11 April 2009 | Vol. 9, No. 1
A familiar tickle in her pocket sent a shiver rippling up her spine. The small cell phone had vibrated every day for several years and she still felt like she was touching something paranormal every time she reached to check on it.
Checking the phone was an unnecessary habit. If someone was calling, her lilting ringtone would float from her pocket. It only vibrated when she received text messages, and she only received text messages from him.
She smiled at the small LCD screen, glowing green and black. "Unknown." She couldn't escape the paradox in that name. The messages sender was unknown, and yet she couldn't avoid feeling like she knew everything about him. Even calling Unknown a "him" was an assumption. Everything she knew was interpreted from the daily messages.
"Lor!" A voice called, snapping her attention away from the phone. It was Chris calling her. Ashley and Jason were with him, waiting for her so they could move on to the next arcade. She looked back to the trusty old phone, a rough caricature of an envelope signaling the next sentence was ready to be read, and decided it would have to wait. She couldn't copy it down until she got home anyway, which wouldn't be for a few hours. She slid the phone back into her pocket.
"I'm coming already!" she called, forcing her way through the crowded New York street.
A stream of arrows marched up the Dance Dance Revolution screen, demanding her full attention. Her feet moved in unison, her skills well-oiled. Next to her the cocky girl from uptown was falling behind, inevitably losing a competition she was stupid to take up in the first place.
Lor's pocket hummed, and her concentration slipped. So did her right foot, landing on the next pad a millisecond too late. The mistake perpetuated itself, throwing off her rhythm and slicing into her score. Eventually, she caught up, but the rebound was too late. The last arrow raced up the big screen, and the round ended, her score just a few points behind.
"My my my." the uptown girl smirked, leaning against the handrails. "I just barely beat you. My game must be off today." She cackled and walked off, but before Lor could move Jason took her place.
"Damnit, Lori," he whispered, glaring at the screen. "That was embarrassing. This is our arcade. You can't let cocky little punks from other neighborhoods come here and do that to us."
"Oh, get over it, Jay," Lor said. She agreed—her performance had been pathetic—but Jason had a tendency to be overly dramatic.
"So, what happened exactly? You were a few Greats ahead and then it all went to hell." Lor reached into her pocket and pulled out the phone. Jason groaned.
"You're kidding me?" he asked. Lor shrugged in response. "Jesus Christ."
"C'mon," she said, sliding the phone back into her pocket. She raised her voice enough for Chris and Ashley to hear too. "Loser buys dinner."
"Yeah!" Chris said. Ashley backed him up with a hoot.
Lori knew Jason's curiosity about the messages was just curiosity—even if he acted like it offended him, he respected it as something important to Lori—but she was happy she could put the subject on hold for most of the day. Jason walked her home, though, as he had a lot recently, and eventually brought it up. He waited till her building's stoop, and that was a mistake she had to capitalize on.
"I've told you before," she said, smiling. "When I figure out all the details, I'll be sure to explain it all to you." He grimaced at the familiar blow-off. She waved goodnight through the building's glass doorway and made her way up the tight old staircase.
"If I ever figure out the details," she added with a sigh. She trudged up the stairs—her legs were shot from the day's walking, running, and dancing—and pushed through her door.
The smell of stale coffee greeted her like a sharp jab to the stomach—she couldn't say she liked it, but leaving the coffeepot sit in the sink had become a routine, something she was accustomed to. It was a poetic beginning (poetic being a quality she embraced, unlike many who find it contrived) to her other daily routine. The Great Update.
She emptied her pockets on the kitchen counter, rinsed out the coffee pot, and took her phone to her desk. Tucked away in a corner of her sterile (boring, she lamented) living room, the desk was pretty clean. Except for the old computer (she only used it for word-processing and checking on web comics; what did she need a Pentium 4 for?) there were six notebooks, a pencil, her answering machine, and a pad of sticky-notes. She pressed the play button on the answering machine first, letting the recordings of recordings drone on about interest rates and once-in-a-lifetime deals while she brought up the first text message.
"Five, four, three, two, one," she muttered as the message ran down. She wondered what it said about her that she could count off to the second messages from complete strangers. For that matter, what did it say about them?
She shifted her focus to another sort of stranger's message. The pixilated text of the first message (1/5 SAVED MESSAGES) lit up the small screen. With a gentle push of a backlit button and a silly, mysterious beep, she scrolled through the words. Only seven words. No more than about three seconds of dialogue. Something she had realized, in the year and a half she'd been receiving messages daily, was how rarely sentences on their own were satisfactory.
She settled about the work of keeping track of the sentences. She turned on the computer and opened the first document. She entered the date, "Message One", and the sentence. File, save. Then she opened another, shorter document and attached the sentence to the end of the last paragraph.
"No, that's not quite right…" she said, rereading the paragraph. Perhaps that sentence belonged in a new paragraph. It was rarely clear when a sentence warranted a new paragraph, especially before the sentence was surrounded by others to give it context. She moved the curser back to the beginning of the sentence and hit return twice, adding a question mark on the intervening line.
Because she didn't really trust computers—never had, for that matter—she pulled out the two notebooks she was currently on and repeated the process she'd done on the computer. The second notebook was messy, covered with editing marks, but she liked reading it. It felt personal to her in a way the typed copy didn't.
She continued in this way through the remaining four messages. The fourth was a gem, finally answering a question she'd had for a week (ironic, since it was brought up only two paragraphs prior). She looked over the day's additions on her computer—fully a half paragraph, ha—and closed down her computer. She had many things to do, not least among them sleeping, but she picked up the second notebook anyway. Leaning back in her chair, legs tucked into her chest, she flipped back a few pages. "The Kiss", as she'd started calling it, had been her starting point of choice for these daily re-reads since she first received it a four weeks prior.
She loved re-reading the novel. With the exception of the most recent lines, she had probably scoured over every word thirty or forty times. She even knew some passages by heart. It wasn't necessarily the words that mattered to her though. The story—novel, actually—was extraordinarily beautiful. The prose, mirroring the story, was remarkable for its simplicity. The writer felt as comfortable with the words as if he'd read them as many times as she had. She even wondered if, perhaps, this was a true story.
She smiled at a private joke. Her little bad habit.
Her eyes left the notebook and moved up the wall to one of the only messes in her apartment (hamper, refrigerator, and sink being the others): her tack board. Nearly a hundred scraps of paper were tacked on, pieces of string strung between some to highlight connections. Various, constantly shifting headings were scattered around the board.
Every scrap of paper was a clue, something in the story that revealed an aspect of the author. It was probably a trivial exercise. She wasn't sure what made her think could decipher the author's identity by his work. That hadn't stopped her from putting hours of work into it, though.
Looking over the hundreds of relations and connections, the multitudes of quotes and assumptions, she wondered what had pushed her to start it in the first place.
"Frustration," she said, trying out the word. It seemed accurate. She'd tried so many times to contact him when he first started. Text message after text message. There's been some mistake. I'm not who you think I am. Part of the reason she had tried so hard, she knew, was because from the very first line she felt herself getting hooked. It's only at the beginning of an addiction that you have the sense to fight it.
What had she built herself, in place of a response? Young white male, mid-twenties, intelligent and reserved, a good listener, and a caring person. There were a handful of other details, mostly guesses, about how he looked, how he spoke with his friends, his apartment, but everything was guesswork, loosely supported by handfuls of sentences practically taken at random.
For old time's sake, she picked up the phone and typed a brief response to Unknown. She didn't expect anything back, really, but it was always worth a shot.
Who are you?
On the small screen, a tiny phone launched a scrap of paper towards the opposite corner, where it disappeared in a poof. A masochistic smile crept onto Lor's face. What an appropriate symbol for her futile attempts at communication. She leaned back in her chair as the message was sent, her old phone took much longer than the newer models to send such a simple message.
Her mind began to wander over the list of reasons she should not care about the mysterious messages. Her favorite was that she had probably passed the book in countless bookstores. She hardly read, and didn't know many people who read either, so it wasn't inconceivable. If she took the first few pages to the local Barnes & Noble the clerk would probably point her to the Best Sellers rack, where a hundred mass-produced copies were being snatched up by people that knew about good literature.
Her phone rang. She jumped, for a moment overwhelmed by hope. Finally, she believed, she would see Unknown in the caller ID instead of the message from line. But the hope was short lived.
"Chris," she said, sounding less than excited. He scoffed at her tone.
"Lor, baby, honey, my one true love." Chris opened in his trademark fashion. She was tempted to hang up on him. Typically, there was a sort of dance that was supposed to play out next. She would hang up, or curse at him, and he would respond with a clichéd apology, big and showy. She'd retort with a motherly statement, something like "If I've told you once, I've told you a thousand times."
"What do you want?"
"Ouch," Chris said, his voice still playful. In a parody of the original song, he added, "Why do you build me up just to break me down?"
"What is that supposed to mean?" Lor couldn't help asking. The gentle humming stopped, and, the playfulness gone, tripped at the top of his game, Chris answered unemotionally.
"I'm not really sure…" He punctuated the concession with a grunt that meant shrug. "I couldn't really think of a song that fit so…"
"What do you want?" Lor asked again, her patience thin. Chris was good at knowing when to stop playing with a girl, so he got down to the subject at hand.
"Tomorrow," he said, hesitating as if he didn't know what to say next.
"You free?" he asked, ignoring the remark. Lor was a little taken aback but answered in stride.
"You're serious?" She was ready to hang up again.
"Not like that." He groaned. "I need to talk to you. I was just wondering if you wanted to get something to eat. Brunch, maybe? There's that coffee shop around the corner. It'll be on me, and I promise not to hit on you the whole time."
"Good luck," Lor said, smiling. She doubted he was capable of that.
"On my word, and honor."
She lied. "I was planning on sleeping in." His word or not, she didn't really feel like a private conversation with him. He was a great friend for a good time, and fun to be around, but the serious parts usually made an ass out of him.
"Fair enough," he cooed. "Meet me there for a late lunch. One thirty. No skipping out on me!"
He hung up before she could respond.
Lor waited till two to leave her apartment, hoping he'd go home deterred. Walking slowly, it took her another five minutes to get to the café. She was cruelly disappointed, though. Chris was sitting at a corner table reading a newspaper. She groaned and weaved her way through the crowded café, dropping into the wrought iron seat across from him.
"You don't read the paper," she sneered. A part of her wondered why she was acting so angsty—there was nothing in particular wrong with meeting up with Chris at a café for a coffee. It wasn't entirely unbearable. One could even have a good time, if one was so inclined. More than anything, it was something about this particular meeting. Something about the way he asked had lent the event an air of anticipation and suspense. She felt like something big was going to happen, and she didn't want it to.
"Can you blame a guy for trying to set a mood?" Chris asked from behind the paper. Lor wondered if the paper was a permanent fixture. She'd barely seen the top of his head since she came into the café.
"If it's a mood I don't like," she said. That was honest. Which was about halfway to being civil, she thought. She took a little pride in the accomplishment.
Chris folded the paper slowly and carefully, laying it in an empty space on the small, circular table. He was wearing an old pair of sunglasses, a light tint, and a semi-formal outfit he usually used for job interviews. The mood he was trying to set, whatever it was, was certainly an odd one.
"You have a guy on the side you're not telling me about," he said. Lor's cheeks flushed, caught off-guard by the comment.
"Don't be ridiculous," she said, diverting her eyes. She started reading the headlines at the top of his newspaper. An ambassador in some Soviet Bloc country had been assassinated. Huh.
"You have a boyfriend and I want to know who he is," he said. "After you've turned me down a hundred times, I at least deserve that, don't I?"
"If I had a boyfriend I'd have had him straighten you out by now," Lor said, continuing to read the headlines. The British were launching another Mars probe. Waste of money, if the last one was any indication.
"If you don't have a boyfriend, why haven't you hooked up with Jason?" Lor shot him a fatal look but he was acting aloof and didn't notice. "As much as I'm in love with you I can see you're leaning towards him."
"Low, dude," she scowled.
"And you're always lost in that phone of yours," he said. Lor couldn't think of what to say. Could she even begin to explain the phone to Chris?
The image of her crowded tack board came to mind. Maybe Chris wasn't entirely wrong after all. She was, in a way, trying to build herself a man…
"Well…" she said, stalling for time more than admitting anything.
Chris seized the tiny victory. "I was right!" he said in a singsong voice.
"Not entirely." Lor silenced him. "It's complicated…"
That doesn't even start to explain it. Suddenly, a thought struck her. She remembered how let down Jason had seemed when she closed her door on him again the other night.
"You aren't snooping for Jason, are you?" she asked. She wasn't keen on a relationship with him right at the moment, but that was no reason to ruin her chances or hurt his feelings. Besides, she smirked, it's an excuse to put off answering his question.
Chris's demeanor changed. He leaned back in his seat and took off his sunglasses. He screwed up his face in thought for a moment, and then turned a thoughtful gaze on Lor.
"Jason is one of my best friends," he said, speaking slowly and carefully, "but so are you. So I won't tell him anything you don't want me to tell him, but I'm going to urge you to talk to him. Even if you're going to let him down, do it gently, you know?"
Lor's mind was too busy to let her think straight. Chris, and behind him Jason, seemed to represent an insurmountable problem. She wished they had sat at the bar instead, so she could swivel on the barstool. She needed to swivel.
"Forget it," Lor said finally, to herself as well as Chris. "Besides, it's ending." She froze, realizing she'd backed herself into a corner. If Chris asked further, there was nothing to tell him except the whole story. She waited anxiously, trying not to look anxious, until he responded.
"Oh, sorry to hear that," he said. "I guess it doesn't really matter then." He gave her that I-don't-know-what-else-to-say look so many guys used to comfort someone.
"I guess," she said. She faked an appreciative smile. He smiled too, perking up a little.
"However, in the future, you had better tell me about your love affairs!" he said. She laughed, and part of the weight on her shoulders disappeared. She'd managed to make it through the hard part without lying, hurting anyone, or explaining the phone.
Now she could fake her way through the rest of the meal, smiling at the right things, laughing at the right jokes, and Chris would have no idea what was going on.
She felt nauseous. Acting was depressing enough without another part of her ranting in the back of her head. You finally admitted it. You've known for, what, three weeks now? And finally, there it is, out loud.
He's sending the last chapter.
It had been a long week. Unlike the characters of the novel unfolding before her, Lor didn't have artistic license to abandon everything for the greater adventure. Amongst the homework and cram sessions of a packed week of school, she'd barely been able to keep up with the rapidly arriving messages.
Every day had brought more and more messages. Ten Monday. Fifteen Tuesday. Twenty-three Wednesday.
She'd left the television on in the background. Conan O'Brian was welcoming the audience to a wonderful show on a long awaited Friday. Regis Philbin and Mandy Moore, with musical guest Weezer. She liked the distraction because it let her focus on copying without actually reading the messages. He phone was vibrating almost every five minutes, and she was worried about the space limit on her inbox.
She tucked the one lock of hair that had escaped her hasty rubber band ponytail behind her ear for the hundredth time and finished copying down the small script off her phone. She flicked the button to move on to the next message and found that there wasn't one. She smiled, stretched, and headed for the kitchen to make some tea.
"Finally caught up," she said to herself, reaching for the kettle. "This is madness." She wedged the kettle under the faucet and flipped on the hot water. She felt dizzy. Her mind was slowly coming out of the frenzy she had been worked into. She smiled to herself. Had she even read the last thirty or forth sentences? She couldn't recall what had happened last.
The phone vibrated again, the sound amplified and dropped down an octave by the heavy wood table. The kettle was securely wedged in a corner of the sink and was nowhere near full, so Lor skittered to the table and picked up the phone. It was still downloading the message.
Long sentence, Lor thought, smiling. Maybe if I read this one it'll remind me what's been going on. The icon finally binged, and she opened the message. Immediately something struck her as odd. It had periods.
Lor stared at the four words. Was that part of the story?
A crash from the kitchen grabbed her attention. The kettle had slipped and water was splashing off it in every direction. She dropped the phone on the desk and ran in, having to do a little hopping dance to avoid the steaming spray. Finally she managed to reach the faucet handle and cut the rushing water.
She stood in front of the faucet, breathing hard as adrenaline rocked her exhausted brain. Gradually, as her breath slowed and her heart calmed down, she returned her attention to the message. She moved very slowly returning to it, the phone seeming suddenly like something unfriendly and dangerous. With a slowness she might use picking up a live grenade, she wrapped her fingers around the phone.
"It can't possibly mean…" she said to herself, knowing it could.
The book is a gift.
She fell back into her chair. It wasn't possible. There was just no way that was it. All her attempts to prepare herself meant nothing now that it really was over.
She took some comfort in her chair swiveling, and twisted back and forth slowly, trying to sort out what she had to do next. It's yours. What did that mean? Was she supposed to publish it? Hold onto it? She felt fleeting fits of anger at this stranger for forcing something that important on her.
The book is a gift. She sighed. That was true, though she didn't know if the author knew exactly how true. She sat the phone down and picked up one of the written copies of the story. Reclining as much as she could, she gently flipped through the pages. It had meant a lot to her to copy it down from this mystery source. She was proud of it, in a way. She was as comfortable in English class as she was flying a plane, but she had managed to piece together the pieces sent to her to make a novel.
"God," she murmured to herself. What a big word "novel" seemed. Too big, in fact. Thinking of the word novel, she realized that the book was too big to just be for her. Even if the author may have been happy only showing it to her, she couldn't stand being the only one to see it. Which meant…
This word seemed even bigger than novel, and it carried with it a whole new set of problems. How does she get a novel published? Could she even publish it if she wasn't the author? Should she accept payment for it? An image of a hardcover book, with a blank cover, no title, and no author floated around her mind. Surely, this image suggested to her, these were questions she simply couldn't answer.
"And what do we do when we can't answer questions?" she asked herself, glancing at the television where Conan was talking with Regis. "We phone an expert, with the help of our friends at AT&T." Now that she knew what she had to do, her mind was quick to sort out how to do it. First she'd call 411, and get some publisher's numbers. She could call them, find an editor who would talk to her, and get advice about how to proceed. One of them might even want to publish the book.
She reached for the cordless phone in its stand next to the computer. As she did this she caught a glimpse of her watch and paused, with her hand still outstretched. Duh, she thought. What kind of editor will be working at one a.m.?
Before she could decide what to do next or retract her hand her phone rang. She would have found a one a.m. caller more strange if she hadn't been about to call someone herself. When she picked up the phone, the caller ID further explained the call. Jason was the only person she knew that was a bigger night owl than herself.
"Hello Jason," she said, spinning in her chair.
"Oh, hi," he said, as if he hadn't been expecting her to answer. "I'm glad you're up." Lor considered bugging him about calling so late, but decided it was too late for playing games, and asked why he had called.
"I needed to talk to you."
"Any particular reason?"
"I heard about your —" He searched for the right word— "breakup."
Chris, you prick, I thought you said you weren't going to tell him anything.
"So I know you probably don't want to hear from me right now but there are just some things I want to get off my chest." She couldn't help but smile as he rambled on. He was kind of cute, in a sad way. For as much as he could be a strong leader, and would someday probably be a powerful business man, he always fell apart around women. There was something very endearing to her in that.
"So, anyway," he stammered, "I'm sure you're not looking for any kind of relationship right now but if ever you are… Hello, are you still there?" Lor realized he'd been talking for a few minutes and she hadn't said so much as "Uh-huh."
"Yeah, yeah, I'm listening," she said.
"Okay, well, uhm… " Lor smiled, spun her chair, and made a decision.
"I need to get out. You up for it?"
"What, now? It's like one o'clock."
"Yes it is." She was speaking with a new assurance that she hadn't had an hour before. Suddenly, next to the threat of publishing a novel, her romantic situation seemed like a tiny problem.
"Sure, I can make it."
After hurriedly planning a meeting spot, Lor hung up the phone and tried to stretch the long evening out of her joints. She flicked off her computer monitor, changed quickly, and headed for the door, satchel in tow. She paused at the door and looked back at her desk. It seemed pretty amazing to her how much a few sentences had changed what it meant to her.
She smiled. The novel seemed almost like an old friend, even if the author behind it would never be known to her. Now she was standing at a crossroads, about to set off on a whole new phase of her relationship with it. It was an impressive thing.
However, she thought, pushing through the doorway, it would have to wait till morning.
For further reading:
Browse the contents of 42opus Vol. 9, No. 1, where "Lor's Story" ran on April 11, 2009. List other work with these same labels: fiction, short story.