Writing in Real Life

The man at the counter at Starbucks did not have the kind of face you would recognize. He was all straight lines, droopy eyes, neatly combed brown hair. Most people could have turned away from him and been unable to describe him. They would have mistaken three other people for him without walking half a block. Robin had never seen him before, but she recognized him. At least, she thought she did. She thought she had seen his forgettable face before, but she didn’t know where.

After she bought her coffee she settled in the corner with her laptop. She had a weekly tradition of coming to Starbucks to write. It got her out of the narrow office that held her most of the time. Her husband knew she was in there by the clacking of the keyboard and her mumbles. She didn’t emerge often. He had occasionally sidled in, afraid to bother her but worried, only to find her sagging in sleep with her head tucked into the crook of her arm. On Tuesdays she stayed at Starbucks for hours, letting herself be distracted by the hipsters and businessmen around her, half-listening to the conversations about lovers and deadlines. It was buzzing and busy in all the ways that her office was not, papered in drafts and stained with the rings of many a mug.

The woman waiting in line for the restroom wore an expression of perpetual boredom and impatience, her thin lips pressed together. Robin’s gaze rested on her. The woman looked like somebody, but she was not sure who. Bored, thin lips, blond bob, chewed fingernails– “oh my God,” Robin said aloud to her laptop screen, “It’s Cara Selman.” Cara Selman’s name was hidden in the lines of text on Robin’s screen. She had just walked into the scene where Doug was leaning closer to his secretary, and Robin hadn’t decided yet what she was going to do. Cara was sort of loosely based off of Robin’s sister-in-law, but she was trying to make the difference imperceptible enough that she wouldn’t get in trouble with her brother for it when the book came out. The woman waiting for the bathroom to open was still there, studying her nails, and Robin turned her eyes away.

That was where she knew the dull man in line. He was Doug. Of course he was Doug. He was probably off now with his mocha nonfat latte to flirt with his secretary all day, because Robin was toying with the idea of making him a bit of a slacker at the office. He wasn’t her favorite character in this book, but she thought she might be able to do something with him if Cara got really angry. Judging from her expression as she stood glaring at the “Occupied” sign on the restroom door, the woman needed something to get worked up about. Robin thought that possibly Cara liked plunging herself and her husband into high-flown dramatics more than she actually liked her husband.

An old man sitting at the counter by the window turned and bent down, creaking, to pick up his newspaper. As he straightened his eyes met Robin’s and sent a spasm of electricity down her spine. Mr. Hilgood was at Starbucks too. He didn’t look happy. His jaw was tight and his hands shook. The wrinkles trailing from the corners of his eyes deepened when he clenched his teeth just the way she had imagined them to do. Robin’s stomach dropped. Last week she had written him into the doctor’s office and she knew that he had gotten some bad news. She didn’t think he was going to tell his wife, who was going to find it all out too late. Poor thing, Robin thought. She ached for the old man stooping to pick his paper up from the floor where it had fallen. He was a lovely man, and he was never going to get the chance to make amends with his children.

The Starbucks was too full of people who had, before, only populated her mind. Susan might show up, and Robin didn’t think she could bear that. She packed away her computer, her hands clumsy, and nearly dropped her bag as she stood. The smell of coffee was starting to make her feel light-headed. As she blundered toward the door, she knocked into Mr. Hilgood’s chair. Robin ordered her eyes downcast, away from his face. “I’m sorry,” she said to his shoulder, and then she left.

Musing

Soon I’ll clear the cobwebs out of my mind. They’re softening the corners, white and frail, sagging a little, cradling dead flies. In a little while I’ll find a broom and I’ll sweep the floor, leaving clean boards in my wake and shuffling dust into a pile. Puffs will rise from it like smoke. The wood will be smooth and my feet with touch the floor without prickles or grit. Before too long I will organize. Everything will be on the floor and I will put it back where it belongs, some things stacked neatly in the cabinets and others in a row on the shelves. There will be room to stretch my arms as far as my muscles will allow. My fingertips will not graze the piles that rise, teetering, threatening. Soon I will tidy up my mind. For now I will live with the clutter.

The Old Future

In the old future, Sandra waited until the very last moment and then she called Will. She sat at home, festering, the rotten anger building up inside her and heating her through until she burned with it. Everything in the house was infuriating. The art on the walls, the stack of unopened mail on the end table, the mug from his coffee that morning when he’d drunk it, scarfed down breakfast, and left. All without talking to her. Mornings had been hard lately. In the old future, things changed.

In the old future, he answered the phone. He said her name and his voice was soaked with relief. She let it bleed into her, holding the phone to her ear and sagging in the comfort where everything was okay. They both said they were sorry in a rush and laughed, words tumbling into each other, their voices woven on the phone connection, both their forgivenesses tightly spun in the air between the house and his work. He came home at once, didn’t even stop for the usual drink with Mike before he got on the train. She picked him up at the station instead of letting him take the bus. In the car he put his hand on her knee and even when they got out and walked into the house she could feel the heat pressed to her skin, the print of his hand still warming her.

In the old future they got into another argument in the kitchen, trying to decide what to do about dinner. Their voices, so recently entwined, knocked and hammered at one another again. Finally Sandra cried. She was so tired of hearing her own shrillness and seeing his face crumpled in frustration. She never cried, but now she did. He melted when she did. She backed into the corner and sank to the floor, shoulders shaking, and he knelt in front of her. His fingers lit on her arms, tentative, pulling her to him. When she looked up there were tears on his face too. “It’ll be okay,” he said to her. “We’ll be okay. We don’t need to fight.” She cried harder from the torrent of wonder, just imagining that things would change. They would be okay.

In the old future, they skipped dinner. They clung to each other and undressed each other and dissolved into each other in the kitchen. They fell asleep on the floor and Will was almost late for work the next day. He kissed her before he left, leaning over while he pulled on yesterday’s pants, his lips holding hers. After he left she could still feel him on her. She spent the day in a daze. Long minutes passed while she stared at her cereal, or at the papers in front of her, or at the blank black screen of the television. Her whole body was lighter now. She nearly floated.

In the old future, Will came home and nearly crushed her in an embrace. They ate dinner in bed that night, flicking crumbs at each other. Laughing.

In the old future, everything was okay. They lived together and they loved each other. Maybe they had some children. Only sometimes did they have moments of passion, but they always forgave each other.

In the old future, Sandra called Will and he picked up the phone. Everything was okay. The old future might have been true until he didn’t answer.

In the new future, the one that is true now, Will did not pick up the phone. Maybe he saw her name appear on the screen and he clicked “Ignore” because he wanted more time to mull the fight over before they talked. Maybe he was in the bathroom. Maybe he was already with Mike at the bar. In the new future, he went for a drink with his friend and then went home with Mike to sleep on his couch. He woke up in the morning and left for work. He was probably short of sleep from sleeping on the lumpy couch with snores drilling at his ears, and that’s why he didn’t look when he crossed the street toward the office. The driver of the car that hit him didn’t stop. They called Sandra from the hospital. She’d been angry that Will had never come home.

In the old future, everything could have been okay. The old future will always be okay, because it isn’t true. Sandra lives in the new future now.

Keep Going

Go go go don’t stop don’t look back. If you look back they can get you, the demons, the shadows, the ones who never slow down. Keep running they’re catching up. They’re always catching up. You said to me once that the truly terrifying thing, what makes you prickle cold with sweat at night and shakes your bones all day, what scares you is that you can go a long way pretty fast but they go slower they do they plod on but they never ever ever need to sleep. You slowed down and they got you.

If I keep going fast enough they won’t get me. If I keep running I’ll be okay. That’s what you told me. Your words go in my head keep going keep going keep going run run run and one syllable with every time a foot hits the ground so I’m saying the words as I go even when I’m walking because my legs might fall out from under me. Those words keep my feet forward, keep my bones working and my blood churning and my face turned up and ahead of me so I don’t look at the ground so long that I just sink right onto it. Sometimes the dirt looks so inviting.

There’s no way I give up, you have to know that, you might be gone to me but I can still talk to you in my head. It’s not like there’s anyone else to talk to either and I’d always rather talk to you than anyone. You know. You always know. Now when I have to do all the knowing when my brain has to work all the time and my body has to go go go all the time and I’m without you and all I have is your words that keep me going because I have to keep going. Now that it’s like this, I still talk to you in my head. I always did and always will. There isn’t anyone better to talk to. Even if there was someone they wouldn’t be better couldn’t not possibly because you’re always you even though you’re not here you’re not with me you’re still you. When I ask myself questions because I’m so so so tired sometimes I can hear your answers because I know what you would say. Sometimes I ask just to hear the answer you would say come back to me and I can pretend for a little minute there that you’re telling me how to survive how to be how to live and it’ll work and because of you, your words in my head, you’re gone but I have your words and so I’ll be okay.

Do you think I’ll ever be able to rest? No don’t stop run run run never stop.

A Moment of Everything

Dan stopped to stand still on his way to the grocery store because he was enraptured by everything. He’d been walking quickly, but then he’d glanced up and his feet had slowed. Now he held still and watched the world. The buildings stood there on either side of the street just as they always did, but did he always notice the way the crack in the paint on the side of the old restaurant swooped and wiggled across the wall? People walked on the sidewalks, ignoring him, but he usually ignored them too. Now he saw.

Look at the woman following her husband, chasing him before her with words! She talked without thinking about the miraculous movement of her lips, the sound issuing forth, the little wrinkle that she was carving into the space between her husband’s eyebrows. Look! The two men sitting outside the convenience store leaned ever so slightly toward each other, and their whole faces crinkled up when they laughed. They were in the path of the sun, so it painted a shadow on the wall beside them with crisp edges, the shape of their heads and the intricate little wiggles of their ears and collars skewed on the surface behind them. The little girl across the street was dragging behind her mother. Her hair was working to escape its ponytail and she looked around her, mouth pursed and eyes unblinking. She was like Dan. They were trying to see the whole world at once.

The tree that grew in the space between the sidewalk and the road had noticed the breeze skulking through the street, and was dancing in it with a timid flutter, as though it was afraid somebody would notice. The middle-aged man with the bushy mustache was leering at a girl passing, and she kept her eyes fixed straight ahead. His face was red like the paper underside of an autumn leaf. Her straight-ahead eyes were ringed with smeared eyeliner, but in between the black smudges they glittered. She bit her lip, he could tell from the dip in her mouth right then, just a little. She was annoyed, or trying not to smile. She held enough of the expression out of her face that Dan couldn’t tell what it could have been. He watched her pass and he looked down the street.

An old woman pushed a cart full up with laundry. The wheels squeaked a little bit. She was furrowed in concentration, navigating the sidewalk, fitting herself around the man smoking a cigarette. He stepped back, not even looking at her, just automatic, letting his body move without asking it to. Somehow Dan wondered that he could move without thinking about it, that he could move his whole body on his unthinking feet without listening to the signals run from his head down the fibers of his muscles and through the building of his bones, until the whole mess of a body in its scrambled complexity just shifted over half a step like it was nothing.

There was music coming from inside the convenience store, and the plump lady behind the counter was singing along. Her voice was thin, as though she wasn’t entirely sure what it was going, but she was following it along anyway. It was not a beautiful sound, except for that it was sound being made. Dan listened to her as if it was beautiful. How amazing that she could make sound! It was something beautiful just that she could open up her mouth and a song would come out, that the elaborate scroll of notes and tones and pitches and melody that is written out in black symbols on white paper with lines and curves and circles across pages and pages and pages could just spill out of her mouth while she wasn’t paying attention, as though it didn’t matter a bit. So Dan listened.

Behind her song there was the music of the street. A siren whistled and bellowed in the distance, its voice soaring and dipping, soaring and dipping. The cars grumbled and wheezed as they passed by. People’s voices blended and lifted, tangled and burst, wheeled and murmured together. The tree had stopped dancing with the wind now, the breeze gone away to wander somewhere else. Its leaves were trembling to stillness. A car blared its horn.

Dan started, blinking. He couldn’t waste the whole day just standing and looking at things like this. He’d never get anything done if he didn’t move, anything at all.

Misplaced

I put down an idea somewhere, and now I can’t find it. I checked the bedroom already. I checked the living room. For heaven’s sake, I looked in the toilet bowl, but if it was there I already flushed it away. The stacks of paper on the desk and threatening to topple just as always and the books on the bookshelf lean rakishly against each other, nonchalant as they support the ones piled on top of them because I take them out and them am too lazy to put them back properly. The clothes on the floor haven’t moved for a week. The idea isn’t in any of those things. I almost remember it, almost, can very nearly taste it on my tongue. It’s no use. It’s gone. Wherever it is, maybe I’ll stumble upon it sometime in a year or two. It’ll have gotten quite dusty by then and I won’t even recognize it.

Perhaps I might have twisted it into the wires and chips in my phone or computer, pressed the buttons that spelled out the words that held my idea. If I did it’s lost in the silver tangle inside technology, because I can’t find it there either. Somewhere in cyberspace, where everything is a glowing orb or square or something that looks futuristic in a way that’s hard to picture. Somewhere there, my idea might be lurking. I won’t find it there. I absolutely just do not know where it is or what it was and it’s driving me bonkers. Really. You’d think that it would be okay, that if I plucked something from out my head it would be okay. My mind is a renewable resource. Ideas are still growing. That one was ready though, ripe and round and I was going to slice it up and let the juice drip just everywhere. It obviously wasn’t that ideas are fruit, that’s a crap idea. You see? The one idea gone is of course the best one. The ones that are left, the ones I can find, they’re mediocre ideas. The bottom of the barrel, more or less. My brain is the barrel. They get grimy down there, bent out of shape. You see me getting dragged away by my words? It’s better when there’s a good idea at the reins. Otherwise it’s just plain nonsense I’m spouting, spilling over, and it’s puddling on the floor filling up the room and we’re drowning in it. A good idea is a boat. Or a scuba suit. Something like that. A good idea means that you don’t drown, you swim, and without a good idea I’m suffocating on nonsense, flailing and splashing and I hope to God nobody can hear me because this is absolutely completely ridiculous. If you’re still following along then good on you, I’d have stopped listening to me by now. Good grief.

Anyway, I guess without an idea to write about or talk about or to sing out as loud as I can, I’m going to stop mumbling and go do something mindless to drown out the nonsense. Maybe watch TV or play one of those games on the computers that makes the sparkly dinging noises when I win. Those are nice. Annoying, but nice. Maybe tomorrow I’ll find the idea. It’ll show up eventually, right? What happens when you lose an idea? Does it wither, die, turn into a brown shriveled rotten thing and cause an odd smell but you don’t know where it’s coming from? Does it just disappear, poof, until you can only sort of make out the space where it used to be? I guess I’ll find out, won’t I, I’ll see what happens to me without that one good idea. Maybe nothing at all will happen. Yeah, that’s it. Probably nothing.

When Clara Meets the Man of Her Dreams

The walls are made of aluminum and Clara is sure that they will rattle with a hollow metallic ring if she brushes against them. She knows she is looking for somebody, but she doesn’t know who. When she steps her feet sink slightly into the floor and lift out of it with a slight sucking sound. Her skin tingles. The walls are rising higher around her like a maze and then they melt away into puddles at her feet and he’s there in front of her. She won’t be able to describe him later. His face is beautiful, but it is indistinct. Clara walks toward him and he reaches out a hand toward her. She brings her fingers to touch him and jumps a little as though it was an electric shock. He catches her up in his arms and kisses her, taking her breath away. She wakes up gasping.

Her bedroom is square and sharp after the soft edges of her sleep. She blinks bewildered eyes at the walls that only go up to the ceiling and the mess of clothes she left in the corner last night. The breeze from the window brings a musty smell into the room and a car alarm is going off in the distance in the relentless beep-beep-beep that she’s almost learned to tune out completely. Almost. What a lovely man, she thinks.

Clara falls asleep that night half-smiling, wondering if her brain will produce the same man again. She wakes in the middle of the night to stare at the white shape cast by the window and to feel a vague disappointment that he has not returned to her. She dozes again, skimming the surface of sleep and finally sinking beneath it. He is there, and he folds her into his embrace. When she wakes in the morning she can nearly feel the burning imprint of his lips on her skin. Her ears seem to know the sound of his voice, for all that it never sounds in daylight.

The next night, Clara does not see the man at all. She wakes in the morning and her stomach is filled with acid and disillusionment. Sleep is nothing but black when she has no visions of love. The night after, though, she falls asleep bitter and she wakes up delighted, for he came back to her. He’s in there somewhere, she thinks, huddled in her mind until she sleeps when he can come to her. The following night she knows she will see him, and there he is. When she wakes she is shivering from his hands, his tongue, his skin on her. She drifts into reveries during the day thinking of the softness of his hair in her fingers and the glint of light that dances in his eyes.

Clara begins to resent mornings. When she opens her eyes it means she no longer sees him. Her days are long and she counts the hours until she can be in bed again, with her lover again. It never comes soon enough. Everything bothers her in the daytime. The stairs are too steep and the muscles in her legs strain likes strings pulled too tight. Work seems to freeze time, and when she gets home she is impatient to be tired, for her body to soften enough that she can go to bed. She tries sleeping earlier and waking right before she has to leave for work, but it doesn’t work. She has trouble falling asleep early and when she succeeds she jerks from slumber in the middle of the night and cannot return to it. The rest of the night is a long gray block of longing.

Occasionally there is a night that she does not see him. On the mornings after uninterrupted sleep she wakes livid, angry at her brain that it did not produce her lover. She spends all the day in a quiver of irritation until she can rest her head and close her eyes to see him. She has started to notice the process of waking up and the sluggish drag out of the cling of sleep. Her eyes are still closed and her lover still before her, but she can feel the morning come. The light creeps into her room like a thief and robs her of her sleep. She bemoans its loss. Her days are dry and long. Her nights are too short and too beautiful. Clara lives to slip into sleep, where she is loved.