An Unfortunate Case of Myopia
Susan L. Lin
Peyton told Dustin once that she liked his stories, especially those he relayed in the late hours of the night, the phone pressed against his ear with the shrug of one shoulder and a tilt of the head. She used to call him after midnight for seemingly no reason, and the first words out of her mouth were never hey you; they were never what’s up? or how’s it going? Instead she’d start off with something completely random, usually two disparate thoughts joined together as if they made sense in conjunction with each other, except they never did: I stepped in dog shit on my way to class this morning, do you like strawberry cheesecake? And then there was the third statement, the one that never changed from night to night, call to call. Tell me a story. It was more command than request, and for years he always complied without protest.
“I like your stories,” she said that night, after he had stopped speaking. “I can never tell if they’re true or just something you made up.”
“Really?” Readjusting the phone receiver before it slipped, he stared at the blank piece of paper in front of him, and at the typewriter keys that felt foreign underneath his fingertips. “That’s what usually seems to bother most people, the not knowing.”
She didn’t speak for a long while. In his mind, he saw a series of still imaginings flit past like slides on a projection screen: Peyton staring at her reflection in a windowpane, Peyton tapping her cigarette against an ashtray, Peyton doodling in the pages of her notebook. When her voice came through the earpiece once more, it startled him. “I’m not most people, Dustin.”
And then there was another silence. Her words were always loaded, heavy with some alternate meaning he couldn’t quite parse out. All he heard on the other end of the line was her breathing.
Finally she spoke again: “I have to wake up early tomorrow for my midterms. Stop,”—and for a second it seemed she didn’t know how to continue that thought—“stop calling me so fucking late, do you want me to flunk out?”
It took a few moments for her words to settle, the way sediment floats languidly through the water before sinking to the bottom of a lake. “Wait, you called me—”
But all he heard in response was the wah wah wah of a call that’s just been disconnected.
That was the night Dustin told her about his older brother.
“It’s hard to say how much our mother’s death affected Nicky. He went off to college halfway across the country less than two months after the accident, to study Architecture just like he had always wanted. He insisted. He said he needed the space to clear his head.” Dustin tried to remember a time when his brother Nicholas still lived at home. Before strange messages began multiplying on Dustin’s answering machine, before photos of the Westheimer siblings appeared in the newspaper with captions accusing them of terrible crimes, before the incident outside the art gallery and the funeral that followed, before the person behind that camera had even said say cheese. The truth was, whenever Dustin looked at the resulting family portrait—which stood innocently in an ornate frame on his bookshelf—he had the distinct feeling that his brother’s image was becoming more and more hazy with every passing year. True, the shot had clearly been shaky and out of focus from the beginning—the work of an inexperienced photographer—but now Nicholas’ hard features and dirty blond hair melted seamlessly into the bokeh background of green and brown foliage, his face nearly unrecognizable.
Dustin didn’t tell Peyton any of that though. She never spoke when he was in the middle of a story, not even to offer the occasional confirmation that she understood and he should continue. For all he knew, he was telling stories to an empty line.
Even so, he went on, “by the time Nicky was sixteen, I got the feeling he had already checked out, that he already had one foot out the door. His relationship with our mother had never been great. When we were younger, the two of them would get in the most violent screaming matches. To tell you the truth, they scared the hell out of me. I remember that he’d fall asleep every night with his bedroom light still on, glasses still perched on the bridge of his nose. He always said it was the only way he could see his dreams. From my bedroom across the hall, I’d hear Mom go in to flick off the switch and set his glasses on the bedside table and Nicky would snap awake, yelling about how he might as well be blind now and did she have to go and ruin everything? Naturally, she thought he was being facetious and irreverent, but there were times I suspected that he was dead serious. After she died, after he left, I started to wonder what his dreams were like exactly, if they were as intense as he made them seem, if he ever dreamed about the large, labyrinthine buildings that he talked about designing one day. And I wondered if he ever got lost inside them.” Dustin cleared his throat. “We were never a tight-knit family, and the two of us were never the kind of brothers who were close friends, but for some reason I thought he’d still write home, I thought he’d call. Some nights, the silence in the house would drive me crazy and I would sit up and stare at the faint outline of the phone in the dark, counting the coils in the cord, waiting for it to ring. But it never did.”
After he stopped speaking, there was a very long silence.
It was like he had always suspected. The crazy girl had asked for a story and then just put the phone down and walked away. Goddamn her. “Peyton?”
Outside his window, he heard a low train whistle and the faint rumble of wheels running along the tracks, gradually become louder and then growing softer again. On the other end of the line, nothing.
“Peyton, you still there?”
And that’s when she had said it, her voice flat but the words unmistakable, “I like your stories,” though somehow it didn’t sound entirely like a compliment.
In some versions of this story, she hangs up right then and there.
About the author:
Susan L. Lin recently received her MFA in Writing from California College of the Arts, where she spent her days photographing toy dinosaurs and eating free pie. Her novella Goodbye to the Ocean was a semifinalist in the 2012 Gold Line Press chapbook competition. Her short prose recently appeared or is forthcoming in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Ghost Town, Midway Journal, Madhat Annual, and Hypertext Magazine. She blogs intermittently here.