I started exchanging e-mails with L. after reading an article he'd written for a magazine. His style was childlike and somehow completely free of the obnoxious jargon that finds its way into so much of what you read today. So I shared my thoughts with him, and soon we were in steady correspondence.
We discussed without ceremony everything from the day's news to food, films and people. It was like writing an interactive diary with a stranger. Some observations were thrown in and never picked up, while others became recurrent themes, referenced over and over. It sure was fun to turn on my computer in the morning and find L.'s messages, but my interest was practical as well: this was a stimulating way to develop ideas in writing.
At one point, L. left on a three-week assignment to cover an entertainment-related event. During his trip, perhaps emboldened by the physical distance between us, he suggested we meet face-to-face when he returned. But he still had two weeks to go on his assignment, during which we continued to write as before.
The first clue that something was amiss came when L. failed to call. One, two, three weeks went by without a word from him. In keeping with a spotless record of female guilt, I went over our entire paper trail in search of my sin. It had to be in there somewhere, an off-colour remark or hasty judgment that had been my fall from grace. While I did spot quite a few dubious comments, nothing jumped out as offensive enough to justify such a change of heart.
Had he forgotten me or something?, I wondered. I know, I know. Nevertheless, I decided to remind L. of my existence in a carefully crafted 23-word message that managed to sound neither accusatory nor needy.
"So you forgot. Hey, don't feel bad, OK? Look, I'm actually happy about it!" (In a critical violation of my own code of ethics, I even threw in a couple of emoticons, those "smiley faces" people find so irresistible that are meant to express sentiments like happy, sad, perplexed or whatever.)
His reply was immediate and whole-hearted: he had been going crazy wondering what had happened to me. According to him, the whole thing was one massive case of confusion, and we were to pick up from there. I dismissed this bizarre episode and went with the flow, reasoning that he was probably one of those people who are brilliant at what they do but can't cope with the day-to-day - you know, laundry, keeping appointments, remembering to go on a first date. Besides, our meeting was only going to be two hours of my life, I thought. I would show up, see what was what and be out of there at the first sign of weirdness.
Boy, was I glad I gave it a shot. Our first meeting was nothing short of magical. We had an instant rapport. The guy was attractive, confident and open. After getting acquainted over tea, we had dinner in a nearby pub where we spent the next two hours exchanging childhood memories and marvelling at the serendipitous events that had led to this moment.
Let the record show that the following utterances were made on that first evening: "I want to know everything about you," "I have no idea what I did before we met," and "I have been talking to you, in my heart, long before we ever started writing to each other" - the latter sensuously whispered directly in my ear.
"How can she remember his exact words?" you may wonder. Easy: they were so extraordinarily potent that, perhaps feeling the need to anchor the winged emotions of this ethereal night in some kind of solid evidence, I actually wrote them down. As soon as he left after walking me home, the red dot of his cigarette dimming in the dark until he turned the corner of my street, I got out my notebook.
On the phone the next day, L. claimed he still felt woozy from our encounter. On Saturday, he picked me up. He seemed happy to see me yet I felt something had shifted. There was no attempt to touch, let alone kiss me, and even as I tried to convince myself that this was because of his shyness or reserve, it was just too weird.
For hours that night, as we sat across from each other in a café, he recounted his university days while staring without blinking in the general direction of my head. If I moved my head, his gaze would remain fixed in the now empty space before him. So transfixed was I by this behaviour, I couldn't bring myself to suggest a change of venue or of subject.
In two hours of talk, he revealed almost nothing about his past, although there was one mention of a night out with a girl some 20 years prior. As I sat there, I wondered how I could get hold of this woman to see what she remembered of that night. Later on, as we finally shook hands goodnight, L. said, again, he was ecstatic finally to have someone with whom to share his thoughts and do things.
He called every day, offering a brief summary of what he was up to that invariably concluded with the words: "So that's about it. Talk to you tomorrow." He never asked me a single question, about myself or anything else. After a few more dates and a solid week of theorizing, I was still unable to come up with a diagnosis - was this an emotional hang-up, a cultural peculiarity? Some kind of neurological thing maybe? I confessed my unease in yet another small masterpiece of diplomacy, I thought.
To which L., also a diplomat, it turned out, offered that he was "sorry about the confusion." That was it. Not another word from him.
Where is that emoticon out there that conveys the sentiment: "I'm disgusted." Perhaps it's time those little faces start using hand gestures.