Emoticon

(flash fiction)

I knew Nick before we had words. Our mothers met in childbirth class. They were seated next to each other in the circle. They struck up a conversation and had such a good time talking they almost forgot the solid forms of their husbands, who sat behind them, legs spread, each supporting his wife’s body with his own.

I have pictures of Nick and me as babies snuggled into the same playpen, and shots of us riding the carousel as our mothers held us in place. The story is he spoke first. Never an innovator, Nick’s first word was “da.” I spoke later. I said “ba ba,” as I waved my hand goodbye.

We were best friends through grade school and then went our own ways in middle school. In high school, I was horrified to recognize my growing attraction to Nick, who had seemed more like a brother than a boyfriend. We dated all through college, sometimes barely speaking, feeling more and more like our pre-verbal selves.

Nick and I never spoke in our post-college days. We sat side-by-side in coffee shops and bistros in Paris, Milan, and Geneva, and stared at our phones. Correction: He sat hunched over his phone and I watched passersby, elegant women dressed in black, teenagers in ripped jeans, working men with scruffy beards, all looking at their own small screens. Dogs peed on light poles and birds flew like winged drones through the sky without anyone watching.

Every so often, Nick would send me a text. I knew it was him because after the ping I could hear him let out a small sigh.

How r u?

He’d stare at the screen waiting for my response. I wanted to type bored, but instead I’d type F for fine. He’d go back to texting.

I watched a father and son sit side-by-side on a bench, both staring at their phones. After a while, the son nudged the father, but he never looked at him. The father nudged the son back, his face glued to the screen. They pushed at each other, not seeing the smile on the other’s face.

We went to museums. I watched Nick take pictures of the art we were standing in front of. His images were one-dimensional. I looked at the canvas noticing the layered swirls of paint.

It was only at night, lying in bed in some cheap hotel, that he looked me full in the face, his eyes unfocused, his body moving against mine. When he was done, he gave that same satisfied sigh he gave after texting.

We had a month left in our trip before we looked for jobs, faced the future. Lake Como was our last stop. I’d seen pictures of the still lake, mountains in the background, buildings the color of parchment paper. Lake Como was beautiful, but it was the smells that intrigued me, the dank scent of the water, the sweet bougainvillea, the sharp espresso. I took it in, watching Nick’s fingers dart back and forth as he played a video game.

Our waiter looked at me and Nick appraisingly. I looked back and shrugged. He brought me a plate of cookies I didn’t order. I wrote my phone number on the napkin and slipped it into his breast pocket. Nick’s phone trilled—high score.

Later, I watched as Nick walked dangerously close to the water’s edge, texting. That evening, we sat in the town square, I watched the passeggiata, the evening walk. The waiter, now in jeans, approached and extended his hand. I took it. His hand was warm. We walked slowly away from where Nick sat on the bench, his face peering at his screen.

“Ba ba,” I called to him over my shoulder. I didn’t look back.

ellen-birkett-morris-headshot_optEllen Birkett Morris’s fiction has appeared in Great Jones StreetShenandoah, Antioch Review, Notre Dame Review, South Carolina Review, Santa Fe Literary Review, and Upstreet, among others. She is the 2015 winner of the Bevel Summers Prize for flash fiction for her story “May Apples.” Her story “The Cycle of Life and Other Incidentals” was selected as a finalist in the Glimmer Train Press Family Matters short story competition.