Sunday, March 23, 2014

Fiction #50: Thomas Sorensen

L&L

We met four times through common friends before he started liking me. I was just a calm and conventional unit of the evening, nothing very strong or vivid, but I quickly sensed the edge of him among the rest. He had a quality of separateness you could not chalk up to any quirk or mannerism. It was hard to say at first what made him stand out so strongly. He spoke and moved like anybody else, yet somehow was distinct from us. It was pure presence, as if he lived within a denser moment of his own in casual contact with the general sense of place and time. Everything he said and did was tailored to the contours of the talk. He was never awkward or out of place, the tenor of his personality never once gave out to the sass or flair of the minute. He was always cleanly centered on the axis of his poise. It made it easy for us to be honest. People liked themselves better with him there.

He was kindest to me at the start, before he had respect for me. Those early nights feel sharpened from their fun when I recall them now. After our first drive alone, those nights all felt like I had watched them through a hole. But it seemed much simpler when it was happening. I don’t know how it ever could have felt so standard. He came and talked with me, and I remember thinking he was very nice, self-assured, and simple. Now the memory has gone queasy with the swing of things. If he ever spoke to me just nice and easy like that again I couldn’t stomach it. But when it happened I remember that I was impressed. He could break you in at once to the momentum of his rapport. He could get along with anyone at any time, and he was always the same person no matter whom he was talking to.

Then on that fourth night he picked up on my caliber. We were sitting with some other people and I said something very good. The others there each gave me one approving laugh, but he only looked away. He looked serious and uncomfortable. I had never seen him look uncomfortable before. And then for the next three minutes he was strangely sharp, aloof, and mean. Though we sat with other people, he ignored them and directed all this rude and clever attitude of his at me. Then he abruptly left our group around the table and didn’t talk to any of us for the rest of the night. I watched him as he stood with other people, all the honesty and verve of his charisma back in place. But every time he passed me by he made one playfully insulting jab, like “you’re not manly enough to put your arm up like that,” and continued on to another point and person in the room. It was his way of liking me at the start. Respect was not something he had for other people. Neither was it something that he gave. For him, respect was a clearing he staked out between our places in the room, borders marked and guarded by his weird, impersonal cruelty. But I stayed longer that night than ever before, and so did he. I held out because I was lonely, and in those three minutes he had become strange and interesting. We stood or sat in separate corners while the numbers thinned out between us. Then, when the night had tapered off into four small clusters of two or three, a girl at the fridge yelled back that they were out of milk. He heard her call and called out across the room to ask if I would like to go get milk with him.

And in that way we left the light and bustle hanging in its fist of ease. Outside, the air was cool. He walked silently ahead.

If I had been alone or with any other person, the night would have felt clear as water is clear, as something ever-present, all surrounding, and transparent. But with him it was as empty things are clear, and we passed through night as down a tunnel.

He led me to his car, got in, and waited. I passed before the hood, and as I passed I caught his gaze through the glass. And under the weight of his steadier stare, I remember feeling girlish and embarrassed, though even now I don’t know exactly why.

I opened the door and got in on the passenger’s side. Within, the car smelled like him, but stronger. And as I sat down, his odour in my nostrils, he felt suddenly strange and distant, as if I were meeting him for the first time all over again. The strange and awkward intimacy of the situation stalled and mouldered there between our heads. It felt like he had something he wanted to say. For a full half-minute he just sat there staring out the window. Then he just turned, looked over his shoulder, and started backing up without a word. And then as he was backing up, he said, “We need to work on the way you make eye contact,” presuming once again that same heavy, even harshly candid intimacy—intimacy which, for him, did not bind you closer together, but marked out the turf between your social posts, as in football or a duel.

He was calm and focused after that, and as we talked I realized that he was different from anything I suspected he would be that first, second, third, or fourth time meeting at the house. I have never heard anyone speak like he did that night. We had lunch the next day and then again the day after.

The better I got to know him, the stranger and more distant he became. And I became more separate and distinct myself, as if all the nebula of my personality took on a form and centre of its own within the orbit of his mode. All the casual flaunt of habit sounded played and forced against the blankness of his front. I started to realize how stupid I was for laughing at something I did not think was funny. And in all the small exaggerations, even just, “this curry is amazing,” the overflow resounded awkwardly between us, until even the redundancies of “I’m glad to see you” or “how are you” wavered between my face and his. I spoke less and less, while he spoke more and more. He thought brilliantly out loud to me while I thought to myself alone. Very little real conversation happened. And yet that is when we were at our closest.

He was most critical to me then, when he had the most respect for me. He was quick, acute, and exacting. He had a way of calling me out on every subtle pretense and affectation. If I made a joke we both knew was bad and laughed all the harder out of compensation, or if he criticized me and I tried to smile through the criticism so that my smile only propped me stiffer into my mistake, he would always point it out. He coached me out of all these casual delusions jellied in between my slabs of social habit. Our existences were more concise and to the point than those of other people.

And we resented other people more for it. I no longer felt inadequate when someone spoke to me and I couldn’t think of anything to say. I no longer groped amid the flutters of the chat with stork-like strokes in my struggle to be at ease. At the time I came to believe that it was not out of weakness, but because of my superiority that I could not relax and be spontaneous. “Extreme perceptiveness is debilitating,” he once instructed me me. “You are more acute than other people, so you fumble over all the subtle social implications and ambiguities normal people smooth over in the ease of habit. But they hold it against you, like it’s a bad thing. Don’t waste your time on them. When you try so hard to be spontaneous and have fun at a party, you are degrading yourself to appease their self-resentment. But you can’t allow yourself to really go down to their level, because you are proud and you deserve to be proud. Accept your distinctness and superiority. It’s the only way to go.”

After that, his body cut a deeper figure in the place, as if he were engraved into the party rather than just one among the bunch. His expression from across a room upstaged the walls and other shoulders, and everything else took on a muffled cast, as ridges caught before the lowering glare are dimmed and blended in among the trees, rocks, and other slopes in a single flattened shade. Everything felt abstract to me. It was as if all objects and other people calcified out of the flow of life as humidity condenses from the air, so that it all took on a drier mental distance. The specific qualities of people, cars, fruit, and light dropped numbly into thought, while the uniform atmosphere of our affinity pervaded everything. Even at my parents’ house, the floral curtains and the porcelain were sick with the potential of our mode. It all felt clammy, buzzing, and restless all the time, yet it was also weirdly peaceful, like white noise, or the constant and consistent movement of trains or buses that is somehow more relaxing than the perfect silence and stillness of the bedroom. It gave me focus. It felt very good, but it was draining and persistent, piercing through everything and always there.

The idea of murder cut in through the pause, unchecked and vital in the hiatus of our tense. And scale had no traction in that clarity. The thought was bigger than it should have been. His vision had monopoly. It taxed us on our food and sleep.

It started as a kind of joke. Even in the breath of the act itself, it still felt like a joke. In a sense, we abstracted reality from our lives to the point where it was no more real than the theory, the idea of two brilliant young men so individual and independent that the tired laws of a banal community no longer applied to us.

The idea eclipsed you and the law. I knew that we were doing something wrong, but I did not feel it. The notion of guilt came to mind several times out of the gentle reflex of habit, and passed on through thought as abstract and foreign as a memory of a memory. I only felt the wonder of my own detachment.

And yet, it may never have happened if he had not started losing confidence in me. But there came a point when the mesh of our resolve lost the tension of the first intent. I do not mean we lost our faith. Over time the ideal simply spread too thin across the span of too much habit. It took so much out of us that we saw too much of ourselves in it for it to be perfect like before. And in the same way that the constant and consistent movement or the white noise stops and wakes you in the stillness or the silence, we were troubled in the lapse. It made him peevish. He started criticizing me on smaller things. One time, I took the last cupcake from his fridge. It was my third to his one and he told me to put it back. I thought he was joking and took a bite. He got upset and made me put it back even though it was half-finished. He tried to provoke me in these moods of his, and if I didn’t argue with him he made another issue out of something else. If we didn’t argue about anything at all, he would accuse me of not wanting to go through with the murder. But we both knew that wasn’t the real problem. We were equally committed at every stage. But he would still accuse me. He searched for signs of complacency in everything I said. If he asked a question and I didn’t have an answer ready, he would pounce, demanding to know why I wasn’t making a contribution without even giving me time to come up with an answer in the first place. He accused me of being too afraid to do it and too afraid to pull away. And I could never answer him. I only grew more and more reserved, and this made him more resentful. Yet no matter how irrational he became, he was never frantic. He never lost composure. He would sit there thinking himself crazy and then back again in a steady stream of talk, while I sat listening without saying anything. But even after he had talked himself back down, I still left him feeling distant and resented, though neither of us had done anything to be resented for. He made it feel like we were less stable than we really were, roughing up the texture of the situation so it could chafe between us and the night. There even came a point when I think he might have hated me. But he could not be alone. He called me over all the more the more lost respect for me, and more often it felt like he had called me over just to feel contempt for something in the room. He grated against the inertia of our drive to take the edge off of the pause.

But when we actually committed murder, in the fabric of the moment, all the restlessness and indecisiveness just fell away.

We left his apartment on the ninth of May. We chose someone at random and sat him in the passenger’s seat. I drove, and he knocked the boy dead from behind.

I felt no reluctance. When he told me we were doing it that night, I only felt a calmness settle in with my acceptance, as if all gaps of doubt were webbed dumb with the heavy static of the charge. Any reluctance just skimmed the glaze, trackless on my glassy stance of mind. I pictured myself in horror and despair, imagined doubts, but they could not take hold upon the rigor of our frequency.

We had decided he would do the talking. The window opened and the two spoke through the cooler air. I looked on through the glass ahead. It was an empty sidewalk lined with cars. Streetlights usually feel soft and bare at night to me, but at that moment they felt congested in their slots of air. The atmosphere of night had lost its lift and spread of ease, as if congealed in the bare and open span of our decision. He made a joke and they laughed together. The casualness lapped coolly beneath the lid of hood. I dug a smile in my face. He ruffled up the space between their looks, eased him in, and we were off. I asked the boy about his day, the other hummed the bluntness off the bray. The body bent and splayed against the seatbelt, frittered up the looseness around the waist. The word “retarded” came to mind, or it occurred to me that it could come to mind, from the way the body flopped and slid across the seat, along with the knowledge that it was a ludicrous idea to have at such a time, but what could you do. He hit the kid a final time, and the forehead started nuzzling the cavities.

Past clammy fronds hustling up the night’s damp focus the flashlight zoned our way. Looking up, between high holds of deeper black clouds matted dusk across the sky. And in the dead of night, thoughts burned out in my head that you would never think in open day, like “O God, you hover too much like a mother”—crazy thoughts, as if the mind could find no footing in that clarity and spun off into numb-shuttled giddiness while the rest of me, splinted up in cool trust, conveyed the heavy duty through what, at the time, felt like all the flab of life belted down by the path ahead.

We deposited the body in the woods. We had lunch a few times after, but he has since stopped seeing me. He says we’ve grown apart.

I write this not as a confession, but from a fatal initiative to move on from where this man has left me. I have divided him into words and spread them across the public scale where they will look simple and delicate. Where is there to go beyond murder? I hope he hasn’t left me where I can’t return. Please take me back from my violations. Alone I am as cold with correctness as you are.


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Thomas Sorensen grew up in Atikokan, a small town in Northwestern Ontario. He received his BA from Carleton University, and is currently teaching English in South Korea.

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