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Classic Recordings
Robert Altman Week

Thursday
Jan242013

« In Which The City Has A Short Memory »

A Box Without A Bow

by NATHAN JOLLY

Susan didn’t look like a Susan. She deserved a more exotic name, as she looked vaguely Hawaiian and windswept, the type of person who suits every cut and color of clothing, although the circumstances of her life couldn’t have been more mundane and Susan-y. A box without a bow. She worked part-time in an office that gave vague job titles and vaguer tasks, and my eyes glazed over the minute she started to veer into the minutiae of her working day. Thankfully she didn’t do this often, as she was well aware of the effect this had on most people, even though the retelling was infinitely less boring that the actual day-to-day reality of it all.

Everyone I know has worked in an office like this, where hours go slowly yet years rush by. White walls, white desks, motivational talks given by unmotivated bosses to unmotivated staff members, chipped coffee cups, passive aggressive labels on Chinese containers and Tupperware, half hearted attempts at adding color to cubicles, jokes about Mondays, photos of family members that only make the distance between the office and home come crashing into focus, blu-tack stains, people you refer to as ‘mate’ even though you’ve never said ‘mate’ before in your life, office acronyms you laugh at then start to use, 5pm crawling into view so slowly that you just want to live inside anyone else’s head because you have lived inside your own for far too long. The type of office that breeds alcoholism- not out of any real unhappiness, just due to plain old-fashioned boredom and the strong desire to fill the time with something, anything more rewarding. To feel a sense of life and warmth. To get the taste of instant coffee out of your mouth as you rush for the 5:16 train, loosen your tie and realize “I am one of those people who loosens their tie, in a business shirt, with a folded paper, on a packed train, breathing in someone else’s exhaled air, and I promised myself I would never turn out to be one of those people.

This is my air now, and this is no longer a stopgap, it is the headline, the three word title that boring, vapid people ask about at parties that I am dragged along to because I ‘never go anywhere anymore’, and because ‘they are your friends too’ – all blonde and bland, paired up with matching stories about people I don’t care to ever get to know well enough to miss when I leave – if I leave.”

Susan and I had collided one night in a pub and had settled into an informal arrangement that, should somebody hold a gun or a Sale Of The Century board-game card to my head and demand a one-word description, I would offer up meekly and with the shruggiest of shrugs as ‘dating’. In truth, at first I was more interested in her friend: a blonde fringe-y girl who had lips like Patti Boyd and who I haven’t seen since that initial evening, but as the night wore on and my pop culture references and dubious charm kept falling flat, I realized Susan was responding to me in a way I found confusing and flattering, and although I maintain that I am, on the whole, a romantic sort: it was late, I was loosened by wine and marijuana, and sometimes being lonely and being alone seem to be rather interchangeable, especially when there are so many taxicabs, bus rinks and ring roads and so, so few evenings left in which to leave a permanent mark on somebody you may one day fall in love with.

+

She looked about sixteen, swimming in an oversized jumper, and asked so sweetly for some change. I fished around in my jean pocket, but before I could act Susan cut the girl down with an angry ‘no’, which startled me with its ferocity. I involuntarily shook, like there was a ghost in my machinery. Susan didn’t notice, and I shuffled slightly out of step with her, so our footsteps were a split second out of phase, resulting in a nice percussive delay. We were on our way to the movies, she was annoyed at something else so very vague, and I pretended not to notice. I could defuse all of my past girlfriends with a series of jokes, but this just made Susan angry. “You don’t take anything seriously,” she once said, and it bothered me in an annoyingly unspecific way.

Susan hated to queue so I stood in line while she went into the bathroom. I regarded waiting in line for a movie as a vital part of the experience, for I had seen it in television shows when young, and deduced that a lot of the romance was in the anticipation of going in: the queue shuffling slowly; the smell of overpriced popcorn; the rushed chatter of others - all creating an sensory backdrop that added infinitely to the excitement of seeing a film. I never feel like going to the movies these days; it seems like a chore, but once I am there I enjoy the ritual. For me, the actual film is always secondary to all these other silly things that sound lessened when said out loud. Movie theatres hold a romance not unlike record stores or libraries. These are never sad, lonely, hollow places, in the way that a pub or a train station or a church can be, nor are they sterile like a supermarket or a hospital.

This city has a short memory. Most of the sins of the night before can be swept away by garbage trucks and cleaning crews – the bigger the city, the shorter the memory. Movie theatres are not so quick to forget: an ever-marching army of first dates and friendly outings, of laughter and tears and brushing hands on shared arm-rests. It’s relentless emotion. Susan came out of the bathroom with a huff and a hunch: “You always let people push in.”

I sat silently through the movie, holding Susan’s hand, though with all the affection that someone would apply to the clasping of a grocery bag. I was watching the moving images, but the story washed over me and the words were mere phonetics - swimming syllables without meaning. For I was thinking about that girl, all sweet and sixteen. I thought about the phrasing of her request. How it was a request, not a demand like  the junkies that cornered you and made it seem like you were looking down on them by swaggering past and not meeting their eyes - thrusting out a greedy hand as if they were a troll and you owed a golden toll. Even her grey hood, framing her face with tufts of hair peeking out from the sides made her seem younger than she probably was. A Dickens character sitting outside a Woolworths. I wondered how she came to be out there on that cement stoop at such a young age. Maybe her parents were alcoholics or the type that would up and leave without a second thought. Maybe they had died, and she was looking after her kid sister and brother all by herself. Maybe they had a home, but she went out every night, pan in hand, begging for enough to scrape together a meal for the three of them. When it doesn’t stretch, she goes without. Maybe her little brother was sick and she needed to buy medicine - although she didn’t look scared or desperate, just resigned. These things surely, surely didn’t happen in this day and age, everything is too well documented, and bills need to be paid. People can’t just die and leave a litter of kittens behind without someone in some fluorescent office somewhere noticing, can they?

Susan’s hand was cold and limp, and I realized that she had a glazed look in her eyes, as if she seemed insulted by this film. Twenty million dollars and years of passion poured into every nuance, and she turned her nose up at it. In fact, I realized, Susan didn’t even really enjoy movies. I don’t think I had ever tried to speak to her during a film only to get no response because she was that engrossed in it. She probably thought people that cried or sighed during movies were sentimental idiots, able to be brainwashed by simple storytelling techniques. She whined about her meal earlier, too, picked from a laminated menu in a Chinese restaurant near her house. She complained loudly about the food stains on the menu, and the filthy cloth used to wipe down the tables.

As we shuffled out of the cinema and into the street where the cars streamed by, the couples skipped with easy laughter, and the orange glow of lounge room lights and variety television and bedtime stories and ice cream for dessert beamed happily from behind each door, I engineered a fight about something (by now this was easy, as I was an accidental master of igniting her anger) which turned into a conversation with all the hallmarks of a breakup: different paths, different ideals, different goals, different, different, different, and while I kept my end up – cutting close to the bone with easy measured words, designed to trigger and keep up the momentum – I feigned anger at some small point that I neither acknowledged the truth of, nor even remotely cared about.

This carried on until I had made it so personal that she couldn’t do anything but seethe and spit and swear. I didn’t mean these things – or rather I did, but the passion with which they were unleashed was far beyond my natural capacity for anger. It was a fine performance, and as she broke up with me “for good” on the side of the road, I remembered that the shirt I wanted to wear to work tomorrow was still on the line, and it had been drizzling earlier. I walked home past the orange lights and the cute couples and suddenly felt an aching urge to fast forward to forty, when I had already found the love of my life, courted and sparked and tumbled down the aisle, already scoured real estate listings, and marveled at ultrasounds and held her hand through the births of each of our children – to whom I’d already read all my favorite childhood books, and taught to choose John over Paul over Ringo over George.

I had never once referred to Susan as my girlfriend, I was very careful in these matters. She never seemed like a girlfriend, that term was too cute and youthful for somebody who complained about the quality of Chinese food menus. Girlfriends tease you and make up stupid songs about stupid things and wear your t-shirts and love to watch you watch their favorite movies, and try really hard to make you call in sick just because they want you around. I half considered going past where the sixteen-year-old girl was sitting earlier, but I was kind of scared she still would still be there. I remembered my shirt on the line, and walked home, alone.

Nathan Jolly is a contributor to This Recording. He last wrote in these pages about lovely inscriptions. He is a writer living in Sydney. He tumbls here and twitters here.

"Time Will Tell" - Hospital (mp3)

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Reader Comments (1)

Once again, I am floored by how beautifully you relate your story. Never stop writing.
January 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAudrey

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