dear abby

by Lin Wang

dear abby: how would i punctuate ‘i am cheating on my wife’?

—rick

[a remark on marks]


quick review: a dash is like a yank, a sudden push off a rollercoaster ride, a twisting and turning elevator that doesn’t just go up and down—tangent, interruption, hot off the press, careening turn of thought, clarification, an affair with a punctuation mark—each short line marking the plunge, the swoop of butterflies in your stomach;

semi-colons tilt, hesitate, semi means they will never say no; soft and heavy love with that suppressed guilt, a stop-and-start, stop-and-stop, lists with commas clutched in each item’s arms: a list of reasons why you should leave your wife, with talk of yellow chiffon dresses and sassafras shampoo, freshly stolen from the hotel; a semi-colon is the pause between question-and-answer, when she asks you why you stay with her and there is no word for that feeling, of being in love and being so lonely at the same time, being so familiar and so detached; soon, you say, soon, and it is all you can say without knowing what will come, without knowing if you are saying yes or no,

and the comma makes up the common things, the short spaces between every piece of the day, the warmth of your hand on her shoulder, her round belly, the way your bodies curl together [comma-close] at night, the connected space like pauses in your sleep [comma-tose], the sizzle of cut bell peppers in the pan—commas tumbling, clumping to form quotation marks—”what’s-for-dinner” “chicken-with-peppers-and-pineapple-darling”—home life so safe, so warm, so solid and too real to be torn apart

but to answer your question, rick, there is no punctuation needed in that sentence, just spaces, no place in the sentence to let her gasp for air or beg you to say it isn’t true—you are going to tell her, of course—a vacuum of words and the tight lines of her face, slipping and going slack, but there is a period at the end, round like a clenched fist, the small o her mouth will make, the dark mouth of the kitchen sink she lost her wedding ring in before you got it back, and into it—period, fist, sink—your life will drain, into its perfectly punctuated perfectly airtight perfectly loveless sentence-marriage-life.

Lin Wang is a college-bound student living in Alabama. She dreams best in June and writes best in October.

You’ve written that compression is a “coiled intent that unravels with increasing intensity.” What coiled intent unravels in this piece? dear abby’s intent is centered around the idea of a marriage unraveling, and with it the speaker; such unraveling is illustrated with a parallel to punctuation. It attempts to convey the idea of cheating in a marriage from an outsider’s viewpoint—a woman who is asked for advice and responds with a monologue.

There are a few plays on words in the piece: “punctuate” refers to punctuation or, as defined in the dictionary, indicates the action of interrupting repeatedly, which the speaker does in the piece. It takes on more force as it goes on, using punctuation to extend the poem into one long sentence that, upon reaching the end, seems spent and breathless. I intended the piece to pick up more momentum as it went on, using dashes to speed up dialogue and particular words, in order to convey a sense of urgency. In this way, one gets a sense of compression in that the speaker’s words are tightly squeezed together and move quickly. The last few words, “sentence-marriage-life,” allude to the topics in the piece, while simultaneously playing on the idea of a judge’s sentence: marriage for life.

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