by Nicole Miller
The place where we met was a high-ceilinged room with long wooden tables and dozens, maybe hundreds, of beers on tap. The main thing that happened was, I sneezed. There were three of them, each following up kind of quickly on the first. Then, I laughed. I couldn’t stop.
I’ve been with men, who, when this happens–the laughing, I mean–are put out. They can’t understand what is so funny, and they have no patience for what they can’t understand.
This man was delighted. He registered his delight by certain gaping measures and by a final, widening grin.
It’s what came later that interests me here.
So as not to tax your patience, I’ll mention only the illustrative portions. There were the usual things: plastic baggies tied to the leash, the hot handrails of a double-decker bus.
That child, once, in a Rubbermaid project strapped to the back of a bike (not mine).
The bundled beets at the market. The aisles of hearted, purple plums. Wool gathered in unfinished sweaters. Corrective surgery for my eyes. A blue sequined blazer. In the window of the pet store, a single fluorescence. Pillars and pillars of snow. Some hours of television. Fireplace kindling. Bedside manners. A small inheritance. Dryer sheets. The acquisition of a Lazy-Susan, which changed the way I got hold of the salt. Of course, the stuff that comes from dreams.
A public misfortune. Some private successes. The spectacle of a task force outside my door, bent on doing me some strain of kindness. That same summer, “Dirty Diana,” a trumped-up cover of it played in the park.
Dodging those who were hunting me. Hounding the ones who wouldn’t have me. A handful of recipes proscribing nightshades and soy and one for Jamaican rum cake. An open hydrant. Homilies. Smog. Hymns, along with sudden explosions. Stopped-up remarks. That CPR pamphlet. Exemptions. Exclusions. A litany of symptoms. A story-a-day. Sometimes none. Twin roller skates, found, then lost.
I guess you’ll have to thole, they tell me.
“Consequently” is a word that comes to mind.
I always remind them of somebody else (they think they recognize the blonde).
That long flight over the Rockies. If this doesn’t work. A tight-rope walker between two trees at the muddied margin of the canal, or: hope, face-side down. Two dogs, just the same, ginger-red (not mine). A duck-billed cap (not mine). Tubenoses. Perching birds. Birds that roost. Bills found folded in the pocket of a coat. That fat pig that sits outside, chained by its lights to the windowsill. Everyone here wears reflective gear. Everyone carries a waterproof sack. I’d rather not say what my underthings cost. The man on the corner in a weekday tuxedo, ashing what’s left of his smoke.
Remorse: three-pound bag for four ninety-nine. A bound volume of occasional papers. A flock of pigeons. A murder of crows.
She says, I envy you.
The ferry, from the ridge, cake-tiered, lit, making less lonely the fog on the water. The bridge that splits in half for the boats. Feigned enthusiasm, aching daylight and other little licks on the drumhead.
A fuller account can be found online.
There was one conversation with my mom. She asked me to recall the happiest I’d ever been.
A friend’s children came to mind. Their dad, who had, while my friend was in the bathroom getting ready, sniffed my arm.
I sighed and told her, That was maybe the best.
And then the bookstore in Charlotte, SC, where I found in the remainder bin a book of his poems. This was years later. The man from the high-ceilinged room. Was I surprised to find that the man wasn’t lying when he told me he made poems?
What surprised me was what I found inside. Every one of the poems: the same. Oh, different in its particulars, but as I said, the same. They all concerned our encounter that afternoon at the long wooden table where I’d sneezed. Each one of them said what amounted to: your sneeze that day really put me at ease. I haven’t found another one like it.
What a lovely compliment. I bought the book.
I won’t keep you here all night. The thing that I’m tonguing my way toward the middle of is this: the discovery that you’ve stamped your impression on a person or some other matter; your surprise, in other words, at having extended yourself thus far into the world and there established some demonstration of merit, some sample or evidence of your worth, so that you haven’t ceased to exist.
Nothing further is relevant here, about the man or the sneeze. You may, however, have questions left over. You want to account for the laughter. What “sudden transformation of strained expectation into nothing” (to take the phrase from that dualist, Kant) gave rise to the event?
Or, to put the question another way, let’s borrow from Bergson. This one locates the source of laughter in “a certain mechanical inelasticity just where one would expect to find the wide-awake adaptability and the living pliableness of a human being.”
I don’t know what to say. The swift annunciation of nothing living sitting opposite me on that dim afternoon in the echoing beer hall is a mystery even to me.
“Laughter,” wrote Immanuel Kant in 1790, “is an affectation arising from a sudden transformation of strained expectation into nothing.”
Bergon’s comments on laughter can be found in his 1900 essay, Le Rire.
Nicole Miller‘s fiction can be found in the journals Alaska Quarterly Review, Two Serious Ladies and Fence, among others. She lives and writes in Brooklyn.