With delicious fits of mutual spite, she and I communicate mostly through Alumnotes. What else are those back-of-the-alumni-magazine pronouncements for? To keep vague acquaintances up to speed? Hardly. They’re to broadcast achievements both small and large to our oldest rivals. And she and I do exactly that, no matter how faint, how insignificant our accomplishments are. Alumnotes is our place to strut in front of each other.
I often wonder what criteria the alumni department uses when defining a triumph. I assume polite rejection letters are at the ready if one attempted to submit something like this:
John Day (BAH ’96) is pleased to announce his divorce from Sarah Smith (BSc ’97) who revealed herself to be a two-timing cow.
Even across the continents that separate us, she and I would shimmer with identical mirth if such a message could infiltrate the anodyne lineup of birth announcements and new jobs. I could describe the precise timber of her laugh, the curling together of her knees, the intonation of her nodding “Braa-vo!” if she ever read a sentence like that. You can’t really hate somebody unless you’ve loved them first.
I have been told since moving to this palm-treed city on the underbelly of the earth that I would have more friends if I would just carry a tracking device. Tracking device is my name for it. Here and in England they call them mobiles. Back home, they’re cell phones. In East Asia, handphones—or more accurately, hanpones, unless the speaker’s had her tongue snipped to aid pronunciation. Like I said, I call them tracking devices. People have said they can’t always include me in their plans because I spend too much of the day in communicato. They never say We would have invited you but we couldn’t reach you. Instead they say We would have invited you but we didn’t know where you were.
Here in the light-bright days of summer, it’s often 35 degrees before 8 a.m. I sweat through my dress shirt while waiting for the train that takes me from Lewisham to my job in a distant, suburbanized business park north of the city. Other people milling on the platform never seem to mind this early-morning swelter. I suppose they’re used to it. They’re also used to their tracking devices going off despite having left the house five minutes ago. The interruptions don’t bother them; they crave that quick hit of connection before Smith’s Invisible Hand flings them into their day. Yeah nah, the train’s not here yet. Look luv, I’ll call ya when I get to North Ryde … And when the train pulls in and we all step on and find our seats, as the train takes flight, soaring over palm trees and stonewall bridges and houses with burnt-orange roofs, and as tracking devices ring inside the train to a desperate, distracting degree, I think to myself: Is it really that awful, to be alone? Why are we all so afraid of our own quiet thoughts?
Thankfully, Smith’s Invisible Hand delivers me to a desk in air-conditioned bliss. I am paid a lot of money to do simple tasks for people who are easily impressed. The other week I got a small promotion—a lateral move actually, no pay increase but a basket of cool new responsibilities, a new job title—and I fired off a blurb about it to Alumnotes and played it up in emails to people back home. I’m certain that she will read or hear about it eventually, the thok of accomplishment I fire like a tennis ball in her direction. Only because she despises me so much will she care to know how well I’m doing.
One day killing time on my lunch hour, I surfed into the narcissistic world of personal web logs. It didn’t take me long to locate acquaintances from years gone by riffing on the web with their opinions and daily whatnots. I knew I should have stopped my trolling there, with these half-strangers who talked about their kids, about their politics, about movies—but my curiosity got the better of me. One search too many and I found that she herself had started a blog, with photos and snippets of poems and uploads of music she was listening to. I exited that site as soon as I found it, but it was too late: it had infected me with the virus of nosiness. I went back in and masochistically subscribed to her RSS feed, thinking: Oh frig me, this’ll render Alumnotes the horse and buggy of our little feud.
The pulse of streets is the same no matter where I’ve lived. Traffic is a snake moving one laborious vertebra at a time. One person per car oozing down thick ropes of highway, not knowing that eyes narrowed with indictment watch from train windows. Those eyes are mine. Is this how we’re meant to live?
Each evening, as I sit reading a book on the long ride home, the same surly fat woman gets on a couple stops after I have and inevitably sits near me. She dresses in awful pastels and her hair is a thick, helmet-like mullet, a feathery river of defiance that screams I will not update my hairstyle, I will not! I would know she’s there even if I didn’t see her board because the ring of her tracking device is the theme from Ghostbusters. I can’t imagine a more annoying sound as I devour my Borges or Nabokov. It rings every day, and every day the only thing the voice on the other end wants to know is: Where are you now? And to what end! I want to scream. Does it matter if we’ve passed through Central yet or if we’re now just rolling into Petersham? I live for that one beat of silence after she has flipped open the phone, killing off Ghostbusters, but before she squawks “Hello” in her nasally, benighted voice. It is in that beat of silence that I believe all things are possible, that one day there will be infinite afternoons of sunshine where I will have nothing else to do but be exactly who I am. I want to hate the mullet woman but can’t. The only way I could would be if I had known her before and she been someone more admirable than she is now: a person bursting with spirit, some old soul who treated life like a carnival. And then didn’t anymore.
I often run email experiments on my friends back home: I see how long I can go without mentioning myself in any way in our daily exchanges before they notice. It’s a tricky game that you can’t get away with on the phone. It involves ignoring their “So what’s new?” or “Anything shakin’ there?” and concentrating on the day-to-day events of their lives, asking deeper and more probing questions. I keep track of how long it takes my friends to realize they aren’t learning anything new about me, that each day of my life slips past them like tugboats on a dark harbour.
The record holder is my journalist friend, Jarvis, in Halifax. He lasted a staggering eight months and five days before he clued in to my prank. And the only reason he did was because he ran into her, my Alumnotes nemesis, at the downtown library one day, and when, after the requisite small talk, she asked about me, saying “How is he anyway? What’s new in his world?” he was caught flat-footed and embarrassed. He emailed me the next morning demanding to know why he had nothing to tell her. God, I laughed at that. Laughed all day at the office and on the train ride home. Laughed and laughed, I did. You could say I laughed until tears ran down my face.
I take it back. This “blog” shit is no substitute for Alumnotes. The message isn’t always under our control. If everyone you know is an amateur reporter now, filing stories into the permanent ether of cyberspace, then what stops them from skewering you if they wish? Who are the editors that vet these ramblings. Nobody. Make an ass of yourself at a party, get drunk and say something racist, tell the wrong woman you’re in love with her, and nothing (in theory) stands in the way of your enemies learning about it. This is why Alumnotes is superior. It’s strictly for victories, and bite-sized ones at that.
Back home, her blog has really taken off. Strangers (at least, strangers to me) have begun leaving comments on those daily entries of exuberance. She posts photos of beaches we used to visit, bars we used to get drunk in. When there are pictures of her, she manages to look joyful without even smiling. It’s all in her eyes, that shrewd and penetrating certainty. I know I shouldn’t be reading this, that it tortures me to do so. But I can’t help it. How strange, I think, to know more about her from this fake, virtual life than I ever did from actually being with her. With these words and photos and music, she has captured the blissful velocity of living without me.
There are problems brewing at the office. I am struggling with my new responsibilities. Managers are making passive-aggressive remarks that imply I’m overpaid for what I do. An afternoon meeting with executives goes especially badly—a pantomime of good cop/bad cop, only with no good cop. On the train ride home I am shaking, furious with myself. I need so much to be alone.
And yet look who boards the train a couple stops later. Look who sits in the very seat next to mine. She full-out grunts when putting her weight down, as if emitting flatulence from the wrong end of her body. For a few passive seconds, there is a generous silence between us as the train nudges and then sails along the rails. My guts are lumpy and my head pounds with disquiet. Please just this once, I think, leave us be. Don’t ask where we are. I squeeze my eyes shut. Brace myself.
Sum-thin strange … in your neighbourhood … Who ya gonna call? …
Flip. “Hello … What? … I just got on the train now … No, I didn’t!”
The only thing that keeps me from violence is that I know such an indulgence might be recorded and reported to the world. It could float somewhere in the ether for anyone’s eyes—her eyes—to see. Might it even end up in Alumnotes?
Tim Phelps (BAH ’97) was arrested in Australia after bludgeoning a stranger to death with her own cell phone. Tim would love to hear from other alumni while in prison. You can email him at …
No, of course it wouldn’t. Not when I control the message.
I am coming home defeated, and she is publishing a children’s book.
She broke the news on her blog—sorry Alumnotes, you’ve been scooped again. The story is (allegorically?) about a grumpy giraffe born with a neck of below-average length. She has always been one of these obnoxiously talented people able to both write and draw (and speak, and live) with aplomb. The tone of her blog has taken on a newfound pride, but not too much pride. She acknowledges the modest impact of her achievement.
At home, I am greeted by streets moist with snow and a harbour that smells of a different ocean. There are fewer buffers here to protect me from friends anxious to know if I’m doing okay. I’m getting good at shaking off their concerns. Meanwhile, she’s confirmed the date of her launch. I know the children’s bookstore downtown where she’s holding it. And I know I will go, and buy a copy of her book, and ask her to sign it, and smile my jealousy at her and tell her how glad I am for her success. But I must also be careful not to reveal that I know more about her than I should. I mustn’t let on that I’ve been spying.
Mark Sampson has published one novel, called Off Book (Norwood Publishing, Halifax NS, 2007) and has a second, called Sad Peninsula, forthcoming from Dundurn Press, Toronto, in 2014. He has also published a number of short stories and poems in literary journals across Canada. He currently lives and writes in Toronto.