“In ancient Phrygia, in a temple in Telmissus, there was a great wonder: the reins of a cart, twisted by the dead king Gordius, into a knot that nobody could untie. The reins were made of Cornel bark, which had shrunk and compacted over the years. And they were tied in what’s called a Turkish knot, with no visible ends. Hundreds of men had tried and failed to loosen it.”
I’ve been working on a new short story. A guy gets a friend request from his ex and has to decide whether to accept it or reject it. The story alternates between flashbacks to different eras in their relationship—the halcyon early months, the helpless hurt of the last weeks, the vertiginous in-between—and the present-day moment of decision. Beneath a starry night sky, the protagonist balances what once seemed to matter against what’s left of what was, and tries to understand: if matter is neither created nor destroyed, then what is left after love and hate run their course? In their most basic state, stripped of all our ornamentation, what survives?
“She’s crying, silently, remembering her first marriage, her wedding night, the instant the honeymoon suite door closed and she heard the clink of a jail cell door shutting…what’s more of a long shot than two planets colliding? Planets orbit stars because they have to. But for two planets to orbit one another? However brief the potlatch? Is that love? Or hate? Or, because there is some gravity, even if only slight, even if only retroactive, is it nothing, if not the usual: chance?” (from the new story)
“In 333 B.C., Alexander of Macedon came to Telmissus at the head of a huge army. He had heard a legend that whoever untied Gordius’s knot would go on to conquer all of Asia. The people of the town came running along after him. They knew who this was: King Philip’s favorite son. At 23, undefeated in battle and already called ‘the Great.’
It’s been almost a year since my last relationship ended. Rule of thumb seems to be it takes about half as long as a relationship lasted to really be over it, so in the first few months when the heart shakes hit, or when l’esprit de l’escalier struck and I’d realize excitedly exactly what I should have said five months earlier to my ex when everything was going down but hadn’t, I’d hold my tongue and remind myself: Be patient. See where you are after a year. Dross melts away. Wait and see what survives the heat.
“Before social media, I measured how over an ex I was by noting the degree of change in their face. When you love someone, they become more beautiful. Not really, they don’t. But you change the way you look at them, change what you see and what you don’t, so they look different. You don’t realize until after it’s over that the change was in you, not them. Then one day you run into them and, for the first time, see them as they really are. Not really, you don’t. But it flatters to think they’ve changed rather than face all the ways you have.” (from the new story)
“He stood before the knot, and saw at once that it could not be loosened. He’d lose face even to try. The bark had fused into a hard, cohesive mass into which no fingertip could be pried.
Turns out what survives is what always survives: a somewhat familiar but somehow unexpected mix of the expected and the unexpected. What survives? Petty battles that were never resolved (So what if I cut the butter with the wrapper still on? What, it ruins the butter if you knife through the wrapper? It ruins the wrapper?). Larger issues left unaddressed at the time, so as not to threaten the peace, now reduced to the faint radioactive taste of half-life in the back of your throat (Just because you claim not to understand something doesn’t give you the right to dishonor it.). All the happiness that won’t be forgotten (the joy of a warm summer night, at the fair, spinning around in a giant mechanical strawberry.). All the everything else.
The rule of thumb served me well dealing with losing a relationship with an ex-girlfriend. However, when it comes to ex-children you loved and raised for years, here’s the rule of thumb I’ve spent a year learning: there is no fucking rule of thumb for losing a kid. There’s just bittersweet in the good moments and bitterbitter in the bad.
See, it’s easy with ex’s: if you still want them, you hope to see them again. If you don’t, you’d rather never see them again. But a child? Purgatory. You want to see them and you don’t. What if you do see them again, and they ignore you? What if they’ve moved on like you never mattered? Worse—what if they run up and leap in your arms? What if they miss you, and love you still? That hurts. So much more that hurts.
“I heard tonight’s the first time in 150 years that Venus, Mars, Saturn and Jupiter are all visible at the same time in this part of the world. Or is it the last time for 150 years? No matter. With distance on that scale, differences become negligible. Take a planet versus a star. One gives light. One reflects. One orbits. One is orbited. One is exponentially larger than the other. Both dwarf me. From where I stand, unsure if I’m seeing what I’m looking for, planets and stars, those vast and violent four-act monsters, appear fixed. Still. Indistinguishable. I don’t know if what I’m seeing is a star or a planet, the present or the past, alive or the echo of an eons-old death, long before I came along, not knowing what I’m looking for.” (from the new story)
“So he cut it open with a single stroke. Then went on to Tarsus and Guagamela, sweeping all before him. Contemporary sources, by the way, are mostly silent on this. Only Aristoboulos even mentions it—and he was Alexander’s greatest propagandist.”
I know how the story ends. Not entirely sure how I’m going to get there. But I know where it is. I’ll get there. No gimmicks. No plot twists or shocking reveals. I came very close to having all the characters in the story turn out to be non-human—like, humanoids or robots or something. I talked to some people and did some thinking and read some stuff and concluded that some of my creative defaults are indulgent and vain and counterproductive. And actually, knowing that makes it easier to know where the story ends, and how to get there.