By Travis M. Andrews
It’s maybe the fourteenth click-snap of Johanna’s stapler that causes me to spurt out of the swamp my mind’s been stuck in (or maybe it pushes me further down … who can ever tell), and I almost lose it. Instead, I just start counting out the years of a wasted-but-not-really-wasted life with each subsequent click-snap and consider that I could be stapling things, rather than waiting on her to edit my deposition which, let’s be honest, I could probably fucking edit myself. Eighteen years of education followed by three of law school didn’t exactly leave me without the ability to place a proper comma, Oxford or not.
I watch her. I’m not in love with her. Maybe even more closely, I watch the simple machine perform its simple duty, something I wish I could have. When it reaches thirty-four, I stop counting. I don’t want to think about thirty-five. I don’t want to think about next November. I don’t want to think about a broken promise, an empty anniversary, my daughter without her mother.
Of course, promises aren’t always purposely broken. It wasn’t her fault the white pickup driver had downed half a bottle of Valium with a different half bottle of Taaka. It wasn’t her fault she was at the intersection, and it wasn’t her fault that I can only think in simple clichés.
Johanna’s 17 years old, working at the firm for the summer to save up for college. Whitney’s trying to save for college, too. Luckily, the life insurance has her covered, and litigation pays well.
Click-snap, click-snap, click-snap.
We forget the small moments, the seconds between the moments that are made up of click-snap, of futzing with the copy machine, of trying to get some obviously guilty party to give a particularly solid alibi.
So what do we remember?
By the way, I obviously lied about no longer counting: she’s on forty-eight now, and fifty is coming quickly. The stack of paper at her side tells me we’ll be here a while.
Fifty, a golden anniversary we won’t see, but probably never would have. It wasn’t her fault the black ice caused the car to skid across Lakeshore Drive and flip onto the beach, but it was her fault that when I was called to identify the body, I was asked to identify two.
“I don’t know him,” is all I said, and no one asked me more questions about why my nearing-forty wife was in a car with another man past midnight on a Wednesday in November.
“Shit,” Johanna yelps.
“It’s broken, the stapler,” she nods her head my way, mistaking my curiosity at her exclamation for more.
“You can fix it. With the right tools, you can fix anything.”
“Tell that to my mother,” she mutters through her teeth, an inside joke I am in no way supposed to understand.
I chuckle, and Johanna smiles nervously, but kindly. Distant.
She thinks I love her. After an event like mine, everyone mourns you from afar. You’re looking for a replacement, for comfort, for sex … in everyone’s eyes. To be honest, the thoughts that control my mind aren’t safe. There is no safe harbor, but I’d be remiss to lead anyone to believe they are kind thoughts.
So what do we remember? Just her body? Just her heavy, vein-laden breasts? Her ass, almost droopy from childbirth, the way the muscleclature in her leg curved as she’d yoga-pose in our bed on early winter mornings? The way sunlight would catch her and arousal would be my only motivation to wake? No, also our jokes.
Downward dog…always our joke.
The stapler fixed, Johanna gets back to her duty, never stopping to consider the current running through my head, which is now split between the courtroom and the diary.
You want to learn so much more about them after they disappear, so you do. Sneak in, and, even when you’ve supposedly decided to share a life, it feels wrong, dirty, as you crack open her diary to find out … more. In my case, there was so much more. I should have known what I didn’t want to. Let sleeping dogs lie: another cliché. Wisdom from a man who lost what he never had.
I wonder which of us was the story, which the footnote.
In the courtroom, where I get to reside later, I’ll be a stapler, a simple machine performing a simple duty that, even at thirty-four, I’ve performed so many times it’s second nature. It’s my function. What any of us long to be is a stapler. So few moving parts. So little can go wrong. Each staple the exact same. The machine never changes. It can only be influenced by the Other.
She’s nearing eighty, and this moment has stretched on for so long that to describe it in words or measurements would be nothing short of irresponsible. Time slows and drifts and mocks.
There is a certain peace in the click-snap, especially for a beautiful seventeen-year-old about to step out into the world, the same one I walk around in, senseless, missing a limb. But the self-pitying clichés build up to a point that you have to snap out of the moment, for yourself, for Johanna, for Whitney.
I long for the courtroom, where I will forget everything, if only for a bit. The lights seem to flicker, but they don’t. She’s going to reach one hundred soon. And sooner than I realize, Whitney will be of age, and it will be my duty to ensure she never repeats her mother’s mistakes. Or mine. But this moment keeps dragging, as they do.
“You can fix it,” again.
“Yeah, but I’m out of staples,” Johanna says.
And what makes this moment so much longer is that I do.
Travis M. Andrews is a co-founder of Or Something, a reporter at The Washington Post and a pop culture contributor for Mashable. Follow him on Twitter @travismandrews.