MADDIE BALLARD

 

A FLIRTATION IN PUNCTUATION

 

!
Your favourite form of punctuation is the exclamation mark. You use it in ones and twos whenever you are excited about something. The twos are especially good.

You always capitalise the first letters of sentences, but sometimes your Is are lowercase. You abbreviate very to v and with to w and sometimes even pretty to p. You don’t really use emojis, but sometimes you type a smiley face out with two parentheses, happiness with a chin. You use phrases like wild stuff and it knocked my socks off and some folks, and somehow in your accent, it doesn’t sound stupid. Sometimes you write lmao and a part of me shrivels, but, like, kind of delightfully.

:
We meet. For some reason, I go for a handshake, like it’s a business meeting. I hate myself. I like you. You have these very lovely unusual ears—is it your ears that convince me your face could be dear to me? We walk all around town talking about language and the Himalayas.

You recommend me a 600-page literary novel translated from Spanish, which is just the kind of challenge I can’t resist. I read the first 150 pages, which are about this teenage boy in Mexico City who wants to be a poet and hangs out in a lot of smoky cafés and moons over several women and the state of the poetry scene. It’s pretentious as hell and I’m pretty sure I actively dislike it, but you said to get past the first bit.

The second part of the novel is the best thing I’ve read in many years. In it, forty different narrators offer anecdotes concerning the same two characters, and the resulting polyphony is exuberant and loud and dreamlike and sad—big enough to mean everything. I note certain lines open-mouthed: ‘I could peel my hands off the glass of that old mirror (noticing, all the same, how my fingerprints lingered like ten tiny faces speaking in unison and so quickly that I couldn’t make out their words).’ But much of what is good about the book is diffused across three hundred pages. The fact it is one of your favourite books—well.


You don’t text after we meet. So I text instead, to tell you how much I like the book. Then—to tell you how much I’d like to see you again. It’s a new thing I’m trying, this saying exactly what I mean. It fills me with terror. I hide my phone afterwards. The next day, I read that you’d like to see me again too. My heart, that old galumpher, goes snatch-grab.

We talk about nothing much for weeks. Our texts contain words like heteronormative and swooning and incisive, like we’re two insufferable people sparring in an English tutorial, but my God, it’s fun. I go to Fiji and write you long, rambling messages about the frogs that come out after dusk. You listen from across the ocean and write me long, rambling messages about gigs we could, maybe, go to together; voices we could listen to in the dark. I come home again; I water my feelings. I risk.

.
You cancel on me twice at the last minute. The second time, I am already wearing mascara.

I come to a full stop to read your message, which says—you’re not ready. You say you’re sorry you’ve strung me along in the process of realising that. I’m not quite sure what to do, because your apologies are—there’s no other word—beautiful. They were written by somebody who knows all about close reading; who knows their exact choice of punctuation matters. It is a very good sorry. I offer all the grace I have and let you recede.

,
Two weeks. I’ve decided I am Definitely Not Sad. Just as I have got used to the silence, you text to recommend another book. It’s a 900-page literary novel translated from Polish. There’s a bloody lmao in the text. I am driving home from the beach when I receive your message, listening to, ha, The Beths’ Future Me Hates Me. There is sand everywhere, like some kind of benediction. I don’t read the book this time. But I undulate for a day and then I text back, a not-sad girl.

?
One day, later, you ask what I gravitate towards in a piece of writing. Why, you want to know, are my favourite books my favourites? This is the best question anyone has ever asked me, but I guess you don’t know that.

It takes me a long time to reply to your question. I mean, it takes me a long time to write you a message of any sort—I compose all texts to you in a separate notes file to avoid the terror of hitting send before despairing over every way you could think I’m uncool—but this is also a hard question.

I tell you I think it is about the gesture a piece of writing makes; how beautiful the shape is that it leaves in the mind. I mean it is about whether what is unspoken speaks just as truthfully as what is said. The act of articulating this to another person would be precious, even if you weren’t involved.

I ask you why you like long novels so much and you say you love digression, multiplicity of voice, an overabundance of ideas—all things that big books have more room for. But you also say you like them on some weird elemental level you can’t explain. I know all about that.

;
We text back and forth, like people passing a lit torch to each other. Such a small bright sweetness. When it is my turn to text back, I want to hold on to it being my turn for as long as possible—say, a whole day. I want to be waited for. But I want so many things, although I don’t name them to you.

No reason to hold back now. I want to know your elbows and eyebrows, and all the things you like to eat. I want to put my face very close to yours, because you know how to use a semicolon not only correctly but idiosyncratically. I want to meet you again and see if I remember your ears correctly. I want to have it over; have it out.


My favourite punctuation mark is the em dash. I like it because it looks like exactly what it means—a connection that is also a break. My favourite syntactic device of all is a sub-clause cuddled by two em dashes, a suspension in the middle of the rational engine of the sentence.

You turn out to be a suspension in the middle of the rational. You turn out to be a passing truth. One day, you don’t write back and I can’t bring myself to begin again. I wait one day, then two, then three, then four. I check my phone approximately a hundred times an hour. I wait eight. I wait fifteen. I wait twenty-nine.

Outside, the whole wide sky asks, what did you think was going to happen? I have no idea, although I know I should not admit to having so many feelings about it. But wouldn’t anyone? Wouldn’t you? I was waiting for something to happen, not realising that something was already happening, subtle and insistent as syntax.

I wonder if you’ll send another message one day, after a while. Unfortunately, if you did, I would write back.

(In case of trouble viewing on a phone or tablet—please turn to landscape orientation) 

 

Two ancestors

 

we were married in Mississippi                                                                  our lives were not like yours 

you never saw prettier weather                                                                     when the Japanese came I 

and my mother                                                            sewed rice into the hem of my daughter’s dress

made cornbread for afters                                                                                    sent her to Hong Kong

we were happy                                                                                                        you had three cousins

every week we went to church                                                   they tried to swim to another country

with a baby on her arm                                                                                                 only one survived 

everybody we loved alive                                         and his mother cried every day for twenty years

but the troubles came south and                                                                       she died without—well 

there was not enough milk 

we fought while the cotton grew snowy                                   the sound of the guns lifted the birds

such softness                                                                                                                      out of the trees

I drank moonshine on somebody’s porch                             it was beautiful if you blocked your ears

and upset her. Women. The babies—

six of them—grew big                                                           later, in Auckland, you would not believe

I worked on automobiles and                                                                         how much food there was

I kissed other girls—                                                                            my daughter married a good boy

that’s just how it was                                                                                  they ran a fruit shop in town                               

                                                                                                                         I made dinner for everybody

those papers they’ve been trying to find                                                                         in the sunshine 

for almost a century                                                          I washed the rice like my mother taught me 

look under the chest in the attic                                                            I chopped the garlic very small

and the letters I wrote her before the thirties—                                            I boiled the pork for soup

you can read them:                                                                                                 how we ate, like kings

God knows love should last                                                                             far away from the graves

as long as it can                                                                                                                 of our ancestors

(In case of trouble viewing on a phone or tablet—please turn to landscape orientation) 

Two ancestors

 

we were married in Mississippi                                                                  our lives were not like yours 

you never saw prettier weather                                                                     when the Japanese came I 

and my mother                                                            sewed rice into the hem of my daughter’s dress

made cornbread for afters                                                                                    sent her to Hong Kong

we were happy                                                                                                        you had three cousins

every week we went to church                                                   they tried to swim to another country

with a baby on her arm                                                                                                 only one survived 

everybody we loved alive                                         and his mother cried every day for twenty years

but the troubles came south and                                                                       she died without—well 

there was not enough milk 

we fought while the cotton grew snowy                                   the sound of the guns lifted the birds

such softness                                                                                                                      out of the trees

I drank moonshine on somebody’s porch                             it was beautiful if you blocked your ears

and upset her. Women. The babies—

six of them—grew big                                                           later, in Auckland, you would not believe

I worked on automobiles and                                                                         how much food there was

I kissed other girls—                                                                            my daughter married a good boy

that’s just how it was                                                                                  they ran a fruit shop in town                               

                                                                                                                         I made dinner for everybody

those papers they’ve been trying to find                                                                         in the sunshine 

for almost a century                                                          I washed the rice like my mother taught me 

look under the chest in the attic                                                            I chopped the garlic very small

and the letters I wrote her before the thirties—                                            I boiled the pork for soup

you can read them:                                                                                                 how we ate, like kings

God knows love should last                                                                             far away from the graves

as long as it can                                                                                                                 of our ancestors

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Maddie Ballard is a writer from Tāmaki Makaurau | Auckland. Her work has been published in titles including Landfall, Starling, and The Pantograph Punch. She is the winner of the 2023 Creative Nonfiction Prize at the IIML with her MA folio Mixed Feelings, and her debut book, Bound: A Memoir of Making and Remaking, will be published by The Emma Press in 2024.