Short Fiction: A Beautiful Economy of Words

©2015 By Jack A. Urquhart     1117 words

Economy of Words photo-7

Here is a brief testimony, the kind one offers years after the fact for no reason other than compelling need—the need to speak of something larger than an ordinary life lived into three-score and counting years. Something like the wonder and the curse of falling in love. Like how one never really gets over the blissful anxiety of that tumble.

Be forewarned: there is nothing new in what follows here. No unexplored territory; no new lessons. Nothing, in fact, that the story of life hasn’t muscled up previously.

And yet, the need persists.

So, to the telling.

Long ago, I fell in love with my best friend, Chris. He was my roommate at university. And yes, he was a man. Like me.

There, I’ve said it.

I loved Chris—longed for him body and soul in spite of a childhood chock full of indoctrination; in spite of all those Bible verses in Leviticus chapters 18 and 20; in spite of every Baptist Revival that had ever summoned hellfire to my imagination.

He was that beautiful, everything that I wasn’t: accomplished, confident, popular, possessed of an understated elegance. It didn’t take long for him to become as necessary to me as breath—a risky enough business, mind you, given this was Nixonian America, J. Edgar Hoover yet surveilling from his federal throne. More particularly, the setting of this already wordy declaration was a small university town deep in the Bible-belted South. Need I say more?

Thus, for nearly a year, I kept my unorthodox yearnings well bottled. But I was young then, just twenty and untutored in the arts of love, vulnerable to displays of affection.

So it was that my idol found me out one afternoon.

We’d had a warm spring that year with temperatures unseasonably hot weeks ahead of summer break. I remember we’d been swimming that day, long, lazy fifty-meter laps made effortless by the youth surging in our muscles.  Afterward as we walked to our dorm, the sun-baked breeze like a hot breath on our shoulders, everything seemed easy and natural between us.

That is when it happened.

To this day, I can recall Chris’s smile, like an unexpected gift, when he turned to me.

“We’ll remember these days,” he said. And then, prophetically, he threw his arm around me and curled me close.

Chris was direct, spontaneous that way. A man of simple responses matched to the occasion. And yes, doubtless that bear hug was just an expression of friendship, another small kindness thrown onto an already heaping pile.

Nevertheless, his hold broke me.

My heart, my mind went spilling, the words pouring as from a shattered vessel.

He listened to me gush, enduring in stunned silence my torrential regard—how magnificent I thought him, how deeply my feelings ran. How badly I wanted to be with him. Everything, I expect, save the physical lengths—still not well understood by me at the time—that I would happily have undertaken in proving my affection.

It must have seemed an embarrassment of devotion, my rantings puddling at his feet that way. And yet, I couldn’t stop—until finally there was nothing left to stammer except this: “Can you relate to any of that?”

Chris was a man of few words, so he must’ve seen no reason to break form in responding.

“Oh friend, I’m sorry,” he said, his arm sliding heavily from my shoulder. “I can’t.”

Six words to cover all the bases; just those six added to an Oxford Dictionary of regret registering on his face.

I remember distinctly how Chris looked that afternoon. Like a bronzed and brilliantined God in form and feature, One who knows His edicts—pronounced for a subject’s own good—are bound to cause pain, certain to leave scars.

“It’s okay,” I remember replying.

How could I not? His sorrow was so stunningly heartfelt.

“It’s okay,” I stumbled on, “because you’re the only person I’ve ever loved from whom I knew I could expect nothing.”

I remember that he smiled at me, even blushed at what must’ve seemed unnecessarily dramatic explication.

“It’s just that we need different things,” was all he said.

Days later, it would hit me that in ‘pardoning’ him, my reply had been atypically unrehearsed. Not a rehash of one of those self-indulgent speeches spun during a wee-hours fantasy meant to feed a desperate heartache. Rather, the words had bubbled up from an unaffected place. The place where the truth waits in hiding.

You see, I’d known all along that my friend was unavailable. I’d known that Chris’s warmth, his regard ran a different course from my feelings. Deep down, I’d known that the person who would win him (a New Englander, I learned years later; a physician, I believe; a woman, naturally) would be a better match than I. More poised. Less verbose. More intuitive of his needs. And better able to fulfill them. After all, didn’t the Gods flock together in telepathic communion descending from Olympus only occasionally to fraternize with mortals?

So, I’d had my ‘occasion,’ my moment with divinity. Time to accept that heaven rarely lingers on earth.

That is as far as my understanding extended back then.

Thankfully, such insights as this usually evolve. Time can be a great amplifier of meaning, and a great eradicator of grief.

The term ended. Summer arrived. And then Fall. Two new roommates in quick succession soon took my friend’s place. Then, graduation.

We drifted apart, Chris and I.

The thing is, I understand something now that I could not embrace back then: that my friend and I had arrived simultaneously where we’d been headed all along—at one of those moments when one abandons willful obliviousness. A moment when one cannot ignore how stubbornly resistant and injudicious is the human heart and how much a millstone is hopeless, unrequited love. A moment otherwise known as the simple truth.

Given how much that knowledge is apt to sting, is it any wonder we humans cling to blindness as long as possible?

“Hurting you is the last thing I wanted,” my friend said to me that day before turning away, his distress a testament to how overrated is eye contact in a moment of truth. “I’m so sorry,” he said.

And that was the end of it.

I remember that I caught my breath when he spoke, rendered speechless by his beautiful economy of words. But as I’ve said, Chris was astonishingly straightforward. Much like the truth in those rare moments when we are willing to see it.

Much like the certainty that came to me that long-ago quiveringly present-tense afternoon: the certainty that I would never again know the warmth of my friend’s embrace.

 

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About jaurquhart

Jack Andrew Urquhart was born in the American South. Following undergraduate work at the University of Florida, Gainesville, he taught in Florida's public schools. He earned a Master of Arts degree in English, Creative Writing, from the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he was the winner of the Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Award for Fiction (1991). His work has appeared online at Clapboard House Literary Journal, Crazyhorse Literary Journal, and Standards: The International Journal of Multicultural Studies. He is the author of So They Say, a collection of self-contained, inter-connected stories and the short story, They Say You Can Stop Yourself Breathing. Formerly a writing instructor at the University of Colorado’s Writing Program, Mr. Urquhart was, until 2010, a senior analyst for the Judicial Branch of California. He resides in southern California.
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2 Responses to Short Fiction: A Beautiful Economy of Words

  1. I think we often forget that people can be compassionate even in hurt, the impact of so few words, however shaped through our own time lens still have the ability to return us to the that moment when we can relive again those times of intense pain and joy. The human experience is indeed a remarkable one.

  2. TermiteWriter says:

    You write so beautifully, Jack.

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