Tuesday
May082012

The Conversations

Tim Horvath




The first of the Conversations had taken place at once in Rome, in Vegas, and in Hoboken. No one knew then what they were, of course; they just seemed the talk of talkers, mundane as could be, the little dramas that unfold in the lives of all in front of the private audience of the participants and whoever else happens to be within earshot.

 

In Rome: a couple argued over whether or not it was safe to rent a motorbike and go zipping around the city. She cited the blind curves and the age of the cobblestones and the profusion of stray cats who might straggle their ways across his path, and reminded him that he himself admitted he shut his eyes sometimes when he sneezed on their own wide, clearly demarcated American highways, seconds when he might as well have been in an alternate universe, might as well have been tripping out again like he did in his frenzied youth, which she was glad she'd only come onstage for at the curtain call—and as an afterthought, she almost added, What about the possibility of a flashback? She didn't approve, left the room when he so much as broke out the pink Colman's mustard tin in which he stored his joint-making sundries. Now they were going around and around like the ceiling fan in the café, and the waiter, a squat, dark-skinned older man with a Father Guido Sarducci mustache and enviable teeth, was ready to spike their cappuccinos with a local liqueur in order to placate them just a touch, take the edge off their bickering. He, the waiter, didn't follow the news all that closely, being mostly consumed, when he wasn't working, with his collection of vintage early-twentieth-century opera 78s, his Gigli and Tamagno, but he knew enough to note that the griping of Americans had led them to the brink of global economic collapse and that this wasn't good for him, or anybody, and here again this American couple was demonstrating that most characteristic trait that marred their nation: noncompromise en extremis adolescenti. She should let him go off and ride his bike and pump up his virility, since that is what it was all about (though the motorbikes, in his opinion, were unbecoming and puggish), and meanwhile she should go off and flirt with some of the local men (ahem) to make herself feel better, preferably as her guy rode by on his motorbike at the nexus of a moment when he'd catch her in the act and—if he were to crash, then, at least it would be noble and meaningful. He was about to offer them a free dessert, which would surely catch them off guard—a tiramisu that the chef had recently perfected, its admixture of custard and mascarpone so sublime that he himself had eaten some left behind by a couple earlier that day, she who was dieting and he who was diabetic, and he'd laughed, the waiter, unapologetically downing the residue in the kitchen in the presence of the chef, honoring him rather than scraping his art into the trash. The tiramisu he was bringing them he had taken from the refrigerator and had sensibly lopped off half, still sizable enough to serve as a full portion in many places, Merulana, where he used to work, among them, that pen of miserly oafs and fifth-rate thugs, and now he proudly bore the dish toward the bickerers, anticipating their broadening smiles of surprise and then, shortly after, when the spoons met their mouths, the murmurs of pleasure that would inevitably follow, and he was making his approach when the Conversation ruptured and blew apart the room, glass counters raining down shards, chairs left spinning from warped overhead fans, bodies reduced to semiskinned skeletons that would still be smoldering when the sirens came.

 

In Vegas, a father and a son argued about how the son had played his poker hand. The father was a lifelong cardplayer who'd taught his son to play at a formative age, maybe four, five, getting him a leg up on his generational brethren, since the strategies of poker were among the eternal verities, as worthwhile to instill as alphanumeric characters and the hitting and pitching fortunes of the Yankees. The son was inclined toward long bouts of staring into inclement weather, mesmerized by window-splatter and downflowing rivulet, and for a while the father thought there was maybe something wrong with him, that his swimmers hadn't traveled in first-class, but later on in life it turned out that this same son had been even then composing rudimentaries (his word for the early symphonies), been absorbing rhythms and, as he would later describe it in an interview on public television, synesthetically allowing the notes to fall upon the staves of the mind. When the father listened to the son's compositions—and he did, he really tried, spent hours, reset his ringtone so it played none other, pushed himself on the treadmill to his kiddo's homage to Lugosi or Ligeti—he heard randomness, chaos, a defiance that his son had never exhibited behaviorally (his dad had all but told him how to sneak out, all but lowered him onto the limb that extended by his window, all but signed a contract to the effect that he'd look the other way if the boy wanted to meet up with one of their cute neighbors, the blond—what was her name—Nichole or the other one and run down by the creek and smoke a bowl and do some undershirt groping and some grinding). No, he'd been unswervingly a good boy, and the father listened intently to the music in hopes of gleaning traces of lust—for power, for nubile flesh, for market share, for bragging rights in the AL East—none of which was in evidence. So here they were out in Vegas, the trip arranged by dad, turned the big six-oh. All he wanted was to spend some alone time with his boy without his mom's platitudes, her admonitions and her sayings and most especially her voice, its cloying the sound equivalent of that godawful soap she insisted on torturing them all with in the bathroom, that floral ambush. And so he'd flown him out here, where the kid kept ordering some kind of lemon slushie business, and he must've reviewed the rules a dozen times, no exaggeration, made him a cheat sheet with the terms—flop, turn, river—not even anything technical, played out a slew of open hands with him in the comfort of their suite, slipped him a crisp pile of bills to play with (though whom, exactly, was he trying to impress with those tips?) and brought him to the 50/100 no-limit table, and the kid stood by and watched at first while his dad showed him the ropes, and when the seat emptied next to him and his son put down his lemon ice and got dealt in, it reminded him of when he'd taught the boy how to drive, a wavelet of nostalgia until he remembered that then, like now, his son proceeded to do everything wrong, got the wheel locked, drifted over the median, and now he's playing it too thin-icy when he's toting three jacks, then playing his next hand like he's got the nuts and the next thing you know, he mucked the hand, as if he zoned out completely mid-play, still that kid at the window, at the wheel, only now he's ruining not only his own fortunes but his dad's and, frankly, this whole trip. His dad pulled him aside, and while he would've settled for an explanation of the thrown hand, what he meant was, What's going on in there? and wanted to know What will be enough? and Will we ever be any way other than this? Whatever words he was going to drive at these were swallowed in the shattering, flesh rending, everyone diving for the closest table or bolting for the exits, a panic of smeared colors, till all that could be heard was the music of the slot machines and a roulette ball, its hops growing farther and farther apart until it came to rest.

 

Part of what made it so difficult to detect the Conversations was their pristine logic, their lavishness with detail, the intricacy with which they felt put together. They were camouflaged in the way a flounder picks up six or seven shades of stones from the bottom and presents itself, an unfinished mosaic, one whose tiles haven't yet been glued into place, and might just keep shifting.

The other thing that made it difficult to pick up the Conversations is that no one had the faintest fucking clue as to what they could possibly be.

 

They were, it ought to be emphasized, about everything and nothing. They were about the best place to get bubble tea in all of Tokyo. They were about whether anime was a fundamentally self-aware genre. They were about ghost sightings and the existence of paranormal beings. They were about ridiculous roommates who left their shit everywhere. They were about whether that dress made her look fat. They were about whether it was ever okay to scroll through someone else's text messages. They were about whether the affiliation of Walt Disney with the L.A. Philharmonic was ultimately a good thing. They were about whether or not to stay in/leave/go deeper into Park Slope/New York/an affair. Loosely, they could be grouped under the heading of "disagreements." What they weren't were online chats, phone conversations, small talk, screaming matches, Skype exchanges, the letters pages of The New York Review of Books, the catacombs of blog commentary threads. They were face-to-face, live theater in the round, and called for mouths and throats and sweat glands and gestures intended and incidental and facial tics. No one knew exactly how long the Conversations had been going on before it was recognized what they were. It took a damned spot of time to figure these things out. To realize that some of the slaughtered had not only been at the epicenter of the blast but that they had been the fuses.

 

It was only with the design of the pocket black boxes that it became possible to trace them, to record them as they transpired and then play them back. Even given their survival rate in blasts, it was surprising that the black boxes made it through the Court's strenuous weeks of deliberation. They did, with the proviso that the only time their contents would be open to screening would be after a Conversation or if a Conversation was strongly suspected to be imminent. Over time, the free market took the boxes and compressed them, made them compact and funky, allowed you to personalize yours so that you felt some ownership over it, the sides aglow with yellow-green, imprinted with your floating genome map or a rotating skull. It was, like, your life. It would outlast your body.

When Conversations erupted, the recordings were scrutinized, weighed against the chatter of suspected terrorists. Translators for every conceivable language came to be in high demand. Voiceprints danced, nightly, across monitors. Crack cryptologists each took their swings. They manhandled the messages, parsing them every which way for code, from syntax to semantics, the shapes of glottal stops, the lacunae. They were checked against the Koran, Shakespeare, the Ramayana, the whole damned library. One by one, the usual suspects were ruled out. No shortage of terrorist organizations vied to take credit for the blasts, but their claims, to a one, were exposed as hollow. The sole thing that the Conversations appeared to have in common was this Rome-like quality—all roads led to the blast.

Once the authorities had ruled out earthly sources, naturally the zealots and the rabbis and the televangelists and the imams all weighed in on what was happening, since it was clearly the handiwork of some god or other, such that if we could peer into the souls of the dead, we'd know the very contours of their weaknesses and their sins, could see the waswasas that had afflicted them and driven them into these back alleys, from which they could escape only through expulsion from their bodies. A prominent televangelist, his church the size of a small stadium, giant television screens blaring his message hither and yon, decreed that this was God's way of reminding us that He is in every single conversation, not merely those that praise and glorify Him and His Works, not only those that pertain to the way that his Word is to be manifest and its seeds sowed across the face of the earth, not only those that would chastise and rebuke those who have strayed from the path that He has clearly delineated, but in the most humble, ordinary of matters, the talk between a man and his wife, between a father and his son, He is unabashedly present in all of these things. The rabbis convened to discuss the implications, as well. What could God mean by causing these events to happen? What sense could be made of it all? Was this simply more evidence of His inscrutability, His mysteries? Was not the history of Judaism itself one of conversations constructed in the margins of previous conversations, Talmudic and Midrashic debates that went on over the course of centuries? These conversations they began to carry on, themselves, in writing, kneeling upon vast pieces of paper like children doing some activity, their handwriting spreading till entire floors were covered. Until more was understood of God's intentions and the purport of His message, it would not do to speak aloud about it.

 

If Tad McGill and June Miet hadn't survived separate explosions roughly contemporaneously, and if the youthful, slightly cocky journalist named Jason Tubbs hadn't been granted access to the survivors and put dos y dos together, who knows how  much  time  would  have  passed  before  the  Conversations were discovered? As it was, Tad lay in a coma for several weeks before his eyelids began to flicker and nostrils twitched. Slowly, he began to hoist himself out of that vegetative state, and after that it would be months before he could speak, and weeks more before his memory of the moments leading up to the explosion began to undissolve back into focus for him. Finally, there was the last leg, wherein he needed to be able to trust that recollection and accounting of events in the face of the obvious trauma, even with the parade of would-be biographers, Hollywood producers, politicians, gold diggers, corporate executives, et cetera, coming through his room. Tubbs clung to his bedside like some long-lost brother, tirelessly zapping his heat compress in the microwave, slipping him nicotine patches, you name it; Tubbs got close to Tad and made sure that—if and when there was something to confide—he'd be the one privy to it.

At first, he didn't even pick up the parallels between Tad's situation and that of this woman June thousands of miles away in Massachusetts. No one did. That both Tad and June had been engaged in conversations with loved ones (both of whom had, sadly, been killed in those same blasts)—well, these things happened. And then there was the interior experience of the event. When Tad came around, he described it to Tubbs, that sense he'd had that he was reading someone else's lines, lines that made an astounding, uncanny sense in the context of his relationship with his wife. There was a slowing of time, and it felt as though his tongue was operating completely independently of his brain and mouth, had broken away.

Plus, there was the mint.

"Mint?" Tubbs asked.

"Mint. I'm remembering it now. Like the strongest breath mint you've ever had . . . only, like, ten thousand times more potent.  I can't possibly describe it to you."

The whole thing, he said, bore more than a passing resemblance to déjà vu—that sense of removal, of observing the world around one and even oneself through a haze, at a distance. And he'd assumed, naturally, that what he was experiencing was some variant of déjà vu or, shit, an aneurysm or a seizure or something, one that in the most literal sense tied the tongue, twisted and tugged at it. It was actually kind of pleasurable, in an odd way, a relief—like you didn't have to figure out what to say next, didn't have to censor yourself; all that felt as though it had been taken care of for you. And, as would become increasingly plain, the Conversations tended to occur after an impasse of some sort had been reached or at a point of extreme frustration, where those involved had been "going in circles," or had "already talked about this, in one form or another, a thousand times." Tad had been discussing with his wife whether or not it made sense to get their daughter, Samantha, tested for a learning disability the way two of her friends had recently been. Tad himself had struggled in school and only as an adult had figured out that maybe someone had slipped up. The Conversation had started faintly, like gum with its flavor already mostly chewed out of it, and then gone into a rather sudden crescendo.

 

 Alexandra: I just don't know if it makes sense to label her. she's seven. . . .

 Tad: It's not a question of labeling. We all get labeled eventually. I'm an assistant accounts manager. That's a label. [flash of mint]

Alexandra: That's an empowering label, rather than a stigmatizing one.

Tad: Right. Do you not appreciate labels at the grocery store? [mint rising] organic versus conventional . . . aren't they all . . . how did you put it?

 

Alexandra: I don't remember my exact words.

Tad: something about power.

Alexandra: Power . . .I don't know. It's besides the point.

Tad: Yes. so you're shopping, let's say, in the produce aisle. [mint surging]

 

Alexandra: Tad, our daughter is not a tangelo. . . .

 

And then, as smoke and vapor at Cape Canaveral come gushing over the booster engines, subsuming the launchpad at the moment the rocket takes leave of it, the mint came on, a storm, a mint tsunami. When, over time, he came to recuperate the memories, he recalled that Alexandra herself had looked like she didn't quite buy into what she was saying, was a little too emphatic, surprised him just a touch with her gesticulations, her word choices. "Stigmatizing"?  Really?  How often did she address him by name? A "tangelo"? I mean, it wasn't as if her vocabulary was simplistic or anything, but those details stood out, like the way if your spouse was dressing a touch more provocatively than usual, or suddenly devoting a lot of extra time to grooming, it might raise some red flags about how s/he was spending evenings. But so much else was going on at the same time, such derangement of the senses, such weird weather. And maybe he was wrong. Maybe she loved tangelos; maybe the tangelo was her favorite fruit, her favorite thing on earth. Maybe she'd torn one open in her most unguarded moment, peel falling away, juice spritzing against her cheeks but sparing her eyes, a subsequent gush revealing the ecstatic itself. He'd been wrong before.

Unlike Tad, June recovered right away. she'd been talking with Brendan, the boyfriend (she used the definite article), about this habit he had at gatherings, where in the company of attractive young women whose cleavage likely exceeded hers by more than one cup size, he would tell these humorous stories about things that had happened to the two of them together but would fail to include her at key points in the story, as though he was Photoshopping her out—he was adept with such programs, like when he made that card for her that depicted her as a fifties housewife, gasping at her own prowess with a blender. He was saying, "Okay, but they're just stories, and we both know that exaggerating some things and downplaying others is an intrinsic quality of storytelling. . . ." Brendan was a grad student in literature, his thesis an unwieldy sandwich of postcolonialism and media studies, and they were in the stairwell, having halted a few steps up from the landing. They were both treating this conversation as though it needed to be held then and there, before they entered Apt. 2BF, as though they might be able to resolve it outside in some public way, before some tribunal (for they could often hear, from her bedroom, conversations that took place in this very same stairwell), and to be honest, June was thinking about getting on with things and doing mad, slalomy things involving Brendan's cock, not rehashing the particulars of some forgettable exchange with Gillian Sandoval. She caught a whiff of something that she thought might be carbon monoxide, was about to call a time-out so that they could either crack open her apartment door to check it out or evacuate. I mean, people die from that shit all the time—you see them on the news. But then she thought wasn't CO odorless, and this was sort of minty in a vague way. This made her want to laugh, but was her desire to laugh the sort of thing caused by the invisible gas, or was it caused by how Brendan could be such an astute reader of Sub-Saharan African Literature but miss the very glaring subtext of his own words and nomadic eyeballs? But before she could answer, the purple paisley in the wallpaper had started to slither its way into her brain instead of staying out there where it belonged.

When June told him this over the phone, Jason Tubbs had this strange recollection of the York Peppermint Pattie commercials of his childhood. The mention transported him back to Ottawa, to his grandparents' place, where either he'd seen those commercials or which he just associated with them because of the cold and because his grandparents gave him lots of treats. All of those old commercials could now be easily watched online. They were cheesier than he recalled, but he couldn't get around the resemblance between what went on with them and the accounts of these explosions. Tubbs broke the story, and Homeland Security brought in teams of chemists at the next explosion, which occurred at a DMV in upstate New York, to try to suss out any trace of mintiness, the residue of any sort of chemical, like some gas that might've mimicked mint seconds before combusting. There was no chemical known to do this, though certainly terrorists were always trying things, and so it was not outside the realm of possibility that they would've stumbled onto some new concoction. But there was nil of mint in the math of after, only the char of fabric and flesh and paper.

 

Tad became an apostle of the Privacy movement. Poster child, wheeled up to microphones by his younger, blonder second wife and his daughter, who had ultimately not been classified as learning-disabled and done just fine, thank you very much. His trademark shirt read on the front THE ORIGINAL BLACK BOX, a play on the notion that he had "recorded" his Conversation—that is, could recall it—without the government shoving its wires into his personal space, and on the back, REMEMBER TO REMEMBER WHY WE REMEMBER, which, if repetitive, made a sort of sense and had an alluringly chantable and stampable rhythm and echo rhyme. The message was obvious: if there was anyone who had every right to argue that the government should do whatever it took to get to the bottom of these attacks, it was double-amputee, three-time blood-transfusion-recipient Tad, but he was not calling for these things. He'd never been antigovernment before, but the blast changed him. He teamed up with those who were all-out conspiracy theorists, who deemed the whole thing an inside job. He refused to carry a box or don a roomsuit, and he kissed a lot of babies.

 

The mint industry, for its part, tried to turn things to their advantage at first. The "Mint: Part of the Solution?" campaign flopped, though. Suddenly, it seemed that nobody wanted anything to do with mint toothpastes and chewing gums and teas, breath mints and mouthwash—all yoked by association with the most chilling and senseless deaths. Folks wanted it out of their houses, their lives. Kids drove around stockpiling boxes left out back behind pharmacies and convenience stores, wanting to recreate those mintgasms on their lips and tongues as vividly as possible, barely able at times to carry on a conversation, much less a Conversation, with all the hard candy bobbing in their gargle. They were stoned on top, half the time.

The effects on conversation itself were more slippery, tougher to measure than that on industry. Some would say that verbal interactions became less rancorous as people minded their words more carefully, noting that conflict was close to a universal in the documented Conversations. Others said that was a myth, mere wishful thinking. There were countless false positives, people who panicked in mid-sentence, slamming on their tongues' brakes, sure that they were about to be reduced to smithereens. It can't be said that anyone escaped fully from the shadow of the Conversations' impact. Everyone had to feel some added self-consciousness, some doubt that their words, at times, were their own, though of course it was pointed out by wiser thinkers that they had always felt this way to some extent, that these events had merely delivered to awareness a suspicion that had long lurked for most everyone. Still, who could help but feel a bit of envy for the mute, volitional and otherwise, the hermit, the idiot, the monk, even the taciturn and the plain agreeable?

 

They gathered in the Sonora, as suitable as anywhere for trying to gain a new foothold on the universe, conjure new prepositions, put an end to the bloodshed. All of them, the thinkers and tinkerers, the particle-accelerator designer and linguists, anthropologists and cosmologists, and one playwright. Anyone, looking up upon arrival, would've thought that the mathematicians had arrived early and been granted the ability to play with the sky. Linda Mesner was there from Cal Tech, as was Abe Dodson, who'd come out of retirement for the occa- sion. As they registered and passed through the labyrinthine security system, they were all fitted for customized suits, for the conversations, it was obvious, would get heated, ran the risk of turning on a dime into Conversations. They fitted themselves into helmets whose glass was as thick as walls, voices amplified and played through a centralized sound hub so that groups could talk freely. Picture them, then, standing amid the cacti—the suits protected against the spines, so that you could bounce around out there with impunity, barbs landing on you harmless as raindrops till you became, yourself, "part saguaro," as one participant put it on his blog, until it was taken down the next day for security reasons. They worked feverishly for eighteen-hour stretches and then climbed out of the suits, so that they wouldn't feel entirely claustrophobic and could go back to their bodies, which, it was felt, would be salubrious for their minds. According to the waivers that they'd signed, they all had to remain silent for the rest of the night, the only exception being their sleep talking, which, it was decided, couldn't be controlled and, moreover, wasn't likely to be very dangerous. Many crumpled in exhaustion, retreating either to their tents or to the cabins that had been put together for the occasion. Others, however, were so charged up at the end of the workday that they couldn't possibly have slept, couldn't sit still. They unzipped their tents, still feeling the weight and girth of the roomsuits, which had come to feel like skins. Their senses revived as the stars began to multiply in the sky, more and more, it seemed, with every minute that passed, and some were led to dance, others to kiss, and still others to wander like Bedouins or pariahs. The only sound was that of the wind throwing itself against the ironwood and the palo verde and the ravines and a single looming butte where its whipping was already etched firm. It is hard to fault them for believing that what they were hearing was the sound of the universe in full accordance with itself. In the distance, a coyote loosed an occasional howl, as if unable or unwilling to share in their compact with silence.

 

One who came with them to the desert was a philosopher of mind named Gavin Walters. An ex-philosopher, maybe. He came down from Oregon, where he was legendary even then, even before, against all odds, he made his contribution to unraveling the mystery of the Conversations. At forty-nine, he'd spent the past few years shunned and disgraced, living in a shack and spending whole days where he'd talk to no one but the postman, who became his best friend. His former students and colleagues had no shortage of theories about his mental decline—it was widely accepted that he was ill, ironic, given that his early papers, on which he'd built his reputation, had been on the question of whether there was a class of delusions that could be said to be extensional entities.

You could say that he invented the field; incontrovertibly, he took it further than anyone else had to that point. The idea was to ingest as many and as various substances as he could track down, legal and illegal alike, and describe them. Just describe, bracketing out any expectations, any hangups about what society felt about them and about your using them, or what you were supposed to feel or taste. He scraped mold from rotting pineapples, ingested the hottest chilis he could land, plus the classics, weed, ibogaine, the full gamut of prescriptions. For him, coke that was cut with different things was more compelling than the purer stuff. He went on to document them like a wine critic, venturing far beyond the traditional descriptive armature of taste, trying, rather, to map the path the substance took within his body and beyond, how it altered what he defined as his body. He smoked bean curd and mashed pomegranate seeds and munched on talus.

He chose a set of baseline activities that he could use to measure the effects against some standard. These activities were playing chess, manipulating a cat's cradle, writing poetry, and having sex, broadly defined. He scavenged the hindquarters of stores when mint was being dumped and then wildcrafted it in the fields behind his cabin. His outpost drew protégés—young and disaffected, bored with food, as well as the more readily available drugs. Like some latter-day Aquinas, he had them all contributing to his Encylopedia of Ingestive Phenomenology, scribbling his dictated words and their own. By the time he got to the Sonora Summit, he was long past burnt, the envisioned book a chimera of ambition and appetite, part gourmand's ramblings, part Husserlian explorations, part Proustian contemplation, and many parts schizoid rant.

How he'd even found out about the summit was a mystery. Uninvited, he'd hopped the rails down and talked his way into a car with an algorithm expert and a quantum physicist. When he got there, they let him stay, even though his name wasn't on any list, the physicist he'd ridden over being willing to vouch for him based only on their conversation on the long, unremittingly straight road. Walters had this theory that there was some alien sentience, akin to body snatchers, but rather than bodies, they were stealing conversations, and that maybe their sense of time was different enough from ours that they were outgrowing them, exploding them as they outgrew them, or maybe they were exploding them to open up new dimensions that they could then colonize. Over  the weekend, he went from being seen as a colorful outlier to an integral player. So that people actually listened when he described the opposite of the Conversations, what he called "kismet," meaning moments when people found common ground in an almost transcendent way. For Walters, kismet was no less tangible than kumquats, the balm that healed those ruptures in the cosmic fabric that had been opened up by the Conversations. But of course it was impossible to test this theory, because such moments had to arise spontaneously, couldn't be staged, prefabricated. Was he a crackpot or a visionary or both? Was it possible that perhaps the most plausible explanation was being offered by someone who anyone with an ounce of sanity would have long ago consigned to the realm of the insane?

That night, linguists slept with cosmologists, engineers with translators, and a woman allowed Walters to do things with her and a Bufo alvarius. Her moans, an inarticulate report in the air, alternated with those of the coyote, who may or may not have been responding. Rolling off her, he reached for his notebook, taking down a description, followed by a poem whose greatest lines, in his estimation, were "the haptics of venom" and "the gravid gash that spitfires intratime, outgabbing itself." He drifted off, more content than he'd felt in many years, she next to him, and at some point during the night he came awake and muttered something about the poem, wanting to share it with her, the her in it. She bolted upright, startled but quickly regaining her composure, reminding herself that there oughtn't be any talking whatsoever, not even to prevent talking, so she shook her head emphatically and made noises to smother his words. He gave up, lay back again. At daybreak, he had occasion to glance at the poem, and not only was that line not there but the whole thing was written in a language he couldn't understand, maybe no language at all. They made it to morning showers without ever talking about what had happened. At breakfast, the playwright recounted a dream of coming eyeball-to-eyeball with a scorpion that had taken up lodging inside his roomsuit. He remembered it that morning only on slipping back into his suit. 

 

It would be years before the Conversations petered out into nonexistence, and by that time people had grown inured to all the changes wrought by them. What changed, what led to their end? Either we'd become Conversation-proof or the protective measures that had been set into motion finally kicked in, or maybe Gavin Walters's theory was spot-on and there were enough instances of kismet, the cultivation of which had become a sort of an art form in and of itself, and the alien beings had sealed themselves off or gotten lost in endless warrens of cosmic dimensionality. We started back, started to come back. We started to talk again. We started to meet one another again—in cafés, in barrooms, at swimming pools, in esplanades. We poked our heads out from the rooms we'd borne with tortoise resignation. We began to fight again, to argue, to quibble, to provoke, to annoy, to tell off, to haggle, to opine, to agree to disagree, to politely suggest, to reprimand, to stammer, to plead, to refuse to plead, most pleading of all in our refusals. When there were no more Conversations and only, again, conversations, we stood gratefully in one another's fires. Eventually, mint, too, made its comeback, and this was a blessing, because we could smell one another's breath, and that had not always been pleasant. We licked mintsicles and took mint baths. and for a short time, at least, we went back to having conversations, all the conversations we'd never had that we should have had, all the conversations that someone hadn't wanted, orphaned, banished for years to who knew where, now made their triumphant returns to where they belonged—all we'd wanted to say to lovers and would-be lovers, what we should've said to aging parents, to pastors and teachers and coaches and nemeses and spouses and friends and those we'd told ourselves were friends, those who'd loaned us their shoulders for any purpose whatever, those who'd hurt us and those we'd hurt—all leapt giddily from our tongues and pounded on the drums of our ears and tremored our chests and left us blissfully intact and craving only more.