The Remains of Conversation
Back then, I considered myself a gifted conversationalist. Conversations were easy. University was going to be fine so long as I remembered my golden rule: seek out the main interest of my interlocutor first before forming a conversation around that interest. Then, insert what little knowledge I have of the topic and indulge my companion with plenty of questions.
I had tried but was dismissed as a fake. To those I engaged, I was after personal gain rather than collective enlightenment. I was in no position to explain to my classmates what was really causing my fastidiousness. My first attempt to explain as much prompted a damning condemnation from one classmate. Affected attentiveness. Her diagnosis saddened me terribly and for the rest of that evening I had sought to explain how I was ultimately predisposed to over-thinking, but she was far too perceptive, and she knew I was being obsessive. She made it known to me in her own little way that she still thought the world of me. We made our way back to campus, laughing gratuitously at all manner of things, and everything was okay again.
Seated on the bus, I reached up instinctively behind my ears to readjust the ends of my i.REM band, anxious that the central transmitter should sit precisely on the nape of my neck. I pinched the upturned tag of my overcoat between my thumb and forefinger, slipping it from under the i.REM band and tucking it back down into my collar. There. Maximum connectivity. Both hands now resting on either knee, I realised that my gloves had fallen out from the side of my coat and onto the lap of the young woman sitting beside me. She looked down self-consciously at the backs of her hands, extending the tips of her fingers. I glanced at the space below her left earlobe, activating my Bluetooth, but hers was a new i.REM and we failed to connect. Unsure how to verbally acknowledge my offence, my desire for conversational symmetry and perfection reawakened, I recalled my former classmate’s unfortunate misunderstanding, my blunder transporting me into another episode of obsessiveness.
Meandering recollections were surely at odds with the requirements posted by my grandson on our i.REM chat this morning. Poppy, can you please send those old Zoom screenshots and chat histories of your conversations with your teachers and classmates? I just want to get this done today. There is a smooth asphalt road flanked by well-maintained sidewalks leading directly to the lighthouse from the last bus stop. I’m thankful that now I much prefer the sandy track snaking its way through the overgrowth of the eroding coastline. The network was patchy along this route, but this was the road I wanted to be on. Here, park benches perch precariously along the edge of the crumbling cliffside. Gaps in the growth provide passageways for bursts of wind and salt.
Chat history. The term bemused me even now, and not just because we staunchly maintained at the time that online exchanges couldn’t possibly replace the need for face-to-face interaction. I sighed. Yet, given what later happened in the 2020s and 2030s, it was convenient to use the online chat histories of 2020 as a departure point for an evaluation of the unprecedented advancements made in Neural Signalling Interfacing. My grandson was simply complying with facts and apparently, he needed to demonstrate this for a current university assessment.
Studying on campus was territorial. Our study spots not only provided us with a false sense of certainty regarding the perfect study day ahead, they were the sanctuaries of that hopelessly frivolous promise of fate. But it’s true that I met her in the mezzanine of Old Arts, on my patch, squeezed in between two classrooms, the external windows facing down onto the building’s courtyard, and she did what all occupants of that most exclusive piece of study-spot-real-estate had only ever envisaged in an idle moment; she engaged me directly in conversation. My neighbours looked up from their screens in unison, some even commencing elaborate upper body stretches, and I was a little embarrassed because I had been for some time now studying the nape of her neck and the tops of her shoulders as she stood facing the classroom door, tracing the fine dark hairs leading from the base of her hairline and down into her singlet, reflecting on the tragedy of digital aesthetics when she abruptly turned to inquire of me our present location. I told her and she gave a self-satisfied nod before proceeding to converse with me on a range of other matters, telling me all at once the details I needed to piece together regarding the events leading up to her arrival that morning. I became alarmed. The more she spoke the more I was required to compartmentalise, reciprocate, and evaluate.
Unceremoniously, she stepped up onto a stool at the end of the bench. She said she would wait for me to finish what I was doing and then we would go and drink coffee, presumably for the purposes of continuing our conversation. The prospect of mileage from Old Arts to Union House beyond AirPod-confined space made me even more uneasy. I re-joined my neighbours, glancing not infrequently in the direction of my interlocutor, replaying our exchange at different speeds and in different sequences, reconciling the imperfections.
But this surely was not what my grandson meant by chat histories. I did not want to inquire after the purpose and design of his dissertation, lest it disappoint me. Poppy, it’s just for a graded i.REM consultation with my tutor. What’s a dissertation? Anyway, our tutor wants me to summarise Crawford’s 2034 letter of apology to Luan for the former’s misrepresentation of technology’s ability to cultivate harmonious exchanges between peoples across borders. My grandson’s voice had shed its earlier warble, nodal realignment thrusting his exasperation into my Wernicke’s area. I should not have been pursuing these thoughts beyond the relative safety of the meandering cliffside path. God. Are you out at the lighthouse again Poppy? I just need those chat histories to show how your generation were the pioneers of conversations using Neural Signalling Interfacing. Two or three should be enough. My grandson went to great lengths to ensure he was always located in the best spots for i.REM connectivity, constantly reprimanding me for not doing the same.
I reached the lighthouse. I’m really glad I bumped into you that day, here in this old mezzanine. I shuffled to the edge of the cliff face where I knew the wind and salt would interfere with my i.REM band. Bumped. I wonder if this old expression would come up at all in my earlier online chat histories. She may very well have been the last person ever to use this once common portrayal of warmth and friendship. Startled even then by the promise with which these words were imbued, I had faltered. And yet, sitting across from her at our patch, I had managed to reciprocate and did not attempt to evaluate. Bumps were what they were because they were an escape from the symmetrical formulations of Luan’s harmonious exchanges. Bewildered, but not fearful, we once allowed ourselves to reciprocate, recognising that a bump’s complete lack of utility should have been the golden rule from the very beginning.
Turning abruptly against the wind and salt, I made my way back to the front of the lighthouse. Seated apart on either end of the log bench, facing away from one another, was a young couple. They would be deep in conversation by now. Afraid that my inferior i.REM band and my grandson’s increasing irritation would disrupt the flow of their exchange, I decided to make my way towards the lookout. As I passed the far end of the bench, I recognised the young woman from the bus. Noticing the tips of her fingers clutch at the zip of her jacket, I tried to recall the last time I had gestured during a conversation.
I’m doing it right now. You’ll have them in just a tic. I leant over the parapet of the lookout, the ocean water crashing against the cliff face, its protrusions striving gallantly against the inevitable erosion. My gaze settled on a large chunk of rock jutting out from the cliff face. It retained a small pool of sea water, the surface of which reflected the final rays of the waning sun. Ok Poppy. That’s great. I could hear him much more clearly now. I tensed my jaw, the corners of my mouth began to shudder, the wind and salt stung my eyes. An involuntary sob escaped between my clenched teeth. If not appearing to him in its precise form, I trusted my smile would at least communicate to my grandson a spirit of comradeship. I knew my chat histories would reveal to me the remains of conversations I never understood how to reciprocate.
Slow-waves and affected attentiveness. If someone had told me earlier that recording and reviewing chat histories only served to accelerate the technological formalisation of our fear of misunderstanding, I may never have even bothered to store the content. Presently, my grandson had muted the notifications on our i.REM chat.