The Blank Page: “The Answer” by Mara Joaquin

Commentary By Sean Reichard, Arts Columnist

Mara Joaquin is a double major in Communication Sciences and Disorders & English lit, hoping to go on to graduate school for Speech Language Pathology. When she’s not running around campus to work at Memorial Library or the UW Bilingualism Lab, she’s writing stories. Her first book, Notorious, was published in 2013 and she is currently working on an anthology of short works of fiction.

The Story

Wait. Rewind… Jaron got a girlfriend?”

Yeah. They were dating for a while, but then broke off for the summer,” Gabe Haddix, said as he sipped his lemonade leisurely, making me wonder how he kept so cool when it was sweltering in here.

It was the beginning of summer and as soon as I got home from college, a heat wave decided to wash over my hometown. Heat waves in suburbia surprisingly make everything more picturesque and quiescent.

But here we were, like clockwork. We were at our usual spot at Corner Bakery, sipping lemonade to escape the inevitable heat.

He didn’t tell you?”

Well, he certainly didn’t.

I mean…I didn’t mind…

Gabe raised an eyebrow. “You okay, Mel?”

I looked at him and laughed nervously, shoving aside that unfamiliar growing uneasiness in the pit of my stomach, “Yeah, of course! Why wouldn’t I be?”

The auburn haired boy just smirked as he sipped his drink once more.

I know that look Gabe. Forget it.”

Do you want some advice, Mel?” he asked as he looked at me with a surprising sage-like manner.

College had done someone some good.

What, Gabe?”

The truth is rarely pure and never simple,” he stated.

You sound like a fortune cookie,” I laughed.

He snorted, “Well, that was from Oscar Wilde.”

I didn’t know you read him… or that you read at all.”

Many things change,” the man chuckled, “But some things stay the same.”

Some things should stay the same.

 —-

People used to say that Jaron Silverman and I would end up together. In high school, our friends would claim that we argued like an old married couple. He was too aloof and I was too serious, but together, we were dynamite. We were always bickering and challenging each other.

Yet, Jaron would never brag. He would even help me out with Physics, which he was a complete genius in. I, in turn, would grill him on history, one of my stronger subjects.

It surprised me when Jaron and I kept in constant contact after high school. Skype and texting… I don’t think I went a week without messaging Jaron about how homework sucked, how I hated calculus with a passion, or just some trivial like how the dorm food looked questionable.

He would listen and laugh at me for being so opinionated about everything…

He would tell me about college too. He was at Cornell University, studying to be an astrophysicist. He (thankfully) spared me the gory details about his classes, but he would tell me how he missed home…and me…

When did he stop telling me things?

—-

I turned on my computer that night and sure enough, Jaron left me a message on Skype.

Jaron: Yo 7:07 PM

 I smiled and typed a response back.

 Mel: Hello there. How’s out East, Mr. Ivy League? 7:07 PM

 Jaron: Bored.

I want to go home already.

Summer courses are boring.

I can’t wait to get back in August. 7:08 PM

 I shook my head and responded.

 Mel: Tch. What else is new? 7:08 PM

 Jaron: Nothing at all. 7:11 PM

 Except your new girlfriend, I thought to myself as I typed back a response.

 Mel: What are you taking again? 7:13 PM

 Jaron: Some university required courses…

stupid stuff like history… 7:15 PM

 Mel: *laughing* Right. You love that stuff. 7:17 PM

 Jaron: You know that your sarcasm is so

obvious that I can practically hear it over here. 7:18 PM

 I smiled to myself. He can be such an overconfident, self-absorbed, little-

 Mel: Right. So…how’s Annabel? 7:21 PM

 Jaron: How did you know about Annabel? 7:21 PM

 Mel: Gabe told me. 7:22 PM

 Jaron didn’t respond for a few minutes and I assumed it was because he was too busy yelling at Gabe Lawson Haddix III for spilling his secret.

Jaron: Let’s talk about this…

I’ll give you a call on my webcam. 7:29 PM

 I didn’t respond when he called the first time…or the second time.

 Jaron: Answer it. 7:30 PM

 I sighed, not responding.

 Jaron: Please. 7:30 PM

 Mel: Fine. 7:31 PM

I answered his video call. He was at his dorm room, his Van Halen poster right behind him was and his baseball gear propped up haphazardly in the corner. Familiar brown eyes and curly black hair looked back at me…and that look.  I knew that look all too well.  He wanted me to forgive him.  The familiarity of it all hurt.  It just sorta happened, Mel…” he sighed, running a hand through his hair.

Yeah, stuff happens, Jaron…but you should’ve told me! Aren’t I also your best friend?”

I felt my voice rise, seething.

Wasn’t I?

That’s it, Mel! You’re my best friend! That’s why…”

Why you didn’t tell me? You told Gabe, though…”

Yeah, but Gabe is Gabe…and I shouldn’t have told him either because he doesn’t keep his mouth shut,” he grumbled.

Then why did you not tell me, Jaron!?” I frowned, wanting to shove the computer screen as though it was him. I don’t think the frowning icons were cutting it.

Because…because…I…I didn’t know how you would react,” he looked away and sighed, playing idly with the Rubix cube at his desk as if he was searching for an answer there, “I value what you say so much, Mel…and…I…”

So you were afraid I’d disapprove? I do! I do disapprove!”

I wish he was here so I could sock him in the face.

Why?” he looked back at me.

Because! Because I…”

I froze on the spot, cutting myself off.

You what?” he asked, concerned brown eyes gazing at me.

I…”

Mel?” his voice suddenly went to a low, unsure whisper.

Melanie…”

I gotta go.”

I quickly logged off. I laid down on my bed with a pillow on my head and ignored my cell phone ringing, glad that Jaron wasn’t coming back until August when hopefully the heat wave dies down…

Maybe that time I could give him an answer to that question…

 

The Commentary

I grew up in the suburbs. My high school’s mailing address was a state highway (MN-7), asphalt snaked though the land in a vertiginous ramble, tying together the gargantuan strip malls and far flung neighborhoods alike. Gray girded the natural beauty—anyone who claims suburbia in the Midwest isn’t, in fact, a compromise between unfettered nature and stark civilization is lying or oversimplifying, which is really lying by omission. Three years ago, that land was home, and it was all mine, more or less, with my friends. The site of our scaled dramas and goings on; suburbia is for the youth, the site of its caravansary. An unlit street after midnight could incite frissons unprompted by the darkest crypt. Lit orange, suffusing the overarching boughs with phlogiston-like lambency, the streets could be cathedral.

And I can attest the following is fact: “Heat waves in suburbia surprisingly make everything more picturesque and quiescent.”

The crux of Joaquin’s story is separation: Melanie (or Mel, presumably having just finished freshman year) returns from college one summer to discover (from Gabe Haddix, a friend) that one of her closest friends (Jaron Silverman) had had a short relationship through college. She (in a manner of speaking) confronts him over this, only to almost divulge her longstanding affection for him.

Simply put, simply stated (sure) but clocking in at 1000 words, the story was pretty tautly wound, fleet without feeling cursory and (something you hope any story does) stayed fresh upon rereading.

We greet Mel and Haddix in media res, sipping lemonade at the Corner Bakery. Haddix—a little detached, a little snide, a little generous at the narrator’s incredulity—appears to us as a changed man, having seemingly matured in the nine(?) months Mel has been away:

“Do you want some advice, Mel?” he asked as he looked at me with a surprising sage-like manner.

College had done someone some good.

“What, Gabe?”

“The truth is rarely pure and never simple,” he stated.

“You sound like a fortune cookie,” I laughed.

He snorted, “Well, that was from Oscar Wilde.”

“I didn’t know you read him… or that you read at all.”

“Many things change,” the man chuckled, “But some things stay the same.”

Some things should stay the same.

It’s food for thought, and Mel is nibbling on it as the conversation closes out and we get some background on Silverman. “Together, we were dynamite,” Mel tells us, as they wrestled over physics and history homework (Mel hated the former, the latter the latter). But there was never anything romantic. High school separation seemed to confirm there never would be.

This all segues into a Skype transcript (an interesting mode of writing, sure to become more prevalent as the years wear on, or whenever someone decides to write a historical epic of our times) which prompts a video call with Silverman, “[sitting in] his dorm room, his Van Halen poster right behind him … his baseball gear propped up haphazardly in the corner.” It’s a short exchange, but again (the story being tautly wound) conveys more than the mere words:

“Then why did you not tell me, Jaron!?” I frowned, wanting to shove the computer screen as though it was him. I don’t think the frowning icons were cutting it.

“Because…because…I…I didn’t know how you would react,” he looked away and sighed, playing idly with the Rubix cube at his desk as if he was searching for an answer there, “I value what you say so much, Mel…and…I…”

“So you were afraid I’d disapprove? I do! I do disapprove!”

I wish he was here so I could sock him in the face.

“Why?” he looked back at me.

“Because! Because I…”

I froze on the spot, cutting myself off.

“You what?” he asked, concerned brown eyes gazing at me.

“I…” 

Melanie logs out forthwith, and we’re left with a question swelteringly pregnant with the answer and vague ellipses.

This is an exchange played over million of times—the moony friend coming to a confession in the most compromising, embarrassing, spontaneous way—but (of course) it’s nothing to shrug at. Thornton Wilder once said, “Literature is the orchestration of platitudes,” which is to say the organization of clichés, traditions, old things; in the scale of human experience there are only so many notes, but every note struck possess its own resonance, its own forbearance. The mark of a great writer is hitting many notes well or a set of notes right. The drama of “An Answer” is quotidian, well-traversed, but there is enough in it to make you feel it.

In closing, “An Answer” brought me back (in no small part) to an old story of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s, “’The Sensible Thing.’” While it doesn’t deal with unrequited attraction, it does touch upon the vagaries of love, as mediated through separation. Mel is not Jonquil Cary and Silverman’s mind (perhaps) run with steel, but their situation shares a certain poignancy. Read the closing sentence to Fitzgerald’s story: “There are all kinds of love in the world, but never the same love twice.”

Maybe Mel and Silverman will never recapture what their dynamite years were like, maybe they’ll find some other variant, but “An Answer” surely tells us that they’ll find, if not love, than a different relation.

2 Replies to “The Blank Page: “The Answer” by Mara Joaquin”

  1. This was fantastic! With only 1000 words you created a relatable story with likable characters and I loved it!
    I also enjoyed your commentary and I would love read your thoughts on some of your other stories as well.
    Great job!

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