Michael Sato

Communication requires effort, patience, and honesty--but not necessarily words.

Jacob came home at four this morning. He didn't hug me; he nodded at me with his tired eyes. Even at six, his thoughts and feelings are obscure to me. If I were him I'd be intractably resentful, but Jacob is careful, independent; he thinks about a thing until he understands it on his own terms, and then rarely makes his conclusions known. He mutters them to himself, when he's alone, in his own private tongue. You'd think it'd be nice -- having a child who doesn't complain outright. But sometimes I'd die to know what he's thinking.

Now, at the end of summer, he looks much like his father, a picture of wild health: suntan, hair long and thick. In a few months he will look more like me again, nerdy, irregular haircut, pale. I put him to bed -- his father said he stayed awake all the way up from Berkeley, a ten-hour drive -- and he fell asleep at once. His father and I talked for a while. He knows how to talk to me -- knows how to be useful and honest without telling me his secrets, his love-words. He asked me if I'd had any more breakdowns and I said no, which was the truth. He asked me if I was seeing anyone important; I said yes. He congratulated me, I think sincerely, though that did not stop him from complaining. "Are you worried that Jacob will hear?" is all that he said, because the walls of this house are so thin.

I liked Jacob's father a lot -- more than anyone save perhaps Max -- but cheated on him more and more regularly as our relationship progressed. I didn't want to cheat on him. I needed to. Nonetheless, when he discovered my indiscretions, of course he could not abide.

When he left I stayed in bed. I hadn't slept much yet, and my brain was itching with weariness. I let my thoughts trickle away and was just ready to embark on a dream when, annoyingly, I became aware of the bell I'd set on my windowsill. Moonlight hardened into a thin white line on its profile, making the jade seem like bone. The bell was silent, of course, but I half-expected to hear sound from it. It kept me awake. Even when I closed my eyes, my ears stayed open, listening, through the end of the night and as sunlight slowly covered moonlight.

Even when the room was yellow the bell's spell on me was not broken until I heard real sounds, morning sounds -- sounds coming from the kitchen: footsteps, a wooden rattling, some metal pieces clicking together. Very familiar sounds, but it took long minutes to recognize them as Jacob fixing his morning cereal. When he left here, in May, to spend the summer with his father and grandparents, he still wasn't old enough to get up and do this by himself. They are quite good to him, I think. His father's family is a good family, very stable, though Jacob has never told me what he thinks about all this moving around between parents. I wish he would, and am terrified to think that someday he will.

Now Jacob was tapping his spoon against the table and cereal bowl, experimenting with different tones and rhythms. He's very musical, and will often try to improvise some instrument out of whatever objects are at hand. I was pleased to hear that Jacob preferred making drums of my furniture to talking to himself. I dislike his private voice so much. I'm a bad mommy -- I have so far been loath to buy him a proper instrument, for I fear all the noise that would no doubt follow. I love music, but even one badly played note makes my bones ache.

I bought a phone with no buzzer, but just a light that flashes. Sure, I miss a few calls, but the extra silence I get makes that a small price. If I know someone important is going to call, then I stay near the phone and look for the call. I had, this morning, a strong feeling that Max would be calling soon, so instead of getting up I stayed in bed and did some reading. This summer I've been reading Hamlet for a night school class I'm taking in Shakespearean Tragedy. I've been having a hard time getting past Hamlet; there's something about this story that, like a vacuum, sucks me in. The rest of the class has already moved on to Macbeth and King Lear, but reading Hamlet always leaves me stuck in my own thoughts. I was just moving into one of those thoughts when my phone started to flash.

"Good morning, Max. How are you doing?"

"Wyn, I feel cold inside," he said.

I've been seeing Max for about three months. When it began I wasn't looking for any serious romance. I hadn't dated for a long while, and I thought that I might try again, hoping that an interval of celibacy had made me stronger, whole enough to see something through. I wanted to be careful; I exercised what patience I have, spending plenty of time at the nice-guy hang outs, bookstores, campgrounds, to find someone who was really clean. Nice is boring, sure, but I didn't care so much about that any more. All I wanted was not to fail.

I got a nice one, all right. Max is almost monkish, a holy loner. He tells me he lost his faith, that he's not religious anymore, but I think that he still is. "It's easy to be good when you're unworldly and detached," he once said to me. "I always wanted to be good, but there came a time when I also wanted to be part of the game." Max has got an unbelievable amount of self-confidence, and there's nothing anyone can say to him that can hurt him. So I was very direct. I told him straight away that he was a lot more good than he was a part of the game. I also said there's a big difference between losing your faith and setting it aside. No one who sets his faith aside is "part of the game."

Max said that he used to be a pious Episcopalian, stuffed with all manner of religious dogma, but that he now holds a mere two beliefs that might be called, broadly speaking, metaphysical. One of these beliefs, as I understand it, is that, in the wide arc of time, there are a certain number of crucial moments -- the moment you fall in love, the moment you die -- and that these special moments have actual auras around them that, like ripples, spread out not only from the past, but also from the future. That is, there are a few moments, here and there, that echo. The other belief Max holds regards a certain very old family heirloom, a little bell made of gold and jade, that he kept hung from the rear-view mirror of his car. Quite an elegant ornament, this bell also has the power of feeling the aura of a crucial moment as it comes to pass. This he believes in honor of his mother, who gave the bell to him shortly before she died of cancer.

"Mom kept it with her at the hospital. She said it told her. That."

"Like magic? The bell rang on its own?"

"Mom said it didn't ring, but that she could hear its sound."

I asked him if he wasn't unwise to have something so valuable decorating his car, hanging there where everyone could see it.

"People don't steal things from me," he said. Ridiculous, I know; on the other hand, so far it's been true.

He came to get me at seven last night, wanting to drive me to a special place he knew, where, he said, the sunset was so beautiful that it lasts forever. Unfortunately, it was one of those days when nothing in my closet seemed to fit, and so when he came I wasn't ready. That he sat in the living room and waited so patiently made me even more distressed, and I worked myself into an absolute fit, throwing clothes everywhere. Everything I put on looked worse than what I was wearing before.

At last I came out and said, "Can we do this another time? I really have lost the appetite for a beautiful sunset."

"What you've got on is fine," he said, though that before looking up to see that I was standing there in my underwear, which didn't match.

"Give me credit for a little shame," I said.

So he got up and walked right past me, into my room, and came back out with not only a T-shirt and jeans, but also shoes. "This time, it doesn't matter what you look like," he said.

We missed the sunset. Once we got on the highway he went ninety all the way, half-seriously invoking the power of the bell to keep the CHP at a distance. But we got to his place, a rough, wind-worn promontory overlooking a stretch of coastline, just in time to see the sun's crown blink off the horizon.

"Okay, I know another place," Max said, already running me back to the car. We got back on the highway and sped in the direction of the sun, though fast as we might go, the poor car shaking and rattling like the flu, we just couldn't catch up to the light. When we stopped again, at an empty lot next to the sand, the sun was still nothing more than a sliver of orange on the bay.

"Come on," he said, leaping out of the car. He grabbed my arm and dragged me down to the sand, saying, "We can catch it, we can catch it." I went off screaming and squealing but he didn't mind; he wouldn't let me go. Oh, I never go in the ocean; it's so cold, and the air was already cold too, and it was windy. We ran right into a big wave that knocked us over, but he never let me go, and we choked on water from laughing, the green saltiness soaked into my mouth and eyes. All the huge, indifferent water pushed and pulled me, making my feet light on the sand, and we splashed each other, the water going up like long strings of diamonds against the great stained-glass sky. Then I pressed myself against him, for warmth.

"Is this the part that lasts forever?" I said.

He looked around. "I think the part that lasts forever only happens from the shore," he answered.

Back at the car, we got his throw blanket out of the trunk, then got in and turned the heater all the way up, and sat together in the back seat until we were warm, wrapped in his blanket, listening to the waves crash one upon the other, the whispered hiss of water on the sand underneath, the soft sounds melting together into silence. And we were both I think listening in the same way -- a kind of listening that's like thought, a kind of listening that keeps going and going so long as it hears nothing at all.

The way Max makes out, sometimes it seems like he doesn't know quite what to do, just a big clump of hands making guesses. He'd told me he wasn't a virgin, though in extremely equivocal terms. He's continually elusive, when he speaks, on all points regarding sex, and pry as I might, he seems incapable of disclosing the simple truth. All I know for sure is that I like the way that he touches me, much better anyway than so many of those virtuosos who would wield their parts on me like medical instruments. Max held my hand during the drive back, rubbed my fingers, and I was thinking, I was hoping, that this night would be the night that he'd stay over.

When we got back to my house, I kissed Max good-night and then hesitated, pretending to be scared to get out of the car. Max asked what was wrong. I said, "The house is so dark. Looks creepy. I hate going by myself in a house that's dark. Who knows who or what might be waiting in there?"

This was a trick of course, to get Max to come in with me. His line was supposed to have been something like, "I'll just go check to make sure that everything is okay."

Instead, Max unhooked the jade and gold bell from is rear-view mirror and put it in my hand. "This will protect you," he said.

No one had ever given me something that way. Never. Giving me the bell was a big mistake on Max's part. And I was back to the old way.

"I want you to have it. I feel like giving you something," he said.

"But this is yours."

"If you have it, then I still have it."

"Max, I don't think we should see each other any more."

Just like that. Again I had failed, and again I had let my failure take me by surprise. Hope is so miserable. I got out of the car, and ran into the house.

Standing there in the dark, in my living room, I realized that I had taken and was still holding onto Max's bell. I also realized that I really did have a fear, after all. But it wasn't a fear of the dark or some burglar or rapist waiting for me in the kitchen. It was a fear of Jacob.

What I was thinking when Max called this morning is that all of Hamlet's wandering and listening and searching is about Hamlet trying to find his father and his mother, because his father isn't there anymore, and his mother isn't who he thought she was. His life can't go on until he finds them. But he doesn't know how to find them.

"About what you said last night -- about not seeing me anymore -- where did that come from?" Max said on the phone. "Did you mean it?"

"Yes, Max, I meant it. Just accept it, don't make me explain, it's boring -- trust issues, intimacy issues. Besides, Jacob is home now, summer's over. There won't be time anymore for us."

"But I don't need time. I don't need anything from you. I only know that it's lasting inside me. It goes on and on."

This sort of talk continued for a while, and Max was very clumsy, not because he didn't listen to me, but because he was so naïve about the importance of his own feelings. On the other hand, one might ask how much sympathy one ought to feel for a woman who routinely ruins a relationship just because it seems to be going well. I don't like it that people get hurt; other people's wounds hurt me more. But that doesn't seem to make much of a difference.

All I wanted to do now was settle the matter of the bell, which should have been easy, except that I was so awfully attached to the thing. The reason I wanted to keep it so badly was, of course, that the bell meant so much to Max. If he hadn't wanted it back, I suppose I wouldn't have cared that he'd given it to me in the first place. It was strangely obvious this morning that neither of us was in a position to make an outright claim of ownership; all that could be done, then, was to hypocritically deny it.

"It wouldn't be fair for me to keep it," I said to him.

"If you feel that way, then I'll stop by and get it," he answered. The readiness of his concession struck me as odd. Thick as I am, I didn't see that he was merely seizing an excuse to come over.

I would have liked to stay in my room and read Hamlet all day. I'm awful. I had not spoken to my son for three months, and I only wanted to read.

It seemed Jacob still had some work to do on his cereal preparation skills after all. A bowl's worth of Fruity Bran was spread pretty evenly across the whole surface area of the kitchen, and spilt milk dripped off the edge of the table in three or four places. On a more promising note, Jacob had carried his bowl and spoon to the sink, and had run some water into the bowl so that the little left-over pieces wouldn't harden onto the ceramic.

Jacob himself was gone; I could hear through the wall that he was back in his room. I leaned into the wall to better hear the sounds. This time, happily, there were only the normal sounds of playing, crashes, airplanes and lasers. Maybe Jacob had, over the summer, gotten over his problem with language. I allowed myself to hope it.

It was sometime before Jacob turned three that he began to employ, while playing by himself, an at-first simple but increasingly complex series of sounds that only he knew the meaning for. I only heard the sounds through the walls of his room; he never used them in my presence. Sometimes when he'd talk to me, although he's quite articulate, I'd imagine that he was thinking far too much about what he was saying, and I wondered if this personal language of his hadn't rendered English nothing more to him than a system of euphemisms. What bothered me most though about Jacob's private tongue was that no matter how hard I tried I couldn't understand it, and it gave me anxiety attacks to think that rendered through that arcane muddle of his was Jacob's judgment of me.

I took him to the doctor once. The doctor asked a couple of questions, then prescribed Ritalin. I refused; I abhor pills of any kind. They steal you away.

It took a couple of minutes to clean up Jacob's mess, but instead of stopping with the spilt milk and cereal I just kept on cleaning. Cleaning is one thing that, as a mother, I do well. Dust in my house has a shelf life of hours; books and candles might as well be bolted into their places. I cleaned to the muffled sounds of Jacob's playing, in my mind following the course of his games. The kitchen windows got a needed washing; the floor was duly mopped and waxed. Sometime there the sound of Jacob's playing ceased, although it wasn't until I was scrubbing out the sink that I was startled by the silence. Struck at the same instant with the feeling of being watched, I dropped my sponge and turned, half-expecting to see Jacob standing in the threshold.

"Jacob?" I said.

There was a knock at the door (I'd taken out the doorbell; the ring of it was shrilling), that I mistook at first as being Jacob's response. I even opened my mouth to answer, and had in my mind the oddest image of Jacob's voice issued from Max's face. Then I remembered the bell. Leaving a tub full of suds, I scuttled to my room to get it, but found that the bell was no longer on my windowsill, where I'd left it the night before. I looked on by bed stand, under the bed, on my bookshelf. The knock repeated. "Just a minute," I yelled, running into the bathroom, looking again in the kitchen.

"Wyn? Are you all right?" Max had presumed to come in, without my permission. That wasn't right. I marched out into the living room, heated, all ready to yell at him, but his hands were full of flowers -- a big anarchic bouquet of wild lilies and fireweed, poppies, white roses, all wrapped like an infant in delicate white paper. It is not civilized to yell at a man holding flowers. All the same, I was not happy to see them. If a man gives a woman flowers, it means he's got a plan.

"You gathered them yourself."

"How did you know?"

"Let me find a vase," I said, taking the flowers from his arms. I had every intention of looking for that vase, if I had to pick through every room of the house until I found Max's bell. The shorter his stay, the better.

"Do you need some help?" Max said.

"No. I'll find it."

Max sat down on the couch rather casually, stretching his arms across the backrest. He said, "I don't really want the bell back; I want you to keep it. If I have a big moment coming, I don't want to know it if it doesn't happen here."

Preoccupied with finding the bell, I was only half-listening to Max, but something about this tugged at my ear; I felt I hadn't heard it all. I wished he'd say it again.

"Oh yeah, the bell. I'll just get it now," I said.

"You may as well leave it where it is," Max returned.

I thought, Max is telling me that he's ready to sleep with me. I second-guessed myself. I didn't know what he was saying. I brought the flowers to the couch and set them down, vase-less, on the coffee table, and then sat down next to Max, but not too close.

"Sorry, I didn't hear what you said."

Max looked at me long, as if preparing himself. I could see in his eyes that he had something important to say, and in my mind were all sorts of hypothetical revelations. They vanished when Max began to speak. It was an unusual kind of speech, abstract and aloof, some words about time, the past and future, a kind of thinking out loud, but much more deliberate. What was he saying? It seemed that every next word he spoke foreshadowed the point, the simple truth, but then left me feeling that the point was spoken and I had failed to understand, and that in turn made me bend closer in to each next word. And then I realized that Max was not speaking at all, but uttering poetry, real poetry, powerful and large, and I thought, not only is this poetry, but I've heard this poem before, and I was very confused because Max's delivery had the faltering tenderness that only newborn words can have. Max was telling me his love-words. He was telling me who he was.

"Oh, no, Max," I said, but Max made no sign that he heard me.

"Max, save this. I'm not the one."

But he only continued. And what was he saying? Each succeeding word seemed to promise the answer, and I was listening so hard that I lost track of the meaning and began to lose myself in the sound of the words, the falling of one upon the other of the grand, impossible images, cutting the cords that attach thoughts to things -- they made me feel that I was floating, passing in measures into some great and completely specific silent, empty space. The words threw their weight against all my voices, all my needs. I listened hard. And then something changed; as the poem went on, something sharper and demanding grew into the words, they turned another face, and they started to scare me. I saw the words, deployed now in files, gathering around me, their circle tightening, conniving to trap me forever where I was, unmoored in the stillness. "We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of our exploring--"

"Jacob, is that you?" I said, "Are you hiding, Jacob? Are you listening?"

"Listen to me, Wyn. This might be my only chance."

"I'll just go get your bell," I said.

"But that wasn't the end yet."

"I know a poem too," I said, and launched right into Hamlet's first soliloquy, which I had no idea I'd memorized. I blurted it out, like a fidget, full of nerves, needing only to do anything to halt the tyrannical momentum of Max's poem; it was so strong in its desire to go on. When the first soliloquy was finished, I began with the second, and would have gone on to the third and the fourth, and then started all over again, but my own recital was shattered by laughter and a flash of movement bursting out from behind the wall, then disappearing again. It was Jacob. I knew it. He'd been listening.

"Jacob, it's not polite to hide when there are guests."

Jacob, hid behind the recliner, did not show himself, but answered with a low, tired moan. My heart sank.

"What's he saying?" Max said. I shrugged. This sound was a sound of Jacob's private language -- the one he'd never before produced in the presence even of me. The sound repeated, along with more giggling.

"He's got this hiding game," I said. "He plays it all the time."

Max nodded, puzzled, and released my hand. He got up and said, "Well, I'll see if I can't find him." He tip-toed across the room to where the recliner was, and at the last moment poked his head over it, saying, "There!" But Jacob had managed to squirm away, and was already hiding somewhere else. I could hear his giggling behind the bookcase.

"The game is for me," I said. "You don't have to play."

"No, I want to," Max said. "I'll find him." He just stood there though, hand on his chin, wondering where to look. It's not that my living room is so very thickly furnished, but Jacob's got a gift for evasion.

"Jacob, stop teasing my friend," I said. The answer was laughter, and then another sound, an airy, hollow note. Coming from behind the bookcase.

"What's that he's saying?" Max said, now creeping cat-like across the carpet, to the bookcase. "Is it part of the game? Are there secret words for things?"

"No, Max. I don't know. The sounds don't mean anything."

Max pounced around the edge of the bookcase, but Jacob, again, had contrived to slither off at the last moment.

"Surely they mean something," Max said. "Surely he wants me to understand." Now there was a third sound, this one coming from behind the television. It was an ugly sound, sucking and whistling.

"It sounds like something." He turned an ear toward the television, furrowed his eyebrows. "I can almost get it."

"The sounds don't mean anything! Jesus Max, don't you get it? I don't want you here. I want you to go -- just go."

Max stuttered and had to throw his arm up against the wall for balance. He left it there, for a moment, as if needing the surface to reorient himself. He needed to take a couple of breaths. He actually needed to look around him to understand where he was, to understand what I was saying.

"Even if I'd changed my mind, it's too late. It's over with us. You have to go."

"Let me finish my poem."

"No Max, you can't finish your poem. You can't come back here any more. Not even to get your bell. I don't even have your bell anymore, Max. It's broken. I threw it away."

He dabbed a finger against his cheek. "I'm crying."

"Not so big a deal, Max. I cry every day."

He backed slowly toward the door, gazing fearfully at the tear on his finger. Something else inside him resisted, pushing him back again toward me. The forces played on him like a tug-of-war, pulling him this way and that, his feet airless on the floor, silent and mindless.

"Max, Whenever I get close to someone, whenever I start to trust someone, or start to have a need for someone, a voice inside me tells me to get away, and it's a voice that doesn't go away, and one I can't ignore. With you, Max, it's different. With you that voice is screaming."

Max said, softly, "Listen to my voice."

"Max, please go."

"Listen to my voice."

"Max, last night I had sex with Jacob's father."

The words sounded on, round and round in the room. And then there were so many sounds, of a car passing outside, of two birds, of a neighborhood dog barking, far away. What I had said; it was the sound of me, of what I am. Things say what they are with sounds; when I looked at it, there was a sound: the bookcase, the coffee table. The way I looked at it.

"You did?"

And I thought, I've ruined him. And he wasn't there anymore, but there was someone in the room, small breathing and footsteps, and the giggling. But it wasn't giggling -- not Jacob's giggling. It was higher, and voiceless, a tin can full of stars.

"Jacob, put that down."

He held it above his head, and he shook it. He laughed at the ring, the ring upon the ring. It was louder than sunlight. I tried to cover my ears but couldn't lift my hands because Max's arms were wrapped around them. He'd come back. I buried myself in him and he put his mouth into my neck, and there was ringing all around.

"I love you."

"Max, you are a fool."

Jacob leapt onto the coffee table, shook his head and stomped his feet down on the great bouquet of flowers -- an explosion of petals. He stretched his arms to the light, closed his little fingers around the bell and hurled it at the wall.

Michael Sato ( has spent most of his life in the San Francisco Bay Area. He finished his M.A. in English in 1996, and since then has been working as a teacher and translator in Gunma Prefecture, Japan. His stories have appeared on the Internet in Eclectica and AfterNoon.

InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 8, Number 2 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1998 Michael Sato.