by Jax Connelly

“Look,” C’s whispering, nudging me. “They’re on a date. An early one.”

I’m still holding the large plastic cup of Coke Zero I bought at the movie theater. I don’t like supporting the manufacture of single-use plastics, but when I saw it in an ad on the big screen, that rich syrupy stream cascading its way through a frenzy of eagerly popping popcorn, I really had no choice. I was so thirsty, and sipping from my stainless steel bottle of tap water was worse than drinking nothing at all.

I know immediately who C means; there aren’t a lot of us wandering around the national mall tonight. The guy has light brown hair and a shadow of a beard and he’s wearing a baby blue button-down over his khaki pants, like every other white guy I’ve ever seen in D.C. He’s playing with the long blond hair of his date, a napkin-looking person in a starchy black dress and plastic ballet flats that are carving red lines into the thin skin on the top of her feet.

I’ve been switching the Coke cup from hand to hand because the ice has turned itself inside-out, shapeshifted into something slick and numbing that’s attacking my palms. Whenever the hand nearest them is free, C’s been swatting at it like they’re a cat and my fingers are dangling shoelaces. (Imagine, here, Pavlovian shoelaces, shoelaces conditioned to jerk violently away from human contact.)

I’m in a bad mood, my regular mood, lately, but I’m suddenly grinning without deciding to grin. C reaches for my hand again and I let them take it—a process which requires arranging our elbows and palms painfully because of our mismatched proportions: me with my spindly arms that are too long for my body, C short, square, and solid with the face of a cherub, and huge earnest eyes that mean they’re always getting mistaken for a teenager.

A few months from now, after the end, C will post a photo of us holding hands to their Instagram account. In the photo, we’re walking somewhere, like now—to the grocery store? To the bakery? To brunch?—and only a slice of their body is visible on the right from shirt sleeve down, arm turned knuckles-forward, fingers interlaced with mine. I am reduced entirely to my left arm, stretching out of the other corner, palm-up and thin, tendons catching the sunlight in a way that makes me look stronger than I am. In the background, everything is overexposed: the sidewalk the same porcelain white as the sky, the trees glowstick green, the plants spiked and jagged and neon, bolting out of their pots like bad weather. C captions the photo with a Jeanette Winterson quote: “Sometimes I think I’m free, coughed up like Jonah from the whale, but then I turn a corner and recognize myself again.” Near-perfectly centered in the V between our arms is a porta potty, squatting brazenly right there in someone’s front yard.

“Let’s check it out,” C decides, now, nodding toward the couple. (Imagine each word, here, stuffed with anticipation, like seeing a package on the porch with your name on it, that thrilling handful of moments before you discover what’s inside.) Why did I buy the Coke, again? I needed something more satisfying. I needed it sweet and cold and bubbling, I needed it through the teeny-tiny opening at the end of a disposable straw, I needed my throat to pay attention to the fact that it swallows 500 to 700 times a day times a day, once per minute while awake, even more during meals.

*

The concept of satisfaction is an internet phenomenon. I first learned about it during a guided tour of Mika Rottenberg’s Easypieces exhibit, on display at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art in 2019-2020. According to the museum website, Rottenberg’s then-newest video installation, Spaghetti Blockchain, “explores ancient and contemporary ideas about materialism” by interrogating themes of labor, technology, and the connection between bodies and machines.

After our group watched Spaghetti Blockchain, the docent suggested the video had a lot in common with a category that was, at the time, going viral on social media. She couldn’t remember what it was called. A teenager raised his hand and, sagely, offered up the terminology: “oddly satisfying.” I looked him up and down scornfully, thinking how terrible it would be to be that young again, an age when everything’s crowded and throbbing and everything hurts, and meanwhile everyone around me was nodding their heads respectfully in his direction: We Are Your Servants.

[to be read aloud in a whisper]:

Spaghetti Blockchain opens    with a kaleidoscope. A clash 
           of colors: chocolate on the      outside and shamrock on the                inside, 
a hexagon that spins counterclockwise, once, then clicks      into
                                                    place. It slips   open like a trapdoor to expose 
           the mouth of a Tuvan throat singer, whose 
lipsticked lips twitch and pulse. Cut 
to the Siberian countryside while the throat singing              whines. Cut 
            to the throat singer, clad in customary folk costume. Cut 
                         to the countryside again while the throat singing       whines, cut 
                                      back to the throat singer. She shuts     her eyes. She shakes and 
                         sways, just a little bit. Let’s take a look: 
            Inside a hexagonal compartment, a mound of turquoise-tinted 
            cotton-candy substance, happy little clouds, dissolves            toward 
the shimmering floor into a puddle and         simmers 
                                                                                    there. Hexagon spins, puddle 
            simmers, hexagon spins, puddle          simmers, caramelizes, 
                                                scorches the shine as the happy little clouds turn to 
                                      liquid which crackles and changes colors: 
            first     lime, then        scarlet, then     cerulean, then   lilac. The sound 
of sizzling,       crackling,                    escalates. The kaleidoscope spins and 
spins. The kaleidoscope clicks into 
                                                               place. 

It was late after the movie, but without discussing it, we started walking in the opposite direction of home—south, toward the Potomac. We passed a man playing acoustic guitar and another man freestyling in front of a ripped cardboard box that was empty besides two crisp dollar bills, creased vertically up the middle. We passed several trash cans overflowing with single-use plastics: salad bowls with sticky dressing still sullying their walls, coffee cups with an inch of watery liquid stagnant at the bottom, bite marks studding the lipstick-stained straws sticking out of the lids. We passed several restaurants we’d never heard of and will never try.

I took a loud slurp of my Coke. During the previews, I had ducked out of the theater and headed for the concession stand, where the cashier pulled out a package of Sour Patch Kids. “How can I help you?” she asked. (Imagine each word, here, beaming hard and bright but cold, sterile, like the inside of a refrigerator.)

“Hi,” I cried. (Imagine it with an exclamation point in neon-purple ink, one that emphasizes my great appreciation for service industry laborers.) I was already unzipping my wallet. “Can I just get a medium Coke Zero, please?”

“Would you like to add some candy for only a dollar more?”

In fact, I would have liked to add some candy for only a dollar more, but I knew what this cashier was doing, and I refused to be had. “No, thank you,” I said, pleasantly, handing her my debit card. (Imagine each word, here, as a heaping spoonful of granulated sugar concealing the bitter, the sticky, the true colors.) She pulled out a large plastic cup. “Would you like to upgrade to a large for only fifty cents more and free refills?”

I narrowed my eyes at her, the way C does at the labels that line the shelves at grocery stores. They’re always insisting we buy whatever’s cheapest per pound, regardless of how much we actually need, and they’re not wrong; the only thing more satisfying than a soda is a bigger soda. If you can resist such an offer, you’re a harder fellow than I. Had, after all, and then I drank less than a quarter of the cup during the movie, so the free refills were a promise that never had the chance to be kept. Like so many promises, rendered in the passive voice.

Swat, jerk. Swat, jerk. “Chinatown is so commercial,” I heard myself observing, as we moved further away from the Regal and from home. (Imagine each word, here, as one of your palms after you’ve been riding public transportation all day and you forgot your hand sanitizer at home.) “Urban Outfitters. Häagen-Dazs. McDonald’s. Chains on chains on chains.”

“Yeah, but it’s nice,” C replied. (Imagine each word, here, as a baby field mouse, so small you could cradle it in your palm and make a fist without crushing it.) “There’s always something going on. And Chinatown is kind of ours, you know?”

Rhetorical question; they knew I knew. We met here a lot, in the beginning, because it’s where the yellow and red lines converge. Swat, jerk. Swat, jerk. “Stop doing that,” I said finally. (Imagine each word, here, as the edge of a desk, all mahogany and hard, clean lines.)

We both winced. “Sorry, babe,” they agreed. “I’ll stop.”

They wouldn’t, though. They’d keep doing it the rest of the night, without noticing, whenever I’d forget to clutch the cup with both my raw-red hands.

*

A Google search for “oddly satisfying” returns nearly 13 million results in half a second. Am I looking for gifs? Am I looking for videos? Google suggests I be more specific: animated, hydraulic press, calligraphy, food, water, glitter, cutting, colorful, gold, loop? The videos have titles like “Oddly Satisfying Videos That Will Calm Down Your Nerves,” “Most Oddly Satisfying Video with Relaxing Music,” “The Most Satisfying Video in the World.” “Slime,” a playdough-like substance popular in these types of videos, was one of the 100 most common YouTube queries in the U.S. in 2019, translating to a search volume of 732,000.

What is “oddly satisfying”? Difficult to describe in words. Sometimes it’s as simple as a domino show, with all its quiet crashing, or a robotic assembly line at a factory, or a time-lapse process of building a tiramisu. In a computer-generated gif, iridescent bubbles emerge from an eyedropper and slide into a container, or a strip of rubber punctured with circular cutouts falls into place precisely over circular insets.

But much of “oddly satisfying” is about the manipulation of materials—kinetic sand being carved into geometrically perfect shapes, slime being squeezed and kneaded, soap being shaved with a vegetable peeler, paint drying and being chipped off, salt or sugar being dissolved, frosting being piped onto the surface of a cake, crayon wax being melted, then swirled around. A knife cuts the corners off a stack of rainbow-colored sponges. A golden block of slime heads toward a strainer on a conveyer belt and is turned into slime spaghetti. Repeat on a loop.

[to be read aloud in a whisper]:

                     Let’s take a look: Manicured hands    squeeze 
        a slime-like substance. Manicured hands       use 
                     a shining         sharp carving knife to slice 
        into a tube-shaped loaf of thick         slime. Cut 
                     to a new hexagon, more colors framing a silvery       door. It spins 
        clockwise once. Back to the cotton-candy substance, happy little      clouds on the 
                      floor. The hands slice 
        up the slime. The hands hold 
                     a spray bottle. The tube of slime stands 
        straight up on its end. Another hand slaps 
                     the top of the tube. It shivers,              quivers, then 
                                                                     settles. The hands shake just a little bit of salt 
           onto the cotton-candy substance, happy little 
clouds. In a chocolate compartment, the hands scramble 
through a cluster of multicolored pinballs, scattering 
them. The hexagon      spins,                   slowly this time, just once before clicking into 
                        place. The hands toss 
a slice of slime onto a scorched surface, where it begins to   dissolve, to 
           sizzle. Somewhere                  else, an egg is frying. 
Somewhere                           else, the back of a head           emerges 
                                  from a hole in the                     floor. The hands appear 
                         to spray a substance that obscures 
                         the bald spot at the top of the head. The egg fries, 
            the slime           dissolves. The oil sizzles, crackles, 
                         the slice of slime shrinks as the waxy puddle encircling it
                                                                                                                                        expands.

We’re tailing the couple closely, but not too closely—just close enough to catch snippets of the conversation. The guy is talking about his job at the Capitol and the woman is acting impressed. (Imagine it in italics, all slanted and stressed, every vowel stretched out into a tunnel.) The guy keeps swinging her hand back and forth in a way I find infuriating, but she doesn’t seem to mind. According to her laugh, she is delighted.

C and I have a special fondness for tailing strangers. When we were in Thailand—just last month, the third year of our relationship, which felt like a continuation of the long stretch of the middle but which was, in fact, closing in on the end—we climbed cliffs for hours on Railay Beach, then went out for pizza at an Americanized sports bar and spent the whole night in the upper level, looking down on three young women as they fended off and eventually engaged with a group of middle-aged men. We narrated the whole encounter, giddy with the beer in our spent limbs: “Look, this is what women have to put up with all over the fucking world.” “Look how deep that guy unbuttoned this shirt, you know he stood in front of the mirror deciding how many would make him look youngest.” “Look, see how they’re pairing off? That one’s the leader, she calls the shots.” “Look, he’s going to teach her how to shoot pool and she’s going to pretend she doesn’t already know.” “Look, these guys might as well be chanting, ‘We Are Your Servants.’”

“Do you think it’s weird that we’re not talking at a normal level?” C’s whispering, now, about the D.C. couple, tugging on my hand to slow our pace.

I roll my eyes and scoff, remembering how appalled C was, that time I said “fuck” in the presence of their grandmother. “No,” I assure them, tugging back. “They have no idea we’re even near them. They’d never suspect we’re doing something this weird. They’re in their own little world.”

I’m right, too. This couple is still at the beginning of the beginning, when it’s acceptable, even attractive, to make inane puppy-dog observations like “I love D.C.!” five times in the same conversation. When flaws still come off like quirks, if they’re even legible at all.

*

Wikipedia traces the “oddly satisfying” trend back to early 2010s Reddit. The “/r/oddlysatisfying” subreddit was established in 2013. As of January 2020, the thread had 3.8 million subscribers—up a whopping 146% from 2.6 million sometime in 2019.

A Wired article from April 2018, “The odd psychology behind oddly satisfying slime videos,” is subtitled “A generation is hooked on the majesty of beautifully controlled chaos.” The first paragraph continues in this hyperbolic vein, calling “oddly satisfying” videos “exceptionally weird” and “overwhelmingly wonderful.” Regardless of material or activity, “oddly satisfying” videos are “hypnotizing the internet in a technicolor dream of instant satisfaction.”

[to be read aloud in a whisper]: 

In a shamrock compartment, a hand  holds a small pottery rake 
             and makes                     its way                             in downward          strokes 
                           through a square of clay, leaving cross-hatched marks 
            in immaculate strips across the surface. Cut 
                           to an overhead view                of parched farmland. Cut 
            back to the first hexagon,        open, now, to expose, 
once again, the throat singer’s lipsticked lips. Spinning 
                                                                  counterclockwise, zooming 
out, cascading layers of hexagon frames, now peering 
                                     down a long                                  hexagonal passageway. Suddenly 
           the spinning                   stops, then     starts    up 
                                                                 again, clockwise this time, the trapdoors sliding 
                       shut, one by one, starting at the very                end. Zoom 
out on the hexagonal tunnel, all closed 
            up, now, to reveal        each hexagonal compartment, attached 
to one              side of the hexagonal frame: 
                                    the cotton-candy substance, happy little clouds, the     hole in the 
            floor, the tube of slime, the scrambled pinballs, the egg, 
frying. Just a little        bit of each compartment, all six of them, 
            interspersed with                     zoomed-out shots. All these hexagons, spinning 
                           and clicking and spinning and clicking into 
                                                                                                         place. 

“Have you ever gone to the mall at night?” C asked me, earlier, as we were approaching the strip of green that’s home to the Capitol Building on one end and the Lincoln Memorial on the other, the Washington Monument standing guard like a tomb against the sky in between. I was taking prim little sips of the Coke because by the time we left the theater I didn’t even want it anymore, it was making me thirstier and the caffeine would keep me up too late again and I hated myself for being swindled into buying the large, but there it was in my hands, what else was I supposed to do with it.

“No. Have you?”

Stupid question. They grew up here. But they shook their head. “Not since I was little.”

I realized, immediately, we were both wrong. We’d actually been there together at night. It was at the Landmark Music Festival in the first year of our relationship—the end of the beginning. The express purpose of the festival was to get millennials excited about protecting the national monuments. Instead, we just trampled over the dead grass, tossed our crumpled beer cans and plastic liquor bottles wherever we stood, smuggled in joints in our bras and smoked them in crowds so dense nobody could connect to Snapchat.

The first day, we didn’t see any of the acts I wanted to see—Daughter, Ben Howard, Lord Huron, Twin Shadow, The Joy Formidable. I could have said something, but instead I sulked. That night, when Miguel and Drake headlined, I slipped away, elbowed and kneed my way through the hordes of screaming twentysomethings, stalked out across the street to the mall. The sky was darkening around its edges, spitting on me and my pounding head. I couldn’t find the Smithsonian Metro station. I walked around for hours, ignoring C’s frantic texts. They thought they’d lost me. I let them think it.

Later I blamed it on shitty reception and C believed me. I even deleted most of their texts so I could insist they didn’t notice I was gone and cry about it. That would be just like me—manufacturing evidence so I’d have a reason to start a fight, just like I start a fight when they’re ten minutes late picking me up from the airport, or when they eat my blueberries without asking permission, or when they fail to wash a Tupperware to my standards, because it was right around that time that conflict was becoming the easiest way to access any feeling at all.

Swat, jerk. Swat, jerk. I inhaled as if to speak, then decided not to correct our mutual mistake out loud. “I have to pee,” I said instead, feeling smug. (Imagine each word, here, as a loaf of plain white bread that’s been sitting in the back of the freezer for months.)

“OK. We’ll make it quick.”

“What will it be like?” I asked—an unnecessary test.

“Beautiful. All lit up.”

I looked up, doubtfully, at the sky, soft purple dotted with fringy clouds, like dryer lint scattered on a bathroom floor that never gets clean. No moon tonight. No stars, either, but stars are always swallowed up by all that radiates out of cities. The hum never goes away. It seeps into everything, so normal it sounds like silence.

*

For her Wired article, Sabrina Faramarzi interviews Craig Richard, founder of ASMR University. “ASMR” stands for “autonomous sensory meridian response,” defined as a feeling of euphoric tingling and relaxation derived from watching or hearing certain stimuli. The sensation can also arise out of the repetition of particular words—whisk, example, click—or phrases stacked with assonance and alliteration and unvoiced consonant sounds: Just a little bit. Let’s take a look. Happy little clouds.

ASMR videos in fact comprise their own category of YouTube, the sole purpose being rest and relaxation. Worth noting, I think, that the term was coined by a layperson, not a psychologist; still, it was the third most common YouTube search query in the U.S. in 2019, translating to a search volume of 3.2 million.

[to be read aloud in a whisper]: 

            Cut       back to the parched farmland as a tractor makes 
                     its       way                  slowly through the soil strips, from the bottom of the 
screen to the top. The tractor ploughs and the soil 
churns. After it             passes, it leaves in its wake its own    tracks, 
            roots, a few stray         potatoes. Cut 
back to the rake scratching                 up the clay, then the hands 
scrambling the pinballs, then the hexagon 
            kaleidoscope, rotating counterclockwise, clicking and 
                         clicking. Let’s take a look: The knife             slices the 
            slime. A puff of smoke            rises 
                         from a scorched surface like the one the egg fried on earlier, happy 
            little clouds. The knife             slices the slime from 
                                                    a different angle. Another puff. Another slice. Another 
                         puff, another slice, another puff, another 
                                     slice, another puff. A hand slaps the slime 
                         tube and the slime tube                     quivers, just a little bit. 
             Another slice, squish, another slap,                            harder, 
harder, so hard the hand must stop               the slime 
from toppling               over. The open hand                           closes 
                                                  except for its pointer finger, which presses 
                        the top of the tube like it’s looking 
                                      for a fight. 

When we reached the mall, at last, C gestured broadly around us, grinning. “Look, babe,” they cooed, dreamily. “See? Look at all the little streetlights.”

I rattled the remaining ice chips around my plastic cup in a huffy sort of way. “This place isn’t magical,” I snapped. (Imagine each word, here, as an individual yellow tooth, long and square and bared.) My other hand jerked away from theirs; I wondered how long it’d taken me to notice they were holding onto it. “It’s just where people come to pretend they’re in nature.”

I know this because I, too, come here to pretend I’m in nature. Sometime after we moved in together—around the halfway point of our relationship, the long blurry thick of the middle—I was running the mile from our basement home in Logan Circle to the edge of the mall, then down to the Lincoln Memorial another mile and a half later, and a family of tourists failed to move out of my way when I tried to pass them on the left. As I squeezed by, my gym shorts caught on the post of a rope fence and tore. Everyone in the family gasped theatrically (imagine it in all caps), and I screamed at them, furious and embarrassed. Something about how they should be walking on the right, trying to untangle myself from rope and pole.

“Or maybe you could just go around,” a teenager called out, scornful and sarcastic, as I started running off. I spun to face them, flapping my arms and shrieking about how sidewalks near national monuments should be treated like streets: Walk on the right, pass on the left, keep one lane open at all times.

“Be a good tourist,” I tossed over my shoulder, with venom. I was hoping it would land like a wound, but it probably just ricocheted off like a bad free throw, landed in the gutter with the cigarette butts. Probably they didn’t realize “tourist” is a dirty word around here, probably they assumed I was a tourist too, probably they were the ones throwing their garbage all over the sidewalk even though there are trash cans and recycling bins on every corner of every block, probably they didn’t think about the fact that people actually live in this city, colliding and getting stuck together and treating each other like single-use plastics.

I shook with hyperbolic rage the entire mile home, then recounted it to C when I got back to the apartment (imagine each word, here, raised and red and stinging, like a welt), gesturing in an unrestrained fury, as if it was their fault. They got all riled up, just like me. Later, while I was wrapped in the blanket some relative or other hand-crocheted for C, watching Netflix on the futon, they stitched up the hole in my shorts.

*

In “Why #OddlySatisfying Videos Are So…Satisfying” in Live Science in March 2018, media psychologist Jessica Gall Myrick tells Stephanie Pappas that “oddly satisfying” is all about gratifying mysterious psychological urges. Pappas points to the category’s emphasis on symmetry and completion, both of which humans tend to find psychologically soothing. Similarly, in “Finding What’s ‘Oddly Satisfying’ on the Internet,” which appeared in the New York Times in February 2019, Emily Matchar quotes British psychology researcher Emma Barratt in her suggestion that the physical exploration of materials like slime, soap, and frosting satisfies a human craving to understand how certain materials behave.

Matchar finds it “telling” that “satisfying” is the key word for this genre of video. It’s a pretty underwhelming adjective, she admits. “But ‘to satisfy’ means to give you exactly what you need or want,” she points out. “How often do we get that? Even for the length of a 10-minute video. Even though we don’t know why.”

[to be read aloud in a whisper]: 

Cut      back to the first hexagon, chocolate frame, 
           shamrock insides, then the saltshaker, then a slew 
                       of new hexagons and new colors: 
           cement with a layer of royal gold, all of it 
                       clicking               counterclockwise; a marbled frame 
           around a taupe trapdoor         opening to oak, whiskey, macadamia, 
                       opening              to cantaloupe   opening           to crimson opening     to 
           sparkles           opening             to neon lime opening             to buttermilk 
                       opening              to expose the throat singer’s lipsticked lips. 
Let’s take a look inside a factory. No let’s 
           take a look at Siberia, no let’s 
                       take a look at the egg, frying and frying, no let’s 
                                    take a look at the potatoes tumbling and 
                                                   tumbling      at the end of the kaleidoscope, the potatoes 
                                                               tumbling and            tumbling across the screen, 
                                    throngs of potatoes tumbling like an avalanche, interspersed 
                        with various colors of happy little clouds, dissolving               and 
sizzling and   crackling, deflation, just a little bit of               pulsing, 
           a dissonant      whine. Mounds of happy little clouds turning            slowly 
                        into liquid blush. Mounds of happy little clouds turning, 
                                     slowly                            into something           carelessly
                                                                                                                   scorched.


“D.C. is a graveyard,” I heard myself spitting. (Imagine each word, here, packed tight and slick and threatening, black ice on a sharp curve.) It was a few minutes before we noticed the couple and C had been silent since I informed them the mall isn’t magical and I was getting restless in the absence of their appreciative little observations, the confetti of throwaway words, so puny and so vulnerable to my precise attacks. “We should have done this before I started hating living in this stupid city.”

“Do you want to go home?” C asked. (Imagine the field mouse, again, its warm tantrum of a heart beating ferally against your palm.)

“We already walked all the way here.”

“How far should we go out?”

“Not past 14th. Why? What were you thinking?”

They looked out toward the Lincoln Memorial, at least two miles away from where we were standing. “Do you think we’ll come back and do it again?”

I looked at them looking away, off into the distance, as if searching for it—everything we’ll never do again. We once crashed their mom’s station wagon in line at the car wash because we were kissing in the front seat. They once wrote my name in chalk twelve stories below my bedroom window, each letter the size of a parking spot. We once came across a broken piano in a park in Crystal City, sat down, side by side, and played a clumsy, improvised rendition of Coldplay’s “The Scientist,” to scattered applause. Everything came easy, back then, back when we had so much organic chemistry strangers felt compelled to approach and inform us about it, different strangers every weekend, back when we’d flash our teeth and flip our non-existent hair with our limp wrists and then make out sloppily or split whatever cigarette they offered us or head to the bar for another Fireball shot or to the filthy bathroom stall that didn’t lock for another dose of molly or coke or Adderall and then return to the dance floor where we’d move our idiot bodies around until our skimpy clothes were saturated in sweat, manufactured feelings blurring with real ones, we couldn’t tell the difference and we didn’t care, didn’t care because it didn’t matter.

Perhaps to do these things again would be to rob them of their magic. Repeat any word enough times and it becomes nonsense. Repeat any behavior enough times and it becomes a routine, it loses its meaning, because a routine is simply a pattern, a sequence of mechanical motions, and you’re just going through them. Satisfaction dwindles; becomes settling. “So much” dwindles; becomes “enough.” “Enough” dwindles; becomes “The rest—where is it?” Lately I wake up in the basement we share just a few blocks away, loathing the weight of them on the other side of the bed. I want to sprawl and spread and there’s their leg pressed up against mine underneath the comforter, insisting and insisting. I want more, I want more, I want more, I expect it, even, and there’s C, suddenly not it, suddenly in my way.

Swat, jerk. Swat, jerk. I attached both my hands to the sweating Coke and took a loud, thirsty slurp. “I’m definitely not doing this again,” I declared. (Imagine each word, here, an egg left too long in the pan on the stove, being scraped into the trash can with a plastic spatula.)

“Maybe we should go a little further, then,” they suggested, uncertain. “If this is the only time—”

“I have to pee.”

“OK, right,” they said. (Imagine children, hurrying.) “Just to 14th.”

*

For her article, Faramarzi interviews professor Anita Deák, who suggests the calming power of “oddly satisfying” videos lies in mirror neuron theory: the idea that neurons in our own brains can be activated by seeing someone else performing an action. In other words, when you watch some disembodied hands manipulating slime, you feel like you’re manipulating the slime yourself.

Deák also points out that the effect would probably be significantly greater if we sought these types of slime manipulation experiences in real life. Which means the appeal of “oddly satisfying” may lie specifically in detachment—in how it allows us to sit in the back seat, in how it keeps us one step removed, free from taking responsibility for the ways we feel.

Or, perhaps more relevant: the ways we don’t.

[to be read aloud in a whisper]: 

                                       The throat singer is repeating             syllables. Zoom 
              out across the landscape while insects           whine and the wind      whistles. 
Let’s take a look, at last, at the blockchain: 
It’s perplexing, so many         colors and       cables stretching and 
                       twisting                      across pillars, electrical sockets lined up in nice, neat 
rows, lights       flashing and               flickering and              chirping. The same room, 
             dark now, flickering lights shimmering like     stars. 
                        Computers and wires and       flashing, the hexagon 
spinning, the cotton candy     simmering and 
sizzling, happy little clouds. A structure constructed of uncooked 
                                      fettuccine, held together by     marshmallows, happy little 
            clouds. Four hands reach out               with lighters and now the marshmallows 
                          are flames. Smoke        puffs 
from the scorched surface. The hand             sprays 
the bald spot, just a little bit. The hexagon 
            spins. The structure 
                        burns. The knife 
            slices into the slime. The hands 
                        squeeze the slime. The marshmallows 
            burn, white crisping quickly to black. The tractor 
                                     digs up the potatoes. The hexagon 
                       spins and so do the throat singer’s lipsticked 
                                     lips. The soil 
                                                  churns and 
                                                                churns. 


This couple. This fucking couple. This fucking couple looooooooooooves living in D.C. They just absolutely looooooove it: We Are Your Servants. I want to grab their collars and beg, “Show me,” but their evidence seems mostly rooted in the category of Last Year On The 4th Of July I Got To Watch The Fireworks From The Speaker’s Office. “It’s a good idea for an early date,” I admit, in a whisper, as the guy points to something and the woman nods like one of those bobbleheads with painted-open eyes.

C hmms, considering. “But a lot of pressure,” they add, squeezing my hand. “I’m so glad we never had such an awkward, forced conversation. That poor girl with her fake laughs and her uncomfortable feet. We were never like that, even at the very beginning.”

Especially not at the beginning, I correct them, but not out loud. I think about last month in Thailand. How, when we finished our meal, we followed the group we’d been watching down to the shore and realized, abruptly, the women were nothing like we thought they were, watching from afar. Once we got up close, within speaking distance, we could see they couldn’t be older than nineteen, that the one we’d labeled the “leader” was waiflike, with frizzy blond hair and a nervous voice. Suddenly, we felt exhausted and guilty, like we’d committed a crime. We turned around and walked into a small beachside convenience shop, purchased individually wrapped ice cream bars out of the freezer that was sweating so hard it was sitting in a puddle of its own condensation. We walked back to our room slowly, placed the chocolate-stained ice cream wrappers in an empty plastic laundry bag and tied the knot tight, to ward off the bugs, fell asleep beneath the mosquito net curled away from each other, spines just barely not touching.

I feel, abruptly, defeated. “Never? Are you sure?” I ask. (Imagine a press conference, the drooping spokesperson of the losing team.)

C snorts. Not my name, the one they spelled in chalk years ago, but “Babe.” (Imagine the word with a laugh track; imagine it like a bad sitcom, the husband with the beer belly watching the game, the hot wife rolling her eyes in the background.)

*

What is “oddly satisfying”? Difficult to describe in words. Objects being acted upon by subjects that are disembodied or absent altogether. Objects being manipulated, detached from the consequences of living. Difficult to describe in words, yet language has everything to do with it: the passive voice, the lack of involvement, how you say, “I fell out of love,” whoops, instead of “I stopped loving.” How you say, “Things change” instead of “I changed things.” The “I,” erased from its own narrative, can no longer be held accountable, and in this way, things lose their power, even things designed to make you feel something: the words “I love you,” for example. Your name in someone’s mouth, on a whisper’s way to a moan.

It’s important to be precise with language. “Words are so powerful,” you used to tell C, dreamily, back when you first met and you were filling your journal with neon-purple ink and exclamation points and inanities like “I need to be closer than our bodies allow!” and “The only thing I care about is their side smile and the faces they make when they’re dancing!” and “If they ever leave me I will fall to the floor and stay there!”, back before you started wondering whether all relationships disintegrate due to the repulsive intimacy of pulling out your tampon while your partner is brushing their teeth at the sink, dropping it into the trash without even wrapping it in some toilet paper first. Somewhere along the line you changed your mind, somewhere you started scolding, “Words are not enough,” while C nodded sadly, as if they’d always known.

“Words are not enough”—OK, then what is? You need the words, you need the story, now that feelings are no longer themselves, just ghosts of what they used to be, or outlines. Love matters less, then less. “Our tethers are so fragile,” you say to no one, feeling like an imitation of a person, a cheap copy. One day you’re lying next to someone important, listening to them explain how when they touch you, they feel the color yellow, and the next you’re spending three hours watching domino shows on a loop, unable to discern any difference between the way you were feeling then and the way you’re feeling now.

So, then: try to be more precise. Focus on the duplicate books they have in the bookcase you’re letting them use and they’re not even good ones (The Screwtape Letters, A Man for All Seasons, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat). Focus on the fact that they almost definitely haven’t noticed the duplicates, so disorganized is the bookcase, all those little scraps of paper tucked sloppily between the pages (because in the years you’ve been together, they’ve started dozens of books and finished two or three). Focus on the smell of their stale piss in the toilet when you stumble out of sleep to pee (because there’s a drought on the West Coast so you’ve agreed to only flush when you shit), the dirty pizza pan they left in the sink (because they stayed up until 4 a.m. again watching Silicon Valley), yet another ball of stray, mismatched socks they’ve tossed carelessly to the floor (even though you’ve asked them and asked them and asked them to just put them in the fucking laundry basket, it drives you crazy, please, please, please), focus on the dryer, still full of their clothes a week after they do their laundry.

When they finally put their clean clothes away, you’ll watch them crumple all their shirts and boxers into the three drawers on the left side of your dresser, crammed so full you can’t even open them without jostling the entire structure and knocking over your great grandmother’s crystal perfume bottle. For a moment, one moment, you’ll soften, because the reason C doesn’t finish books is so simple: They don’t want to know how it ends. You didn’t know your great-grandmother and you don’t wear perfume, and after you’ve hardened back to normal, you’ll imagine another version of yourself. You’ll watch in the mirrored closet doors as they roll out of bed, pick up both pieces, slam them hard against the wall, but the pieces don’t shatter, they just bounce off dumbly, onto the carpet. This you shrugs and climbs back into bed while C, nonplussed, puts the pieces back together and sets the whole, carefully, back on the dresser.

[to be read however you feel like it or you could even just skip it honestly] 

            The throat singing        stops. The smoke puffs, then stops 
                        too, leaving only the   scorched           surface in its wake. Back 
to the Siberian countryside, sunlight shimmering quietly 
            from somewhere off-frame. There’s the throat singer             again, off 
                        in the               distance, not singing. There’s the shamrock hexagon from 
the start, spinning and                          spinning further                                 away 
                                                     from itself, clicking into place mechanically. 
            Let’s take a look at the trapdoors, closing 
one by one backwards through the passageway, toward 
the lens of the camera. Let’s close on the hexagonal compartments, 
            all viewed from             overhead. Somehow, after        all this, the hands 
and their things are still performing. Happy 
            little clouds. Just a 
                        little bit. Rotate, 
            stop. Rotate, 

stop. 

I don’t even notice when we start walking back in the direction of home, C chattering about some article they just read in the New Yorker, me giving up and letting my hand be held, nodding and mmming and making otherwise uncommitted sounds. (Instead of words, here, imagine ice melting, flavor and fizz going flat, carbon dioxide fading upward into the recycled air of your fridge.)

A few days later, I’ll find the remaining Coke, hiding behind all our single-use plastic fruit shells and juice containers. It’ll be shoved to the back corner of our fridge, still half-full, and I’ll suck it all up while I’m making a salad I’m not remotely interested in eating, and I’ll have to admit I like the way it tastes—watery and stale and familiar, like it belongs to yesterday, the diluted version of everything I used to want—and meanwhile I’ll still be so, so thirsty, will still refuse to do the one simple thing that would satisfy my thirst: Drink some water.

A few months from now, after the end, I’ll read C’s caption on the Instagram post, a caption that is essentially an epitaph to our relationship, the accounts themselves a kind of grave, and I’ll feel something swell between my sternum and my spine. But when I pull the Winterson off my bookshelf to look up the quote, I’ll see C’s taken it out of context. The entire passage reads as follows: “‘Explore me,’ you said and I collected my ropes, flasks and maps, expecting to be back home soon. I dropped into the mass of you and I cannot find the way out. Sometimes I think I’m free, coughed up like Jonah from the whale, but then I turn a corner and recognize myself again. Myself in your skin, myself lodged in your bones, myself floating in the cavities that decorate every surgeon’s wall. That is how I know you. You are what I know.”

What we know, what’s familiar. What we learn to take for granted. We need our self-fulfilling prophecies. We need the sharp, clear lines of our expectations, and meanwhile we’ve made a giant loop, from home to the movie theater to the mall and back home again from the other direction.

What, exactly, have I done? What, exactly, have I not done? These routes we memorize without trying to. These dead, dead ends.


Jax Connelly (they/she) is an award-winning writer whose creative nonfiction explores the intersections of queer identity, unstable bodies, and mental illness. Their essays have received honors including four Notables in the Best American Essays series, Nowhere’s Fall 2020 Travel Writing Prize, and first place in the 2019 Prairie Schooner Creative Nonfiction Essay Contest, among others. Her work has also appeared or is forthcoming in Fourth Genre, [PANK], The Rumpus, Hunger Mountain, Pleiades, No Tokens, and more. 

SLAG GLASS CITY • Volume 10 • July 2024
Header image by Craig Fildes.