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J A N U A R Y   1 9 9 9

Fiction
The Next Best Kiss
fly

In another time, in a more exuberant century, sadness was dignified; it was referred to as melancholy; it was described as autumnal in tone and tinged with woodsmoke. It was a real affliction, like color blindness or flat feet

by Carol Shields

(The online version of this story appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.)

TODD and Sandy had been friends for just a few weeks, and Sandy knew they were about to say good-bye to each other.

This thing between them was an episode taking place on a small screen. A mini-flick, as Todd would say, a scenario, a sketch. One million words had flown by, but nothing had been promised or declared, and Sandy could sense the way she and Todd were using each other up minute by minute, one talky voice drinking the other dry.
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  • Both of them loved to talk -- or, more accurately, they felt compelled to talk. A hyperverbal compulsion was what they shared, according to their acquaintances, way up there on the glottal thermometer, and that was putting it kindly. This talkiness might be genetic, or it might be what was expected of them. They were both professors, he on the West Coast, she on the East; she was in history, he was in sociology/film studies/cultural exegesis. ("Professor of et cetera" -- that was one of Todd's little jokes on himself, almost his only joke.)

    Friends introduced them to each other at the reception that launched the 1998 Darlington Conference, in Detroit, devoted to the subject of fin de siécle crisis. Todd gave a paper titled "End of the Self," about the instability of the self, the self as the sum of incalculable misunderstandings, and the selfishness of even claiming a self. Todd confided to Sandy that the text for his talk might eventually find its way into The New York Review of Books, although the editors were asking for substantial changes, which Todd was questioning -- and quite rightly, he said.

    Sandy presented an afternoon seminar, "Diatribe and Discourse in the Twenty-first Century," prophetic in its pronouncements, spacy, brilliant (she hoped), loaded with allusive arrows (Lacan in particular), and followed by a vigorous Q-and-A session, with Todd, seated out there in the audience, contributing a number of thoughtful comments and reservations.

    "He's an asshole," Sandy's colleague Chloe said afterward.

    "No," Sandy countered, "not an asshole. Just an ass. One of those silly, old-fashioned asses." She said this with a fond smile, all the muscles in her face and body relaxed for once. "Like our fathers were. Or our uncles. Total asses."

    "He talks in clauses, Sandy. You're not supposed to talk in clauses. And especially not with semicolons intervening. I can hear those semicolons coming at me. Little squash balls hitting the wall."

    Sandy was still smiling; she couldn't help herself. "There's no law against semicolons."

    Since their first meeting Sandy's jaws and Todd's jaws had not stopped moving. They had a verbal Ping-Pong game going, a monsoon, unstoppable. Sexually, they seemed to belong to the same nation -- the strenuous, the informed, the adventurous, the currently unattached. On the other hand, anyone could see that they were far from being matched linguistically. Todd's ruminations tended to be speculative, Sandy's narrative.

    For example: "We've probably said farewell to the world of sermons and to the clenched piety of holy pilgrimages," Todd said in his lecture, question marks hovering over his words like a jangle of surprised coat hangers. "We may soon be surrendering our sacred objects and perhaps the practice of prayer -- even the notion of prayer."

    "You seem to be hedging your bets a bit," Sandy told him after the presentation, not wanting to smother him in blanket approval -- it was too soon for that. "The use of 'probably' and 'perhaps' and 'may be' and so on."

    She had learned that women are obliged to interrupt their own discourse for the discourse of others, using standard probes and thrusts and "sincere" attempts at interrogation -- the same strategies their mothers once used.

    "It's ironic, but the probable now holds more force than the certain," Todd told her mysteriously, cradling her in his arms that first night, stretching his neck and kissing the tender place where her hairline met the back of her neck. "Because it more and more appears to be self-evident that nothing is really conclusive."

    "You could be right," Sandy said. She was having trouble with her breathing and wasn't sure whether the cause was emotional or physical. Todd had a large, solid body. She appreciated its weight (she had been a long time between men and their bodily heft), but at the same time she felt vulnerable being pinned down like this.

    "Everything's smaller now," Todd continued, minutely shifting his body. "Our idea of love is smaller. Our friendships are smaller."

    "Yes," she said. "Emphatically. Why, back in the nineteenth century love was big stuff. As big as those balloons people used to ride around the world in. Now it's more like the kind of grit that gets left behind in your jeans pocket."

    "Yeah, sort of," Todd said.

    He listened politely enough to her account of childbirth, the moment eleven years earlier when Jenny burst from her womb, as wet and compacted as a supermarket chicken with her folded limbs and tight whorls of dark hair, but Sandy, who liked to make a terse drama of her birth event, could tell that Todd's thoughts were elsewhere.

    His eyes were squeezed shut, and he had gone suddenly critical in a pedagogical way that was quickly becoming familiar; his arms were around her, but in her imagination he was standing a few feet away, holding a clipboard in his hand and a microphone to his lips, analyzing her narrative structure and syntax.

    "Womb?" he murmured. "Now, that's a somewhat romantic, nineteenth-century word to bring into a modern clinical procedure."

    "It's not clinical at all," Sandy was about to say, but Todd started telling her about his automobile accident in Mexico -- Baja California, to be exact -- as though there were some connection between birth and highway injury.

    Light Perhaps there was; the cooler half of her brain bleeped this possibility. Human tissue. Tearing and bleeding. Sudden intervention. She had noticed that people who have been in car crashes always get around to these stories fast. They love their accidents. Road disasters are like five-star movies in their lives, the only time they've been allowed to be major actors. "They had to pry open the door to get me out," Todd was saying. "The ambulance attendant kept saying it was a miracle I was still breathing." His voice went rough and shy with remembrance.

    "It must have been terrible."

    "Worse than terrible."

    "How much worse?" She hoped she didn't sound as though she were mocking him.

    "What?"

    "I mean, how do we measure these things?"

    "Do you always have to measure everything?"

    A good question -- or was it? "I suppose," she said slowly, easing his elbow off her upper arm, which was beginning to tingle, "that we do try to estimate the weight of experience in our lives."

    "As if we can." He said this with a little snort that she found unaccountably piglike. He said it with disappointment.

    "How else can we stand back and see where we are?" she said. "Or who we are?"

    "Who we are." He echoed this observation lazily, without any fight in his voice or even a pull of breath. "You know that the 'who' of that particular question is something that absolutely cannot be isolated. Our identity shifts from one moment to the next, so that we are always in a state of becoming or diminishing."

    Sandy set the "we" aside for the moment. As a historian, she believed obstinately in the roundness and accessibility of events. Every date had a doorway, if you could only locate it. Every recorded birth and death had its corporeal and metaphorical dust, composed or else scattered, the little lost frights and ecstasies of fragile existence. And there was something else that lived on top of her thoughts: the notion that everyone had a mother, and from that mother, from that tight little purse with its fleshy space and opening lips, came the desire for expanded air and space.

    She felt the need to say so, even if it meant risking a non sequitur. "Each of us has had a mother," she murmured into Todd's neck.

    "Yes," he said, but clearly without taking in the weight of her thought. "True enough."

    "And yours?" she said, prodding.

    "My what?"

    "Your mother. You haven't mentioned your mother. Not so far anyway. Is she, you know, living?"

    "Living, breathing. Housewife. San Diego. Arthritis in her fingers. Goes to Bible study. Cooks turkeys."

    "Mine too. Amazing. All that same stuff. Only it's Danville, Ontario, not San Diego." She didn't tell Todd that she had put as much distance between herself and her mother as possible, or that she broke into a sweat when she heard her mother's voice on the telephone.

    "My mother worries about beetles getting into her breadbox," Todd went on jovially.

    "Really?"

    "It's only happened once, in 1946, I think, before I was born, but it's given her a reason to stay alive."

    "Has she read your book on seismic stasis?"

    "Ha!"

    HOW reductive," Chloe said to Sandy, hearing about this conversation the next day. "Believing his mother's only worry is beetles in her bread. Her big worry is probably him. What a jerk she has for a son. Men who dismiss their mothers that easily can't be trusted."

    "He said it rather sweetly, I thought."

    "And I don't blame her one bit for not reading his book. Why the hell should she?"

    "My mother read my book. She said I used too many big, show-off words."

    "Really?"

    "'Who do you think you are?' -- that's what she said."

    "If I were you, I'd wind this Todd thing up, and fast!"

    "It's easy for you to say," Sandy told her. "You have Bernard. I haven't had anyone for a long time."

    "Does he make you happy?"

    "Happy?"

    "Now, Sandy, that's a simple, straightforward question. Yes or no. Does he make your happiness gland wiggle and beg for more?"

    "No. But."

    IT was summertime; Todd and Sandy were both
    free. He followed her back to Halifax and moved into the apartment she shared with her daughter. Just temporary, a few days. There was a heat wave. Then a cool wave. They spent a lot of time in bed -- at least when Jenny was off at day camp. The rest of the day fell into a rhythm -- reading the paper, cooking, shopping -- that was comfortable, and that persuaded Sandy she was almost, in a summer kind of way, happy with her life.

    At the same time, she had to admit that those twin demons, happiness and sadness, had lost their relevance. Happiness was a crock; no one, except maybe Chloe, really had it for more than a minute at a time. And sadness had shrunk, become miniaturized and narrowly defined, a syndrome, a pathology -- whereas once, in another time, in a more exuberant century, in a more innocent age, there existed great gusts of oxygen inside the sadness of ordinary people, carpenters, tradesmen, housewives, and the like. Sadness was dignified; it was referred to as melancholy; it was described as autumnal in tone and tinged with woodsmoke. Nobody got blamed for the old sadness. It was a real affliction, like color blindness or flat feet.

    Matthew Hooke, for instance, could not be described as a happy man, and yet he was thought of as a valuable person in his society.

    "Who actually is Matthew Hooke?" Todd had the courtesy to ask after a week or so.

    "English botanist, 1809 to 1883."

    "Yeah, right. The guy you wrote the book about."

    "Uh-huh."

    "Do you actually connect to this person? I mean, can he say to you anything that is actually meaningful? He's eighteenth-century -- "

    "Nineteenth-century." She had noticed that Todd was careless about dates.

    " -- and probably superstitious as hell and missing half his teeth. And here you are, this very twentieth-century woman who's lying in bed at three o'clock in the afternoon in a modern high-rise apartment in the middle of Halifax, and you haven't got any clothes on, just your skin against these sheets, and the traffic going by, and you turn your thoughts to this Hooke person -- "

    "Matthew Hooke."

    "Right. Matthew."

    "You sound jealous."

    "What!"

    "Jealous that I can be thinking of this mildly depressed but nevertheless intelligent and accomplished nineteenth-century gentleman at the same time you've got your hand between my legs."

    "Well?"

    "Well what?"

    "Well, who's it going to be, then? Him or me?" He tried to express this thought as a joke, but he was not, as Sandy had noticed, good at jokes.

    "So." She attempted a playful tone. "Do I have to make a choice?"

    "What, exactly, was so great about this man anyway? What's he done to get a biography written about him?"

    "It's not a biography. It's more of a contextual monograph. A background inquiry into what made him who he was -- "

    "Whatever that was."

    "I'm just a tiny bit surprised you don't know his work. Don't take this the wrong way, but, I mean, this was a man who paralleled Darwin, and whose ideas -- "

    "Look, I don't happen to be in that particular field. Who can know everything?"

    "He did."

    "He did what?"

    "He was one of those late, late, late medieval polymaths who extended right into the nineteenth century. He knew science, literature, classical languages, philosophy, architecture, music. And botany -- well, that goes without saying."

    "The epistemological world was smaller then."

    "You are jealous, aren't you?"

    "It isn't as though he was Bach or Malthus or Kant or one of the great giants of human thought."

    "He was an autodidact. A rustic from the wilds of Somerset. Never went to school."

    "Oh, I get it. That's his excuse for being minor. He had hay coming out of his ears."

    "Think of him as a synthesizer. That's how I describe him, anyway, in the book. Someone who skipped the heavy theoretical work and just talked about how plants looked, how they presented themselves. How they could change shape with a little encouragement."

    "You don't need to be a genius to describe the various parts of a wood lily."

    "Only a genius would think it's necessary to do so."

    "What's that noise?"

    "Oh, God, it must be Jenny letting herself in the door."

    "Jenny already?"

    "Yes," Sandy said carefully, heavily. "Day camp is over for today. As it has been every day at this time. Children are put on the bus and brought home by their counselors around about the middle of the afternoon. This happens all over the Western world."

    "That's it, then, I suppose, for today."

    She looked at him sternly, her schoolmarm look, and then let her face soften, pumping a theatrical puff of air into her cheeks. "There's always tomorrow."

    Continued...

    The online version of this story appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.

    Carol Shields is the chancellor of the University of Winnipeg. Her book The Stone Diaries won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1995. Shields's most recent novel is Larry's Party (1997).

    Illustrations by Julie Delton

    Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
    The Atlantic Monthly; January 1999; The Next Best Kiss; Volume #283, No. 1; pages 79 - 86.

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