Jennifer Wortman is the author of the story collection, “This. This. This. Is. Love. Love. Love.” and a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. Her work appears in TriQuarterly, Glimmer Train, Electric Literature, Copper Nickel and elsewhere. She serves as associate fiction editor for Colorado Review and teaches at Lighthouse Writers Workshop. An Ohio native, she lives with her family in Lafayette.
The following is an excerpt from “Love You. Bye.”, a short story from the collection “This. This. This. Is. Love. Love. Love.”
Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.
2020 Colorado Book Awards finalist for Collections
My psychic friend sees light cords extending between people and their phones. But, she says, unlike the glowing metaphysical threads of relationship that stretch between two sentient beings, these cords don’t attach at both sides. They end abruptly at the phone, terminating in a right angle that slips frantically against the chem-armored plastic. This dynamic, she contends, explains our depression epidemic: the great unrequited love in late capitalism between people and their things. An unattached light cord, like a chest of drawers moved alone, weighs down its carrier, is almost impossible to bear. I think of this as I, a longtime depressive, stand in line in a glaring white store at a cacophonous mall to purchase my first smart phone. It’s 2016 and I’m so behind that I no longer take pride in my small, pointless gesture against technocracy, all the more pointless because of my addiction to every other screen in my life. In 2016, I’m embarrassed. I’m ashamed.
My psychic friend’s powers are useless to her. So she tells me as I sit on the floor of her studio apartment, gazing up at her as she perches on the edge of her unmade bed with her latest complaints. She’s been down lately. Has she lost weight? I ask if she’s eaten. She’s not hungry, she says.
“Maybe a small snack? Dry Cheerios?”
She looks at me funny. “I’ll eat later.”
But I know where these complaints, this appetite loss, can lead, from my own days of dry Cheerios. At a crisis-hotline operator’s bidding, I’d crawled to my kitchen to retrieve them, doing my best, as I moved, to sustain the feeling of hiding in bed. I say “crawled,” but really I lurched, launching forward then resting on the gritty floor, all the while keeping the phone to my ear for coaching from my new best friend. That phone had a cord that I stretched, but not far: my apartment then was small, shrinking by the day.
My turn at the new-phone counter, a black snake in the middle of the room. My heart thumps triply hard, stirred by the triple threat of a business transaction with a stranger in a shopping mall. The phone boy, like all the phone boys, is young, wily, and thin, a touch of cool in his short hair, his company-logo polo, white as the walls, strapped into his business-cas pants. I wave my prehistoric phone at him, a practical unnecessity but a spiritual must. He is my confessor and my phone is my confession. Forgive me. I don’t belong in this world.
Most people, bemoans my friend, don’t want to hear about their light cords. Much worse than them are the people who do. They want to know everything: color, texture, intensity, diameter, circumference, penumbra, odor, taste. They want to know more. They call in the middle of the night, asking questions she can’t answer. She knows light cords and that’s all.
A light cord can express something about a relationship in its present form. It doesn’t tell the future or explain the past. Although the past and future might be inferred from the condition of the light cord, and is, in fact, almost always obvious and predictable, the obviousness and predictability come from the tedium of human behavior rather than the cords themselves. And the word “almost” is key. Sometimes my friend’s inferences are wrong. When she was young, she preferred to advise rather than predict. But those who craved her advice most, those late-night callers with insatiable needs, were the least likely to take it. So now she neither advises nor predicts, except for the occasional grim prediction, about others, to me.
She agrees to go for a walk: a good sign. We pass a couple whose light cord is bright black, dim purple, dried-blood brown, the tendrils knotted and thick, some plunged into the woman’s chest, some wound around her neck. Abusive relationships, my friend tells me, have the strongest cords. That woman will never leave him. But sometimes they do, I say. Sometimes they leave. You have no idea, says my friend. You don’t see what I see. The odds are infinitesimal. But it could happen, I say. By your own admission, you never know. She stares at me, her dark eyes darkening. I’m her longtime depressive friend. Why am I on the side of hope?
“It could happen,” she says. “But it won’t.”
Unsurprisingly, the phone boy laughs at my phone. Or maybe he’s just laughing at me, at my overreactive face, which I’m sure now conveys an excess of shame and fear. But it’s a kind laugh, and I fall for him a bit. Then he says, “Yeah, I don’t want to join this century either. But you gotta do what you gotta do, right?”
“Right.” I sigh, adding extra wind and a shoulder collapse for his benefit. He laughs again and I smile. He’s one of those clean-cut blonds with electric blue eyes I don’t consider my type until they aim those eyes at me.
Things turn serious: We talk phones. We talk plans. Radiating confidence and concern, he gives me choices, explains pros and cons. He helps me find the best phone and plan for me.
By the time I leave the store, I am in love.
I persuade my friend to see a therapist, one I’ve researched and vetted, though not my own. I’ve spoken at length to my therapist about my psychic friend. I’d love nothing more than for my therapist to treat us both, a sort of psychological ménage a trois that would certainly bring us all closer in a perverse and risky way. But, for that very reason, along with my attraction to that reason, my therapist says no.
Now that we’re in the car, my friend, who has agreed to go to the therapist, doesn’t want to go to the therapist. She regales me with tales of a therapist she had in high school, when her parents made her go because they’d learned about the light cords. He was condescending, she says. And dense. She despised him, despite the fact that he reassured her parents that she was absolutely fine. Maybe that’s why she despised him. The only therapist she’s ever had. “A good therapist is hard to find,” I say, trying to sympathize. “But—“
“You know what?” she interrupts. “I hope we get lost and crash the car and The Misfit comes along and shoots us in the chest.”
I’m at a coffee place, ordering chamomile tea, the closest thing they have to the opposite of coffee. My nervous system can’t handle caffeine. I sit down. I’ve brought work, a laptop with a manuscript I’m copy editing. This is one of those painfully engineered coffee spots where a table is never just a table: this table contains chalkboards. Normally, before I start work, I take a few minutes to color: “making shapes” my boyfriend calls it. If a writing utensil should come into my hand, be it near a chalkboard or margin or scrap, I’ll scribble until a thick curve emerges. From there, offshoots: more curves, and negative space trapped within, until I’ve created something that looks nothing like a person but somehow evokes a human, uniquely graceful and deformed. This soothes me. But today, I don’t color. As soon as I sit down, I take out my phone. Yes, my laptop could fill the same function, but it takes time to load, whereas my new phone offers itself up to me quick. How can I refuse such kindness? How can I reject holding such bounty close, in just one little hand?
“Ha!” someone says. It’s such a gleefully accusing “ha” that I instantly know it’s directed at me. The phone boy. “I knew it! You’re just like the rest of us.”
He wears an untucked t-shirt that hugs his leanness, and without his work uniform, without his paycheck hanging overhead, he beams a beautiful insanity, his bright blue eyes now neon, his cropped blond hair electric.
“I never said I wasn’t,” I reply, though he’s onto something, the way I fetishize my alienation. I’m only a little piqued—I like a man who’s onto something.
“Your old phone said it all.” He winks.
“I can’t be the only one who comes in with old phones.”
“Oh, you’re not. But they’ve usually got a few decades on you.” He flips a chair around and straddles it, folding his arms atop the back, a posture engaged yet detached, temporary. I’m pretty sure I’ve got a decade on him, and I can’t believe he’s landed beside me for even a small moment, let alone remembered me.
In my joyous bewilderment, I toss out a joke. “The only thing this phone’s missing is a needle, so I can shoot it straight into my veins.”
“Ha!” He slaps the top of the chair. “Love it.”
My psychic friend tells me that her new therapist views her anger as a good sign. The therapist believes she’s not clinically depressed. Most depressed women, her therapist says, turn their anger inward, and that’s when things go seriously south. I suspect her therapist is in love with her, as are most people.
My psychic friend is beautiful, with her long black hair and deep amber eyes, the play of light and dark within. But what people most love about her is more felt than observed, a power she emanates and, in good times, shares. Their experiences with her are all about their overwhelming experience of her, as if she were but a memorable dream, theirs alone. The proof: hardened skeptics accept her psychic abilities without question. Others aren’t psychic, they think, but the usual boring rules don’t apply to her.
I ask her to read the light cord between me and my boyfriend. She says no. I ask her to read the light cord between me and her. She says no way. She’s taken the day off work. She’s told her boss at the boutique where she sells, without trying, tons of long, flowing skirts to women who want to look like her, that she’s sick, which I believe isn’t a lie.
“Can I get you anything?” I ask.
“Why do you want me to be depressed?” she asks.
“Why would I want you to be depressed?”
“I don’t know,” she says. “You tell me.”
The phone boy, of course, is in a band: lead vocals and rhythm guitar. He’s at the coffee place, I learn, to firm up an acoustic gig, which he invites me to in a casually-promoting-his-band sort of way. Still, the invitation so excites me that once he leaves, I can’t work. I find myself rereading sentences, my elation brightening the space between each word until the manuscript becomes that bright space, its words incidental. I shut the computer and go home. A good run is in order. Instead, I call my boyfriend and invite him to the phone boy’s show.
“I can’t. I’ve got a late home-visit that night.” My boyfriend is a guardian ad litem, a lawyer who represents the interests of abused and neglected children. Part of his job involves visiting kids’ homes. Though I ask and ask, he won’t tell me what he sometimes finds. This is one of the reasons I love him. At home, at all hours, he takes work calls in both English and Spanish, and either way I understand just enough to know I understand nothing. Though I ask and ask, he won’t tell me what he’s discussed. This is another reason I love him. In fact, I love him so much that he’s not just my boyfriend. He’s my fiancé—though I have a hard time calling him that, for fear of cursing us both.
What he does tell me about his job: It’s important, when possible, to keep families together. But sometimes it’s not possible.
I genuinely want him to come with me to the phone boy’s show. Not just because I love him, but to protect that love from the new excitement taking over my brain. Deep down, though, I also crave the charge of having him and the phone boy in the same room. I am a terrible person, and worse still because though I genuinely want him to come to the phone boy’s show, I’m also genuinely thrilled he can’t.
“Love you,” I say. “Bye.”
— Buy “This. This. This. Is. Love. Love. Love.” at BookBar.
— Read an interview with author Jennifer Wortman.