On week #2 of my 21-day creativity challenge.

I won’t repeat myself unnecessarily, so all I’ll do to open up this post is reiterate how difficult it can be to be creative during a pandemic. Life is not as it was, and information about returning to the way things were changes every day, and the amount of information is overwhelming and varied. The only real consensus is that there is no real consensus, and all of those circumstances can make it quite difficult to keep to a writing schedule and all of those circumstances can make it near impossible to start and stick to a *new* creative schedule. But at times like these, the best we can do is try. So please, join me on my second week of Grammarly’s 21-Day Creativity Challenge (featured here).

Day 8: Carry an idea notebook.

One of my favorite aspects of this challenge is that most of the tips are tips I already implement daily, let alone weekly. One of those tips is to carry an idea notebook. I’ve actually been teased for always having a journal and a pen in my purse or bag. Here’s photographic evidence of my idea journal:

Mostly, I write down things my friends say and dreams I remember. Occasionally, I’ll be especially inspired and able to write a scene, or a couple of scenes, or even a whole chapter! I write down the homily during mass too, and daily schedules, and let it all flow together. My writing life should and will forever be entwined with my general life.

Day 9: Freewrite.

A former co-worker RAVED about freewriting. We would have our students participate in that activity to help deepen their understanding of a concept, or help them begin to develop analysis. There’s excellent and extensive information about freewriting at this link. And other teachers, writing for Psychology Today, agree with our premise as its benefits go beyond the realm of creativity, as explained here.

So how does one freewrite? Luckily, The Book Designer walks you through it:

Here are some freewriting guidelines, although in the spirit of freewriting freedom, feel free to not follow any that don’t feel right.

1. Use a prompt.
2. Set a timer.
3. Keep your pen moving.
4. Write quickly.
5. Use the first word.
6. Write crap.
7. Go for it.

Find more information here.

Day 10: Join a social writing site.

I began to explore this last week when the tip was to join a group of creatives. Physically doing this is not a current option, but joining an online group through a social writing site is entirely plausible. According to Grammarly, the goal is to do more than just connect, however. Grammarly says, “If your muse gets lonely, online social sites for writers, such as Wattpad or Amazon Kindle’s Write On, may help. (Just be aware that getting noticed and earning feedback on these sites can require a significant time commitment.)” The goal should always be inspiration first, but there is the opportunity for developing a readership. I haven’t truly tackled this step yet, but I will and I will report back.

Day 11: Go somewhere busy.

This particular tip was difficult to try during this pandemic, so to talk about this tip, I have to rely on past experience. The benefits are almost endless. You can overhear real dialogue to make your own more authentic.I remember sitting at a crowded bar and watching two guys across the way rehash the fight one of them had with his girlfriend. I made note not only of the dialogue, but of the way they moved. Going to crowded places can also inspire settings which can develop plot.

Day 12: Go someplace quiet.

This tip, conversely, was extremely easy to accomplish. It seems like everywhere is someplace quiet. I’ve done my best writing alone in my room. What works best for me is gathering and generating ideas in busy places and then developing them into prose in quiet places. Quiet places help with concentration and can be relaxing and soothing. Also, the perfect blend of someplace busy and someplace quiet is one of my favorite places to write: a bookstore or coffee shop.

Day 13: Do something brave.

This one confused me when I first read it. Grammarly explains, “Shy? Join an improv group. Clumsy? Take a beginner’s dance class. Do something that pushes your limits and then use your experiences for inspiration.” Again, this becomes an issue when most places are closed and new experiences are severely limited. However, I did something brave as best as I could; I traveled to Florida during this quarantine to see my sister and her beautiful, precious family. I was worried about checkpoints at state lines, about rest areas and service stations being closed, and taking the trip in these scary times.

Day 14: Attend a creative event.

This is not possible currently, but I cannot stress enough how much attending writing conferences has helped me. I know I talked about this in last week’s post, but I’ll happily repeat myself if it convinces even just one person to put him or herself out there and attend a conference. The benefits vary depending on the conference, but no matter the conference, there are always undeniable benefits. I got into more details in the following posts:

Tune in next week for my third and final week of the 21-Day Creativity Challenge!

On a 21-day Creativity Challenge!

Last week, I happily posted about how I had a breakthrough while writing. I was pleasantly surprised by that burst of creative inspiration as it seemingly came from absolutely nowhere, seeing as how we’re STILL in the midst of a pandemic, which means we’re still social distancing and quarantining. As random as it appeared, I was afraid that after that initial spark, there’d be n o t h i n g. For once in my writing life, I decided to be proactive and challenge myself to be creative no matter the circumstance! I did some research and stumbled upon a Grammarly post about 21 Ways to Inspire Creativity When You’re Out of Ideas.

I saw the number 21 and figured it was a sign from the universe; if you do something consistently for 21 days, it becomes a habit. The 21 ways could easily become 21 days as long as I vowed to try a way a day (oh, how I love rhyme!). For the next three blog posts, including this one, I’ll be writing all about my 21-day creativity challenge! I’ll share what worked, what didn’t work, and what I learned!

Day 1: Listen to music.

I listen to music C O N S T A N T L Y. Hell, I even listen to music when I sleep! Naturally, I listen to music when I write. On my Instagram, I post a #tuesdaytune , which is a song that’s been especially inspiring that week. For a song to inspire me, it has to inspire great emotion, which for me, usually comes from the lyrics. If lyrics are especially poignant, I’ll stop in the middle of my writing and jot them down. I’ve been doing this since college:

This is one of my notebooks from college.
I spy lyrics from My Chemical Romance, Boxcar Racer, and Snow Patrol.
I spy lyrics from MGMT, Bayside, and Billy Joel.

For day one, I set myself up in my bedroom. I’d recently watched “Twilight,” inspired by Stephenie Meyer’s announcement she’s finally going to release Midnight Sun, Call me a snob, but I really didn’t care for the books. The writing was too juvenile to really pique my interest, but I will gladly admit I LOVED the movies. It’s always a treat to watch Robert Pattinson do anything, and those movies were delightfully hollow. I didn’t have to think or analyze, I could just imagine laying in a meadow with an immortal Robert Pattinson who was so in love with me, he’d get us both caught up in adventures riddled with poor character development and gaping plot holes.

But I digress. I wrote about 750 words in one hour, even with pausing to copy lyrics I loved. I think that’s sufficient evidence to prove listening to music really does inspire creativity.

Day 2: Journal every day.

Again, this is another way to inspire creativity that I’ve been using for years. I’ve been journaling every day since middle school. Here’s photographic evidence:

That middle shelf is all the journals I’ve filled over the years.
This is the journal I’m currently using.
And here’s proof I’m using it for this 21-day challenge!

Day 3: Join a group of creatives.

Considering the current global state, this one proved especially difficult. There are TONS of online writing groups, but that’s actually a challenge for a later date. Though I can’t join a new group, I can absolutely attest to the power of joining a group of creatives. I’ve been blessed to attend three writer’s conferences in just as many years: the Algonkian Writer’s Conference, the Writer’s Hotel, and the Frank McCourt Summer School for Creative Writing. In each setting, I was awed and inspired by the creativity and tenacity of other writers. I still keep in touch with the groups I was in from each conference and I still seek their advice. I am honored to still be a part of their writing lives.

Day 4: Take a walk.

This is another activity I do regularly. I don’t always take my journal as I tend to focus on the walk for its exercise benefits, but when I adopt a more leisurely pace and allow myself the opportunity to stop and write, I’m never disappointed. If the inherent beauty of nature doesn’t inspire me (and I’m fortunate enough to live near the water), then being out and about among others definitely will. Even during this pandemic, I’ve found opportunities to “people watch,” to steal glimpses into the lives of others and formulate a plot with my imagination. I’ve copied overheard conversations into my journal to help me make my created dialogue more authentic and because, sometimes, people say wonderfully interesting things that I want to remember forever.

Day 5: Turn off (or cover) your monitor.

According to Grammarly, the point of this way to inspire creativity is to prevent focusing on what’s already been written:

Interesting things happen when you can’t edit—you have to move ahead rather than worry about what’s behind you. Sure, you’ll make tons of typos, but you can fix those. Later.

Written by Karen Hertzberg for Grammarly.

I thought it was an interesting concept. I’ve been using a typewriter now and again, and it’s a similar concept. The typewriter I use is old school; manual. And I didn’t buy any correcting ribbon. But, to do the thing properly, I will now try to write a part of my short story without looking at the monitor. Here we go:

The office was loud and overcrowded, as it usually was. Bernadette couldn’t work in that kind of environment and actually did her best work in the late afternoon when everyone else started to fdrift home. On nice days, she’d take her laptop up to the roof and work in the rays of the setting sun and letting the sounds of the evening commute serve as relaxing white noise. It was a good thing that Greg, her boss/editor, kept a similar schedule. It would end up being just the two of them in the office and he always seemed more prone to greenlighting her story ideas. The mini-fridge kept fully stocked with beer under his desk may have helped greatly, but Bernadette also liked to believe her talent and charm played an equally important role.

I’m impressed I didn’t make more mistakes. I mean, this is still rough – very rough – but thank you, Mavis Beacon (haha).

I like the idea behind this challenge, but in the end, it’d probably be more frustrating than inspiring. I’d keep this in the “Break in Case of Emergency” file, when I’m completely stuck and desperate for any kind of inspiration.

Day 6: Reward yourself for writing with a kitten.

If you go to this website, it allows you to choose between a kitten, puppy or bunny to pop up on the screen after so many words (you’re allowed to select that as well). I left the defaults chosen, so for every 100 words, a fresh kitten popped up. I recorded the experience for your viewing pleasure:

Adorable! But a message does pop up suggesting that users copy and paste the writing because the website could lose it. It’s not very practical, so I rank it with covering the monitor: only use in desperation.

Day 7: Mind Map.

I am NOT artistic at all. You don’t really need to be for a Mind Map, though. The idea is to creatively think about your big ideas and present them in a way so you can see your ideas in ways you never did before. To make sure I was doing it right, I looked up tutorials on YouTube (since the class linked from the Grammarly blog cost $47) and found this helpful (and quick!) clip.

I totally traced the big rig in the center. I’m really not artistic.

I really liked Mind Mapping, and I definitely will do it again in the future. It forced me to think about my short story idea in a different way, and the coloring aspect was soothing. It combined the best parts of being creative.

So tune in next week for another week of creative challenges! Let me know if you tried any of these in the comments! Let’s start our own group of creatives ❤ 🙂

On breaking through while staying in.

The pandemic continues. And so does the quarantine, the social distancing, and this overwhelming desire to return to normal. NJ public schools are closed for the remainder of the academic year, but state parks are open, though I think they’re limited to operating at ha;f their capacity and can be immediately shut down if people are not maintaining a social distance. I had a panic attack yesterday because I think it f i n a l l y hit me that I don’t recognize this world I’m now living in, and that is a terrifying realization.

So I escape; I escape into reading and into writing. Right now, I’m reading The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. I realize this is long overdue; the novel was originally published in 1940 and became a sensation. It was McCullers first novel, and she was only twenty-three years old, so I thought it was high time I finally read it. I remember reading an excerpt or two in middle school and writing down the title so I could read the whole thing later. It’s much later now, and I’m wondering why this title isn’t as referenced as often as others from the time period, especially when Amazon.com reports the novel is “Wonderfully attuned to the spiritual isolation that underlies the human condition.” And according to Wikipedia (a dubious source at best), “The Modern Library ranked the novel seventeenth on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. Time included it in ‘TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005’. In 2004 the novel was selected for Oprah’s Book Club.” So I guess it’s time for me to see what all the fuss is about.

As for my writing, I am S T I L L revising my manuscript for my second novel, Moody Blue. But I am THRILLED to report I’ve had something of a breakthrough! Without going into too much detail, I’ve been grappling with components of my plot that were too extreme. I couldn’t close those plot holes or justify character decisions in regards to them. But I think I’ve thought my way through and the writing’s been coming easier now. I remember when I was writing Her Beautiful Monster, I saw every single scene like a movie in my head. I always knew exactly where the plot and characters were headed. Moody Blue is a different animal altogether; I could only ever see parts. There were scenes I definitely wanted to include, but I never saw just how each piece fit. Happily, I really believe I’m on to something now.

So please, share with me: what are you reading during this quarantine? Is there a book you’ve always wanted to read but never got around to? Are there any projects you’ve started or accomplished? Let’s talk creativity 🙂

On Chuck Palahniuk, with love.

This blog post is going to serve as nothing more than a thinly veiled love letter to Chuck Palahniuk.

This week, I devoured his book on writing titled Consider This: Moments in My Writing Life After Which Everything Was Different. Simply put, this book was amazing. You know I’m always looking for signs from the universe, and I firmly believe that the cosmos put this book into my hands at the right time for the right reasons. One of my favorite passages reads:

Was it Kierkegaard? Was it Heidegger? Some egghead pointed out how people decide the nature of their world at a very young age. And they craft a way of behaving that will lead to success. You’re praised for being a strong little kid so you invest in your strength. Or you become the smart girl. Or the funny boy. Or the pretty girl. And this works until you’re about thirty years old.

(64).

Damn, Chuck. Just @ me next time. I think a lot of the uncertainty in my writing life comes from uncertainty in life in general. Last year was tumultuous; I lost friends I thought I’d have forever and essentially had to find my new identity. It was never a good idea to allow myself to be defined by other people, but I did it and here I am, reconstructing myself one piece at a time. I’ve finally come to accept that people will enter and exit my life at various times for all different reasons, and every entrance and exit does not necessarily have anything to do with me. “Through our lives, our relationships are based on proximity. We attend the same school. We work at the same company or live in the same neighborhood. And when those circumstances change, our friendships dissolve” (146).  Those changes and dissolutions do not have to be earth-shattering. They do not have to be moments after which everything is different. But when they are, I think it’s more than important to stop and take note. Losing my friends and thereby upending the woman I thought I was led me to the dream of Ireland.

I want Ireland to be a part of my rebuilding, maybe even the foundation upon which I can build my writing life, and though that journey has been delayed, the desire is there and it is as strong as it ever was. Palahniuk writes, “Perhaps this is why people dream of traveling a lot at retirement. Seeing the world and recognizing one’s own insignificance makes it okay to come home and to die” (117). That’s depressing as hell, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true. To be comfortable with myself, and that includes being comfortable with my mortality, I think I have to be uncomfortable first. I’m happy to admit I’ve been uncomfortable as hell for nearly four years. So something’s gotta give soon, and I think this book by Chuck Palahniuk has prepared me for the moment I’ve been waiting for: the moment after which everything is different.

So much more than some bestselling author pontificating about craft, Palahniuk’s book is entertaining as hell. He includes entertaining anecdotes from his writing life that validate a writer’s many insecurities and intuitions, balancing humiliations with small victories. For example, Palahniuk recalls when he was a participant in Tom Spanbauer’s writing workshop and Tom gave him a book to read after his “…work had been rejected by some magazine or ten magazines or yet another agent had written to say he only represented ‘likeable’ fiction” (57). Tom chose the book and told Palahniuk it would help his work “enormously” (57). Palahniuk writes:

The following week I read and reread it. An easy job because it hardly topped a hundred pages, but a tough read because the characters were hard-pressed and put-upon cornpone hound-dog types just scraping by in the burnt-over backwoods hills of wherever. They lived on a farm, eating the same grits for breakfast every morning. They did nothing exceptional, and nothing happened to them. Each time I finished it I felt angry about wasting more time for so little return. I hated the author for wasting my time. But mostly I hated myself for being too backward to appreciate this work of art documenting the lives of folks interchangeable with the folks I’d been raised next door to

(58).

So when Palahniuk brings the book back, he’s hesitant to admit he hated it because he’s afraid that makes him dumb, too stupid to appreciate a book praised by anyone and everyone who knows anything about literature. Palahniuk lies “to fit in with the smart people” (59), which is a pressure I completely understand and have barely survived. I usually do the same thing Palahniuk did. “If all else fails among the literati, always claim the language is beautiful” (59). Throughout the course of the evening, however, Palahniuk finally cracks and admits he hated the book and that he’s probably stupid. But Tom smiles and reveals his true intentions. “This book is awful…. I wanted you to see how terrible a book could be and still get published” (59-60). I give Palahniuk credit for not naming the book and shaming anyone (“If you don’t have anything nice to say…” and all that) and for being honest. He’s acknowledging that being published and successful can have very little to do with talent. And I think it’s important to note that Palahniuk found his writing tribe, a suggestion stressed by all different kinds of authors time and time again. Writing is a lonely job, so it is crucial to find people who share your writing philosophy and tastes and work ethic. It’s crucial to have a community, and I think Palahniuk is starting one with the publication of this book. In a cosmic coincidence, I am in desperate need of a tribe, so let this book be my calling card/open invitation.

I wrote a somewhat scathing review of John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction because it wasn’t accessible. It was condescending. It didn’t inspire me. Palahniuk echoes these sentiments and goes on to explain, “I’ve found that most writers fall into one of two camps. The first rise from academia and write gorgeous stuff with very little plot momentum or drive. The second camp of writers emerge from journalism and use simple, clear language to tell stories rich in action and tension” (192). I think, organically, I come from the first camp. I was an English major, am now an English teacher, and will earn either my Master’s or MFA in the near future. But I’m drawn to the second camp. A perfect paragraph or scintillating sentence is great, but I’m afraid that’s not what sells. Readers want stories rich in action and tension that are also accessible because they use simple, clear language. That’s why Her Beautiful Monster was a joy to write and earned positive reviews, I think – because I enjoyed writing it. I think I need to get back to basics and not overthink my creative process.

Palahniuk does not spend valuable space romanticizing the writing life or going on and on about some abstract, academic approach. He gives real, practical advice. For example, he writes, “Once you’re published and trying to scratch out a living you’ll find these regional bookseller associations are a great ally” (1). First paragraph of the first page, and I’m learning something new. I was so disappointed when my first novel didn’t go flying off the shelves, but in hindsight, I realize I was doing nothing to help. To be fair, I didn’t know where to start. Thanks to Palahniuk, now I do.

He does discuss the act of writing itself and gives great tips and tricks without singing his own praises. For example, he suggests that “Instead of writing about a character, write from within the character” (47). He recommends avoiding common units of measurement and instead, using units of measurement unique to a character, like “a man too tall to kiss” or “a man her dad’s size when he’s kneeling in church” (47). This idea may not seem revolutionary, but it hit me like a ton of bricks. This is a wonderful and unique way to give a story texture and to really develop my writer’s voice.

Palahniuk attributes some of his most followed advice to other writers, and it lends him a great deal of authenticity. That was my favorite aspect of the book, how real Palahniuk is. It reminds me of a sentiment expressed by Stephen King, that all writers come to drink from the same pool, so it’s only natural that all writers beg and borrow and steal from one another. Hence why I salivated over this book from one of my most favorite writers.

Palahniuk writes, “If you’re dedicated to becoming an author, nothing I can say here will stop you. But if you’re not, nothing I can say will make you one” (xv). Palahniuk shares advice he received from Bob Maull, founder of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association. Maull told him, “If you want to make a career out of this you’ll need to bring out a new book every year. Never go longer than sixteen months without something new because after sixteen months people quit coming in that door and asking me if you have another book yet.” Fuck. Shit. Balls. My book came out nine years ago. Is it too late for me? Do I not have enough time to write because I’m a full-time teacher? Palahniuk doesn’t think so. He describes, in detail, how one writing approach solves the struggle for time. For all the dark human truths he exposes or touches upon, he is not a fatalist. He writes, “But if you hold a full-time job, have a family, and have to juggle every other duty in life, this scene-by-scene experimentation will keep you sane” (135).

So where do I go from here? I become a fucking writer. I carve out time for writing. I truly and fully believe I am one. I get to work.

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.

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