The waiter’s name is Valentine. He has long, slim fingers, and he writes down my order instead of pretending to commit it to memory. I like that, his pen on the paper bringing forth one simple thing about me. My lunch. Just a tiny fragment of information. I honor him by doing the same. “The waiter’s name is Valentine,” I write in my battered notebook, “and he has long, slim fingers.”
Information is sacred. I don’t remember why, or who told me. But I know that information is sacred, so I write it down, scraps of knowledge and observations. I used to write in leatherbound journals with elegant heavy pens, but the fetish for elegance has fallen by the wayside in my rush to commit everything to paper. Now I use cheap marbled composition books, purchased by the dozen. The pen is still important, though. It must write in smooth lines of black, not catch on the page. There is too much to capture.
I order chai tea and butternut squash soup. I write that down as well, just after Valentine does. I watch him walk to the kitchen, slender and graceful, and I wonder what Valentine does when he is not refilling coffee mugs. I wonder if he dances. I write that down: “Perhaps Valentine dances.” I watch him flirt with the barista, their movements around each other a careful ballet of hot espresso and soup and witty banter, and I curl up in my armchair and wrap my hands around the mug of tea when Valentine brings it to me with his usual smile and nod. I observe. I record.
I write on the bus, on my way home. I write about the bus driver, and about the woman sitting across from me, wearing a too-heavy jacket (“perhaps she is sick”). I write about the barista and the patterns of her movement around the large copper espresso machine, the way she admires her reflection. When I get home, I carefully tear the pages from my notebook, and I tear fact from fact, isolating each bit of information, and I file them accordingly in the rows of small boxes nailed to my walls. Miniature pigeon coops filled with paper instead of birds. Facts. Ways to build the world. I copy things over when necessary, when I must file “perhaps Valentine dances” under both Valentine and Speculation. I must separate speculation, after all. My shreds and fragments of information comprise my image of Valentine (for example). I cannot allow speculation to color that. I can allow his grace, but not the possibility of his dancing.
With enough data, maybe I can figure out the world.
The waiter’s name is Val. His hands are stained a burnished yellow from nicotine, and guitar-callused. He is bored and impatient, waiting for his shift to end. He does not write down my order – which is fair because it’s just coffee and blackberry pie, and the pie is right at hand. He slices it and slaps it on the plate; it falls over just a bit, slides, and blackberry oozes out onto the plain white plate, the color almost shocking. I write that down, and the way the steam dances over the coffee mug. The mug is smooth and unadorned, the same bone-white, and the coffee is rich and dark and bitter. The diner is a diner, no more and no less, retro-50s tube with aproned waitresses and meat loaf and pie and Val, leaning forward by the register, staring at the door. Waiting for something else.
He talks to me. I think out of sheer boredom – I’m the only customer at the bar, the only person here alone. His dark hair is frosted blond at the ends, and his eyes are seaglass-blue. He is in a band, but he worries that now that the guys have day jobs, they’ll stop playing music. He doesn’t think he’s good enough to go solo. He shrugs a lot – he has developed his own fake-casual rolling shrug, a silent “whatever”. He asks why I care, and I tell him that these are the things that make him *him*. That we are collections of information. We are what we are because our dog died or our dad left or we won the lottery or whatever. And I like to figure out what people are by examining what they’re made of.
When I close my eyes, I imagine Val made of paper, all the little strips of paper I’ll file later under “music” and “loss” and “resentment”, cross-reference him with others, see if I can figure out “loss”.
See if I can figure out data loss.
When I open my eyes, Val has gone on to the next customer. I eat my pie and write.
The waiter’s name is V. It’s a new restaurant, scifi-themed; all of the waiters have names like Klaatu or Ripley. I point out that V is a series, not a character, and he laughs. “No one remembers character names from V. But everyone remembers the show. Everyone remembers the lizards.”
He writes down my order, and I write down that everyone remembers V. I will file it under “television” and “things everyone remembers”. “Things everyone remembers” is one of my bigger boxes; it is not nearly full. Not nearly as full as it needs to be.
Data loss. I do not remember the things everyone remembers. And I need to. In order to build a self, I need a foundation. So I write everything down, and I am always hoping that someone will let slip one of the things “everyone knows” or “everyone remembers”. V and the Challenger explosion and 9/11 and the Smurfs. Sometimes when I get home, after I file the day’s newly-gathered information, I take the slips out of that box and spread them out on the floor, subcategorize them. Everybody knows this about politics. Everyone remembers that song.
My food arrives, a faux-Klingon dish I’ve already forgotten the name of. I must look it up later and record it. The drink V brings is not what I ordered – it’s a neon-blue thing in a Klein bottle with dry ice fuming out of it. V grins and drapes himself over the chair beside me. “You looked like you could use it.”
“What is it?”
“Dunno. Try some.”
“I have… trouble. With things I don’t know.”
V looks around; seeing no manager, he takes a quick sip from my glass. “Perfectly safe.”
I sip. It’s sweet. V grins as I lower the glass. His hair is frosted silver, and I wonder if he’s dyed it, or if he sprays it on every night. His hands seem to have a mind of their own; he gestures incessantly when he talks. Italian, he says, with a shrug very unlike Val’s. I write that down: “Italians talk with their hands”, and also, “V is Italian.”
He has to get up eventually, as the restaurant gets busy. He brings me spoo for dessert, with a wink like Valentine’s.
Valentine writes my order down with a flourish and gives me a wink like V’s. I study him – none of his other mannerisms remind me of V. He does not talk with his hands. He is not flashy or flamboyant. His hands, unlike Val’s, do not have guitar calluses; if Valentine plays anything it’s a wind instrument, or maybe a violin.
This is speculation. I cannot allow speculation.
I study my own hands. They shake slightly, and I wonder if I ever played anything; if so, that data is lost. I should search my apartment. It has been too long since I’ve done anything there but file and sleep.
Valentine presents my chai with a smile. “Valentine,” I ask, halting him in his graceful spin kitchenwards, “do I always order the same thing?”
“In the fall, yeah.” He sits down beside me in a way not entirely unlike V’s draping or Val’s slouch. “Other soups, the rest of the year. But always chai and soup.”
“Then why do you write it down?”
“Because you like it.” I must look as puzzled as I feel, because he shrugs (unlike Val, like V) and continues. “You told me once that you don’t see how anyone can hold that in their heads, not really. Things fade. I might forget what kind of tea, what kind of soup.”
I stretch my hand, aching from holding the pen. “I think I forget.”
Val pours the coffee, thick plume of steam from the stream of dark liquid, the battered pot. “Do I always get the same thing?”
Val gives his rolling shrug. “Coffee, keep it comin’. Pie. Yeah, you do.”
I write that down: “I always order the same thing.”
I don’t know how to file that. “My brain”. That box is overflowing. I need to find a way to subcategorize it. I can’t figure it out.
I ask Val if he’s Italian. He’s not. Mostly Norwegian, he says. I study him all shift for things that correlate with Valentine and with V. He notices, but ignores it.
I write. Everything. The clumping of the salt in its shaker. The reflection of sunlight on the silver edge of the clock. Val and the waitress, Thalia – she looks like the barista.
Everyone looks like everyone else these days. It feels like my world is compressing. I have to write more, write faster. I have to make sense of things.
I don’t remember entering the restaurant, but V is already sprawled across from me. He asks if I’m okay, and I tell him honestly that I don’t know. I ask if he’s in love with a waitress, and he laughs, says no, gestures at a waiter in Jedi robes. I tell him what I’m slowly, falteringly, worrying about: that all of them are the same person. He tells me all the ways he’s different, but I find some things the same.
They all have a younger brother. They all had a dog, growing up. They are all waiters.
I am so tired. Valentine brings me a chai without my asking, and he asks if I’m okay, and I tell him honestly that I don’t know. He asks me when I last saw my doctor.
I say, “Doctor?”
He takes my hand and notices its tremor. He asks if he can walk me home.
I am shy. I have never let anyone in.
Valentine enters, and his eyes widen at the sight of all of the little boxes lining the walls, perched on shelves, the bits of things everybody knows spread over the floor. “What is this?”
“Information,” I whisper. “I – have chunks missing. Parts of the world I can’t figure out. And I think – I think that bits of other worlds are melting in to cover the gaps. I think that maybe all Valentines are the same Valentine. I think the universe or the multiverse or whatever has this stopgap for data loss, and I think the human brain does pattern-patching on a subconscious level – finding the things that match you and filling holes with them. Do you think that’s what happens?” And I pray for an “everybody knows,” but he gives me something else.
He had been on duty when I had the seizure. He watched my body arc back; he called 911. Probably saved my life. The doctor told him I might lose some memory.
I lost more than that.
I lost swathes of long-term memory, the things everybody knew, the things I knew. I stopped being able to get all of my short-term memory into long-term. I started having trouble conceptualizing things.
I started writing. Data retrieval. Trying to make sense of the world.
I don’t remember. I don’t remember any of it. But Valentine so clearly does. And he is right there, holding my gaze and holding my hand, and the earth begins to tremble –
He tries to pull me to the doorway, but I refuse – I stand in the middle of the room and the whole building starts to shake, and I watch a year of carefully gathered and filed slips of information explode from the walls and shower around me like a snowglobe, all of the fact and the speculation, all of the ways to learn people and make things make sense, all falling around me like ash, and I have a sort of hitching sob in my chest as I drop to my knees as the room settles, and he is there. V. Val. Valentine. His hair flashes silver, flashes blond, settles to dark, and his hands resolve from callused to slim, and he is folded back into himself; all Valentines are one Valentine. And I look up at him helplessly, all of my data scattered, and I ask: ”Do you dance?”
Valentines was originally published in 2009 in Interfictions 2, edited by Delia Sherman and Christopher Barzak.
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Shira Lipkin has managed to convince Chizine, Interfictions 2, Electric Velocipede, Mythic Delirium, and other otherwise-sensible magazines and anthologies to publish her work. She credits luck, glitter eyeliner, and tenacity. She lives in Boston with her husband, daughter, and the requisite cats, most of whom also write. She also fights crime with the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center, is taking suggestions for her burlesque name, does six impossible things before breakfast, and would like a nap now.
You can track her movements at shiralipkin.com. Please do. She likes the company.