The Present Historical Moment
The Winner of 2016's Short Story Competition
After midnight, I can’t sleep. Even if I go to bed at nine, I still wake up at zero AM sharp and just can’t go back to sleep. I’ve no idea why. Whenever I’m about to turn the lights out, I always make sure that everything’s just right: my book bag sits all packed and ready near the desk, my cat snuggles close to my feet at the other end of the bed and, of course, my alarm—well, my phone—lies right there next to where I will hear it the best but not too close to the pillow. I guess it’s somewhere beside my elbow. Somewhere near my heart.
But it doesn’t matter what I do. I still wake up at twelve and stay awake for the rest of the night, no matter how tired I am. I’ve tried to keep sleeping so many failed times that at this point I don’t care. So once I wake up, what else can I do?
Are you asleep yet?
You know I don’t sleep. lol
Yeah, right. So you know how the new iphone’s coming out?
Are you gonna get it?
Is it like an iphone 7 or something?
Yeah, I think so. I heard bad reviews though
I think I still want to get it
You already have a 6s…
It’s not until fall. The current one will be like obsolete by then.
I don’t get why you care so much about the latest stuff. It’s not like you
Whatever, I just wanted to talk about something
Haha, I know
There’s like nothing going on! I wish I was like in the Middle East where everything’s happening. This life here’s so boring
You don’t know what you’re saying…
No, I know what I’m saying. You know, I’m so mad at myself for knowing that and still saying it. So stupid
Not you. I’m stupid
I think you’re tired. Go back to bed.
Ugh forget it
I toss the phone away without looking and hear it hit the cat square in the head. Thump. The furious lump of shedding fur screeches in contempt, leaps across my legs, onto the floor and out of the room, a trail of dust and hair shadowing the path of its swift exit. I sigh and realize that I’m thirsty. As I lazily move my legs from under the soft but thin plush blanket and slowly get up, I try to think of all the things going on around me in this world. This country. This city. This room. The entire place is dark—even the kitchen where the bay windows let the moonshine splatter all over the tiled floor. I’ve gotten used to the darkness though.
Crap, I forgot my phone on the bed! I should go get it. No, wait, I’m here to get a drink, am I not? Wait. Current events. Hold on… Just a few minutes ago…what have I done?
I rush back to my bed, stepping on the cat’s tale in the hallway between the kitchen and the bedroom—accidentally, sort of. The thing’s shedding too much these days, anyway. With a confused and sharp mirrp, the animal disappears into the darkness of the bathroom. As I plop back on the bed and see the rectangular puddle of light amid the grey plush, I realize that I’m still thirsty.
I don’t understand why you text me in the middle of the night and then get upset for no reason. If you just want to vent, do it elsewhere.
I’m really sorry! I didn’t mean it.
No, seriously! I don’t know what I’m doing. Actually, I don’t even know where I am. I really need to figure out my life
Listen, you’re not okay right now. Go to bed, sleep, and then tomorrow you can figure your life out
Like, what’s going on in the world these days?
Oh, a lot…
Just google it! Why do you need to ask me?
Why doesn’t he ever answer my questions directly? In any case, Google! How did I forget about it? I really do marvel at my own stupidity at times; actually, it has been amazing me quite a lot recently, maybe a bit more than I’d like to admit. Of course, I don’t tell anyone about what’s really going on in my head. The only place that does get a peak at my thought process stares right at me—a blank search field that, once tapped, magically remembers all the mess conceived, overturned, rejected and finally spewed out of my brain.
LARGE ORANGE CALORIES
CONVERT FARENHEIGHT TO CELSIUS
CONVERT FARENHEIT TO CELSIUS
HOW TO DELETE YOUR FACEBOOK
After I find out what I need right now, I should probably get rid of the search history. So that no one ever finds out and so that I never remember.
Fighting the impulse to type something laconic—like “latest news” or “current events”—I think intensely about the kind of phrase I’d be proud of as the last entry of the half-a-year-old search annals right before their annihilation.
THE PRESENT HISTORICAL MOMENT
“The,” of course, makes all the difference.
In less than half a second, the results pop up neatly aligned one after the other. Marx…Marx again…the War on Terror…1990-present…1877-present…Dukhobo-I’ve-no-idea-what-it-says…Protographer Blends Past and Present…Comment…Share… Slightly disheartened, I realize that the first ten of the 213,000,000 results have landed me absolutely nowhere—and, as the rules of the web dictate, the further the progress the more obscure the content. I glance through the next three pages only to find myself even more lost than when I started out. With a long sigh of disappointment, I tap the “x” and give up.
Granted, the girl at the Writing Lab the other day did point out the fact that my research skills need some serious “polishing”: apparently I have no idea how to manipulate the search box to find the most recent, the most relevant, the most beneficial, the most perfect results. And apparently, there is a way. “Trust me,” I told her, slightly in good humor but for the most part defensively, “I’ve even tried foreign languages.”
“I think,” she replied with a smile that bordered somewhere between sororal sympathy and genuine concern, “If you just stay more focused on the topic, you’ll find very good entries in no time.”
As much as I hate to admit this fact, it’s true: I absolutely cannot focus. If I ever write a short story, it will be so jumbled and disorganized that if some smart lady at some university library were to read it she would exclaim with indignity, “This story has no moving or vivid plot!”
With an emphatic tap on “Clear” and “All time,” I watch the half a year-long search history disappear in a split second.
Quite frankly, even without Google’s magic I know exactly what’s going on in the world around me. The problem, as far as I see it, lies in the fact that I virtually never talk of whatever happens around the world unless it somehow revolves around me. As a result, when these things do surface in a conversation, I struggle to formulate my thoughts audibly: should I speak emphatically while sprinkling occasional interjections like “Bah!” or “Ugh!” or “You don’t say…”? or should I frown and nod, muttering in approval without saying much at all? But I’m guessing the best way to learn how to speak of this age would be to memorize some nominal phrases—things like global terrorism, gay marriage, technological age, Asian invasion, and maybe Donald Trump. Naturally, other things are happening all over the place, but if future textbooks do decide to include a paragraph summary of the twenty-teens, they will most likely do so exactly with those phrases. Exactly the things I should care about.
Hey, I have a question.
Can you write a good story about something you absolutely don’t care about?
Like whatever is going on in the world but you don’t really know about it so you don’t really care?
I guess you can’t
Yeah, I thought so, too
Well, it depends. You can make yourself care by learning about it, you know
I’m not sure that’s possible… I mean, if you’re not part of it, how can you write about it? Wouldn’t that be fake?
If it were the way you’re talking then we wouldn’t have fiction
I guess you’re right this time
But I don’t want to write what I don’t care about. I want to write about something really worth remembering. Something real.
Like the bombing?
No, not the bombing. I can’t write about the bombing
It’s in the past. I wasn’t there. I don’t know the exact facts. I’ll screw up
You know enough! And can’t your family help gather information?
The only one who could give an actual account of what happened would be my grandmother
Then ask her!
Most survivors are dead by now. There’s only second-hand information at this point
Then isn’t that even more reason to write about it? So that people will know?
Listen, it’s history by now. Who cares? I tried searching it online and all I got was a half-empty Wikipedia page that didn’t even mention the bombing—except for the fact that both the Japanese and the Russians dropped a couple here and there.
Actually, the page in Japanese doesn’t even mention that—only how Japan came to Karafuto and how Japan left Karafuto. There’s no mention of the Koreans they brought over at all! But who cares?
Russians don’t—those Asians weren’t even Russian, anyway, were they? The Japanese don’t care—those Koreans weren’t even Japanese, were they? Even Koreans don’t care—because those Koreans over in Russia aren’t actually Koreans, right? Who knows what they are!
And you know, even if I’d really like to talk about the bombing of my hometown, it’s no longer relevant. It’s history. It’s outdated. People want to know what’s happening NOW, not sixty or fifty years ago. It’s the present historical moment that counts—not the past. It doesn’t matter that innocent people died. It doesn’t matter that my grandmother saw a baby’s back and rear ripped off in a bloody fountain by a bomb shell. It doesn’t matter that the mother of the baby didn’t even notice her child’s death because the kid was strapped to her back and she was too wild with panic. It doesn’t matter that my grandmother, regardless of what she’d seen, kept gripping her younger sister’s hand, even though she herself was barely a teen. It doesn’t matter because it’s in the past. Because those people are dead. Because no one knows or wants to know. Because even if I write about it, no one will believe. And even if people do believe, they won’t care.
The internet doesn’t know. And I’m already too far off to be a reliable source. Actually, I… I want to write about it. I really do. But I can’t, I really can’t. I shouldn’t blame others. I…
I did not send that message. Having let out the first wave of steam, I considered my words more carefully. In reality, no one quite knows about that bombing anymore. And who would profit from knowing about it? Neither Russia nor Japan nor Korea would like to remember; in fact, they are perhaps the most zealous—and successful—in forgetting about it. A national crime, a public disgrace, a stupid mistake, a shared embarrassment. Why would history need to remember such an event? And if anyone does know, what profit is there in knowing—or in remembering, discussing, debating? As I sat staring at the lit screen that slowly dimmed and, after five seconds, suddenly went out, I realized that maybe remaining one of those dark, secret corners of history that no one will ever discover comes closest to that sacred place where a tragic event truly belongs. Silent, solemn. And above all, undefiled.
I’m tired. I’ll go to sleep
Yeah. Please try
He’s right: I should try to sleep. What good will it do to participate in this world if I have neither the energy nor the mental capacity to take it all in? Tomorrow morning I should download a news app or something. Wait; actually, I can do it now!
As I press “BUY” for a solid-sounding news app, a message pops up informing me of limited space available for additional downloads. Great. Of all times. I need to erase all of those pictures I never look at from months ago—who cares what they are!—but I don’t feel like doing it now because I can’t think quite as clearly and may accidentally erase some of the important pictures, too. I guess I will wait until morning to clear up some of my phone’s memory and download the news app. Actually, I think I should buy a new phone. With more space. I’ll wait for the 7, though. It’ll certainly help me stay on top of everything.
Yes, I should be more involved and know what’s going on better so that I can talk about those things intelligently and write good stories. He’s right: I should make myself care by learning about what really matters. Naturally I may lack the opportunity to participate in history, but I can certainly pretend to partake in these events, can’t I? Isn’t that what everyone does, more or less? It’s all over the social media: a short, witty tweet about the primaries and Hilary’s hairstyle; a thought-out comment bereaving injustice under the picture of a tearful Syrian refugee; a blurry snapshot of the Pope in the distance when he visited Philadelphia. With the help of the worldwide web, we all partake in and contribute to what’s important and meaningful. Our current place and time, after all, are at the tip of history’s swift and relentless arrow that zooms with lightening speed in none other than the greatest, most exciting, most involved, most significant direction.
But this specific place—my dark room; this specific time—00:40AM, Eastern Time, March 3, 2016; and this specific moment—can I really call it an “event”?—seem to bear no significance whatsoever. Even if I write it all down or bookmark it or save it in my searches, no one will ever remember. Within the overwhelming current of history—its raging waves, its yawning depth—my dull face lit by a smartphone display simply disappears. Actually, it doesn’t even exist.
Because this place, this time, and this event probably bear neither memory nor meaning, stimulating no engaging experience and displaying no moving plot. We just are—my phone and I.
Sensing no human temperature on its surface, the screen goes blank and the room turns dark. I blink slowly and let out a low and insignificant, yet somewhat sad groan.
It’s already past midnight, and I still can’t sleep.