Do you ever just—
I don’t know how to finish that sentence. That thought. That feeling.
I would open my mouth to say something to people if I knew how to explain it, if I thought they cared. But my friends, my family—no matter where I go, I always see the same thing. Their phones. The back of their phones.
Do you ever just want to talk?
No. That’s not what I’m feeling whatsoever. Because when people talk to me, I get exhausted.
I don’t know.
Do you want to talk?
No. I want to sit in silence.
I want to sit next to people and feel that their souls are in the room, not in some screen.
Even me. I’m as guilty as everyone else. I can’t overlook that when I point the finger, of course there are three curved back to point at me.
As my parents scroll through endless social media, where you could literally spend your whole life attached to your feed and not even brush the surface of what there is, I look at my phone, as well. I text my friends.
Hey, how are you?
I don’t know. Do you even care?
Do I even care?
Impassioned speeches are few and far between, but those deep moments are the only ones in which I feel connected to humanity, instead of humanity’s cell phones. The deep discussions when you delve into the universe and somehow come up for air feeling like you’ve reached the other side of the Milky Way. But it’s not reasonable for each conversation to find those depths. It’s impossible for even me, actually. And when those moments do come, why is it hard for me to carve out the words I want to say from within my brain?
Funny how in a house bursting with family—four children, four adults, the handful of friends that rotate in and out, I always feel alone.
Did people really feel closer in the old days? Before phones?
I don’t know. The cynical side of me wants to believe that humanity has never truly connected, never truly cared about one another. We’re all selfish balls, planets caught up in our rotation, scarcely minding that there are infinite galaxies out there with other stories and lives. It’s so easy for me to picture myself back in Jane Austen’s era, still lonely and thoroughly aggravated that society is just a facade, that human emotion only runs skin deep, and everyone is just a player performing at the balls and teas and luncheons.
Now, we still perform, but instead of balls, it’s our profiles.
My phone—of course it’s in my hand; what did you expect?—buzzes me out of my melancholy musings. I’ve been sitting, staring at the ceiling, contemplating in depth the thoughts I’ve pondered for years.
Ugh. Phone calls. Is this another side of my hypocrisy? I decry human beings for being selfish and lonely, but whenever someone tries to call me, I’d just as soon send them to voicemail and shoot them a text instead. So I can fit them in their own little place inside my own planet.
I slide the little green dot over and hold it up to my ear. “Hello?”
I don’t immediately place the voice.
Who was calling, again? I don’t know. I didn’t even look. I group all people who call into the same category: annoying, anxiety-inducing humans.
I pull back and look at the screen. My cousin Gwen.
“Yeah? Are you okay?”
Because life-and-death is really the only reason why someone might call. Someone’s either married, pregnant, or dead.
And what if they are dead? I haven't seen my cousins in years. It’s like one of those distant stars has just flickered out and I don’t know whether to be filled with regret or wonder why I should care, when her orbit hasn’t passed mine in years.
“Yeah.” A silence.
“Is everyone okay?” Read: alive.
“Oh, yeah. I guess so. I just realized we hadn’t talked in a while.”
Is it bad manners to snort? Of course we haven’t talked in a while. But I have a phone, same as her. I’ve seen the back of her phone countless times in recent years. But talked? Honest-to-goodness probed the depths of the universe?
Maybe not since we were kids, and I felt her soul slip further and further away from me with every syllable. When she caged it in her own planet—no.
She barred me from her planet.
I must have been silent for a bit too long, because I could hear her shift on the other end. “Did we get cut off?”
“No.” Emotionally? Yeah. But the line’s still here. Then, because I realize she’s probably expecting some kind of reaction from me, I say. “Well, what’s up?”
Because we only care about people’s schedules, not how they’re feeling. And every “how are you” usually gets the canned “good, how are you?” response.
“Not much.” She pauses. I can hear some more shifting. “I was just cleaning out the back of my closet and found some pictures of us when we were little.”
Tears prick at my eyes. Oh, you mean before there was a travel ban on one Cassie Morgan to Planet Gwen Evans? “Oh, my gosh. I bet they’re cringy, aren’t they?”
“A little.” Gwen laughs. “But they’re pretty cute. There’s one when we went to the gym and we both raced up the rock wall. I won, remember?”
“What?” I almost want to laugh, but I hold it back. It would do no good to pack my bags now and then when I get to the airport find the flight to Planet Gwen has already closed. “No! You did nothing of the sort. We were neck-and-neck and then you shoved me off the wall.”
Gwen giggles. “Okay, now you’re just making things up.”
“Really? Because I’m sure I have video proof somewhere, on somebody’s old phone.” I tap my foot against the side of my couch. “I saw my life flash before my eyes. I was suddenly spiraling downwards—”
“We were on harnesses attached to ropes!”
“Inconsequential! I was plummeting towards the earth in a free fall—thank goodness for that acne-ridden worker that broke my fall.”
“Uh, he just kind of grabbed you and set you on the ground. It was all really gentle.”
Gwen’s laughing now. I wonder if I should be, too.
More importantly, I wonder if it’s real. The kind of belly-laugh that could make someone cry and gasp for air.
She used to. She used to do that around me a lot.
I used to love Planet Gwen.
Now I really want to cry, but I also don’t want her to know the depths of my emotions.
I’m such a hypocrite. I want depth and authenticity from everyone else, want to mine the secrets of their soul, and yet, I can’t even bring myself to shed one genuine tear.
“Remember that time you broke my arm playing Wii tennis?” I say instead.
“You’ve never had a broken bone in your body,” Gwen retorts. “I merely hit you.”
“With the force as if you were hitting a real tennis ball!”
Why am I doing this? Why am I daring to stare at the flights to Planet Gwen?
Because I know what will come of this. Absolutely nothing. Soon our planets will be out of orbit once again, forgotten, with merely the memories that we used to be close to each other. And I will be the lonelier one for it.
I always am.
“I’m sorry I took my childhood aggressions out on you,” Gwen says with a chuckle.
“I didn’t mind.”
That, at least, may be the most honest thing I’ve said in a while. I didn’t mind. If she was aggressive with me, at least she was paying attention to me. And it seemed that we used to be more real, more connected, in those moments.
Now, even though we’re cordial—in the moments with our phones acting as our go-betweens—it’s not like anything of substance is exchanged. Actual memories of Gwen, more than the fleeting glimpses of her being at family dinners or coming over to see our shared grandparents at my house, are few and far between now that our relationship has turned “nice.”
There is silence. I guess a picture can only dredge up so many memories, which can only be rehashed so many times, before even they start feeling stale. I’ve had friendships die that way before: when all you have to talk about is the “good-old-days,” suddenly, they become boring and less precious than they were the first time. Like how you get sick of your favorite food after you binge eat it.
What happened to us?
That’s what I want her to say. I want her to open the floodgates so I can...what? Let her have it? Maybe. Scream at her? No. My emotions don’t run that deep anymore. I’d sooner cry than scream at her.
Remember that time I came all the way to your house, hoping to find you, to have some memories with you. But I’d invited myself over, and I don’t think you were too happy about that. You wanted to talk to your online friends. You kept messaging them while I tried to get your attention. I walked around your room in circles, trying to make you laugh so you’d look at me. I brought up old memories, I had ideas for new ones, but you only sipped your coffee and answered half-heartedly. You laughed, but only small, pitying laughs.
And then I got down on your floor and started crying.
I was so alone then.
And then you looked over your bed and told me to stop being such a baby.
You got off your computer, but your soul still wasn’t in the room. It was with whoever was on the other side of the chat site, whoever was more important than me.
And that was the way it always was. I vied for your attention, only to be given the scraps that you didn’t want to save for someone else.
More memories: good, bad, beautiful, and ugly, bubbled to the forefront of my brain, all for no purpose other than to make me sad. I was tired of reminiscing. I was tired of making myself sad by dredging up the past from its coffins and shaking it off, expecting to find it fully clothed again when it had clearly been a skeleton for a long time. I’d been trying to deny it, like Norman Bates in Psycho, carrying around a decaying corpse for too long.
“Well—I was just calling to tell you that. There’s a bunch in this box here. I’ll bring them next time I visit Nana and Poppa.” Gwen sounds like she’s fumbling for an answer, fumbling for something to say to me.
I don’t think this call is going the way she planned.
But that’s okay, because I didn’t expect a call at all.
“We should get together soon,” she concludes.
I realize I’ve been silent for way too long. “Definitely.”
Another thing I can’t stand in humanity, in the exteriors we present. I know the situation well enough to know that “we should get together soon” is just a convenient excuse to get away quickly now. But what truly baffles me is what she expected to happen. Did she think I would be her marionette one last time? That I would dance and sing to her whims just to be discarded at the end of the call? That time was past, because I’d learned something in my solitary orbit that I didn’t know back then.
Being alone isn’t the worst fate that can befall someone.
Being alone when you’re with someone is.
I refuse to be another distraction on a screen for her any longer.
“I’ll see you soon,” I tell her, because, at the end of the day, I am human too. These pleasantries are hardwired into my brain, paltry platitudes to spew whenever the mood is appropriate.
And they seem to appease Gwen. “Yeah. See you soon, Cassie.”
There’s a disconnect sound as we both make our hasty escapes.
And in a few seconds, I have a new text message.
I miss you, Gwen writes.
I stare at my screen before I take in the scene around me. In my family room, my grandmother watches TV with a blank expression as Alzheimer’s slowly saps her memory away. Her own world is in its sunset, an ancient and strong star almost about to be a supernova that will explode our family unit. My grandfather sits beside her and pats her hand, a stranger to her even though they’ve inhabited the same warm rock for over sixty years. My mother is somewhere in the house, but she’s silent. As if her planet doesn’t even exist in our solar system.
My father sits across the room on his phone.
One sister plays a gaming console with her friends, the friends that probably know more about her recent life than I do. My other sister hasn’t looked up from Snapchat in about an hour, but she laughs quietly to herself every once in a while. My youngest brother watches Netflix across the room, halfway hidden by a decaying plant that none of us can remember to water, even if we remember to check Instagram fifteen times an hour.
I quickly type some words back to Gwen, but my finger hovers over the “send” button. As if, when I send this, some vital part of my planet will shift, and I can’t put my finger on what.
It’s just yet another thing I don’t have the aptitude or words to describe.
I send it anyway, send it into space, into the satellite that will redirect it to her.
I miss you, too.
I don’t miss her body, her presence in the room. I've got enough bodies to keep me lonely.
I miss her soul.