Apples are kissing other apples. Gray cats are kissing other gray cats. Trees are kissing other trees. You and I are not kissing.
We work in an office together. We are both married to other people. It is ok because we only have ideas, you and I, about whether we should kiss or not. These ideas are both good and bad, probably.
At work we do not say these words aloud but make elaborate diagrams for one another using pink phone message sheets. You write these words, “Kissing you would be like this” and draw a picture of two butterflies being struck by lightning. You hand me the note over the gray cubicle wall. I stare at it and wonder if you may might be right. I do my own drawing and write, “Kissing you would be like this” and sketch a picture of a man made of ice kissing a woman who is actually a stone. We have made hundreds of these drawings. We do not actually do any work in the office any more, other than trying to imagine what it would be like to kiss each other. We have been thinking about it so long we have forgotten what it is we should be doing.
I am so glad I found this story – it is a little gem! But… I am, yet again, not sure I would call it a second-person story.
I think I either have to adjust my strict adherence to the whole “is not the monologue addressed to a real or imaginary homodiegetic [in the story] audience” thing (perhaps I misunderstand that?) – because this is one character pretty much addressing the second character, though not in the same way as the example Richardson gives of Travesty by Hawkes – or I am going to have to invent another category, a “one-and-a-half person” voice: there is first person, there is person-and-a-half, and there is second person. This story is person-and-a-half. I do not think I have the authority to declare new categories of voices in narrative theory, though. Then again, there is no one to stop me!
Please listen to it online! It will take eight minutes, a two-thousand word story, and it is time well spent. Please listen before you read on because it is better that you experience it rather than read about it and know what it is about and what will happen! It was published in Ninth Letter (and is in his collection, Demons in the Spring) but is not available for reading online.
Sequoia said, when describing this story in our discussion of second person: “Because this story is told in the present tense, the intertwining of 2nd and 1st is much more pronounced than the July or Lahiri stories because of the immediate interactions with ‘you.’” And that is very true, the present tense does give a different feel to it. He also uses subjunctive tenses, what would happen, what might happen, in places. Always, the “I” is talking to the “you.” We do not know their names, but it feels very intimate, we feel like we are there, it is extremely compelling, I think, because of the “you,” otherwise it would just be another tale about two co-workers flirting.
Here is the basic story: a man and a woman are coworkers, and they are flirting at work. They are both married. He is enthralled. She is not. And each sentence, oh, it is quite remarkable. To do it justice, I must do an almost sentence-by-sentence analysis. But I will only pick a few parts.
Look above at how it begins – present imperfect. This is a continuous state, the two not kissing. It has been going on for a while and is going on. This is much different from “you and I do not kiss” or “have not kissed” or “you will not kiss me” or “I have not tried to kiss you.” There is no reason given here, just what is. The state of them not-kissing, when apples and trees and grey cats are kissing (and come on, those things do not kiss).
The pink message pad memos back and forth with the pictures – how different they are! She draws butterflies being hit by lightning. He draws an ice man kissing a stone woman. Which one do you think is in love, now really? One is a teenage caricature, one is a real evaluation. And then the sentence: ” We have been thinking about it so long we have forgotten what it is we should be doing.” He is referring to work here, but I think he has also forgotten how to kiss, it is the idea of kissing now that lures him.
He has already told us he is married, but later he says: ” I do not know if you know I have a wife who I do not speak to anymore. She is living with someone else somewhere in Germany.” First, he is not sure she knows this piece of very important information (for someone flirting and talking of kissing) about him! And now we learn his wife has run off with some German! But he does not talk of getting a divorce or being separated. He still calls her his wife. Later in that paragraph he says: “We were young when we got married, though neither one of us now, you or I, are so very old.” He is talking about his wife, then he shifts into talking about himself and “you”, even has to specify that he is changing directions! I love this! Talking about his wife brings him back to “you” who is perhaps some comfort for him, dealing with the blow of his wife leaving him for a German? It adds another element! I love how it is revealed, and I love how he transfers attention from wife back to office worker.
At work you make paper airplanes. For these airplanes you have a number of names: the two-spinner, which flies in two complete circles before its inevitable crash; the submarine plane which goes underwater; the perpetual drifter, a plane you have devised which through aerial locomotion can stay airborne forever. We make two of each of these and send them out the office window, watching them take to the air, wing in wing, disappearing over the city. When they crash, giving in to the luxury of gravity, I think of kissing you and know that this is exactly how it would feel.
This paragraph is so sad! She is looking at this flirtation as two circles then out, or a way to hide, a way to drift, maybe they are both drifters, and in drifting the plane stays airborne forever! Except of course it does not, and they send them out the window and watch them crash and he knows how kissing her would feel. The crash. He has not lost all touch with reality. He knows. But he wants anyway. Because that is what we do, we foolish people with hearts bigger than our heads!
I could go on about this story, every line, forever. How he transitions from one thing to the next. The imagery and word choices – “…simple buttons, easy zippers, the desperate waistbands of our unhappy clothes” or “…your voice becoming soft and girlish, someone else, someone I want to kneel before and then lift her grey flannel skirt above the safety of her knees.” How everything changes when he calls her one night and asks her to move to London with him, and she becomes angry. Later at work she tells him she is leaving her husband, and there is a moment when we hope – yes, we all hope along with him, that this is it, that he will finally get that kiss, which has a sadness all to itself because we know one day that kiss will sour, too, but right now for this second before the next sentence we are full of hope because he is drawing in a breath – but she is leaving everything, including him: “You are going back to wherever you come from, and now you will not even look at me. I ask if I can come along. You tell me no.” Then, “You look around the office for what you might have missed.” Again, we hold our breath – she is missing him! But, we are disappointed, again, with the next sentence: “Oh, yes, your green mittens. You put them in the box.” This is exquisite sentence crafting! This is what they mean when they talk about every sentence, every word, has to count.
Now, I do not think Joe Meno sat down and said, “I am going to write this sentence this way and that one that way.” I think he just wrote the story and then went back and tinkered with it to add some of these things, tightened it up so it flowed just like it does. Or maybe he is just a genius and it happens like this. On the Akashic Books website, he said of this story: “I wrote this one as a response to Donald Barthelme’s significantly superior story, ‘You Are as Brave as Vincent Van Gogh,’ which has the same sense of direct address. I guess what was most interesting to me about the story was the shape it took; a number of small, freestanding sections, which seems to be a lot closer to poetry.”
I see one of his books is being made into a musical that will open this summer, so that is exciting! But I love this tiny little story. I will have to get this collection and see if the rest are as good. But, alas, I still do not think it is really second person! But I also think it does not matter.