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un/synced by Lisa Bass


“un/synced” by Lisa Bass is one of four pieces chosen for the Editors’ Choice Round in the 2020 CRAFT Flash Fiction Contest. Our editors selected pieces that showcase the range of forms and styles in flash fiction.


Pandemic stories can be difficult to fall in love with in the midst of the storm. This is not the case with Lisa Bass’s “un/synced.” In this flash fiction piece, the narrator struggles with all the pressures life applies to her: a badgering husband with opaque motives, the desire for a routine to combat endless uncertainty, and an emptiness that grows both physically and mentally. As Bass explains in her author’s note, she wants the words and the white space between them to each lend meaning: “What might I unlock by letting go of a need to explain? By allowing the story to exist in the white space between the words?” Looking in the mirror, our narrator asks, “Is there less now? Enough less?” One could imagine Bass asking the same question while writing. Her use of white space pairs well with the subtle setting, emotions, and themes to create an atmosphere rich with longing and haziness. After the year we’ve all been through, maybe what we need is a story to remind us that our very feelings of separateness and uncertainty can be what actually connects us.  —CRAFT


 

Week of April 4, 2020

I swallowed most of a fly today at Spring Creek Park. It swept past my lips, then lodged itself into the back of my throat, launching a series of gagging coughs. A family of five glared at me while they hurried past. The father muttered stupid and selfish as he lifted the smallest child onto his hip. I stepped off the trail into the poison oak. The saliva pooled in my mouth and I picked out pieces of fly—a wing and maybe a leg.

“It’s just so hard to ventilate the fat ones,” my husband called from the bathroom where he was shaving before his shift in the ICU. This is the main way we spend time together lately. “Babe,” he said, “you should really think about losing weight.”

My best friend from high school offered me a complimentary hypnotherapy session. She just finished her certification and now she’s ridding clients of addiction and anxiety via Zoom. She’s great at it, she says. She did a past life regression and it turns out this isn’t the first time she’s been a hypnotherapist. My interest in improving myself is well-cultivated. Typically, I have at least two or three systems I’m working.

Right now, I’m baking my way through a dessert cookbook. I try new recipes on alternate days and plan my calendar two weeks in advance so I can get a hold of the requisite lemon rind or coconut flake. We’ve agreed to eat clean at our house so, once they’re decorated, I scrape the cakes into the blue trash can at the end of our driveway.

I’m not alone in my interest. The people who stole 700 cases of masks from the hospital loading dock were, in fact, adapting to the times.

For years, a throbbing pain in the area above my top lip has kept me awake at night. I keep a cooler of frozen water bottles next to my bed for when the pain sharpens. Working from home now, I’ve not had to smile at anyone all week. Each night, I drift to sleep on my couch. An insincerity injury, it turns out.

My husband keeps bringing home journal articles that detail how people with visceral fat are having worse outcomes. He prints them double-sided. He folds and unfolds the page corners while he’s reading. He taps the tip of his index finger on images of lungs filled with ground glass. I find the stapled pages lying on the bedside table or the ottoman or the back of the toilet.

All the headphones in this house are disappearing. The ones with the flat connector that came with my daughter’s phone and the ones with the cylinder connectors for my computer. The ones that make my voice sound clear and the ones that pick up Hazel barking in the background. The ones that have been sitting in the junk drawer for months and the three I just ordered.

My friend really does have a calming voice, even through the speaker on my laptop. Maybe she has been honing it for lifetimes. You are safe, she keeps saying. You are filled with ease.

My husband stashed a tape measure in our medicine cabinet so he can track his ratios. He’s whittling his waist down to half his height. I check my progress by standing in front of the mirror after I shower. I splay my palm against the fat on my belly. Is there less now? Enough less?

I’ve taken up a project helping the food bank be agile and innovative during this dynamic time. I find myself in Zoom meetings saying things like navigating uncertainty and what might emerge.

According to my intermittent fasting app, cutting down on carbs will reduce your hunger and amplify the results of your fast. Here are some other things that will help you ride a wave of hunger: a pinch of salt, some bone broth, accepting that you will feel empty from time to time.

Usually, I call my friend on my way home from work. It’s only a four-and-a-half-minute drive door to door, so it can take us a whole week to finish a conversation. Now, I set up my laptop on the kitchen counter and we Zoom at the end of the day. We don’t talk really, but we keep the audio on so we can hear each other prepping dinner.

I can’t quite read the expression on my husband’s face when he comes across me, naked, assessing my fat loss. Is that desire? disgust? worry?

All I can reliably find are these noise-canceling headphones that look like the earmuffs air traffic controllers wear. I connect them to my laptop via Bluetooth. Everyone in this house does, apparently. During my client call today, the headphones kept syncing and unsyncing with other devices. For the whole two hours, a relentless mechanical voice spoke in my ear: You are connected. You are disconnected.

 


LISA BASS lives, works, and writes at home with her family in California. Her writing has appeared in jmww. She studies at The Writers Studio.

 

Featured image by Ricardo Gomez Angel courtesy of Unsplash

 

Author’s Note

“un/synced” began as an exercise for a writing workshop—a last-minute couple of scenes that I threw onto the page an hour before deadline. It was our second week of shelter-in-place, my husband had been sick in bed for days and we were awaiting the results of his COVID test. I was in a kind of fog state, but still trying to minimally meet my commitments (care for my husband at a distance; shift client meetings to Zoom; convince my parents to steer clear of grocery stores; feed kids; turn something, anything really, in for my writing assignment).

In class at The Writers Studio, we had been reading Renata Adler’s Speedboat and I was drawn to the way her narrator’s fragmented observations unsettled me. It mirrored how I was feeling as the pandemic unfolded. At the same time, I was reading Jenny Offill’s Department of Speculation. Offill’s series of wry, sometimes tender, prose poems filled me with longing. Over the course of the novel, they intertwined and layered to depict a rich story of an artist, a mother, a marriage, a family. I felt buoyed, as if I were reading my way into a connected, larger whole.

I wanted to experiment with these techniques. What might I unlock by letting go of a need to explain? By allowing the story to exist in the white space between the words? By juxtaposing prose fragments and letting the way they sit next to one another on the page speak for itself?

Writing this piece became a container for me to attune to and make sense of the pandemic as it unfolded in my environment (my environment being my living room, my backyard, Zoom meetings, phone calls). The “un/synced” narrator began to show up in my journal with her fragmented observations—sometimes wry, often filled with longing.

But it would be months before a connected, larger whole would begin to emerge. It wasn’t until I noticed that the characters I’d written were each working hard to manage their isolation, that I recognized what the story was about. I had to narrow the focus. I made myself deemphasize a theme of frantic self-improvement, dropping beloved fragments about a Zoom birdwatching workshop, a backyard exercise band workout, a meditation class that resulted in a sprained ankle. I merged what had been multiple characters and allowed attention to rest on the narrator. With fewer characters competing on the page, her relationships with her husband, with her friend, with her body felt richer and more nuanced. (Her relationship with her headphones was already fully realized.) What is left, I hope, in the words on the page and in the white space between them, is a character navigating connection and disconnection in an uncertain world.

 


LISA BASS lives, works, and writes at home with her family in California. Her writing has appeared in jmww. She studies at The Writers Studio.