On trying to prioritize and writing uninhibited.

I missed another Wednesday deadline.

I’m sorry.

Maybe I should just make Thursday the deadline?

Either way, it’s clear I’m not making writing enough of a priority as of late (and the same goes for reading, I’m embarrassed to say). A colleague just posted something this morning – talk about signs from the universe! – about procrastination that really struck home and made me pay more attention to my “schedule.”

This is what my friend posted.

This is it, man; this time is all we get. And I become so frustrated with myself because I wrote so many posts about the passing of time during this pandemic and resulting quarantine, so I should know better. I need to make time for what’s important, and my career is extremely important to me, but so is my writing. I want to make it my career, and as such, I need to pay it the attention it rightfully deserves. So this post is part pledge, part prose.

I have been writing some random, disconnected bits of images that come into my mind just before bed. Hopefully, one such scene will turn into a story as long as I take the time to sit with it and expand it. Here’s one such scene:

He didn’t even know she was in the room. The broad strokes he made with the stick of charcoal were uninterrupted. He stayed on the sool with one leg dangling to the floor. His eyes were wide, trying to simultaneously assess his work so far and decided where to go next. His focus was absolute and her footsteps had fallen on deaf ears. She didn’t mind because she liked watching him work, especially now in the late afternoon when the room burned with the sun’s dying rays pouring in from the westward facing floor to ceiling windows. In another twenty minutes or so, when the radio DJ talked more and played less music for the suckers struggling to get home in rush hour traffic, he’d have to turn on the many lamos of all different shapes and sizes scattered about the studio.

The radio was turned low and she couldn’t exactly make out the melody. He kept it in the far corner and only ever turned it on or off and adjusted the volume. He didn’t go scanning stations. He never really listened anyway. It was all white noise. When he really wanted to hear, he’d use headphones. It was like leaning closer to hear every word in a conversation and he always minimized the distance between himself and whatever it was he wanted to give his undivided attention to.

It was thrilling when it was her.

He toddled off his spindly, wooden stool to survey his sketch, standing tall to take it all in. His long, black jacket hung off his frame, falling past his knees. When he finally turned around to face her, she knew he’d be shirtless. The jacket was his favorite piece of clothing and he treated it more and more like a security blanket. His sterling silver pendant of Saint Catherine of Bologna would hang low around his neck and would catch her eye as it always did. It was the only piece of jewelry he owned.

She crossed her arms over her chest and leaned against the doorjamb. They could stay just like this, he wouldn’t even have to turn around, and she’d be happy. Her lips parted in a smile and all that joy nearly bubbled into a laugh, so she brought her hand up to cover her mouth and stifle the sound. She wasn’t ready to be discovered just yet.

As I wrote that, a fuller series of scenes began to develop in my mind, like:

  • him lighting a cigarette for her with match on smooth side of his pendant
  • drew his own tattoos
  • draws on her arm while she watches the rain in the morning, talking softly
  • black smudges on her face from charcoal
  • going to dinner with friends, she orders white wine

Maybe this will become something … who knows? All I do know is that I need to keep writing.

On how it’s gonna be.

The Final Episode: “How’s it gonna be//when you don’t know me//anymore.”

So, where did he and I go from there? For starters, he lied to me about dating her in spite of the face that I had also attended one of their first dates. He insisted over and over that he wasn’t dating anyone, and the flirtatious texts and behavior continued. I remember being in a poorly lit bar with him and other colleagues. I was sitting on a stool, sipping on a sweating bottle of lite beer, and he was standing before me in light colors, in shades of blue. He was emphatically insisting he was not dating anyone, stomping his foot against the dark carpet and smiling at me, almost like he knew that I knew I should know better. There was another time we were drinking together at a different bar (better lighting and better crowd). He said he had to get going and I asked him to stay. I asked him for just fifteen more minutes. He thought about it, but he ended up leaving, no matter how reluctantly. The next morning, he sent me a message that simply said, “Good morning! You suck.” He never explained what that meant exactly, but I knew. That went on for nearly a year.

I was traveling to Indiana to attend the wedding of one of my oldest friends. I was traveling with other friends, and it was a completely wonderful trip. The whole way there, I was texting with him as I usually did. It was the night of the rehearsal dinner, and I was waiting to meet friends. He had been unusually uncommunicative and I wondered why. Then I received a message from a mutual friend, telling me he was engaged and with his fiancee. She could see the ring. If we were really such great friends, why didn’t he tell me? I walked from the hotel to a liquor store. I bought a handle of vodka and a pack of Marlboro Reds. I sat and smoked and drank from the bottle until it was time for dinner. But at least I didn’t cry until I was alone in bed that night. When I confronted him, when I asked him why he didn’t tell me, he told me he was “a private guy.” But he was comfortable enough to tell me all about his past and his feelings? I bought it, though. I bought it hook, line, and sinker. And we stayed “friends.”

Then his fiancee told me she was pregnant. I smiled and congratulated them. I waited until they left, and then I drank until I threw up in the parking lot and my friend had to drive me home. I promised myself that was the end of it. But his hooks were so far in me that I lied to myself. I convinced myself we could really be friends.

But then I found out he was married. He had lied to me on multiple occasions, swearing that he wasn’t. He shoved his hand in my face to show there was no ring. But once I confronted him and he knew that I knew, he told me he only got married for a reason I won’t share here because it’d just be embarrassing and hurtful. He told me that to keep me stuck, to keep me right where I was, to keep me hanging on. Friends don’t do that; real friends wouldn’t need to do that.

So I finally told him we couldn’t be friends. I told him everything; how I felt and what I was thinking. I didn’t throw a drink in his face. I didn’t turn on my heel and storm off. I was trying to be honest and kind, but he told me I was being “dramatic” and “gay.”

We didn’t talk for three months. He didn’t even reach out on my birthday.

But he sent me a message exactly a week later. I answered because I’m an idiot. I answered because I still have intense feelings for him, though they range the gamut, to be sure. If I’m being honest, and if I’m serious about moving on, then I have to admit we were never friends. We cared about each other, definitely, but we were never friends. And we can never be friends because I can’t get over what was, or what almost was. I think he likes the attention and won’t let me leave, but that’s mostly bullshit because I didn’t really want to leave.

But I think I’m ready now. Thanks for reading. ❤

On not telling anybody anything.

Hey readers! What do you think of the updated site? I’ve included a homepage and designed myself a logo. I think it looks cleaner and more professional.

Episode Three: “Two can be undone by three / But it only takes one shot.”

In J.D. Salinger’s classic novel Catcher in the Rye, the main character Holden Caulfield offers a final piece of advice: “Don’t tell anybody anything.” There’s more to it than that, but it’s that first bit that applies to what I learned from this whole situation. I don’t tell anybody anything anymore (these vignettes aside, obviously) because when you let people in, they can tell you certain things that affect your judgment. And once you let people in, everything changes – for better or for worse. For the purposes of this episode, I need to give everyone fake names or else it gets too confusing:

  • Me = Hermione (obviously)
  • The Worst Thing Who Ever Happened to Me = Ron
  • The Woman Who Came Between Us = Lavender
  • The Guy Who Came Between Us = Cormac

Cormac was another guy who was interested in me while I was falling helplessly and hopelessly in love with the worst thing who ever happened to me, now referred to as Ron. Cormac was friends with Ron; he occasionally worked in the building and they seemed to hang out a lot, especially during the spring. Cormac asked Ron about me. Ron later told me that he didn’t know what to say at first. We were texting about it, and I saw him type, then stop…then type, then stop. Clearly, he drafted some responses, but decided against those for various and indiscernible reasons, but then he told me that Cormac needed to pass the “Big Brother Test.” Big Brother? Like I was his little sister? That killed me. Had I been relegated to the friend zone so easily, so quickly?

But then I thought about it. People don’t drunkenly try to kiss their little sisters. Or unbutton their shirts. Or text until 2 am about anything and everything. And then Ron sent: “Even though I’m way cooler.” Cooler than who? Than Cormac? What did he want from me? So I thought I’d use Cormac to make Ron jealous, to force him to admit he had feelings for me. I texted Cormac and hung out with them a couple of times. Then, emboldened by the alcohol flooding his system, Cormac asked me on a date over the phone. He was with Ron and some others at the time, so I felt pressured to say yes. I couldn’t turn him down when he was surrounded by older, male friends. And what was the harm in one date? But right after I accepted, the phone was passed to Ron, who demanded to know what I was doing. Like an idiot, I played it like I was too cool to care. I should have told him. I should have told him everything. But I was scared of rejection. I was scared of my own feelings. He called me drunk later that night and we talked until nearly three in the morning and still, I didn’t say anything.

Cormac and Ron were hanging out and they were both texting me. Cormac knew I was answering messages from Ron while ignoring his and still, nobody said anything real to anyone.

Simultaneously, Ron was fielding interest from another woman; we’ll call her Lavender. I can’t say much other than she has quite the dramatic and tragic tale of woe herself. But he told me he wasn’t interested in her. He even blew her off to come hang out with me. He talked to me about her. He promised me that if he was ever interested in anyone that I’d be the first to know. But Lavender’s father was close to Ron, and helped sort of fling the two of them together. She was older and more experienced, so I guess she was assertive and not as much of a chickenshit as I am. She let him know she was interested while I tried to act indifferent. So when he told me he was looking for his future wife, I didn’t say anything. If Ron wasn’t going to be honest, than neither was I. I thought I was following his lead.

At the end of it, Cormac and me and Ron and Lavender all ended up on a double date. I sat next to Cormac, who was obnoxiously drunk by the time arrived, and across from Ron. He wouldn’t look at me. He wouldn’t talk to me. I did my best to be my usual, happy-go-lucky, entertaining self. Back in the nearly empty parking lot, I sat and screamed in my car. I sobbed the whole way home. This wasn’t where I wanted to be. Why didn’t I say anything? Ron gave me an opportunity that night, when he texted me to ask if I got home safe. I should have unloaded, told him what a shit I thought he was because he swore they weren’t dating and there I was on their first date. I should have told him I made a mistake. I should have told him so many goddamn things. But it was more important, apparently, for me to be cool. I told him I got home safe and that was it. Using Cormac to try and make Ron jealous was stupid and narcissistic and in the end, I guess I got exactly what I deserved.

The second part of Holden Caulfield’s final statement from the novel Catcher in the Rye says, “If you do, you start missing everybody.” And that’s true. Because I miss him. But I miss him as he was, and we can’t go back.

On “A moment was the most you could ever expect from perfection.”

From Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Fight Club.

So it’s like the fifth week of being quarantined and it’s only getting more difficult. I’m blessed to have a home and steady income, and I’m not sick and my family is happy and healthy, so it’s a shitty thing to complain about being bored and lonely; aren’t we all? To pass the time, I’ve been reading a lot and I’ve also started re-watching CBS’s 1994 miniseries “Stephen King’s The Stand.” I watched the second episode yesterday morning and had the sudden urge to tell everyone I know to watch it because it totally explains what we’re going through right now (not totally…that’s me being dramatic). This is NOT a new idea; King has apologized for us all feeling like we’re living in one of his novels. Still, I feel like Randy in the movie “Scream,” when he’s freaking out in the middle of Blockbuster and imploring everyone to watch horror movies so they could be better able to survive the slasher attacking Woodsboro. Only I’m alone, in my living room, urging everyone to read The Stand.

Another way to pass the time is writing and thinking. The latter, unfortunately leads to overthinking, which then leads to crying and mourning the past. But I think it’s mostly good. One day, I’ll be numb.

Episode Two: “A moment was the most you could ever expect from perfection.”

One of the best books I’ve ever read is Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk. And one of the best scenes from the novel is when the narrator comes upon Tyler Durden on the beach. Tyler has built a statue from driftwood. The narrator can’t tell what it is at first. He explains, “I asked if Tyler was an artist. Tyler shrugged…What Tyler had created was the shadow of a giant hand. . . he said how at exactly four-thirty the hand was perfect. The giant shadow hand was perfect for one minute, and for one perfect minute Tyler sat in the palm of a perfection he’d created himself. One minute was enough, Tyler said, a person had to work hard for it, but a minute of perfection was worth the effort. A moment was the most you could ever expect from perfection.”

The beauty and tragedy of my moment of perfection is that it’s come and gone.

To be fair, we had two perfect moments. One was during an all-day drinking event on a sunny day in March. That day was the most attracted to him I’ve ever been. The place was crowded and being that we had been drinking for hours, I was mostly stumbling and having trouble keeping up. He told me he didn’t want to lose me. He was leading me through the crowd at the one bar, holding hands as he stretched out his arms behind him. Then he brought them around so that I hugged him from behind and it took all the self-control my drunk ass could muster not to bury my face in his hoodie and breathe deep.

We kept drinking. Day turned to night. We ended up at another bar. The thumping bass boomed incessantly, sounding more like war drums than anything else. Everything was vibrating, everything was shaking almost imperceptibly, and I used that as an excuse to hang onto his muscular forearm and steady myself. I put my ear close to his beautiful, smooth mouth to try and decipher the slurred nonsense that tumbled out. He sloppily smashed his lips against my cheek. It was over before I was even sure it had happened and both of us stood there looking at one another stupidly. Everything was bumping and booming and loud and hot and close and he drunkenly smiled at me. At that moment, I knew that if I were to push close against him and grab him and hold him and decimate his mouth with mine, he would yield and he would succumb. That is an unfamiliar and dangerous amount of power and I resisted. It would mean something cheap and tawdry. I wasn’t as drunk as he was, and I was worried that if it went as far as it possibly could, we’d have different feelings in the cold light of the next morning. It would have meant so much more to me than it would have to him. It wouldn’t be what I really wanted.

Instead, I touched his face and escaped to the ladies’ room. Later, when it was time to go pass out, I walked him home.

I’m an idiot, though. That wasn’t enough of a green light for me to tell him how wonderful I thought he was, how all I wanted was to be with him. Naturally, our next moment of perfection also passed me by. It was a few weeks later, and I was out with colleagues, staying overnight at a beautiful hotel for some weekend-long conference. The first night was pretty laid back, so we all went to bar just cross the street. I texted him, practically begging him to come down.

And he did.

The bar was closing and we needed to go somewhere else, and I invited him to my shared hotel room on the condition that he bring playing cards. He smiled but rolled his eyes, saying there was no way he’d find playing cards and that he was tired. Again, I begged him. He shook his head and said goodnight.

Back at the hotel room, I was commiserating with my roommates about the missed opportunity when there were three, loud knocks on the door. They were serious sounding knocks, reminiscent of the way a cop bangs against door. One roommate hurried to the bathroom. The other tried to hide in the mess of pillows and coverings on the bed. That left me to open the door. I tried to calm myself, rehearsing what to say to the authority figure who’d probably been summoned because we were being too loud. I took a deep breath, squared my shoulders, and opened the door.

No one was there.

I stepped out and looked to the right. There was still no one there.

When I looked to the right, he was leaning against the wall, twirling a deck of playing cards in his hand, smiling slightly. All the blood rushed to my face and I laughed out loud; there was nowhere else for my joy to escape to. It was like something out of a movie. It was the personification of every romantic fantasy I’d ever had. He came in and we played Kings for a couple of hours until he had to go, quiet suddenly.

And then it was all over.

On “poetry”-perfect beginnings.

“The moment I fell in love with you was a moment I’d been waiting my whole life for.”

Episode One: Poetry-Perfect Beginning

I know I’ve used this line before (and probably for a very similar reason; I really am a one-trick pony), but T.S. Eliot famously wrote that April is the cruelest month. I can’t be sure because I haven’t read his poem in forever, but I’m fairly certain that Eliot is referring to the false promise of Spring because not everything comes back from the dead the way nature does.

So what better time to pick at fresh scabs of lost love?

To be fair, I really should have known better. The first time I ever mentioned him in my journal was significant for three reasons:

  1. Only people I really and truly care about get mentioned in my journal. And if a name appears more than once? Consider me obsessed.
  2. It was right after a personal tragedy that fell just short of cataclysmic … for him (and it could be a novel in its own right). So he was all wounded and vulnerable and brooding and NEEDED to be saved … NOT. Personally, I think that’s the worst rationalization women use for engaging in and/or tolerating selfish, manipulative behavior. And I am SO fucking guilty of it, I’ll never get these hands clean.
  3. I fucking told myself it was a bad idea. I KNEW I’d get hurt. On January 12, 2014, I wrote:
I know I’m a stupid fool. I know I’m building him up in my mind into something impossible to make him unattainable so I stay safe. He’s completely out of my league on SO many levels. I’m an idiot [...] I don’t know what I’m doing. It’s fun to have a crush, but this is going to hurt. I have a bad feeling ….

I vividly remember that moment I knew I was a goner. It was one of those nights that come out of nowhere, where pure, unadulterated happiness blindsides you so that by the time you realize you’ve been hit, it’s passed you by and all you are is bruised and sore.

Given the nature of my career, most of my colleagues are older women. And given the time in my life, all my colleagues were my friends. I’d gone to college away from home and all my childhood friends had gotten the hell out of dodge, so my social circle was a product of circumstance and I was only partially looking forward to spending a Friday night in the basement of an older, female coworker’s house. Lots of coworkers were going though, and what the hell else was I going to do? Armed with low expectations and a six-pack of some lite beer, I walked down the basement stairs, already planning my exit in my head.

The basement was fully finished. It was bright and cozy, everything seemingly washed in a warm, welcoming shade of yellow. It was carpeted. There was a bar, some exercise equipment, and a pool table. There were some couches, arranged around a low coffee table. And familiar, friendly faces of coworkers were scattered about the basement – sitting youthfully on the carpet and lounging on the couches, playing pool, perched on the exercise equipment, and leaning against the bar.

I decided to make my way to the bar, the most logical place to properly unload my six-pack.

And there he was behind the bar, wearing blue.

I had to do a double-take. I thought it was a girls only type of thing but there he was and he was so handsome. Granted I could have thought that because gentlemen were in short supply, but I still find him incredibly handsome, even after all he did to me (which is definitely a problem). I’d only hung out with him once or twice before this, and we hadn’t spent much time talking with each other or anything.

But that night, with him in blue behind the bar, was different. We were witty, we were flirty, and we were the warm center of the universe that everyone gathered around. Well, at least that’s what it felt like.

On the bar was a bowl of those awful, chalky hearts with corny messages that become popular around Valentine’s Day. Given that it was early January, either the candy hearts were nearly a year old and brought out as a last-minute snack, or the hostess had purchased them early. But that seemed unlikely. So as they were inedible, I spent the night filling the hood of his blue jacket with them whenever he was talking to someone else. He would sigh in frustration and tell me to stop, but he loved it.

Later, someone spilled something on the carpet behind the bar. I was on my hands and knees, trying to clean it up to be remembered as a good guest who would keep getting invited places. To someone in front of the bar, they saw him standing and smiling, and then they saw my legs poking out the side. I reveled in the innuendo.

He had somewhat of a reputation which coworkers with good intentions kept reminding me of. I didn’t care; he was attractive and he was fun to hang out with and it was all so harmless. He got my number from someone and the texting started. We were almost in constant contact with each other. It was addictive and wonderful. We’d stay at bars until the lights came on, still smiling though we were blinking and nearly blinded by the sudden brightness. He’d blow my hair to get my attention. He’d encourage me to unbutton a few more buttons on my blouse. He’d offer to dance with me when no one else would, but he didn’t really want to, so he’d talk me out of it by the time we got the dance floor, distracting me with shots. He’d let me wear his scarf when it was cold. He rescued me from the women’s restroom when I had too much to drink and was puking my brains out. He held my hair back. Unfazed, he threw me over his shoulder and got me to a car like some knight in shining armor. I thought that’d be the end of it, especially since I vomited on his expensive shirt and shoes, but he met me out the next night. He paid for drinks and an entire dinner with like six of us. He was charming and magnificent and I had never been happier.

But we worked together. And we hung out with coworkers. Suddenly, everyone had an opinion about us spending so much time together. People were actually calling me to warn me to stay away. I was told he was a user and abuser, that once he got what he wanted from me, that would be it. I was told the name of every woman he’d been with, real or rumored. I was told he was just being friendly with me to get a more beautiful coworker – and truth be told, that one fucked me up more than anything else. I let that idea sink its fangs into my psyche and suck it dry of self-confidence. It made me suspicious of him and I misinterpreted so many conversations. I’m ashamed, looking back.

He read my favorite novel and could talk to me about it for hours. The connection with him was unlike anything I’d ever had before. He told me the truth about himself (as much as a man can) and invited me to do the same. I didn’t, because I was scared and stupid and listened to some bad advice from jealous women.

We had one perfect night. And I’ll happily relive it next week. Xoxo ❤   

On mediocrity … especially in thinking of titles.

So I’ve neglected this blog for two weeks. I wish, I really, really wish I could tell you it was because I’ve been furiously working on a new novel or that it was because I’ve been off having all sorts of romantic adventures that I will fill you in on. Sadly, neither one of those excuses presented as valid, interesting reasons is true. We started a new semester at school on Wednesday, February 6th and ever since then, I’ve been pretty much consumed by work. That coincided with a last-minute visit from my sister and her four kids, so I was swamped with family and work obligations. I haven’t written anything, haven’t been taking care of myself or my house. I’ve barely been reading. To be honest, I haven’t been doing anything to inspire my writing life or my Bohemian endeavors. I’ve been mediocre, limping through the daily rat race.

It sounds overdramatic, but that’s the only way I know to make things interesting.

Anyway, here’s a short story I wrote based on the following prompt:

 

“Mom, you’ve got to stop dragging me into the middle of things.”

The glass of chilled white wine was sweating in front of me. I hadn’t had a sip. I wanted to walk outside and have a cigarette, but I couldn’t leave Mom alone at the table. And she’s a smoker too, so I couldn’t go without her. She’d be pissed. I had to just sit there in nearly unbearable silence and take it.

“You’re not going to say anything?”

I blinked. “About what? About being a child of divorce at 31?”

Mom rolled her eyes. “Don’t be dramatic.”

I laughed even though nothing was funny. “I think taking me for lunch to tell me you and Dad are splitting up is dramatic.”

“What? You wanted me to tell you over the phone? Should I have texted you?” Mom rolled her eyes again and shifted away from me in her seat. She took a long swallow from her chilled glass.

I rubbed my eyes. “What do you want? For me to go to pieces? For me to ask why when I don’t want to know why?”

Mom still wouldn’t look at me. She wrapped her arms around herself and just sat there, breathing. I finally started drinking my wine. I took a long, slow, deliberate swallow so I wouldn’t have to say anything. I couldn’t think of anything to say anyway.

“I want you to talk to your sisters for me.”

I choked on my pinot grigio.  “What?”

“Please. I can’t -”

“Mom, you’ve really gotta stop dragging me into the middle of things.”

“I’m not-”

“Yes, yes you are! That’s exactly what you’re doing! That’s what you’ve been doing my whole life!”

Mom looked like I’d slapped her. I was disappointed when she didn’t grab her face and turn away. She didn’t say anything, so I kept going. “When Cora was sleeping with Mr. Slattery, you told me to tell her that you knew and that she needed to stop because it was shameful to have a slut in the family.”

“I never said that,” she lied. Mom started blinking rapidly.

“Okay. When Timmy was hiding the empty vodka bottles in his closet and the maid found them, you sent her to me. I found the rehab, I packed his bags, but you dropped him off at the airport.”

Mom shook her head. “When I left my therapist’s office and I couldn’t breathe because I was crying so hard, I called you. I didn’t want to drive because I couldn’t see the road for all the tears in my eyes and I wanted to talk to you, to hear your voice, so I called you.” I crossed my arms over my chest and leaned back in the chair, away from her. “What did you do?” She looked away, shook her head once, quickly. I asked my question again. “What did you do?”

The complete silence that followed let me know I had been talking too loud. The complete silence meant that conversation had stopped, forks had stopped moving, and that everyone was listening. I leaned closer to Mom and lowered my voice. “You didn’t answer. You never called me back.” I was speaking through a clenched jaw. I was gripping the edge of the table so hard my fingertips were white. “You need to call your daughters and you need to tell them. Your divorce from Dad has nothing to do with me.”

Mom cleared her throat. She reached up and delicately brushed the single strand of pearls hanging around her neck. “I just thought-”

“What if they ask me why, Mom? What if they have questions?”

Mom paled. She looked away from me. Her face turned red.  “I guess I didn’t think at all.” She swallowed hard. “I’m sorry.”

It was the first time my mother had apologized to me for anything. Naturally, I felt inexplicably and incredibly guilty. “I’m sorry, Mom. I should-”

“No, no, you’re right,” she said.

I wasn’t sure what it meant that we rarely let each other finish our sentences.

Sheepishly, I stabbed at my salad with a fork. When I looked back up at my mother, she was crying silently.

It was the first time I had ever seen my mother cry. I watched the tears roll down her delicately powdered cheeks, leaving sparse but unmistakable inky black trails from the mascara she always applied in generous layers. Her hair was moussed, blow dried and then sprayed so it wouldn’t move, not even in a hurricane. She was wearing a smart looking pantsuit with a ribbed turtleneck, all in safe, neutral colors. And she was crying.

I didn’t say anything.

 

writer's block

Happy Writers’ Wednesday!

Personal side note: I need to get a handle on my weight. Last weekend, I went to my local ShopRite to buy some groceries. Really all I needed was capers (I was making chicken piccata), but I couldn’t help myself and also purchased French fries, ketchup, chocolate donuts, Oreos, and Spicy Nacho Doritos. I had ice cream in my basket, but put it back (like it would have made any difference). And to be fair, I thought I was going to be snowed in and wanted to devour my snacks while being all warm and cozy with nowhere to go. When I got to the checkout lane, I recognized the cashier. She was more friendly than she was awkward, but she was definitely awkward. As she’s ringing me up, we’re chatting, and she mentions how she wants to go to this certain restaurant for her upcoming birthday, and how she wants to order a bottle of wine but her mom won’t drink it and won’t let her – whatever, it’s small talk. I do okay with small talk.

But she asks, “Want me to drink for you?” I smile and say “of course,” or something like that. We talk about drinking in the shower (an escalation, to be sure, and so awkward but whatever, I’m trying to be nice) and she asks me again. “Want me to drink for you?” She asks me that same question at least two more times before I leave the store. It definitely gave me pause, so I’m replaying the encounter in my head as I’m walking out to my car, occasionally looking down at the bagged groceries dangling from my hands.

I bought pickles, too. And that’s when it hits me: she must have thought I was pregnant! Because aren’t pickles universally craved by pregnant woman? Coupled with the cookies and donuts and fries, what other conclusion could she have come to? I was mortified! Ashamed! Embarrassed!

To be clear: I’m so NOT pregnant and I’ve never ever needed someone to drink for me. Ever.

Since I’ve completely stopped eating (joke!), I’ve had plenty time to revise my second completed manuscript, MOODY BLUE. If I don’t get a publisher this summer, I’m abandoning the manuscript and moving on. This is my third – or fourth? – revision. I’m stuck on chapter three … so I’m asking YOU, faithful, dear reader, to provide me with some FEEDBACK. Please, please, please read the following excerpt and tell me what you think. Would you keep reading? Is it boring? Do you want to know more?

As always, I am forever indebted.

Three days after bumping into Adam at her favorite wedding venue, Melanie’s Jeep was parked outside his house. They had been flirtatiously texting in the time between, and Melanie marveled at the way Adam always left her wanting more. The messages never seemed like enough, and Melanie was never satisfied. She’d re-read the messages in bed, smiling like a fool but also battling a nagging suspicion that Adam didn’t really like her. It seemed an impossibility to Melanie that someone so handsome, someone so smart, and someone so perfect could be interested in someone as dopey and messy and needy as her. She must have tried to talk herself out of meeting Adam a million times, pacing in her living room with the television on for company, enumerating to herself all the ways she’d likely be humiliated because Adam was so beyond her reach, so out of her league. But here she was, outside his house, and she was viciously chewing on her bottom lip and drumming the pads of her fingers against the steering wheel. All of her nails had already been bitten down to the quick, so her lip became a sacrificial victim to her mounting anxiety.

Melanie was trying to convince herself to go and knock on the front door, reminding herself that Adam was sweet, and that his texts had been clever and engaging. The truth of the matter was that on more than one occasion, Melanie had thrown her head back in laughter at something Adam had sent. Her days had begun to revolve around Adam’s messages; her mood was determined by whether or not Adam reached out. Luckily for Melanie and those she interacted with on a daily basis, the contact had been consistent.

Until today, the very day they were meant to see each other again.

Adam had been unusually uncommunicative that morning. His responses were all clipped and finite. Melanie had to do real work to keep the conversation alive. Even then, the quality of the conversation was so poor that Melanie wondered why she was even trying. And now, Melanie wondered why she was parked outside his house, placing and removing her hand from the keys dangling in the ignition.

Melanie sat up straighter to start the engine, but then she saw Adam’s front door open. Melanie was surprised to see that it was a woman and not Adam who ventured out onto the front porch, the same woman who waved when Melanie had dropped Adam off before. This time, the woman had traded in the scrubs for an unremarkable pair of jeans and a plain tee shirt, but the purple highlights were unmistakable. Melanie realized the woman was yelling at her. With nervous, fumbling fingers, Melanie opened the car door. “Sorry?” Melanie called. “What were you saying?”

The woman smiled bright and beautiful. “You’re Melanie, right? Adam’s friend?”

Melanie gulped. “Yeah, that’s me.” She gulped again. “Hi.”

“Hi,” the woman laughed. “I’m Melissa, Adam’s sister. Turn the car off and come in for a minute.”

Before Melanie could respond, Melissa was already on her way back inside the house. Melanie figured she didn’t really have an option. Exhaling in a great rush of breath, she climbed out of the Jeep. She entered the house and found herself on the outermost edge of a living room. The walls were just one shade of beige lighter than the plush carpet that flattened beneath her black boots. Against the wall to her left was a large couch, also beige, and seated upon it was a gorgeous, muscular man. He had dark hair and his dark eyes had been focused on the television mounted above the gas fireplace in the adjacent wall. Now, he turned towards Melanie and got to his feet, revealing that he was tall, dark and handsome. When the man moved closer and extended his hand, Melanie had to fight like hell to keep from blushing.

Adam sat on the love seat opposite the couch beside his sister. He hadn’t made eye contact with Melanie, but she could feel his eyes burning into her skin as she shook the hand of Tall, Dark and Handsome. “Hey there, Melanie,” he said. “My name’s Bobby and I’m Melissa’s boyfriend.”

“Oh,” Melanie said. She ended the handshake and shoved her hands into the pockets of her coat. “It’s nice to meet you.”

“He’s a cop,” Adam blurted.

The silence that followed was painful.

“If I pull you over, you don’t have to cry to get out of the ticket now,” Bobby said, winking. “You can just go, ‘Hey. Remember me?’” He proceeded to laugh harder than was necessary, but it broke the tension. He invited Melanie to sit beside him but before she did so, Melanie walked over to shake Melissa’s hand. Melissa didn’t stand but she smiled warmly. Melanie seated herself beside Bobby.

“Thanks for coming in. I know it wasn’t planned, but I wanted to meet you,” Melissa said. “You’re the woman who drove him home from the bus stop, right?”

“Well, from the coffee shop, yeah,” Melanie answered. She caught Adam’s eye, but he looked away just as quickly. Melanie noted how he sat on the very edge of the cushion with his arms wrapped around himself. He looked miserable.

“Thanks for getting Adam home safe. Sometimes-”

“He’s a free spirit, so he doesn’t always check in,” Bobby interrupted. Melissa’s smile became strained and it was all Melanie could do to keep from bolting for the door. She ran her finger along the silver hoop pierced through her nostril. She was trying to think of something to say. The silence was suffocating, unbearable. Melanie shifted in her seat and cleared her throat, just to have something to do. Bobby jumped to his feet beside her. “Can I get you something to drink? Soda? Water?”

“I’ll have some water, please.” Melanie smiled politely. If her mouth was full, she wouldn’t have to speak. She could guiltlessly ignore the building pressure of uncomfortable silence and shove the conversation responsibilities at someone else.

“Adam tells me you work for your aunt’s catering company?”

Melanie nodded at Melissa. “Yes, and I’m a barista.” She pressed her hands together hard. “But what I really want to be is a writer.”

Melissa blinked with a blank smile. Bobby had yet to return and when Melanie looked to Adam, he was staring at his feet. Her offered no sign of support or direction. She wet her lips and said, “Adam and I met properly last weekend when I was catering an event, and I got to see some of his handiwork with the landscaping there.” There was no reaction. “The venue was beautiful because of Adam’s great work.”

Adam whipped his head towards Melanie. She wasn’t sure what that meant, if she was doing well or if he wanted her to shut up. Luckily, Bobby returned with a tall glass of cold water. Melanie took it eagerly, rushing through her “thank you.”

“Adam’s only recently started landscaping,” Bobby said. He sat back down next to Melanie. “I’m glad to hear he’s taken to it so quickly.”

“He used to be an English teacher,” Melissa said.

Melanie nodded. “Yeah, I think he mentioned that. And I just read an article all about how teachers are leaving the classroom in droves. Underpaid, overworked, -”

“That’s not why Adam left,” Melissa said, interrupting. Adam flinched and lowered his gaze again.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Melanie said. “I didn’t mean to imply or insinuate anything. I’m just trying to make conversation.” She gulped down water.

“Of course,” Bobby said kindly. “I just think Melissa and I are sad Adam left teaching.” He shot his girlfriend a pointed look. “He was great with the kids and he loves to read and write.”

“Bobby,” Melissa and Adam groaned in eerie unison. Melanie didn’t understand what the big deal was and clung to the conversational lifeline Bobby had flung out to her.

“Actually, Adam and I talked a little bit about that, too. We’re going to a writer’s workshop today.”

“And we don’t want to be late,” Adam said, getting to his feet. Melanie set the glass down on the coffee table and stood, following Adam’s lead. “I’ll be home late.” He grabbed Melanie’s hand and pulled her to the door.

“Call and let us know where you are,” Melissa said.

“And have fun,” Bobby said with an easy smile. Thank God for Bobby, Melanie though as she returned the smile.

“It was a pleasure meeting you.”

“You too,” Bobby said. Melissa stayed silent. “We’ll have to do this again soon.”

Before Melanie could say anything else, Adam had pulled her onto the front porch. “You can relax now,” Adam said. He was pulling his pack of cigarettes from his back pocket.

“Oh shit, was it that obvious?”

Adam nodded, walking towards Melanie’s Jeep. “Let’s not rehash that painful encounter here. Melissa’s probably at the door listening.”

“Seriously?” Melanie asked in a whisper. She was following Adam.

“She’s ….” Adam’s voice trailed off and he sighed. “She doesn’t like anyone that I do.”

“Aw, that’s cute,” Melanie said. “No one’s good enough for her baby brother.”

“More like I’m not good enough for anyone.”

Melanie halted. “Adam, that can’t be -”

He stopped outside the front passenger door to light his cigarette and take a drag. “Bobby seemed to like you, though.”

“He was nice.”

“He’s a piece of shit, is what he is.”

Melanie gasped. “What? He seemed -”

“Yeah, I know. He’s got Melissa all convinced he’s the Second Coming, too. But trust me – he’s manipulative and conniving and self-serving. I knew him before Melissa did in a different context and he’s awful.” Adam climbed inside the Jeep and shut his door.

Melanie scrambled to the driver’s side and climbed in. “How did you meet Bobby?”

“Look, I don’t want to talk about Bobby. Or my sister. I don’t want to talk to what you were just subjected to in there. Let’s just go.”

“Oh. O-okay,” Melanie said. None of this was going like she imagined it would. She knew she had to salvage the day but she didn’t know how. They drove in silence to the local library to attend the writers’ workshop Melanie had mentioned to Adam. The workshop was held in one of the smaller conference rooms on the second floor. Melanie and Adam remained standing on the opposite side of the heavy, wooden entrance door because the sign displayed there had given Adam pause. Melanie hadn’t told Adam the entire title of the writers’ workshop was “a therapeutic writers’ workshop for survivors of traumatic experiences.” She also did not tell him that the workshop was led by Ben Fields, the man who had at one time been the love of her life. Adam hadn’t wanted to start out with tension and lies, but Melanie didn’t mind the duplicity. Sometimes, it was easier and safer to not tell the truth.

Adam hadn’t said much after reading the sign, but he hadn’t moved either. Melanie thought it was a good thing, that Adam had obviously survived traumatic experiences and was in desperate need of a therapeutic outlet. But to be fair, Melanie was not confident in the benefits of the writing workshop as she only started attending the workshop because she’d been fucking Fields at the time.

Melanie didn’t want to dwell on Ben and what happened or what might have been. She turned to Adam. His face was a blank canvas; he could have been thinking anything, making a million and one decisions without Melanie even being aware, and that worried her because Melanie did not want this first outing with Adam to go more awry than it already had. Something at the house with his sister must have set him off, made him moody and distant, which was really unfortunate timing for a first date. Melanie feared that if this all ended so quickly and with such disappointment, she’d find herself without anything to do other than drink wine, watch a beloved movie she’d already seen a thousand and one times, eat food terrible for her figure, and fall asleep on the couch with the majority of the lights on. It was a lame and pathetic existence and she didn’t want to live it anymore. Meeting Adam had been the start of something special, Melanie was sure of it. She said, “Let’s go in, huh? It’ll be fine.” Adam was still immovable, so she added, “If it sucks, we’ll bail. I promise.”

Adam finally looked at her. “Promise?”

Melanie stuck out her pinky. “Promise.”

Adam wrapped his pinky around Melanie’s and together they walked through the door.

Every single head turned towards the pair. The group never had more than a handful of participants, so the arrival of Melanie and Adam brought the gathering to record-breaking capacity. The surprised stares turned into friendly smiles, with the exception of Fields. Fields looked more confused than anything else. Fields cleared his throat. “Melanie?” he called.

Melanie grabbed Adam’s hand almost painfully. Her face paled, but she tried to look confident as she led Adam over to the older man standing behind a table at the front of the room. “Hi Ben,” she called and even though it sounded friendly enough, Melanie was sure that both men knew she was full of shit.

“Uh, hi,” Ben sputtered. He dropped his voice and asked outright, “What are you doing here?”

“Well, this is my friend Adam and he wants to be a writer.” Adam extended his hand on cue, like he and Melanie had planned this all out, and though Fields hesitated just long enough to make things uncomfortable, he did shake Adam’s hand. “He’s my friend you almost met at the café, remember? Well, we thought we could both use some writing inspiration and the price of this workshop is right.” She laughed alone, and then added, “Besides, you told me you’d love to meet him. Remember?”

“Right,” Fields said. After a moment, he added, “Why don’t you and Adam have a seat and we’ll get started.”

Melanie nodded and turned Adam around. She spotted an empty table in the back, as far away from Fields as possible. Adam asked in a whisper, “That was your ex?”

Melanie nodded.

“You didn’t tell me it was his workshop,” Adam hissed. “Are you sure we should be here?”
“It’s fine, totally fine.”

“Well, he didn’t seem very friendly.”

“Yeah, well, it’s complicated,” Melanie said as she threw herself down into one of the two chairs arranged behind the low table. “But he didn’t smash a wine bottle over my head or burn my apartment down, so there’s that.”

Adam turned to Melanie with a strange look on his face. He obviously wanted to say something, but Fields spoke first. “Alright,” Fields said, getting the attention of the room. “Let’s get started, shall we?  I see a few new faces tonight, so welcome, welcome.” He looked pointedly at Melanie and Adam. “Tonight, we will begin with an impromptu poetry prompt. I’m asking you to write at least fifteen lines of verse about whatever it is you’re feeling right now, right in this moment, in this very room.” He offered a smile to everyone, most of whom returned the smile genuinely, even eagerly. Part of what had been so attractive about Fields for Melanie, and other young coeds even though Melanie had never asked for confirmation on that point as she wasn’t a true masochist, was his ability to captivate an audience. Fields could command a room like no one Melanie had ever known, and he looked comfortable in any conversation. He was a quiet, powerful leader. Melanie released a shaky breath and tried to regain focus. Fields asked if there were any questions. There were none, so pens and pencils began to scratch against paper and both Melanie and Adam lost themselves amongst the soft silence.

Thirty minutes later, Fields extended an open invitation for the attendees to share their poems. It was all crickets and tumbleweeds; no one was feeling brave or feeling enough like a genius to raise his or her hand and stand. Melanie kept her eyes locked on the table in front of her lest Fields mistake eye contact for volunteering and exact revenge for Adam’s presence.

Adam stood and raised his hand.

Melanie gasped. Fields looked shocked. He took a moment to regain his composure and said as smoothly as he could, “Ah, yes, the newcomer; Adam, right?”

Adam nodded.

“The floor is yours,” Fields said, and then seated himself.

Adam cleared his throat, and read his poem aloud:

Love spread out in crimson rivers
I didn’t know how to say it

Exposed spaces split open and made vulnerable
I didn’t know how to close them

Splatters and tattered skin

I never knew how to begin

Expanding, filling and then deflating

I never knew how quickly it would end

Beating, beating, beating

Inside and out until it stops

Bleeding, breathing, leaving

It was over

I didn’t know how to stop it

I didn’t know how to save you

I didn’t know

I didn’t know

Adam sat when he finished, and there was a short stutter of applause. Eyes met and looked away, throats were cleared, but no one spoke. No one knew how to react. For her part, Melanie appreciated the bravery and she took Adam’s hand in hers beneath the table and gave it a gentle squeeze. Adam returned the soft pressure but did not release Melanie’s hand. They held hands, hidden beneath the table, for the rest of the workshop.

Another thirty minutes later, after discussion filled with constructive criticism, Fields said, “So we’ll meet two Tuesdays from now in this same place at the same time; any objections?”  Fields’ plan of action was met with consent so with nothing else to discuss, he began to pile and consequently file his papers away in a shiny briefcase.

Melanie leaned over and in a husky whisper, she asked, “Do you feel like going home?” Adam just shook his head. Melanie took a chance and suggested, “Well, there’s a cozy kind of dive bar, believe it or not, less than a mile from here. Hell, we could leave the car and walk.”

Melanie’s suggestion was met with a silence that was devastating. She had been sure, so sure, Adam was waiting for her to take the lead again, to make a decision. He was still holding her hand and he hadn’t started packing up. Melanie had assumed those were universal signs of wanting more. Crestfallen, she moved to slip her hand from Adam’s and begin packing up, but Adam strengthened his grip. She turned towards him and found Adam wearing a strange expression, some sad mixture of longing and resignation. Whatever it was, he did not seem excited, but he said, “That sounds great.”

Melanie nodded, and Adam released her hand. They both began gathering their bags and books and pens and in a matter of quiet moments, the pair had moved from the smaller conference room on the second floor of the local library to the sidewalks and pavement below. The silence was pregnant with tension. Melanie eased into conversation for some relief.

“You know,” she began, falling into step beside him, “it’s been a really intense day.”

He nodded.

Melanie sucked her teeth, an honestly unattractive quality but a habit she couldn’t seem to break ever since she was freed from her braces a little over a year ago. She watched Adam walk beside her. His eyes were dark, but they were thinner and colder than they had been before, stonier than before. The eyes made his handsome face sad so that whatever joy he could express had to come from his precious, perfect mouth. Without thinking, engaging in another peculiar habit, Melanie ran the pointer finger of her right hand along the silver hoop pierced through her right nostril. She did so whenever she was trying to figure out how best to proceed in social situations. This social situation was proving difficult because Adam was impossible to read, and that simultaneously enthralled and exhausted her, which was not altogether an unpleasant mixture of emotions. “That poem was good, real good. But it seemed sad, too.”

Adam stayed quiet.

“Unless you don’t want to talk about it, which is totally cool, totally fine.” Melanie said, hoping her tone was comforting.

Adam said, “I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Oh,” Melanie offered lamely.

“What did you write about?” Adam asked.

Melanie hadn’t been ready for the question, and she nearly tripped. Adam caught her and helped her stand straight. They were inches away from each other, and Melanie was thinking of the best way to continue. “I didn’t write anything good. I mean, I didn’t write anything of substance. It rhymed and it was corny,” she admitted.

“There’s nothing wrong with just being happy and corny,” Adam said.

“I’m happy now,” Melanie grinned and fell against him as they walked the last couple of yards to the bar, crossing a busy intersection. The bar was mostly wooden, lamely and predictably modeled after a pirate ship, which Melanie attributed to its less than impressive proximity to the Jersey Shore (another ten miles or so to the east). The pool tables, dim lighting and abundance of locals attributed to the atmosphere. Melanie led the way towards a high-top table in the back, located down a ramp and next to a pair of what was sure to be wildly popular Skee-Ball machines. On the other side of the table was a flat-screened television airing sports highlights, and then more high-top tables, each surrounded by four worn and decidedly less than comfortable stools that were poorly made and rocked side to side on even the most level of floors. Melanie claimed a stool by draping her light jacket over the seat, and then ventured to the bar to purchase a pitcher of light beer.

Not too long ago, Melanie had ventured to this bar with Fields. She remembered walking up to the main bar, maneuvering around three billiard tables and another row of high-top tables, which she did expertly, placing a gentle, lingering hand on the backs of the good-looking gentlemen. Melanie was polite and always said “excuse me” while flashing a dazzling smile and she was usually rewarded with more than a few free drinks before last call, even with Fields sitting and waiting. She’d look back to him and smile, and she suddenly felt gross. She paid for the pitcher without her normal charm and ease, and hurried back to the table, but Adam wasn’t there. Melanie poured herself a glass and waited for Adam to return. When he did, he held two shots of jaeger in his hands. “Shots?” she asked. “Seriously?”

“I’m going to need one to be charming, and you’ll need one to think I’m charming too.” Melanie thought he looked nauseous as he spoke. “Listen, I’m what they call ‘socially awkward,’ even though I wasn’t always that way,” Adam said. He raised a glass and patiently waited for Melanie to do the same. Melanie raised her glass, gently knocked it against its twin in Adam’s hand, and then drained it. “You were right when you said the poem was intense. The poem was incredibly personal and I just think-” Adam sat beside her and he had been speaking to her without looking at her. When his speech abruptly broke off, Melanie assumed he was lost in thought. She touched his forearm gently, and then Adam turned to her. “Sorry.”

Melanie shook her head. “I’m glad you shared your poem,” Melanie said. “I firmly believe we always say exactly what we mean.  Anyone who says differently is only using doubletalk.”

Adam asked, “So you don’t believe in taking anything back?”

Melanie said, “Nope, never.”

Adam ran his thumb along the edge of his cheap, plastic cup that Melanie had filled with beer and handed to him. “That’s interesting. You’re the first woman I’ve met to deal in absolutes.”

Melanie shrugged. “Well, I’ve been told it is an extremely negative thing, so you’re … uh, interest is appreciated; thanks.” She took a deep breath. “Does Melissa not deal in absolutes?” She paused. “Is that why things are so fucked up at home with your sister?” Adam drank his beer, and Melanie knew better than to try another question. “We don’t have to talk about it.” She again gripped his forearm leaning on the table. “But I hope you know that you can talk to me.”

Adam drained his beer and set about pouring another cup, so Melanie had to release his arm. He hesitated before bringing the cup to his lips, and he must have thought better of it, because he placed it back on the table. “I’m afraid to tell you some things.”

“Why?”

“Because I really like being around you. I like the way you look at me. I don’t want that to change.”

“And you think the truth about you and your sister will make me change the way I look at you?” Melanie asked, confused.

“Well, there’s more to it than that,” Adam said. He studied Melanie for a moment. “But let’s not do this now, not here. Let’s have a good time, okay? Let’s play pool.” Adam abruptly got to his feet and turned to Melanie with expectant, pleading eyes. Melanie thought about protesting further, about forcing Adam to have this incredibly difficult conversation with her while sitting on rickety stools under the low lights of a dive bar. It seemed like a lot to ask, so Melanie shut up and followed Adam to the pool tables.

Later, when the date ended, Melanie and Adam’s drunken giggling shattered the silence of the deserted library parking lot. It was just beginning to subside as Melanie stood beside the driver’s door. She was digging in her purse for her keys when hot breath caressed the back of her neck. She became very still, even stopped breathing. “I’m not supposed to feel this way,” Adam breathed. Melanie turned to face Adam, but before she could offer any response, Adam planted his mouth firmly against hers. His hands gripped her waist, kept her close. “I’m sorry.”

Melanie gently placed her palms on Adam’s chest, her purse sliding from her wrist to dangle from her elbow. She kept her mouth close to his, speaking against it. “I don’t know why you’re sorry. You don’t have to be.”

Adam kissed Melanie again, pulling her hips hard against his. He parted her lips with his tongue and sucked on her bottom lip. “I don’t want to be alone,” he gasped, snatching breaths between every kiss. “I don’t want to be crazy.”

Melanie dropped her purse and slid her arms around Adam’s neck. “You’re not alone,” she said and slid her legs between Adam’s legs and held him tight, pulled him close. They kissed and grabbed and laughed, and Melanie completely forgot the other thing Adam said. It only occurred to her later, after she dropped him off. Adam had said, “I don’t want to be crazy.” Melanie didn’t know what Adam meant by that, but it seemed like an odd thing to say.

Please comment with your thoughts and constructive criticism!

feedback

On playing tiny violins.

New year, new me.

That’s what everyone says. Now me, I’m not quiet as ambitious, but I am pleased (more than pleased, actually) to share that I am making good progress with one resolution: to write every day. What I have to share with you for this blog post isn’t another self-pity party or a list of attributes I wish I possess or anything like that. It’s … a short story!

Without further ado, I present for your reading pleasure: “BARBARA AND HER VIOLIN.”

Wooden violin on a sheet music.

Barbara sighed deeply. She was seated on a low, plush stool on a similarly plush rug in the center of her small, sparse living room. Her violin case was resting quietly beside her. Its golden clasps shone magnificently against the hard, matte black covering. It was beautiful to behold, had been a birthday gift from the first and last man she had ever loved, but at the current moment, it was not beautiful enough to hold her attention. Instead, Barbara was focused on her hands.

Her worst fears had been confirmed earlier that morning during a routine visit to her doctor. Barbara hadn’t told him about the pain in the mornings and she kept quiet about the way her finger and wrist joints would scream after a few hours of playing. Her mother had taught her that ignoring a problem made it go away, so Barbara never spoke about what was going on with her hands. And she made no mental notes whatsoever about how often she rubbed them to soothe the throbbing aches in her fingers and wrists. No one had to know because nothing was happening. Nothing to see here, folks. Just move it along, Barbara thought with a rueful smile.

But then Dr. Gabbison handed her a clipboard with some routine paperwork to sign. “Oh, Barbara,” he moaned. “Why didn’t you tell me about your hands?”

Barbara looked up with wide eyes. She had been struggling to grip the pen, wincing as she struggled to curl her fingers. She couldn’t bear the pity in the doctor’s eyes, so she averted her gaze to the appendages in question, the very things she was trying so hard to ignore. There were bony knobs on all of her fingers, and the skin around each was red and inflamed. They were awful and hideous to behold. Their ugliness viciously betrayed their former grace and dignity. Those hands could make wonderful music and remind people that humans were capable of more than just eating and shitting and dying. Now, they were discolored and gnarled and she hated them. When she looked back to Dr. Gabbison, she thought she might cry.

She left his office an hour later. Barbara left with a prescription for some super strength pain reliever and an impending sense of doom. Dr. Gabbison scheduled Barbara for another appointment in a week and tried to be optimistic, but he mentioned steroid injections and splints and even surgery, all of which scared Barbara half to death. All of that meant getting better was not an option. Dr. Gabbison talked about life0changing measures, alterations to her beloved and comfortable daily routine. Dr. Gabbison talked about not playing the violin anymore. She could never – and would never – understand how anyone could demand that someone else stop creating, stop making beautiful things for this grotesque world and its morally disfigured inhabitants. Barbara did not know how she would cope with the daily disappointments without the violin. She didn’t know how to keep from crying herself to sleep when the other side of the bed had been so cold for so long without the violin. Barbara didn’t know what she was going to do.

Daunted by the enormity of the tragedy she was facing, Barbara simply sat on her low, plush stool situated in the center of the plush carpet in the middle of her nearly empty living room. The blinds were drawn. The air was stale. Dust mites apathetically floated in the narrow streams of light that slipped in. Barbara sat with her hands curled about themselves in her lap. They seemed like they were not part of her, like she holding a weak and dying thing that she would be happy to see go as it meant the suffering was over, but mostly because she was disgusted by its continued existence. The hands she had cared for and admired for so long were useless to her now, and so she despised them. And the worst of it was that they were still part of her, and she couldn’t just ignore them until they were better. She couldn’t act like it was all okay because the hands riddled with arthritis had betrayed her and sat now as useless stumps, daily reminders of what she once had been and could never be again. As if growing older wasn’t enough of a travesty. She’d have to continue on alone, without the only companion she had known for nearly two decades. The music was gone, red and inflamed and silent, and now Barbara had nothing to help her temporarily forget that all there was left to do now was die.

She wondered if she should make herself a drink.

Barbara slowly got to her feet, thinking now that every single joint in her body was seizing up on her. She grabbed her lower back with a grimace and shuffled slowly, hunched over, into her small but tidy kitchen. It was a good thing she didn’t pass a single mirror on the way. She was moving like a woman twenty years older. It would have depressed the hell out of Barbara to see herself so frail, so weak, so near the end.

Barbara opened up the cabinet with glass inserts to find just the right glass to toast her final defeat with. What it was filled with would be inconsequential; anything with alcohol would suffice. Her eyes scanned the shelves to the bottom of the cabinet, and there they widened and filled with tears. Her breath caught in her throat.

Barbara was looking at two glass tumblers with a date from long ago etched elegantly around their middles. Henry had surprised her with them on the last night of their second honeymoon, a trip booked once Henry’s cancer proved indestructible against radiation and surgery and prayers and pleas and oils and creams and everything else, dear Lord, they had tried everything and nothing had worked. Barbara had broken down immediately, burying her face in her hands and letting the sobs wrack her body, sending shudders from her shoulders to her guts. Henry took the news with the same quiet dignity he always had. He shook the doctor’s hand, thanked him for his efforts. He helped Barbara to her feet, kissed the top of her head, and practically carried her to the car. He drove them home (for Christ’s sake, Barbara thought, I wasn’t even able to drive him home) and locked himself in the guestroom for two days.

When Henry emerged, he acted like nothing had happened. He kissed Barbara hard enough to make her knees tremble, made them a huge breakfast, and talked excitedly about what he was calling “his farewell tour.” He wanted to taste the air of great cities he’d never been to. He wanted to make love to Barbara in distant lands and wake up beside her with different sunlight on their faces. He wanted to live the way people are meant to; fearlessly and joyfully. He wanted what little time he had left to be so fucking good (the only time Barbara had ever heard him use such language) that he’d miss being alive.

They sat side by side and planned the whole thing – reservations and itineraries and accommodations galore – on Barbara’s laptop.

They ended the trip in Paris, Barbara’s absolute favorite city. Henry’s condition was rapidly deteriorating. He was always tired and though he put on a brace face, Barbara could tell he was relieved when she cancelled the remaining sightseeing tours. They stayed in the hotel room, making love and gorging themselves on French cuisine via room service. Barbara would play the violin at night. Henry would smile, crying as he watched her play. He told her he loved her over and over again. He told her he would miss her over and over again. Barbara didn’t trust herself to speak, so she only held him and kissed him and loved him the best she could.

The last night, Barbara awoke alone in the extravagant bed. They had made love and afterwards, she had fallen asleep, wrapped in Henry’s arms. When she woken and discovered he had left, she began to panic. He was too weak to go anywhere without assistance and he couldn’t speak a word of French. Barbara threw the covers off and frantically began getting dressed, wondering where he could have gone and debating calling the authorities. She had one leg in her pants when the door opened.

“Henry!” Barbara cried. She ran to him, half-dressed, and threw her arms around him. “I was so worried! You didn’t leave a note or anything an your cell phone was on the nightstand, so I didn’t know what happened to you!”

Henry stopped Barbara’s mouth with his, holding her almost as tightly as she was holding him, with a strength he hadn’t had in months. He backed her up to the bed. “Don’t bother getting dressed,” he said, winking.

Barbara fell back onto the bed and got a good look at Henry. He looked good, looked like he had when the trip started. She also noticed he was holding a brown paper shopping bag. Henry noted Barbara’s quizzical expression and set the bag on the bed. From it, he pulled an expensive looking bottle and two equally expensive looking tumblers. He handed the glasses to Barbara. “Look at the inscription,” he said. Barbara did as she was told. It said: BARBARA AND HENRY, AN EVERLASTING LOVE THAT BEGAN 02/18/1973.

Barbara blinked back tears. “Henry,” she said. She let his name hang on her lips and hang in the air because it was so sweet and so precious, and she wanted to savor it.

Henry held Barbara’s face in his hands. “I love you, Barbara. I love you more than I have ever loved anyone. You are the only thing about this life I’ll miss.” He paused to take a deep, shuddering breath. “So when I’m gone, you need to keep going. Do you understand me?”

Barbara shook her head, tears steadily pouring down her cheeks. “I can’t have this conversation with you, Henry.” Barbara thought that ignoring a problem really did make it go away, that acknowledging the problem was that start of all the trouble, so she shut her eyes and tried to be somewhere else.

Henry released her face and grabbed Barbara by her shoulders, shaking her. “Don’t do that. Don’t refuse anything life gives you. This is hard and this seems terribly unfair, but this is it, Babs. This is the hand we’ve been dealt so we’ve gotta play it.” He kissed her lips. “I know you don’t think you’re strong. I know you believe yourself incapable of facing any kind of adversity. And I know a lot of that is my fault because I’ve never let you. I’ve always fixed whatever was broken and I’ve always handled whatever needed to be handled, and I’ve always spared you the gory details. Barbara, honey, that was a mistake. I’m worried I might have set you up for failure.”

Barbara emphatically shook her head “no.” “Henry, you never ever did anything wrong. I -”

Henry interrupted her. “Barbara, stop. Listen to me, okay? Don’t argue or anything, just listen to me. Life is going to happen to you after I’m gone and you’re going to have to keep living no matter what. If that means finding love with someone else, or if that means moving somewhere else, whatever that means, I need you to do it.”

Barbara threw her arms around Henry again. She was sobbing, smearing snot and mascara all over his shoulder. “I love you, Henry. I don’t want to do this without you.”

“You have to,” Henry said. His voice was thick and he swallowed all that emotion down before speaking again. “You have to and you will. You’ll be an old, beautiful woman with long, gray hair, captivating men and women of all ages and types with that violin of yours. The sky will be the limit without me holding you back,” he said. He laughed softly and kissed her again. “Promise me you’ll never stop.”

Barbara looked Henry in the eye. The only man she had ever loved, the man who would be dead and buried in less than a month. Henry had saved her from countless dangers, both real and imagined, both big and small. He’d always kissed it and made it better. He was her lover and cheerleader, her biggest fan. There was absolutely no conceivable way Barbara could go on without him. It wasn’t a promise she could make as it certainly wasn’t a promise she could keep. But Barbara also couldn’t deny a dying man his last wish. So she kissed him like she’d never be able to kiss him again, like this really was the very last goodbye, and then she said, “I promise.”

Henry kissed her open mouth. “I’ll drink to that,” he said, smiling though there were tears gathering in his dark eyes. He filled both glasses with the bourbon he liked, and they toasted to Barbara’s promise.

Now, over ten years later, Barbara stood in her small but neat kitchen, holding one of the glasses from that tragically perfect evening in a Paris hotel room with a gnarled, grotesque hand. Next to Henry, the violin was her only source of companionship. To lost it would be like losing Henry all over again, would be a fate worse than death. That violin had brought her to Henry. After she had played with a small orchestra at the local community college, Henry had been waiting for her outside. He told her that he just had to tell her she was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen or heard. He said it would be his life’s biggest regret if he didn’t ask her out. And so their courtship had begun.

Henry was at every single performance, even when his failing health didn’t really allow it.

At their wedding, Barbara played an original composition she had written for Henry.

When they had their first bad fight, Barbara played her violin until Henry finally started talking to her again. This same tactic was successfully employed time and time again over the years, as the music was a cue for Henry to come and have a conversation or, at the very least, to tell her to knock it off because he wasn’t angry anymore and just wanted some quiet. Barbara didn’t think she could abandon those memories or do such a disservice to the instrument that had helped her keep the promise she made to her dying husband.

Slowly, painfully, Barbara filled the glass with the bourbon Henry had loved. She drank it down quickly and then returned to the living room. Slowly, painfully, she removed the beautiful instrument from its elegant case, and she began to play.

In a couple of hours, she didn’t even feel the pain.

the-sad-violin

On 3,000 words.


womantyping

Leave it to me to finally complete a “Writer Wednesday” post on an actual Wednesday  the week before Thanksgiving, one of the busiest times of the year! This is likely only happening because I’m not hosting (but I am cooking … a little) and because what I want to share with you lovely, lovely readers is something I already wrote.

I’m B E Y O N D excited about studying abroad at the University of Limerick in Ireland, starting in September of 2020. In my last post, I shared some reservations about my next steps, but I’d be a big, fat liar if I didn’t admit that the first step was nerve wracking. I had to apply – no big deal, I’ve done that before – but I also had to submit 3,000 words of original writing as it’s a creative writing program. I haven’t published anything since 2010 despite my best efforts, and I worried my writing wouldn’t be good enough. I was terrified I’d face another rejection.

But my 3,000 words worked; I got in! And so, I’d like to share them with you. Please read them and please let me know what you think! How’s the characterization? Does Duke actually sound like a guy, or does Duke sound like me trying to sound like a guy? Is it too melodramatic? Please, please, please let me know!

Suffice it to say that Duke was a troubled man. Without getting into everything right away, without immediately investigating all of the tragic elements that composed his character, let it be known that simply put, Duke had a shit ton of emotional baggage. Quiet rage constantly bubbled just beneath his surface and whenever it boiled over, the damage was swift and devastating. Duke was cognizant of all that, and so he did his very best to stay calm. He practiced yoga in the early morning hours, before coffee and cigarettes. He quoted Buddha’s teachings when he needed to remind himself to be peaceful. Duke would do anything and everything to maintain an even keel, and that is why he found himself on the beach in February.
It was too cold to be on the beach, but Duke didn’t care. The sky was gray and miserable. The clouds were so thick in their misery that the sun had no real chance of poking through. Still, Duke sat in the frozen sand, his ass becoming numb. His heels were firmly sunk in with his toes pointing upward and slightly outward in opposite directions. His knees were bent, and his long arms curled around his knees with his chest resting against them. He was compact, trying to take up as little space as possible to keep warm. Duke wasn’t an idiot, though he certainly couldn’t be called a scholar, so he dressed appropriately for the weather. His wool beanie cap and long, corduroy jacket with the fleece lining did the best they could, but the wind whipping onto the shore from the bay was fierce and freezing. It unapologetically stung at the exposed bits of Duke’s skin and his jeans suddenly felt thin and worn.
But truth be told, he didn’t even mind the wind coming off the water in rowdy gusts. He breathed it all in deeply and with squinted eyes, Duke surveyed the flat landscape before him. He was reminded of that one poem from high school, the one with the famous line about water being everywhere but there not being a single drop to quench thirst. Duke was not a scholar, not by any stretch of even the kindest imagination, but he knew that poem was talking about saltwater; the stuff Duke’s chalice of salvation would be filled with. He had journeyed to the bay in the middle of February, trampled across frozen sand, just to be near his beloved mineral. Duke was cold, and knew he wouldn’t last out there much longer. But Duke also knew that he needed the sea; it calmed him.
The dark hair that escaped his beanie whipped around his face (he always kept his hair longer than what was considered fashionable) but Duke did his best to keep his eyes that were like drops of milk chocolate open, and his gaze steady. He watched the rolling waves with slightly parted lips, hoping to taste the salt in the air on his tongue. He firmly believed in the beneficial uses of sea salt and he knew that it calmed him when nothing else could. Aurora, his best friend, had once explained the romanticism of his beliefs, of the irony of it all, but that seemed like forever ago. It was lost on him then, and it was lost on him now; nothing changed. There was something futile and defeating in that train of thought, so Duke steered clear of it. He took a deep breath, breathed in all the salty air he could to completely fill his lungs, and closed his eyes.
He wanted so desperately to clear his mind.
He wanted so desperately to be at peace.
A single tear rolled down Duke’s cheek, reddened and raw from the incessant, frigid wind. He knew this wasn’t working and popped his eyes open. His muscles had tightened from the cold and the frigid weather seemed to stiffen his joints. Plus, he had been all curled up on the sand for the past half-hour, so it took him longer than he liked to get up and get moving. He needed to be Zen, to be calm, and if the sea proved disappointing, if sea salt let him down, Duke only knew of only one other place he could go.

Duke’s heavy boots caused the wooden floorboards of the deserted outdoor patio to creak loudly in the wintry silence. The Anchor Inn was open all year round, but did its best business in the summer when thirsty tourists were a dime a dozen. As the season progressed, the neon lights downtown became familiar and lost their appeal so that even the least adventurous made their way to the Anchor Inn in search of authentic local flavor. However, during the middle of the day (a day in the middle of the offseason), the local dive was empty except for town drunks needing a certain level of alcohol in the bloodstream to function normally, and those battling or embracing the kind of existential crisis that always seems to blindside the blissfully unaware on a random weekday afternoon. And it was in this very establishment, this very environment, where Duke could find his one other source of solace – as long as she was working.
The lighting was terrible and dim, as it usually is in such dive bars, and it took Duke’s eyes a moment to adjust and see the surroundings clearly. No one looked over when he walked in; despite being clean for three years, Duke was still considered a regular. So no one noticed Duke stroll over to the main bar and take his usual seat on a rickety, uncomfortable stool made of wood. The whole place was that way; rickety and uncomfortable and made of wood. The bar shrank and expanded with the seasons so that now it seemed small and cramped and cold, despite it being empty of clientele and in spite of the fireplaces roaring in opposite corners at the far end of the building. Duke was unaware of the less than appealing aspect of the place, felt comfortable enough for a prolonged stay, because he found what he was looking for. With a small smile, Duke enviously watched Aurora lose herself in some paperback novel. She had folded the cover back and was chewing her bottom lip as she read. She was leaning on her forearms that were resting on the bar top, and her one leg was just a few inches in front of the other and slightly bent at the knee so that her whole posture could be described as bent. Duke wondered not only how Aurora could possibly be at ease in that position but how long she could endure such a position. Duke observed his friend for just a minute more, still smiling in a muted way, tracing his mouth and chin by moving his thumb and pointer finger along his thin mustache in opposite directions, down along the laugh lines that formed parentheses around his mouth, and reuniting his fingers below his pointed chin in the short hair of his trimmed beard. Musing complete, he let his hands come together and folded them on top of the bar. “Hey Aurora,” he greeted in his low, sturdy growl.
Startled, she looked up quickly but once she realized who spoke, she relaxed. Aurora, whom everyone else affectionately called Rory, straightened her posture after closing the book and slipping it onto a shelf beneath the bar. Smiling wide, she said, “Well hey there, Duke. What are you doin’ classin’ this place up?”
“It’s my day off – thought I’d stop by and see you.”
Aurora was pouring Duke a tumbler full of ginger ale, already knowing to hold the whiskey. She was eyeing him cautiously but her playful smile hung around her lips. “Oh yeah? You need money or something?” She shot Duke a wink and slid the glass over to him.
Duke was relaxing. “Can’t your best friend say ‘hi’ for no other reason than to be friendly?”
“Best friend,” Aurora repeated in mock skepticism. She was leaning her weight on the bar top with her palms splayed wide. “Laying it on kind of thick, aren’t you? Must be after a small fortune from me; use and abuse, that’s you all over.”
“Fuck off,” Duke said with a soft laugh. He brought the glass to his lips and sipped.
Aurora’s smiled faltered nearly imperceptibly and she leaned closer to Duke. “You okay though? Seriously?”
Duke shrugged and dropped his gaze. “Yeah, I’m okay. Just –” he was about to use the word “needed,” but didn’t like how it would likely ring in Aurora’s ears later, so he decided against it – “just wanted to see you.”
Aurora paused to think for a moment, but her expression remained the same. She squeezed Duke’s hand that was free of the glass and said, “I’ll be right back with some pretzels for you.” She moved somewhere to the right, off into some room Duke couldn’t see and in her absence, Duke released a breath he didn’t realize he’d been holding in. He shook his head from side to side once, telling himself “no” in response to a question no one asked.
To announce her return, Aurora chucked the bag of pretzels at Duke. “Day off, huh? Must be nice.”
“First one in a long time; you know I never take time off.”
“Maybe you should,” Aurora advised.
“Are you working all day?”
“Kid cancelled tutoring, so I picked up another shift here.” Aurora busied herself with wiping glasses she’d already wiped clean. “Why? Did you want to do something?”
“No, but,” Duke paused to breathe, “do you care if I hang out here today?”
“Of course not,” Aurora laughed, “even though I can’t figure out why. Nothing’s going on here, man. I’ve cleaned these same glasses six times and,” she turned to look at the handful of customers scattered along the bar and raised her voice, “no one’s tipped me yet!” The patrons all knew Aurora, all liked Aurora – everyone liked Aurora – and so they only smiled, raised their glasses to her, and promptly returned to ignoring her. She rolled her eyes to Duke in exaggerated disdain for her beloved locals.
Duke wasn’t as comfortable as Aurora was around people in the town so small it was actually claustrophobic. He knew exactly what people thought of him. Duke did his best to avoid undue attention, whispers so loud they were intended to be overheard, and knowing, disapproving glances. So he lowered his voice and changed the conversation, asking, “What were you reading?”
Aurora snorted dismissively. “Some book I found in my basement. There’s lots of gun play and forced characterization and no real depth, but it’s entertaining as hell.” She shrugged. “You can borrow it when I’m done if you want.”
“Thanks anyway. I don’t really read.”
Aurora nodded. “Yeah, I remember doing your English homework for four years.”
“Don’t get mad at me because you were a nerd desperate for attention from a really cool, really hot guy.”
“You called me your best friend when you walked in here, dick,” Aurora laughed as she swatted Duke’s arm. She moved down the bar to check on her other customers, still looking for tips. Duke watched her go and felt himself fill with appreciation. She never asked for anything and saved the lectures but was always willing to kick his ass if he ever needed it. She loved him, was unfortunately in love with him, and Duke loved her but was not in love with her. He wondered how long such a relationship could last. It had been over ten years. Duke worried he might be pushing his luck.
Aurora sauntered back to Duke. “It’s dead here, and George is in the back. I’m going out for a smoke. Wanna come?”
Duke nodded. He slid off the stool and followed Aurora out the rear exit. She pushed the heavy door open with her hip, slipping her coat on as she moved outside. “Fuck, it’s cold,” she complained through gritted teeth.
“The wind’s picked up some since I came in,” Duke said.
“Shit,” was all Aurora replied. She didn’t have gloves so to save her fingers, she pulled her sleeves past her fingers and used her hands as claws to hold and open the pack of cigarettes she retrieved from the back pocket of her jeans. To continue to avoid using her fingers, Aurora bit down on a cigarette and pulled it from the pack using her teeth. Duke watched with real amusement and Aurora winked. “Give me a light, fucker.”
Duke stepped forward and flicked the lighter. Aurora puffed and pulled until a thin tendril of smoke circled to the sky. “You could have said ‘please,’” Duke admonished.
Aurora removed the cigarette from between her lips. “Yeah, and I could have said ‘thank you,’ but you know that’s not how this friendship works.”
“Yeah, right,” Duke laughed.
Aurora took a few steps closer to Duke and pursed her lips to exhale the smoke away from Duke. She looked up into his face very seriously. “So now that we’re alone and you’re more comfortable and more likely to tell me things, tell me what’s going on with you.”
Duke looked back at Aurora just as seriously. “What makes you think something’s up with me? Why can’t I just spend time with my best friend?”
“I’m touched, Duke, but you know that I know that you’re full of shit. So talk to me, okay?”
He lowered his face closer to Aurora’s. They were just inches apart. “Leave it alone, Aurora, please. I’ll come to you when I’m ready. I always do, so don’t push the issue.”
Duke was confident Aurora would oblige him, and she changed the topic of conversation. She tried to play it off like she didn’t just do whatever he asked and pretended to be suddenly distracted. She acted like she hadn’t even heard what Duke said, but Duke knew better than to believe her sudden change in interest when she asked, “What’s that around your neck?” Aurora reached out and touched the vial that hung closely around Duke’s neck.
Duke looked down. “What do you mean?”
“What’s in there?” Aurora asked as she gingerly handled the vial with one of her sleeve-covered claws. “It’s beautiful, really awesome, so I feel like it’s too pretty to be cocaine or something like that. What’s it filled with?”
Duke rolled his eyes. “It’s sea salt.”
Aurora was so surprised she didn’t know what to do, so she laughed. “Why sea salt?”
“It calms me,” Duke said. “Maybe all your hippie bullshit swayed me. I was inspired by that lamp you bought me when I came home from the hospital.” He laughed softly through his nose. “Just trying to keep the inner peace.”
Aurora nodded, taking a drag of her cigarette. Smoke curled above her head as she answered. “Matt and Eric told me you’ve started to really get into yoga lately.”
Duke momentarily clenched his jaw. “Yeah, so?”
Aurora smiled, shaking her head. “Don’t let them give you shit for it. If you’re happy, I’m happy.” She quickly kissed his cheek.
“You know, I guess it started way before that, though.” Duke was becoming nostalgic, so his tone wasn’t exactly filled with humor and his shoulders shifted awkwardly, like the conversation had become uncomfortable and he wanted nothing more than to get away from Aurora. “Do you remember when I went to the beach with Uncle Rick when I was in elementary school? And I was out for a couple of weeks?”
Aurora nodded. “You guys had a bad car accident or something.”
“Well,” Duke began hesitantly, “Uncle Rick and I loved looking for fulgurites. Rick liked it more than I did, but I was happy to tag along, so- “
“Wait,” Aurora interrupted, smirking. “What’s a fulcrum thing?”
“Fulgurite,” Duke corrected. “It’s petrified lightning.” Aurora’s face was still blank. “It’s what happens when lightning strikes sand. Uncle Rick said it was like a permanent record of the path of lightning on earth, and the fulgurites are hollow, glass-lined tubes with sand stuck to the outside. We went to the beach for that specific reason all the time, but this time, we misjudged when the storm was going to hit and we were on the sand when the lightning struck.” He looked away from Aurora. “There was no car accident. I was struck by lightning.”
Laughter erupted from Aurora. “No way,” she argued. “There is  no way you got fucking struck by lightning.” She shook her head and took a drag of her cigarette. “We would have known about it.”
“I made Uncle Rick promise to keep it quiet. I was embarrassed and so was he, and we were afraid my deadbeat dad would hear about it and try to get custody or money or both. I went for all these tests on my brain after and I was afraid you’d think I was crazy or weird.”
Aurora was sad. “I would never think anything like that about you.”
“You might have when you were seven.”
Aurora tossed her cigarette and stepped closer to Duke. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah, it was like twenty years ago.”
“No lasting side effects?”
Duke shrugged. “They were monitoring my moods and sleep pattern for a while, but then they stopped. All I have to prove it even happened are some really light but crazy scars on my back that sort of loop to my chest.”
“How come I’ve never seen them?”
“They’re really light, like I said. You have to get pretty close to see them.” He cleared his throat and didn’t particularly care for the way Aurora was looking at him, like she’d never really ever seen him before. He wondered if she was changing her mind about him. Duke decided he didn’t want to know, so he decided to change the topic of conversation. “What are you doing Friday night?” Duke asked.
Aurora blinked twice and refocused.

3000duke

On new projects and begging for feedback.

Good morning readers and writers and internet users! Hope all is well ❤

While I’m working to get my second manuscript, titled Moody Blue, published, I am also working on a new book! I’m sharing the prologue with you below, and I am DESPERATELY BEGGING for feedback! PLEASE let me know what you think!

Prologue

The only people who ever really cared about Duke, the only people who ever honestly gave a shit, were gone – one of them forever, a recent member of the dearly departed. The other was away, becoming a better human being who’d have no time for addicts who couldn’t stand to see their own faces in cracked bathroom mirrors. Duke was currently studying his own reflection in just such a mirror and recognized himself, but he hated it, hated the reflection. His hair was too long and his eyes were too red, and he wasn’t fucking high enough. He turned away from his face, sick of looking at his stupid, fucking face. There wasn’t much to like about Duke, and Duke knew that, but he didn’t want to have to face it day in and day out. He needed relief, which was why he self-medicated. He’d used all the heroin he’d had in the house, which was impressively more than usual, but now it was gone and he had to rely on alcohol.

Duke didn’t want to rely on anything anymore; or anyone, for that matter. Come to think of it, Duke didn’t think he even wanted to be in the house anymore, either. Bottle of whiskey clenched tight in his fist, Duke stumbled over to the small coffee table by the front door. His keys were laying there and he reached to grab them. The world seemed to tilt as he did so, and the wooden table went crashing to the floor, taking two picture frames with it. Duke grabbed the corner of the wall to keep from falling completely. Had his other hand been free, he might have been successful, but that damn bottle wouldn’t let go of his hand. Whiskey splashed all over him as he went down hard on his ass. Cursing loudly, he threw the bottle at the nearest wall. Duke watched the glass shatter, seemingly from the inside out, and he saw the tiny shards explode into the light and catch it. The glass metamorphosed into stars and Duke watched, transfixed. The cuts the stars inflicted on his cheeks went unnoticed, were inconsequential. Duke watched the glass fall until it all lay on the floor.

His discarded, cold, metallic keys winked at him. Duke suddenly remembered he had to leave. He crawled to gather his keys, cutting his palms on the fallen stars from just moments before. Scooping up the keys, Duke rose shakily to his feet and made his way out through his front door. He left the door open behind him so that it resembled a large, gaping mouth, howling in pain and protest. Duke also left a bloody palm print on its face, cackling wildly and falling three times before he was sitting behind the wheel of his yellow Cadillac Seville from 1987. He’d bought it cheap off Matt to replace Uncle Rick’s rusted Ford because Duke couldn’t bear to drive it. Duke couldn’t bear to sell it, either. He didn’t want it but he couldn’t let go, and that, ladies and germs, was the story of his life.

The engine came to life loudly, but the radio was louder. It was Bruce Springsteen, singing “Atlantic City” with a supreme kind of melancholy that just fit the moment. Duke’s face fell and became serious as he thought hard, carefully considering everything making up the moment. He suddenly had a destination in mind: Aurora’s dorm, and he’d have to get there fast, or it’d be too late. He’d have to race the devils brewing within him to reach Aurora before she realized she was not only better than Duke, but better off without him as well. He backed out onto Broadway Boulevard, neatly knocking his mailbox to the ground. Duke was indifferent to it, sped down the quiet residential streets until he hit the highway. It was when he was pulling onto the ramp for the Garden State Parkway, heading north, when it happened: the accident. Duke took the ramp too fast, at seventy miles an hour, and the car rolled over and over, leaving the pavement to tumble down a grassy hill before slamming into the trees.

Duke lay bleeding, inside and out, for a devastating ten minutes before someone finally saw the mess and called the proper authorities. The Boss was still growling through the speakers to no one in particular. “Everything dies, baby; that’s a fact. But maybe everything that dies someday comes back.”


Aurora had just drifted to sleep after a late night of paper writing. It had been interesting at least, discussing what it means to be human through the novels Ingenious Pain by Andrew Miller and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick. Aurora thought college was pretty cool. She was happy in college. Even sleeping, she was happy. It all felt right and Aurora had discovered she was right where she was supposed to be.

She awoke with a start from Bruce Springsteen suddenly proclaiming triumphantly that tramps were born to run from her cell phone. She scrambled to answer it, not wanting to wake her cranky roommate, so she didn’t even pause to see who was calling. “Hello?” she croaked.

“It’s Matt. You’ve got to come home. I’ll come get you if you want, but you gotta get back here.”

Aurora sat up in bed. “Matt, what is it? What’s wrong?”

“Duke’s had an accident with my car and it’s not looking good. Christ.” Matt paused. “He’s dying.”

The tears came surprisingly fast, before Aurora could even really understand all that Matt was saying. “Matt, I … um, I’ll come home right now. I’ll call you when I’m close.”

“Are you okay to drive? I shouldn’t be telling you like this, I’m sorry. I didn’t know who else to call. He doesn’t have anyone else,” Matt said. His voice cracked at the end and Aurora heard him swallow, likely to keep from crying. There was another pause. “I can –“

“I’ll be there soon, Matt. I’m on my way. Just call me if anything changes, okay?”

“Yeah, yeah, of course.”

“Okay, I’m on my way.” Aurora hung up before Matt could say goodbye. Throwing the covers back, she got moving, had to keep moving to keep her mind occupied. Aurora tossed clothes thoughtlessly into a duffel bag, not pausing to think about Duke being dead, not being around, not being Duke anymore. The thought of him scarred and bloody, and slowly becoming pale and cold, was enough to render her useless, but goddammit, she didn’t have time for hysterics. Aurora couldn’t curl up into a ball on the floor and sob like she wanted to. Slipping flip flops onto her frantic feet, Aurora threw open the door to her room, hurried down the hallway and bolted down the stairs. Her duffel bag and purse swung heavily as she ran to her car, so she was thankful she had forgotten her book bag. There wasn’t time for stupid, fucking homework. She had to have enough time to say goodbye.

Normally, it’d take Aurora over an hour to travel back home from the college. That night, it barely took her forty-five minutes.


Matt met Aurora in the parking garage of the hospital and escorted her inside, explaining to her in hushed tones that Duke’s condition was improving, miraculously so, and that they needed to remain cautious but could afford to be optimistic. They seated themselves in terribly uncomfortable vinyl-covered chairs and waited.

And waited.

Matt stood and walked a few paces to stretch his legs and ease his aching back. “He’s been in surgery for two and a half hours now.” Matt leaned against the cool glass framing the operating room. He hadn’t really looked at Aurora since she’d arrived.

“What happened?” Aurora asked. She was trembling.

“He was high as fuck and tried to get on the parkway.” Matt was silent after that, listening to Aurora sob softly behind him. He did not reach out to her, did not offer to hold her or console her or anything. Aurora wasn’t mad about it. She knew they were both drowning in misery and that neither of them was strong enough to hold the other one up, at least not yet.

Two crippling hours went by, during which Duke emerged from his surgery and all his friends could do was wait until he woke up. When he did wake up, the doctor came and told Aurora and Matt, but the doctor also said that Duke was not out of the woods yet and that it would be some time before he could see visitors.

Matt yawned and stretched, and turned towards Aurora. “You gonna go home?”

Aurora shook her head and rubbed her eyes. Mascara was smeared all underneath her eyes and she knew she must have looked awful. “I don’t want to be too far, just in case …” Her voice trailed off as her mind traveled to horrendous possibilities, just the worst of the worst. She cleared her throat to find her voice and said, “You know, just in case something happens. I guess.” She swallowed hard.

“I get that, but you look like shit,” Matt said with a laugh that was more forced than anything else. “You need to sleep, and if you won’t do that, then you need to eat.” Matt studied her for a moment. “Let me take you to get some food.”

“I don’t want to go too far, you know, in case-“

“There’s a diner right down the road,” Matt interrupted. “We won’t be too far and we won’t be too long. You can just guzzle some coffee or something. Let’s go.”

Aurora sighed heavily. There was no real reason for her not to go, so she acquiesced and didn’t even protest when Matt bent to retrieve her purse.

In the few minutes it took for Matt to drive them to the local diner, Aurora fell asleep. She thought she knew what it was to be exhausted, but she was wrong. Matt reached over, gently grabbed Aurora’s shoulder and shook her awake. Aurora was momentarily confused and simply sat, staring at Matt with bleary eyes until she blinked slowly, stupidly. Matt laughed and it was a pleasant, genuine sound. It felt good to be out of the hospital, removed from the sterile, suffocating tragedy. “We’re here,” Matt smiled. “Need a minute? I can go in and get a table.”

Aurora nodded after she yawned loudly, somewhat obnoxiously, and stretched and rubbed her eyes, mascara be damned. “Yeah, sure.” She looked at Matt seriously. “Can I bum a cigarette?”

Matt snorted. “Since when do you smoke?”

“I’ve become quite cultured since I’ve been away at college, I’ll have you know,” Aurora said. She rolled her eyes but smiled partly to let Matt know she wasn’t really annoyed, and partly because she was pleased to have surprised her longtime friend, happy to have actually changed something about herself. Aurora didn’t want to waste her “college experience” by adhering to a behavioral code that had suited her in her small hometown, in a comfortable environment void of any really challenges and thereby void of any real personal growth. Aurora couldn’t elaborate, couldn’t say any of this to Matt, because he was born in Ocean Gate, still lived in Ocean Gate, and would most likely die in Ocean Gate without ever feeling stuck or disappointed or unfulfilled. So Aurora just looked at him expectantly.

“I guess so,” Matt smiled, but eyed Aurora warily. He reached for his pack of cigarettes in his coat pocket. “I wonder what other morals Little Miss Perfect has let fall to the wayside.” Matt was half-serious and hesitated just a moment more before suddenly pressing the pack close against his chest. “Tell you what; a real gentleman never lets a lady smoke alone.” He offered her a wink before a cigarette, and she was definitely more interested in the cigarette. She slid one delicately from the crowded pack (it was brand new; Matt had stopped on his way to the hospital, correctly figuring that the combination of caffeine, nicotine, prayers and Aurora was the only combination to get him through whatever lay ahead) and thanked Matt graciously. He did the same, lit Aurora’s and then his own with the green lighter he stole from Duke at a house party a month earlier. The pair of lifelong friends both took long, deep drags and exhaled slowly, just breathing and thinking in the silence, which is really all most humans are capable of in times of crisis; the normal ones, anyway, very much unlike the heroes that make the paper or the evening news.

“Where was he going?” Aurora asked.

“What?”

She took another drag of her cigarette, realizing too late the question was better suited for being posed after sleep, after a shower and over alcohol. Ironically, she was too tired to care and continued. “Where was Duke going?”

Matt paused. He too pulled on his cigarette before he spoke. “Damned if I know,” Matt said without looking at her.

Aurora’s shoulders were heavy with skepticism. “You didn’t talk to him at all that day? Seriously? You expect me to believe that?”

“He was fucked up,” Matt said. He was rubbing his forehead and continuing to avoid making eye contact. “We talked, maybe, but he was high as hell. What he was saying probably didn’t even make sense, you know?”

“But he was saying something wasn’t he? Isn’t that what you just said?”

Matt groaned. “He was upset by the same old things he always complains about, drank too much and God knows what else, and decided he was finally going to get out of town.”

“But –“

“Jesus Christ, Rory! What do you want me to say? Do you really need me to point out the obvious, that you’re the only person he’d ever visit off the parkway? What could- I mean, how could that possibly matter? Fuck off if you’re going to make this about you,” Matt said. He had exploded and been unfair, cruel even. Somewhere deep down inside, Rory knew Matt could blame his exhaustion, his stress and heartbreak, but none of it could excuse the way he had attacked her, using her nickname and reminding her of how personal everything was. The car was filling with a shocked silence.

Rory grabbed her oversized purse and gracelessly climbed out of Matt’s car. She slammed the door behind her to truly emphasize the exit and it echoed in the silence of the early morning. She marched angrily down the sidewalk outside the front of the diner. She stopped at the bottom of the concrete stairs that led to the entrance, an entrance marked by ever glowing neon lights and double glass doors. She had yet to flick away the cigarette burning slowly between two fingers and her free hand pushed her wild hair from her eyes. She turned away from the diner’s entrance, turning towards the parking lot, slowly realizing there really wasn’t any other place for her to go. She was suffering from the same exhaustion and stress and heartbreak Matt felt, but there was something more, something like confusion and a little bit like guilt since she knew Duke had been trying to get to her. Rory started crying, crying really hard, alone in a parking lot in the gray light before dawn. It was a pitiful sight, especially when Rory wrapped her arms around herself to keep from completely going to pieces. Forgotten, the cigarette was still burning down between her two fingers.

Matt climbed from the car, slipping his keys in his pocket and nudging his door shut with his hip. He called Rory’s name, but she turned away as he jogged over to her. All she offered Matt was her back. “Rory, I’m sorry,” he said. “I was an asshole.”

“Leave me alone.” Her response was cold and clipped.

“I’m mean when I’m stressed,” Matt explained as he halted a few paces behind Rory. “I’m tired and sad and didn’t want to answer your questions.”

“I don’t care.”

“Oh, come on, Rory,” Matt pleaded. He grabbed her shoulder and spun her around to face him. “I didn’t mean it, okay?”

“I feel so bad,” she sobbed. “I feel so goddam guilty because I left him. His uncle was murdered and I just went back to school, back to my own little world, like he didn’t just lose everything he had.” The tears gushed uncontrollably and made her nearly impossible to understand. “I’m supposed to be his best friend and I abandoned him. And I am selfish and I do make everything about me, but he still wanted to see me.” Shuddering, shivering, she said, “As messed up as he was, he still wanted to see me.” The cigarette finally fell from her fingers and she broke. Rory brought her hands to her face, sad and shamed and tired, and Matt took her into his arms.

Matt shushed her. “You can’t feel guilty. I know it’s easy for me to say that, but you didn’t put those keys in his hand or that bottle in his mouth.” He pushed her away from him so he could see her face, but still held her by the shoulders. “You can’t- I mean, you just can’t beat yourself up over this. You’re his friend and you love him, and that’s enough, okay? That’s enough.”

“I do love him,” Rory sobbed, collapsing back into Matt’s arms. “I love him so much, and he’s such a fucking idiot.”

Matt laughed softly and tried to soothe her further by gently rubbing her back. They stayed like that for some time, not saying anything, happy just to be held until the sky turned rosy gold. They headed inside the diner, and over coffee and pancakes, they talked about anything and everything but Duke.


They returned to the hospital a few hours later. Duke was awake but wouldn’t be allowed visitors until the evening. Matt used the time to sleep and shower, but Rory stayed put, dozing across a few chairs for 30 minutes at a time, pacing up and down the hallway, and chugging coffee incessantly. When the doctor came to find her and tell her she could see Duke for just a few minutes, Rory did her best to patiently listen to the doctor; he advised her to speak softly and stay calm. Rory did her best to follow him to Duke’s room as normally as she could but it was a struggle. She wanted to sprint to Duke’s bedside and hold him, and if she broke down yet again, then so be it. But she already felt responsible for Duke’s current physical state. If she were to make it worse, she would not be able to live with herself Rory found herself panicked into silence as the doctor excused himself and shut the door softly behind him. Rory’s breath caught in her throat.

“Aurora,” Duke breathed. He was the only one to use her full name, not even her parents did, and the sound of it nearly caused her to collapse. “You look like shit,” Duke added, soft and low, after using only his eyes to survey Rory. He laughed but it was almost inaudible.

Rory stepped forward, trying to stay composed. She remembered herself after a moment and offered a disappointing smile. “Like you’re one to talk.” The impending silence made the air heavy between them. “I only have a few minutes, but he said I could come back tomorrow.”

Duke nodded, breathed in and out. “I know,” he said.

Rory moved to the side of the bed and delicately took Duke’s hand in both of her own. “But I’ll stay for as long as you need me, for as long as it takes to get you well.” She bent forward and kissed his forehead, then she lovingly kissed his cheek. Trying not to start crying, she let her cheek lay against Duke’s for a few silent, precious moments. “I love you,” she said.

Duke stared straight ahead, blinking furiously. He wanted to say it back and even felt he needed to say it back, but he didn’t trust himself to speak at the moment. He was grateful to be alive and grateful to be loved, especially by someone like Rory, but he was ashamed he’d been willing to throw it all away. He was also terrified of what lay ahead, that he might make such mistakes again. He was sure he didn’t deserve this precious moment with a beautiful woman, this miraculous second chance. Everything he felt and believed he had to consider was overwhelming and he knew his voice would be affected as a result, and sound shaky and overcome with emotion. Duke didn’t want that, not anymore. He wanted to be strong. He didn’t want to be a burden. Duke took a few deep, steadying breaths before he finally said, “I love you too.”

Rory straightened up and looked down at Duke with a soft, sad smile that Duke suddenly wanted to violently smash. He didn’t want to be pitied – that idea had not flown once sobriety arrived. Duke knew that wasn’t fair, but he didn’t have the energy or the knowledge to fix it, so he shut his eyes tight against it and lazily allowed his head to roll to the side.

Poor Rory didn’t know what to make of it. So she said, “I’ll let you rest and come back later with Matt. We’ll get Eric over here, too.” Duke said nothing nor did he move. “Bye Duke,” was Rory’s lame response to his silence before she hurried from the room.

Duke lay there, absolutely loathing himself until he fell asleep.


Rory and Matt returned the next day, sometime in the early afternoon. Rory had smuggled in one of those milkshakes you mix yourself from the local convenience store and she was thrilled to find Duke in much better spirits. She gave the milkshake most of the credit.

The three friends avoided speaking of the past at all costs and focused on the future, on Duke’s next move. Rory offered to clean out Duke’s house, which he had inherited from his recently departed uncle. So one day while Duke was still recovering in the hospital, she emptied and disposed of all the liquor bottles and syringes, moving from room to room, carefully inspecting each for hiding places both clever and obvious. Matt helped, dutifully following Rory from room to room as an extra pair of eyes and as an extra pair of strong and sturdy hands. Rory changed the sheets on Duke’s bed and turned up the heat so it’d be warm and cozy upon his return.

Rory vacuumed the broken glass, removed the wooden shards, and cleaned the bloody palm print from beside the front door. It was almost as if Duke had never left that night, but only almost.

Duke saw the results of Rory and Matt’s efforts just a few days later when he was finally released from the hospital and able to come home. His breath moved in and out in shuddery spasms as Rory pushed his wheelchair over the threshold of his home. It was the same, but it was also entirely different.

Once inside, Duke opted to wheel himself around. He moved from room to room in the same way Matt and Rory had, but it was unclear what it was Duke was searching for. His face was immoveable and his expression was impossible to read. Matt and Rory contented themselves with following just a few paces behind. They were intrinsically and inexplicably cautious, anticipating some kind of outburst from their stormily silent friend. Both assumed his stoicism was only temporary, but Duke kept on keeping on. When he wheeled himself into his bedroom, all Duke said was, “New sheets.”

“Yeah,” Rory lamely ventured. She paused to clear her throat. “They’re a higher thread count and I got you a heavy comforter.” She smiled but it was nervous and queasy. “You need to be able to relax in here if nowhere else.”

Duke raised his chin to indicate a bizarre looking light upon the end table on the left side of the bed. “Is that what that’s for?”

Rory stepped forward, a dull, pulsing heat rising in her cheeks. “That’s a sea-salt lamp,” she explained. “They’re supposed to reduce stress and anxiety. They’re very trendy.” Again, she tried to smile, tried to be light and natural and normal. But again, all she managed was awkward and forced and lame.

“Oh,” was Duke’s response. He looked around the room once more before deciding to leave.

Matt stepped to the side to allow Duke to roll past, but then he lingered where he was. He waited until Duke was out of earshot before he asked Rory what the fuck Duke’s problem was. Matt explained that Duke was being an epic kind of douche bag and had been that way since they’d left the hospital, and Matt was willing to chalk it up to a million different reasons, but if it was something as simple as sober Duke was an asshole and nothing more, then Matt wasn’t entirely sure what he’d do. When Rory offered nothing in response, Matt asked in a harsh, hissing whisper, “What the hell is his problem?”

“Oh, I don’t know, Matt,” Rory hissed back, functioning at an extreme level of sarcasm. “Maybe he’s pissed he’s stuck in a wheelchair and maybe he feels useless and worthless because he’s going to be out of work for a long time.”

“Eric will hold his job-“

“Maybe there’s no money coming in and all kinds of money going out and he’s worried. There’s medical bills and court fees and prescriptions and regular bills and groceries-“

“The inheritance will keep him comfortable for at least-“

“ –all of that on top of severe physical pain, not to mention what extreme mental and emotional-“

“Okay, okay!” Matt exploded, no longer whispering. “I get it, alright?” He sighed heavily and turned, prepared to finally follow Duke down the hallway. Before he was out of reach, before he was too many steps ahead, Rory reached forward and gave Matt’s hand a reassuring, encouraging squeeze. They were all Duke had, so they could only be sympathetic; or at the very least, that was Rory’s understanding of the situation.

So once Duke was on the road to recovery and absolutely all of the damage could be assessed, Matt stopped dropping by everyday (though he did check in on a daily basis). Rory was more devoted, as she always had been and always would be; she went food shopping, drove Duke to all of his appointments and anywhere else he needed to be, cooked dinners at least once a week, stayed on top of the bills and let Duke know which money was due when. She took care of her best friend until he was able to get around without assistance and was cleared to drive, which was well after the spring semester had ended and well into the beginning of the following fall semester. Rory never registered for classes and much to the chagrin of those who knew and loved her (Duke included), she never returned to school.

Rory moved back in with her parents because the rent was free and she was only blocks away from Duke, so when he needed pain relief in the dead of night or when he woke sweating and screaming from god awful nightmares, she could be on her way before Duke even hung up the phone. It was a perfect situation until her parents started to get pushy about school, until her parents asked her pointed questions about exactly what she was sacrificing and for whom, until she could no longer ignore the valid points her parents raised during difficult discussions that rapidly increased in frequency. Rory had to run away, to shove it all down and away, because that was easiest even if it wasn’t best. With the last of her student loan money, she paid the first and last month’s rent for a quaint, absolutely adorable apartment less than two blocks from the bay. And since she was well-known, and more importantly well-liked, Rory had no trouble getting hired at the local tavern and in the two years that followed, she was able to work her way from hostess to bartender. Between the tips from the regular customers who adored her and the tutoring jobs she scheduled on the side, she made ends meet. It was a quiet, simple kind of life.

And Duke never asked her about it.

He knew that if he thought about it too hard for too long, or if he thought about it at all, he’d begin to feel responsible for nearly all of Rory’s wasted talent and potential. If he thought about it, he’d begin to develop a very real fear of Rory’s eventual and inevitable resentment once she realized Duke was quite content to keep her trapped, regardless of how content Rory might be to be trapped. In Duke’s defense, Rory never said anything about any of it; she just let the situation be what it was. So the all-important conversation about what it all meant for both parties involved never came up. In all the hours spent nursing Duke back to health, spent helping Duke regain mobility and independence and a sense of identity, neither him or Rory talked about the constantly advancing September or points beyond.

It was what it was.

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