Once upon a time there was a woman who wrote prose poems in grilled cheese sandwiches. She used sharp cheddar, for emotional gravitas. Her poems came out all gooey, but crispy, even if at times slightly burned. She had been told, by friends, relatives, her chiropractor and her dry cleaner, that there was something about her writing, something they couldn’t put a finger on, or wouldn’t put a finger on, not without a napkin. Perhaps, they said, the melting made for a more dynamic narrative. Encouraged, the woman began sending her work to magazines. The replies were frequently positive. These poems they wouldn’t publish, the editors wrote, but she should write more, other ones. They were looking for a sharper contrast between pieces written in cheddar and pieces in words. One editor suggested studying post-modernism and using gluten-free bread.
Another man once told me that realism was coming back. He claimed to be a professor of linguistical principals, and I had no choice but to believe him, despite his habit of forgetting to put a napkin on his lap at meal times. Or maybe because of it. I asked him, the professor, where realism had been. Before he could answer that, he said, he had to assess my literal understanding of fictional space. He leaned in, close, and his breath made the hair around my face sway. I told him that I had a few concerns. Not knowing where realism was coming from, we had to worry about what it could have picked up along the way. It would be safer to quarantine for a month a two, before letting it back in. What if it had been smuggled into the country illegally, on pages of novellas? How long does it intend to stay, this time around? Picture this. It parks itself on my couch, watches Netflix in its underwear, and abuses my Seamless account. And I cannot get it to leave. I haven’t spoken to the professor since then. Look at the time he said, as if time was splayed out on an operating table in front of us. After he was gone, I used an all-surface cleaner to remove his words from my furniture.
Once upon a time there was a woman who wrote limericks in white rhinos, mostly in small herds. They were a tad heavy on the page, but had grace and were elusive, like sleep. She bought a domain called “rhino-ceros.org,” because “rhino-ceros.com” was already taken by a company that sold digital footprints of habitual buyers of gourmet dry meats. Every week, she’d post a new limerick. To her own surprise, she grew popular. Comments poured in, mostly positive, often flattering. There was a strong public sentiment that something had to be done to help the endangered species, especially the white rhinos, because so few were left on this planet. One comment-or cited an article from the Atlantic, proper link and all, with a scientific study of how many white rhinos now remained. The consensus among researchers was – almost one, give or take. The limericks, the giddy public replied, were so unusual, yet still so accessible. Having read them, they could walk away with the knowledge of the magnitude of the problem and the sense of having been involved. There were a few nay-sayers. One reader questioned how anyone who truly cared about the environment could be writing anything in Helvetica. But he was quickly labeled a marginalized grumpy old-timer. In a matter of months, the woman was offered a book deal, which was later turned into a Netflix series. The lead was played by a famous, though somewhat aging, actress and the setting was turned post-apocalyptic. The heroine was an environmental activist, trying to save the Iberian lynx and find love with a man who was truly her equal, after a nuclear explosion wiped out most of the Northern Hemisphere. The producers found the lynx to be more photogenic than the rhino, and easier to work with.
What makes a man reliable? Say, he always ties his left shoe before his right. He has a habit of humming a Bob Dylan tune when checking baseball scores. He never closes the cupboard door after eating cereal in the middle of the night. Would that be enough empirical evidence to infer that if there was a nuclear explosion, he wouldn’t leave? Picture this. One morning you’re standing by your kitchen window thinking you’re out of milk. Then notice the mushroom cloud rising above the new luxury high-rise across the street. Wake up, you tell this man. And suddenly he remembers he had a meeting with his accountant, grabs his car keys, slides toward the door, as if your floor was not wood but Jell-O, and promises to be back in eight hours. You could grab the phone charger, extra socks, the toothbrush and the coin purse, and head into the woods. You could wait, and record the anxiety in a Word doc you recklessly save on your desktop. Can’t think too long – while you’re thinking, knowing that neither option makes sense, the radioactive particles are pushing and shoving each other in what used to be your air. Do you tell him that you might wait, but you aren’t so sure? How much truth can you tell him, anyway, if you plan on doing it in words?
Once upon a time there lived a woman who didn’t try enough to tell the truth. Then a nuclear disaster happened. She couldn’t remember much of her prior life – only that there was a man, who did a lot of leaving. In the beginning, she’d miss him, then she wouldn’t. The last time he left, he asked her to write a short story. Then: boom. She was still in her underwear, warming her hands on a coffee cup with too little milk, watching the mushroom cloud rise. She understood that many people have died, some before they tried to escape, and some after. She wasn’t sure why she didn’t. The planet was chugging along, post-apocalyptic holes and all, without wireless cable, IRS, Christmas pageants, and instant coffee. The squirrel population was out of control. This woman couldn’t remember what real bacon tasted like, but squirrel bacon sure didn’t taste the same. She had no plan. Uncertain what to do, she watched each day spill into the next. She had an inkling that she already had lived like that, in the before, but she couldn’t confirm it now, in the after. A man had asked her to write a story. She was trying, rummaging through heaps of words, used, though some still in acceptable condition, chasing away the squirrels, who’d eat anything. She wasn’t waiting for the man to come back, but worried that if he did, and she’d have nothing to show him, she’d appear unreliable. The truth was, no one wants to be unreliable and alone.
I knew, from experience, that the man who left today would be back late. Just late enough for me to figure out what to write, then not have the time to write it. I put the dishes in the sink. After clearing the table space to be angry, I wasn’t angry, and trying became repetitive. Plus, it’s better to wait for someone who is coming back than for someone who is leaving. He might bring me a gift. Last week, he brought me a pocket size wind turbine. I put it on my bookshelf, next to Atlas Britannica. When I learned, on Twitter, that the Heathrow Airport had been closed due to a high wind advisory, I decided this man really cared. About me. Things he had given me since we’ve met are scattered around my apartment. And when I’m old, older than I am already, I may not remember what they are. Or what they were. But I had the eight hours he had left me to use productively. I tagged all his gifts with posted notes. On every note, I wrote from a man. Would that be enough to know, in time, what this was: love or a short story, predictable, but growing out of control, like the squirrel population? It was hard to tell, without more empirical evidence. I added a caret in front of the word man and wrote wait-able, with a question mark, above it.