A flirtation in punctuation
Your favourite form of punctuation is the exclamation mark. You use it in ones and twos whenever you are excited about something. The twos are especially good.
You always capitalise the first letters of sentences, but sometimes your Is are lowercase. You abbreviate very to v and with to w and sometimes even pretty to p. You don’t really use emojis, but sometimes you type a smiley face out with two parentheses, happiness with a chin. You use phrases like wild stuff and it knocked my socks off and some folks, and somehow in your accent, it doesn’t sound stupid. Sometimes you write lmao and a part of me shrivels, but, like, kind of delightfully.
We meet. For some reason, I go for a handshake, like it’s a business meeting. I hate myself. I like you. You have these very lovely unusual ears — is it your ears that convince me your face could be dear to me? We walk all around town talking about language and the Himalayas.
You recommend me a 600-page literary novel translated from Spanish, which is just the kind of challenge I can’t resist. I read the first 150 pages, which are about this teenage boy in Mexico City who wants to be a poet and hangs out in a lot of smoky cafes and moons over several women and the state of the poetry scene. It’s pretentious as hell and I’m pretty sure I actively dislike it, but you specifically said to get past the first bit.
The second part of the novel is the best thing I’ve read in many years. In it, forty different narrators offer anecdotes concerning the same two characters, and the resulting polyphony is exuberant and loud and dreamlike and sad — big enough to mean everything. I note certain lines open-mouthed: “I could peel my hands off the glass of that old mirror (noticing, all the same, how my fingerprints lingered like ten tiny faces speaking in unison and so quickly that I couldn’t make out their words).” But much of what is good about the book is diffused across three hundred pages. The fact it is one of your favourite books — well.
You don’t text after we meet. So I text instead, to tell you how much I like the book. Then — to tell you how much I’d like to see you again. It’s a new thing I’m trying, this saying exactly what I mean. It fills me with terror. I hide my phone afterwards. The next day, I read that you’d like to see me again too. My heart, that old gallumpher, goes snatch-grab.
We talk about nothing much for weeks. Our texts contain words like heteronormative and swooning and incisive, like we’re two insufferable people sparring in an English tutorial, but my God, it’s fun. I go to Fiji and write you long, rambling messages about the frogs that come out after dark. You listen from all the way across the ocean and write me long, rambling messages about gigs we could, maybe, go to together; voices we could listen to in the dark. I come home again; I water my feelings. I risk.
You cancel on me twice at the last minute. The second time, I am already wearing mascara.
I come to a full stop to read your message, which says — you’re not ready. You say you’re sorry you’ve strung me along in the process of realising that. I’m not quite sure what to do, because your apologies are — there’s no other word — beautiful. They were written by somebody who knows all about close reading; who knows their exact choice of punctuation matters. It is a very good sorry. I offer all the grace I have and let you recede.
Two weeks. I’ve decided I am Definitely Not Sad. Just as I have got used to the silence, you text to recommend another book. It’s a 900-page literary novel translated from Polish. There’s a bloody lmao in the text. I am driving home from the beach when I receive your message, listening to, ha, The Beths’ Future Me Hates Me. There is sand everywhere, like some kind of benediction. I don’t read the book this time. But I undulate for a day and then I text back, a not-sad girl.
One day, later, you ask what I gravitate towards in a piece of writing. Why, you want to know, are my favourite books my favourites? This is the best question anyone has ever asked me, but I guess you don’t know that.
It takes me a long time to reply to your question. I mean, it takes me a long time to write you a message of any sort — I compose all texts to you in a separate notes file to avoid the terror of hitting send before despairing over every way you could think I’m uncool — but this is also a hard question.
I tell you I think it is about the gesture a piece of writing makes; how beautiful the shape is that it leaves in the mind. I mean it is about whether what is unspoken speaks just as truthfully as what is said. The act of articulating this to another person would be precious, even if you weren’t involved.
I ask you why you like long novels so much and you say you love digression, multiplicity of voice, an overabundance of ideas — all things that big books have more room for. But you also say you like them on some weird elemental level you can’t explain. I know all about that.
We text back and forth, like people passing a lit torch to each other. Such a small bright sweetness. When it is my turn to text back, I want to hold on to it being my turn for as long as possible — say, a whole day. I want to be waited for. But I want so many things, although I don’t name them to you.
No reason to hold back now. I want to know your elbows and eyebrows, and all the things you like to eat. I want to put my face very close to yours, because you know how to use a semicolon not only correctly but idiosyncratically. I want to meet you again and see if I remember your ears correctly. I want to have it over; have it out.
My favourite punctuation mark is the em dash. I like it because it looks like exactly what it means — a connection that is also a break. My favourite syntactic device of all is a sub-clause cuddled by two em dashes, a suspension in the middle of the rational motor of the sentence.
You turn out to be a suspension in the middle of the rational. You turn out to be a passing truth. One day, you don’t write back and I can’t bring myself ! to ride the wave again. I wait one day, then two, then three, then four. I check my phone approximately a hundred times an hour. I wait eight. I wait fifteen. I wait twenty-nine.
Outside, the sky asks, what did you think was going to happen? I have no idea, although I know I should not admit to having so many feelings about it. But wouldn’t anyone? Wouldn’t you? I was waiting for something to happen, not realising that something was already happening, subtle and insistent as syntax.
I wonder if you’ll send another message one day, after a while. Unfortunately, if you did, I would write back.
I love your stories. I think this one will resonate with all girls.