Contemporaryby Nathan Alling Long
We were at a diner, sitting across from each other at a table by a window facing west. It was our third date, though she didn't like to call them that. I'd first noticed her in a night class on American History, impressed by how she was always up on the read and amused by the way she provoked the teacher with her questions. She was clearly the smartest girl in the class.
Now I stared at her while she drank her coffee, admiring the way the strands of her dyed black hair almost covered her delicate ears. We'd been discussing whether the government or activists had done more to change civil rights in the U.S., and though I was losing the argument terribly, I felt drawn to how feistily she made her points. I'd never been with a woman so strong-headed and it excited me. I stopped arguing and just sat there smiling.
"What?" she said. "What?""Nothing," I said, and sat there silent. I realized I was beginning to feel something akin to what I think others call love. And so I said it, the most poetic thing I could remember from my English class. "'I want to do to you what spring does to flowers.'"
She looked at me briefly, then sighed and shook her head. "To quote e.e. cummings," she said, "is so late modernist, darling."
It was not the reaction I had hoped for. I took a breath and sighed. OK, I thought, perhaps the way to win her was by not being so damn sensitive. I'd be feisty back. "Okay," I said. "But isn't the world 'darling' early modernist period, too?"
She looked out the window and didn't say anything at first. "That was pastiche," she said finally. "I was using the term post modernly, a sardonic nod to the 1920's."
I nodded, conceding her point. I looked out the window as well. The sun was a bright orange mess on the horizon. If I wanted her to love me back, I figured, I'd have to be more ironic. But staring at the setting sun together didn't help; it only intensified my feelings. I confess, I had picked the table for this very reason, but now it seemed all wrong.
So I turned back to the diner and looked at the heavy-set, fifty-something couple across from us who were eating fried food smothered in ketchup and complaining about the waitress. I stared at the ugly plastic squeezable ketchup bottle and thought, This will help—that is, make me feel less romantic. Though I felt a comfortable nostalgia creep in when I noticed the bottle's reproduction of an old-style label, with the cursive writing, gold outline, outdated font, and facsimile of the founder's signature. It appeared just like how the ketchup bottles looked when I was a kid.
Irony, irony, I told myself, but nothing was coming.
"Couldn't I have been postmodern, and all that, when I was quoting cummings?" I finally said. I refused to look into her eyes, which were still fixed on something past the window anyway.
"You could have been," she said, "but you weren't. There wasn't a single ironic note in your delivery."
I glanced over to see if she might be smiling at me, if her expression might suggest she was only joking. But there was nothing. She was still looking out the window. I wondered if she wanted to leave, or if she were, just maybe, enjoying what she was staring at. "What about you?" I said. "You're the one gazing at the sunset."
At that, she turned back to her coffee and took a sip, seemingly nonplused. "I wasn't 'gazing at the sunset.' I was looking at the dents in the cars in the parking lot, thinking about the South American landscape destroyed by the mining of iron ore used in making sheet metal."
It was a strong retort, but what hurt more what that she wasn't even thinking of me, of us, or this conversation. I stared at her hard, and in my best sarcastic voice said, "That sounds very environmental of you, very seventies."
"Oh," she said indifferently, "I wasn't feeling any particular way about the mining—I was just thinking about it, being aware of things, you know, globally. I'm resigned to the world's end—however it comes: greenhouse gases, over consumption, or, whatever. I'm quite content handing the planet back to the lizards and roaches and vultures."
"Really?" I said. "So someone could come in and shoot you right now and you wouldn't care?"
"I'm drinking my coffee," she said, as if that answered it.
"So, I'm enjoying my coffee. So, no, I don't want to be shot right now. But the idea of it all ending, sometime in the future—that doesn't bother me."
"That's convenient," I said.
"Why's that?" She glanced at me for the first time, as though I'd finally said something interesting.
I looked to the horizon, where the sun had finished setting. There was only creeping darkness now, against which the tall steel parking lot lights had just switched on. "Well," I said, "whether the world dies or not, you will. You've simply projected your own death onto the world for comfort."
"'Projected my own death'?" She made a sound, something like a guffaw. "What kind of Freudian mumbo jumbo is that? Is there anything you can say that isn't passé?"
"The past is gone, the future futureless…" I said.
"Oh, god, now he's quoting Eliot!" Her face worked itself into a little smirk. What stung the deepest was that she'd said "he" instead of "you," as if she wasn't even talking to me anymore
"All that's left to say are things passé," I said. "In fact, passé is no longer passé. It's all we've got." At this point, I confess, I wasn't quite sure what I was saying.
"Not for me, honey."
"No, I suppose not," I said. "You prefer to have nothing at all." I was feeling less and less in love, and closer to feeling its opposite.
She shrugged off my comment and downed her cup. "There, now I have nothing, and I'm content." She smiled an artificial smile.
"So, now can I shoot you?" I asked. It was no longer a completely theoretical question—a part of me wanted to do her bodily harm.
"Ouch," she said and stared at me, as though I had just stabbed her. "You know, sometimes you say the meanest things."
"But it doesn't matter, right?"
"Of course it matters. I'm a person. I have feelings. There's no reason to be cruel."
I blinked, felt a pang inside. Where had the nihilist gone? "But you were mean to me, when all I did was quote cummings!"
"No," she said, shaking her head. "I wasn't being mean, I was being instructive. I was trying to bring you up to date. You were just about to kill me. That is mean."
I couldn't tell if she was right, or if she even believed she was right. But I knew I couldn't keep up, so I conceded that I was in fact passé, some romantic schmuck who still wrote actual paper letters and didn't have an I-phone and rarely used Facebook. But maybe not so idealistic anymore.
Still, when the bill came, I instinctively reached for it, to pay it, until she laughed at me and shook her head. "Medieval," was what she muttered.
I sat there paralyzed, knowing there wasn't a single thing I could do that wouldn't reveal my nature. She would even interpret sitting paralyzed as emotionally excessive, melodramatic. So I reached for the check anyway, and pulled out my pen. I wrote across it, "I want to do to you what spring does to snow." Then I closed the bill folder, slid it over to her, and stood up to leave. I was feeling almost up to date.