I'll Say I Knew You When
by MATTHEW VASILIAUSKAS
As I close one eye and move my fingers in front of my face rapidly, I see the radiator’s shadow as a pitchfork, trembling as the magnified insects crawl about it, humming and dancing to the songs of the passing traffic, caressing the curtains of the open window.

More and more, this is how my days tend to begin.

I find myself doing strange things in my bed. Sometimes I hold my breath and shed my skin, until I am only 3 inches tall, my legs pumping as I sprint across the plain of fabric, my muscles tightening, and the final drops of sweat sliding across my cheeks, creating deep crevices where the sun sleeps.

Everything is a game to me now.

I see how many faces I can make from the cracks in the walls, loud commotion from the paint, overlapping whispers that form outrageous sentences, droning on and on, making my head spin.

Sometimes I’ll put my leg behind my back and lay on it, forcing myself into a painful contortion seeing how long I can take it. 20 minutes tends to be the limit. It makes me angry that I cannot hold it longer.

I was much better at it when I was a child. At around 8, I wrote on a classroom survey that I wanted to be a statue when I grew up, and immediately began practicing.

Cans of paint became pedestals, my garage a gallery, where sometimes for entire weekends I would remain in place, eyes closed, arms draped across my face and leaning into the light of the lone hanging bulb, beads of sweat stopping halfway down my face as I plunged into tumbling pockets of heat.

I knew the sculpture I wanted to become. A naked, crouching figure suspended above a giant hand, forever spinning in an invisible womb, the shadows of fingernails trying to grip onto me, but always coming up short.

I felt this would be worthy enough to get me picked up by a gallery or a museum, perhaps even a private room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, tucked away in a quiet corner, enclosed in glass, where tourists wearing headsets could learn of my history, study my physique and watch my ability to rarely take in a breath.

I dreamed of being a permanent exhibit. Years passing, my skin sagging, my hair falling out, but still suspended, even in death, until there was nothing left, leaving my bones to rest in the palm of the hand, creating a new sculpture and a new discussion.

My mother hated this idea. I told her I wanted to be enclosed in glass, and she would throw papers at me, yelling and crying, the smell of burnt toast filling the air and her slender fingers drowning in the condensation of her ice tea.

My new game has been calling the phone number of my dead grandmother, and seeing how many times I can let it ring before growing tired of it.

I do it because I don’t want to forget it. I want to remember Saturdays especially, the fading, evening sun crawling across the top of the frayed brown carpet, rocking back and forth in the squeaking gray chair, the withered leaves of flowers resting on the cracked glass table, as big band music blares from the public access channel, the kind my grandmother used to move her feet to, but now only moves her eyebrows, all the while clipping articles from small town newspapers, births, deaths and weddings stuffed into grandpa’s old cigar box, his breath and the smoke still moving with the dust.

I don’t know why we’ve never had it disconnected? It’s been years now, but the house still sits idle, abandoned, only the phone and the echoing sighs of the empty rooms.

I usually call first thing in the morning. 10, 15, 30 even 50 rings sometimes. It’s a soothing hum, and by ring 30 there is no separation of tones, only an exaggerated yawn of mechanical melody.

The game had become pretty standard, until about three days ago.

I had gotten up early, and after a cup of coffee picked up the phone and immediately dialed my grandmother’s house.

I felt an itch on the back of my neck, and wasn’t paying as close attention as usual until suddenly after only 4 rings, a soft voice came on the line and said, “Hello?”

Feeling a tightness in my chest I unexpectedly dropped the phone, the receiver plunging downward knocking the cup of coffee over, and the steaming hot, brown liquid splashing on the front of my shirt and soaking the loose pieces of paper piled around the table, their messages and drawings now just a faded mess.

I could hear the low voice still calling out hello. The game had been changed. Now it was how many times this person could say hello before I answered. I didn’t like it. My chest was going to explode, I felt a twitch in my right hand, the first time I had felt a twitch in my entire life, was now taking over the whole room, windows shaking, cabinets opening and the emergence of insects from seemingly nowhere, trying desperately to find shelter from this destruction.

The muffled voice was still there. This could last for days I thought, if the individual was a true competitor.

How much could I take? I considered myself to be in pretty good shape, but this was a challenge I was scarcely ready for.

Finally, peeling back the wet papers I picked up the phone, listened to the voice for several moments until responding with my own hello.

“Hello,” the voice said softly.

“Yes,” I slowly replied.

“Hello, you called me.”

“I did.”

“Yes, you did. Was there something you wanted?”

“Is this 551-2031?”

“Yes it is, may I ask who’s calling?”

I was almost certain the voice was female. Sometimes it can be difficult to tell, but I’ve always been good at identifying genders over the phone.

“Yes, I’m, I’m sorry. I thought no one lived at this address,” I replied.

“Well, I actually just moved in this morning. Were you looking for someone?”

“No, yes, well, it’s just that this used to be my grandmother’s number and sometimes I call to see if it still works. I didn’t expect anyone to answer.”

“Oh, that’s interesting.”

“I’m really sorry for bothering you, I’ll go now.”

“No wait, you don’t have to do that. In fact, I found a box here with some personal items in it that you’re more than welcome to come by and take.”

“Oh that’s fine, I’m sure it’s nothing. You can just throw that stuff away.”

“No, no I couldn’t. I’ve never been able to do things like that. I always feel bad, and plus, it looks like some pretty important stuff in here you may want to have. We should meet up, and I can give it to you.”

What was going on here? This was a game I was not ready for. What was her intention? I needed to hang up the phone. Not say anything, but just slam it down so that the whole device shattered into many pieces scattering across the floor. But for some reason I couldn’t, and my head began to throb, and I was licking my lips so much that I thought I probably erased them from my face entirely.

“Well, I suppose so, if you don’t mind that is,” I stuttered unexpectedly.

“Great,” she replied. “Why don’t we meet at The Grey Horn on Third. You know where that is don’t you? Should we say in an hour?”

“Yeah, that sounds fine.”

“Good. Well, I’ll see you then. I’ll be wearing red. Long hair, can’t miss me. What about you?”

“I’m, I’m not sure yet, but probably some kind of tie.”

“Sounds great. Well, see you then. Goodbye.”

“Goodbye.”

I pulled the phone away from my ear, and after setting it back down, felt a lone trickle of coffee moving slowly down my cheek. I wanted to faint.

The world was nothing more than paint now, streaking by in bright, choppy patches, held together by the hands of swirling leaves exploding like confetti, and me gazing at my face in the rearview mirror, checking for fallen eyelashes that I could grab and wish on and blow outside.

I considered staring at my knuckles to be my favorite recreation of the moment. Watching the skin around them tighten as I made a fist, or the fluctuations in color, alternating between white and pink, a sort of visual melody I was trying to create, humming songs from their rhythms, and watching at present as they rested on top of the steering wheel moving left and right throughout the passing stoplights and the blurred, fleeting shadows of pedestrians. Concentrating on anything else seemed almost impossible.

Strangely, a line had formed outside of The Grey Horn. An endless succession of frozen bodies posed in positions of anger and frustration, without a shake or quiver, as lit cigarettes hovered slowly burning into ash that came to rest on the tops of shoes. Little mountains of ash that could have been there for weeks.

The whole sight made me extremely jealous. I wanted to join them. Tell them about my years of experience, my studying and the accomplishments I had had with standing still, and that I could be a great addition to the line, making it better. But their eyes were against it. Shaking back and forth where their heads could not, blinking rapidly, creating endless flashing lights that were like giant, neon signs telling me to go away and never come back.

Suddenly there was a fight at the door, and the whole line seemed to come alive amidst the crashing of beer bottles. As several men were led away, I quickly slipped past the commotion and entered the building.

It was less crowded inside than I would have expected, with most gathered in the hidden, corner booths that left only the oranges and yellows of their clothing visible, along with the occasional dangling earrings or the glistening of champagne bubbles.

The abundance of hanging antlers seemed appropriate yet mysterious, formed in shapes that did not fit any known living animal that I was aware of, and I wanted to ask someone what they were and who brought them here? Had one individual killed them all? More and more the place seemed to have been built under a tree, mounted roots disguised as antlers left to grow as the years went on, patrons forced out of their favorite tables and left to fend for themselves, gathered in small huddles and making fires out of the complimentary match books sitting in a glass jar by the bar.

The whole place grew more primitive by the moment. Soon there would only be the roots, and piles of dirt where people once sat.

I had a sudden inclination to run away, but as I turned towards the front door I saw her. A red, wool coat and long hair that stuck to the front of her face momentarily until she brushed it away revealing blue eyes and a tiny scar in the center of her forehead.

We moved towards each other slowly as if treading water, and I noticed a lone dark hair sitting on her shoulder that moved over the wool landscape like a creature with a mind of its own that wanted to bury itself deep inside her. I wanted to grab it and throw it into the darkness, but there was no time.

Soon we were standing inches apart, saying nothing and letting the unknown static from a radio fill the air between us. Finally I rubbed my nose, and taking in a breath said, “I’m from the phone.”

“I figured you probably were,” she replied, gently moving some of her hair behind her ear. “And I like your tie. I’ve really never seen a color like that before. What is it?”

“You know, I’m not sure,” I said, my voice cracking a bit, unexpectedly making me sound years younger. “I thought it was some kind of yellow, but now that you mention it, I suppose it is a bit different.”

“Very different, but it seems to fit you. Even though I know nothing about you, it really seems like a good fit. That’s how colors work sometimes I suppose.”

“I think you’re probably right.”

“Should we get a table?”

“I saw a couple empty ones near the back. Does that work for you?”

She nodded, and we glided further into the darkness, caught in the current of cigarette smoke, until we finally landed at a small, round table directly beneath one of the more oddly shaped sets of antlers.

Drinks were brought to us though I hadn’t ordered a thing, and she indicated for me to raise my glass, a mirror image of hers which remained in front of her face magnifying her lips, cutting through the swirling, golden liquid and mouthing what seemed to be “cheers” until finally consuming the drink in one gulp, making the glass horizontal with the table, and the dripping condensation like tears from the gathered pellets of dust that clung to it. I continued taking small sips of mine, fearful of what it might be.

“Well, I’m glad we could do this. Get together that is,” she said.

“Have you done this before,” I replied.

“You mean sitting down with someone?”

“No, I mean, just randomly meeting someone you spoke on the phone with moments earlier.”

“Oh. Well, maybe once, but you know I had actually known the person a bit before so no, I suppose this is the first time.”

I raised my eyebrows and nodded my head. She seemed to enjoy the gesture. One of the things I’ve always prided myself in is the ability to create compelling facial expressions. During a five year span I logged nearly 100 hours of recorded facial expressions that I kept in a drawer near my bed. I thought I could sell them, or offer them as some sort of teaching tool. I got a little interest though, and eventually ended by forgetting about them.

“So, I’m living in your grandmother’s house,” she said tapping the side of her empty glass.

“Well, it used to be my grandmother’s house,” I replied.

“You don’t consider it to be anymore?”

“I mean, she’s not living in it anymore.”

“Yeah, but don’t you think it always will be to you? Let’s say you and I became best friends.”

“Best friends?”

“Yeah, best friends. And you’re driving over to my house to look at this brand new kitchen appliance I bought. Something top of the line that sparkles when the sun comes in through the windows. You know the kind I’m talking about right?”

“I suppose so.”

“Anyways, you’re driving over and you’re nearing the house. When you get close would you say there’s her house, or there’s my grandmother’s house?”

“Would I be saying this aloud as I’m pulling up?”

“Maybe, but most likely whispering. Kind of somewhere between a whisper and a normal speaking voice. Maybe it’s even a routine you’ve fallen into. Saying it aloud has become an automatic necessary action.”

“I really can’t see myself doing that though.”

“But you do. And not just with the house, but with other places. When going to the movie theater, before entering the lobby, in the same tone of voice you say, ‘yes, with butter.’

“Yes, with butter?”

“Yes, you’re anticipating what Maurice behind the counter is going to ask you. It’s the same thing you’ve gotten for every Saturday matinee.”

“His name’s Maurice?”

“For this story yes, but it could be Claude, Ed or Gavin.”

“I don’t even go to the movies.”

“The point is, you’re going to develop this automatic reaction when driving up to the house. And so when you drive up to it, are you going to say there’s her house, or there’s my grandmother’s house?”

“I really don’t know. I mean, I can’t see myself putting that much importance on the matter.”

“If it’s not that important, then why do you keep calling even though you know she’ll never answer?”

An expression came over her face I had never seen before. Not a smile, but the sides of her cheeks drew in, creating tiny, rippling lines near the edges of her lips, and her eyebrows raised, aroused at some kind of satisfaction that I did not fully understand. It made me uncomfortable. I wanted her to order another drink, and keep the glass firmly planted in front of her lips, so that the draining liquid could perhaps restore some level of comfort.

“Didn’t you say you were bringing something you found in the house,” I said picking at the word ‘got’ that had been carved into the table.

“Oh yes, of course. Here it is.”

She reached down into a bag she had been carrying and pulled out an old Milliton Brothers cigar box, decorated with a handful of puritan men, lost pilgrims whose long beards nearly wrapped around the chipped, and yellowing letters.

“It was in a closet, under a phone book,” she said rubbing the sides of the box with her thumbs.

She held the box out across the table, and I gripped onto it, pulling it towards me quickly, and opening up the top in an unexpected near frenzy, allowing a decades old aroma to take its first breaths, exhaling the scent of weathered cardboard, dust and creased photographs whose chemicals now made my eyes water, a rotting of everything artificial.

“What’s inside of it,” she asked.

I proceeded to pull out the handful of items that made up the contents of the box: Black and white photographs of the farm my grandmother grew up on, a rusted bottle opener from Allied Mills, #2 pencils broken in half, some pennies, a newspaper clipping about Baker’s supermarket, and a brochure from the Douglas County Art Museum advertising a retrospective on Constantin Brancusi.

I held the brochure close to my face, at first not realizing I had closed my eyes, swirling reds and blues becoming the bodies of the circulating smells that moved about to the rhythmic flapping as I allowed each page to drag and slide off my fingers.

“What’s that,” she asked leaning in to get a better look at the brochure.

“It was an exhibit by a sculptor I admired that my grandmother took me to. It’s what I wanted to do when I grew up.”

“Oh, you wanted to sculpt.”

“No, I mean, I wanted to be a statue.”

“A statue? You mean out of stone?”

“No, not like that. A living statue. Where I would be installed in an exhibit, and my pose would change over the years as I got older.”

“How could you do that though? Wouldn’t you get tired?”

“Probably, but I practiced a lot. I had gotten good. My grandmother really supported me. It’s really the only thing I wanted to do. I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else.”

“Then what happened?”

“It just kind of got away from me. There’s not a big need for the kind of statue work I want to do, and other things just seemed to get in the way as they tend to. To answer your question though, I think I will always consider it to be her house though.”

We sat there in silence, the brochure suddenly feeling loose as if it might depart from my hands and blow out the front door, joining a group of flying leaves creating an ornate pattern of shadows over the passing sidewalk.

“Well, what’s stopping you now,” she suddenly said.

“What do you mean,” I replied.

“I mean why not become a statue? I’m sure there’s an exhibit that would be glad to have you. Or you could create your own.”

“I just don’t know. It’s been so long.”

“Wouldn’t that be exciting though? Then I could say I knew you when…”

“When what?”

“When you were just a guy sitting at a table. Before you were hanging from wires or behind glass. Before you had your own plaque and people all day taking pictures of you. Wouldn’t that be amazing? I would love to say that.”

“I don’t think I would mind that too much.”

She smiled and grabbed her bag.

“Come on,” she said grabbing my arm, forcing me to nearly drop the brochure and the box, as she drug me out of The Grey Horn.

Everything suddenly was a great blur. Only flashes of broken imagery were discernable, feet splashing through scattered puddles across the street, car doors and passing houses like dripping streaks of paint and her lips creating a fog on the windows, a blinding warmth which she eased by writing and drawing lines into it, allowing the cool day to come rushing in.

Before I knew it, we were at the museum, making our way up the steps, pass Canova’s Venus and into the oval exhibition area that housed most of the classical sculptures.

Barely stopping to rest, she pulled out a camera she had with her, a silver instamatic that resembled a weapon, and gave me a nod to proceed.

I slowly walked to the center of the exhibition area, passing several guests wearing long coats, and began my poses.

At first I drew from memory. Raising my arms and contorting my body as if I was still in my garage, hearing the insects of the night, and using the ghosts of paint cans as I now tried to keep balance on the smooth and slippery, museum floor.

Soon though emotion took over, and I found myself moving from one end of the exhibition space to the other, creating poses I had never dreamed of, placing my hands in front of my face, feeling the sudden burst from the instamatic, and catching glimpses of the curious passersby who pointed, and looked down at their museum programs desperately trying to find a listing for me.

Eventually I spotted a trashcan, and taking a hold of it, allowing its contents to scatter about the floor, stood on top of the metallic receptacle, removed my jacket and shirt, stood there, my bare flesh reacting to the coldness of the room, held my arms close to my chest, and crouched so that I resembled a suspended embryo.

For the first time in a long time I felt perfectly still. I could not feel the beat of my heart, and only occasionally noticed the passing shadows of the ceiling fans that washed over my flesh.

A small crowd had now gathered around me. They remained quiet, either out of reverence, awe or confusion. Even the silver instamatic had been silenced at the sight, and it was then that I knew I could remain like this forever.

A sound like a bell though suddenly emerged, and several guards quickly made their way towards the scene.

Waking from my trance, I jumped down from the trashcan, gathered my clothes, and the two of us rushed out of the hall and the museum as the guards stopped at the scattered debris littering the floor.

As we walked down the steps, the newly formed rain sliding off the top of our shared umbrella, I was already thinking of new poses. I couldn’t wait to share them with her.



MATTHEW VASILIAUSKAS is a graduate of Columbia College Chicago, where he received a Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree in Film and Video Production. In 2009, he was awarded the Silver Dome Prize by the Illinois Broadcast Association for best public affairs program as producer of the Dean Richards Show at WGN Radio. He is a frequent contributor to Film Monthly, an online journal of contemporary cinema. Matthew currently lives and works in Los Angeles.