Stopgap ~ fiction by Soramimi Hanarejima

You owe her

・excitement over her new job,
・enthusiasm about the hiking trip she’s been planning, and
・delight that your karaoke duets are consistently hitting level 8.

But you’re in severe emotional debt and should feel for others first—for colleagues and loved ones who have been waiting longer for more substantial emotions:

・Werna: sympathy as she bears the brunt of her boss’s negativity bias.
・Suella: regret for yelling at her when that last deadline got the better of you.
・Noliz: anger and disdain for his cavalier putdown of Trindy’s lapse in cognitive fidelity.
・Qalixy: appreciation and admiration for stepping in with kind words during the awkward moment that followed.
・Donello: disappointment at his passivity.

This isn’t the first time you’ve been behind on paying your emotional dues, but it’s different now. You regard these debts with the diametrically opposed duo of urgency and detachment, which seem like they should cancel out but instead see-saw one another up and down in your mind, until you despise their oscillations.

“Forget it,” you decide aloud in your kitchen as frozen macaroni and cheese spins in the microwave. “Forget everything. I’m declaring emotional bankruptcy. I just don’t have what it takes to feel all these things anymore.”

Your social circles handle your declaration graciously. Ostensibly magnanimous, your friends and family all absolve you of emotional obligation and encourage you to move onward.

Except her.

“I need you to feel things for me,” she rebuts when you break the news.

Her eyes are wide with disbelief that borders on betrayal. The park feels small now, like it’s contracting around the bench you share with her.

“I can’t right now. I just don’t have it in me,” you tell her.

It’s not you. It’s me, you want to add, to sum up the situation neatly in the shorthand of cliché, but the situation calls for a clearer explanation.

“I’m doing this because I want to feel for you—so that someday, I’ll be able to again. Otherwise the best-case, status-quo-ish scenario would be giving you small, sporadic installments of emotions.”

“Something is better than nothing,” she flings back at you.

You can’t believe she’s saying this. Are you that desperate? you want to ask, but you know better than to resort to upsetting oversimplification.

“No, I owe you better than psychological scraps here and there,” you attempt. “The bits of emotion I might be able to eke out for you will be hurtful with their incompleteness. Disproportionate emotional responses can render real harm.”

“But they’ll keep us connected,” she persists.

Now you see what this is about—emotional transactions as a way of maintaining, even sustaining the relationship.

Is the exchange of ideas and sharing of experiences not enough for her? you ask yourself. Must there be an emotional level of interaction?

Your thoughts respond not with an answer but a possibility you can present to her.

“Instead of an emotional connection, how about a culinary one?” you offer. “I’ll cook you meals a couple times a week.”

“I suppose that could work. We can give it a try.”

“All right. Then I’ll come up with a schedule so you’ll know when to expect me.”

“Okay,” she agrees with—you think—the flicker of a small smile.

That night, you draft a menu for the month based on your availability, what you’d like to cook and her dietary preferences—low carb, high fiber, light seasoning. Over the phone, you run the plan by her; she has no objections to the dishes you’ve chosen, and there is only one scheduling conflict which is easily resolved.

Two days later, you’re at her door handing her a casserole tray of zucchini lasagna.

“Well, see you on Saturday,” you then tell her.

“Wait,” she protests. “You’re not going to eat this with me?”

“No, it’s all for you. Is the portioning too much?”

“Yes, I think so.”

“You can reheat the leftovers tomorrow.”

“I have a lot in my fridge right now.”

“All right. I have some time for dinner. But nothing that might get emotional, please.”

“Yes, of course,” she quickly agrees.

So you go inside and help her set the little dining table.

Afraid to mention anything that might solicit even a slight emotional response, she makes only sparse conversation during the meal. The quietness compels your gaze to wander around the areas of her apartment visible from your vantage point. It’s shabbier than usual.

In the living room, ideas clutter tabletops, and beside the sofa draped in scarves and jackets, a laundry basket holds a heap of clothing that looks overdue for folding. Creative energy is nowhere to be found, and her zest sits slumped in a corner, deflated.

How did her confidence wither so much? you wonder when you glance at its drooping posture. Is it stress from the learning curve of her new job?

Her sense of belonging leans against a bookcase, gaunt, flimsy and ashen.

As you then eat the lasagna on your plate with hands and utensils you barely notice, your observations and curiosities gradually converge to a single conclusion: these are all signs of emotional poverty.

No wonder she was keen to get even the smallest increments of emotion from me.

This realization launches you into thoughts of how you could boost the flow of positive emotions into her life, so she can gain what you can no longer provide. You could…

・make some introductions over coffee or karaoke;
・get her a membership to the sailing club;
・cancel an upcoming week of meals, and instead cook entrées she can use to throw a dinner party.

Then you stop yourself, knowing that you’re simply not in a position to solve this for her.

She reaches for the spatula sitting in the casserole tray, bringing your gaze and attention back to the meal. You watch her cut another piece of lasagna.

“Seconds already?” you ask with what levity you can muster. “And such a hefty helping too.”

“It’s that good!”

“And you thought there would be too much for you. I chose the big baking tray because I know how much you like summer squash.”

She grins and opens her mouth to say something, then reconsiders.

A second later she says, “You better hurry up and eat some.”

“I’ve got another two trays at home. The ones I made as practice.”

“Oh, you didn’t have to be so serious about this.”

“You deserve to have your food taken seriously.”

“Well then, thank you.”

You nod, then avert your eyes from her, worried that you’ll soon be under self-induced pressure to return her appreciation with some emotion you don’t have the psychological wherewithal for.

Your gaze takes refuge in the varied typefaces on the spines of paperbacks neatly arrayed in her bookcase. Something seems different from when you last glanced over there. Maybe it’s just your imagination, but her sense of belonging looks just a little sturdier now.

“We’re still going hiking, right?” she asks.

“Definitely,” you answer, your gaze returning to her company, where it will now stay.

“Great, just checking.”

Soramimi Hanarejima is a writer of innovative fiction and the author of Visits to the Confabulatorium, a fanciful story collection that Jack Cheng said “captures moonlight in Ziploc bags.” Soramimi’s recent work has appeared in various literary magazines, including STORGY Magazine, Pulp Literature and The Absurdist.