You text me the link in the morning while I’m still half asleep so I only think I see it. Then I wake up and definitely see it, but now I’m running late and don’t have 15 seconds to load an article. Then my commute is cold so I forget about anything else, and then I’m at work, busy paying attention to a different screen.
Acknowledge, you text me two hours later, the lack of punctuation intended to show your impatience. A few minutes pass, and when I still don’t respond, you send one single space. It's a blank text, sitting on my iPhone like a gray balloon, all full of helium with nowhere to go. This is a bump, the least punctuation possible, the most impatient text of all. I tuck my phone in my back pocket to sneak it into the bathroom, duck into a stall, and click.
“Fallen Construction Plywood Kills West Village Woman,” says the headline. I sigh, realizing the sound was probably audible to Janet, my boss, who is washing her hands. Yesterday you sent, “Two Taxis Collide In Front Of Williamsburg Bridge.” The day before, “Bronx Bodega Owner Slain In Gang Shootout Misfire.” The stories’ protagonists all are — or were — 28-34. It’s the same age as us, but also the same as the people I’m supposed to be selling body wash to right now. I send a blue balloon back to you, Acknowledging, and leave the bathroom without washing my hands.
Janet shows me a cherry-colored shower gel and asks me to write taglines for it. The gel has little beads in it, so the taglines must convey the importance of exfoliating. Back at my desk, Janet gives me a cherry-colored shower gel and asks me to write taglines for it, making sure to convey the importance of exfoliating. We have to motivate people, she says. They will thank us later. I consider that I haven’t exfoliated since I ran out of apricot scrub two months ago. I haven’t gathered the strength to make a drugstore run because a drugstore run is a thankless, exhausting errand. This is why Janet and I can’t change consumer behavior — because all target markets have one thing in common: They are lazy.
Hi, you text me that night. A text without a link is much easier to deal with. I know you know this, so I know this text means you simply want me to Acknowledge, to tell you you’re not alone here.
Hi, I respond.
One week later, I’m in the West Village. I think of the woman, then, obviously, of you.
In west vil rn, I text, and you reply almost immediately with another link. I click it while I’m walking, causing me to almost step into traffic, but I see the cars just in time and jump back. I sidle against a snowy mailbox, quickly forgetting how scary the moment almost was, and read “Elevator Accident In Midtown Kills Two.” You’ve given me a new neighborhood to fear, a different man-made object to avoid.
Thank you, I text back. That helps.
Between us, we are inexperienced with death. We have lost no parents, no siblings, not even a grandparent during our lifetimes. We dumb to it, which means we are lucky. And we know this.
I guess I do have one story, but it’s never felt right to tell it to you. An acquaintance from my high school, someone I kissed once at a party. He was found in his college dorm, electrocuted after stumbling into a high voltage chamber. He was drunk. You need to know this story, I think, because you and I are often drunk, so it’s relatable, the way the other stories are because of 28-34. But unlike the others, I knew this person. I kissed him. And I don’t want us to use someone I kissed to imagine ourselves. Every time you act out a play, it becomes more theater than reality. It’s not fair to your characters to kill them again.
This is the point of sending headlines to each other: I get to imagine what if it were you, you get to imagine what if it were me. But we both only imagine these situations from our own perspectives, from the vantage point of the person who stays alive. This is why I like you — because even in hypothetical situations, we stay realistic. We know that, in the back of our heads, we would be pissed that the funeral meant we couldn’t work out that day. Sending the headlines to each other is a way of giving the other person permission to think like this. This, I’m sure, is the real reason we send them.
When I imagine you in the headlines, I imagine me as a wreck. I know I would keep texting you, and wonder if my iMessages would mark as delivered. The texts wouldn’t contain headlines, of course, because the purpose of those — the imagining of you in them — would be gone. Instead, they would just say Hi. Much easier to Acknowledge, though you never would.
I imagine my office wouldn’t even give me bereavement days, since we’re not dating, or married, or related by blood. Most people don’t even know we’re friends because we text more than we talk, and screenshots of those texts would be shitty evidence — out of context our links and blank balloons would seem almost illegible, like a code concealing something of little to know interest. Maybe this is because of the acquaintance I kissed, but whenever I imagine death, I imagine it without blood. Cold and empty, almost purple. Anything but red.
Janet likes one of my lines: “Scrub now. Shine later.” Millions of people will read these four words on billboards and our product’s bottle, and I realize this is only kind of story that anyone wants to hear. My boss says this product is a big deal — if just one of those people age 28-34 starts exfoliating, we have them for life. Think of all the dead skin that will fall, making ceramic shower floors look like marble.
On the way home from work, I walk past a Duane Reade. I have fifteen minutes, just enough time to pick up more apricot scrub, cotton swabs, and other things I sort of need. But then snow begins to fall and my fingers go numb, and I imagine freezing here on the street corner. I wonder who it would hurt more if I turned into ice and never saw you again. I decide I don’t want to go inside, so I stand there until I only have five minutes. Then, my whole body stinging, I walk home.