This is the second half of a short story. The first half is here.
I move in that weekend. He lives in this sweet little town in the mountains and owns a house that looks cozy and big to my cramped city eyes. I fill out the transferal paperwork online for my job. Moving locations due to a sort is one of the few things they’re able to process basically immediately. That’s one of the reasons the system works so well. Congress made it really clear that the public-health benefits of everyone’s commitment to proper sorting would basically set the economy on fire. If we’re all happily coupled with the person that we all know is perfect for us, that takes away a lot of the romantic drama and longing and heartbreak that reduce productivity. It’s a win-win.
It certainly feels that way for me. There’s a lightness in my heart of the kind I haven’t felt in years. My general sense of worry, of insufficiency, goes quiet, even as I’m packing all my boxes with Alex’s help and leaving the place I’ve called home since college.
That night we have sex for the first time. Alex makes it clear that he’s happy to wait for as long as I want, because again, there’s no rush at all. But I pull him into bed, shaking my head, and kiss him hard. As I should have expected, it works out. Really well. There’s a bit of a learning curve, but really only a bit. The system works. We smile at each other like giddy co-conspirators before turning out the lights for the night.
A few weeks later, we introduce each other to our families. First mine come to our house, because they’re RVing around the country and it works out pretty well. I’m nervous about how they’re going to act, because they’ve always been a little weird around my exes. Alex squeezes my hand and I know what he means: It’s going to be okay, because it’s going to be okay.
Below is the first half of a short story I wrote recently. I’ll post the rest tomorrow. (Update: it’s here.) Let me know what you think!
Sitting down with my phone, I think: my chances are now about as good as they’ll ever be with Chris. There’s so much going for us. Similar taste in music (equal parts Baroque and Top-40); movies (anything with a good balance of comedy and drama, but nothing at either extreme); and activities (generally bookish, but also running). Such a good match.
I would generally be paranoid about thinking things like this, because you never know nowadays whether your thoughts are going to stay private or whether you’ll see them echoed back to you online, but now I’m letting myself hope openly about our connection. After all, I’ve been in love with him for, what, eight months now? “Love” might be a bit strong given that nothing has actually happened, but I’m not sure what else to call it when I get indigestion with anticipation of seeing him, try hard to figure out how to ask my friends about the status of his relationship, and start planning my whole life around how to accidentally run into him. Basically, it’s time to close this deal.
“Good afternoon, you have reached Embarrassment, how can I assist you today?”
“I’d like to file a claim, please.”
“Very happy to help you today,” said the grim voice grimly. “Please describe the nature of your claim.”
“Oh God, do I have to?” she cringed.
“I’m afraid I can’t assist you without details about your claim.”
“Well, God. Okay. I’m working from home, because—well, I assume you are, too? Like, we’re all…?”
The grim voice at Embarrassment neither confirmed nor denied this.
“So, anyway, I’m still getting used to calling into meetings via video chat.”
“Oh,” said Embarrassment, readying himself to win the office pool over which agent would first reach 20 claims for accidental video-call nudity. He and Susan were neck-and-neck at 19, and he could use the $20.
“Seriously? I already gave it to the computer. Twice.”
“I’m sorry, ma’am, but I need your claim number to assist you.”
She sighs heavily. Repeats the 22-digit string.
“Was that 4206 at the end there, ma’am?”
“I do apologize, but I am unable to find it.”
A deep breath. “Shall I repeat it a fourth time?”
“Yes, ma’am, I do advise that you do.”
“I do apologize for any inconvenience, ma’am. I can confirm that I have now located the claim. How can I assist you today?”
“I want to cancel my claim.”
“All right, I’d be more than happy to assist you with that. I understand that you want to cancel your pending claim for,” a pause while she reads the screen, “a defective boyfriend, remedy sought: breakup, for a claim amount of $2,000. Can you please tell me in a few words why you wish to cancel this claim?”
“I—well, just didn’t need to make the claim. I just want to retract it.”
“Can you be a little more specific, ma’am? I see that this claim was filed 48 hours ago, so it is in the processing queue set to be paid out and the relationship terminated in under 24 hours.”
“I don’t understand, I can’t cancel?”
“Correct, ma’am, unless one of the available cancellation options is selected, at this stage of processing, the system will not let me cancel.”
“I see. Uh, I guess my reason is that I regret starting this process and I want to wipe it from the system.”
“Ma’am, I’m afraid that’s not a listed reason.”
“So there’s like a drop-down list of acceptable reasons to cancel?”
A slight waver of disloyalty in her voice as she admits: “Yes, ma’am.”
“Can you just read me the options and I’ll tell you which one is right?”
There’s a longer pause on the other end now. It tolls the death knell of the sacred secrecy of the drop-down list. But it’s 5:55, and the call center shuts down at 6:00 or when all open calls are closed out, whichever comes first, so she says, a little quieter, “For this category of claim the options are ‘romantic argument resolved (bilateral),’ ‘couple’s counseling scheduled (bilateral),’ ‘flowers/date night/grand romantic gesture offered (unilateral),’ ‘apologies for making a big deal out of nothing (unilateral),’ or ‘sudden death of one or both parties.’”
“Oh, definitely the one about unilateral apologies. That’s it.”
“All right, I can assist you with processing that cancellation reason. Can you please tell me which party initiated the apology for making a big deal out of nothing (unilateral)?”
“All right, ma’am, I will record that. And on which date did you issue that unilateral apology?”
“Today?” she says, as though it’s a question.
It’s 5:56. “Are you sure you didn’t apologize within 12 hours of the breakup request?”
“Yes, I’m wondering if you actually apologized within 12 hours of the breakup request. Because if that’s what happened, this claim won’t go on your record and your premium will not increase.” She drums her nails on the desktop.
“Oh, absolutely, you’re right now that I think about it, it was definitely—you know—just an hour or two after I filed the claim.”
“I do thank you for your answers, ma’am. I will be happy to put in a cancellation request on this claim. You should see a confirmation email in your inbox shortly, and a courtesy copy to the other party.”
“Oh, no, please don’t send one to him. I—isn’t there a note in my file? I requested this claim to be kept private, just to me.”
“Unfortunately I’m not seeing that request, ma’am. I’m showing that the other party was copied on notice of your breakup request.”
“I’m showing that it was sent this morning.”
The line goes dead.
She pulls off her headset with her left hand while finishing out the claim with her right. Confirm no email to other party (good luck to her putting that cat back in the bag. That’ll be an old-style breakup in no time, with no compensation. You hate to see it.) Confirm cancellation, confirm cancellation reason in acceptable time window, no penalties. Turns off the lamp. Grabs her coat, steps out into the rain and hurries to the hole-in-the-wall burrito place for some takeout.
I am a chronic maker of lists. You should see the chaos that is my Google Keep, a mess of immediate and short-term and long-term and unknowable-term tasks all jumbled together with lists of ideas and movies I want to watch.
When things get really hairy, as they did during law school, I find myself making to-do lists that get as granular as “eat breakfast” and “shower.” Even, on dismally rough days, “go to class.” Because there is an unmatchable joy that comes from crossing something off, even if my life is otherwise a dumpster fire.
It has never so far gotten quite as bad as having to remember to “breathe” and “sleep,” but never say never.
There is a push-pull relationship between me and the lists. Part of me delights in writing them down, because in that moment it feels like proof of the delicious possibility of the future. Look at me—I’m going to run five miles and write five chapters of a book after work on Tuesday, after I cook myself dinner! God, I’m unstoppable.
But then, inevitably, Tuesday-after-work shows up, and I’m exhausted from work and also pretty cold and hungry, and I rebel against that taskmaster who assigned me the run and the writing project and the cooking assignment. I eat packaged ramen and watch Netflix and feel both free and kind of nauseous.
Trying something new around here: I had the following idea for a short story this morning. So I wrote it down. Happy Twelfth Night, everyone.
When the wise men set out on the dusty road after the audience with the infant king, their treasure chests were lighter. To their surprise, though, they were lighter only by one measure of gold, one of costly incense, and one of embalming resin. Why hadn’t they given the rest of the tapestries, the rare gems, the stoppered bottle of precious wine?
As it had happened, they disagreed sharply about giving the myrrh. It was in their trunks only because the worst could always happen when traveling. Thieves and murderers tended to lurk around every corner, especially in this restless corner of the western empire. The myrrh was not meant as a gift. It was meant to ensure that, if any of them were to be stabbed to death by ruffians, they would be ready to prepare the body for transport home. So at the solemn moment when they had bowed their heads and offered the gifts (gold first, then incense) to the cooing baby in his mother’s arms, they had shot sharp looks at the third among them.
“Wrong, simply wrong,” the first one hissed at the third one afterward, “to give such a morbid gift to a king.”
“To a baby,” nodded the second, grimacing.
The third had merely shrugged.
Annoying, essentially unbearable, that it was said that some back home knew him as the wisest of all.
But after they made their goodbyes, they had only the briefest of conversations about how full their treasure chests remained, still heaving back and forth with the donkeys’ every step. They hardly discussed what they would say when they returned the tapestries, the gems, the wine to the storerooms. They avoided agreeing on how they would explain the visit to the homebound many, anxiously awaiting tales of adventure in the hinterlands.
Words failed them, indeed, on all topics.
They could not discuss how they would explain that they had stopped following the star. Imagine: they had come all the way from Persia, even east of Persia, and the star had not failed them for a moment. But when they entered this country, they had thought the better of going straight to where it was taking them, which appeared to be the middle of nowhere. After all, they were united by an uncanny feeling that they were going to a king. It made good sense, then, to go to the palace, didn’t it? Which is when they met the governor-king. But each of them knew, through furtive, discomforted glances—this was not it. This old man, with that evil, thirsty, striving glint in his eye—he was not the one the star had been guiding them to. It had been too late, and too rude, not to answer his many questions. But none of them had liked his reaction to their answers.
And now that they had left the little family in their little house (a poorer house than they had seen in decades; more of a barn, truly, although they did not want to make uncharitable assumptions about the living standards out here) the star lay parked above it, as though imploring them to stay.
They ignored their unease. They did not stay.
They made camp among the kind shepherds, who had insisted on hospitality, and who seemed to be under the rather amusing impression that the men were themselves kings of some kind. That night, they spoke only in significant looks about the strange audience with the king. His parents had been kind, terribly kind, and rather noble of mien, yes, but—in what was essentially a stable. Was that how things were done out here in the ragged west? Where were their attendants, their courtiers, the palace? Where were the subjects? Was he to be a king among sheep only?
But he was unquestionably a king. Far more of a king, somehow, than the old man in the palace. An irrational, unavoidable, conclusion.
And they did not speak at all of the horrible dreams they all had that first night, sleeping rough among the good shepherds. Stomach-turning dreams for each of them, waking up in a sweat. The first saw rivers of blood. The second, an army of the dead chasing him, and his legs wouldn’t run. The third, darkness upon darkness, disorienting and alone, a void, full of screaming. They did not know this, of course, because they did not speak of it, and they did not know as each of them briskly filled his saddlebags the next morning that each had a firm, bone-deep conviction not to return to the governor-king with the directions he’d asked for—a conviction that would have inspired each to travel the hundreds of miles home alone if necessary to avoid that nauseating palace.
So it was with silent relief that they found themselves setting off together the long way, the perilously roundabout way, skirting Jerusalem by many weary miles, until they passed through somewhere called Nazareth, fumbling with the language as they traded for dried meat and fruit and nuts for the extended journey.
And when they arrived near home, they made their quiet goodbyes. Life on the road together had made them closer than family, but they were too wise for many parting words. Perhaps, the first one thought afterward as he plodded alone, they would meet again sooner or later. It might happen again as it had many months ago, when they nearly collided on the road in their distraction at the wondrous new star in the west.
After all, who is to say what will happen?
“Not a wise man,” he chuckled to himself, and his donkey shook his head as though in wry agreement.
But the star never troubled them again.
They went back to their studies, and to their magic tricks, the only way they knew how to show the masses a glimpse of the inexpressible. All the while the heavens remained silent and ordinary, moving exactly as they always had.
As they aged, and as their sons and daughters grew, in quiet moments they wondered often of the tiny king they had seen. They wondered what had become of him and his brave mother, his kind-eyed father.
Did they hear the news from Jerusalem nearly three dozen years later?
Did they wonder if their gold had made his travels easy?
Did they wonder if their frankincense perfumed the space around him, as he taught those who were drawn to him, just as they themselves had been?
Did they wonder if his mother had unwrapped the myrrh, which she in her sad wisdom had saved all the while, and handed it to his friends when they took his body?