Louis Wittig

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

 

weekend.”

 

 

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

 

was poutine.

 

 

 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

 

gas.

 

 

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,

 

I asserted.

 

 

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

 

again too.