Dispatches

Getting Textual

Jill Margo

What does the Facebook message mean? Half-cut, we subject it to various decoding methodologies.

A note from A. has just landed in my Facebook inbox. I’ve only met A. twice—once two weeks ago at the Waterfront Theatre, and the first time about a year ago at a Gastown pub. He’s a playwright and a theatre critic, an acquaintance of a dear friend. He’s tall and large, with lips like a pair of matching loveseats. His hair is expressive, which is to say that when he talks he puts his hands in his hair and his hair talks back. He also wears cardigans. GQ says cardigans are hot right now, but I don’t think he knows that. I only know because my cousin the metrosexual said so. A. does not look like a metrosexual; he looks like a professor in a cardigan who needs a haircut.

The note gives me instant hermeneutic anxiety. That means I’m anxious about interpreting its meaning. Hermeneutic anxiety is a new term I’ve just learned in my lit theory class. I’ve been overusing it because, as it turns out, I have hermeneutic anxiety about many things. My lit theory textbook allows me to believe this is because I have a bright and curious mind, not because I am obsessive and afraid of making mistakes. It’s better to find your ailment in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism than in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. I take the Norton seriously because it is heady, dangerous stuff, and hefty enough to kill a man.

My hermeneutic anxiety revolves around the fact that I think the note’s purpose may be to ask me on a date, but I’m not sure. I’m not all that versed in date language. In fact, I’ve never really dated—unless you count things like a guy coming over to smoke a joint and staying for eight years. Or getting drunk and asking some guy at the bar if he’s ever seen a chubby girl strip. In other words, the notion of a date, and all its pretences, freaks me out. Plus, my heart’s been closed for renovations. It’s been a real mess in there, debris everywhere.

I print out the thirty-six-word note in order to subject it to various methodologies of decoding because I have my lit theory class as an excuse. I’m interested in what kind of metamessage might be revealed, though I don’t know if this little game will reinforce or diffuse my hermeneutic anxiety. Still, it seems like a reasonable thing to do on a Thursday night while hanging out with the cat.

I assign each letter of the alphabet a number (1 to 26, but they all reduce to 1 to 9), colours (prismatic) and musical notes (middle C to B), and then apply these to the text as a kind of forced synesthesia. I envy synesthetes, for whom the number 3 is the deep orange of a good egg yolk and scarlet is the clangour of a trumpet.

The letters converted to numbers add up to the number 798. Simple “digit summing” reveals that the single-digit reduction of the text is the number 6 (7 + 9 + 8 = 24 and 2 + 4 = 6). The Lovers is the sixth trump card in the tarot deck and represents a temptation of the heart. This is not a metaphysical guarantee of the meaning of fate, but it is a nice sign. “Who wants a new daddy?” I ask the cat.

The note has a fairly even balance of orange, green and violet. It’s got a lesser amount of indigo, and only a spot of yellow. There’s lots of red but even more blue, including two words (see and else) that contain no other colour. Blue is my least favourite colour and that bums me out, but then I remember my desert island album is Joni Mitchell’s Blue and I feel better. I wonder why I wasn’t more careful with the colour palette, though. A rainbow of tasteful earth and fire tones would’ve guaranteed a pleasing interpretation—which, on second thought, would’ve been like stacking the deck. Blue, I decide, is a reality check.

The song the note makes is fairly harmonious and quite sunny with very little drama. I plunk it out one note at a time on a virtual keyboard I’ve found on the internet. It’s hardly a step up from my nephew’s Fisher-Price piano, which I should’ve borrowed. After hitting repeat a few times, I can haltingly hum along. When I start adding drumbeats where the punctuation marks are, the neighbour girl turns up her Patsy Cline. She’s had “Faded Love” on repeat for hours, and I’ve been considering taking her a care package of chocolate and Kleenex. I decide I can no longer concentrate on making a song out of A.’s text when the neighbour girl’s heart is breaking. I don’t understand the language of dating, but I do understand the grammar of endings.

The next night I go to my friend Megan’s thirty-sixth birthday party and talk to a redhead I’ve just met named Carmen about my studies. Carmen’s the size of a pot roast, though she’s a vegetarian and slim, so maybe I should say she’s the size of something less meaty. I could say she’s child-sized but that might diminish your idea about her brain, which sizzles smartly. When I confess to her what I’ve been doing with the note she gets excited and wants to see it. Conveniently, it’s in my backpack.

Other party-goers want to know what we’re burbling about. We take the note into the kitchen and I explain. I’m loud because I’m half-cut. Brian, Megan’s boyfriend, self-describes as thinking along the borders of anarchism, Marxism and post-structuralism. His degrees in cat years would put most people into senility. When I stand beside him with the note he says, “So, we need to perform a textual analysis.” He pushes up his sleeves like he’s going to do the dishes. This is what people with high IQs do when things get textual.

“Hey Jill!” A. writes in salutation and Brian reads out. We note the casualness of “Hey” and the enthusiasm of the exclamation mark. We are usually anti-exclamation mark in a literary sense but acknowledge that it’s a gesture of tone. It’s forgivable in this context and better than an emoticon because I don’t know what most of them mean >.< .

“Hope you’re doing well, enjoying Vancouver—and of course, recovered from the puppet show.”

We agree that hope is an expectation that something good is due to happen, which means that it also acknowledges that things might actually, as Brian says, “totally suck.” I have a new appreciation for the word hope because of the bases it covers.

I explain to Brian—and Megan and her roommate Darren, who are also listening—that I ran into A. at the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, where we’d just seen a puppet show. I’d confessed to A. that I had a mild, though not very committed, case of pupaphobia when he asked me how I liked the show. I also said that I felt like I’d watched it aboard a 747 because the legroom was so bad, which is a line that I stole from Colin Thomas, the Georgia Straight’s reviewer, who was sitting next to me.

“So he’s referencing your last encounter with a sense of humour,” says Brian.

“Right on,” says Darren, leaning against the counter looking cute and badass. Darren is an animal-rights activist who was just incarcerated for thirty-seven months in the U.S. for freeing wild horses. I think he’s also sleeping with Carmen.

The next line of the note is what caused my hermeneutic anxiety in the first place: “Would be great to meet up for a drink.”

Carmen, when she read that line, declared, “It is a study in neutrality.” She said this as reverently as someone might say, “It is a symphony in D minor.”

“Look at that stunning lack of pronouns,” I exclaim to Brian.

“My god,” he says.

“The line has insulated itself perfectly against rejection,” I say. “If I ­didn’t want to meet for this drink—if in fact it is I who the non-existent he thinks would be great to meet for a drink—in effect there is no one to even turn down!”

Megan lifts her glass of red wine, leans forward on her tiptoes, and says, “Just go on the date.” It’s hard to tell if this is her pragmatic refusal to interpret the note, or if it is, in fact, her interpretation.

Megan is very intelligent and has been writing about reading Saramago during the economic collapse. It’s her birthday, though, and her main job at the moment is to look pretty in her party dress. I think Megan wants me to go on the date because it’s time for me to get over my dead boyfriend. I’m all for getting over my dead boyfriend too. Hell, even my dead boyfriend probably wants me to get over him.

“Beer is for buddies,” I say.

“True,” says Brian. “And this is a drink.”

“Classic,” says Megan.

There’s a line break in A.’s note and then he writes, “My number is . . .” We all agree that providing his number is a referential act and it fits with pre-existing conventions around dating—i.e., phone number = “I want you to call me so we can go on a date.” It’s also the first time A. has really asserted himself in the note. He’s confident about his phone number.

The last line in the body of the note says, “Did you see anything else at PuSh?”

Brian notes he’s inviting conversation and even an opinion, should I wish to give it.

“He also capitalized the S in PuSh, which is what PuSh does and that shows respect for the arts,” I say. “Plus, a guy who can respect unconventional capitalization probably has a pleasant sense of propriety. He’s civilized.”

“Look at this,” says Brian, noticing the sign-off. “Best [line break] A.,” he reads out, and slaps the page with the back of his hand.

Best has no comma after it,” I say. “The only typo in the note.”

“Or is it?” says Brian, one eyebrow going up. “Maybe he’s the best guy whose name starts with the letter A. Or maybe it stands for something else, like Action. Maybe he’s the Best Action.”

This revs Darren up. He says “A” like the Fonz says “Aaay.” I’m pretty sure it’s because he’s thinking about how dating leads to getting laid. Darren seems to be very pro-getting laid, which may have something to do with the dry spell in the big house.

Megan passes back through the kitchen on her way out to the porch for a cigarette. She looks really great in her party dress. She pauses just long enough to say: “She’s totally going to go on the date.”

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Jill Margo

Jill Margo has worked as editorial assistant at the Malahat Review, executive director of the Victoria School of Writing and coordinator of two reading series. Her work has been published in the Malahat Review and Monday Magazine, and she was a 2009 Western Magazine Award finalist. She now lives with “A.”—the playwright Andrew Templeton.


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