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Other Significant Others: A Glossary by Gauraa Shekhar


In Gauraa Shekhar’s found form short story “Other Significant Others: A Glossary,” the decision to structure the prose as a narrative annotation effectively capitalizes on a sparse yet layered character focus. Unlike traditional glossaries where terms and definitions are closely defined within context, “Other Significant Others” is formatted, as discussed in the author’s note, out of Shekhar’s “fascination for the little black book (a list of past romances felt neo-noir to me, rife with awe and drama).” The narrator’s glossary provides a personable chronological listing of romances pertaining to specific encounters or characteristics of their love interests: beginning with a shy realization of their feelings from ages five–sixteen, to more sensory experiences during their formative years from ages seventeen–nineteen, to becoming aware of deeper and emotional relationships from ages twenty–twenty-five. Regardless of how transient these moments are, they become defining moments, intimately recorded in memory.

Romance has multiple definitions and synonyms, sometimes even antonyms. In her author’s note, Shekhar says she “wanted to stress that romance isn’t relegated to lovers. A song can woo you, the drooping branches of a tree can caress you, unsolicited advice over bad 3:00 a.m. coffee can keep you warm.” This makes each moment in the story feel visceral and relatable, illustrating there’s this constant negotiation between longing and loneliness. With an evocative interiority, “Other Significant Others” captures a common romantic refrain, one that’s cyclical in nature: “You don’t know what to do with yourself. You throw out the record and in an apologetic rage go and buy it all over again.” —CRAFT


This story was previously published in Nimrod International Journal of Prose and Poetry’s Words on Play Spring 2020 issue, and was a finalist for the Francine Ringold Awards for New Writers and received a nomination for the PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers.


 

Ages 5–16

A Cousin Distant Enough for His Name to Seem Out of Reach
You watch Cast Away together while the adults cook and sip wine in the kitchen. When you are asked about the film, you stumble and falter about a volleyball named Wilson. His recollection is stiff-shouldered. Gnomic but full. His words goad you to remember he read a whole book at the store but always bought a different one to take home.

Bryan from Elementary School
His is the first hand to shoot up in class. His answer is prompt, precise, chockablock with words that don’t yet fit in your mouth. When the teacher presses him, he confesses that he doesn’t know what any of them mean. Still, you appreciate the gesture because you are all comic books and TV, and the big words slip through your fingers like water. You fancy running into him outside of school. In a traffic jam, maybe, if your moms’ cars are held up at the same red light.

Clinton, Who You Knew from School but Only Interacted with on the Internet
He asks you, by way of Twitter, what your favorite song is. “3rd Planet,” you tell him. Modest Mouse. He types out the lyrics in measured increments of 140 characters or less. You like him because he likes you, but it turns out he doesn’t.

Kemal from Sixth Grade
You like him because he’s the homeliest boy in sixth grade and so maybe you stand a chance with him. You whisper his name in the bathroom stall to see how it feels in your mouth. Your tongue scrapes the back of your teeth. It feels clunky. Wrong. You leave your diary in the classroom. When you come back for it, he’s standing on top of your desk, diary in hand: a performance for the boys.

Ages 17–19

Aging English Rockstar Who Threatened to Sue
He tells you about his daughter between mouthfuls of dragon rolls, dabbing the truffle off his upper lip scruff with the corner of a napkin. He lost her to cancer before she lost her baby teeth, he tells you. With his wife he started a foundation in her name. You dig your nails into your palm as you rummage for the right thing to say but this is your first meal in three days and you can’t focus on much else. He invites you up to his apartment to show you an autographed copy of your favorite album by the Australian band he signed back in 2002. In his office his accomplishments hang like signed headshots on the walls of a New York pizzeria. Cool and placid. Like him. Like you. Would it be okay if I make out with you, he asks. You stand still while he takes off his pants. You stand still. Eighteen and still.

Banker from Fontana’s
The shows are never good, never not awful, at Fontana’s but you go and you keep going because your editor pays you to witness jam bands and furries and bankers with Zegna ties dangling around their necks like nooses, like running knots the executioner didn’t have the heart to tighten and when he offers you a drink you pull your sleeves down to hide the double Xs marked on the back of each hand. You go home with him because he’s cute and stupid but also because the summer is fetid and you cannot afford a fan and you are scared to walk across Jackie Robinson park at night and he probably has air conditioning.

Barry from Ireland, Who Only Smokes Parliaments
There’s a splinter in your foot. Do you have tweezers, he says. You hand him a pair. Stay still, he says. You don’t. You can’t.

The Boy from the Kesha Show
You’re probably a straight A student he tells you. You don’t know what to make of it; you are not.

The Boys from the Rugby House
It’s too dark to make out their faces and when light from a phone finally cools your face one of them slurps hey, you’re pretty. You don’t feel pretty. You take a swig from the quart of Admiral Nelson in your purse—blackout rum, as your friends call it—and drag your feet to the door. Which way to the Mount, you ask some rugby boy in Canada Goose. He points to the brackish vastness from which the snow is blowing.

Brendon
You put so much thought into getting ready. You wear the perfect shade of red lipstick, not the kind you can pick up from a drugstore aisle—the real kind, the kind that requires you to forego the weekly pack of cigarettes. The cheap ones invariably dissipate into an unseemly pink after a cup of coffee. He notices. Cigarettes don’t matter anymore. You have him now, a brand-new pastime more fulfilling than smoking on the stoop, watching drunk college kids fumble down Christopher Street over the weekends with the sixty-something Cypriot doorman who offers you unsolicited advice about men. You don’t need advice now, you are nineteen. Brendon opens the door, you climb into the cab, head to a bar on Bowery to meet his iBanker friends. You, of course, at nineteen don’t go to real bars with three-part drinks. You go to the dives, the godawful midtown pubs your friends drag you to every other Thursday night, the little holes on the wall on Essex. You’re stopped at the door. The bouncer looks at your ID, then your face and then at the ID again. He snickers slyly before he asks you to head back home. You watch Brendon disappear through the doors and into the bar. He glances at you through the glass windows, sad. He shrugs. Like he’s guilty but no, not sorry. You stand outside, waiting. He doesn’t come back out. He stays. It starts to rain and you feel like every kind of fool. The rain falls on your lips, turning scarlet to crimson and crimson to blush, the same shade of humiliation that permeates your cheeks. You remember how you read once that regret is a luxury but nothing about this feels luxurious and you wish you’d bought the cigarettes instead. Drenched, you begin the descent home, stilettos in hand. Some nights getting ready is the best part.

Childhood Hero from Rolling Stone Who Recognizes You from All the Shows Before
It’s been three years since you hung up your bouzouki and traded in the prospect of fame for knowing the boys at the door. Your job brings you to a show at a Brooklyn carwash standing next to your childhood hero who remembers everything you’ve ever said to him. He tells you how he saw a “Share a Coke” can with your name spelled across it when he was working on a story in Colorado. He leaves without saying goodbye and you spend the rest of the night trying to figure out why he’d lie about something like that.

David from Old Man Hustle
He waits patiently for you night after night only to listen. Tells you you’re the only girl here who doesn’t need to smile for a drink. He tunes out the girl dancing on the bar table and offers his comforts again. He could disappoint you by not disappointing you.

Eddie from the Pizza Place
Liz writes her number on the back of a beer coaster. She asks you to hand it to him on her behest. He thinks the number is yours. You don’t tell Liz.

Eddie’s Boss from the Pizza Place, Who Asks Eddie to Set You and Him Up
Eddie’s Boss steps out of the pizza place and takes you to another pizza place exactly one block down. He orders for you. He knows the owner of the establishment. When he reaches for your hands across the table, you retract. Would you travel with me, he asks. I just met you, you say. I couldn’t stop thinking about your eyes, he says. They’re not mine, you say. What’s not yours? You look down at the belt you’re wearing. It’s Brendon’s.

Girl from Midtown Irish Pub
She is red. Everything about her is red and when you lean in you find she smells like dahlia and poison. You learn she plays bass in a band in Dublin and when she kisses you you close your eyes and think of Melissa Auf der Maur. When you open them you want to be somewhere else.

Georges Dubois, Who Still Worked at Tumblr in 2014
French girls would never agree to walk in the rain like this, he offers. This irks you but you walk home with him anyway because you still don’t have air conditioning in your basement apartment and when you get to his midtown condo he spends an hour pronouncing happiness like “a penis” and another pointing out the grammatical inaccuracies of your bad tattoos. When you use the bathroom, you slide down the window and sneak out to the fire escape and climb down down down till you run out of stairs and you never come back. It’s still raining outside when you get on the L (Read: Garrett Cho).

Garrett Cho
It’s still raining when you get off the L and you’re drenched when you witness a limo brake on McGuinness Boulevard by the gas station where you pick up shitty gas station candy for Tuesday. The window rolls down and you see that a man in a suit is driving another man in a more expensive suit and the man in the more expensive suit offers you a ride and you turn him down because you only live two blocks away and also, he could kill you. You let him carry your expensive camel leather jacket, though, because it’s the only token you have to remind you that you once came from money.

Guy from Release Party Who Tells You His Favorite Stones Song Is “If You Really Want to Be My Friend” and It Makes You Sad
He looks like someone you once knew who looked like a young Johnny Cash. You crush cigarette after cigarette outside the release party neither of you were invited to and when he looks at you his eyes get wet and shiny and snakelike. Before he leaves, he tells you he could never fall for a girl who smokes.

Horror Filmmaker at the Boulevard Tavern
You effortlessly list all the films your father made you watch when you were homeschooled: Arsenic and Old Lace, The Seventh Seal, Doctor Zhivago. You tell him you dropped out of Ithaca College even though you went to Cornell. You pass the time playing the part of a woman who is desirable and cool. You tell him that guyliner Peter O’Toole was your first crush when it was really Tintin. You agree that Faith is the best Cure album even though you know it’s Disintegration.

Joey Goldberg, Who Always Makes You Wait Outside the ATM
He leans in at closing time the night after Barry leaves for Ireland. Tells you he’s rich. A secret for a secret, he winks, so you tell him you’re a virgin. He laughs for a while, gin spraying out of his nostrils. Then he stops. Oh, he says. You’re serious. Wow.

Oliver Donnelly, Who Pretended to Be Poor to Make You Like Him
He can’t decide if he’s obsessed with you or if he just hates you. You like the attention.

Miles, Who You Just Couldn’t Like Back
You call him in the rain, clinging to the wall under a red awning. In your hand an uncomfortable pair of heels you haven’t worn all summer. You tell him that you pulled Brendon’s hand back when he tried to unbutton your jeans, how he clung to the door frame demanding, If not me, then who? Miles’s questions are full of implicating ellipses: Did you…? Were you…? You say nothing and weep into the speaker. That guy sounds like an ass, he says. Miles doesn’t console you. Before you hang up, he asks you if you knew. Knew what, you ask. Did Liz ever tell you that I…? Tell me what? you ask. Nothing, he says. You think of your red boots; how Miles and you wouldn’t be friends if he hadn’t noticed them. You wish you were wearing them instead.

Rick from DFA Records
You see Ben Goldfield at a show with his tongue down a long blonde. You watch her razor-sharp shoulder blades protrude through a velvet jacket. Her ripped jeans make your shoulders slump and you realize you might never be the ultra-thin, platform-boot wearing silent soulless girl either of you want you to be. You punch in the cool gal code and take Ben’s best friend home. When you open the door to let him in, the cat escapes and never returns.

Santa
I saw you kissing Santa, Elise sings. You mean Scarface? you ask. No, Santa,she says. You don’t remember.

Scarface
You meet him at a Halloween party. Veronica Sawyer, you say, pointing down at your blue tights with the smoking hand. He introduces you to his friend who has blue ink running down his nose. Adderall, he explains. Oh, you say. You don’t get it.

Tree Under the BQE
Its branches droop in polite understanding to make you feel tall. Some nights when you want to feel bigger than you are, you let the leaves scrub against the insides of your palms.

Trust Fund Spencer
His notifications bing! dopamine across your brain. Hey fucker give me your number, he messages you over Facebook. Hope work didn’t suck. His mouth is dirt and his face is soft like Christopher Robin and you want him to twist a knife through your heart because you have forgotten how to impersonate the callously cool girl you pretended to be the night you met on Clarendon. When you call him a phony he says alright fucking Caulfield. When he brings his lighter to the tail end of your Malibu 120 the glow of the flame kisses his face and you shift focus onto something else because to focus on him might make you sick. When he calls you let the phone ring too long. When he calls you get into his car but stay parked. He retrieves a spliff from a cassette case in the glove compartment and offers you a flask. You empty the container and tell him your family lost all their money. I’m so sorry parts the marijuana cloud like the red sea. His face emerges and you kiss, kiss for hours until he brushes your fingers away. This is your cue to leave. You slam the door shut but don’t understand.

 

Ages 20–25

Adrian
Is there fish in the fish sauce, Adrian asks. There is fish in the fish sauce, you say. You watch him study the blood orange liquid with suspicion before setting it back in the cabinet. He tosses the vegetables in the pan with soy sauce before setting it back in the cabinet. You fall asleep to the sizzle. When you wake the sky is electric blue and when you wake you peel off the covers that weren’t yet draped over you when you fell asleep. You stare out the curtainless windows thinking it’s morning where Declan is and the last picture he sent you was of him in the garden reaching for the last apple on the branch of the tree. The apples he said would be pressed into juice. The apples must be crushed and pressed and now you are too. You walk to Adrian’s room and the door is closed and when you open the door you find he is asleep and when you wake him to ask if you should leave he is as closed as the door to his room.

Declan, Who Proposes to You After Buying Lottery Tickets Online
It’s spitting rain and Declan lends you his orange windbreaker. You hike up to Cader Idris. You’re tired and mad and he rolls you a cigarette in secret and kisses you and says Merry Mistmas. You take the train a week later, hours after his breakdown, after both of you drink way too much of Afan’s homebrew on New Year’s Eve, after Declan wakes up screaming at you demanding to know who the fuck you are. On the train you both hold on to your paper bags communicating slightly and only in sighs in case the beer resurfaces or one of you brings up last night. You watch the mountains roll away and you feel scared. You don’t say much to each other from Machynlleth to Shrewsbury but in Birmingham you wake with his head on your shoulder and on New Street station you sit down and weep.

Jonah
You climb back into bed and let him drape his arm around you. You restrict bodily movement and lie with your eyes wide open. In the morning you feel at ease stroking the back of his arm, your fingers rising and falling like whitecaps over his stretchmarks and when you find that the marginal comments in his paperbacks are written in soft cursive you feel like you could maybe love him. He tells you your face is beautiful. Like a painting, he says, then looks at you strange and urgent and when you say what! he blushes and starts sentences he never finishes. After you press him he finally asks how many…? How many what, you say. How many, er, other significant others he says. You don’t answer him. You just smile because you are cruel and fun and he is struck by his unconscious fondness for the exotic. You never hear from Jonah again.

Shaun from Gorilla Coffee
You think he is reaching out for your hand but it turns out it was the lighter that he wanted.

“The Stranger Song” by Leonard Cohen
The world is still asleep when the thought of dawn warms you to Cohen. He sings about all the men you knew and how they’d promise change every time you let them stay. You are charmed into thinking he’s talking about romance until he reassures you it’s you he’s thinking of, the unchanging stranger. You don’t know what to do with yourself. You throw the record out and in an apologetic rage go and buy it all over again.

 


GAURAA SHEKHAR’s fictions and essays have appeared in NimrodContrarySonora ReviewX-R-A-YFiction Southeast, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Literary HubThe Toast, and elsewhere. She is a founding editor of No Contact, and currently serves as a contributing editor for Story Magazine. A recent graduate of Columbia University, Gauraa lives in Richmond, Virginia with her husband and young dachshund. Find her online @bloodandGauraa and gauraashekhar.com.

 

Featured image by Jace Afsoon courtesy of Unsplash

 

Author’s Note

I wrote “Other Significant Others” during my first semester at grad school, in the wake of a long-term/long-distance relationship gone awry. I’d just started dating again (though labels, of course, were scarcely involved), and found myself thinking about the life cycle of romance and disappointment, especially in New York—where you’re surprised with genuine moments of intimacy that evaporate like the tail end of a dream as soon as you reach for them.

After spending too many years broke and lovesick in the city, I wanted to write a character who could turn these simultaneously humiliating and exhilarating experiences inside out. I wanted to pitch them between something tonally serious and funny, which is how I remembered my own. And at the risk of sounding too Modern Love about it, I wanted to stress that romance isn’t relegated to lovers. A song can woo you, the drooping branches of a tree can caress you, unsolicited advice over bad 3:00 a.m. coffee can keep you warm. Romance is place. Romance is timing. Romance is lonely when the moment passes.

I remember writing the story in short bursts over a day and half, in libraries, at the dive bar down the street from campus, and on my phone between classes. I remember spending an hour writing the line, “He looks like someone you once knew who looked like a young Johnny Cash.” I was flirting with a world without punctuation, and turned to the second-person perspective almost instinctively, perhaps as a means of distancing myself from the narrator.

The form was born out of my fascination for the little black book (a list of past romances felt neo-noir to me, rife with awe and drama). But instead of numbers and addresses, I wanted to record the consequences of intimacy, the opposite of a meet-cute, the small indignities of nights that didn’t go according to plan. The bits you replay and rewrite years later—and allow the main character’s story to spill into the margins. As soon as I wrote the first entry, I realized that the glossary would be an ideal shape for the emotional scope of the story.

Revisiting the story three years later is a strange experience. I’m married to someone who read it in workshop shortly after it was written. I don’t live in New York anymore. I don’t know what it’s like to date during the pandemic. I use commas more liberally. Still, “Other Significant Others” enlarges my understanding of being young and hopeful and stubborn—of recognizing patterns, but refusing to break them because it seemed like a fine way to kill time. And hey, some of it might even make it into a story someday.

 


GAURAA SHEKHAR’s fictions and essays have appeared in NimrodContrarySonora ReviewX-R-A-YFiction Southeast, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Literary HubThe Toast, and elsewhere. She is a founding editor of No Contact, and currently serves as a contributing editor for Story Magazine. A recent graduate of Columbia University, Gauraa lives in Richmond, Virginia with her husband and young dachshund. Find her online @bloodandGauraa and gauraashekhar.com.