The Romance of Unconnected Lives
New Mexico late in the year was not like New Mexico in the summer months, Matt learned. It was still hot, but was cooling down and the repressive, heavy sun of summer had completed its yearly reign over the land.
Still, it didn’t take much for Matt to imagine life during the hottest months of the year here. The rocks all around him showed the scars of heat and exhaustion. They showed a land built tough and strong, forced to endure the torture if it wanted to survive.
Matt had never seen a cactus before – at least not a real one in its real environment – and he was half expecting a Tom and Jerry-esque cartoon thing with two bent arms coming out of either side.
The real thing wasn’t quite like this. It was twisted and asymmetrical and really spiky. Sometimes it was tall and thin, like a 7’2” contortionist with a bad back; sometimes it was short and fat, like a cartoon beach-ball-shaped mafia boss smoking a big cigar staring up at his henchmen with angry eyes and fierce eyebrows: ‘Now look here, shee.’
It was also sometimes flat, resembling weird-looking ping pong paddles, as if the earth had decided everyone should play ping pong and so got started mass-producing these paddles in anticipation. Unfortunately humans were the only species, at least as far as Matt knew, that played ping pong, and the paddles that the earth created didn’t have handles, so the humans decided to manufacture their own instead, leaving the ping pong paddle fields of New Mexico ripe with harvest but without farmer.
Unless, of course, species that came before humans were ping pong players and didn’t need handles. That would explain the weird shape of the cactus and answer the question as to its abundance. It’s quite possible that these species then suddenly switched from ping pong to another sport, like hockey, and left the earth with an unusable surplus of cactus-based ping pong paddles – like when the man who sold abacuses was suddenly out of a job with the creation of the calculator, or when silent film actors with funny voices suddenly found themselves unemployed with the creation of the ‘talkie’.
It made sense.
A myriad of different shades of orange scattered whatever vegetation was around, mixing in with the flowing red of the dirt and rocks. Sunsets, Matt quickly found, were phenomenal, and he sought each night to capture their essence in the form of words on his laptop. The first night he took a picture and looked at it later in the evening, but it didn’t do the sunset any justice and so he abandoned that idea the other two nights, simply sitting there with his laptop, on top of a rock, furiously typing away as the sun made its descent.
Capturing the sunset wasn’t something he felt he could go back to, something he could amend from memory at a later date. He felt like an Impressionist painter, seeking to capture the initial moment, the impression, that runs away from the eye the moment it is discovered.
He found, like many who have tried before him, that it was impossible. Still, it provided a wonderful backdrop to the novel, and the descriptors Matt had written down would be of great benefit when he returned to his little house tomorrow and the story of Rex.
Matt had flown in to Albuquerque International Sunport, had spent a day there, and then flown to Lea County so he could visit the Western Heritage Museum and the Lea County Cowboy Hall of Fame.
Here Matt spent the next two days, sleeping in a small motel whose rooms all faced inwards in a horseshoe around the hotel pool. The room was small, one bed, with a sink and mirror in the back corner next to the bathroom consisting of a stand-up shower and toilet. There was a small TV against the wall nearest the foot of the bed, allowing whoever wished to to sit in bed and watch TV without getting a crick in their neck.
Matt did not wish to watch TV. He never understood going on holiday to watch TV. When he wasn’t asleep he was outside, driving his rental car the few miles to the city limits where the buildings disappeared and the dusty plains took over. Here he would spend the mornings, walking around, taking in the atmosphere, the surroundings, the life – or lack thereof – around him. He would never walk far and could always see the car. He knew the stories of hikers going out into this barren land and never coming back.
After the mornings, Matt would head into whatever diner he could find, order what sounded good, and listen to the conversations around him, trying to listen to the nuances in the accents. Accents, he found, were the hardest thing to write. The same word could elicit completely different pronunciations from different accents. He could, as others had done, write the word differently, phonetically. But even that had its problems because phonetic pronunciation still hinged on the person’s accent.
(Unless, of course, you are talking about the phonetic alphabet and the universally recognised way of phonetic spelling; but seriously, who knows that?)
The best example of this difficulty, Matt found, was the word ‘water’. The standard ‘American’ accent (there is obviously no such thing as one American accent – there are several – but that’s beside the point) uses a long-ish, almost nasal ‘a’, a soft ‘d’ sound for the ‘t’, and a rounded, emphasised ‘r’.
The standard ‘English’ (again, there is no such thing – there are many English accents) uses a soft ‘awe’ sound for the ‘a’, a strong-ish ‘t’, and a muffled, disappearing ‘a’ (almost an ‘uh’) for the ‘er’.
Neither is better, neither is worse, both are exaggerations of how the word is actually pronounced, but that is so the next section of Matt’s reasoning makes sense.
Suppose a character in a novel had a thick, cockney, London accent. To a person with ‘standard English’ as their accent, the phonetically correct way of having this cockney Londoner speak would be to say ‘war-a’ (as in ‘can I have some war-a?’)
To a person with ‘standard American’ as their accent, this has few similarities with the real thing and a better phonetic pronunciation would be ‘w(awe)-ah’.
But even that doesn’t work. What about ‘woao-ah’?
Woao-ah is clearly an impractical and confusing way of writing water, but for the ‘standard American’, ‘war’ is pronounced differently to the ‘standard English’ and so “war-a” won’t work when trying to write an authentic cockney accent.
Several times Matt had been told that this distinction seems rather pedantic. Perhaps it was. But he stood by it. The same held true for writing the accent of a Californian surfer, or a Canadian oil rigger or any other accent out there. Phonetic pronunciation is region-specific and cannot be used effectively when trying to bring out a character’s accent. The best Matt could do was state where the character was from, try his best, and hope the reader had some inclination as to what that accent actually sounded like.
And, to anyone confused, YouTube and Google were always Matt’s first suggestion of where to start research.
After lunch Matt would go to the museum. He loved the museum, learning about the history of the land and how people used to live. He researched the famous archetype of the cowboy and how the myth of him came to be. He looked at the attire people wore in those days and tried to find the best words to describe how a farmer, cowboy or damsel walked, talked and dressed.
Matt loved getting into the nitty-gritty, learning the specific details, like how the big cowboy belt-buckle was made famous by Hollywood and most cowboys didn’t actually wear them, at least until the 1920s. That’s because cowboys wore only what they needed to: everything had a purpose, and fashion never came into it. Most didn’t actually wear belts; and those who did got their belts from the military they were a part of before becoming cowboys.
Matt learned about cattle branding and how to distinguish the different brands. He learned the language of the cowboy, the words they used. He learned about how people interacted back then, what was normal, and what was created by Hollywood.
After an afternoon at the museum, Matt would go to any one of the six libraries in Lea County and read up on the famous outlaws and sheriffs and all the stories of wonder and excitement that came wrapped up in the image of the Wild West.
After that, dinner at the diner, listening again to the accents and the subtleties that lay within them.
Then he’d drive out of town, maybe a mile, find a rock with a view of the sunset, scramble up it and just watch as the sun went down and the dark sky rose to greet it. It was usually quiet, save for a car engine every now and then, and the dead dirt would begin to sing with the sounds of all the animals and bugs that Matt thought couldn’t possibly live there. A chorus of crickets filled the air with their song. Coyotes howled – at least Matt assumed it was coyotes. The grass rustled as the small rodents moved slowly along, conscious not to alert any of the predators quietly lurking in the shadows.
Matt never stayed long after sunset and soon found himself back in his little hotel room. Before finally going to bed he would read for an hour or so. He’d picked up The American Cowboy: A Photographic History in one of the local bookshops and would stare at the pictures as he slowly fell asleep, trying to imagine life back then, life as a true cowboy.
New Mexico was brief and before he knew it the plane had touched down in his city and he was asked if he had anything to declare.
“Err, no.” Matt always felt awkward answering that question. He felt like he was being interrogated, and even though he never had anything to declare he often felt that it sounded like he did, or he walked like he did, or maybe they just thought that he did. This made him uncomfortable and hesitant when answering that question and he wondered that this hesitation would come across as guilt and that they would think he did have something to declare.
And then this worrying that they would think he did have something to declare because he was nervous thinking that they might think he had something to declare just turned into a vicious cycle until he walked past the scary man asking if he had anything to declare and breathed a sigh of relief. But he couldn’t breathe a sigh too big, otherwise they’d hear it and think he got away with something and then call him back, and then where would he be?
So after far too much overthinking, a great deal of staring at the floor and a quiet, yet impactful sigh, Matt made it out of the doors and into the waiting area full of signs and people and screens with arrival times.
There was also a horse.
Wait, what? Oh, it was a human with one of those plastic horse heads that you put on.
The man with the horse head had a sign with the name ‘Matt’ scribbled on it.
Matt laughed inside, tickled by the fact that this mystery man with the horse head was picking up someone with the same name as him.
He kept walking, glancing up again to see that the man with the horse head had turned and was looking at him.
Matt turned around, but then turned around again quickly. What if it wasn’t Kyle? Matt couldn’t tell when the man had a horse head on. What was the protocol for approaching a man with a horse head and a sign with your name on it that you think could be for you?
‘He knew I’d overthink this,’ Matt thought. ‘It’s totally him.’
But what if it’s not him!
Matt slowly walked over to this man with the horse head.
No answer. The man just looked at him.
Matt got out his phone and made a call. The pocket of the man with the horse head started ringing.
“Oh, come on.” Kyle pulled the horse head off. “That’s not fair.”
“Not fair? You had a horse head on! Why?! And hang on, why are you here?”
“I’m here to pick you up from the airport.”
“Why didn’t you let me know?”
“Well, I was going to. But then I saw this in a shop window and realised that messing with you would be infinitely more fun.”
Matt paused for a few seconds, then handed his bag to Kyle and headed towards the exit.
“Hey, wait up! How was the Wild West?” Kyle caught up.
“It was good. I’m tempted to move there and leave all my friends behind.”
“You don’t have friends. You have friend.”
“That’s the point.”
“Oh, you don’t mean that. Hey, turn left. There’s usually a taxi there. I’ll pay.”
Matt turned and the two of them walked outside to the taxi bay, hailed one, got in, and started to drive off.
As he looked out the window, Matt started to miss New Mexico. He loved the city. He loved this city, his city. It was a brilliant city full of opportunity and things to do and buzz and life. But there was something about New Mexico that he hadn’t really experienced before.
Matt couldn’t really explain it, but life seemed to move slower there. The clock still ticked every second and tocked every other second, but time moved slower. People moved slower, cars moved slower, even the animals it seemed moved slower.
Matt learned during one of his museum visits – Or was it library visits? He didn’t remember – that life moved slower in many ways because it had to. The summers got hotter there and you couldn’t rush around without breaking into a sweat. Before the days of air conditioning, this was even more prevalent. You couldn’t just do whatever you wanted. You had to move with the earth, move with the sun. And the sun moves pretty slowly (Ok, yes, the sun is actually flying through the universe relative to the universe’s center, but that’s beside the point). On earth, the sun moves pretty slowly.
When the buildings were built and then the towns and then the cities, life continued to move slowly and the cities were built around this idea. So several years on from the creation of the sun and the earth and the ground that would eventually be called New Mexico, life continued to move slowly.
As Matt sat in the taxi heading towards his little slice of life he could feel the speed of the city bearing down on him. He loved it, and he wasn’t about to give it up. But he also liked the slowness. He liked that he could breathe deeply there. There he was away from the stresses and the immenseness of life. Here he had things to do, novels to write, people to network with, a girl to be in a relationship with.
He wasn’t even sure he wanted a relationship. It’s not that he didn’t not want a relationship. He just wasn’…
“You’re doing it again, aren’t you?” Kyle broke Matt’s thought process.
“I don’t know, you tell me. You’re overthinking something. Or you’re getting really melancholic about something. It happens when you get back from a trip like yours, to a place so different from where you live.”
“How do you know I’m overthinking things?”
“Two reasons. Firstly, when the city hits for the first time after a trip like this one, everyone starts to reflect and ponder life. You are no different – plus, you know, when are you not reflecting like that?”
“But you said I was overthinking.”
“Oh, yeah, well I know that because of the second reason. You’ve stopped fidgeting.”
“You know, fidgeting; making small, quick movements, usually when you’re nervous or impatient.”
“Thanks, Webster. I meant why did that give it away?”
“Ah, so you admit you were overthinking something. Well, the thing is, you always fidget. You’re always moving in some way, either tapping your foot or your hand, sometimes it’s slightly rocking back and forward, sometimes it’s just looking around a lot.”
“And when you get into a spiral of overthinking you stop fidgeting. All of your energy gets focused onto what you’re overthinking. Interestingly enough, that’s also the reason you feel really weird and slightly out of place after you come out of a real thinking session. It’s because you haven’t been moving. You move and fidget to remain grounded to your surroundings. When you stop you get so sucked into what’s going on in your head that it takes you a moment to get back to reality. It’s all science.”
“More or less. I haven’t done any tests to confirm it.”
“So it’s not necessarily science.”
“No, but it’s worth considering. Anyway, what’s on your mind?”
Matt proceeded to tell Kyle his thoughts. It wasn’t easy for Matt; his mind was not a hop-scotch mind, moving forward logically with the occasional two thoughts at the same time; Matt’s mind was more akin to a pod of orcas hunting, each individual orca a thought, together zeroing in on the subject.
It made tracking any single orca difficult.
Matt tried to explain his thoughts to Kyle. He tried to explain how he found the transition from slow life to his usual life difficult, how it made him contemplate his choices, his future decisions. He tried to explain his doubts about his writing, about whether or not it meant anything. He tried to explain his girlfriend – was she his girlfriend? – and how he didn’t know his thoughts on that whole area of his life.
Kyle thought for several moments before responding. He always thought for several moments before responding to Matt. There was never really a quick fix with Matt, and Kyle had learned over the course of their friendship to take some time before diving into some of these issues.
“Alright,” he said, sitting back into the seat of the taxi, wondering briefly if the driver was listening in to this conversation. “I get what you’re saying. I think what you’re feeling regarding getting back into life makes sense given your whirlwind trip to a place completely different from here. And we’ve already discussed you and Kate. So I’m not really going to go into either of those things. I think they both need time, even though that might not be what you want.”
Matt silently nodded, so Kyle continued. “I do think, however, we need to discuss these doubts about your writing. Firstly, your writing does mean something. I’ve gotten letters and emails from fans thanking you for your work, how it helped them in some way. I’ve shown you those.”
“And I get that this can happen when you hit a dive like your last book. You aren’t where you were, and suddenly everything moves out of focus.”
“It’s not that.”
“Then what is it?”
“Ok, man, remember when we started? We got connected because I had ideas and you were the only person dumb enough to help me pull them off.”
“So what happened to those ideas? What happened to the socially-relevant novels, the hard-hitting stories, books that matter? Now I’m writing about a cowboy who saves a girl? Or does he? Who knows? It doesn’t mean anything. It’s just a story.”
“Yeah, maybe. But what about the kid who’s struggling in school and needs a hero to look up to? If you never write that book, he may never find that hero.”
“There are plenty of other heroes.”
“Maybe. Maybe not. And remember, you wanted to write this western. It was your idea.”
“Yeah, I know. It just feels like I’m missing something, you know?”
“Then stop writing it.”
“But I’m having fun.”
“Then continue writing it, but write something else too. Your ideas that you remember, your big dreams of stories that touch lives, all of those weren’t the stories that made you famous. They were the stories you wrote in your spare time so that when you were famous you could reach more people with those stories. That was always the plan. When we started you were always writing, always working on something. When was the last time you wrote something other than ‘your next book’?”
“I don’t know.”
“I could tell you if you want. It’s been about six to nine months. I know because during the last few months before your last book went out we were both frantically busy working on the little details, the nuances, before the book went live. Then it went live, didn’t do well, and you were canned by the publishers. That evening was ‘the incident’, and since then you haven’t been able to get back into the game. That evening shook you pretty good, and it takes time to get back into the swing of things.”
“Wow, you have a good memory.”
“It’s not a memory thing, it’s simply that I’m an onlooker and I’ve seen the last year of your life and can pick out what’s changed.”
“You reckon?” The taxi pulled up to Matt’s house, and the two friends got out with Matt’s luggage. “Aren’t you going to take it back to your house?”
“No, I’ll walk. It’s a nice night.”
“It’s not that bad. I’ve got layers.”
“If you say so.”
“I do. Alright, man, I’ll leave you here. You’re tired and need some sleep. Set an alarm so the jetlag doesn’t affect you too much. And know this conversation isn’t over. Tomorrow I’ll pop round again. We need to plan the next few months of your life. You need to get back into things properly, the way you were. Tomorrow morning I want you to write – not about Rex, ignore him for a bit. Write about something weird, something bizarre. Write about Henry, the anthropomorphic bridge who is saddened by the steady stream of traffic that drives over him without ever waving or wondering how he’s doing.”
“I don’t know, man, I’m tired too. Just write something that isn’t anything you’ve already written. Goodnight, man.”
Kyle turned and began walking down the street as Matt went inside with his things. The taxi pulled away towards the next customer. The street was silent again, save for the standard sounds of the city that never fully died away.
It was a cold night.
Jane woke up. It was Saturday. Her brief time in Brussels was a success, and things for the moment were running smoothly. When she got back on Friday night, Anette had confiscated her laptop, saying she would give it back that coming Monday. Jane had no work that needed to be done so she decided to do the unthinkable.
She turned over and went back to sleep.