Photo: Vincent Fournier
Sometimes when James sat on the bus he wondered if there were other hims, sitting on other busses that he had just missed, or that came after the one he had just caught. He thought about the people he then didn’t see, and the ways they then didn’t affect him, and the looks they then didn’t exchange, and the lurches and rumbles they never did share in the commute they didn’t have together. He wondered what it would be like to catch up to one of the versions of himself who had legged it ahead, or to be caught by one of the ones that had straggled behind, and hoped that if they did meet they would be nice to each other and not be weird about it or pretend they didn’t know one another. Sometimes James just played Words With Friends
on his phone.
For 18 stops – nearly half the distance to the subway – he had been trying to make a decent start to a game. As he didn’t have any vowels, not even a ‘y’, this was proving to be very difficult. His circling index finger made combinations of two and three letters that he hoped might be allowed by the inflexible dictionary of the game, that stood guard over the line between a meaningless jumble and a word no one had ever heard of that could score 78 points. He slid tiles back and forth across the screen until he’d exhausted all options, even asking a bookish looking lady beside him if she had any suggestions. She glanced down at his phone, aglow in the primary colours of the game, shook her head and tsked. James nodded thoughtfully and pointed out that he didn’t have a ‘k’.
This was no way to start a game. Not with simply_sarah. With her he especially wanted to make a solid beginning. They’d been playing each other for over a week now, in a series of closely contested games begun after the ‘smart match’ feature of the app had paired them at random. Both had had breakout words that saw them to large leads and easy wins, and both had had to scrimmage in the corners, placing two-letter terms as many ways as possible to try to stay in the game, battling through the humiliating difficulties of five out of seven tiles being an ‘i’.
Though he knew next to nothing about simply_sarah, he felt an unexpected affinity for her. When they had first started playing he’d checked her profile and learned she’d only recently joined the app, had played a handful of games, had a very high average word score, and on one occasion had scored a rather astonishing 613 points in a single contest (his best was 524). James was impressed.
Then over a period of days she went from just a few wins to many, and the game informed him she had scored a very large amount of total points. Not only did this confirm her skill, it also gave away that she was playing many games at once, and often. He also noticed that whenever he opened the app he could see a small green dot above her profile photo (which was just a tile with the letter ‘S’ on it, a default for those who didn’t load pictures or link the app to Facebook. The little dot showed she was online, somewhere out there. And he almost always got a returned play from her within minutes of taking his turn. No matter what time of day it was. As simply_sarah’s profile didn’t say where in the world she was James had no way of knowing, but as a regular insomniac himself he had gone into the game at all hours and had yet to not find her online. This made him sure that she was either an insomniac like him (chronic) or was being kept up by something, or someone, in particular. And he thought he knew what it was.
Although he’d made no conscious attempt at it, and was at first sure it was just his imagination, James and simply_sarah seemed to be having a subtle conversation beneath the surface of the game, through the words they chose to play. Chose in the very loosest sense, at least as far as James was concerned, as he was entirely looking to score the most points; and judging from simply_sarah’s scores she too was playing much more for keeps than conversation. But though he was sure they weren’t having a conversation made up of single word statements, he was equally sure that they were. And as the plays were done using a random assortment of letters that could only be played in a very few ways, James also wasn’t sure whether it was they who were having the conversation, or the conversation that was having them.
It was the second or third game that he had begun to notice it. Coming off of a horrible run of having three ‘U’s and nowhere especially appealing to put them, he had finally managed to lay down “Zulu” for a tidy score.
“Tribe,” Simply_sarah had silently returned.
There was a pause then as James had arrived at work and it was busy. While he would have liked to have been able to play at his desk it made him uncomfortable when people walked up behind him because he knew the bright colours of the game on his screen made it clear he was doing something other than his work. Sometimes he wondered if there was a version of the app that looked more business like so he wouldn’t have to worry. But not having that, or even having looked, he waited until a mid-morning break to play. Over a cup of black coffee he more needed than wanted, he placed:
“Alas,” Came simply_sarah’s response, less than a minute later.
The game then trailed off into its final moves, with letters being placed wherever they could be best fit into the crowded board for the most points. It having ended, James found himself staring out the window of the mostly empty cafe, wondering if he and simply_sarah had just shared something of a commentary, or whether he was simply finding poetry the way it can be found in a phonebook or on the side of a bus: by looking hard enough.
During the very next game, which they’d begun at lunchtime (at least where he was) and gotten into the thick of on his commute home, it happened again. Still just playing the words that best scored, James laid down: “Work.”
“Wait.” She had played back.
“Taxi.” Said James.
And James, as sure as he was that they were just playing the game – indeed simply_sarah had scored 36 points with ‘Birth’ with the ‘t’ having fallen on a triple-letter score and the ‘b’ on a triple-word – was equally sure that wherever in the world she was, simply_sarah was in the latter stages of pregnancy.
The games continued on through the week ending up to James not having any vowels. The conversations by word association continued as well. Or at least he thought they did, and thought they probably didn’t.
Raised a chuckle on the bus.
And he felt a small warmth from this as he sat on his couch, bed long abandoned, in the middle hours of a quiet night.
That was the night before the morning in which James had no vowels, which was also the morning that he suddenly stopped hearing from simply_sarah, and wondered if it was his fault.
Having laboured over it the entire bus ride, as he neared the subway – where he would lose connection – he had finally decided to swap tiles. This was something he hated doing at any stage in a game, and to do it at the beginning bothered him to no end. But he simply could not find a word to spell without a vowel. He turned in two ‘t’s and a ‘v’, and was randomly handed back a ‘w’, an ‘l’, and an ‘e’. Just one vowel, but at least he could do something with that on the next go. As he’d spent his play making the exchange his turn was over, and now he waited for simply_sarah.
The subway ride took forever. The train stopped between stations a number of times, until finally it paused for a very long while, a packed train full of people sitting and standing in a metal tube in a dark tunnel 60 feet underground. The driver announced a delay due to a mechanical failure up ahead, and many of the passengers wondered if that meant someone had decided to use a train in an unconventional manner to take them somewhere far away, permanently. James dozed lightly as he often did on the ride to work, his body finally sleepy after hours of being awkwardly alert.
When the train pulled into his station he was 15 minutes late and feeling slightly refreshed. He milled out with the others and while climbing the steps up to street level was surprised to not feel his pocket buzz with an alert from his phone. Usually midway up the first set of stairs the notifications would go vibrate as the phone grabbed at the rebounding radio waves penetrating down through the corridors, although sometimes he missed the feeling in the greater tremor of hundreds of people going hundreds of places through narrow passages. Today he pulled out his phone to check. There were no messages, and especially striking to him: no new play from simply_sarah.
He was sure it was because he hadn’t been able to take his turn; a first. He felt bad for that, but there had simply been no words.
The end of the workday found him still waiting for her play, having checked his phone an embarrassingly large number of times. He was growing concerned on a number of levels. That he had alienated his favourite Words With Friends friend, that maybe something had happened to simply_sarah, and that later that night he was going to have to fill the hours playing other people whose words made only points, not conversations. He would discover he was wrong on only one of these counts.
At a few minutes after 2:00 a.m. he was embroiled in three separate games. As the app let him choose whether he wanted to play in the British or American versions of English, at that hour he strategically chose British as he knew far more people were awake over there than on the North American landmass he and his couch hung ten quiet stories above. Each of his current games had a union jack flying above them, and he was losing in all.
Nothing was being said. Just words for the sake of words, games for the sake of games, distractions and nothing more, meaningless little birds flitting in the corner of the mind’s eye, not owls, not spirits. James put down his phone and went and made a tea and was a little bit sadder than usual, and a little bit more lonely.
Then he remembered that simply_sarah was in the latter stages of pregnancy.
Without pouring the rest of the hot water into his cup he put down the kettle and got his phone. He thumbed through the app quickly, opening up a leaderboard section that told you how many points your friends had scored that week. Simply_sarah was in the mid-1200’s, and was offline, as she had been every time he checked all day. Cautioning himself to not get too excited James made a mental note of this and resolved to check back in the morning to see if her point total had changed. But he was already certain that she was right this very moment either having or just having had a baby.
In the morning her total hadn’t changed at all, and James knew he was right. He was surprised at how happy this made him. That it meant that that she was having her baby, of course, but also that it meant that she wasn’t upset with him for not being able to start the game properly. She was just busy. And that was a lot easier to take. James wondered when he would hear from her, but knew from having seen his sisters become mothers that it might be some time, possibly a year or more. Things got very busy when new people who couldn’t do anything on their own arrived, especially the first time when the adults were so heavy on expectations of themselves, and light on experience. It could be quite encompassing, and he understood that Words with Friends might take a back seat. But he also knew that new mothers were generally awake pretty much all the time, sometimes trapped under the sleeping baby, and he held out some hope that maybe simply_sarah would find herself in such a position at some stage and become interested in playing a game to pass the time. He would wait.
A week later he heard from her.
Unusually for him he had slept through the early hours of the night, dreaming strange dreams and waking just as the ocean that he had been diving down into dropped away into space and his swimming became a fall. He started, and looked around in time to notice his phone screen was just returning to a dark after having been lit by a notification.
It was an alert from Words with Friends, and it told him that simply_sarah had made a word and now it was his turn. Sitting up in bed he looked at the notification for a while without unlocking his phone, on the one hand embarrassed that it meant so much to him, on the other hand relishing the warmth given to him from knowing simply_sarah was back in touch. He got up, made tea, sat down in the mostly dark room with one table lamp switched on beside him, and opened the app.
“Here.” Simply_sarah had said for 6 points, and James knew that they had given up the game as it was meant, and were now just talking. She had never scored less than 15 points on a turn. He looked at his letters for a while, trying to find a way to ask how everything was, and finally settled on a word that could be either a question or a statement and hoped she would know he was asking.
There was a long pause then. For the first ten minutes James sat still on the couch, waiting, sure her response would come any moment as he could see by the green dot that she was still online. When it didn’t arrive he thought he could picture her, feeding her new baby, phone glowing beside her in the night, or day as the case may be, hands full with new life and all that it needed. He went to the kitchen and poured more tea, happy in this thought, feeling somehow involved, if in the barest of ways.
Coming back he saw that the board had changed. A word had been added. He picked up his phone and drew it close to see the news.
James took in a breath, put down his tea, and sank cross-legged into the sofa, his heart sinking.
“Asleep.” He managed to make.
“Ever.” Came her immediate response, in seconds.
And James wept.
It took him some time to be able to respond. He had very few options of words, and even if he’d had them all, it wouldn’t be enough. The night drew in and his battery ran low as he stared at the small green dot on simply_sarah’s profile that said she was there, somewhere, online, and grieving.
“Gone.” James finally said back. Because he had little else, because it was an echo of what she had said, because it meant he heard her, and because in and of itself that word is a hollow vessel that can contain much loss.
“Hard.” She said back.
“Loss.” Replied James a short time later.
With a strange serendipity that would later make James question the true nature of chance, and wonder if things that seem to be unconnectable are in fact entirely intertwined, he found he was able to spell the one word he really needed then.
“Yes.” Said simply_sarah.
And then there was another long pause, this time at his end, as James grappled with the fact that other than unmeaning two-letter words, there was really only one legitimate thing he had available to say. He felt it was right, but was worried that without other words to soften and mix in with it and make clear that he offered it with kindness, and as a question not a directive, that it was too bare. Too much of a slap on the back when what he wanted to deliver was a gentle hand on the shoulder.
He looked at this word and where he would put it on the board for a whole tea’s worth. He tried other combinations, other words that might be more suited and less abrupt, but found nothing that made any sense at all. This word was all he had, and so he laid it down.
“Try.” He asked, and said.
In a dark living room overlooking a small but well-kept backyard, many, many cities away, Sarah read just_james’s new word. She put her phone down and lay her head on her pulled-in knees, looking out from the shadows and deep blues of the room onto the empty tones of a snow-filled yard at night in winter. She was unaware that she was crying, because there had been tears enough to wear a channel down her face, and she had stopped noticing them now as they came silently and unchecked, the wracking sobs of the aftershocks having been mostly spent.
His word fell where many others had gone in the week since their small daughter had been born breathless; drifting down into the void, touching neither sides nor bottom. It was a space she couldn’t measure. Although in her, it was larger than her, a hollow that ran to her core and out through the other side. It felt like this missing was there to stay, and she had only just begun to muster a sparse hope for how to live with the lack. That perhaps she could heal in a form around the missing piece, like a crater in the earth whose raw wound is slowly covered in moss and short grasses, then low shrubs and perhaps eventually a forest that softens and undulates over and around the land that was lost, a living relief of that which is gone and an anti-monument in which it is the lack itself that lives forever, its absence more powerful than anything’s presence.
There were no forests yet, there was no grass, the hollow was raw and deep, and it was down into that void that just_james’s word fell, like the light snow outside that Sarah could not watch without the visceral thought that her lost child would never know its silent magic.
She returned to the board, and saw that she had a response that could be played. While it was so far ahead of where she was at that moment that it made her chest tight to even think about, she felt too a trust, and a hope that as the planet turns she would once more find herself facing the sun, and would sow a new field beside her crater. She would grieve, for the person that was and the days that were lost. While she knew so little of the one, there were almost countless of the other, and this would now never change. And while carrying within her a hollow, she would yet do as just_james said. She would try.