This weekend we have an excerpt from The Mere Weight of Words, by Carissa Halston, which is just out from Aqueous Books. Read this description and then this excerpt and then go buy the book: When Meredith initially hears that her estranged father has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, she says nothing. When Eliot, a long-time friend of her father’s, calls and asks her to see him, she hangs up. But once she runs out of ways to say no, Mere agrees to visit, reasoning that he’ll soon lose all memory of their estrangement. He’ll forget about her paralysis. He’ll forget about their fights. He’ll forget that he ever stopped loving her mother and be the person Mere adored. She leaves her house certain she’ll say something she can’t take back and arrives at his knowing he’ll someday forget she visited at all. In language honest and heartfelt, Carissa Halston presents Mere’s life with and without her father, and how Mere fills his absence with worry, wit, and words. —Matt Salesses, Good Men Project Fiction Editor
My father named me. My mother wanted my name to be Agatha, a choice that would have rooted me in a different era, holding lofty, yet geriatric ideals for myself. But my father railed against it. The person I am now is grateful to him. Agatha has no chance of diminution. Taking it syllabically, A sounds like a subtle shock, a tiny apathetic yelp; Gath bears too close a resemblance to a truncated version of catheter as uttered by a deaf Russian; and a, (pronounced uh, most common of all dialogue markers), gets a wretched reputation from chronic stutterers and is almost as ubiquitous as like among the under-40 crowd.
None of these fit me at all, neither in part nor sum. Instead, my father chose Meredith, from which I culled Mere.
mere – adj. – Having no greater extent, range, value, power, or importance than the designation implies; that is barely or only what it is said to be
Only what it is said to be. I chose this adjective eons ago, as mine to shoulder when nothing else suited me. How fitting that I wrought such a name from my father.
Oddly enough, I did know an Agatha, off and on, for several years. We met during my time at NYU and we parted the way clouds so often will: not so much with distance, but with silence over time.
Agatha was an actor, just like everyone else in New York. But unlike everyone else, her choice to act wasn’t a desire that arose from vanity. She didn’t wither without attention or decide on acting because she had no other marketable skills. Agatha was schooled as a mechanical engineer and could have been one by trade, had she pursued it. This distinction set her apart from the teeming mass of would-be actors, singers, dancers, and models who flanked the city’s streets on every side. They stole the last seat on the subway. They offered dismissive, bored glances when they encountered each other on the street or in bars or at other social gatherings which didn’t require civility. Agatha abhorred these practices, but her scientific training allowed her to view them with the detached interest of a technician determining the latent heat of ice. Her cool surfaced where others’ disdain showed through. This won her a few devoted followers, as well as some fine enemies, but she was phlegmatic and confident enough that she recognized the situation for the windfall it was and she used to leave for auditions as if marching into war. If she emerged the victor, it was one more credit on her resume; if not, she regrouped to double her efforts. All the same, a coup for her often resulted in the loss of a friend who vied for the same role. This riled her.
“I don’t begrudge them their parts,” she would say. Agatha was emphatically logical about the process. The facet that inspired her to stand with dignity on the D train or smile at the others’ contempt in Village dives was the same attribute that let her figure the odds of landing any part. She always factored the weight of the competition and it was always her drive that pushed her to stay the course. Such estimable courage drew me to her, since it was a quality I sorely lacked. New York would’ve eaten me alive had it not been for her. Functioning as my example of successful transplantation—Agatha was born and bred in Iowa—I thought she would live in New York indefinitely. I saw her as impervious and even endeared to its abuse, but it wasn’t long after our respective twenty-first birthdays when I was disillusioned by her decision to move to Los Angeles.
“Please tell me you’re kidding” I said when she told me.
“No joke,” she shook her head. “I’m tired of New York. I’m tired of being broke—less than broke. I’m tired of being unable to afford happiness in this miserly burg.”
“L.A. isn’t going to change that.”
“At least there are things to do,” was her attempt at reason.
“We’re in New York! There’s plenty to do!”
“Sure,” she laughed humorlessly. “I can continue going to auditions just to hear the sound of my own voice followed by an exhausted, Thanks, but no thanks. I can go on receiving free dinners and MetroCards as payment for background work in shitty student films. I could become the first acting busker in Central Park. I could become a mime.”
I had no answer for that. “You can’t go to L.A.,” I groaned. “It’ll ruin you forever.”
“Then it’ll finish the job New York already started.” She was beaten down. I could understand that. It’s why I’d left California in the first place. “You don’t understand,” I told her, “you think New York is bad, but L.A. is absurdist. Time doesn’t even make sense there.”
“Mere, what are you talking about?”
“No one ages! The years go by and people just get younger!”
“That’s not true.”
“It is. And it’s always summer. There are no seasons. It’s sunny all the time and the sun sets on the wrong side of the land.”
“The sun sets over the water.” “My point exactly!” I was shouting now, overcome at the thought of losing her.” Even the sky is in on it! It’s this awful pinkish-blue color, just like cotton candy—”
“I love cotton candy,” she declared.
“You would. It’s so cloying.”
“You don’t mean that,” she said, her voice calm. She refused to argue with me.
“I do mean it,” I pouted. She sidled up next to me and laid her head against my neck.
“Be happy for me?” I could feel her voice searching for forgiveness; it was the closest thing I’d get to an apology.
“I can’t,” I said. “You’re the only sane person I know and you’re throwing it all away.”
I heard her blink and sensed her grin; it was the closest thing she’d get to absolution.
Agatha was one of the main reasons for my return to California. However, the ultimate reason I stayed was because of Patrick. Somehow or other, life kept throwing us together.
“Well, well, well, if it isn’t ma petite Merde…”
“Up your ass, Patrick.”
“Where I’d prefer you, always.” After leaving home, I only ever swore around Patrick. It was my shortcoming; he made me feel foolish when I wanted him to find me astute, adept, stunning, and otherwise brilliant. Not brilliant in that everyday, British usage of the term; rather, I wanted him to consider me exceptional. I wanted to hear him say, “I think you’re smart.”
I blamed my need for Patrick’s adoration on our undergraduate rivalry. That and our occasional, unbalanced, raucous affair. It became a vendetta. Our disagreements occurred often enough to be not just memorable, but legendary, in both volume and scope. We waged verbal combat with ease, caring neither for our hewn down egos nor dismantled bonds. Other people can afford to be thoughtless; they’re ignorant of the gravity their speech holds. But linguists will devastate if only because we can do so with a well-placed term or phrase. Then it’s the silences that serve as our minions. They scrape at wounds old and new, where apologies dare not tread.
It’s exponentially worse with phoneticians, which both Patrick and I longed to be at the time. I could always tell when he’d stopped listening to what I was saying, not because of disinterest, but because he was dissecting my pronunciation. While this drove me mad, I couldn’t say I’d never done it. When presented with an interesting dialect, the subject matter is entirely irrelevant (though the speaker rarely agrees). Such disagreements often lead to raised voices or to swearing, which takes me back to Patrick. My filthy little weaknesses: Patrick and profanity. They clasp hands and skip back and forth, the latter out of my mouth, the former into it. I was a feeble wretch around him because he caused me to lose all manner of speech.
He made me forget my words.
My first fight with Patrick held some eerily familiar— familial?—undertones. We’d been working on an arbitrarily enforced group project involving the evolution of socioeconomic varieties (dialects or accents) among targeted ethnic groups; in other words, accents influenced by money, accents influenced by race (which are influenced by money), and accents influenced by class (which are influenced by money). Given that the original files to which we compared our findings were recorded by our professor when he was an undergraduate and that our class was comprised of overbearing, anxious would-be linguists who shouldn’t have been emotionally exposed to anyone, much less live human research subjects, our professor’s status as a tenured educator seem as ephemeral as steam released from an arctic geyser. This could have been the reason he suggested we work in groups. Pairing one possibly unbalanced student with a potentially sensible one decreased the likelihood of the emotional damage control he would later have to perform.
Or perhaps he was hoping we would systematically destroy one another.
With the samples collected, we were in the midst of the most arduous and time-consuming step of all linguistic research: transcription. To do it quickly meant to risk error and it had to be done correctly in order to hold any weight at all. That said, we shouldn’t have cared as much as we did. Neither Patrick nor I knew how to effectively work with another person and our separate desire to do things the “right” way led to a slew of disagreements. I just wanted to do my work and Patrick just wanted it all to be over. According to him, every mistake made was mine—whether it actually was or not didn’t matter. In certain ways, I feel like he was trying to pick a fight with me. He derided my materials (an ancient laptop), my methods of order (notes cribbed longhand, with scads of illegible corrections in the margins), and my work ethic (slow, but deliberate). I responded not at all, save a sullen silence. This exasperated him.
“Why do you do that?” I didn’t answer, which goaded him further. “You just sit there and take it? Put up a fight. Stand your fucking ground. I’d have more respect for you if you’d just—”
“—I’m inured to it,” I interrupted him. I was in no mood to be forthcoming about my emotional issues, so I let the conversation lull. If only he’d been content enough to follow suit.
“Well, someone took her Pedant Pills this morning.” He was mocking my word choice.
“Blame the GREs,” I told him.
“GRE,” he corrected. “No matter the number of iterations, there’s only one exam.”
“Listen,” I snapped, losing my patience, “what the hell did I ever do to you? Why don’t you just leave me alone?” How literal we allow ourselves to be. He tried to leave then, may have even wanted to. He got as far as the hallway, hat in hand, as it were. But I had hurried after him, rushed and panicking. “Don’t,” the word flew from me, barely syllabic.
He slowed his exit to a standstill and served me a pitiless look. “One of us will have to apologize,” he said, apathetic.
“Neither of us would mean it,” I replied.
“But I didn’t—” I could barely comprehend the easy escape he’d offered before he was pinning me to the wall, hand against my hip, telling me to shut up and making it all meaningless.
After that first time together, Patrick and I didn’t talk much. We saw each other in class, but avoided each other afterward, which, confusing silence with mystery, I took as a good sign. My mother wasn’t the sort who espoused prudishness in the name of a relationship maintained, but she did tell me early on that a long-lasting romance could easily be achieved by keeping the pursuit interesting.
“You never want to leave them asking for less.”
At the time, I wondered at her use of the third person plural. How many of them would there be? By the time I’d met Patrick, I’d had less than a handful of interested parties, nothing serious, but enough to know who they were. Enough to feel accomplished over his specific attention. Accomplished, yet unprepared.
Each of our trysts occurred unplanned and ended wordlessly. We never discussed any future meeting, never took our encounters or the situation seriously enough to deem it worthy of conversation. However, I secretly assumed they would keep happening. I could have mutely continued ad infinitum.
I caught him studying me one evening after I’d gotten redressed. I returned his stare sporadically, my gaze flitting about, landing on furniture and empty air and nothingness, but always rising again to meet his eye.
Many times, I inhaled to speak. I exhaled just as often without sound.
“What?” he asked pointedly.
“It’s not nothing,” he said. “It’s very something.”
“Yes,” I admitted. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Why?” his tone was playful. Now I interested him. Now he was curious.
“I can’t. I don’t—have the words.”
He sniffed and scoffed. “Don’t have the words? Which ones do you need, exactly?”
I shrugged one shoulder toward my chin. “The right ones.”
“Aren’t they all right?”
“As often as they’re all wrong.”
“You’re being purposely obtuse.”
I shook my head. “I’m not. Words matter. They’re remembered and cherished and sometimes used against you.”
“In a court of law?”
“Not like that. If you misuse them—if I misused them, I could be held accountable. I want to mean what I say or not say anything at all.”
“You mustn’t talk very often.”
“Only when I have something to say.” He nodded, already dismissing the notion. “You really don’t know how important your words are?” I asked. “You don’t know how they affect people?”
“It’s all perspective. I don’t think they matter. You do. We happen to disagree.”
“Don’t be cavalier with me. I don’t appreciate it.”
“I can’t help but be cavalier,” he argued. “You care more about this than I do. Were you to become upset over it, I would simply pat your shoulder and say, ‘There, there,’ until you got over it.”
“But I wouldn’t.”
“Yes, you would.”
“I wouldn’t.” My expression was as insistent as my tone. “You just—you don’t understand. I can’t not care.”
“You’re so sure of that? Have you ever tried?”
What I thought, but didn’t say was, “My entire life.”