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I had been thinking about a re-draft, something I’d wanted to show you: loose strings for you to braid together or to rearrange. I had been thinking about re-decorating — novels, photographs, things to pile around our room. Only you said, then, quite casually, that it might be better if I moved out anyway.
You had been talking about self-improvement, about a change of routine. You had been working a lot, maybe too much, I thought, though I didn’t say so. You had told me that you would be most content living on your own, where you didn’t have to talk so much, away from people, under a mountain somewhere.
* * *
When I wake up in the morning, sticky with sleep, I formulate a line of my own: what did you dream of? From somewhere very far away, like somebody picking at stars to rearrange a constellation, you take two of my letters and replace them to re-formulate my question. Of what did you dream? You ask, though of course you’re not really asking. You open your eyes. You say that you insist on this reformulation not because of grammatical accuracy, but because the last word of a sentence carries extra resonance, often unconsciously, which is why ending on a preposition is unpoetic. You say that language works through cadence and inflection. That it reverberates in our ears like the ocean in a shell. I say that the cadence of a sentence does not just come from the rhythm of its words, from its shape, but also from use, from force of habit. From the press of its own history. Really, I say, have you ever woken up to your partner or a mother asking you, of what did you dream?
You say that I am not your partner or your mother.
I think about how there is value in habit, how there is something in the familiar that should not be forsaken in the name of precision. I think about the shape of your mouth and the shape of your ears. I tell you that the subject of my dream last night was ‘form vs. content’. That I don’t remember how that could have been my dream, but that I know that this is what I dreamt of.
The ‘of’ at the end of the sentence drifts up to an untimely point, like a sting, or a pimple. Of is a fractioning, a dividing, but it is also a belonging. No wonder that of is a moot point between us. Of follows me into your cramped kitchen, where I slug coffee grounds into a cafetière.
‘Always coffee, in fictions like this,’ you say, underlining, thickly. ‘What is it about hot beverages and unlikely conversations.’
‘Of’ demands a parting, a division. Water hisses in the kettle. I re-formulate, pouring. Of. Always on the outside, always a splitting-away or a splitting-up. Sometimes — almost — an against. I am back in the bedroom, scrap the coffee, heavy with my own words, thinking about how best to contain them. I stand over you as you try to wake up, re-opening eyes that leaf me through.
‘What?’ you say. I get back into bed next to you and think about form vs. content and think that maybe I shouldn’t show you the draft again, not for now, and we close our eyes again and pretend to sleep, waiting for a moment in which we might understand each other a little better.
* * *
You sift through papers on your desk, separating my writing from yours. I potter around your apartment, distractedly looking for other objects that might belong to me. In your kitchen, I re-do your washing up, scrubbing at stubborn brown stains on coffee cups. My grime, or yours? I check the fridge for food and the bins for food remains, looking hopefully for signs that you’ve been eating.
‘You know, I’m not sure I’d last long under a mountain,’ I say, returning to the bedroom and smiling at you hopefully in an armful of coffee cups, and though you look at me you don’t reply, and I can’t tell what you might be thinking.
Mountainsides roll and sigh before my eyes. Chalky husks, tumbling goats and grass. Cliffsides. Or swathes of smooth, pinkish rock that heats up in the sun. You, at the bottom, grown old, in a sunhat and weathered skin, digging up roots. Your mouth, fixed shut, drawn into a mute dry line. I wonder if you remember me there. Mountainsides turn into beaches, long and white and unutterably slow and we’re picking up shells, listening to how the ocean reverberates inside them, and being very particular with our words.
I run out to buy pastries from the bakery next door, not because we’re hungry but because I’m craving the sweetness, the kind that makes my teeth hurt. I bring back two, stuffed in a brown paper bag. You are curled up on the bed with your eyes closed. There is a neat box, just one, less than I thought, tightly packed with all of my things, lying next to you on the bed.
I take a croissant from the bag. It crunches between my teeth and dissolves into wetness. I feel it finding its way into the corners of my mouth where it doesn’t disappear but stays, forming an oozy film that clings to my gums.
* * *
I’ve eaten both croissants in bed next to you, spilling crumbs on your sheets, watching nothing on your television, and you’ve fallen asleep. I trace out the outline of your sleeping shape in the air with a greasy finger.
Fictions remain hard to dismantle. Coffee cups hard tropes to let go of. Bad habits, like leaving prepositions dangling at the end of sentences, hard too, or harder still. I lean back into an old draft, the most comfortable argument, pulling the duvet closer, moving towards you, and push my box of objects away, wondering whether or not to ask for your opinion. Decide, for now, to leave it hanging.
Polly Dickson is a postdoctoral researcher based between Scotland and Berlin, working on nineteenth-century literature. Her essays and fiction have appeared in The Paris Review, Cabinet, Oh Comely and others.