That morning, Ted began buffering. One minute, he was Ted, coffee cup in hand, talking animatedly about this thing he’d just heard on NPR. The next minute, he was a rainbow-colored pinwheel, spinning. I’d never taken Ted for a Mac guy, so I found that part odd. If anything, he should have been that Window’s ring of circles. But, nope: a spinning wait cursor. That’s what he was. But only for a minute. Then, Ted was back, picking up where he’d left off, still talking animatedly about incarceration rates, or interest rates, some kind of rate of which he was very much against. Or for. To be honest, in the full minute Ted was a spinning, 2-D beach ball, I kind of lost the conversation’s thread.
If what I saw happen had, in fact, happened, Ted hadn’t noticed. We enjoyed our coffee and conversation, the way we do each morning, then rose and headed to our separate jobs. I went about my day bundling cellphone plans for small and midsize corporations, and, at five, I went home, kissed my wife, Allison, ate dinner, watched Game of Thrones, asked Allison to make love to me, settled for a hand job, and went to bed.
The next morning, Ted was back to buffering, and things were getting worse. Now, Ted started and stopped with great frequency, lurching in and out of sentences. I worried he’d spill coffee, burn himself, but, as with the day before, the pauses didn’t faze him. He emerged from each transformation gracefully, as though nothing had happened. And maybe nothing had. Around us, no one screamed. No one called 911. Ted smiled and talked, his mustache neat and trimmed, his wire-rimmed glasses as wire-rimmed as ever.
Still, I was unsettled. That afternoon, I left the office not having met my quota, a first in my two years with the company. At home, I couldn’t even watch Game of Thrones, and, when Allison resignedly offered a hand job, I said no. This thing with Ted, it was wrecking my days. So, I resolved to do something about it.
“Ted,” I said the next morning as we drank our coffee at our favorite small, independent coffeehouse—a coffeehouse whose name does not matter because it is a variation on the name of all small, independent coffeehouses, which is to say that its name is a play on words, like The Daily Grind or Thanks a Latte or Brewed Awakenings, none of which is the name of our coffeehouse but of which there must be several insufferable hundred in the continental United States—“Ted,” I said, “are you aware that, every so often—”
“Let me stop you right there,” Ted said.
“You know?” I said.
“The podiatrist says it’s not uncommon and that, if I keep wearing the medicated insoles, the odor will go away.”
“That’s very interesting,” I said. I waited while Ted turned into a pinwheel, then back to Ted, before I continued. “But are you aware that, every so often, you turn into a large Apple operating system spinning wait cursor?”
“Oh, that,” Ted said. “Yeah, must be a glitch in the Matrix.”
For a moment, I didn’t speak. I wanted to rise, to run.
Then, Ted laughed. “Naw,” he said, “I’m just fucking with you. My podiatrist says that’ll go away too. I’m on a couple of medications. Can’t seem to find the best dosage. Fucking HMOs, am I right?”
The next week, I saw more of them, the spinning pinwheels. At stoplights. At the office. Shopping for new blue jeans at the mall. Once, in a crosswalk, the woman ahead of me turned into one, and we collided. The feeling was roughly the equivalent of bumping into a very large marshmallow: soft, but springy, and with that ever-so-slight powdery feel left afterward on the fingers. I fell, picked myself up, and ran. When I reached the sidewalk, I looked back. The light changed. Patiently, cars drove around the woman while she buffered, and, once she changed back, the woman waited for the WALK signal, then crossed the street like nothing was amiss.
In these days, I found it hard to get work done. Even the hand jobs were difficult to appreciate. They weren’t like the hand jobs of our youth, when, dating, afraid to go all the way, we’d started with hands before working our way up to the deed. No, these hand jobs were passionless, as was my wife. Where had she gone, the girl I’d married, the Allison I loved? Days, we went to work. Nights, we watched TV. Weekends, we visited her parents or mine, or else we argued about money or sex, or about whether to have kids. In this, we were wholly unoriginal, which is to say we were wholly American. Which isn’t to say we didn’t have rich inner lives, that we didn’t want more, that we didn’t know that this, all of it, this American labyrinth of cancer and divorce and school shootings and guns and lottery tickets and guns and economic disparity and guns and soul-killing cubicles in the offices of large, soulless monopolizing corporations and guns was and is and always will be shit. We knew the maze, knew we were in it. We just didn’t know our way out.
And, so, we moved through the days, afraid, pretending not to be, and, in this way, we were very much American as well.
And there was so much to be afraid of! After all, what if I turned into one of those spinning things? What if I had already and didn’t know? Would someone tell me the way that I’d told Ted? Or was it a rule—unspoken, but firm—that one was not to go around acknowledging such things?
Another week passed, a week of breakfasts with Ted, a week of bad days not meeting my quota, a week of new blue jeans I’d thought would loosen with their wearing but turned out to be too tight, a week, hand job-less, of new and ever-worsening seasons of Game of Thrones (for, now, even the cast was turning into pinwheels, everyone waiting for Peter Dinklage, spinning, to say his lines).
And then it happened. The day came.
It was a quiet day. The morning had been good, Ted buffering only twice (a record for that week). After months of not commissioning out, I met my day’s quota of cellphone sales. Even the walk home from work was pinwheel-free. People walked the walk of happy people. Pigeons flocked in happy pigeon flocks. All, for a moment, seemed right with the world. And maybe it would be, I thought. Maybe this whole thing had been one short hiccup in an otherwise long and, hopefully, happy life. Maybe the pinwheel thing was going away and we, all of us, could go about our business like none of this had ever happened.
I was thinking this when I returned home to find Allison a large, buffering pinwheel in the entryway. Because of course things weren’t getting better, weren’t going away, because, of course, the problem had never been out there, had never gone beyond this very door.
I ran to Allison, grabbed her, bounced away. Where I’d run into her, the shapes of my hands and face were indents in the spinning disc. As I watched, the shapes pushed back, popped out, like a dented fender hammered into shape.
I cried. On the floor, head in my hands, I wept, and, when I looked up, Allison stood over me.
She didn’t say a word, but took my hand and led me to the bedroom. And we did not watch Game of Thrones. We did not turn on the TV. We went to bed. We made real love. And, for the first time in a long time, there was, as, once, there had so often been, not me and her, but us, a one, a we.
On a computer, the solution for the spinning wheel is called Force Quit. Command, option, escape: a trinity of keys that, clicked, dismiss an application from the world.
With people, it’s easier. You don’t need three keys, don’t even need a word to cut a person from your life. People quit on marriage all the time, step outside and shut the door on love.
Allison, I thought I’d lost you. And, maybe a few months there, I had. But some things are worth waiting for, which isn’t to say worth fighting for. Some things you can’t fight, can’t force. Some things you just wait out.
You sit at your desk. You hope. You squint.
You shut your eyes, praying that, when you open them, the thing you want, the person you love, will quit spinning, will reappear, and love you back.
Originally published in The Mississippi Review
DAVID JAMES POISSANT is the author of the story collection The Heaven of Animals, in print in five languages, winner of the GLCA New Writers Award and a Florida Book Award, longlisted for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize, and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. His stories and essays have appeared in The American Scholar, The Atlantic Monthly, The Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, One Story, Ploughshares, The Southern Review, and in numerous anthologies including New Stories from the South, Best New American Voices, and Best American Experimental Writing. A recipient of scholarships and fellowships from the Bread Loaf, Sewanee, Tin House, Wesleyan, and Longleaf writers’ conferences, he teaches in the MFA program at the University of Central Florida and lives in Orlando with his wife and daughters. His debut novel, Lake Life, was published by Simon & Schuster on July 7, 2020.
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