A story’s gotta start somewhere, right?
About three years ago I saw a woman with a semicolon tattoo, and I thought, “Wow! Someone who loves punctuation as much as I do!” But the semicolon nagged me–there had to be more to the story, and I was right.
Semicolons are used by writers who could end a sentence, but choose not to–they see a strong connection uniting the sentence they have finished with the one that follows. Think of the sentence as your life…
Project Semicolon, 2013
Project Semicolon was born from a social media movement in 2013.
They describe themselves as a “movement dedicated to presenting hope and love to those who are struggling with depression, suicide, addiction, and self-injury. Project Semicolon exists to encourage, love, and inspire.”
This story is my contribution to Project Semicolon–for now. It was published in Transition Magazine (Spring/Summer 2017). Follow the link to read the story, or read it below–and next time you see a semicolon tattoo, you’ll understand that it means more than the love of punctuation.
Understanding the Semicolon
“A semicolon?” Nathan’s eyebrows shoot up.
“Sure. Why not?” My hand quivers a bit as I force the key into the ignition.
“Well, it’s not what I was expecting, but it’s your choice.” He shrugs his shoulders. “I’m sure you have your reasons.”
I jiggle the key and turn over the engine. Betsy sputters to life. “Good girl,” I whisper tenderly and stroke old Chevette’s dash.
“Maybe you could get Betsy tattooed on your ass instead,” Nathan snickers. He winks at me and runs his fingers through his thick chestnut waves in a futile attempt to keep it from falling over his amber eyes that glow orange in the sunlight. “It’s just that I wasn’t thinking of this as a grammatical exercise.”
“And, what about you? What are you thinking of getting?” I fidget with the faded fuzzy dice swinging from the rear-view mirror. Betsy needs a minute or so to warm up so she won’t stall. And I need to fill the space of silence with sound and movement. I hear the wheels turning in Nathan’s mind and understand he needs to fill the emptiness with his wit.
“I was thinking of an exclamation mark!” I punch his shoulder hard.
“Ouch!” He rubs the opposite shoulder and grins from ear to ear as he swipes at his hair again.
I pop in one of my dad’s old mixed tapes, put the rusty jalopy into reverse and back down the narrow driveway. The jar of nuthatches in the neighbour’s cedar bushes pops out to flit farewell as The Lovin’ Spoonfuls start singing about daydreams. A slow smile spreads across my face. Apart from a heap of dirty snow melting on the north side of the front steps, the backdrop has finally changed to spring.
Nathan’s fingers become drumsticks on Betsy’s dash. I roll down the window. I inhale the smell of spring flooding over us, and Nathan’s hair whips around to the wild beat of his exuberant drumming. I’ve missed him. I want to put my arms around him, but I’m quite ready for that yet.
There is no way to explain to Nathan what’s been going on in my mind for the past two months. How I’ve felt the swell of water beneath the frozen river reaching up to engulf me. How I’ve stumbled upon sharp knives grazing my wrists. How an entire bottle of sleeping pills, prescribed by my doctor for insomnia, has frothed at my lips and how I vomited them back up into a foamy puddle. Why I have kept myself shut away from the world. But this morning, the darkness was gone and, as the sunlight filtered in through my window, I’d believed the birds would keep singing and the seasons would keep changing. That life would continue to throw obstacles onto the tidy path I’d planned out, but that I’d be able to find my way around them.
There is no way to tell Nathan how I’ve decided on the semicolon. Because, if I tell him all of this, I will also have to tell him what started the chain reaction. And if he knows the cause, he will never forgive himself. Then I would never forgive myself, and maybe he wouldn’t forgive me either.
“Think of it as a permanent winky face then,” is what I end up saying instead.
Or a tiny embryo, all curled up, my mind screams, but it’s safer to leave the event trapped in his subconscious. After all, we were so drunk that night. I’d rather start from scratch some day, when we are both ready.
Nathan winks at me and we both grin. “It’s good to have you back,” he says, awkwardly putting his arm around my shoulder, “I was about to file a missing person’s report.” He relaxes and pushes back his waves when I don’t shrug him off.
Yesterday, Professor Al-Hamdani had asked me to join him in his office after class. I knew he’d be curious about the hastily thrown together, ill-structured paper on the role of women in the main branches and traditions of Islam. My writing, which is usually fluid, had refused not to remain disjointed. I’d given up and handed in the shoddy paper without asking for an extension.
“Do you realize I’ve counted a dozen or so semicolons in the first half of your essay?” Professor Al-Hamdani had tapped my paper with his green felt-tipped pen. His eyebrows had raised and united into a fuzzy, Bert-like unibrow.
Professor Al-Hadmani’s brown eyes had registered concern as I visibly crumpled into the chair across from his paper-strewn desk piled high with books. I opened my mouth to speak, but my voice faltered. He had pushed my essay across his desk, knocking a wobbly stack of books to the floor. The boom had helped me focus. Al-Hamdani had given me the weekend to regroup my thoughts and resubmit my essay.
“It will give me an excuse to take Farrah to the Nowruz Celebration after all. She will be delighted. It will give us the chance to celebrate the coming of spring and our fifth child. Thank you for the overabundance of semicolons, Maya. Now I must reorganize these books onto the shelves.”
Al-Hamdani’s sonorous laughter had made the corners of my chapped lips itch. He’d ushered me out the door so he could get to the burgeoning shelves behind me, but his throaty hum had followed me down the corridor.
I’d gone directly to the bus stop, too tired to keep trudging home through the muddy slush along the sidewalk. The little semicolons scattered throughout the pages had winked at me and softly twinkled as I waited and waited for the bus to come. I’d counted 34 winky faces in total. They’d seemed friendly. They’d made the wait bearable.
Later, I’d Googled the proper use of semicolons: they are used at a juncture where the sentence could either end or continue. It made sense. My multitude of semicolons had beamed up at me. My highlighters had helped the little guys pop out of the page.
Ever since, my brood of semicolons had been winking and reminding me that I had choices to make.
“I think I’ll get a stallion tattooed just below my navel, to warn the ladies,” Nathan jests as he makes a thrusting motion with his hips. The tattoo artist rolls his eyes a little as he looks Nathan over. Nathan sucks in his belly until it is concave and then waggles his bony hips at me. A dry laugh escapes, but a tsunami hits the walls of my stomach. It’s clear he doesn’t recall anything.
“Whatever you want, Nathan. Just realize that you will end up with a deformed and bloated quadruped hanging off your beer gut someday.” He feigns shock and the artist chuckles. Round bellies, semicolons, lives… all are a matter of the choices we make. I imagine the little semicolon that was curled up in my flat abdomen. The one I deleted. The knot tightens in my stomach.
“Maybe you kids should come back when you’ve given this more thought.”
More thought. Yes. That is something we should practice.
“I know I want a semicolon. On my wrist,” I say, my voice sounding weaker than I’d hoped.
“Good choice,” the man smiles sympathetically and nods, “But I don’t think the raging stallion is ready to take the step today.” He hands Nathan a tattoo magazine. “Take this home and have a look-see. I’ll book ya both Saturday at noon. No alcohol beforehand; it thins the blood…and results in unwise decisions, like purple stallions on a scrawny guy’s belly.”
“I don’t get it. I know you are a grammar geek, but why tell the whole world?” Nathan’s question makes me smile. I imagine his eyebrows as they shoot up, some day in the future, when I am ready to show him Al-Hamdani’s essay papering the ceiling above my bed. I’ve finished highlighting the semicolons and drawn hearts around each one. They’ve become my personal neon constellation.
“It’s not about grammar, silly. It’s about life.” It’s about how I’ve chosen to continue living rather than end my life.
“Dude…Is it some—”
“—I’m fine Nathan. I’ve got a paper to rewrite, so you get to make me dinner.” I give him an exaggerated wink.
Nathan beams from ear to ear as he rummages through the bags of groceries we’ve just hauled in. I get a hair elastic from the bathroom and bunch his hair up on top of his head. He looks completely ridiculous but as happy as a troll under a bridge full of goats.
“Hey, Stallion, I’ve missed you too,” I say, “And I’m starving.”