Odd Pieces

[There have been a few comments threads lately that reminded me of this post, and why I wrote it in the first place, so I figured I'd repost it. Also, Mr. Shakes and I finally cracked out that puzzle—and Maude almighty, did I miss my grandmother. So this is for her, too. Originally posted in similar form in July 2006.]

Two summers ago now, Mannion wrote a pair of lovely posts about human connection and its being one of the great mysteries of the universe. Connection is one of my favorite topics; I could endlessly discuss the many ways that humans find to connect, and all the little intricacies of connection—what love feels like, how love between friends feels different than love between a couple, coincidences of meeting, the strange things that happen among people of like minds and souls. I love stories of meeting, of how great friendships and affairs and marriages came to be, because they are so often rich with mystery and providence, gilded with an intangible promise to abide, the inducement of which cannot be recognized.

Perhaps my fascination is driven by whatever it is that makes me identify with something once expressed by Oddjob, who said, "The repeating story of my life is never quite fitting," which reminded me of something I hadn’t thought about in many years. It was just a faded old coffee canister in my grandmother's house, but, for me, it held within an understanding of myself.

My grandmother was a passionate jigsaw-puzzler, with hundreds of the things crookedly lining overstuffed shelves in her cellar. I can't see a jigsaw puzzle without thinking of her, recalling the ever-present card table with a semi-completed puzzle on its top that she would carry from room to room. I have in my closet a 500-piece panorama of the skyline of New York City—the city she called home her whole life—that I bought her the Christmas just before she died. It's so many years ago now that the skyline still includes the World Trade Center, but when I look at the box, still in its wrapper, it's my grandmother that I miss.

Sometimes her puzzles would have an extra piece that didn't go anywhere; the puzzle would be done, but there would be this one odd piece. It was almost always a middle piece, instead of an edge, so it wasn't until the puzzle was complete that the odd piece out revealed itself. She kept these odd pieces, throwing them all into an old canister, as if one day, perhaps, they'd all make a puzzle of their own.

I'm a bit of an odd puzzle piece. But I don't mind. My life has become a canister for collecting other odd puzzle pieces, and if we don't fit perfectly anywhere else, we are nonetheless joined by the inscrutability of how such odd pieces came to be. Among odd pieces, the awkwardness of not fitting anywhere else takes a new shape, a sort of sameness, a warm familiarity. Or so it seems to me.

In his posts, Mannion isn't necessarily talking about odd pieces, but he does mention a friend whom he met on the internets, which have a peculiar but wonderful way of connecting people, many of whom probably consider themselves odd pieces. "Before it happened to me," says Mannion, "even for a long time after, I'd have said it was impossible to become real friends with someone you never touched." I was once as dubious as he was about the ability to forge friendships via the internet, also before it happened to me, but the man who herein has been dubbed my Londoner Andy and I have now been friends in almost-daily contact for seven years. The frustrating distance that separates us means we don't get to see each other very often; in fact, it has been nearly six years since we last spent a languid evening talking nonsense over dinner together.

We didn't need to touch each other to form a fast and enduring friendship, although, now that we have, I miss it. I miss the scratch of his five o'clock shadow against my cheek as I hug him. I miss our bumping into each other as we walk down the street, like two pinballs bouncing back and forth. I miss his reaching for me, or me for him, in a tiny, cramped London bookshop, pulling the other toward ourselves gently with lingering touches and leaning our heads together as we look at the same book, standing more closely than the confined space really demands.

Meeting someone in person after connecting with them online heightens the corporeal once it's finally available. If the connection persists offline, there's an urgency to touch, to make it solid. The surrounding air feels electric when you do. It's magic, that first time you lay eyes upon, smell, touch the skin of someone about whom you already, inexplicably, care. Though we may not need that physical presence to make a connection, we miss it nonetheless, even if we don't realize it.

And once we've had it, we can't help but miss it actively, consciously, and desire more.

To this day, Mr. Shakes and I hate speaking to one another on the phone, as the sound of our voices over wires reminds us too evocatively of the time when those wires were all we had for so very long. The sound of his voice on the phone conjures a memory of longing that I cannot bear.

It's this—this human craving for the sensual, for presence—which makes Mannion say that before he knew people who fell in love online, and whose love persisted in the real world, he believed that "If it's love, we love all the time and everywhere. This means that love is dependent on circumstances. In order to love someone, we have to love their circumstances. We love them for where they are and we love them for the people around them, even, sometimes, for the things around them." That's what he would have said. Wouldn't we all?

But the truth is that humans are adaptable creatures, and if you give them a new way to make a connection, even one that lacks a lens into precise circumstance or physical contact, they will find a way to make a connection. Not all of them. Surely there are people for whom falling in love with someone the way I did, before I ever even saw his picture, or forging a lasting friendship, is simply not possible, for one reason or another. Maybe such things are dependent on a transcendent imagination. Maybe they bloom in the soil of need.

Odd pieces tend to struggle with connection, which can be brutal—watching the beauty of connection lay itself across the faces of people to whom it comes so easily, over and over, and always just out of your reach. But the experience can be informative. Odd pieces uniquely appreciate connection, and thusly connect in a different way.

The surrounding air feels electric when you do.

I was maybe six when I tried putting all my grandmother's odd puzzle pieces together. "If you stick those together," she told me, "they might not come apart, because they weren't designed to fit." She was right. They were tough to connect together, but even tougher to break apart again.

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