Language of Disturbance

Kathleen McCarty McLaughlin

      --with inspiration by Beth Nugent and Thomas Hamilton

I am waiting for you. You told me once that a miniature version of you could fit inside of me. I didn't believe that, but I find that you're still with me, even when I cannot locate you. Sometimes, I wonder if I took you in all wrong. Inside me you're not so small but I don't mind you being in my thoughts. The things you show me are never ordinary. You're brilliant; you tell me great things, unless we're face to face. Most people use the telephone but you have strange ways of communicating.

You tell me that you're sitting in a Starbucks coffee shop. I check the phone book and there are 37 in this city. The messages you send are not straightforward, yet I follow every word I hear of yours. I refrain from using any form of water; grime increases my telepathic receptivity.

I find you sitting in the window of a Starbucks that's only 3.7 miles from my bedroom door. You must've remembered that I take public transportation.

You're writing what might be a story, drawing circles and writing new words with your pencil here and there. There is only that window and the countertop you're working on between us. Pencil marks aren't permanent like ink can be. I, too, like using pencils. We both change our minds a lot. Our favorite answer is, "It may very-well be both." Until you, I called this gift confusion. Smoke spirals between our temples. I watch you with the pencil marking bits and pieces of your mind.

I've read bits of many books. I've never read, really read, a story from front to back. I only read pieces because I love language when it's out of context. My favorite word is canvas because people say it gingerly. Asphalt is another word that people say with care. A synonym for asphalt is surface. I am afraid to write below the surface. I don't know if what I'd write would shock me. And I don't believe in shock for shock value alone. You live on fringes but there are things that even you will never do. I like to think I have an edge. There is a point that is too far and, before this point, is where I exist. And before this, just before, is where I met you in what is called the past.

We had many meetings before this present one. For years, we've been discussing even the mundane bits of life. Each time we shook hands you squinted, as if you almost remembered seeing me around somewhere.

Our eyes have always been the sort of blue that people fall into. I can't remember our first meeting but I've known your eyes since I was ten. In my dreams, they were bloodshot then but between the thin red lines I recognized our blue.

We met before, in the bar of a steak house where I was a waitress. I felt strange and went home sick before you stabbed the woman in my section you'd been kissing. You made the paper but I didn't need to open it; I knew about destruction and you.

We met before that present, on the platform of a subway station. You stood beside me as we waited for the next train. I thought we might be going to the same event. A pair of matted wings was strapped to your back. I asked about the box of Irish Oats in your arms but you just called yourself the sullied Lady of our New Year.

Once we held hands. You and I. We were walking towards a river when the firebomb exploded. The fire was tiny and silver and flew all over. You winced and said that I should call for help. But I dragged you to a rock at the edge of the river and just watched the water as it ran against our shoes. I wanted to forget you'd gotten hurt. This is maybe when and why this present has originated.

You are wearing a pair of jeans and a baggy T-shirt with a Superhero ironed on. Your hair is neither short nor long and, because of this, you could pass as either gender. I look into the depths of the wrinkles at the corners of your eyes. Your hair is even longer than I remember but, to me, you'll always be a guy. When you think, you bite on the eraser and I can catch glimpses of your tanned, uneven teeth. You don't see me watching; you only see what you are writing with that pencil tip. I wait for you to look out the window and read me.

The last time I saw you, you were wearing pantyhose with rips across both ankles. Our sternums were connected by an iridescent ribbon. You must've felt it keep us on the patio, together for so long. You had someone bring you out another bottle of gin, extra dry. Although we aren't fancy you bought me a fancy drink that night. It came with a miniature parasol that I twirled during our silences. Keeping both hands in your lap, you somehow slid your palm inside my waistband. Even though your head was turned, your hand rested—bulged underneath my skirt—there for some time. I felt conscious of my heartbeat, intermittently; it's always been somewhat irregular. I guess your sudden interest scared me. Even though it's crumpled, I still have that parasol. You only touched me that way once.

You taught me not to worry about tenses. Tenses, you said, are nothing more than rules. Words like past-present-future are used to keep life simple. When that present happened I felt our past and future happen too.

I tell people at the Tap Room whenever I have heard from you. The Tap Room has a pool table and three sizes of Miller Genuine Draft. I never shoot pool but I like to talk and watch the balls that move in lines then stop in empty spaces.

One afternoon, George became my best friend over 70 cent drafts. I asked him for a light. He asks me if I know that a lit match could be dropped directly into a can of gasoline with no explosion. It's the fumes—just subtle shit—that causes accidents. Underneath every accident, he told me, is a basic explanation.

I told George you'd kept me up for nights, typing near my window. I couldn't locate you but your thumbs pound on the space bar and every time I almost slept there was a bell. You will never buy a laptop. No, you won't ever type quietly.

"I don't know what you're asking." George rubbed his temple. "But that relationship of yours sounds awfully one-sided. To me, it sounds more like a disturbance."

A disturbance can also be a bother. I do not want to bother you but once you said that even shadows sometimes are nice.

Now George is sitting on the curb outside the Tap Room. Whenever he has money we sit inside. Inside, they sell cigarettes, candy, softcore porn and bottled liquor. When there's nothing else to do, we bet on what people will buy. Brown bags mean liquor. Plastic sacks are sometimes hard to see through.

George wears a pair of sneakers that he says are powder blue beneath the mud. I stare at his shoes, trying to see the color they once were. I sit next to George and tell him you were at the cafe.

"My mother was a crazy," he says, "but if I listened to her sideways I could understand some things." The great thing about George is that he's no stickler for logic. "Two cigarettes say that guy buys a porno. Look at his eyes, already watching it."

I bet he'll buy alcohol.

Your face predicts my future. One night you passed me with a bloody nose. Only moments later, I walked into a light post. Lately I've been looking out for symbols. In symbols you and I find answers. Before we met, we were smoking the same brand of cigarettes. There's just one difference—your Lucky Strikes have filters. You call symbology a concept because, in reality, the word symbology doesn't exist.

I tell George about the eye inside me. How repeatedly, you scream that it's YOUR eye and how are you to see without it? You describe the gaping hole you have that my eye used to fill. A hole, you say, is hard to heal. It's my eye, I tell you. I'm the one who carts it. Your eye, you insist, was shot out with a firecracker in Prague one New Year's Eve. Now a shadow has replaced it. Actually, you specify, the firecracker was a roman candle. I paused at this line. You have a way with words but I don't know what they all mean.

"Brown bag." George passes me his last two smokes. "But I'll win those back because the kid with the freckles is after cigarettes. I'd say he's maybe seventeen."

I bet he'll buy candy.

I think your greatest skill is being unpredictable. I tell George what I am sure of: the eye is blue and, therefore, could belong to you or me; you need your eye to write; and I have two other eyes so I don't need yours, but it provides me leverage.

"Plastic sack," George says. "Could be a box of smokes and candy." Often, neither of us wins. I light a cigarette and then hand one to George. I tell him that I would rather wash your eye than give it back. It's greasy and, quite frankly, mad.

George says he can think of a couple answers. One is you are crazy.

Crazy is something I'm afraid of. Regardless, if I give your eye back we wouldn't be the same. Your eye is partly mine and I like what it shows me. With it, I know things. I know now that archetypes, like love, should never be called ideal.

George says it's actually not as complicated as I make it out to be. He says I simply need to know what portion of your eye is me. "Keep just what belongs to you but give that damn eye back."

It's hot outside and my neighbors are on their porch, sipping forties and knitting. As I walk by, the ladies stare and click their needles. Your eye is in a plastic sack. I scraped it out with what's left of a blade I inherited. Over three hundred years ago, my relative lost his leg in the siege of Derry. A doctor cauterized the tissue below his thigh. Still, the infection raged. Broken skin and burning go hand in hand, but I've been told his skin was tougher than expected. I don't remember hearing what happened to his blade but I do know that this bloodline ends with me. You say that a real ending is a series of related choices; an ending only seems to happen in one moment.

We live in a city but your house is only seven blocks away. In our language, I told you to expect me but you haven't left a key that I can find. Perhaps the key to you lies in this sort of inconsistency. At least a window is unlocked. Your bathtub is cleaner than I expected and you've left a green slip drying on your shower rod, just to remind me that you're complicated. I step around your shampoo and conditioner. I haven't showered recently. Your voice is audible, but barely. I think you might be standing in your bathroom cabinet. You're much smaller than me, but only physically. I open the cabinet and find an almost-empty trashcan there.

In your trash is a tin of hair wax. Around it is a half-peeled label featuring a picture of some sharp-nosed bird. Your hairstyle is no longer fashionable. Underneath the tin are sheets of torn and wadded typing paper.

In our language this must mean something. Most of the scraps are white and empty but, here and there, I see bits you've marked. I fish out an a and then a couple s's. In the lining of the trashcan, there's a pen that says, THIS PEN HAS BEEN STOLEN FROM THE SWIMMING RETAIL CENTER. I didn't even know that you could swim. I find another a, and an lb. Then, I unwad a tiny piece on which you've penciled tro. I recognize your handwriting but you've torn pages so that I can't simply put them back together. It's not like you to make things easy—no, not you.

You've told me a mosaic is often made from asymmetrical pieces. I know you understand this, deeply. My eyes soften to take in all your letters at once. They arrange, then rearrange and shift into one cohesive thought—albatross. You're really very clever. I know the meaning of this word precisely. An albatross is a kind of bird and also a constant burden, or a thing that handicaps.

I peel the plastic from your eye. It isn't messy; the blood remains encapsulated. Your eye isn't black but a blue so dark it reads this way sometimes. I twirl your eye, bringing my face closer to the parts that shine. There, inside silver bits, I see my own diffracted features. After all these years, I finally understand you. With the discarded pen, I connect the reflective fragments underneath the surface of your eye. I trace the patterns of my mind here, with these lines I write.

Kathleen McCarty McLaughlin

Kathleen McCarty McLaughlin works and lives in Chicago. A prose piece of hers also appears in the Denver Quarterly.