My girlfriend said the stupidest thing this morning. She said she’s in love with words.
“You seem threatened,” she said after she told me. “Are you jealous?”
I assured her I wasn’t. “How could I be jealous of words? That doesn’t even make sense.”
“You look jealous.” She must have been out of her mind. “You’ve got that jealous man look on.”
“That’s sexist,” I said. “Sexist and dumb.”
“You’re right,” she agreed. “Sorry.” She could be hypocritical like that, but she always apologized when I called her on it.
I had just told her that I loved her. That I was in love with her, actually, the same way I was standing in the kitchen, waiting. I had never said it to anyone before and she knew that. She knew everything about me.
But she didn’t say it back. “I’m in love with words,” she said instead.
What does that even mean? She only reads about two books a year, you know. I barely understand her.
She just walked in, back from Whole Foods. Maybe now she’ll explain that she was just having a stroke earlier. That would be a relief. I put the canned goods away while she stacks organic cucumbers in the fridge.
“So you want to pick up where we left off?” I ask. My face feels school-boyish. I hope I don’t sound too desperate.
“I guess so,” she shrugs. The crisper drawer screeches when she shuts it.
“You guess so?”
“You’re in love with things too, you know.”
“Yeah, I am. You.” Maybe she didn’t hear me right the first time.
“No, things. Wood. Steel.”
I built our house with my own two hands. Mostly, anyway. My girlfriend helped in the beginning, but she said the process sapped her creative energies. She ended up spending the second half of construction in the crappy studio apartment we were renting at the time, reading interior decorating magazines.
Or books, for all I know. I wasn’t there.
Anyway, the house is somewhere between very small and extra-tiny. It’s a shed with a loft, basically. I got the plans online.
“I’m not in love with this house or anything in it,” I tell her now. “Nothing but you.”
My girlfriend has never been good at standing still. She flits around our kitchen in clipped swoops, like a bird trapped indoors. “You don’t get it,” she whines. She starts putting the dishes away even though they’re not dry yet.
I hand her a dishrag. “What’s to get?”
“If you got it, you wouldn’t have to ask.” She puts the dishrag on the counter and continues stacking the damp cups and bowls in the cabinet.
She doesn’t even turn them upside-down over the sink first.
An idea hits me, a little painfully. “You say you’re in love with words, right? Fine. Prove it.”
“Prove it?” She closes the cabinet and tosses the dishrag I handed her on the floor.
I’ve got her now. “What’s your favorite word?”
“That’s a ridiculous question.”
“Ridiculous, huh? Why?”
“Would you choose a favorite child?”
“I don’t have any children.”
She sighs. She knows I’ve won this round. “Not,” she says, I think.
“No, knot.” She twirls a piece of hair around her finger, considering. “I like words with silent letters,” she says slowly. “But the kind where you can still feel their presence.”
“Okay,” I say. “This just got a little too bizarre for me.”
I climb the ladder to the loft, expecting her to go back out and leave me to inspect the low ceiling alone. It’s not like it hasn’t happened before. But she follows me. She sits at the foot of the bed as I lie facedown.
I can’t breathe like this.
“I got a letter from my grandma yesterday,” my girlfriend says.
“Your dead grandma?”
“No, the other one.”
“The senile one?”
“Oh, I hate that word,” she says. “She has dementia.”
See what I mean about her being a hypocrite?
I twist my body around so I’m facing up, but since I’m sick of the ceiling view I cover my face in pillows. “What did the letter say?” I ask, muffled.
My girlfriend shifts her weight on the bed and the springs clink like shot glasses. “My grandma was a writer before she started forgetting,” she says.
“No, she wrote for the town newspaper. Two articles every week until she was seventy-
“Mostly restaurant reviews and lifestyle-type things. But she was good. Really good.”
“Okay.” It occurs to me that the pillowcases need to be changed. We could also use a new mattress.
“It wasn’t just okay, though. It was awesome. I loved seeing her name in print. When I got old enough she made me her official proofreader.”
“Stop saying okay!”
“Sure.” These pillows really do stink.
“We used to play word games when I visited her on Sunday afternoons, to keep us both sharp. She would pick a letter and I’d have to name as many animals that started with it as I could. Anaconda, aardvark, anteater—you know, like that.”
“Are aardvarks and anteaters the same thing? I’ve always wondered.”
My girlfriend makes a point of ignoring me in moments like this one. “Sometimes she would have me turn to a random page in the dictionary and read the whole thing,” she says. “I’d make index cards with all the words I didn’t know, and she’d quiz me.”
“Quiz you? That sounds horrible.”
“Well, it wasn’t horrible! It was great.”
I must admit, I’m not immune to the effects of modern technology. My attention span is pretty damn short. “I don’t see what all this has to do with me,” I say.
She doesn’t answer right away. Lately, it feels like I’m always holding my breath, waiting for her to answer. “You know what?” she says finally. “I really hate you when you talk like that.”
Hate? She hates me now?
She can’t be serious. I peek around the pillows with one eye, but all I see is a patch of cardboard wall. Why did I build our walls so thin? I bet our elderly neighbors keep their hearing aids turned up to catch our every word: “What did she say, Marge?”
“She said she hates him! I knew that house was too small for two people!”
I try to keep my voice down. “This is so stupid.”
“It’s not stupid!”
“Shh,” I say, but I don’t know if she hears me through the pillows. “Did your grandma really write that letter herself?”
“It was in her handwriting.” I think she’s crying now, but I don’t look. “When I read it, I heard her voice. I heard the whole thing in her voice like she was here talking to me.”
“Really?” I kind of feel like she’s exaggerating.
“Really. It scared me. I thought it meant she was dead, but she’s not. Not yet, anyway.”
Suddenly I need to see her face. I rise up in an avalanche of stale sheets. “And what did the letter say?” I ask again.
But she won’t tell me. She looks away and says the words don’t matter. It sounds like more hypocrisy to me, but then I never did understand her.
Justine Talbot is a writer from Long Island, New York. She has new fiction forthcoming from Coffin Bell. Her short stories have previously appeared in Switchback, FLAPPERHOUSE, Fearsome Critters, Constellations, Foliate Oak, Riggwelter, and The Bookends Review.