coming from C&R Press Spring 2018
In Sophie’s version, I was muttering to myself (which I was) when we met, muttering like some sort of professorial street-corner vagrant declaiming Milton between gulps of Mad Dog. We were standing in the produce section of a Harris Teeter and she was trying to get to the spaghetti squash while I muttered, gaze trailing to my feet, finger at my chin, until I finally looked up to her with a thin tremor of shock. She’d tell friends I appeared displaced, an alien struggling for his bearings in a strange, new world.
And she liked to talk about it. She enjoyed telling the story, her body taking a new posture, a bit more erect, as she haltingly extended a hand toward the now-invisible squash and withdrew it, extended and withdrew, around my described movements. She might have worked that gesture into a hundred paintings, but in those moments she simply enjoyed enacting it.
Our friends would laugh, every time; more at her joy in performance than the mysteries of the story itself, and I would half-heartedly attempt to explain myself, falling back finally on the easy but true excuse that, well, I was already in love. Josh would stump into the kitchen for another round and Sasha would nestle herself even deeper into the lumpy frame of the couch. Others would jostle their chips, or tidy the abandoned playing cards and Sophie would position herself before me, whether I was perched on a chair or deep in a couch, she would turn, throw out her arms, and fall backward into me as if into a pool.
Our friends knew the particulars, having heard multiple versions over the years. At times their responses resembled the audience-participation elements of a cult movie. Ellen or John might shout or mutter, for dramatic effect, “and then he turned toward me and…” or announce loudly and definitively, “I like Spaghetti Squash!” They knew the particulars, at least her version:
The first words spoken, me to her, the following interjected questions usually stepping on the toes of her answers: “Uh, what do you do?”
“I’m a painter, what about you?”
“I’m a security guard, what do you paint?”
“Oils, acrylic, mixed media.”
“Mixed media, what’s that?”
“It means I can glue a bug to the canvas if I want. I painted a tree once, I mean I put paint on the tree and painted it. Once. What do you guard?”
“Space. I guard space.” In response to her blank look, I elaborate: “Right now I’m guarding an empty building.”
“Well…it’s quiet, I imagine.”
“Yeah, quiet. It’s alright, I guess. It’s just, you know…space.”
And in her telling of the story, the conversation might shift or stall, but some things remained constant. I continued to stand directly in front of the spaghetti squash and she, having already set her mind to the delicate threads of the fore-mentioned vegetable, determined to wait me out or shift me in my orbit. So, she continued to talk to me, despite my unredeemed social awkwardness, my late-onset Aspergers, hoping to negotiate a position from which to snatch her prize until, as she would tell it, something relaxed in her, the squash loosened its hold in her awareness, and she began to listen to me…she actually looked at me…and she began to enjoy our conversation.
So there we were, she liked to say: I look like I don’t know what, coming from the studio covered in paint and glue and he’s wearing a shirt with a frayed collar and some jacket his mother probably bought him ten years before (here, I would nod) and he would pivot to face me every time I moved, like a goalie protecting an invisible net. Oblivious, completely oblivious.
“Do you like it?” she asks, with an air of impatience I wouldn’t have noticed.
“I like the space. Not so much the guarding.” She wrestles with this answer while I prod the conversation forward, “Painting. I guess you like that,” grinning at my own awkwardness, “I mean, you wouldn’t do it if you didn’t like it.”
“Yeah.” She smiles. “I like colors.” She fondles a stain on her grimy sweatshirt. “Red. Today was a red day.”
“How do you do it?”
“Just like that, he asked me how I did it. And there was something about the innocence of the question that compelled me to answer. I mean”, and here her hands would rise before her in a semblance of mock abandon, “if a five-year-old asks what happened to Fluffy after she died, you can’t just say, ‘Well, she’s rotting in the ground’. You have to make up some kind of answer.
‘Sometimes,’ I told him, ‘…sometimes I put the brush on the canvas and wait for the first stroke…’”
He nodded, she would say, nodding blankly herself, he nodded as if he knew exactly what I meant but I knew, she would say, that he had no clue. It was only later I’d discover he understood completely.
She becomes exasperated somehow, impatient somehow, rushing the next words in order to have the question and the exchange over for good: “…and sometimes I paint and paint and wait for the image to appear.”
And I stand there, staring at her as if it takes a very long time for her words to fall within earshot. As if they are traveling over a vast abyss and I have to parse their meaning from fragments of echo.
Here, Sophie would pause quite a long time for dramatic effect, a gaping, puzzled, innocent look on her face, turning within the room to each member of the audience, attempting to impart a small measure of her confusion at my open expression and the stuttering pause in our conversation.
And finally, she would shrug, returning to the role of herself, but not before the gift of a glance to me, wherever I was in the room, a glance which held the tiniest nested caress.
She shrugs, shaking off the whole idea of a conversation, “But right now I’m thinking about dinner. Some sort of dinner.”
She edges toward the obstacle that is me, a pantomime of shouldering to a crowded bar, muttering now to herself, “Squash maybe, but what kind?”
At which point the gathered crowd, taking my role, would intone in unison, “I like Spaghetti Squash!”
She laughs. And I laugh. She extends her hand to me, wherever I am, swallowed by the sofa or gangly on a ladder-back chair: “My name’s Sophie.”
Taking her hand, “Hi, I’m Doug.”
And she accomplishes a graceful half-turn and falls back into me.
And the beautiful and variegated versions of that story were told, branching and returning as water strained through smaller tributaries and finally meeting again at a cardinal point, told and re-told until they weren’t any longer, until we were no longer together, until the once we were had faded, and each version of the story quietly folded itself into memory.