(This story sat unpublished for four years. I have decided to publish it, without editing.)
It’s 5pm on Wednesday in Oakland, CA and the sun is already setting. Jason is pacing around his apartment. He still isn’t hungry for lunch, having eaten a big breakfast around noon with too much coffee, having typically slept in, having typically stayed up late reading various articles on Reddit. He feels restless, tries to work, stares at his laptop screen. He wants something else, though: interaction.
His career makes him anxious. He should find more graphic design work, maybe apply to a proper firm, but instead opens his own little project in Illustrator. Maybe he could update his portfolio, make it better, find more work later. The world moves too fast, time and money and all the big things passing by. He isn’t keeping up. He wants more time. The day feels short because the weeks and months and years feel short.
He renders a drop-shadow on a character, spends twenty minutes on a minute detail, gets frustrated with a technical snag and leans back, losing focus. He’s thinking about Lena, about the really nice date they had on Saturday, seeing live music, staying out late. He’s likes this girl. He wants to spend more time with her.
On Monday she left for a week-long work trip. He texted with her on Sunday, and on Monday too, to see if she got to Las Vegas okay. He isn’t afraid to make his attraction obvious.
Lena is different. She’s aloof. Her text replies are short and she doesn’t use emoticons or punctuation. She never initiates. She’s foreign — from Denmark — maybe it has something to do with it. It’s also early — they met just two Saturdays ago at a party. She is perhaps playing hard-to-get.
Jason wants to reach out to her again. Would it be too much? He thinks about their conversations, unsure of how to initiate. He’s thinking about a concert next week, hoping maybe the two of them can go. He’s thinking about Christmas and New Year’s Eve, wondering what he will do and what she’s doing. He wants to be close to her, to develop a closeness, and to prioritize it above the friends who are asking him to join them. He decides to check in, wondering what to say. He figures Hey how’s it going? or anything similar would be worthless — a demand for her attention without any bait to it. He thinks a little harder, decides to offer up a piece of his mind, for fodder:
It gets dark too early. (5:02p)
Minutes pass. She doesn’t respond. He puts down his phone, goes back to his work, tells himself he’s done what he can, he put himself out there and can’t do any more. He looks at his laptop screen, tries to convince himself that his effort is worth something, that the little tweaks he makes to this personal project aren’t a waste of time. He listens to podcasts about sex and religion, fixes himself a sandwich and paces around his apartment. Two hours pass. Lena responds.
Are you afraid of the night
The texts give Jason mixed emotions. He’s happy to see his screen light up, but is unsure how to read her tone. He also remembers talking with her at 4am about how he loves the night, and wonders if she has forgotten, is a bit hurt by that. Not a big deal, he tells himself.
No I love it, remember? But I also enjoy daylight. I wake up late, so now I don’t see as much of it. It feels strange.
Not that it matters too much.
It’s nice to run errands in 6pm daylight.
He crafts these three messages quickly but carefully. He feels good expressing his thoughts, but is self-conscious about talking too much. He wants to say something specific, wants to express the joy of leaving work and having the sun still out, of running errands and getting home just as the sun sets. But he doesn’t have a job to leave, spends his days working from home. So that feels insincere. He looks at his last sentence, a generic version of his particular appreciation. Luckily, Lena understands.
I know what you mean
I feel strange because I am excited for Christmas
I have never been
And all of a sudden it hits me
What’s wrong with me
Jason smiles. Her sentiments touch him. Her quick succession of messages are nice to watch appear in front of him. He likes the attention, likes that it feels like she cares about talking to him.
He doesn’t care about Christmas either. He relates to her. And he has a softness too, relates to that as well. It’s perfectly cynical and cute that she says this. He wonders, now, how to respond. He just wants to melt with her, to hug her and caress her hair, to cuddle by the fire and grow old together. But he feels a need to perform a certain attitude, to play a game. She would think he was too gooey if he confessed everything he was thinking. So he considers to say
You’re getting old!
But he doesn’t say that. In person, he would maybe make such a joke. It would have to be quick, with a laugh. It would make her feel a little bad. Maybe that would be a strategic move, but he didn’t want that. He wanted something genuine.
He leaves off a smiley face, even though he makes one in real life, wants badly to include it. It just doesn’t fit with Lena’s total absence of them. And she probably senses that he meant it. He hasn’t shied away from compliments.
She doesn’t respond. He waits five minutes, then decides she probably doesn’t know what to say, probably feels weird about the compliment. He decides to advance the conversation, curious. He gently prods her changing feelings about Christmas.
Is it the cider and street markets? Or family plans? What about it? (7:23p)
Maybe it’s just easier to enjoy the spirit of it instead of being anti? (7:25p)
She doesn’t reply. He worries that she doesn’t understand what he’s saying, like his phrasing in the last message was too colloquial, specifically American. Or maybe she doesn’t like that he’s taking the whole conversation so seriously. He regrets his last line, that annoying question mark hanging there, begging for an answer. He’s desperate, sappy. He isn’t any fun.
Jason returns to work, still distracted. His own Christmas plans are on his mind. He’ll go with his parents to Hawaii. Should he stay there for New Year’s Eve? Or maybe him and Lena would be dating by then and he’ll want to be in Oakland. What is she doing for the holidays? He needs to book his flights, but keeps waiting. Why can’t Lena just answer him? Why can’t he get the conversation somewhere concrete?
Hours pass. He feels silly. He can’t believe he’s holding up his life plans for this girl he barely knows. But he likes her and he can imagine them having a nice New Year’s together. He wants to do that if it can work out.
He listens to a band he loves: Beach House. They are on tour and playing at the Fillmore on Monday. He wants to go, wants them to go together. If she can’t go, he won’t go alone. He doesn’t see the point. Is she even back from her trip by then? He wants to ask her, but doesn’t want to put out another question, his last text with that dangling question mark. And this question mark would be so much bigger.
It’s so hard to get information out of Lena. That’s how she wants it. Maybe it’s because she doesn’t trust him. Jason wonders what his motives are, if he is untrustworthy somehow. Or maybe Lena is just a really closed person, values her privacy so much. Jason wants in, is an open book himself, doesn’t feel like he’s being invasive. But maybe he is wanting too much. Maybe he’s desperate.
He listens to the chillwave dream-pop music, letting the lush aural sounds soothe him. He slinks back into his chair, zooms out of his illustration and stares at it. He wonders if a firm or client would possibly be impressed, or if a curator or gallerist could be interested. Who would care to see these designs besides himself? He wonders how he can get someone to care, to show him interest. He checks his email. Nothing. His phone also remains blank.
Hours pass and it’s late, time to go to bed. He hadn’t left the house. He looks at his phone, jumps between mail and texts and Facebook and Instagram and Reddit. He texts Lena once more.
Hope work is good and that you have a good night! (12:14a)
He stares at it before sending, feels a hesitation, ignores his ambivalent intuition and hits send. Then he regrets it, feels stupid, small, vulnerable. She could probably tell, if and when she sees it. She’s probably asleep. It’ll be that much worse when she sees it in the morning. He lays in bed, staring off, feeling the cold of the world, the countless other girls he can’t reach, the job offers he isn’t getting, the attention being paid to everything except his creative efforts. At some point, hours later, he falls asleep.