It was something he’d said on Zoom that bothered me.
In fact, I had several questions about what he wanted last night. I wasn’t being weird. Or difficult. Or…what had he said?
It doesn’t matter, because I was irritated.
The woods have a certain sound when they’re played back through the speakers in a warm room. It’s hard to describe, but it’s what I use to calm myself down after something unnerves me. Field recordings. Played back on a loop. The rainforest has a certain vibrancy that I like to bring indoors. Otherwise I don’t feel safe. Either because inside is empty. Or outside is too wet and you just freeze. I mean, I do. Some people like that. He likes that. Well, he can go do that whenever he wants. So long as I don’t have to.
—I don’t think I can do this tonight.
That’s what he’d said on Zoom. Though he’d already been over here. He said the exactly same thing when he was in the bathroom. We were already finished. He was getting out of the shower and I was by the window, smoking in my t-shirt.
—That’s a long trip to make to just turn around, but don’t let me stop you.
—Yeah, you’re right, Mira. I just don’t…
—I just don’t feel like you want me here.
—Can I finish my cigarette?
There’s a long moment then, standing in indecision. I know that look on his face. But there’s something new in his eyes. Something hurt, maybe. Or betrayed. I don’t want him here tonight, but I miss him so badly it’s making me pissed at both of us. It’s almost like he knows that seeing him on the screen of my laptop is so much easier for me. That it allows me to keep wanting him. It—I don’t understand it. There’s a heat there. It feels like snow falling on the warm hood of a car. It melts and it goes soft and it slides off. And by the time it hits the ground, it’s nothing.
I don’t tell him that. It’s like melted ice water on the street? That’s not a good thing to tell somebody when you want to sleep on your own couch. I’m not an idiot. I have ideas about things that I need.
When he goes back into the bathroom to brush his teeth, I go into the kitchen for tea. I don’t ask. When I peek back into the bedroom, he hasn’t picked up a magazine. He’s not looking at his phone. He’s just sitting all dressed. Right there on my bed with his eyes closed. He looks like a cat. When you can’t tell if a cat is bored or irritated or kind of taunting you because he feels superior. The kettle ticks up to a boil. I let the tea steep.
I don’t go back into the bedroom. I don’t want to start again and stop and then start and stop and keep going like that. He’s beautiful, though. He’s done with me, obviously. I would be. But we broke up last week over the phone so I don’t know what he wants. He doesn’t look like he has any regrets—he looks like a little boy.
When I come back in with our tea, I hand him a mug and he takes it from me without saying anything and holds it with both hands and looks into it. He won’t meet my eyes. His hair is still wet, but he’s dressed.
—I saw you the other day.
—What are you talking about?
I’ve barely left my apartment in weeks. He knows this. We know this.
—I saw you…at your window.
—You had your mask on, Mira.
—When was this?
—Will you tell me if there was there somebody here with you?
It’s not easy to have sex over Zoom. I mean, maybe some people think it’s easy, but it’s not easy for me. There’s a sense that somebody is watching. Somebody other than him. I don’t know. It’s hard to explain. When I told Amy this morning, she said:
—Then you don’t trust him.
—But he could record it.
—Set it up so that he can’t. There’s probably, like, settings.
—But then he’ll see that I’ve set it up so he can’t.
—So….I don’t know. There’s something about the space that needs to feel right. To be in the mood. It’s like temperature. It’s harder even than being in person.
—But you hate being in person.
—I do. But I hate Zoom more?
—See, you say that like it’s a question. You don’t even know what you want.
—What I like is about choosing whatever loses the competition of whatever I don’t like.
—I don’t even understand that, but, anyway, what happened?
—What do you mean?
—When he came over last night, dummy. You said it was weird.
—He tried to break up with me. I think…but that wasn’t the weird part.
—That was the sad part?
—Sure. Or…the confusing part.
—Is that why you got irritated?
—Wait, are you eating?
—Cereal, sorry. Why? I always eat when we’re on the phone.
—Just call me when you’re done, Amy.
I hung up. I didn’t feel like talking to her about it anymore. I don’t like not knowing what I feel. But last night the room felt strange. Like whenever it got to the perfect temperature it would fall back down and then I’d go adjust the thermostat and it would become an inferno, like it had a mind of its own—like it was being passive aggressive. And every time I got it to 79 it would just tick up to 83 or 84 to fuck with me and then I opened the windows but it was freezing outside and there was ice on the streets and all over the windshields out there. I heard the neighbors scraping them when I woke up. It’s automated, but I keep messing with it, and that’s the problem. It’s like not trusting that the flight it is on autopilot and you keep fucking with the controls and it’s getting mixed messages and then the plane overcorrects and flies into a mountain.
—I finished my cereal. What did he say on Zoom?
—So, I had taken off my shirt and then told him to hang on—
—This was on Zoom after he’d already been over and you’d already had sex?
—Yes, after. And we tried to have sex, but it was weird. Anyways, so we’re on Zoom and I told him to hang on while I adjusted the heat. I had taken my shirt off and my nipples were hard already. And I felt excited but didn’t know if I wanted to keep going. And he turned his camera off, and I asked him why, and he said he just kept looking at himself and that he wanted to look at me. I said, this feels weird.
—Good weird, he said, or bad weird?
—I don’t know yet.
—What about your bra?
—What about it?
—Why don’t you take it off?
—Because it’s cold in here. I’m waiting for the thermostat to kick on and warm it up.
—Just go and adjust it then.
—Wait, don’t do that.
—You want me to leave my mask on?
—I don’t know. I guess so. Yeah.
—Tell me what you like.
—I don’t know what I like.
—Tell me what you’d do if I came over.
—Why don’t you come over and I can tell you.
—Mira, you’re not even trying. You said you’d try.
I took off my bra. I kept my mask on. It felt funny. Like I was performing something, I don’t know.
—I like the idea of you watching me.
—Okay, what else?
—I like the idea of you watching me, trying to memorize everything. My lips. My shoulders. My breasts.
—Good. What else?
—I like thinking about you recording me.
—But don’t record me. I don’t want to be recorded.
—I just like to imagine that you would want to. That you’d do it secretly. That you’d…
—That I would…?
—That you’d watch me later. That you’d have to get out of bed in the middle the night and turn on your computer and open up the file and watch me.
—And what would I see?
—Hang on, it’s getting too hot in here now.
—Just stay with it. I like this, Mira. Tell me what I would see if I watched the recording?
—You’d see me. And you’d hear me. And I wouldn’t have this mask on. And you wouldn’t be trying to record me. You’d be getting warmer. You’d…
—You’d need me like this.
—Like what? Where are you going?
—I have to open the window now. Hold your horses.
But when I’d gotten back to the laptop, his camera was back on. And the light was all weird in his bedroom. And I didn’t like it.
—It’s too hot in here but I opened the window and it’s freezing.
—Why are you smiling like that? We were close.
—Why don’t you just come over here.
—What about last time?
—Let’s not talk about last time.
—Mira, you slept on the sofa. And that thing is tiny. It’s like a dog bed. Your legs were sticking off.
—I can’t sleep with you yet, I’m sorry. I mean, we can do things, just not actual sleep.
—Right, so then I’d come all the way over and then drive all the way home?
—Hang on. I have to shut the window.
—What are you doing?
—I’m trying, okay? It’s not easy for me.
—You want to be close. But you don’t.
—No, I do and I don’t. I don’t know what’s wrong with me, but it’s not you.
—That’s what everybody says when they really just want to split up.
—But this feels wrong. It’s either scorching or frigid in here. I can’t get it right.
—No, you can’t.
—What’s that supposed to mean?
—You can take your mask off, Mira.
—What if I don’t? Isn’t this how you wanted me?
—Okay, let’s stop. I don’t like this. It doesn’t work when I come over.
—And it doesn’t work on a screen.
—I thought it was working, Mira.
—I thought it was, too. I liked it. I think…
—What if I turned my camera off again.
—Then can we try again?
—I think so. If I can get the temperature right, then yeah. We can try again.
—What about sound?
—What about it?
—Should I turn my microphone off, too?
—Maybe I should turn mine off.
—Mira, I want to hear you, though. I want you to talk to me.
—Imagine that I’m talking. I can’t see you. And you can’t hear me.
—Let’s try it. I’m muting myself now.
—I love your voice. I love the sound of your voice, though. I love the sounds you make when you’re turned on. Mira, will you turn your mic back on?
—Okay, but you have to turn yours off, then.
—Then you’ll have nothing. No image, no sound.
—Exactly. And then you’ll have everything.
—Why does this have to be so fucking weird?
—Just try it. Mute yourself now. Okay, good. And keep your camera off. Good. Okay. Soo, you’re there but I can’t see you and I can’t hear you. There’s just the blank screen in this hot room. I can speak to you. I can say whatever I want to you. But you can’t tell me things. You have to send me mental images of what you want. Like telepathy. You have to shut your eyes and tell me what to do. And I’ll try to shut my eyes and listen for whatever it is that you’re telling me to do. You want me to stand up? Okay. You want me to keep my mask on? Okay. You like my hair like this? No, you like it better when it’s up. I’ll put it up. You want me to stand by the window. You want me to take my skirt off in front of the window. You want me to keep my mask on, that’s good. There’s nobody outside. The street is empty. You like the street empty. With me standing in my underwear by the open window with my mask on. You want me to lean out the window in my mask. You want to see what I see. You will want to memorize this. You want to hold onto this for a very long time. So that you can record it. So that you can play it back. So that you can play it back at night when it’s freezing cold in your apartment and you’re alone and you can try to sear each thing that I say, word for word, pause for pause, into your mind. And you won’t tell anyone. You’ll have this secret recording that you were expressly forbidden to make. You’ll watch this recording in the middle of the night and you’ll move your mouth along with the audio of my voice and you’ll try to memorize what I look like standing here by the open window in my mask and my underwear. And you won’t be able to forget me. Even when we no longer know each other. You won’t ever be able to forget me. You’ll have studied this, the way my hands hold the window sash. The way I’m leaning out. The way I’m breathing into the air from the street that’s freezing cold tonight. You’ll save each detail. You’ll hold onto every sound and movement and even my bare feet padding quickly across the floor to adjust the thermostat will be burned into your mind after it’s gotten so fucking cold in here from having the window open all night.
So Long, Mira
About the Author
Born and raised in Seattle, Joshua Marie Wilkinson is the author of several books of poetry as well as Trouble Finds You, a novel due out next year. His writing has appeared in Tin House, Pen America, Poetry, The Believer, and in more than a dozen anthologies. He's taught in MFA programs in Chicago and Tucson, and abroad in Italy, Slovakia, and Turkey. In 2019 he was the Writer-in-Residence at Rhodes University in South Africa. He lives in Seattle with the writer Lisa Wells and their son Jude. Currently, he teaches at Hugo House and is training to become a psychotherapist.
This data was produced by a Nest thermostat. It is part of Google Nest, Google’s line of smart home products. The Nest thermostat can read the indoor temperature, the outdoor temperature, the humidity level, and will adjust your home temperature accordingly. This data was collected during the month of March 2021. It was downloaded from the Google My Activity page as a .csv file. The file had 2977 lines and 20 columns. The Nest thermostat collects data every 15 minutes.
For this story, we encouraged the writer to imagine a story about the dataset from this household, from data's perspective. We invited the writer to think about how data might be inserted into narratives, gaining a life of their own.
This visualization shows the Nest thermostat data that inspired this story. The data spans from March 1st to March 31st 2021.
Nest thermostat data, including average temperature and humidity.
I looked at the data several times and started thinking about how temperature rises and falls in the room or apartment; it led me to think about how the temperature rises and falls between people.