g r a v e l
A L I T E R A R Y J O U R N A L
Artwork by Jake Troyli
Have We Been Talking for Years?
Has this been the longest conversation in human history? You know, I had
forgotten we were even talking, as such. But you make a good point. We have been
talking for hold on, who’s the president now? Holy mouse house you’re right: This might
be the longest conversation in human history.
Oh wait. No. Okay. We’ve talked about this before. Remember? We’ve been over
this one before. Many times. Take a minute. Think. I’m in no rush. This is definitely in
our top 2,500 topics.
Now that I think about it, we've even called the Guinness Book people. That
wasn't a good call.
While we're on the subject do you remember that the first word I ever said to you
was “I”? “I” is a word. And the first sentence I said, just idly, was “I can’t wait for this
We were both on line at a Starbucks, and you were right in the middle or your
three-part drink order and you turned from the green apron and the first sentence you
spoke to me was:
“I hate the weekend.”
I didn’t like you very much. But that Sunday night there we were sitting on the
hood of my car in the airport observation lot, just beyond the fences at the end of the
runway, still talking. We kept on talking right through the cylindrical, ear-blinding
screams of the MD-80s swooping in and out of the purple night. We didn't stop when the
jets passed, and neither of us asked the other to repeat what we hadn't heard. We both
already knew that whatever we missed we would come back to in time. Our little words
were popping and fizzing and sparking when they touched in the air.
Finishing each other's sentences was easy. Starting each other's sentences was
harder. Inserting the middle of each other's sentences without affecting how the sentence
was going to end was a little more like playing blackjack on a stampeding buffalo.
We were talking about all the exciting possibilities of new blender technology
when you remembered that it had been months since you talked to anyone else. Then of
course we took our time and laughed and cried and fell asleep on the kitchen table over
that subject. Later, the referendum had gotten us (or me) arguing about the extreme
dangers that Quebecois independence could present to North American political stability
when I realized that you had never been impressed or intimidated by me.
I kept trying to get you to hear that unionist Anglophone guerrillas would spill
across our borders, burrow into Vermont like Green Mountain Hezbollah, and bring us
decades of rocket fire and ear-thumping Celine Dion hits. All you wanted to talk about
It's French fries, you said. With gravy! You said. And whole cheese curds! You
said. You ducked my every point, grinning all the way, and I couldn't hold it and said I
just don't think you're very bright.
I know, you said. And we had to talk about that. Though we would have, even if
we didn't have to. We were talking in a general and philosophical way about you moving
into my apartment when you began, continued and finished moving into my apartment.
My straight friends thought I'd become gay. My gay friends didn't think I was
gay, but they assumed I'd gotten deep into some marvelous, tongue twinkling club drug
that they'd never even heard of before. Everyone thought we were screwing. I don’t think
we could have taken the silence, or the phoneme-less grunting.
But we would be the first to say that our lives weren't all portabello steaks and
champagne. The first time I used those exact words we were looking out the window
commenting on a squirrel caught out on a naked branch in the rain. You never said that
precisely, but you did once say our life wasn't all Turkey gravy and Heineken. That was
on Thanksgiving or 1998.
Oh how we would fight. It didn't need to be a sensitive subject. We didn't have
sensitive subjects. We'd very quickly probed and dismantled one another's fears,
insecurities, bizarre religious impulses and shameful excretory secrets until all these were
little numb nubs. Rich and endlessly debatable nubs, but numb.
What wasn't numb was our teeth. We'd worn them down and they throbbed night
and day. We ran out of saliva and we could taste the plaque on our teeth. It tasted like
running a mile then licking a muffler. Or, more accurately and worse, we ourselves tasted
like running a mile and licking a muffler. We got talking headaches. The implications of
talking headaches gave us thinking headaches. And then I'd turn to face you, and you’d
be in the middle of explaining why “bread” was such a weird word, and your voice
would be like a power drill screaming in my left ear and the rest of you - your floppy
hair, and your onion-sweat smell and your dirty clothes - would be a like horseshoe stuck
in my right ear.
And then I’d stand up and take my chair and break is across your self-absorbed
bitchface. You’d finish your thought through a slick of blood, then knock me down and
step on my neck. I always feel sorry for the cops. Our statements must be eight pages
long at the least and require cross-referenced footnotes.
Do you ever wonder what all your friends are up to nowadays? I sometimes
wonder how mine are doing.
And what ever happened to Professor Sagler after they released her? I know you
like to talk about this subject less than say Amish woodworking, but for us that night is
like an oil well in a Bugs Bunny cartoon, it is literally shaking the ground under us and
raining down on us simultaneously. We have to talk about it. Yes, again.
Of course you remember the beginning: We had gotten kicked out of Professor
Sagler’s talk for whispering. We were sharing the dreams we'd had the previous night. So
then we were out in the parking lot behind the auditorium writing poetry together. Well
not really writing. You would riff a line and I would blurt the next line, then you, both of
us creating a single world in the mid-August asphalt smoked air, but neither of us writing
anything down even though we both had pens. After ten stanzas an unmarked door in the
auditorium fell open and The Professor herself limped out, heading for her car.
You froze. Certifiably speechless.
Oh you loved her books. You read to me slowly and out loud everything she ever
wrote, and when you wanted to have role-play conversations, you-as-you and me-as-her,
I figured why not.
That night I would have called out to her, just to get her attention as she hiked
through line after line of Toyotas. I would have been glad to do it for you, no problem.
But you'd never told me exactly, in one way, why you loved her work. It hit me right
then: If I was going to call out for you, I did not exactly know what you would say. And
not knowing what you would say made me freeze up.
She was almost to her car when your spirit came back and you bolted. I sprang
forward, just a few steps behind. You were running and threading bumpers and waving
your arms over your head like you were a castaway and she was a refrigerated
megatanker laden with whole chocolate milk. You were screaming that you loved her, I
understood that's what you were screaming, and I was screaming at you, asking you how
it was in all these years we hadn't talked about exactly why you loved her. Running
behind you I kept catching side-view mirrors in the ribs.
She was in her driver's seat, reversing hard out of a spot. I just saw her face for a
split second, in a shrinking, dimming trapezoid of car window. Her mouth was open
wide, but mute I think. She was terrified. And there was something else I only recognized
much later, when I had time to think, in the hospital.
It was incomprehension. She was wearing total and utter bewilderment. I hadn't
seen it in years. You were shouting out many intelligent and adoring things to her and she
was not hearing them.
We had been talking so well for so long, we'd hardly noticed how our words were
clipping and shrinking day by day. I didn't even realize, until I took some time to really
listen to the nurses, that neither of us were speaking in standalone sentences any more.
We'd dropped sentences somewhere in the low cloud of our constant understanding. We
had coined an unbound glossary's worth of new words to describe the amazing things
we'd discovered while talking. All of which, and much more, had made us completely
unintelligible to anyone else. You were a charging, screaming loon three yards off her
front bumper, and I was just behind you about to say something, when she stomped the
They put us in separate rooms. Neither of us could reach the phones by the bed
and obviously we couldn't explain to orderlies the importance of wheeling us together. In
my dreams at night I asked you many times why you were so nuts over this Sagler, and
why hadn't we talked about that? You gave me different answers, and sometimes you just
smiled and turned into a purplish footstool.
This question was the first one I took up with you when I made it back to
walking. I found your explanation rather average. You just said she was a good writer.
She wrote characters well, and you liked them and by extension you liked her. I assumed
as much, I said, but what else? There's something deeper, I said. We have not used
ourselves up in the decades we've been talking. Our words have been raindrops together.
They've never evaporated. Every one has fallen into a stream, a streams that falls into a
river that wanders and wanders and then, rather quietly, submerges into a single
horizonless ocean. That, what you're saying now, is not all that can be said on the subject,
No. That's all, you said, barely, around the hard plastic tube in your mouth.
This answer raised some very depressing possibilities.
Maybe we hadn't been talking at all. Maybe we'd both been making chitchat
sounds, but neither of us had actually been listening. Instead, subconsciously, for years,
we had both been imagining the conversation we wanted to have and the answers we
wanted to hear, and then just kept nodding and nodding and talking and nodding so the
other would stay involved, so we could keep dreaming.
Maybe we had been living in completely separate universes, you and I, just like
everyone else, all the old mumbling couples in smelly restaurants, all the cop duos in
dark parked squad cars, and the legions of coworkers murmuring about their weekends in
separate cubes, all the people we believed we were so much more real than.
This was a depressing possibility. We talked about it and never dispelled it. But
by the time we tabled it and moved onto how they make baseball bats, you could walk