Readers Report: Missed Connections

By

A collection of short pieces written by Rumpus readers pertaining to the subject of “Missed Connections.”

Edited by Susan Clements.

***

From time to time, a woman calls my wife’s cell phone from an unknown number and leaves a long rambling voicemail for someone named Louise. The messages are warm and familiar, filled with details about kids and events, illnesses and celebrations. Often she’ll say to Louise by way of explanation, “Oh well, you know.” The messages end with assurances to see each other again and speak soon, but no number to call back because surely Louise has it. We can’t help ourselves—we listen to these misaddressed dispatches from someone else’s life on speakerphone and then erase them.

This is just one misunderstanding in the modern world, like those love letters that arrive from the Postal Service sealed with a kiss but forty years too late or library books returned anonymously decades after they’re due, long since removed from circulation. Once I was mistaken for a priest. This was in a motel parking lot in New Hampshire. A man stopped me outside the room and called me “father” though I was only twenty-three.

“Father,” he said, “will you hear my confession?”

priestIt was Thanksgiving break and I was on a road trip with friends. I’d only stepped outside to get ice.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m not a priest.”

I was wearing a starched black shirt my mother had given me, a white undershirt peeking through. He’d been drinking alone in the hallway and it was enough.

“Please,” he said.

So I listened while the snow drifted around us, shifting the ice bucket awkwardly as he told me about the daughter he loved but never saw and the ways he’d wronged her mother. I could hear the muffled sound of the television inside our room and see the faint glow of fluorescent light from the manager’s office, but I was separate from all of it. When he finished, I managed to say something about forgiveness and passed a hand across my chest in a way I hoped was convincing.

I’m not religious but I believe in words—their meaning and power. Sometimes I wonder where all the lost intentions of the world go, if they dissipate like breath. All the messages we send that are never received, each time we get the wrong ones and erase them, are they gone for good? Or does it mean something if I still carry them with me, if I give them to you?

— Alex Peterson

 * * *

My mother knew a few people who turned into birds. They were from her church. I don’t know what to believe, but my mother claims she witnessed the whole thing. They were speaking in tongues one minute and spreading their wings the next. Flying to heaven, presumably. That’s what I thought—but she insists that they just turned into birds and lived outside the church for years afterward. She said it was punishment. She said becoming a bird was the only way to atone for their sins. I figured it would be nice to become a bird. A blessing.

“No,” she said. “Birds have hollow bones. It’s a burden to have hollow bones and nothing holding you to the earth.”

I still didn’t understand, but I shook my head in approval.

“Why didn’t they go home?” I asked.

“Home?”

“Why did they roost outside of the church? Didn’t they have a family of their own?”

She didn’t answer me, but shook her head as if to say that I didn’t understand the story at all. I didn’t.

There’s one bird outside my bedroom window that sings in the middle of the night. It must be lost, or looking for redemption. I wondered if it was one of my mother’s church friends.

“That’s why they perch in trees,” I said. “Birds.”

She looked up from her knitting.

“Why’s that?” she asked.

“The trees have roots. The roots weave into the ground. They clutch the branches, sewing themselves into the earth.”

“You don’t understand,” she said. “They’ll never be part of the earth. It’s futile.”

“Isn’t that the point, though?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said.

That night, when the bird chirruped outside my room, I woke up and put on my sneakers. I left the house and walked along the path to the west. By the time I reached my window, the bird was gone.

— Jacqui Higgins-Dailey

church birds

 * * *

There is a song I love by Pete Townshend; I promise you’ve never heard it. It is plaintive. “For though you knew that I was twice your age…” It is resigned. “I feel like a double head was tossed.”  He never got this girl. The odds were stacked. The first time I heard this song I wept. I wish I’d known it when we met. Or when you left.

Ten years later, in a deli across the street from Radio City, across the country from our history, you’re apologizing. Not for moving away. For cutting yourself off when I turned eighteen. My hands shake. These are words I wasn’t aware I needed to hear. Yet for each attempt to close the divide there is a countering, unnecessary provocation, as if I embody your regrets. As if I could right your wrongs. I thought this’d be easy—hang out, see a show. I thought I could ward off the ghosts.

One of them sits between us in the taxi on the way to the airport. For a moment I glimpse your eyes through hers again. My heart contracts, expands, presses into my throat. You crack jokes about me on the phone to your wife, but your expression reads tender. In my exhaustion my intent slips, and I am strangled, subsumed by my teenage ghost-self: mute, minute, achingly hollow. Invisible.

We part at your terminal. You kiss my cheek and whisper that you love me. This was never in question. “In you I saw someone that I recognized,” the song goes. “I let our lives become entwined.”

For an hour my plane sits motionless on the LaGuardia runway. Despite the delay, a stewardess assures me I’ll make my connection. I sprint through the Memphis airport but my flight is long gone. The next one to L.A. is in the morning.

Dizzy, disoriented, I find myself in a hotel bed under unexpected sky. I find myself baffled by my love for you, shape-shifted though it has, baffled by our battling, by your inability to see me as myself instead of who you once were. I find that after half my life, we are still both separate and entwined.

What would have happened, were you not twice my age? What would have happened were the odds on our side? Save for the ghosts, I find myself alone.

– Courtney Lavender

* * *

(18th century letter posted by Cornelius’s Directory)

To the goddess in blue with the flaxen hair and majestic bosom who was at the Duke’s celebration a fortnight prior:

We shared one passing glance, yet that brief moment ignited my heart and sent tremors through my loins. Oh, what a temptress you are! Your beauty is challenged only by the most extravagant of courtesans. And what grace you showed, my darling, as you danced with all of those suitors. I yearned to share a dance with you, but you disappeared with that Earl for nearly an hour’s time.

What a dream it would be to have tea with you; to dine with you; to lie with you. I have lain with many before, but to lie with you would strike those women from memory. Except Lady Beatrice. Ask your friend the Earl—no one forgets Lady Beatrice.

As I watched you from afar, I knew that I must approach you before night’s end. Alas, you departed with those two gentlemen, who I assume were ensuring your safe journey home.

Oh, my queen! I beg of you, leave not my love unrequited for I will fall into despair!

Yours forever,

The slightly corpulent but not wholly repugnant gentlemen who was vomited on by the Duchess.

P.S.—If your heart is held by another, I would be satisfied with a quick Midnight Waltz, if you follow my insinuation.

— Ryan Fox

* * *

You were behind me in line at Starbucks by Grove Street Station. I had headphones in, compulsively refreshing my email as if a red dot could change my life. I pulled one ear bud out to order a Grande Soy Latte. And your name? It was the first time I’d said my new name out loud.

You were the thing I manifested the year before when I was in India trying to find the things people look for in India. I burnt sage in my tent and drank a concoction of flower essences with brandy. I placed Buddha, Jesus, and Krishna beside each other on my makeshift altar.

You were the curly haired stranger that tapped me on the shoulder. Is your name Phoenix? You were wearing a green T-shirt with a dinosaur on it, a joke about vegetarians. Your coffee was in an eco-friendly mug. I think that’s your latte.

With a Whole Foods bag and a beach towel, you were the cute guy from the coffee shop who took me on a marathon seven-hour picnic. We shared avocado sushi and pineapple chunks and sparkling water. You talked about worldly spiritual things, Vipassana meditation in Nepal, ayahuasca in Peru.

You were my boyfriend, my late-night Uno rival, my book-swap partner, my cooking show co-host and my yoga buddy. When we were on vacation in Costa Rica, you were the boy down on one knee, giddy, saying let’s get married right here.

You were the rest of my life, planned perfectly. The puppy we would call Duck. Because it’s quirky. Our daughter we would call April or Sage. Because we met in April. Because the Sage brought you to me. You told me you loved names, it was my name you fell in love with first.

A few days before the wedding we were driving back from somewhere, you were my fiancé in a strange mood. You kept talking about all these places you hadn’t gone. You pointed out the window to an odd-looking bird. There you are, Phoenix.

You were the voice I hardly recognized, saying you missed your connecting flight. You had decided to go to Brazil instead. You were an actor from a terrible movie that didn’t show up to his own wedding. You were mistaken and so was I. You were the Phoenix in the sky that day.

— Jennifer Chardon

 * * *

I dreamt of you last night again—how you are now, or how I imagine you to be. You’re still so much taller than I am. You still picked me up and my feet still dangled. My heart still thrilled at the sight of you, at the feel of you. You whispered words in my ear, questions you couldn’t even finish before I said yes. (I was always yes for you.)

It was a one-night stand, I suppose. We had been friends for years; I watched you make your mistakes while I made mine. I hoped without hope that we could figure out if we were mistakes for each other. Nothing happened. Nothing happened. Nothing happened. You graduated and left town.

That fall, you came back and it felt like a birthday present, though you came at the beginning of the month and my birthday’s at the end of it. We had lunch and that was it. I cried myself into action that night, feeling lonely but wanting to do something about it, tracking you down even if I didn’t know it at the time. I wound up in an apartment full of friends, but like anywhere else on campus there were at least two men there with whom I had some kind of romantic history. He—the other he, the he who was the first boy to ever kiss me—he, of all people, encouraged you to take me home, to come home with me, at four o’clock in the morning. That, too, felt like a gift.

What transpired between us that night felt more intimate than almost anything else had. It was sacred, it was secret. You kissed me before you left (again).

At the end of the dream, my teeth were loose. One of them had fallen out, bigger in my hand than any tooth in my head, striped like a tiger shark. They say that dreams like that mean you’re having problems communicating something. We’ve barely talked in the intervening years. You remain one of my dearest secrets.

— Danielle Perry

* * *

At some point in his life, Ted decided it was easier to express himself using someone else’s words rather than his own, especially if the words had been validated as a popular song. After all, he had heard the words hundreds of times. They evoked emotions within him that the songwriter had undoubtedly intended. So why not invoke them as a sort of emotional shorthand when the uneasy moment arose, rather than speak frankly about his feelings? If he was disappointed with a friend’s behavior, why not break into the opening bars of Dylan’s 1967 Greatest Hit “Positively Fourth Street” rather than expose himself messily and risk an unknown reaction from the object of his distress?

The singer-songwriters of the 1970s provided an especially verdant source of plants for his emotional garden which he wouldn’t have to till for any weeds. He’d played the opening lines of Joni Mitchell’s “Let the Wind Carry Me” when he wanted to express his desire for independence to his mother, but Anna, who did not “believe in cleaning,” merely looked at him in bewilderment. When he fell in love, he would go to Joni’s confessional well again to sprinkle life-affirming words like holy water on his paramour, but she was unfamiliar with the song and asked, in return, which celebrity he thought Billy Joel was singing about in “Big Shot.” Years later, he would read a reference to Mitchell’s “Little Green” in a Lorrie Moore story and realize the connection was literary, not lifelike.

In time, friends began to call him obscure to his face and who-knows-what behind his back. He thought that the advent of social media, with its capacity for linking a YouTube video of any song in his head to someone’s Facebook post about what they had for dinner that night was the techno-emotive breakthrough he had been waiting for his whole life, but even his closest friends would either remember his poppiest choices and invariably remark “Oh, I love that song!” or scratch their heads over the unfamiliar ones without listening and say “Where do you come up with this stuff?” His intentions, and the feelings behind them, remained safely obscure.

— Joseph Marcincuk

* * *

It seemed like some kind of destiny, to end up in the same dive bar on Ninth Avenue past midnight after night two of the open-bar AWP dance party. I’d walked to the bar with a group of friends, holding hands with a man I’d never met who wouldn’t stop talking about his ex-girlfriend. He also wouldn’t let go of my hand. By the time we got to the bar, he was openly crying.

It wasn’t until I’d extricated myself from his sweaty grasp that I noticed you sitting in one of the circular red vinyl booths criss-crossed with duct tape. You were what my friends and I called “writer cute,” with your plaid shirts and unkempt beard and wrist tattoo. After the crowd dwindled and I’d had a few beers, I worked up the nerve to sit in the booth, wedged beside you. We flirted and I smiled my best smile.

Later, after leaving the bar, we walked back to the hotel through Times Square and I walked beside you. It was your first time in New York City and as you looked up at the daylight-bright neon signs and gleaming skyscrapers, you looked like a little boy. And in that moment, it was almost easy to believe that someone like me could make an impression on someone like you.

— Jill Gallagher

* * *

We are in the desert; a deep canyon; a forest with trees so tall we get lost in their shadows. Everything we say gets stuck in the air around us; nothing bounces back. But even an echo loses some truth in translation. We are nodding to each other under covers, under the abrasive overhead light of your car. We are in our own heads.

That first night we stayed up until the sun started to yawn and stretch and peek its head out to see the fire escape we sat on. Talking, all night. We held on to each other and our words, as if they were stones we could throw down the alley to hear the satisfying contact of rock and pavement, of my world and your own. We held on to the necks of empty beer bottles.

atoms around my headWe whispered things that mean so much. Things that weighed heavy in our throats so we felt like we couldn’t breathe. We were afraid to make them real, make them heavy in our laps instead and tip us tumbling down the building’s sleeping facade. But if we don’t speak, we stay solitary. We are not solitary creatures. We are not sure we even exist when we are left alone. In the dead of night my eyes can’t tell the difference between being open or shut. Without your breath rhythmic next to me my ears strain for something in the silence and I think this must be death. 

But if I say words and you say them back then yes there is something here yes there is a light and I’m not alone in the dark anymore. We are trying, desperately, to make ourselves real in relation to each other. If there is no bulb that turns on with the flick of a switch, then how do we know if there is anything running through the wires?

How do I know that you hear all the same words I hear? How do I know you understand? There is no code for this. Thoughts fly around my head colliding like atoms and I have to string them together into neat little sentences because we only have this one language. But we are trying to make another, with the tapping of your fingers along my spine and the way your lips press so earnestly against mine.

At night I still open my eyes in the dark but you don’t see that.

—  Kristin Toussaint

* * *

Another bullshit night in Suck City, you think. Nick Flynn was on to something. You’re home again because you’re scared. You’re too scared to meet someone. You were at work today, standing in the front of the store, behind the counter. This cute boy, painfully shy, tells you what he wants to order, you take his money, tell him to wait ten to fifteen minutes. He sits down. Stands up. Paces. Keeps stealing looks at you. You see him in your peripherals and he makes you nervous. You want to say, just sit the fuck down, it’s only Thai food. No need to be so anxious. And then you think maybe he wants to talk to you. You’re sure that you’re older. You can say, hey, you want my number? Or hey, you want to get a drink sometime? But you don’t. He probably saw the wedding ring on your finger anyway.

You wonder if you’ll ever feel that again. How light your being feels when his breath is warm on your neck. The shiver that goes down your core to the spot between your legs when his lips meet nipple. How beautiful you believe you are when he has his hands on your waist. You don’t have this anymore. But you’re comfortable, you vowed your life to this other person and that made it so you shouldn’t have to feel these things anymore—not those things, those things you still want, but the shitty things: being scared of meeting new people, needing to date, getting to know strangers from the outside in. You’re attractive. They notice you, still. You could have them if you were brave.

But they probably always see the wedding ring on your finger anyway.

— Nicole Guappone

* * *

She appeared through the wall of people walking down the broken escalator. Her left hand lifted the hem of her long skirt to avoid tripping, revealing a pair of delicate white ankles. He knew nothing about her and he knew everything about her by the way she glided down the steps with concentration.

The subway system was a generous place for a young man searching for someone to fall in love with.

— Ana Ottman

* * *

This one is talking about the year he spent overseas during college. He tells me that learning to interpret text messages written entirely in emojis was nearly as difficult as learning the Japanese language. I smile, cataloguing the contents of my refrigerator and kitchen cabinets in my head. Did I finish those peanut-butter pretzels?

“Do you want another drink?”

I shake my head.

“Early morning tomorrow.”

In front of the bar, he says he’d like to see me again.

How long ago did I open that bottle of wine? How long can a bottle of red wine sit out before it goes bad?

I think seeing him again would be alright. He kisses me. My hand finds the metal bike rack at my hip for stability as I lean away.

Where are you tonight? What are you doing right now? Are you dating anyone?

When we kissed, my mind never strayed from your lips. My hands were on your face or neck, fingers in your hair, hungry, involved. I loved you without hesitation. Without doubt. We had more than ninety-nine problems, but love was never one of them.

This man is great for me. The last one could have been great for me. The next one could be. I sit across from him, and laugh at his stories, and sometimes I feel a welcome chill run up my spine when his knee touches mine under the table. Is that enough? I’m not sure. How many connections, how many great people will I willfully miss out on because, after you, I can’t seem to translate my own emotions into a language I understand?

What is the word for I don’t think I am attracted to him, but I wish that I was? Or the one for I don’t miss you, but I miss being sure about something, even if it turns out that I was wrong in that sureness?

I think something is missing, I respond to his text when he tries to see me again. I try to make sense of how miss means a young woman, to long or yearn for, and to fail all at once.

— Josiane Curtis

* * *

I walked past the star and creator of a popular webseries on the street the other day. He’s a very distinctive-looking dude (big huge beard, big sad eyes) but I didn’t recognize him right away because he had his hand over the lower part of his face, over his mouth, like he had just seen something bad and couldn’t believe it. Like maybe he had seen a murder or an arrest or a sad dog that looked a lot like a dog he’d had as a child, tied up to a bike rack while the dog’s owner ordered some coffee inside a coffee shop. He was walking slowly and he had nothing in his hands and he had no backpack or anything on him, which I thought was odd. I stopped and turned around in the middle of the crosswalk to watch him as he continued walking south. I thought about calling out “I LOVE YOUR POPULAR WEBSERIES!” and seeing if he would turn around—if I were the creator of a popular webseries I would always be walking around in perpetual anticipation of someone stopping me to tell me that they love my popular webseries—but I decided not to. Maybe stopping him to talk would have been an awesome and enlightening thing, but it was a cloudy day and he did not look happy at all and I was on my way to get a bagel with tuna and I had been anticipating the bagel with tuna all morning and you know what they say about meeting your heroes (and if you don’t, they say don’t).

— Alexandra Tanner

* * *

You, a tall, bearded man in Warby Parker glasses and a fitted navy blazer, nearly obscured among the crowd of gray-haired theatre patrons waiting impatiently outside of New York City Center.

Me, the rumpled girl, standing alone and wearing disheveled humidity hair on her head and the day’s exhaustion on her face, with whom you made eye contact.

You never broke conversation with the equally-well-dressed men in your midst, but you noticed me and I passed the wait for my theatre companion by imagining our blissful future.

In the theatre lobby you would comment on my obvious and deep appreciation of Frank Loesser musicals and I would compliment your excellent taste in strange women. You would laugh. The theatre lights would flicker and interrupt the moment, forcing us to part ways. During intermission I would nonchalantly glance around the balcony in hopes of catching your eye, but know that you were sitting comfortably in the orchestra section.

While waiting in the bathroom line, I planned our chic but intimate restaurant wedding with just close friends and family. A friend of a friend would sing “Somebody Somewhere” as we smiled over tea lights, drinks in mason jars and truffle risotto. We’d live in the West 70s and stroll through Central Park every Saturday morning when our dachshund could run free from his leash. Sometimes you’d make me pancakes for dinner or surprise me with your latest one-dollar book find at the Strand.

After the show, I would hurry down the seemingly endless flights of stairs to casually drape myself outside the theatre. I’d act surprised when you left your group to catch me. Polite conversation about the show would reach a natural end that required one party to make a move.

“Matzoh ball soup at Cafe Edison?” I would ask, bracing for either response.

“Matzoh ball soup”, you would respond.

— Emma Klauber

* * *

There were times when she wasn’t sure whether her heart was going to burst with love or sadness. There was a pinboard at her hospital covered in photos of cats and dogs. She thought that they might have belonged to the patients, or the doctors, or the nurses. Her tutor said no. He said someone had printed them off Google images after searching “cute pets”. She asked why and he said it was to make patients feel better.

happy“Where is happiness located in the brain?”

“Right next to sadness and in front of fear. That’s why people get depressed. The sadness seeps through; it appropriates the spaces where happiness should be.”

“What is happiness?”

“I’m not philosophical enough to answer that.”

Never mind. She was determined to like the pinboard. The photos were pinned at jaunty angles. Polygons of cork danced between them and she found them charming. Also, she had a thing for the flat wet noses of domesticated animals. They reminded her of her cat.

When she slept she shut her door. Her cat knew this. When it heard her brushing her teeth it went and hid in the cupboard. She would shut the door and her cat would jump out, swathed in wool shreds from a jumper. “Ha ha! Tricked you!” her cat would say and it would spend the night between her legs.

But cats are nocturnal. She was often woken up by it. It nuzzled her cheek with its wet nose then punched her in the face. “Enough!” she would say, “I have class at hospital in the morning.” She couldn’t tell her cat to get out because she knew it would go to her sister’s room and her sister was allergic.

“So cute.” she said, “These cats and dogs are all so cute.” She tilted her head and smiled, she stroked their pixelated noses. Her heart cracked and she tried to explain it. “I feel so overcome with love for them.”

“Stop it. Stop it,” said the boy in her class. “You’re not even being selective.”

— Isobel Yeap

* * *

The other night, on my way out of the bar, I locked eyes with a man wearing a white T-shirt and jeans—the fashionable kind. He was standing about a dozen feet away, but I could smell the whiskey on his breath, and I liked it. I thought we would be great together, the two of us, just a pair of drunks roaming about New England on a Wednesday night. There was a flask of gin in my purse; I dreamed of sharing it with him. We could sit outside, taking sips and looking at the stars. I wouldn’t even mind if he didn’t want to talk. I’m not much into talking myself. I can sit in silence entertaining myself for hours, imagining situations that you don’t even see in movies.

I was running my fingers through my hair, preparing to introduce myself to the love of my life…but I had gone to the bar with friends, and one of them, Rick, was pulling me by the arm, leading me back to the dorm where we both live.

“Goodbye, my everything!” I called out to the man in the T-shirt. He ran a hand through his greasy brown hair, but he was looking in the other direction. We were perfect for each other. We had the same bad habits.

Rick locked my arm in his and tried to keep me steady during our walk home. I shouted at him, “You’ve ruined everything! How could you?”

“What are you talking about?” he asked.

“That man was the love of my life,” I cried.

Rick gave me a look that said, “You’re drunk and silly, so I won’t bother to argue with you.”

I was drunk and silly, sure, but that didn’t invalidate what I was feeling. The love I had for the man in the T-shirt was the kind of love that could have launched a thousand ships, moved mountains, started wars, brought grown men to tears, and all that jazz.

I tried to walk in a straight line all the way home. I imagined a thin golden path on the sidewalk, one that I had to step on perfectly to make the love of my life fall in love with me. I knew it had been that man at the bar, and if he gave me a chance, he would realize that I was the only one for him.

When Rick and I stopped behind a row of bushes to pee, I wondered how different things could have been if I were better at holding my liquor or less prone to wistful fantasy…but you can’t regret the lives you didn’t lead, can’t regret those missed connections.

— Serena Candelaria

***

Rumpus original art by Christina Weidman.

You can find Susan Clements at her website and follow her on Twitter.