From WTP Vol. VI #1
By Cal Setar
I want to write a story.
I want to write a story.
I want to write a story about a guy and a girl who meet under, let’s say, difficult circumstances. Maybe it’s a menial job, or a less than ideal living situation—a low point for both.
So, they meet under these frustrating, flummoxing, foothold-less circumstances, and just to add to the difficulty, maybe they don’t think so much of one another at first. Maybe they actually kind of dislike one another at first–one could even say they disdain one another at first. Maybe she sees his demeanor as aloof. Condescending. Cocksure. Maybe he watches her floating at the center of their social circle, content and confident, and thinks, who the hell does she think she is.
Maybe even through that, even through the curt glances and stilted speech, the curve of a turned shoulder, the prick of an unrequited greeting, the girl sees something in him, something that intrigues her. There’s just something about the way he moves, the way he talks to people. Maybe she can see that he could or would mean something to her, though she has no idea what or why. And maybe, through a series of random acts and occurrences, awkward interactions and inopportune flirtations, they get to know each other a little better, and maybe a little better from there. Much better. And maybe, just maybe, they come to rely on one another, to depend on the other just to make it through another day, a flimsy little nest, a circle meant to keep out what must be kept out, to keep in what can never, truly—not really anyway—be kept in.
Love—that unknown, unknowable quantity—becomes a commonplace thing. Maybe not a commonplace word, and maybe it doesn’t mean the same for one as for the other, but it’s there—for a good, long time, it’s there.
And time passes in such a way, as time so often does.
But of course, flawed beings that they are, complications arise and problems ensue. She’s not ready for all that he wants. He feels insecure and unappreciated—left to twist as she floats onward and up.
He lashes out.
She fears what’s buried deep inside.
He struggles to control his love. She seeks emotional comfort outside the sphere of their…
And so, after a time, after many fights, many makeups, many proclamations of what is and what should be, things fall apart, as things so often do. Time is a curved line, a circle after all, and yet there is no going backward, the same place returned to again and again, though never in the same way.
Maybe they move on. Not easily—never that. Love, in all its many forms, is never easy. Maybe at the start, but anything real starts to hurt after a while. That’s how you know it’s real.
And so maybe the guy is happy now—happier than he was. Or so he tells himself. He’s found a new girlfriend, a girlfriend who treats him well, listens close to his thoughts and feelings, willing to open herself to the possibility of his curvature. And she knows things about him.
Like that he can’t take a shower without using a Q-tip to clean his ears. Or that one of the purest joys of his life is eating peanut butter by the spoonful, straight from the jar.
Or that he enjoys trying new restaurants whenever one opens. And they—this guy and his new girlfriend—just so happen to live in a nice big city with lots of new places to eat, so periodically they make plans to go to one or another of these places.
Except there’s this one place.
This one place that they didn’t try when it opened, not because he’d said he didn’t want to, or that he was simply uninterested in the cuisine, but because—conspicuously, you might say—he’d never spoken of it, never offered it up as a not-so-subtle option he’d like very much to experience. Which was strange.
Strange, because of the menu he keeps crammed in the back of a drawer. A secret search sometimes hidden in his browser history the morning after a late night.
Just every now and then. But still, it’s there.
There in the way his eyes widen, his pupils dilated. The geometry of a hand, lingering at the crown of his head, fingers spread deep into the forest of his hair.
Time. Circles. Never to return, and yet always returning.
Maybe he carries some unspoken fondness for the place. Maybe he’s just waiting for her to figure it out—she’s not certain, but she knows. As much as she doesn’t know why, she knows that the place—the place is a touchstone of some kind. A totem. A circle, returned to itself.
So one night, she surprises him.
Maybe it’s a special night—a birthday. A promotion—no more menial jobs for our guy. A night for celebration. Mutual appreciation. She tells him they’re going to dinner, but not where, and clueless, secure within the structure of his new nest, he dresses happily, kisses her deeply over a glass of wine in the kitchen. But as they get closer, as they turn down certain streets, angling toward a certain direction, it starts to build in his stomach, this turning, this circling, and he realizes, understanding without knowing how it is that he could understand, even as he leaves the question unasked, just where it is they’re going. But he does–leave the question unasked, that is—because…
Because he doesn’t know what to say, doesn’t know what he would or should say.
Or so he tells himself.
But really, maybe…
Maybe because he’s hoping against hope. Though for what, he’s not certain.
And then—the place.
And then—a table. A seat. A setting–mis en place, he hears echoing along his hollows, though a ringing fills his ears at the awkward intonation of the words, spoken not in his voice, but hers. A scene, yet to play out.
And he tries, oh how he tries.
Tries to focus on his girlfriend, his new girlfriend, the soft, comfortable complement to his own sharp edges, on the sights and smells all around him, the menu mere inches from his face, the circle that had come to represent the nest, their nest, what was, he realizes now, what had always been, more of a shell, a protective covering meant to shield him from the worst of the world. But it’s not long before his eyes lift themselves, peering beyond the wall of his imagined enclosure, scanning the room, searching each corner and mirror, peering through the dim light, darting glances over the top of the wine list, here, there, everywhere, still hoping against hope, still clueless as to what his own hoped-for outcome will be, and then, all of a sudden, just like that, without precursor or expectation, movement or meaning, there she is—the girl, bent over a table. Then leaned across the bar, chatting with a bartender. Then striding to the kitchen, a crown of the most brilliant light encircling her head.
There is no scientific proof that time runs in a single direction, meaning that if we try hard enough, that circle can return to itself at our will. A circle becomes many circles then, twirling off into the distance.
And look. There.
She’s back and he’s getting up from the table and walking straight to the bar, silent, unheeding in the face of his girlfriend’s confusion, and, as calmly as can be, as though it were the simplest thing in the world, he’s magic-ing another circle, right out of the air in front of the girl’s face. He smiles into her eyes as he holds the thing, this new thing, aloft, reveling in the look of elation, of pure joy that he thinks, hopes, finally knows what it is that he hopes, but not just hopes, wants, needs, must have, spreads across her face.
Only he doesn’t.
He doesn’t get up, doesn’t go to the bar, doesn’t create a new timeline looping a wrist held out to the girl, this girl, this love.
Instead, he sits. That’s it. That’s all.
He sits. He breathes. He marks the curve of her smile, the clarity of her being. The easy confidence of her movements, just like that girl, that love he knew in the long ago. And then, just like that, no precursor or expectation, no warning or winnowing, he’s happy.
So happy. So happy for this girl, this woman, this love—this love that he still loves, will always love.
A circle unbroken. A circle as perfect as the curve of moon peeking through the restaurant’s front window.
And so, he reaches a hand to his stomach, grimacing to great effect as he whispers to his girlfriend that he doesn’t feel well, that he thinks they should go.
And, concerned though she is, she fights him. Fights him because she knows the mostly empty peanut butter jar at home won’t be enough, because she knows the look that will cross his face as regret sets in the next morning over having missed an opportunity at the new and the never-before. Knows the way the pain will prick him, wanting nothing more than to smother the prick with the softness of her palm.
A circle encircling a circle.
She asks what’s wrong. Asks if he’s sure. Asks if they should order a ginger ale, to settle his stomach. Bubbles of the most perfect curvature, tickling his nose and lips.
But he just smiles, whispering again that he’d simply rather go home, rather be alone. With her. Alone.
She smiles back at him, smiles kind of funny, smiles because she knows time may be a circle but the circle isn’t really a circle at all, isn’t perfect in its shape or being and that returning may not be impossible, but is almost always a mistake.
He helps pull out her chair. He places a hand meant not to guide, but to support, against the small of her back. And together, they leave, angling toward a new circle, a larger circle, like the great gray rock floating aimlessly in the vast emptiness, lit by the star hidden away behind it.
I’d like to write that story.
Cal Setar is a writer living in New York. His nonfiction work has appeared in The Outside Game, Highway 81 Revisited, and elsewhere.