We convene weekly meetings to consider the ins and outs of issues affecting us all, according to a theme. The topic this month: love. Tomorrow we will discuss the ways we hide our love from others, the many roadblocks to its free expression. The agenda, typed up ahead of time, is printed out and tacked precisely into the same pinhole in the wall between the calendar and the water cooler.
We’ll be meant to take turns sharing memories of times we could have, should have, said we loved this or that person, and there are so many times like this to choose from, occasions when there was truth to be uttered but instead it was suppressed, words catching inside us never to make it out. All pain bears some relation to this kind of memory. It’s all of a single genre. To describe now what was happening then and what we wished we’d said does very little.
Perhaps I’ll tell that when I was a child, I’d wake up in the morning and walk into the center of my house to be greeted by my parents. They’d say good morning and inquire after how I slept, and I’d say nothing. My lips were too heavy to operate, my throat like stone. I’d stand there like a statue in a nightgown and they’d chuckle and turn back to the paper or to heating muffins.
I can think of so many silences that my head fills up with them like sunlit dust inside a cathedral. By the time we meet tomorrow, I won’t feel like talking about it.
We fear having nothing to do, I think. We have to carve the present from the past. We’ll be sure to arrive to the meeting on time.
Inside the office Bel can’t bear the smell. It’s the first day of the season the A/C has been fired up and it smells like burnt stale air. She feels a headache coming on. She doesn’t hear any footsteps, doesn’t sense anyone’s eyes over her shoulder, and she rests her face in her hands.
Bel can’t place the voice but his face looks familiar.
“I’m the consultant. Sam?”
He’s wearing a polo shirt with a yellow daisy embroidered on the collar. He says he gets a lot of headaches. What the hell. She takes the pill and he’s gone again. When the A/C gets going it doesn’t smell so rank. Has that little shelf always been in that corner? Bel excuses herself, mumbles something to an overling about a constitutional.
Outside, the world outside. Bel lifts her sunglasses and puts them atop her head. She thinks of her days in college when she spent time on a particular corner of the quad with the weird kids like they all collectively owned it without ever having owed anything to anyone. She had so much more energy then. The quality of her mind is different now. Something had happened to it so that it fit so many more days. Days like this one. Days so warm there’s nothing you can do but sit. Days so warm you could see a flying saucer and wouldn’t do anything but blink and sniff the air. Sky so blue you could swim in it.
There, the sidewalk in front of the post office and the short little iron fence. There, the park with its scattered sycamore trees and its rectangular lawn, the kind that no one ever sits on. Bel has sat on that bench a hundred times. Today she sits on the lawn.
All around, light flashes off various surfaces — the smooth bend of the leaves on office-building-sized ficus trees in square wooden pots. The smooth patch on a low growing sycamore bough where many children have shimmied across. There’s something happening in Bel’s visual field. It’s pervasive but subtle. What is it? But it’s there for sure, changing everything. A breeze comes and rustles the leaves and it’s like they’re whispering. It’s a language Bel can’t translate to words but she listens intently. She tries to find speech. Never mind, it’s gone, the thing she was trying to find about the plants. The trees, the sloped landscaped beds at the edges of the park, filled with sages, California poppies, and lush stands of oxalis with leaves so deeply green they verge on blue and purple.
Bel’s neighbor appears and is talking to her. She wants to know why Bel is sitting on the ground. She reaches out her hand and helps Bel stand up. They sit together on the bench.
“I’ve named the raccoon Frank and his son Joe,” the neighbor says. “The Hardy Boys. They’re living under my house, I think. They don’t come to your house?”
“No. I see them, but only rarely. I think they don’t like to cross the street.”
Bel’s neighbor has a nervous habit of clasping her hands and rubbing only her thumbs together.
Directly in front of them a man wearing a bucket hat and a slick black vest appears. He reaches into his pockets and then holds each of his arms out in a Christlike pose, his hands cupped.
Bel’s neighbor hasn’t seemed to notice the unusual man. “I vastly prefer these little guys to the rat problem I used to have. But you know what? I think possums are pretty cute. I don’t get why people are scared of them. I wouldn’t mind having some of those around.”
Pigeons have gathered on the man, one on each shoulder and two jockeying for his head. They’re pecking birdseed out of his hands. Bel’s neighbor grows silent and then says, “What do you think he gets out of that? Does he get … some kind of sensual pleasure from the birds?”
The sound of screeching tires floats in on the hot afternoon air. It occurs to Bel that all around the park there are people she can’t hope to understand.
Four days have elapsed. It’s the end of the work week. Well, almost. You know what they say, T.G.I.Th. Har har.
No more meetings until next week. I mean, as usual. We can be sure that Friday is a meetings-less day. That’s how it works. You know what they say, if you give a mouse a cookie, he’ll be your friend forever. Fridays are the days when us mice get a cookie (each). Sometimes multiple cookies. We’re talking in the form of catered lunches and a chance to get a free chair massage. There’s more conversation in the office — you can feel it. You’d think this was hokey, that it would be a drag to get the same carrot — cookie — whatever — each Friday, but the trade-off for predictability is having something to look forward to. I mean, it’s not certain that we think it’s a trade-off at all.
All happiness bears some relation to this kind of experience: a fundamental compromise that, if it lived in the domain of the mental, would sting, but which recedes instead into the realm of the senses. All these things live in our bodies. When we have pleasure to remember and a reasonable hope of impending pleasure to look forward to, that’s happiness.
More than one of us once heard Oprah say that happiness is having something to look forward to, and sometimes we talk about that around the water cooler, often on the Fridays of months when there are no holidays. We’ve been taught that it helps to air these vague dissatisfactions, to finesse them into platitudes. In the words of Leonard Cohen, “There ain’t no cure for love.” To that, we would add, “There ain’t no cure for nostalgia,” because that’s just true, but we’d also add, “There may be ways to cope with the pains of anxiety, which is fundamentally a nostalgia for the ever-unfolding future which never arrives.”
If we miss each other tomorrow, have a nice weekend!
Bel takes her leave from the park and its people and shoots a text to her boss. Headache’s worse, she’s gotta take the rest of the day, see everyone tomorrow.
She heads for the ocean.
On the boardwalk there’s a man in rollerblades who assumes a similar pose as the man in the park, and for a second she thinks they’ve found their way to the same place, but it’s not the same man. This one doesn’t call the birds close to him. He calls passersby close with a manic smile and music that is poised to break the fourth wall. Bel peers into his proverbial hat — a cardboard box reinforced with packing tape — as she passes. There are quite a few bills fluttering there.
Down beyond the boardwalk are the sand and the shore. Bel makes her way to a bench at the boardwalk’s edge and sits there as pedestrians pass to put money in the hands of teenagers operating the rides and coins in the mounted binoculars. Bel puts her hands in her pockets.
We’re told we shouldn’t think about the foreign dangers that make their way into the water. The fecal bacteria, the plastics. Human detritus that tends to sicken. There’s virtue in forcing those complications beneath the mind’s surface. That’s how you can find enjoyment without the mind’s business troubling the waters.
We’re told that we should mind the dangers inherent to the water. There are strategies we can learn that will help us … well, they’ll help us think we have something to do to fight back. Scan the waters for anyone waving their arms in front and bobbing like a frozen angel. Drowning doesn’t look like what you might think. Swim parallel to the shore.
And then Bel’s mind goes quiet and then she notices the sounds around her. Children screaming when the surf touches their feet. The clanking of a chain at the base of a flagpole. Intermittent sun-soaked shrieking from the whitewashed roller coaster. Footsteps behind her on the splintery ground. She closes her eyes and pictures a ship.
Bel sits there on the pier for hours until the day disappears into the placid waters and the darkness leaches everything menacing from the sea.
At the office, Bel fields questions from coworkers who didn’t used to talk to her.
“Did you get a hair cut?” and things of that nature. They think she looks good, or at least that’s what they tell her.
One Tuesday, she sees the consultant again. This time, she recognizes him. He asks if they can eat lunch together and she agrees, if only because she feels she owes him for fixing her headache.
They sit under an umbrella in the office food court.
He says, “There’s something different about you. You look happy,” and he says this as though he knows her.
Bel prefers to keep her private and professional lives separate, so when someone corners her and tries to get her to open up, she’ll do so in unconventional ways. Today she starts talking about a movie she watched in childhood. Maybe this is an obfuscation, but maybe not. Maybe it’s no less personal than talking about her family or her personal to-do list would be.
“I’ve been thinking lately about the forest. There’s this movie I used to watch that uses the phrase ‘the king of the forest,’ and I’ve been thinking about that lately. It seems like an idea that’s present in many cultures. You know that dragons are like that?”
“Kings of the forest?”
“No, there are dragons in many cultures. Chinese dragons, medieval dragons … They think it’s because ancient people all over the world dug up dinosaur bones and thought what the fuck, and then figured something out, something to explain it away.”
The consultant eats his sushi with a fork, like no one Bel has ever seen. “Will you be at tomorrow’s meeting?” he says.
Before Bel tells him yes, her entire brain stops and starts, and the world does, too. The labor of speaking feels disconnected from the reality of everything she’d been trying to tell him — what was that, after all? — and then she begins to speak because she understands that it is the only way to dig her way out of this moment and into the next one (an eternal process). “I’ll be there,” is what she says.
The consultant says he’d be running this one, so start thinking about the topic of communication. It is the topic he’s elected.
We meet to lay things down. Get them written in the space between us, in our words and, later, in a more formal but less verisimilar way, in writing. We’re talking about notes here.
Bel, we’re glad you could join us this time. Any thoughts on our topic this week?
We’re thought to communicate to be understood, to transmit a message. But it may not be so clear cut. It may be that we’re always collectively transmitting messages that never get received by any distinct entity, you, or anyone else, or even anything else. It may be that to communicate is just to orient ourselves in the same direction.
Bel, do you have anything to tell us? We know — well, you’ve been working here a while, and you’re a valued part of our workplace.
It would be best in times like this to think of the ocean. It doesn’t matter that we can’t see the whole thing. In a way, we can apprehend it in its entirety, because as we sit and experience the evidence of it — the sounds of its waves, shimmering light, seagulls swooping over it, the laughter of children who touch their toes with it — our sensory channels are full up and our minds stilled. The experience is not that we see or hear or know or feel the whole ocean, but that it causes our minds and bodies to be subdued.
Rob Moss Wilson is an artist living in Martinez, California. He makes a modest living painting paintings and illustrating stories but he rather be outside rambling in the hills, alone or with friends.
Lauren Kinney, a musician and writer in Los Angeles, holds an MFA in creative writing from Antioch University. She writes fiction, criticism, and songs, including for her interdisciplinary songwriting project “Songs About Books.”