The Last, Best Time We Met (!)

by Jen Doll

Today is National Punctuation Day, a day in which Americans should let their hearts fill with gladness over the rightful period, the stalwart semi-colon, the courageous colon, the occasionally overwrought exclamation point. Writing would be nothing without them and their kin. Truth be told, Punctuation Day, much like Mother’s Day, is a holiday you really should celebrate every day of the year. But, as with Mother’s Day, sometimes you forget to offer much in terms of appreciation the rest of the year.

Today is a day in which to remember, and honor, our dear marks.

It was dark in the bar, and as she entered, she squinted her eyes in hopes of making out at least a few familiar faces. It had been a year since the last one of these things — they still insisted on meeting annually, even as their lives and bodies (some more than others) and in some cases their very souls had changed. Were they even friends anymore, like they were back at Ms. Sherman’s Montessori School? Who knew. Who knew if it even mattered.

Sems had not been looking forward to it, not in the least. Last time Ex had gotten blackout drunk, groped her in the hallway by the bathrooms, and, as she shouted for Comma to back her up, puked all over her brand new Jimmy Choos. And they were suede! Plus, he’d been engaged at the time. She’d had to spend a near fortune, not that she could afford it, on getting the pumps cleaned professionally, and they still smelled funny and were punctuated with little dark spots. Ex, of course, hadn’t even offered to pay. She’d heard from Quess, formerly known as Mark, that Ex had split from his fiancée and was now in the midst of one of those 12-step programs. Doubtful he’d be here. Mark — she couldn’t stop thinking of him as Mark, even if he was touring with The Emojis now — wouldn’t be here either, but he’d warned her that Ex would probably want to apologize at some point, that was part of the deal. She wasn’t sure she really wanted to accept his apology. Getting puked on isn’t a memory that fades fast.

Still, there was no way she’d miss this party. Sems loved a party, always had. Some things didn’t change.

“Hey girl,” she heard from the end of the bar, and there she was, Comma, perched on a stool next to her boyfriend, Dash, and his college buddy, Brackets, who Sems suspected had been brought along as a set-up. “Oh my God!” she shouted, focusing on her old friend. “Your hair! I… love it!” Comma had, for as long as Sems had known her, worn her smooth golden locks in a curling ponytail that resembled nothing so much as a well-groomed horse’s tail. Today that blonde hair was up in a messy bun, a top-knot topping her head. She looked chic as ever in her perfectly worn jeans and a black T-shirt that was falling off one shoulder, as if by accident. Comma had always had that effortless style of dressing, like she didn’t care at all, yet everything she wore looked like it came out of one of those glossy fashion magazines with an Ampersand in the name. “Have you been reading the New York Times Styles?” Sems asked, and Comma shrugged. “I just felt like a change,” she said. “You look amazing. Why didn’t you tell me you were dressing up for this?” Dash smiled enigmatically, his eyes on the game (Interpuncts vs. the Obeluses), and chugged his beer, while Brackets checked his phone. “Sorry,” he said, looking up for a second. “Work stuff.”

Sems glanced down at her satin party dress and her patent-leather heels, which she’d figured would at the very least not be ruined by vomit should it come to that, and felt a flush in her face. She’d barely admitted the truth, even to herself, but now it seemed so obvious as to be an Exclamation Point itself. It was Colon. It had always been Colon. He’d been in Afghanistan for the last three of these, all of their Punctuation Day parties gone ahead without him, though sometimes he’d Skype in and wave from his desert surroundings before the screen again flashed to black. His face was always more tanned and muscular than she remembered it, each year taking its toll on him, there, and her, here, though as it was with the males of their species, he always seemed to look better for it. These years! Was it really four now, four since that night they’d spent together, after the tequila shots and before the huevos rancheros — ever a gentleman, he’d taken her to brunch the next day, and even paid. Was it really four years now since that euphoric night, their one night of love, since the inception of Period? Dear, sweet, darling Period, the light of Sems’ life, was now a hardy three-year-old home with the babysitter, an upright girl named Copyright Symbol, and so it seemed, yes. It had been nearly four years, considering the gestation period of a punctuation mark. Where did the time go?

“What can I getcha, sweetheart?” asked the bartender. Sems focused on his face. “Oh, Space!” she said. “It’s you!” The older punctuation mark smiled. He’d recently had hip surgery but was back on his feet, proud to be working on this day of all days, proud to be visible to the world for once. “Tequila, maybe, for old times?” he asked in a friendly sort of way. Sems smiled, knowing he meant no harm. “I’m a white wine girl now,” she said. “But gosh, it’s so great to see you!” He poured one for her, and one for himself, and then made an inquiring expression at Comma, who was still nursing her vodka gimlet. “I’m good,” she said, “I have to work tomorrow!” Dash punched the air as the Interpuncts scored, and then leaned in for a kiss from his girl. Sems looked away, but not before catching an interested glance from Brackets. Brackets was kind of cute, she thought for a moment. Not her type, but cute.

“How’s the little one?” asked Space, as he clinked glasses with Sems. “He’s wonderful,” she said. “They’re such a joy at this age.” Space smiled. “Got any of them iPhone pictures?” She pulled her camera roll out willingly, gladly, and it was as she was showing off one of Period in his new Halloween costume — he’d insisted on dressing as an Interrobang, the little silly! — Space got serious. “Have you heard from him at all?” he asked, his voice hardening into something like anger. “No,” she said simply. For she hadn’t. But then, Colon didn’t know anything about Period. How could he? She’d never told him.

***Two days earlier and 3,000 miles away, two punctuation marks were lying in bed in a dank room at the Budget Inn on Sunset Boulevard. “You complete me, Parentheses,” said Slash. Parentheses punched him in his rounded gut, which hovered like a new moon over his boxer-briefs. “I bet you say that to all the marks,” she said, laughing shrilly. “Ow,” he said. The truth was, he did. Slash was an semi-employed musician who spent a lot of time in bars hoping someone would get drunk enough to go home with him. Parentheses was an on-the-make con artist with self-professed low standards who’d seen in him a guy with a wallet full of ones. She’d already gotten the ones. But she had a new idea. “Baby,” she said, curling up against him the way she did, the way she knew to do, her voice lowering to a sexy whisper, “Let’s hop a flight to New York City. My sister lives there. She’ll put us up. We can party.”

“I like to party,” said Slash, mentally estimating that he could charge two tickets to the Big Ap’ on his credit card and have a month or more to pay it off. Especially if he found something on Priceline. Especially if he could get a gig between now and the next Discover card billing cycle. Hell, even if not, he could find a way to pay the interest. It had been a while since he’d found such a nice gal, and at his age and state, who knew when that would happen again. It wasn’t like Guns N’ Roses was a household name the way it used to be; God, those were the days the sweet Ellipses could never get enough of him. Those days, alas, were over. He always had blamed Apostrophe for that. Fuckin’ Apostrophe.

Slash shook his hair from his face, lurched out of bed, and logged onto his first-generation MacBook Pro.

***The party was bad at first, awkward, with marks jostling to and fro and making stilted conversation, but then suddenly, it was very, very good, as happens with parties when you least expect it. Ex had showed after all, and when he did, he hugged Sems close to his chest and said, “I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry,” and she could feel it wasn’t just for him, it was for her, too. Middle-age had not been easy on anyone. She hugged him back, and said, “It’s O.K. We all have our stuff, you know,” and in that moment Punctuation Day was as pure and true as it ever had been. Ex wasn’t drinking but Sems toasted with the rest of them — Asterisk and Underscore, Ditto and Hash, Plus and Minus, and Em-dash, though Hyphen was home with baby Umlaut and couldn’t make it. Still, Tilde was there, and Diaeresis, and even Parentheses, her long-lost sis, suddenly reunited with the fold, a quiet older guy with long hair falling in his face (Sems just wanted to tie it back for him so badly!) tagging along after her. They all embraced in a big hug, their points and angles and curves, all well-worn physical attributes by now, converging into something that could never be a sentence but was meaningful just the same.

“Colon, but where is Colon?” shouted the Quotation Marks. “It’s not a party without Colon!” Those twins had always had a way of putting their feet in their mouths. Everyone looked to Sems, because everyone knew, and everyone would take their cue from her, and she fought back the urge to weep, or to run, or to chug her wine and order another. She smiled placidly and stood her ground and said, “Wherever he is, he’s here with us, too.” That much was true.

***That night, a pounding on the door. Exclamation. Exclamation. Ellipses. “Shhhhhh,” said Sems, who thought it must be Parentheses, coming home late, her beau on her arm, or maybe one on each, too drunk to remember where she’d put her key. “Don’t wake Period!” she urged in a hushed whisper, but as she opened the door, it was not her sister and Slash at all. It was Colon. Colon, his eyes like two brave points in his face, burning with intensity. Colon, a punctuation mark with the name of a human organ, one so near and yet so far from the heart. “Colon!” she said, because that was all she could say, all that she ever wanted to say. “My darling,” he said. “I came as soon as I could.”

(( )):**

And then it was that they lay, two like one, upon the bed of so many memories ________. It didn’t matter if it was one night or the rest of their lives.

What mattered was, quite simply, the punctuation.

:; … ! … ! … (!) …


Previously: Advice For Writing; Or, What I Know So Far, Which Might Actually Be Nothing At All

Jen Doll is a regular contributor to The Hairpin.