Adam Welch

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Sweet Nothing

[ First appeared in Shooter literary magazine, August 2019. ]

Now that people can look up whatever they want on their phones it’s not that impressive to know things, because everyone does. The most interesting people now are the ones that don’t know anything. Like Jane, who I used to work with, and sort of dated for a while. In the beginning I would just stand behind her in the office kitchen while she waited for the coffee jug to fill. She would stare at the coffee dripping through the filter, and I would stare in turn at the back of her head – which was covered in short, straight, flicked-out brown hair, like a coconut – and wonder what was going on in there. She hadn’t seen any of the Star Wars movies, people said, or a single episode of Frasier. When I told her I was getting gelato one afternoon she looked really sympathetic, like I needed treatment. Obviously she knew she had a bit of a reputation and tried to shake it off sometimes by nodding and narrowing her eyes when people spoke to her about various topical things, like who wore what to the Grammys, or the birth rate in Nigeria, or something Elon Musk had just said. But every time she fooled me into thinking that the world had finally made some sort of impression on her, I’d walk past her desk, on the way to the vending machine, and overhear her saying “Be-yonse” instead of “Beyoncé”, or telling someone that her emails had gone missing, or wondering out loud why they have a North and South Korea but not an East or West.

She was a miracle. So pure. So impervious. Or, at least, that’s more or less what I thought at the time, which wasn’t a great time for me if I’m being completely honest. I’d had to move, after the video went up. I felt that I needed to find somewhere that no one cared about and wouldn’t bother looking for me. So, there I was. A job. A room. A far-off pin on the map. It took me an hour and a half to get home every day, on a train full of people plugged into tablets, trying to catch up on things everyone else had already seen and raved about: The Wire, The West Wing, Mad Men– all of it a little passé, but I guess they had time to burn, because I certainly did. So each day, after work, I’d sit there among them, a hood covering as much of my face as possible, my eyeballs fixed upon the crotches of the standing passengers, and think about Jane instead. What did she do in the evenings? Who did she see? I imagined her sitting at home like she sat at work, eyes slightly glazed, pondering a blank patch of wall. Or going straight to bed, putting ear plugs in, an eye mask on. Maybe, I thought, she had figured out some way to power herself down completely, to shut off all access to the external stimuli that were making the rest of us so complex and anxious and unclean and ridiculous.

I suppose it’s testimony to the fact that so few things are genuinely mysterious these days that I found the enigma of Jane's personal life endlessly fascinating, and within a few weeks of my arrival, busied myself trying to find out everything I possibly could about her. I was trying to stay offline – all that stuff was, and is, a little bit frightening – but there were a few people in the office I was on semi-decent terms with and could pump for information during cigarette breaks.

“So, that Jane,” I said to some guy in the alley out the back. His name was Ken, or Kevin, or something.

“Yep?” he said, then coughed a little bit.

“Has she been here long?”

“Forever,” said Ken/Kevin.

“What does she do?” I asked.

“No idea,” he said. “Nothing useful, anyway.”

“But what does she do for fun?”

He gave me a weird look, blew a cloud of smoke into the air, and watched it dissipate.

“I wonder what her living room looks like,” I said.

“What exactly is your deal?” he said.

Anyway, from these kind of roundabout conversations I eventually confirmed that Jane led a blessed, simple life, unencumbered by friends, family, interests, pursuits, and possessions. Like me, she lived out in the middle of nowhere, in a block of flats that came with its own furniture and colour scheme and vacuum-cleaned smell. She didn’t have pets. Her birthday was in June.

This was all well and good but the facts, somehow, would not cohere to make a person. So I continued to watch her, as she sauntered aimlessly between the coffee machine and her desk. She was exceptionally clean and neat. It didn’t occur to her to make a mess. Other people in the office had things pinned to their cubicles or cluttering their desks: printouts of pop stars and models; selfies from Christmas parties; birthday cards in which everyone just wrote,Have a good one! But Jane’s desk was always clear, a flat, open surface. She had one thing approaching a personality: a coaster with a pair of kittens on it, one tabby one ginger, which she put down when she had her coffee. I thought this might be an icebreaker, and asked her where she got it.

“I found it,” she said.

“You like cats?”

“No,” she said.

“Haha,” I said. I don’t know why.

Actually, I do. I was a bundle of nerves. The video had been online for, I don’t know, two months. I was very paranoid about how I came across, and very suspicious about what people were thinking, how much they had seen. How often. Jane didn’t seem to mind though. She was utterly implacable. No, better than that. She was unresponsive. There was something supernally calm and still about her face. A little button nose, like a pinch mark in dough. A pair of thin, straight lips, pale peach in colour, almost incapable of expression. I would look at her intently, so hard that my eyes would get tired and start to water. And when I turned away and blinked, I still saw her there, like a throbbing after-impression of the sun.

As my interest in Jane grew, it seemed to get noisier and noisier on the train. There was a segment of the track that had something wrong with it, and, as we passed over it, the rails emitted a bone-shaking screeching noise, the noise of a poor doomed creature being dragged backwards into some bottomless nether world. In combination with the heat, the smells, the tinny sounds of podcasts leaking out of cheap headphones, this noise had a funny effect on my mood, which hadn’t started in the best place, and I began to feel very much that my powers of observation and imagination – which have always been strong – were beginning to oppress me. How could she – Jane – possibly be avoiding all this, I thought: the headlines on the news apps, the moving images to my left and right, the voices on the loudspeakers? Dreaming of her, my thoughts became increasingly irresponsible and wild. The train groaned and blared and I imagined Jane as a shining, extra-terrestrial entity that wryly mingled among us. I pictured how she might have got here in the first place, beamed in from another dimension entirely. How she could have entered, frictionless, slipping and sliding into the universe, composed of some chrome-like material, all the fragments of reality curling round her and trying to grip on, but sliding off the imperturbable surface of her mind. In those ecstatic moments I couldn’t understand why we shouldn’t be together, touching, coupled, married, buried in the same hole. It’s something I understand much better now.

Courting her – well, you might call it courting – was no joke. The normal thing to do would have been to casually catch her on the way to lunch, feign a coincidence, end up the same place, eating sandwiches, but that wasn’t possible in this case because usually she just sat at her desk, munching on something weird she’d brought from home. Rice and bolognese. A sausage stew. Never mind Serious Eats, or MyFitnessPal, or Goop. This was what Jane insisted upon stuffing into her body, without the slightest concept of modesty or martyrdom. So lunch was a baffling experience, and not workable. My attempts at small talk at the coffee machine were not successful either. Too many questions. Jane didn’t respond well to questions, because she never knew the answers. But still, I asked them:

“Is that a latte?”

“Where are your glasses from?”

“What are you working on?”

In the beginning, her delicious incomprehension definitely made my heart flutter. But it wasn’t quite enough. I needed something else. I tried to find out some of her favourite things. Turns out – this is what she said – she liked most things the same. This was a curveball. I tried to coordinate our journeys home. She took a different route every day, as if it just didn’t matter. Having exhausted all the ways I tended to bond with people back then, I didn’t know what else to do. This lack of progress sent me back into the spiralling circle of negative thinking that, I felt, had its starting point in the inhuman howling of the train. I would try and focus on my work – which was going through an image folder and re-saving some tiff files as jpg files – but found that almost impossible and eventually ended up doing that thing where you go for a toilet break but don’t actually do the business, just sit in a cubicle with your head in your hands, replaying certain scenes, trying to persuade yourself to go back out there. The evenings became long and dry and desperate. I lay in a stupor in my bed, which, having been bought for a place that was much bigger, pretty much filled the entire room, watching TV but not really watching it. I wished I could look up actors on my phone but was too scared to turn the thing on and plunge back into it all.

This was the breakthrough, though: telling, not asking. I decided, one morning, to bring Jane a macchiato. I said the word as I put it down on her desk.

“Macchiato,” I said. “It’s like the coffee from the kitchen. But I got this one from this place down the road, where you can choose where the coffee comes from. It’s from Rwanda.”

She looked up at me with her milky eyes, and I thought I saw them widen.

“Rwanda is a country in Africa,” I said.

She took a sip. So I told her about some other things. Just gently drew them to her attention. An A to Z of everything, from The Atlantic, through Goon Squad and House of Cards, all the way to Twitch, Twitter, World of Warcraft, X-Men, and beyond. She listened in silence, but I knew she appreciated the gesture when we bumped into each other at the photocopier and she debuted some of her own original thoughts.

“It takes seven different sizes of paper,” she said. “Did you know that?”

“I did know that,” I said. “Can I take you out?”

This job, as you might have guessed, was not exactly stretching my abilities and skills to their utmost, which is why I had become so intimate with things like the photocopier, the air conditioning system, Jane’s eyebrows, Jane’s clavicles, Jane’s weird smell. I was, let’s face it, a little bit bored, which is why I was entranced by the way Jane jumped and put a hand to her chest every time someone’s phone went off in a meeting, and how she always seemed to lose her money in the vending machine, and how she only seemed to own three shirts, coloured white, beige, and marigold. It’s clear that, as I was avoiding things like Facebook and Buzzfeed and Pocket and Google News, I had a little too much time to think about Jane, and why she went from being an interest to an obsession in the weeks running up to the period where we were more or less an item.

That part was fun. I took her to see Godard’s À Bout de Souffle at the Picturehouse, and she said she’d always wanted to wear stripes but didn’t think they’d suit her. I took her to a Ben Nicholson exhibition, but she spent the whole afternoon trying to figure out how to get into, then out of, the ladies’ toilet. I invited her back to my apartment, thinking we might do something stupid and animal, or at least watch a few episodes of something, but when I put the moves on her she looked especially puzzled. I nearly fainted from awe and desire before tucking myself back in again, shutting off the Apple TV, and ordering her a cab home, which she wasn’t able to find in the end so she walked. These, at the time, I considered among the most erotic days of my life. Being with Jane was like going to sleep with white noise in your earphones, but during the daytime, fully conscious. When I finally kissed her, after explaining carefully what that would involve, it was like I had fastened my lips round something cold and eternal and wonderfully ineffable.

It all started to go wrong pretty soon after that. This is what happens, if you’re not careful. You ruin people. Talking, looking, touching – any which way, it’s the beginning of the end. I began to suspect this was the case when Jane swept into the office with – of all things – a matcha latte clutched in her fingers.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“It gives you a more gentle buzz, and is full of antioxidants,” she said.

I dashed it out of her hands, then got some tissues to wipe up the mess.

My fears deepened later that afternoon when I went through her desk drawers and found a copy of Thomas Piketty’s Capital, just lying there. My emotions were very near the surface during this period so I couldn’t help but confront her immediately.

“Where did you get this?” I said.

She paused for a few seconds.

“I found it.”

This was a lie, clearly. I didn’t have to go through her rubbish and find the Amazon packaging to know it, but, yes, I did do that. Then I began to get these shivers throughout the day, because I could only assume that there were probably other things she was keeping from me, other things she knew. And naturally there was that one thing I was particularly worried about. So I basically stopped doing any work and spent most of the hours from nine to five desperately trying to prevent Jane from discovering anything else. But it was too late. I’d set it all in motion, I’d given her a push off the edge. It wasn’t long before she was, indeed, wearing a striped Breton t-shirt to work, grinning from ear to ear like she had been given some special, exclusive dispensation from God. And it wasn’t long before she started blowing me off because she was really tired and just wanted to stay in and watch a few episodes of The Shield or listen to This American Life, or, worse, because she’d heard about some great new Korean place or some underground bar. This newfound interest in things, which terrified me, allowed her to finally connect with other people in the vicinity, which made me really furious.

“How’s it going with Jane,” said Ken/Kevin, during cigarettes.

“Yeah, fine,” I spat. I was having three or four in each break.

“She really seems different,” he said.

“I hadn’t noticed.”

“She cracks me up.” He took a long drag. “Who’d have thought you’d be such a good influence?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You’re very sensitive, you know that?”

God, I hated that guy.

So that was that. Yes, they all got on, Jane and everyone in the office, like they’d always been the best of friends, like they hadn’t just ignored and pitied her before. And I wasn’t completely in control on all fronts back then, but that didn’t mean I couldn't see where this was going. I decided I’d had it with Jane.

This, for the record, was way before I walked into the office and saw them all clustered round Jane’s computer, watching something that could only have been one thing, their hands clasped over their mouths, their shoulders heaving in that way they do when the thing in question is too hilarious to keep inside the body. I’d already decided by then. I’d seen all this before. I didn’t have to have it spelled out to me.

But Jane, now, was the kind of person who liked to spell things out. She had started a Medium blog, she told me on our final date together, in which she would consider a new word every day, trace its origins, chronicle its usage, that sort of thing. She told me, as they laid the menus down on the table, that today she had written about “inculcate” and tomorrow she would write about “platonic”. She really rolled the syllables around her mouth, as if she was chomping on some delicious treat. I sat in stunned silence across the table, in a restaurant that you would normally have to book months in advance but at which, somehow, Jane had managed to secure a last-minute reservation. She was interested, she said, in the ways that language mutates over time, how the words we use don't inherently contain meaning in themselves, but are metonyms for an extended sequence of cultural practices and philosophical stances. The food that was placed in front of us was almost entirely unidentifiable, mostly raw, each morsel the kind of thing you would never, instinctively, put into your mouth. I didn’t know where to look. Jane’s eyes, formerly dry and moon-grey, had developed a strange depth and sparkle, a dancing complexity that, fixed upon me, caused sad bubbles to rise in my stomach. She was wearing some asymmetrical designer top that was draped cleverly so you couldn’t see where it was fixed or fastened. It just looked like it had always been hanging there.

“We have to talk,” I said.

“Glad to,” she said, and told me about a lecture she’d just been to about Lacanian psychoanalysis. And another about conflict resolution in the Middle East. She said she wanted to start reading Proust, but couldn’t decide whether to go for the Scott Moncrieff or the Lydia Davis. Or to plunge in and read it in the original French. Apparently she spoke French now.

“Did you watch the video?” I asked.

She paused with a forkful of innovative something halfway towards her mouth. She lowered it slowly back to her plate. She fixed me with eyes that looked like kaleidoscopes, and I squirmed.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said carefully.

I studied her face. Until recently, I had considered myself the preeminent expert on that face. But now it was different. There were so many pieces of her that I didn’t recognise. Eyebrows that pointed and arched. Nostrils that trembled and flared. Lips, formerly expressionless, that through exercise had become taut and muscular and were now turned up on the left side, very slightly. You wouldn’t tell the difference unless you were looking, unless you had a point of comparison. But Jane, it appeared, had learned how to smirk.

OK. So this is what happens in the video: I overreact to a situation. The situation is not important. What’s important is that everyone has seen it. It’s the kind of video that gets sent around offices and posted on message boards. There is something about it, obviously, that resonates with people. Not the vision of myself, necessarily, with my boiling red face, not the screaming and bawling, nor the black cluster of pixels that shivers and quivers to reproduce the gasping movements of my mouth, or the red cluster below and to the left, which is the voucher, nor the bristling dark mass behind me, which is the queue. It’s the sheer spectacle of it, the misplaced passion, the unnecessary chaos. It is, of course, deeply embarrassing. But it’s also tenacious. It’s the kind of video that pings around your head forever. You remember it while shopping, or taking a dump, and you smile to yourself, secretly. It sits there, on the internet, in your brain, like a giant toad licking its lips. I can no more erase it from the collective memory of our species than I can do away with Shakespeare or World War II, or The Bachelor. I can’t take it back, just as I can’t take back the scene that unfolded with Jane that night in the restaurant. It is not possible to reconstruct a plate of scallop ceviche from the mulch it turns into when hurled with bitter intent. It is not possible to un-smash a wine bottle once it is there, brandished in the hand. But that’s how it is. You do things and you learn to live with them. Often the living is of a different sort, after, than what you had previously considered to be living, before. But you adjust, you move on. I certainly did. I’d like to make that clear.

I never saw Jane again, of course, except in dreams and memories, in which she was still her old self. I have this one favourite that I often hark back to because, honestly, I have a lot of time to fill right now, inside, hiding, wondering how so many people can make this thing work when I have always had all this trouble. The memory comes from the early stages of what you might call our relationship, a moment in which Jane and I were sitting, as people do, on a bench in a park watching a sunset. It was a mad one, stipples of blue and purple and gold battling with each other, the sun itself indistinct and gloopy, an onsen egg, like you get from a sous vide or in Japan. It was the kind of sunset that most people would immediately photograph and put on their socials, or send to their parents, so that they can bear witness to the wonder of it. It was the kind of thing that even people who know things can admit is humbling and beautiful. But Jane just sat there stiffly, shaking her head and saying “I don't get it, I don't get it,” and then she turned and gave me a look like she barely recognised me, which chimed closely with how I felt – that is, that I was empty and weightless, and nothing could ever be so sweet.