She was supposed to meet him at 3:00. He had chosen 3:00 because he knew the coffeehouse well–it was just a block down from his house–and 3:00 almost guaranteed them a table. His eye read 3:05. He knew five minutes was no reason to be upset, but he had always been punctual to a fault, and old habits die hard—the downfall of more than one relationship. But he was different now; at least he was trying to be. He had been reading a weekly on accepting the shortcomings of others and it had been helping. He was turning over a new leaf. At nearly 30, he was sick of his mother writing to stop being so picky.
The sound of cars from the street grew louder and he turned in his chair to face the door. His eye read 3:06. Relieved, he saw her cross the threshold, the sliding door closing quickly behind her. She scanned the room before spotting him and flashing a warm, toothy smile. Whatever animosity he had felt towards her evaporated in that moment. He waved, but didn’t stand up. She held up one finger, then walked over to the order screen. I guess she’s never been here before, he thought. His order had been in the system since he’d moved there 2 years ago. He turned back to the table, realizing that watching her order might make her uncomfortable. He sipped his coffee. That was the next thing: caffeine. He had developed a bit of a shake in his left hand recently, and he was sure it was the caffeine. Once he found a girlfriend, he’d decided, he would kick the habit.
Cup in hand, she approached the table and sat down. She was still smiling. She was pretty, he’d decided when they met, though definitely not his type. He usually went for shorter, rounder women, like his mother. High contrast women. Caps lock women. But Henley was tall, about as tall as he was, and wiry. She wore sweaters and collared shirts and had mousy features and short, curly hair. She wrote with eloquence, often in run-ons but somehow in a way that didn’t annoy him. Always properly punctuated. Edward was a sucker for punctuation.
He smiled back at her and held out his hand. They tapped palms to connect. Her hand was warm, a little sweaty, but soft. He watched her icon pop up on his eye. The picture was almost identical to how she looked then sitting across from him. She was even wearing the same sunshine-yellow collared shirt, the same cream sweater overtop. It wasn’t the same icon she’d had on their first two dates. She must have taken a new one this morning, he thought, just for me. He decided not to mention it, even to tell her he thought it was sweet.
He set down his coffee cup, put his hands on the table and started typing.
E: It’s good to see you. How are you?
The words scrawled out on his eye as they did on hers. He watched her beaming smile settle down into a more conversational face, the left corner of her mouth turned up, her gaze focused on the middle distance. She had both hands wrapped around her drink. She took a sip, then tapped out her reply on the curved sides of the warm paper cup.
H: I’m wonderful! I’ve never really spent any time on this end of town before but the drive over was magnificent: sun shining, birds singing–so many sounds you never hear in the city.
Her words popped up below his, swiping his comparatively bland sentences to the upper limit of his peripheral vision. He read her em dash and his heart swelled. He tapped back to her on the wood-veneer tabletop. Younger people often made fun of him for his dated writing posture — hands out in front as if on actual keys. He was just old enough to have used the old-model Eyeboard before they’d gone embedded, and being a creature of habit he still insisted on lining his hands up to write. It suddenly occurred to him that he actually had no idea how old Henley was; he’d only assumed she was younger than him because of the way she typed. He’d never actually bothered to ask. He briefly considered it, but decided that no matter what the motive, asking a woman her age was more a fifth or sixth date question.
E: I’m glad you like it. I haven’t thought about it in a long time, but I guess you’re right. Lot of sounds. I’ve lived here for a couple of years. It’s just background noise to me now.
H: Well then I guess it’s a good thing I’m here to help you hear all the great things you’ve been missing, isn’t it? :]
E: I guess it is.
He looked at her and smiled. She was sipping from her coffee, but she looked at him over the rim of her cup, grinning with her eyes. He appreciated the obvious flirtation. He had never been much good at reading subtext and found that most women had a hard time saying how they felt. He made a fist on the table with his right hand and slid it quickly to the side, filing the comment.
H: Already started a file on me, have you?
E: How could I not? You have such beautiful sentences.
He wasn’t sure what had gotten into him. She had him typing like a teenager.
He had to remind himself that he wasn’t picking up a girl in a bar. This was about long game.
H: What else have I written that you deemed worth saving?
He flashed her a half smile.
E: I’ll tell you when you’re older.
Their conversation was pushed up and out of sight. In its place was a headline: Sacred or profane? Religious cult found speaking openly.
H: Oh, I was just reading about this last night! Do you want to read it? Or, I can always spin the tale for you myself if you think you’d prefer that…it’s up to you. ;]
Edward didn’t normally like girls who overused Faces. He found they lost power before long. But her use of the bracket made it somehow more mature; more genuine. Like she really put a feeling behind each one.
E: I bet you tell it better.
H: Okay, so you’ve heard the stories that crop up every once in a while about those tribes in Africa or the Himalayas that still use a combo language; like most of it they’ll still type but if they’re talking to their family or it’s really important or something like that they’ll actually, sort of, say some of the words? And all the anthropologists and universities will make a big show out of examining their jaw structures and their vocal chords to show how their stunted evolutionary development is due to some sort of genetic defect instead of the result of centuries of global classism and discriminatory international power structures?
She paused, and seemed to be scanning his face for a reaction. He gave her a confirming smile, and a brief nod. Seemingly heartened, she shifted in her seat and relaxed her shoulders.
H: Sorry, I know I have a tendency to…ramble.
E: Me too.
She laughed at the sarcasm.
H: Something else we have in common.
He felt her leg slide up against his under the table. He couldn’t remember what she had been wearing from the waist down, but from the feel of it against his pant leg it was either a skirt or something very form fitting. He did his best not to think about it too much.
H: Anyway, some anthropologist caught wind of a rumor of a little community, in Pennsylvania I think it was, who–get this–doesn’t write at all! So he goes out there and sure enough they’re all just walking around, maybe a hundred of them or so in this little village, literally speaking to each other. Everyone: adults speaking in front of kids, kids in front of their parents. No eyes, no hook-ups, no nothing. All. Spoken. Language. Just right out in the open. Can you imagine? Hearing all of those voices like that? Even a few at the same time? What would you even do?
She looked at him expectantly, signaling that the question wasn’t as rhetorical as he had read it.
Edward really didn’t know what he would do. He had only ever heard two voices in his life: his mother’s, humming him softly to sleep after nightmares when he was a boy; and his first love. They’d been only sixteen, before they’d known any better. They’d had sex for the first time in the garage at her dad’s house and before either of them knew what was happening, she’d lost herself and let three short sounds escape her throat. Afterwards, both had been too shocked to write anything. She’d driven him home without a word. They’d never written again.
Edward found himself wondering what Henley’s voice sounded like. His first girlfriend had been a rough girl. She often hadn’t capitalized the starts of her sentences. Her grunts had been low and guttural, like the grinding of gears. But Henley was much thinner, her capitals always in the right place. He wondered if her voice would be higher or lower–more soothing like his mother’s humming, or grating and rough as the echo off a concrete wall.
Henley finished her coffee, and Edward followed suit. Neither wanted the date to be over, and eventually it was decided that they would go back to his house and read a show together. Sitting on his couch, watching the words scroll down across their vision, he looked at her. He took in her smile, the way the light from the window glowed in the dust surrounding her head. He leaned on the soft sounds of her breathing. And when finally they kissed, he decided, Yes, I could do this for a while. I could do this just fine. That night, when after a few glasses of wine the two stumbled to his bed,
Edward decided to take his time. He worked his way down one side of her body, then back up the other, tracing his fingertips lightly in the space between her breasts. He tapped her like a tuning fork. He wanted her to laugh, to groan, to breathe so hard she broke the seal of generations on their throats so finally the two could speak and hear in the way of their ancestors. So Edward was conscious to give her his all, to make it last, in the hope she’d be unable to hold back from opening her mouth and telling him she loved him, telling him he wasn’t too old or too punctual, that he was just fine, just fine indeed. He needed her to hum.
But in the end her mouth stayed shut, her throat silent, though she held his eyes with hers, communicating in ways she thought were enough. He finished quickly, giving her his eyes but nothing else. Holding her in his arms, Edward listened closely to the quiet sounds of her drifting off to sleep.