind of looking for an excuse not to see him, so I’ve just been assuming that the Dave-in-question is the Dave I went on a maybe-it’s-a-date with. And, I told some people that it was him. So if it was him: I don’t want to go to a drunk creep’s party. And if it wasn’t him: then I’d feel really shitty about telling people he’s a drunk creep, even if he was kind of condescending to me about child soldiers; I mean, no one is for child soldiers . . . except warlords, I guess. So, I probably won’t go to the party. Are you planning to go?”

“No,” I say, “parties make me feel paradoxically much more lonely than just staying home alone. There’s always a moment when you have to join a conversational circle mid-chat, and you just stand there, as if you have any context, as if you have anything to offer—and they could be talking about anything. . . like, you would be lucky if it was child soldiers—and you nod or smile or frown knowingly even if you have no idea what the fuck they are talking about, because nothing would be more awkward than leaving a circle you have just entered without even having said anything. In that moment where you are completely superfluous to the other people, despite being directly proximate to them—literally a part of their social circle—it completely encapsulates how I feel all of the time out in the world: walking among people and often talking to them but being certain that my existence is completely unnecessary for all of it to continue carrying on. Also it’s been a really busy week at work. I probably just want to chill.”

“Yeah, I get that,” she says. “Maybe not the first part, but the busy week at work part. So, are you no longer with . . .”

“Becca?”

“If you say so. My plan was to trail off and hope you filled in the blank.”

“Yeah, her name is Becca. But, no, we broke up a while ago. I think we were just in different places in our life. Also, I think she hated me. Like, I think everything I did made her angry and want to kill me a little bit. Plus she wanted to sleep with a lot of other people, and I didn’t, because, really, my favorite thing about being with Becca was not having to convince people to sleep with me or develop new repertoires of social cues with someone for how we were going to get from standing up fully clothed to lying down naked and interfacing our bodies without awkwardness. She moved to Denver for a job anyway. It’s okay.”

“Denver? Yeah, I hear it’s pretty cool. Not from anyone in particular. It’s just a thing you hear.”

“No, I mean it’s okay that we broke up.”

“Oh. Yeah, most people do I guess.”

“Well . . .” (And here I take a moment to think about what it would be like to live in a universe where you don’t bare your soul every time you run into someone on the street, and whether it would be more or less lonely than this one, and whether there is ever really any point in imagining that loving and being loved might ever be any easier than they always prove to be.) “Well,” I say, “being alone just gives me more time to fantasize about you. Not sexually or anything. Well, sometimes sexually. But always tastefully. Well, usually tastefully. Mainly I fantasize about going back to high school and saying the right things to you at the right times, and then me and you would have gone out and had this fiery, beautiful love. And then I imagine us traveling the world—or sometimes space; my space pirate fantasy experience is useful in these moments—before settling down and having children. Though now that I know you don’t want children, I can easily cut them out or replace them with dogs. Anyway, I’ve been in love with you since high school, and being single just allows me to imagine being with you without feeling like I’m being unfaithful to someone else in the process.”

She ponders this for a moment of generous, sublime silence.

“It seems odd that you would be in love with me,” she says, “because we don’t really even know each other.”

“I know,” I say. “That’s what makes it so easy and comforting to imagine being with you. The fantasy operates on the level of pure abstraction and is never complicated by all the small realities that would probably break us up in real life.”

“You know,” she says, “I was about to say that I don’t think of you that way, or that I don’t really think of you at all. But, that’s not right; you know what I think about when I think of you? There was this one time in high school where we were on the football field for gym and these two birds were flying around in a looping orbit of each other and I was thinking that I wasn’t sure if they were fighting or fucking and maybe there was something primal and deep about the basic similarities in these two seemingly disparate acts but you said, ‘there’s so much beauty in the world,’ like you were making an American Beauty joke and I laughed but what I was really thinking was that I was almost sure you weren’t joking; you really found something beautiful in those two birds circling each other as they flew around in absurd and awkward bursts. I had no idea what you thought was beautiful about it, but I didn’t want to know; it was like a magician’s secret. And I liked thinking how for every crass or fatalistic thought I ever had there would be someone out there who was having a thought about beauty, even if it was only the beauty of deeply spastic birds.”

“I remember thinking it was nice of you to laugh at my joke, which was already two or three years outdated. I had used it earlier that day in reference to an empty FUNYUNS bag blowing in the wind and Ashley Perkins seemed so conflicted between looking at me with murderous contempt and continuing to pretend that I didn’t exist that I was worried she was going to split in two.”

I look at my watch. “Shit, I’ve got to go,” I say “but we should grab a coffee or something sometime.”

“Yeah, totally,” she says. Then she says, “No, sorry, I don’t actually want to do that. I’m pretty comfortable with the current structure of our relationship, where I don’t think of you at all, except when I see birds in a state of maybe-fucking-maybe-fighting, and then, every year or so I run into you on the street and we talk as if we were ever close even though we weren’t. It gives me the feeling of still being connected to people from high school, which, more than anything, is the feeling of being connected to the version of yourself that existed then, as if we are keeping the memories of our youth alive by recalling them and thus, in a way, keeping our young selves alive despite the steady feeling of encroaching death. But, realistically, you and I could only sustain about five minutes of conversation before we would have an awkward pause that said: we don’t remember as many people as we thought we did and the relationships that once seemed so vibrant and important to us have irreparably faded or, worse, never actually mattered in the first place. You and I are only built for around five minutes together. And that’s not a bad thing. I actually take comfort in knowing that our relationship has such little potential for advancement or growth; it is, truly, one of the more stable things in my life. Seriously, I think I could run into you a few months after the apocalypse and we would have the same conversation that we had today, talking about our parents and a few old friends, and be distracted from the radiation and/or famine and/or mutagenic ducks for a little while, and then we’d go back to our lives; an asteroid could strike Earth, but I will still only associate you with weird birds that may or may not be trying to kill each other, and I am still not going to love you.”

“That’s cool,” I say. “I mean, about not wanting to go for coffee. I’m kind of annoyed by all the cafes around here anyway. Too many people going to Grounds Control. It’s too expensive at Caffiend. And it is so fucking cold at Brewtalism.”

“It really is freezing in there,” she agrees.

“Yeah,” I say. Looking down to avoid letting her see my eyes welling up, I see her shoes, which are blue-and-orange checker patterned. “Hey, those shoes are really cool,” I say. “I like them.”

“Yeah, me too,” she says. “They make me think of death.”

“Your death, or other people’s?” I ask.

“Both,” she says.

“I don’t really understand that,” I say.

“I know you don’t,” she says. Then she gives a nod and walks past me, leaving me to wonder what about blue-and-orange checkered Doc Martens would make her think of death, and what the right words would be for the next time I see her, as if I would ever be able to say them in this or any other universe.

_______________________________________________________________

Daniel Paul received his MFA from Southern Illinois University. His fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and humor writing have appeared or is forthcoming in McSweeney’s Internet TendencyThe Pinch, Puerto Del Sol, Hobart, New Delta Review, Passages North and other magazines. He lives in Ohio where he is currently pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Cincinnati. Find his work at danpiercepaul.wordpress.com

Illustration by Courtney Bennett

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