A lesson on perfect distance.
You started by telling me a story off that old motorway four turns left of turnpike twenty nine, where the old skeleton of a diner lay, so remote it had even been deserted by the very dredges of society. Just one of those wishy-washy, ambiguous tales with a nameless cast of characters, wrought through with some wraithlike morale the likes of which could never really be pinned down. God, I hated those. The kind my mother used to tell me when I was younger, I said. To you, that made me lucky or something. You were never told anything like that.
I rolled my eyes and explained stoically that there were reasons, of course - differing cultures, upbringings, personal beliefs, etc. My own mother’s prevailing viewpoint that each and every person was entitled to their own set of moral guidelines. But you weren’t listening - you suck at listening - so I aimed for something more concrete and why not the obvious? The fact that four years ago you had packed up and left on the cryptic mission of finding something or other, the details of which didn’t matter, the details of which I couldn’t recall.
"You ask too many questions," you told me, smiling at the rising sun and that made me angry - inexplicably angry - because I wanted answers and you wanted the morning and that made me wretched, somehow.
I asked for: "A sorry, an explanation maybe? At least to make up for the gas wasted to haul my ass up here, instead of your stupid platitudes?" You hadn’t even said hello.
You asked if I wanted you to lie to me, so I kicked you in the shins.
"Gee, El," you said, wincing. "It’s awfully nice to see you."
"The end of the world," you had told me. That was it: the end of the world.
We had been right out of high school then, fresh-faced but already world-weary; crumpled around the edges. And you, like the damn hippie you are, told me about it while we had been back-to-school shopping, for god’s sake. Let it slip after one of my inconsequential decision-making spiels on the quality of .5 versus .7 caliber mechanical lead pencils.
"The end of the world?" I asked, unsurprised because insanely, it all started to make sense: your lack of post-secondary plans, the non-pre-requisite courses and all, but I figured you’d just drift around for the intermittent years and end up sleeping on my couch one day anyway. Wasn’t that exactly how it had gone for the last - oh - fourteen years? "Wow. How medieval is that?"
"Very," you agreed, and handed me a pen.
I woke up at seven-thirty this morning, an hour earlier than I needed to, and went out for a coffee at the Starbucks on the corner. Bought my usual from the same barista who served me each morning- a short, thirty-something guy whose coffee-making prowess was somehow inversely proportional to his mood du jour. It didn’t matter - somewhere along the line, I figured a cheery disposition wasn’t worth its weight in bad coffee; this probably occurred around the same point in which I became a bona fide grown up.
There was sand in my shoes from last night, the memory of the forty-three minute drive back still achingly fresh in my head. When I asked you where you were staying you told me you were going home and that you’d meet me back there in a week. Then, Mars would be closest to our (our) part of the world and you’d always wondered if that tiny prick of light would be vaguely recognizable from those old illustrations in our grade two textbooks. I rolled my eyes and looked meaningfully at my gas meter, but didn’t say anything.
"I watched this special on them, you know," you told me when the sun had almost fully risen. Plane trails shamelessly traced the achingly endless blue. "The admirable art of the fable."
"Huh," I answered, kicking at an old, weather-hewn sign. Thought: they must be running out of topics for B-rate documentaries. The letters there were painstakingly etched in fading red paint, their message now thoroughly encrypted by the elements. "When?"
"Four a.m.? I don’t know, something like that."
I told you that I thought the only things on at that hour were bad porn and stupid infomercials. You told me I was watching all the wrong channels.
"You love those things, huh?"
You laughed. Your laugh could put broken glass back together. "Love those things. They read like a freaking punch to the gut, I don’t understand how you don’t. That aside, it’s still got whatever you need: societal tropes, struggling heroes, moral ambiguity that would blow Kant out of the water."
I told you that anybody could dice and chop an old story - but the characters still needed names, nevertheless.
"Why?" You asked, smiling. "Does it make the answers more obvious? For example: why did you come out here?" You counted off on your fingers playfully; long and slender, they glowed in the light. "It could’ve been the boredom, right? Or just to see my handsome mug? Don’t tell me, your ass hurt from all your ergonomic office space? Ha, I told you those things don’t work."
I shook my head and thought of ages and ages ago, of you filling empty and listless hours with the sound of your voice and worthless platitudes, and climbed back into my safe four-door and drove all the way home without looking back.
What exactly did you mean by the edge of the world?
When you told me, I had thought immediately of altitude. Thought: Everest, maybe. Kilimanjaro. Maybe Kinabalu in South-East Asia. In my head I mapped out the rough equivalent of miles, of kilometers by land and by sea, by air. The geography unfolded then converted to numbers in my mind: how much in currency, how much in time, how many headings on a rigid itinerary read under the brim of a practical hat.
You hated hats, of course, said they suffocated your brain. I wondered loudly if you had any brains to start with, and you poked me in the elbow - right under the funny bone, left of my heart. That was beside the point; it all served to show the sharp contrast of our natures - you all flowing curves and my hard angles, all of it having absolutely nothing to do with gender but rather the topography of our souls.
You were an explorer, of course, descended from a long and ancient line of travelers. When I was younger, your mother would take down all her ivory and beach glass, old saris and papyri, smooth her light fingers over the stained creases and talk to me about distance. She taught me about Turkish coffee customs, about chasing butterflies in Cambodia. She taught me practical things, too: about haggling at market fairs and shaking out your shoes for scorpions. About never falling in love with anyone you’d never go back to. Somewhere in there was another unanswered story about your father, but I guess it was just one of those things I was never meant to know - you never talked about his leaving when I asked. So I stopped asking.
Your mother taught me that I could never understand then the way I understand now - for all the miles circumnavigating the earth, the space between souls could still be so much greater than all the footsteps all the feet in all the world could ever take.
So I was a cartographer - burdened and weighed to the earth by books and pens and logic. Maybe this was why, that summer when your smile suddenly looked beautiful in the afternoon light, I realized we could never be the way I wanted us to be. Because you’d always be out there, forging new paths, naming new mountains and I’d always be here, behind the scrolls and compasses, dialing your number with ink-stained fingertips. Waiting for you to pick up.
I’d always held much store by names, but you knew this already. To me, nomenclature was an art form - necessary to indicate possession to this earth - it lent the weight and substance required to keep all things anchored to our world. Names were an important thing, in the line of blood and bone and money. Necessary. Essential.
Yeah, you said once, mulling this over on the steps behind the old chapel. That sounds exactly like you.
I said: think about it, though, all those years down the line and what do we have now, millennia later? Civilization, culture. Languages -
"And self-cleaning ovens?"
Shut up, I said, listen, I’m serious. But language isn’t at all like what they teach in class, it’s not about predicates and conjunctions. Conjugated verbs. A language is just a whole set of names for every known thing in the universe. You have to admit, it’s all so -
"Civilized. Yeah. Maybe."
I did the research on a whim four days into your return, on my lunch break in the library across the bank, because it was what I did. It was what I had done in all the days of your absence: labeled my life and laid it all in boiled jars, side-by-side, in perfectly civilized rows on perfectly civilized shelves in the midst of utter savagery. I pressed my finger against the glowing buzz of the screen, the map of the city like a lesson in perfect asymmetry, followed all the routes and highways and veins until they converged to the place I was looking for. The heart. The end of the world.
Point. Click. Zoom.
They used to say that your answers would always be found in the last place you’d look. They lied. Sometimes it was the first.
I came back one week later, right there off the crumbling turnpike, papercuts on my fingers and cabinet keys in my pocket. It wasn’t easy, but I met you.
You’ve always had this annoying and somewhat preternatural affinity for choosing the absolute least heel-friendly rendez-vous terrain - something you’d arranged with a quick phone call to my cell from some backwater payphone, sounding so rushed and urgent I hurried over as quick as possible, not thinking about the rumpled hem of my skirt.
You’re an asshole, of course - but I knew that already.
You glanced back at me from the worn signpost and grinned, the letters: E- -F - -OR-D, corroded and withering away in rodeo orange. I wondered why they hadn’t just torn the damn thing down already - torn the whole unimpressive, unsanitary building up from its concrete roots - but figured it had everything to do with the way happenstance had thrown the rising sun directly behind you when you raised a hand in greeting, the filamentous glow engulfing your silhouetted black fingers like the orange corona of a black, misshapen sun. Around you, the night peeled away in silence.
"The end of the world, huh?" I looked at the sign, it’s half-hearted attempt to convey meaning.
The faintest hint of smile. "Gee, El - it’s awfully nice to see you, too."