I know better than to try to put a title on the weekend I once spent with Tom, because there is no title for him that sounds in my head like that memory feels. They were two very unexpected days after a few years of platonic friendship; a nice moment that either paused or accelerated something between us, but at this point, that is impossible to say.
Before and after that brief undefined period, our main form of communication was through the written word: texts and emails about what we were watching or reading, what music we were playing. The kinds of information you share as a shortcut to answering the question "Where are you these days?" because the song I have on repeat is an easier reply than trying to explain what I'm feeling. Besides, he has great taste, and I hope he feels the same way about me. I'll read what he recommends, and he reads what I recommend, and when we do see each other we can compare notes. Maggie Nelson ("The most I want to do is show you the end of my index finger. Its muteness"), Richard Siken ("Names I called you behind your back/sour and delicious, secret and unrepeatable"), Marguerite Duras ("One must also, in such cases, hide the love of one's husbands from lovers"): we've always traded our newly found favorites between each other, loaning copies or sending pictures of our preferred passages. Before that weekend, I thought this practice was a natural kind of generosity between us, sharing what we liked in the hopes the other one would like it too. Now I suspect it is a carefully devised replacement strategy: instead of a conversation of our own words, we rely on the words of other people. A conversation made up of our own words feels very, very far away, representing a kind of geographical and emotional intimacy we don't have. These books are, at least, physically close.
I do often think — normally right before I press "send" on one of these exchanges — about how quickly this strategy could turn against me. I have a list of songs I'll never listen to again, for example, because of their ties to former friends or boyfriends, songs that put me in a place and time I've worked very, very hard to extricate myself from. There are movies as well, and a few television shows: I watched that because _____ told me to. We watched that together. The mediums all develop their own messages, and after a certain threshold of pain, the message is a blinking light that reads: Stay away, emotional danger ahead.
The mediums all develop their own messages, and after a certain threshold of pain, the message is a blinking light that reads: Stay away, emotional danger ahead.
So I've always weighed the collateral damage of recommending a book carefully: on the one hand, I can say something nice without saying anything at all, participate in the most honest version of a conversation without admitting I don't know what I actually want to say. On the other hand, what if I tie one of those books or essays or whatever to the person I'm giving the recommendation? I know the problem with attaching emotional significance to an object, because it is the same as attaching emotional significance to a person. The good feelings remain but are buried under the bad feelings, circulating in some parallel stream, thoughts and emotions in direct competition for prominence in my frontal cortex, an experience I once described as being "physically too much for one person": We can only hold so many feelings at once! I complained to a nearby friend, worried that past a certain threshold of reminders and recollections I would simply burst, flooded by attempts to verbalize what I was thinking or feeling.
But in one of these recent exchanges, I experienced something I hadn't anticipated. Tom texted a photo of a page in a book, and I read the passage quietly, feeling a little exposed because I knew anyone looking at my face would see how much I loved it:
"Through all those weeks you'd been back, whenever I'd asked you about the other place you'd been, you'd told me little pieces of story like these, always about this hungry, bright-headed girl. Then you'd say words I'd never heard of, words that didn't really sound like they were words. It was good, that things didn't have to mean. It was a relief. It was strangely intimate, too, you speaking to me and me having no idea what you were saying.
Guide a ruckus, you said now. Trav a brose. Spoo yattacky. Clot so. Scoofy.
Tell me what else happens, I said. Say more things like that."
I demanded to know what book it was so I could read it immediately. Artful, he replied, by Ali Smith: had I read it?
I had. I had read it last year; I had recommended it to multiple friends, Tom included, I think. I had loved it, thought about it constantly, reread it several times in a short period because I was not ready to be done with it. And I had forgotten that passage entirely. Perhaps I had been worried about the wrong thing; perhaps I had been so focused on not tying myself to the wrong word, or attaching the wrong person to the right book, I had severed all long-term memories. I had been worried about my brain not being able to handle all those thoughts; now, suddenly, I was worried I was walking around with an inflated balloon where my higher consciousness had once been.
I was walking around with an inflated balloon where my higher consciousness had once been.
The experience of hearing a song, or watching a screen, is primarily sensory: it lends itself well to the kinds of emotional memories that appear almost without effort, conjured by a connection no longer in your control. The feeling I got when someone played or sent me a song is the feeling I'll always have; if I felt it was proof of their affection, or a private missive only I would understand, that pride and happiness remains, even after I stopped understanding or stopped loving. I just feel them both simultaneously — the love, the loss.
I reread Artful looking out for that passage, waiting for it to hit me with the same force of that text message, and in my haste I almost missed it entirely. That wasn't what I needed this time. Instead I found another forgotten passage, one that I did not remember underlining, but there was the proof, a sentence that simply read "Books need time to dawn on us." I needed more time for something that was, ultimately, so short; time for what that weekend had meant to dawn on me.
Reading a book, and recommending a book, is an experience of renewal. Every time is different; every line, no matter how familiar, can exist only in that moment of reading, and the subsequent rereads are like a membership for your own memories. Words seen by my eyes are allowed to feel different every time I look at and comprehend them; by sharing them, I'm sharing a prompt, not a conclusion. Tom reminded me to remember something I hadn't even realized I had forgotten, to discover a new thing buried in a place I thought I already knew. Books, like Smith says, need time to dawn on us. So do the people who give us, lend us, or read us their favorite books. The feelings might accumulate, and the emotional risks are there, but I remain grateful that there's always the room to admit we just don't know what to say — yet.
Haley Mlotek is a writer and editor based in New York.