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Empty Space Times Two

Published: May 13, 2016

The cacophony and rhythm of clacking typewriters made Mrs. Gilbert’s typing course memorable. Sophie made it life changing.

Each class would begin the same way. We’d take a fresh, crisp piece of paper, and attempt to put it into the typewriter, properly. This meant it had to be placed on the roller holding your paper, so that it was parallel with the paper blade. Exactly one inch from the top. Mrs. Gilbert would check with the ruler she carried on her like a switchblade, to ensure you were right. And then, a mimeographed bit of text that you would have to reproduce, perfectly.

She would set the timer and say: “Now, ladies.” (I was the only male in the class, and I never had the courage to confront her on this issue.)

Sophie and I shared a desk. I had decided to take the class on the advice of my older cousin, Bethany: “You’ll be the only guy, seriously. Plus, typing is the most useful thing I did in high school.” I was sold at “only guy.”

Sophie was way out of my league. She was taller than me, with dark smoldering eyes and a smile that could cause me to dork out like Ed Grimley. I must say, I may have even typed on my tongue once, ’ya know.

The only other hiccup: I couldn’t remember to double-space after a period, which, according to Mrs. Gilbert, “was just good manners.” Many efforts were destroyed because of this failing. It was a character flaw, a deep moral lacking akin to picking one’s nose, and worthy of a rap on my hands from the teacher’s ruler. That and Sophie’s more gentle reminders helped me develop the muscle memory to double-space after punctuation.

So during Mrs. Gilbert’s class I learned to touch type, quickly, and I learned to love. Slowly.

Sophie and I became good friends during that class, and our freshman year had a wonderful tempo. We would hang out together on the days when our lunch period didn’t coincide with her (cool, popular) friends, and my (unpopular, nerdy) friends. In the spring I finally worked up the nerve to ask her out on a date. She declined. She did so as nicely as she could, but I could see it upset her. She knew what would happen. The beat was destroyed. Her answer was like ripping a sheet off the roller and tearing the paper. All that was left was a terrible clacking in my chest.

***

Eventually, I managed to get over the heartbreak of unrequited teenage love. There were girlfriends, and finally a first love that was returned.

And my cousin Bethany was right. Typing was useful. It certainly helped me through university. I could bang out an essay that looked good in a few hours because of that skill. The first love faded away, but still I needed the keyboard.

To anyone born after 1985, I feel sorry for you. You have no idea what I’m talking about. Mimeographs? Manual typewriters? Ed Grimley? Sure, you’ve never had the agony of typing an entire page of your essay, only to discover the glaring spelling error in the middle of the sheet, but you also never got the sweet, uncontaminated satisfaction of nailing it. At 75 words per minute! And by nailing it, I mean making no mistakes.

Typing helped me train to be a journalist. (For starters, I could skip the required 8 a.m. touch typing class for my classmates who couldn’t type 40 words per minute. 40 WPM? Please.) Even though I had my own computer and dot-matrix printer (all you millennials can Google that), I was still way more productive because of the skill.

On my first job in journalism, working for CBC radio, I was confronted by an old-school manual typewriter. An ancient beast that required real depth of character. And finger strength, to get through the triple-ply carbonless torture device called “greens” that would enable you give a copy of the script to the producer, the host, and the archives, all in one go. Mrs. Gilbert would have loved it, though it did put a dent in my vaunted speed. At the end of the first week my fingers — made soft by years of keyboarding on a computer — were hors d’combat, and I was reduced to using my thumbs.

That is when Sophie walked by, tutting. “If I had a ruler, I’d let you have it,” she said.

“And you’d be right. What are you doing here, Sophie?”

“Slumming. I’m doing PR for Penguin Canada. I’m shepherding the famous author your host is about to interview.”

“She’s funny. I did the pre-interview with her.”

“I know,” Sophie said. Her eyes were as beautiful as I remember, and it was as if all those years had not passed, the paper had never torn.

“So what are you doing after this?”

***

Requited love was much better, if not as melodramatic.

We dated. We weren’t Luddites, so the little love notes we wrote one another were composed on word processors. We made love. We moved in together. We started a PR company together, helping authors and other artists tell their story. Our days had a wonderful rhythm to them. Love. Coffee. Work. Love. Typing. We met one another’s parents and friends, and everyone told me how lucky I was. (I knew.)

Sometimes I wished that it had all started earlier, that we’d been high school sweethearts:

“You weren’t ready for the real me,” she said.

“Sure I was!”

“No, you were only ready for the idea of me,” she said, and kissed me on the cheek. “Besides, I wasn’t ready for you either.”

“But all that wasted time.”

“Not wasted. Life has a tempo to it, my love. Ups and downs. Fast then slow. You have to space it out right.”

Our days stretched into years. We got a goofy Jack Russell, “Ollie,” which was short for Olivetti. Eventually, we would have children, but we were waiting until the time was right.

Less of our time was spent at the keyboard; it continued to be a bedrock skill. And she still was better at it than me, even after all my years of practice. It’s how I figured out something was wrong, even before she did. Her fingers just didn’t have the syncopation they used to, and soon she was typing slower than I, and making a lot more mistakes. Sophie complained her fingers just wouldn’t do what she wanted them to do. And then she started to slur her words.

It was ALS, or Lou Gerhig’s Disease, and it robbed her of her typing first. Her speech went next. Then it stripped her of the smolder in her eyes, and soon, her breath.

***

The sound of paper ripping out of the carriage. Then silence, as grief stilled my fingers.

Eventually, much more slowly than in my teens, I returned from the loss. Life never regained its sweet rhythm that it had with Sophie. But I have good friends and a loving family. Ollie continues to amuse with his zest for life, though I worry about his hips these days.

The visceral clang of the typewriter has been forever replaced by the soft click of the computer keyboard, or even worse, the electronic blurps of a virtual keyboard. Double-spacing after punctuation is not only wrong, but an outright annoyance. A signpost of a dangerously aged muscle-memory, useless in these days of proportionally spaced fonts and perfect kerning. I can’t disagree. The extra space looks odd, especially when typeset on tiny screens. If I’m honest, I think that Mrs. Gilbert and especially Sophie would agree that a single space after a sentence is the morally correct way to type.

But every once in a while I throw in that extra space. It reminds me of her.

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  • My generation! My little fingers would get so sore from typing on a manual typewriter. And I remember the one inch above the bar. I had it marked. When I left for college in 1957, I had a portable electric typewriter. But the copies were made with carbon paper (messy and hard to read) so making a correction meant WhiteOut on both pages. I could never get my speed faster than 44 wpm until I got a computer because then I didn’t have to worry about errors. I could fix them before I printed. My mother was a writer and I lost her to Alzheimer’s. Her once creative mind and laughter slipped into her silence. I never would have written my book without a computer! Thoroughly enjoyed the story, despite the sad ending.