by Emil Birchman
Across from T. sat a woman holding a sheet of paper torn from a notepad.
“I can’t speak. I’m a mute,” read the paper.
T. looked at the sheet and lost his smile. Thirty minutes before he met M., he dug out a clean pair of beige chinos and a burgundy shirt from his cupboard, and ran it all under the iron. He used two presses of his special cologne, which came in an artistic glass bottle. He rushed onto a packed afternoon train with an empty stomach. Then, at the café, a few written words threw his ambitions down the drain.
M. was a college student studying Chemical Engineering at a public university. Her profile bio put her around five four. Cedar brown hair dangled below her nape. Her fashion sense stuck to darker colors and woolen sweaters, creating an aesthetic match. T.’s favorite image of hers was an over the shoulder shot, with M. facing a pond with yellow leaves floating on the surface.
Autumn personified. Her selfies usually had bookshelves or neighborhood parks for backgrounds. Her hobbies included: Mathematics, reading, gaming, and playing the piano. But nowhere on her profile or even in their private messages was the simple sentence – I am a mute.
T. stood up. M. reached out and grabbed his sleeve, knocking over her cup, spilling tea over the table. Warm liquid ran across the surface, dyeing her notebook, and dripping onto the tiles. They paused. He loaded her profile on his phone and shoved it into her face. Several customers looked over.
“Your condition. There’s nothing about it here,” T. said, pointing at the screen. “I’m leaving.”
She started scribbling onto her notepad with her left hand. Once she finished, she pointed the page at him.
The employees looked concerned. The two of them weren’t welcome.
Fifteen minutes later, they found themselves in the local park synonymous with M.’s dating profile. For some reason, the scenery didn’t have the vibrancy of the pictures. The leaves were green, and pollen clung to the air. But her images weren’t edited, that was for sure. No filters, photoshop or other picture editing shenanigans. And the scenery, the movements on the pond’s surface and the breeze pressing against the foliage were all real. The only difference was the absence of his own filter, perpetrated by the Halo Effect. He read about the phenomena two weeks ago, but this was the first time he observed it in action. It all felt a little empty now.
M. started writing on her notepad.
Are you still angry?
T. looked at the page and studied it.
“Sorry,” said the notepad.
“It’s fine. Stop apologizing.”
“Sorry,” said the notepad, this time with weaker, fainter shades.
“I said it’s fine.”
M. put her notepad aside and leaned back into the bench. T. thought about the hours he spent jumping around his room, waiting for her collected, stoic replies to insignificant questions. He wondered if she ever jumped around like he did. Thinking about her profile brought him some clarity. Some of the images had the notepad lingering in the background, on a table, or a chair. But he always wrote them off as being miniature journal entries or a quirk synonymous with the far right of the I.Q. bell curve.
What could they talk about? What could he bring to the table? The messages archived in his head started vanishing. After seeing her hobbies included Mathematics, he had googled Euler’s Identity to talk about something. But, in real life, this wasn’t a choice. And soon, his hands were empty, and her notepad was blank. They kicked their feet and looked around, avoiding each other.
T. had enough and lit a cigarette. The first puff made his shoulders slump. Then, M. grabbed her notepad, flipped to a new page, and started writing.
T. read the page and nodded.
That wasn’t on your profile.
He lowered his cigarette. T. was careful enough to avoid disclosing his smoking habits. That was a deal breaker, and he knew that he’d half his chances by mentioning this habit. His dating profile was clean, too clean. Most photos included mountains or beaches for backdrops, with his dog next to him. The images looked too clean. They were well-photographed and didn’t have a sliver of character. He brought the cigarette back to his lips and let out another puff.
“You’re right. It wasn’t. Who’d wanna kiss someone with a mouth of nicotine?”
She paused, then started writing.
“Clever, but not really.”
M. started writing again.
Would you kiss a smoker?
“No. I wouldn’t,” T. said, tilting his head sideways.
“You’re right. It’s easy to carry ideals. It’s harder to apply them to yourself.”
M. looked at him with a semi-smile.
Some time passed, and T. wondered if downloading the app had been a good idea. A stray internet advertisement pulled him in. A trial run, he met up with ten people in the last two months alone. Some were okay, others were great, but there wasn’t anything concrete. He wondered what was missing. He’d gotten used to asking questions and listening. Yet, the second date was rare, the third even rarer, and anything beyond impossible. M. – sophisticated, intelligent – struck him as the one who’d take him past the third date. He’d already created an elaborate image of their relationship in his head. But now, they’d never get to the second date.
M. rose from the bench, and wrote something on the paper.
Excuse me. I need to use the bathroom.
She walked down the path swerving around the pond and vanished into the greenery. T. let out a sigh of relief. In the end, he didn’t have to pull the trigger. She did it for him. No sane person would return after the scene he threw in the café. At that point, the thought of leaving as well struck him as being the most courteous thing to do.
He noticed a grey-haired vagrant across the pond. His clothes hung like fabric attached to a scarecrow, and his dull, flaky skin resembled straw. The man picked off pieces of his bread loaf and threw them onto pavement, spurring a crowd of grey pigeons. T. couldn’t remember the last time he gave anything to a vagrant. Like many city-dwellers, ignoring the homeless was like omitting their noses from their vision. Still, the generosity of the man struck him as being abnormal and foreign. T. danced with the idea of walking over, tapping on the vagrant’s shoulder, and lecturing him on why feeding pigeons was a terrible idea, with the tone of an authoritarian professor. The thought vanished when the old man spotted T. watching him. T. broke the gaze and followed the flight of a pigeon. After a few seconds, the old man was looking somewhere else.
He decided to take the high-road and cling onto whatever integrity he thought he had. He stepped into a contract, and he couldn’t just leave. T. landed on fifteen minutes. After that, he’d disappear. He plugged his earphones into his phone and started listening to Beethoven’s Sonata Appassionata. Nature tuned out, giving way to a meticulous soloist.
Five minutes later, someone’s touch pulled T. from his half-slumber. He looked up to find the girl with the notepad. He scanned M. from top down, to reaffirm that Beethoven hadn’t driven him insane. It was the real thing. Now, he wondered if the girl had gone insane. The notepad had a new sentence, in stilted, blocky writing.
Thanks for waiting.
If M. had functioning vocal cords, communicating would’ve been harder. With his earbuds buried into his ears, he didn’t have a reason to take them off. Communicating felt easier. T. nodded.
You’re back?” T. asked.
M. titled her head, puzzled. T. figured she needed a lesson on social awareness. She carried a sense of awkward naivety, like a sheltered child in a class of unsheltered children.
A new question appeared in large, bold writing.
Can I listen?
T. narrowed his eyes.
“Forget it. Let’s head somewhere else,” he said, taking his earphones out.
For the next hour, from five to six, they walked around the city, walking down a street to walk back up it five minutes later. They decided to visit a theatre. T. couldn’t care less about what they watched. Whenever his elder sister took him to watch some new film – the rave of the time – he’d stare at the art on the popcorn container for half the film. In the main lobby, they stood around in silence. T. tilted his head, and zoned out, acting as if he thought about something. In the end, M. landed on a flashy, cyberpunk Sci-Fi film. In M.’s notepad, the film’s name had three exclamation marks next to it.
For most of the movie, T. examined the fabric of the theatre walls and curtains. Halfway through the film, M. started doing the same. The film followed an elementary science fiction plot. It was set in a bright multi-layered metropolis stacked like layers of a multi-colored cake. Dystopian governments and shadow organizations warred. The protagonist – a morphine-addict, found himself tied with a rogue agent, and goes down a chaotic slope. An accelerated, flat romance topped it all off. The mediocrity of the movie shifted T.’s attention elsewhere. He noticed how far they sat from each other. M. pushed herself into right corner of her seat, and he leaned to his left. They left the theatre without waiting for the post-credit scene. In his head, the film exemplified a solid two out of five – close to average – sitting between lukewarm and cold.
They popped into an adjacent arcade. The scent of bubble-gum, smoke and alcohol clung to the air. Neon lights emulated a pocket casino, like the Las Vegas strip, compressed into fifty square meters. The arcade machines filled the place with their repetitive, trebly sound effects. T. and M. plunged into the dystopian metropolis from the Sci-Fi flick they wanted to escape. They went to the counter and redeemed credits for thirty dollars, fifteen from each end. He checked the award wall behind the desk. The biggest prize was a sad, oversized plushie. T. knew the chances of making a net gain were non-existent without exploiting a machine or demonstrating skills he didn’t have.
They left the arcade with handfuls of candies. T. estimated they made a grand loss of one hour and twenty dollars. They sat down at a bench outside the mall, by a small fountain. M. sipped the remnants of her cola and dropped a candy into her mouth on the off occasion. T. thought it was an odd combination.
“Did you have fun?” he asked, unwrapping a piece of candy.
M. was chewing on a lime candy when she heard his question. She stopped chewing and picked up her trademark notepad and pen. She stopped again and contemplated, with the notepad on her lap and the pen gently against the paper.
T. lit another cigarette. He figured it was a lie.
He took a puff.
“Can I ask you something?”
M. looked at him.
“Your neck,” he said, pointing towards the tip of her sweater, “You always keep it covered, does it have anything to do with your condition?”
She peeled off her sweater. There were no marks.
It doesn’t. I was born like this.
It’s not like the movies, is it?
Something gnawed at him, deep in his skull. He couldn’t quite describe it, but it felt like he was looking at an off-centered painting, missing the mark by a few millimetres. The whole mall seemed like a set with green screens and expensive cameras. All ten of his dates had this feeling, but this one stuck out more than the others. He had a lingering question to address.
“Why did you come back? Back then, at the park?”
M. stared at the pavement for a few seconds, troubled. She kicked her feet back and forth and tapped the notepad.
Before I matched you, I met someone else who walked out on me. I didn’t want to do the same. I felt bad.
At that point, he realized a sense of symmetry. A skewed sense of obligation kept them tied together. The too-kind, charitable vagrant popped into his head. They both wanted out. This realization made him chuckle, and M. looked at him quizzically.
“You know, today’s been a complete mess. No chemistry. Texting sure is easier. I know that it’s better for both of us to split off, so I’ll make it simple,” T. said, looking at M. “Let’s call it and not waste any more time.”
They went silent. Then, after a few seconds, there was a splash, and T. found himself dyed with a brown hue – cola. A smile popped onto her face. A playful one, not malicious. M. stood up from the bench, dropped her drink container, lid-open, into a bin, and disappeared into the mall. T. sat there for a moment, frozen, like an unresponsive computer.
After a visit to the bathroom, T. called a cab to a nearby hotel. He didn’t want to go home. Something about sleeping at home made him sick. After a foreign, stilted day, the most appropriate way to end it was in a foreign, stilted place. He understood why his clothes were damp and his skin felt like a soda-stained carpet. And he couldn’t hate her for it. In the air-conditioned interior, he deleted M.’s number and hovered his finger over the ‘Un-match’ button in the app. A few seconds of contemplation later, he navigated to his storage and deleted it all together.
In the hotel room, T. spent an hour listening to Debussy’s Reflets dans l’eau on repeat, and relived his date with the mute girl. Each time, there was something new to pick up on – a quirk, a subtlety in a movement or a change in posture. The whole experience structured itself like a 12 x 12 Rubik’s Cube. After the hour, he changed into the hotel’s sleepwear after scrutinizing the fabric. For some reason, he had a new, troublesome idea that the girl wasn’t a mute at all. He figured the entire thing was an over-engineered method of kindly un-matching him. And then, on the verge of recalling a subtle, yet well-voiced sigh in the theater, he fell asleep.
Emil enjoys writing in his spare time, but struggles to muster the discipline for anything that’s over 2000 words long. Consequently, his stories are often strange, neurotic half-baked musings somehow turned into narratives. Twitter – @EmilBirchman