I’ll get the paper, he says, and then put the coffee on, you can stay here in bed a little while longer. And with languid movements he slithers from beneath the covers and into a pair of slippers. Her slippers. His toes are too snug and his heels are hanging over the back, but he has practiced this shuffle many times and knows just the way to effectively wedge his feet into the opening. The house is still, except for the vigorous sunlight streaming through the kitchen windows, filling the room with its soft, fluid gleam. On his way to the door he opens a cabinet, drags a bag of dark coffee beans to the countertop, fills the little metal kettle and sets it on the stove. Then he pirouettes, using her slippers as ice skates; he closes his eyes for a moment and imagines himself dancing, spinning infinitely in circles, like an autumn leaf spiraling to the ground. But in his dance, his fantasy, the spinning takes him forever upwards, into the sky. He aligns himself with the door. The moment passes; and with a little hop he clears the space from the kitchen to the door and pushes it open. The paper is in the driveway, and he’s barely on the front step before the too-snug toe of his slipper catches something unexpected and he is airborne. A little brown box where nothing should have been. He falls from his porch, once again the leaf but this time trapped by gravity, unable to imagine himself out of the cement sidewalk’s endless tug. Eyes wide open and arms flailing. The leaf has realized that it can do nothing but fall, and its dream of dancing towards the heavens has cease. This is a panicked dance. Before any other thoughts have a chance to slip through his brain he is in a heap on the ground and—
“But does he ever hit the ground?”
Aster blinks twice and pauses, mid-sentence. His hands are high in the air, halfway through some great feat of gesticulation. The source of the query is his freckle-faced friend Jordan, who up until now has been listening to the story without interruption.
“Of course he hits the ground, J. People fall.”
“Haven’t you read about Zeno and his paradoxes of motion?” Jordan asks.
Aster pauses to consider this. He looks around the smoky dorm room: it’s around 2:30 on a Sunday night and the two of them have been hard at work on a few grams of marijuana for the past few hours, until Aster started storytelling. Jordan is sitting on his bed with his back straight against the wall, legs crossed, eyes closed, the almost perfect picture of calm. When Aster considered how ridiculous he looked, standing in the middle of the room in his plaid flannel pajama pants and penguin-themed knit hat, he felt the threads of the story he had been weaving begin to waver on the edges of his vision.
“Sure, I’ve heard about Zeno, but that‘s irrelevant!” says Aster. “The point of a paradox, dude, is to confuse people, not to describe the way the world works.” He throws his friend a look and moves to continue with the story.
But Jordan interrupts again. “Nah, mate. Just listen. A paradox is supposed to make you think, to pause for a second and really examine what’s being said. Think about Zeno’s dichotomy paradox: that which is in motion must reach its halfway stage before reaching its goal.” Jordan opens his eyes to look at Aster. “That means he could never have hit the ground, and the morning is saved.”
“But in traveling down to the ground he passes the halfway point,” Aster says.
“Ah, but think of this,” Jordan says without hesitation, “to get there, he would have had to cross the halfway point to the halfway point, and so on until he’s moved nowhere at all and motion is an illusion.”
As if on cue, Aster moves to the minifridge near Jordan’s bed for a swig of chocolate milk but finds himself frozen. Motion is impossible. But for Aster, it is impossible not because he is paralyzed by paradox, but because the next scene in his story has flashed across his mind like bolts of sheet lightning over the plains.
Inside the house the kettle starts to scream.
“So you’re just avoiding the problem of falling,” Jordan says.
“HUSH! I had an idea, can you just listen?”
It screams in agony; it screams as heat creeps up its metal sides; it screams with lifeless ferocity. In bed, she has long since rolled over and seeks to catch the final tendrils of dreams as they flee in the morning light, so she hears nothing yet. Her husband, unknown to her, is out cold at the top of the driveway. Another man, the newspaper delivery man, has reached the end of their street and turns to drive the rest of his route. There is a rosy glow; sunrise is almost finished and traces of pink flit like warblers at the edge of the sky. It’s a beautiful morning.
“So you just killed the guy and moved on to describing how beautiful the surroundings are?” Jordan’s voice again joins the fray and the image of the neighborhood, which had been brightening and blossoming in the center of their little dorm room, retreats quickly like an anemone.
A bolt of frustration flashes across Aster’s face. “If you kept listening, you’d know.”
“What if I don’t want to keep listening?” Jordan says. “What happens to your story then?”
“You’re so frustrating sometimes, man, you know that? I just want – I have an idea – I just wanted to tell a story. “ Aster, flustered, storms out of the room to take a walk through the halls, and Jordan closes his eyes. He eventually drifts off to sleep and begins dreaming, but nobody can see or hear what he is dreaming about.
The kettle begins to boil over and splatter onto the countertop.
She stretches and yawns herself awake. The first sound in her ears is the trill of the screaming kettle in the kitchen. That’s odd, she thinks, so she jumps out of bed, anxiously calling her husband’s name. Her feet are cold to the floorboards without her slippers. She draws her pajama shirt, a shirt of his that falls down over her knees, closer around her body as she walks into the kitchen and finds it empty. She hurriedly turns the stove off and crosses her arms even tighter around herself. The screaming of the kettle slowly dies out and she calls his name again, louder this time, with a bit of frustration creeping in to her voice. She looks in the laundry room, empty. Hallway, empty. The door is open to the street. She walks outside and sees her husband frozen in time and space, limbs akimbo, as though dangling from a hundred pieces of string like a wooden puppet.
“What the fuck is that supposed to be? People don’t just freeze in mid-air.” Shana pulls her hands from Aster’s hair and looks at him. Her eyes are brown and confused and twinkling with merriment all at once and Aster’s cheeks flush. He speaks, noticeably quicker than while storytelling.
“I’m just trying to play with some literary techniques, Shay. Plus, last week Jordan talked to me about this paradox of motion, right. It says that all motion is an illusion, because it is impossible to go anywhere without first achieving the midpoint between your current location and the destination. I was trying to demonstrate that with his fall and, at the same time, let the wife see him in his time of distress.”
“Yes, but you’re trying to tell a story not prove or refute some ancient paradox. Forget about all that stuff and dive in!”Shana looks down at his eyes, which are green and curious and brimming with nerves, and smiles. “You have to be brave.”
Honey! They’re here! I ordered these slippers for you, ages ago! I’m so glad they’re here! Her perfectly healthy husband comes out to the porch, from the kitchen where he has been brewing coffee, to find her sitting in the corner chair with a little brown box on her lap. Come see, come see! she says, and she moves the box so he can sit on her lap and they can open the box together.
“No, no, definitely not,” Aster grumbles as he balls up the piece of paper and sets it on fire.
Honey? Where’d you go?
She peers off the porch to see him immobile on the ground in a spreading pool of blood, which emanates from his head as if he were a mountain spring and this was the water finally bubbling its way to the surface. She drops the package. Her own scream breaks the larger silence. But the delivery man has long since left; the neighbors aren’t awake yet; and her husband, the one who has been close enough to hear her quiet whispers and silent declarations of love for the past thirteen years, is irretrievably lost. Who can hear her? In the absence of listeners and sympathisers, does she even feel pain, the pain of her very heart being wrenched away from her?
Aster puts down his pen and sits back from his desk, head in his hands. The story is beginning to poke little needle-holes in his heart. His room is empty: Jordan is out playing bass with a group of friends and Aster writes alone. He looks at the pages spread like playing cards across his desk. Each of them is covered in scribbles, crossings-out, words in three different colors from three different pens, saliva, traces of ash and marijuana leaves, and little doodles in the corners from the times when he ran out of ideas. There is a knock at the door.
“Aster, you ready to go smoke?” It’s Shana’s voice, from outside his room, and his heartbeat quickens as he goes to open the door. She’s standing there, a wry little smile on the corners of her mouth. And as she looks at him, a hundred miles of empty starlit beach unfurl within her dark eyes.
“Uh, yeah. Let me just, uh, grab my coat. Thanks for coming over.” It’s been almost a year since they met, since their paths crossed and they became part of the same story, but Aster still feels shy around her. It’s only when he’s telling her about his stories, the worlds he’s made up somewhere in his brain and the people that inhabit them, that Aster ever really feels comfortable in their relationship.
The two of them leave the dorm and head for a little grove of trees at the edge of campus, long-since established as their favorite spot to contemplate. They make the walk in silence. Aster’s head is filled with images. Images of a dead husband’s funeral. Of a perfectly healthy, but completely immobile, husband suspended in the air mid-fall like a cartoon, paradoxically unable to progress. A husband who skinned his knee in the morning and came back to bed grumpier than he left it. But when he and Shana arrive at the grove, and he can see her face by the light of her lighter’s flame, a strange sensation comes over him. On that night Aster has, in fact, seen a different story in the air between himself and his companion, a story so strong and proximate that it is able to push images of the paradoxical husband from his mind as though they are meaningless. It is a story that he himself is writing; not with pen and paper, or with spoken word; but with shared moments of love, little mundane things full of large amounts of feeling, which weave themselves together ceaselessly on their quest to become expressed.
He takes a drag on the joint and the sensation is gone.