Note: We've been a little light in the Make category, where we promised ourselves we would "write stories and poems and essays, and let people read them" (among other things). Here's a story I've been tinkering with for a month or two.
I like it a lot, but we all like the sound of our own voice, don't we?
One day, Joseph and Stacey had no more words.
They had long ago agreed, with good intentions, to leave their loaded words behind. To stop using them. Cold turkey. Neither judged the other. They came to realize that some words simply couldn't work for the two of them.
That over time, some definitions had been eclipsed by collections of moments. That these words had slowly surrendered themselves to sadness, anger, joy, contentment or fear. That there were words they didn't - and couldn't - understand in the same way the other understood them. Eventually, they decided to just stop fighting it.
Joseph explained it to his friend, Carl.
"Once or twice a year I hear "Keep on Loving You" by REO Speedwagon on the radio. Every single time, I think about trading notes with Jill Davis in sixth period study hall in tenth grade.
"Or every time I see a Mercedes Benz on the highway my mind goes to the Janice Joplin documentary I watched with my son, and how affected I was that Janice kept going home. No matter what. Janice always went home.
"I know," Joseph said, "'Keep on Loving You' is objectively not about Jill or high school or notes in study hall. A Mercedes Benz driving down the highway is objectively not about the fear of losing my children.
"Objectively not. But completely so."
Carl couldn't make the connection between a German luxury automobile brand and the fear of losing one's son, or what any of it had to do with words. Joseph talked in puzzles all the time, and Carl found it more than a little off-putting. But he didn't say so. He simply nodded like he understood, and took a sip of his IPA.
Even though they attended the same university, Joseph and Stacey didn't meet until a few months after graduating, when each began working for Congressmen Dean. Joseph in DC as a part-time volunteer while he attended Georgetown Law. Stacey as a poorly paid staffer in one of the congressman's district offices in Hamilton, Ohio. Even then they only occasionally spoke, usually when Joseph called Stacey for more information when he was drafting a response to a constituent's letter for Mr. Dean.
But they worked closely together on 1990 campaign. They fell in love. Dean lost the election, but Stacey found a position on the staff of a member from an adjacent district. She moved to DC. Eventually they bought a condo together in Old Town, and they married in May, 1992 - shortly after Joseph graduated from law school and began his clerkship.
By May 2002 they realized they had a word problem.
For a while, they thought their shared experiences might help salvage some of the loaded words. That perhaps a transformed word or two might have the same meaning for both of them. That they could use a loaded word in its new form, and there would be no misunderstanding.
But it never worked. There was always just enough light between the way they experienced these moments - in how they felt - that they never arrived at the same place together. She couldn’t quite understand what he meant by "Sunday School," even though they had both attended regularly through sixth grade. She loved Sunday School. But to him, "Sunday School" was believing too hard and not fitting in with those who didn't - even if he would never have said it in those terms.
They had both grown up in the country. but he would often infer precisely what she didn’t intend when she spoke. It wasn't his fault that when she said, "goose," he didn't, and couldn't, know about the time she had been attacked by an actual goose at a roadside farmer's market when she was four. In fact, even Stacey didn't remember the incident. But it left a mark just the same.
"Goose" brought Joseph back to sitting on his mom's lap and falling asleep to the sound of her voice as she read aloud some book about Canadian Geese whose title had long ago faded from his memory.
"Goose" certainly didn't suggest existential childhood terror to Joseph.
Their inability to connect frustrated them. It made each wonder, despite their deep affection and determination to be good partners, whether they had rushed into their marriage. They spoke the same language, and yet they didn't hear the same thing - even when they heard the same thing. How did this little-big thing fail to surface during their extended engagement - during their weekly dinners in cheap Southeast DC restaurants, through their shared appreciation of Coen Brothers films and John Irving novels? Had they ever understood what the other was saying? Did they even know one another? Neither could say for sure.
No one could.
So ten years ago, at the suggestion of a counselor who came very highly recommended by Stacey's friend, Jean, they decided first to find, and after trying to reconcile them for a few months, then to leave the loaded words behind. It seemed sensible. And they wanted to believe they loved each another, so they were willing to give it a shot.
In the first couple of months, they discarded hundreds of words. Words like "ignorant", "uneducated", "math", "choose", "basketball", "alien", "viola", "dance", "cheerleader", and so many more that, without the moments each had collected over decades, independently or together, were harmless really. But with experience, they had become sources of endless confusion and conflict.
Together, they simply dumped them on the side of the road, got back in the car, and drove away.
Once the initial purge was complete, they were happier than they had ever been. Freer than they had ever thought possible, with no fear of unintentional offenses. Not only had they discarded the loaded words, but they also left behind the collections of moments that had overtaken their objective meanings. Without these memories, both remembered and forgotten, they were free to be more curious than they had been since their first few dates.
Joseph asked questions he once believed he knew the answers to. He was usually surprised. And he always fell a little more deeply in love with Stacey when she was so fearlessly candid in her responses. He discovered the complete contentment of being trusted by the one you trust.
As did Stacey.
They discovered they liked one another. Joseph and Stacey talked about money and religion and food and sex. They spent hours sharing their dreams and secret desires that they never dared to share with anyone. Yearnings that sounded ridiculous even when they remained locked away in the deepest part of their minds, but somehow less so when they spoke them with one another.
One night as they lay in bed, Joseph confessed that he thought he might have been a slightly psychic as a child. He told her the story of the day in the Spring of his senior year in high school when something told him to leave his baseball gear at home. That something deep inside him was adamant that afternoon's game would be rained out, and was determined that he should listen. He told Stacey how he checked the forecast in the morning paper and saw there was zero chance of rain. How he ignored the voice and packed his glove, cleats and uniform into his gym bag, and then a rogue thunderstorm had blown though the area an hour before the game was supposed to begin. How the game had been rained out.
Joseph often wondered if that was some sort of inflection point of his life. If his life might have taken on a completely different arc had he listened to whatever it was that told him to leave his gear at home. Instead of a real estate attorney, might he have become a moderately successful graphics designer living in SoMa who occasional got asked to paint murals?
Not only did she understand, she joined him in San Francisco, at least for that one night. She added most of the important details about their pet vizsla, whom she named Freddie - "after Nietzsche", she said.
In fact, Stacey had her own stories of near psychic-ness - and though the specifics were different, the stories followed a path similar to Joseph's. She had also wondered how her life might be different had she the courage to listen to her inner voice. Until then, she had never shared these thoughts with anyone. She had been embarrassed by them. Even when she kept them hidden away.
Six months later they left their next set of words behind. These weren’t words that had become more loaded. Rather, these were words that were loaded before they even met one another, and they simply hadn’t thought to dump them because they hadn’t used them in a while. But the words had resurfaced as replacements for those they dumped the first time. Dumping them was really just finishing the first round of the word purge, and just like the first time, they found freedom and joy. And they still had so many words.
And so it went. Words transformed. Words left behind.
Until three years ago.
One morning Stacey woke cold and restless, like she hadn’t slept. She looked down on the floor and was startled to see a pile of moments she had unceremoniously dumped over the years, along with the loaded words. She wondered if she was still sleeping and whether the moments were simply phantasms. But when she saw the dog stir in his bed, she convinced herself that she was not, and they were not.
There was the unkind and completely undeserved note that Ms. Ganz had written to her in the seventh grade suggesting she missed class because she wasn't prepared for the test that was to be given that day, when in fact, Stacey had been at home with a dangerously high fever. There was the judge looking twelve-year-old Stacey in the eye asking her which of her parents she chose to live with, and her wondering if that meant her parents hadn't fought for custody. She saw herself in the hallway of her school reading the cast list for "Hello Dolly" after she had auditioned for the role of Ernestina, who doesn't dance, at the urging of her mother, but found her name on the stage crew list instead.
Those were the ones on the top of the pile. There were countless layers underneath.
The moments she had left behind had somehow found her. She instinctively knew that every moment and every memory needed words to survive. She suspected, incorrectly as it turned out, that every moment was a survivor. Every memory timeless.
Stacey wrapped herself tightly in the comforter. Joseph lay sleeping beside her. Silently.
A few months later, she began to learn to live with the pile beside her bed. She simply stepped over it in the morning, and got on with her day.
As far as Stacey could tell, Joseph never noticed it, so there was no point in discussing the pile with him. And he was growing increasingly difficult to talk to, anyway.
And curiously, the pile shrank. Imperceptibly at first, but it was definitely got smaller. It never completely disappeared, but almost.
Still, some mornings she would wake up to find a particularly menacing moment staring up at her - one that hadn't been there the night before. On those mornings, she'd usually call into work, then go to a yoga class or to an afternoon matinee. Within a day or two, it was gone.
But the point is, she learned how to deal with these increasingly infrequent visitors.
Suppose they had actually spent the years since 2002 driving down a long straight road and tossing words out of the window when they became a problem. Imagine yourself rising above the pavement and looking back over time.
You would see just how many words Joseph and Stacey had abandoned. It was a lot of words. Hundreds of thousands of them, in fact. It was every word that they had ever known, including those they had begun making up to fill in the gaps left by the discarded words.
You would also know precisely when their son had been diagnosed with bacterial meningitis. You could see where Stacey had switched jobs, and when they had taken on a complete remodel of their dated home in Burke. You knew when her father had died, and when they had been on the cruise together. You could tell these things simply by finding the piles of words they had left to decay in the hot sun. It wouldn't be hard.
You'd also notice that recently there were fewer and fewer piles. Instead, they had discarded words one or two at a time, at increasingly longer intervals. Not in response to anything in particular. Simply as a matter of course.
Today, they were out of words. She was certain of that.
On the one hand, Stacey was relieved. She knew the terrible moments needed words to survive, so she was guardedly optimistic that they would finally leave her alone. (She suspected that she was thinking out of both sides of her mouth. She didn't care.)
On the other hand, there were no words left for her and Joseph.
Stacey knew her son wouldn't pick up if she called him.
She had changed her Facebook profile picture before coming to bed. She sat up, reached for her phone, and read through the names of friends who had liked it.