She was, if I remember correctly, about five years my junior. I met her on a day back in the 1990s, during a period when I expected no feminine attention whatsoever. And technically, she wasn't giving me any attention; she was just being nice, because that's what she did, being at heart a good ol' country girl with a sweet disposition. (I occasionally wondered what would happen if she totally lost it; I never found out for certain, but a few stories did eventually get back to me.) Once in a while we'd talk, and that's where the problem was: I did most of the talking, and while she made it clear she was listening, she didn't have all that much to contribute to the conversation.

This bothered me for a great while. I wasn't at all sure that I'd want, for lack of a better term, a low-information girlfriend. Not that she'd go out with me in the first place — at this stage of my life, I was quite sure that no one would, or had any reason to want to — but a gentle demeanor and an interesting topography somehow didn't seem to be enough. And then I would berate myself for being overly picky: who am I to turn down a prospect? I continued to wrestle with this dilemma, right up until the day she showed up with a ring, which for some perverse reason made her seem even prettier.

I suppose I was relieved to see her coming off the market: it seemed to take some of the pressure off me. Then again, no one pressures me like I do, so I cursed that old biological imperative — hey, I've already passed on the genes, leave me alone, wouldja please? — and prayed that this situation never come up again. All prayers, I believe, are answered: sometimes, however, they are answered in the negative.

So I conjured up a contrary conjecture. Suppose I were to meet someone somewhat less gifted physically and maybe a touch on the prickly side, but smart as a whip. What then? I didn't have an answer for that, on the perhaps-dubious basis that if she's that smart, she'll never get near me in the first place.

I might have left it at that, until a friend posted a brief piece about a story titled "You Should Date an Illiterate Girl." How the instructional part of the narrative ends:

Do not be overly concerned if you feel your heart leap through a pane of sheet glass. For that matter, do not be overly concerned if you cannot feel it at all. If there is applause, let it stagnate. If she cries, smile as if you've never been happier. If she doesn't, smile all the same.

Let the years pass unnoticed. Get a career, not a job. Buy a house. Have two striking children. Try to raise them well. Fail frequently. Lapse into a bored indifference. Lapse into an indifferent sadness. Have a mid-life crisis. Grow old. Wonder at your lack of achievement. Feel sometimes contented, but mostly vacant and ethereal. Feel, during walks, as if you might never return or as if you might blow away on the wind. Contract a terminal illness. Die, but only after you observe that the girl who didn't read never made your heart oscillate with any significant passion, that no one will write the story of your lives, and that she will die, too, with only a mild and tempered regret that nothing ever came of her capacity to love.

It occurred to me that I knew these reactions all too well despite not having dated the girl who didn't read.

Said my friend of this story:

I remember when I first read it being stymied by some self-described feminists' disdain for it. I love it. I love it because it is just as true regardless of whether the word 'girl' or 'boy' is at the end of the title. I love it because I know several people whom, were they to read it just once, could decipher the seemingly inpenetrable but astonishingly obvious mystery of their relationships — romantic and otherwise. I love it because I am repeatedly amazed by those whom, with eyes wide open, walk into unions rife with incompatibility in all of the realms that will remain when the corporeal fades. I love it because I am blown away by those who still believe that being with someone who is kind is enough, when we as humans are so much more.

And inevitably, this tells me one reason why I've drifted into the writing of short romance stories: ultimately, I suppose, I'm trying to create someone for myself, someone whose deficiencies and idiosyncrasies I already know and have accounted for, someone whose only disadvantage is lack of actual existence. Maybe even someone like this:

[A] girl who reads understands syntax. Literature has taught her that moments of tenderness come in sporadic but knowable intervals. A girl who reads knows that life is not planar; she knows, and rightly demands, that the ebb comes along with the flow of disappointment. A girl who has read up on her syntax senses the irregular pauses — the hesitation of breath — endemic to a lie. A girl who reads perceives the difference between a parenthetical moment of anger and the entrenched habits of someone whose bitter cynicism will run on, run on well past any point of reason, or purpose, run on far after she has packed a suitcase and said a reluctant goodbye and she has decided that I am an ellipsis and not a period and run on and run on. Syntax that knows the rhythm and cadence of a life well lived.

I caught a glimpse of her again last month. For the most part, she wears her years well: a few more lines on her face, a different sort of curvature at her midsection, maybe a little more conservatism in her wardrobe, but still the good ol' country girl she'd always been. I do hope she's happy. And I wonder if my breathing seems a bit less regular than usual.

The Vent

#831
  1 August 2013

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