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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
I Wanted You to Sound Different
Jennifer Blackman’s flash fiction,” I Wanted You to Sound Different” was inspired by Richard Brautigan’s story,”I Was Trying to Describe You” from his collection Revenge of the Lawn, the Abortion, So the Wind Won’t Blow It All Away. When asked why she chose “I Was Trying to Describe You” Jennifer said, “I was taken with the impossibility in Brautigan—of finding a love that looks as unique as it feels and honoring it. Love feels singular, but what if the person you’re with looks like a blood relation of everyone you’ve loved before? What if you have a type? Echoing the structure of Brautigan’s piece felt like a fitting way to make that sameness special again.”
I was trying to describe you to an old friend yesterday. You look like every other man I’ve loved, only taller, and I wanted you to sound different.
I could have said, “well, he looks a little like John Travolta. A young John Travolta. Except that his chin is different, and he doesn’t gyrate as much when he dances, and of course he’s not a movie star.”
I could have said that because, without your glasses, you look a little like a young John Travolta.
Or I might have mentioned Michael Luick. I might have said, “when I was ten, I fell in love with my first Italian—small-boned, with dark hair and dark eyes that were colorful even though they were brown. So I wrote him an anonymous love note with his name spelled ‘M-i-k-e-l,’ which I knew was correct because I’d looked up how to spell ‘Mike.’ During lunch, when he quizzed me on the spelling of his name, I knew I’d been wrong. Sometime after that, Michael and I went roller skating at Plymouth’s only indoor rink and it didn’t matter that he’d never ask me out again. Anyway, he’s like Michael only his eyes are green and we’ve lived together for four years.”
I might have said that because you remind me some of Micheal, except you’re thirty-three.
“But then again,” I could have said, “he’s most like Finn, the poet I dated for all four years of high school but never slept with because he refused. You remember Finn. He had ladies’ eyelashes and freckles in all the right places, along his nose and cheekbones. He’s like Finn except my friends laugh at his jokes. Also, he’s willing to sleep with me.”
I could have said that because you’re a lot like Finn.
I finally ended up describing you as a documentary we saw together right after moving from New York to London. This was in December and I think you had a cold, or it was after midnight, or you’d had a long day.
The film was by Werner Herzog, the romantic German pessimist, about a recently uncovered French cave. Inside, there were hundreds of ancient bear tracks, a series of red palm prints, and four horse heads sketched in profile, one after another, in the blackest charcoal. Like they’d been drawn yesterday. The heads moved in the torchlight, mysterious in the way that children’s sketches can be mysterious. Herzog called it The Cave of Forgotten Dreams.
The Cave of Forgotten Dreams was maybe not the right movie to start at midnight, after a long day, when you had a cold. iTunes froze at the most crucial moments and we had to rewind again and again but always rewound too far. So we rewatched the old perfumer explain how he hoped to sniff out undiscovered caves, rather than hunt them the traditional way—by walking the cliffside slowly, sensing the draftiness of a cave hidden overhead. He said he wanted to smell the cave’s history. And then there was the archeologist who called a shimmering stalactite “brilliante,” but whose translator let her down by claiming she’d called it something like “really pretty.”
“This is a movie about French people,” you said, and accidentally fast-forwarded to the part where the same archeologist gestured at a partially obscured drawing of a woman’s legs and pubic hair, the first known depiction of the female form. This half, she said, was all we were permitted to see. Getting any closer, stepping off the metal platform, would damage the prehistoric bear tracks.
“That seems like a solvable problem,” you said.
“Who cares about bear tracks?” I said, and when you didn’t say anything, I wondered if you cared about bear tracks.
Herzog eventually attached a camera to a stick and held it so that we could see the rest of the woman. She was beautiful but boring. The moving horse heads were better because their mystery couldn’t be solved with a camera on a stick.
“I might not make it to the end,” you said.
The cave was full of stories the perfumer and the archeologist could only guess at. There was an incredible human dimension to the cave, but that had less to do with the cave than what it contained, 32,000 years ago and today. It was ancient and modern at the same time and it made me think of my gram’s house, or the house you grew up in, or any old home.
At the start of the movie, during our first tour of the cave, Herzog asked the crew for a minute of silence. He wanted to hear the cave and perhaps, he said, the crew’s heartbeats.
We laughed at Herzog, the romantic pessimist. Then we listened. Breathing, legs shifting, a rhythmic dripping sound. The camera panned to a stalactite with water falling off it. That water must have been dripping for thousands of years with no one but the cave to hear it land.
You made it through the whole movie and we went to bed that night like we always do, you on your back and me pressed up against you in a one-arm hug. We lie like this before our sleepiness makes us realistic and we have to separate.
“What are you doing?” I asked, ear on your chest.
“Sleeping,” you said.
I nodded and said nothing and thought nothing. But just before we fell asleep and separated, you squeezed my ribcage goodnight, and I knew what it must have been like in that cave. Watching the horses move. Hearing the water drip after thousands of years of not hearing it. It was a wonderful movie and excited me like reading a stranger’s notations in a new used book or listening to the Pocahontas soundtrack on YouTube or hearing only British accents at the grocery store.
And that’s how you are different to me.
Jennifer Blackman grew up in Kingwood, Texas. She recently completed her MFA at New York University and now lives in Brighton, England. This is her first published fiction.