Whisper

You know that feeling you get when you’re about to be sick, but in a good way? That punch-to-the-gut sensation that’s so uncomfortable, but nice because you also know it’s your body’s way of getting rid of the toxic. It’s a terrible sensation – but worthwhile.

That’s what Laura is to me.

Laura . . . how do I begin describing Laura? She’s – well, we met when I was seventeen. Sort of. See, we were both competing in a “battle of the bands” kind of thing, back in high school, Wilde Lake High School. She was that beautiful girl whose face lit up in an opiate glow when she was on stage, whose lips kissed every sound they let out, whose punk-rock blond hair shimmered like pricey jewelry – like platinum laced with diamonds. Her vocals were chill air down your spine, but what caught my attention then, why I think of this first, is when she played her violin.

If sex was a song, it would be played with violins. Preferably, it would be played by Laura. Each stroke of that violin made my skin go electric. I felt the music at the tips of my teeth – teeth that I wanted to sink into Laura, to feel her gasp beneath me, to feel that treacherous cadence of a soul bearing witness to its own existence – to know the rhythm of our two souls in syncopation.

Yes. I was in love with Laura from before we even met. And I had never been in love before.

And when I was twenty, I gave up music. I wanted to be a songwriter, but none of my words resonated. I would have killed for them to, but they never did, and my vocals were bland, and I wasn’t much at astonishing crowds on the keyboard. I had been inspired by the great innovators – by Brian Molko and Amanda Palmer and Maynard. I disintegrated in their shadows.

I still listened. I had to. Music was one of the few ways I knew to get out from my mind. Most days, that’s where I live – lost somewhere in this grey-matter labyrinth. Before I can do anything, I have to think it over ten times, usually scaring myself out of any risks. It was different with music, because you’re just there, getting lost in the verbness of the world, just letting your fingers glide across the cool plastic of the Yamaha keyboard. I shook like crazy on stage, but I was there.

Laura and I met, we really met, when I was twenty-one. I was in an English Lit class at school, at Howard County. A friend of mine from high school was there – Jake, but he got called “Smith,” his last name, instead.

He looked at me and he smiled in class that day. I didn’t know anyone. I didn’t have any friends, and there was Smith, all there and friendly. “Whisper!” he says. Whisper, that’s what they called me when I was in a band. (“I think it’s because your voice sounds like when angels whisper in your ear,” said Katrina, my girlfriend back then, baked out of her mind. The guitar player for my band, Paul, corrected her: It was because when I talk, it’s too quiet. Like I’m scared of my own voice.)

Smith says, “Whisper!” And I look up and I smile and I say hi, and ask how he’s been. We talk about “since high school” for a while. I’m a sophomore here because I took a year off. He’s a freshman because he went to Europe with his family. “I lucked out like crazy, man, you gotta believe it. My family – hell, I take back everything I ever said bad about my dad, you know? I can’t believe the stuff I saw. Have you ever seen the Arch of Triumph? Napoleon, dude. Napoleon.”

And then class is starting, so we settle into our desks. After, though, Smith walks down the hall with me a ways. He’s always talking, which I don’t mind. Less pressure to talk myself. Then he says, “Hey, you should totally come out to this party this weekend.” And I say I will, and I convince myself it’s important to be social.

So I show up at the party and Smith comes up to me. He’s got a girl on his arm, obviously his girl.

And it’s Laura.

My first impulse is to run like mad. But I don’t. Smith says, “You two haven’t met, have you? Laura, this is Whisper. He went to Wilde, too.”

“No, I don’t think so,” she says. One arm still wrapped around Smith’s back, she extends the other to me. “Nice to meet you. Whisper?”

“Uh, yeah,” I say, cringing at the shake in my voice. My fingers are frigid and her hand feels like sunlight. If she notices, she doesn’t say.

“Well, cool,” she says. Then she excuses herself to get a drink. Smith plays the good host and introduces me to his many friends. Laura comes back with some kind of foreign beer and tries to make small-talk with me, but running into her here is so strange that it’s making me question whether I’m awake or dreaming. My nerves tighten like guitar strings near the point of breaking, and the too-cold of the room’s temperature only makes keeping my hands steady harder. I try to ignore that Laura’s eyes are lightening blue. I try to ignore her smell, something between roses, fresh dug earth, and expensive red wine. All I manage to say is that I saw her perform once. She says, “Well, cool,” to that and almost everything else I say, and I feel like an idiot, so I sit in a chair in the corner and drink my vodka gingerale while I listen to the music.

The playlist includes a lot of tracks that were hits when I was barely born – songs like Blasphemous Rumors and True Faith, during the era when bell sounds, synthesizers, and unabrasive electronic counterpoints played with the voice of the artists – but it also includes a lot of songs from indie bands I’ve never even heard of – vocalists who’ve inserted news clips and use instruments I can’t place. The rest of the party I wonder, continuing to sip at my drink, whether it’s the innovative mellow music or the tastefully harsh vodka that’s making my muscles un-tense.

Smith, he’s one of those outgoing guys, so a couple days after the party he invites me to come over and hang out. Says he’s got some new movies and wants to break them in. I feel all awkward, but say sure. He forgets to mention at any point that Laura will be there too.
So for six, maybe seven weeks, me and Smith and Laura hang out at Smith’s place a few times a week. It takes a while, but I start making jokes around Laura – my sort of jokes, which you could call Sahara-summer dry.

I heard a track once that reminds me of Laura’s laugh. It’s a song played with an entire symphony of bells.

One day, Smith gets a call. It’s his kid brother, who got himself out in the middle of nowhere without any gas. He’s still in high school, doesn’t want to get in trouble with the parents, so he’s called his big brother instead. Smith has a yelling match with the kid for a bit, then explains the situation to us and says he’ll be back – but it might be an hour or two. Smith is my ride, so he asks me if that’s okay. I swallow hard and say, “Yeah, fine.”

So Laura and I drink beer. I don’t like beer, but Laura gets real excited about local breweries and rich textures and hoppy tastes and whatever else. We have some music on, one of her favorite bands, called Universal Hall Pass. She talks to me fluidly about how the band formed, and how the lead singer is into Middle-Eastern vocals, and how in the Middle East they have a micro-tonal scale that explores a much broader range of notes. The album’s instrumental interplay ranges from a rhythmic exchange between vocalist and percussion that feels like a Latin dance to a dream-trance set of electronica movements to a jazz-like brass intermission to all of the above crashing in together in a surprisingly liquid way.

Every so often, Laura stops and runs down a descant with the singer. Her vocals mixed in, the music itself, Laura’s running commentary, it has me entranced. Better, though, is that Laura will just stop – sometimes mid-sentence – and there will be a silence, minutes long, where we’re both totally comfortable saying nothing. These silences don’t happen when Smith is around.

Two hours later, when Smith still hasn’t come back, Laura looks at me straight on. I feel like she’s really looking at me, maybe for the first time. Her eyes are glistening, caged oceans. “This is nice. You and me should hang out more often.” There’s no need to add the word “alone.”

Here’s the problem: That sick feeling, the discomfort, the twist in the stomach and the elevated heart rate, they used to just happen when I was around Laura. After this day, after these intimate silences, I feel it constantly. That’s what Laura is to me.

I start thinking of what I can do, how I can solve things. I play out the possibilities – of torturing myself by hanging out with her and Smith, of betraying Smith, or of just bailing completely.

I decide on the final option. Next time Smith invites me over, I say I have homework. Not technically a lie. I pull the same routine two or three more times, and Smith stops talking to me in class, stops walking down the hall with me. Good, I think.

But that Sunday, I get a call. It’s Laura. Half of me says I should just not take the call, but the other half has rushed my hands so fast that I’ve picked up before that first thought even got across my mind.

“Yoouu,” she says.

“Me.”

“Yyoooouuu.”

“Hi.”

“Hey,” she says. “Are you just, like, abandoning us?”

“I think I kind of pissed off Smith.”

“Yeah, yeah, you kind of did. He thinks you dumped him.”

I smile. “I’m just . . . really busy.”

“Mmhm. Well, I think you’re lying. Well?”

“Well. . . .”

“Oh, by the way – I found this new band. Birthday Massacre. They’re a little electronic rock, but highly innovative. Have you heard them?”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“I think – I think, think – you’ll like them. So . . . ?”

“You wanting me to come over?”

“Are you mad at Smith?”

“Not really.”

“Are you mad at me?”

“Heh. No.”

“Are you just tired of us?”

“Not . . . exactly.”

“Well, cool. Maybe you and me can chill for a bit, and you can tell me what’s going on?”

I grit my teeth.

“To . . . day?” she adds.

“Well, I’ve just got a lot—”

“I won’t make you drink beer. I promise.”

A war starts going off in my head again, but before anything gets fully formed, I say, “Yes. Yeah. Sure. Where at?”

“Just come over to my place. You can meet my dog.”

“I don’t have—”

“I’ll text you my address.” And she hangs up the phone.

So, two hours later, I’m at her apartment. This place is everything about her all over the walls. There are no posters, only old vinyls posted with thumb tacks. There’s an old, broken TV (she apologizes for it), but a sound system that Laura describes as, “Costing my first three children. But joke’s on them! No kids in my future.” As soon as we enter, her small white dog charges up to her like attention is its oxygen. Then it starts trying to climb my leg, so Laura locks the dog in her bedroom. She goes to her fridge which, unsurprisingly, has a wide assortment of budget food – deli slices, a pot of steamed rice, bottom-shelf bread – and expensive beer. The entire living space is flooded with late-afternoon light that comes in through the glass door that leads to her balcony. The furnishings themselves are mismatched and ragged but still stay beautiful – two old bean-bag chairs, a red paper lantern, scattered piles of coffee table books with worn out covers, a standing lamp that’s got burnt out bulbs but that Laura keeps around because the burnished bronze looks so classy.

The entire time there, I’m thinking things like not good, not good and leave – now. But I’m still there. Laura puts on this new favorite band of hers and we listen through the album. We say almost nothing. I lounge back on a beanbag chair. She sits on the ground, cross-legged.

You’d call the genre of the music “synthrock,” but that calls the wrong stereotypes out. These synthesizer sounds play with musical complexity that has movements running the range of intensity and pacing in a way that’s almost unheard of in the genre. The great strength, though, is how the music builds that sense of momentum and expectation, only to break it into a lyric and sound so smooth and sincere that it captures you. I can tell by looking at Laura when these moments will come. Her face goes placid and she closes her eyes in anticipation, then sings along with the lines – “Save me, it’s the game you play, hate me as I turn away,” “Spin the wheel, watch it crash, turn the dress to broken glass, strike a pose and hold the flash.”

We approach another lyric break and instead of closing her eyes as usual, Laura just looks at me. “Your hands are always reaching out of favor,” she sings. “Your kind are only good for bad behavior.”

The album ends, and four or five minutes, we just sit there in silence. My mind starts going haywire, all my emotions battling against each other. My mind is yelling at itself, turned to a battlefront, with that dying element of reason finishing a crescendo of screaming by saying, Why do you even like her?

And in the silence of that room, I glance over at Laura. She’s tracing her fingers around the perspiration of her Belgian beer bottle. Her eyes aren’t contemplative, they’re just calm. She’s not living in her head, not fighting against voices. She’s just feeling the cool glass beneath her fingers. I realize then that this is where she lives. In her fingertips.

She notices I’m looking at her. “Do you want to talk about—”

But I’ve climbed off the beanbag chair, and my mind has gone blank. I’m feeling the air. The world is nothing but an infinity of colors. She looks at me, like she’s waiting, as I kneel in front of her.

And when I lean in, she doesn’t move away, doesn’t uncross her legs or make to shift. In her left hand, she holds her chill beer. In her right, she tousles the carpet. I get close enough that I’m breathing her air. I get close enough that I feel the vibration of her skin. I get lost in the verbness of this moment.

I’m shaking like crazy, but I’m right here, while my mind does nothing but feel, nothing but witness, as our warm lips melt together.


This story was written in Spring of 2011. It is part of a fiction short story collection titled Laura, slated for completion in or around 2014.

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