Lifetime

This is a piece of short fiction written by Brooks Harris, a junior studying creative writing at DePaul. This story focuses on a conversation between two friends meeting for the first time in ten years.

“You know I still have the picture of us on my phone,” says Jack.

“Which one’s that,” says Douglas.

“The one of us in the room for the first time. Our beds are nice and tidy. Your arm is around me. I’m wearing my Reckless Records shirt. My mom took it.”

“That’s bizarre.”

“That my mom took it, that your arm was around me, or that I’m wearing my Reckless Records shirt?”

“Bizarre.”

“I had a hundred dollars in my wallet.”

“When.”

“The day of the photo. My mom gave it to me.”

“The hundred?”

“She said it was for emergencies only. What sort of emergency does an eighteen-year- old need a hundred dollars for?”

“Stripper emergency?”

Jack pauses before sipping his water.

“Good one,” he says.

The restaurant faces east. All around them, other people out to lunch. A young waiter floats from table to table, filling people’s sweaty glasses with a napkin-wrapped metal pitcher. He floats over their table. He fills their glasses. The coldness of the water hurts Jack’s teeth. Neither can decide on what to get.

“Hey,” says Douglas, “what did you make of me that first year anyway?”

“You were you,” says Jack.

“I was me?”

“Naturally — isn’t it obvious?”

“How come you’re speaking like this—”

“It’s you! You do this to me, you have this effect on me, you always have.”

“Effect. What effect.”

“The way. The way you put things. You put things so… mild-manneredly, I find myself unable to say no to them.”

“Find yourself unable.”

“My first morning ever being hungover you wanted to go to Do-Rite Donuts because you were Mister Chicago and it was your place, remember this?”

“Mister Chicago.”

“While we’re in line I say the Valrhona chocolate donut looks yummy, basically stating that’s what I’m getting, once it’s my turn to, you know; and you say, ‘You gotta be crazy not to get the chicken sandwich,’ and it was the way you said, the way you made it sound like a rule, or fact that: if someone did order the chicken sandwich, then hooray for them because they did exactly as one should do when ordering from Do-Rite Donuts; but on the other hand, if they did not order the chicken sandwich, well that’s OK too, because remember, it would have been crazy — in an implied good way — for them not to order the chicken sandwich. Do you see what I’m getting at?”

“Really given this a lot of thought, huh.”

“Do you see what I’m saying.”

“What, ten years ago.”

“And you don’t?”

“What.”

“Think?”

“Sure I think.”

“I mean about these moments, ones that happened to us ten years ago.”

“To us? Or to anybody? Ten years ago? Or twenty years ago? Or five seconds ago—”

“Five seconds ago: exactly. You do it. Everyone does. Think about a moment that just happened and never let ourselves hear the end of it. Make it feel endless. Even though the moment has ended.”

“Well can this moment end so we can order?”

“There. Right there. You just did it again—wittingly or unwittingly, I may never know.”

“Know what.”

“The way you are inside. It is truly painstaking being around you, when you seem so at ease in the world, and I don’t, saying your things in a way that is almost hermetically mild-mannered, so mild-mannered it seems your brain has grown the words in a pressure-controlled lab where moisture and humidity are monitored on little glass dials with needles that swing back and forth to gauge exactitude, just like industrial-grade weed plants your words grow. All in, oh, less than a millisecond. And I spend a lifetime thinking about how you did it.”

“Hey, Nice Mandelbrot set.”

“Oh God, what are you saying now.”

“Our joke, Jack. C’mon.”

“Yes! Yes yes yes oh yes. Nice Mandelbrot set, how could I forget that one.”

“I had that picture. Framed.”

“Yes. You brought the picture. One of the many pictures you hung in our room. Others helped me pinpoint just who you were exactly, the roommate survey being good for absolutely nothing, but that picture… you needed to explain it to me. I didn’t understand. About fractals.”

“Beautiful.”

“You said, This is a Mandelbrot set, named after Polish mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot, who discovered fractals.”

“He didn’t really discover them—”

“Whatever. Let me finish. Who discovered fractals and thus, you, freshman-year-of-college-you hung a picture like it was art.”

“It was scientific.”

“Just because it’s scientific doesn’t mean it can’t be considered art.”

“A computer generated it, not a person.”

“And then there was our joke. Amazing you remember. We’d walk around campus pointing at things saying…”

“Nice Mandelbrot set!”

“Maybe,” says Jack, “I’d point to the spiral of the waiter’s water as he pours it.”

“… Or I’d point to the infinite grain in this table,” says Douglas pressing his finger, white against the varnished mahogany.

“… Or I’d point to the leaves on the tree the city has obviously planted to create a ‘green’ illusion.”

“… mmm, leaves,” says Douglas. “Remember? Saved/leaf, safe/leaves.”

“Our code.”

Our code?”

“Yeah. Our code. What do you mean our code?”

“Well, I was sorta the only one who ever found much use for it.”

“You don’t know that.”

“I’m, pretty sure I do.”

“There were parties.”

“Yes. There were parties. And.”

“… And I prevailed.”

Oui.”

“This is pointless arguing this with you. You’ll just smile and waggle your finger no matter what I say. I don’t need to convince you of anything.”

Non.”

“But honestly: did you take my Reckless Records shirt?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“The reason I ask is, well, that’s a moment, while we’re on the subject, that I’ve certainly thought a good deal about, you know, all these years, and what I keep coming back to is the… the improbability of it… I mean what are the odds that one of the kids from Kenton ran into our dorm, was horsing around on our floor, and just decided to grab my shirt off the back of that chair I had laid it out to dry on, and that our RA was too busy talking to Cynthia Watkins about her roommate in the hallway while his hot pocket cooked in the microwave, while—supposedly—all this happened. Improbable, is all I’m saying.”

“Just the way some things are.”

“Maybe. Or maybe you were the one who took it. You, scared-sh*tless-of-his-tall-strapping-West-Coast-roommate-you, scared I would beat the shit out of you for taking it, so instead you lied.”

“You never scared me.”

“Never?”

“Never.”

“Not even the—”

“No. Especially not then.”

“What about intimidated.”

“Was I ever intimidated by you?”

“Were you?”

“I don’t know… Jack. Who can know these things—”

“You. You can. Douglas.”

“Yes, possibly—”

“Certainly—”

“—But it’s not like thinking about them helps, thinking about them when you’re stuck in traffic or doing the dishes.”

“For your information, I don’t do the dishes. I own a dishwasher who does them for me. It is made by Maytag. It is of excellent quality. Jumbo load. Bought it on sale at Bed Bath & Beyond. It is prodigious.”

“What do you need a dishwasher that big for, not like you’re married.”

“….”

“Sorry.”

“It’s fine.”

“It sounds like a great dishwasher. It does sound prodigious.”

“We can just forget about it.”

A wind bounces the restaurant’s red awning. A woman secures her yellow hat to her silver hair. Jack makes his knife parallel to his fork.

“You can almost see the lake from here,” says Douglas.

“….”

“Sure, is one nice Mandelbrot set.”

“See, it is funny.”

“Did I say it wasn’t.”

“I don’t remember. All I can remember is you snorting at me like I was a weirdo. When I was only trying to make a simple joke. What was so wrong about that.”

“Was I mean to you. Are you punishing me? Is that what’s happening here?”

“I thought you didn’t want to dwell on the past. Didn’t want to dwell on thinking.”

“Well, isn’t that the reason you put this lunch together? To dwell?”

“That. That and other things.”

“Other things?”

“Douglas, what would you say if I told you every day, I feel angry and I don’t know why, except, I do know why. And the more I think about the anger, the more I do and don’t know why.”

“I don’t know what I would say. If you told me that.”

“Right. If I told you I was angry.”

“Right.”

“Right. Cause what then.”

“Oblivion. Or something.”

“It’s not like I could lean across this civil table,” says Jack, raking his chair closer, “at this civil f*cking restaurant, and slit your throat, or anything.”

“One would wonder why one would even want to do such a thing to his freshman year roommate. After all these years.”

“And yet…”

“… Safe/leaves.”

“Hey. Nice Mandelbrot set, asshole.”

“Always comes back around.”

“I invented that joke so watch it.”

“Did you sleep with one girl that whole year? Tell me, and then maybe I’ll tell you what happened to your Reckless Records shirt.”

“You stole it I f*cking knew it you sack of sh*t I—”

“—Hey hey whoa whoa. Answer my question.”

“No. Now—”

“No.”

“You’re lying.”

“I’m not—”

“I know when you’re lying, Douglas. I watched you for an entire year, I know when you’re lying.”

“You watched me? This is getting to be unsettling.”

“Fine. Who cares. You’re safe.”

“Not until you leaves, as the saying go—”

“Shut up. You’re safe, at this civil downtown restaurant in the Chicago Loop.”

Douglas notices Jack is smiling, really smiling for the first time the whole lunch. The way the wind dusts the top of his head and the smile transforms him, just for a second.

Jack says, “And no one, NO ONE, is going to lay a finger on you. That’s what they’ll say, when they watch this moment again, over and over, in their heads. After it all happens.”

“After what happens. Who will.”

“They’ll watch it over and this is the thing: they’ll all have different stories, different recollections, because they’re all so unique, aren’t they, with their selective memories, and their slight but damaging adjustments that they make without even intending to, if a police investigator were to call them into question maybe, and then all of a sudden that ‘perfect memory’ becomes permeated, no good, without their even knowing it; and a yellow hat becomes an orange scarf she was wearing, officer, and that waiter was nowhere in sight when really he was just smoking a cigarette on his break—”

Douglas notices the curly-haired waiter smoking on the side of the restaurant.

“—and before all of it, it was a beautiful summer’s day. But somehow, they’ll all remember that man, sitting at the other table, the one who was gesticulating maybe a bit too much, or speaking maybe a bit too loud. They’ll remember him. But they’ll feel safe because they’ll also remember the whole time thinking, ‘No, he wouldn’t dare.’ They’ll remember that safety. And how quickly it disappeared.”

Header image by Phoebe Nerem