|IGNORANCE IN DETAIL|
By Michael J. Coene
I didn’t know Jan very well. We worked together at a restaurant. Organic, gluten-free, farm-fresh, overpriced sandwiches and salads. Jan was a server there. I was a cook, working the line to support my starving career as an author. Jan was the oldest person working at the restaurant by a bit of a margin—perhaps, even, by a decade. She was quiet. She seemed reluctant to involve herself in the silliness and hyperactive antics of the ever-changing, ever-twenty-year-old servers. She seemed a little standoffish, though I never could tell if it was because she didn’t like the younger servers, or because she wanted secretly to be included without knowing how to go about it. She seemed nice enough, to me, but other people often asked if I knew what her problem was.
One day, after work, I got the opportunity to know Jan a little better. My car was in the shop. I was walking to the bus stop. The walk wasn’t long—maybe four minutes, tops. The sky leaked and drizzled. I was getting soggy. I’m sure my face looked more displeased than whatever I was feeling. Rain tends to make the slightly negative look worse.
Jan pulled up. Her simple car was beige. I thought it was appropriate that Jan’s car was beige. “Need a lift?” she asked, rolling down the window. Her smile seemed to tell me that she thought the phrase need a lift? sounded goofy in any situation other than a bad movie script.
I thought about insisting that I was fine. I didn’t mind the rain and I didn’t mind the bus. Not that I wanted to avoid Jan, or anything. Genuinely, I did not see the rain and the bus as any kind of burden, and even welcomed the change of pace. I saw no reason to burden someone else when the burden being lifted didn’t feel like a burden when I simply carried it myself.
Although, I guess, if I’m being totally honest, a part of me didn’t want to sit through any forced chit-chat. I didn’t know Jan very well. We had no rapport. Small talk as a whole makes me more uncomfortable than what is reasonable for most adults, so I try generally to avoid it, if and when I can.
But I said, “Sure,” and then I said, “Thanks!” and then I scurried to the passenger’s side door. I didn’t have to scurry, but I did scurry, so Jan could have some evidence that her gesture was appreciated.
“No problemo,” Jan tried casually to chirp. She put the car in gear and pulled away from the curb.
“Stick shift,” I nodded at her hand. “Nice.”
“Wouldn’t have it any other way,” she looked proud, and also pleased, that I thought enough about the stick shift to comment on it. Or maybe she was just glad that I didn’t sound all male and condescending when I brought it up. Possibly, probably, both.
We started with the chit-chat. Mostly joking back and forth, attempts to demonstrate our wits without appearing too pretentious. At first, our jokes stayed on the mild side. Easy ones. Layups. It was nice. Our rapport came together much more easily than I ever would’ve thought. I found myself having a good time. Jan did, too. We let the jokes get a little darker—a little more real—and even that came about in a way that felt natural.
I was saying something—all caught up in the conversational roll. Something funny about something very serious, I think. Who knows what I was going on about, because, at that exact moment, Jan changed the subject. Like, changed it, hard.
“I learned something about that when my father tried to kill himself,” she said.
I was stunned in my seatbelt. Her attempt had been to move us toward the topic of her father’s suicide smoothly, but the way had not been smooth. Not at all. It sounded like something she’d been eager to talk to me about for a long time—well, maybe not me, specifically; but, someone (though, maybe me). My apartment was ten minutes away. The ride home would soon be over. Knowing she was pressed for time, Jan must’ve decided to force the segue through, no matter how rough the terrain.
“We’d been giving so much of ourselves to him,” she explained. Her voice didn’t sound like it was seeking any pity.
“My sister and I.”
“Got it. Sorry—go ahead.”
“It’s okay. Anyway, in the months leading up to the attempt, my sister and I did everything we could to help him. We knew that he was dangerously depressed, knew that it was severe. Committing suicide had become enough of a possibility that we were actively discussing different ways to stave it off, and what to do if it happened.”
“Wow…” I said, but the word felt hollow, and childish, so I added, “Jesus,” which wasn’t much better.
“We gave so much. Of ourselves, you know? Our energy. Our love. Our time. So much of our lives we sacrificed in order to devote as much time and energy as we had to keeping him alive and—if possible—even happy.”
“Jesus,” I said, uselessly, again.
“We did it gladly, too. We wanted to do it. We never complained, or even thought, really, about how much of ourselves we were giving up in order to try and help him. Not until after the attempt did we start to think about ourselves in it.”
“So, you say attempt because he didn’t…”
“He didn’t pull it off, no. Unsuccessful. I don’t like that word, though. Doesn’t it imply that success is the word to use if someone does pull it off? I’ve tried, but I still haven’t found a better word, even though it seems like there has to be one out there. Incomplete sounds a lot more neutral, but almost too neutral—computery—so I don’t know.”
I thought about suggesting the results were negative, kind of how negative results are a good thing when getting tested for a disease. It seemed to fit, since attempted suicides fall into a medical category at the point of being physically attempted, but I wasn’t sure my idea was any better than incomplete, or even unsuccessful (though I agreed that unsuccessful felt too uncomfortable to use).
The rain picked up, battered loud against the car. Jan paused, maybe to arrange her thoughts in a line that was easier to present. The rain increased again, pounding down at us like pressing time. Jan moved along. I stopped thinking about the words.
“So, okay,” she spoke a bit more hurriedly, now.
“When the attempt finally happened, we learned that—from our father’s perspective—my sister and I were just specks in his eyes, just squiggles that were in the way a little. Specks that are there, but not present enough for him to want to, like, swat them away. You know the specks I’m talking about?”
“Yeah. Silly little clear things, move when your eyes move, but never in a way that coincides with your movements.”
Jan chuckled, “Not bad, Mr. Author.”
My mouth finally figured out how to say nothing and just let her go on speaking. My throat made some kind of sympathetic croak, though, which was entirely unintended. I didn’t look to see if she had heard it.
“All that… all that effort, you know? Not only did we fail, but the man couldn’t even see that any emotional expense from his daughters had been happening, couldn’t even recognize that any sacrifice had been made. He couldn’t see… anything. We were just specks. Mildly a nuisance.”
“Couldn’t…” I tried to make sure I understood. “You use couldn’t…”
Jan nodded, enthusiastically, as if I’d landed on a crucial point, “Exactly—couldn’t. He wasn’t being stubborn, or cruel. He wasn’t in denial about what he’d put us through. At the psychiatric hospital, we learned that his brain—I’d say his soul but it’s so much worse to think of it that way—is physically incapable of understanding us as individuals with as much of a presence in this world as his own. He knows we’re his daughters. He understands what daughters are in relation to him—all the social context, the biological implications, the legal responsibilities involved in being the father of two daughters—but, beyond that, he cannot see us as anything more.”
Every possible thing to say felt equally like the wrong thing to say. I tried to find anything at all. The pause grew and then it kept on growing, curling itself around every rock I overturned in my hunt for what to say. The sound of it growing and creeping silently along was almost too much to bear—a brief but panicked moment occurred in me, in which I almost demanded to be let out of the car. Finally, I decided to just open my mouth, and watch the random words fumble out on their own, if for no other reason than to stop the silence from spreading any farther than it already had, “Jan, I can’t… I mean, how do you begin, really, to wrap your head… it just doesn’t even seem…”
“I know,” she agreed, almost offhandedly. “You don’t. It isn’t.”
We pulled into the alleyway behind my apartment building. The car idled. We idled. The whole world seemed to idle—a world that felt like it could stall at any moment.
“Anyway,” Jan turned to me, her tone taking on the shape of a conclusion. “The point I’m trying to make, here, I think, is that you never really know how you seem to someone else. You have all these ideas, spend all this time analyzing other peoples’ reactions to you, to your personality. You craft yourself accordingly, constantly, and—in some cases—even confidently. But all of it—every last bit of it—it’s all pointless. You won’t ever, ever know. Won’t even come close, really.
“What I’m saying… I’m saying that you shouldn’t worry so much about how people react to you. I’ve read your work, Mr. Author—it’s filled with all these observations, and analyses. Interpretations of body language, habits, tics, tones, eyes, fears, changes, thoughts, patterns. So much behavioral minutiae. And, please, don’t get me wrong—it’s all very impressive. It’s all very well written, and very fascinating, I think, how much you manage to squeeze out of such small human things. And you’re funny, too, which is good, because honestly your work would be unbearable if you weren’t funny about it.
“But—and sorry if I’m rambling, here—but I’m trying to say that all this stuff, it’s just not a real indicator of what people see when they see you, what they think when they think about you. Indicators don’t exist. No matter how hard you look, how close you get, how far you zoom in—there’s simply nothing there for you. You cannot—and will not—know. Period.”
Before this conversation, the longest talk I’d ever had with Jan had been about Fair Trade coffee. We’d wondered what the heck the term Fair Trade really meant, and then looked it up on her smartphone. The person I was seeing now, however, looked entirely different from the standoffish woman whose smartphone had a crack in the upper right-hand corner of its screen. Given the context of all that Jan had just told me, I figured it was pretty ironic that I now saw her as a completely different person. I wondered if she knew that some kind of change in how I saw her would occur as a result of her telling me that it didn’t matter how I saw her. I wanted to ask, didn’t know how to ask, and decided not to. But I felt that I could ask—and would—some other time. Probably on another day with rain in it.
Tenderness developed like a mist in the car. Jan’s hand was on the stick shift. My hand went to hers without any mental activation on my part. Her fingers took mine, squeezed my fingers, and held. We stared into the rain. In the upper right-hand corner of her windshield, a spidery crack had recently been born—it was almost identical to the crack in Jan’s smartphone. Soon the crack would spread across the surface of the windshield. The glass would need to be replaced.
“Work tomorrow?” Jan asked, our hands staying put for just a moment longer.
“I do,” gently, I released her hand in order to fuss with the seatbelt and the car door. “Evening shift—you?”
“Ah,” I got out of the car and put my head back in before shutting the door. “Thanks for the ride, Jan. And, um, thank you, also, for the rest of it. For sharing, I mean.”
Jan smiled, “And thank you for listening. Sorry if it was a bit much…”
“No, no—it wasn’t. It was fine. Good, even. Well, not good as in good that it happened, or—you know what I mean, I think.”
“You’re fine,” she laughed at me. I was glad about it. “Go home, Mr. Author,” she said, putting the car in gear again. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
I shut the car door. Jan drove off. Before she rounded the corner of the alleyway, I waved goodbye again. I couldn’t tell if she waved back. I watched her simple beige car turn out of sight, chug back through the fading rain to whatever home she had, whatever living situation she found herself in. I wondered what her home looked like—the atmosphere in there.
The door to my apartment building swung closed behind me. It landed with a thick clap. I winced. The door was way too loud. Hopefully, the neighbors wouldn’t get pissed. I had a tendency to either slam doors too loudly, or prompt them so carefully that they didn’t even catch. It was a pretty weird flaw. As I walked quietly down the hall, I wondered what kind of person couldn’t strike a balance with something so routine as doors.
Michael J. Coene’s short stories have appeared in Barrelhouse Magazine, The Canary Press, Your Impossible Voice, and more. He lives with a blind dog above a duck-pin bowling alley in Baltimore. He has written five unpublished novel manuscripts.