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.


A Forgotten Character

English: Picture of an open book, that does no...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Olivia was reading a book. Ferdinand had figured that much out, at least. It had been so difficult at first. Things had been happening. His life had been moving along for what seemed like the first time. Then everything was gone. Things kept happening. They just weren’t happening to him anymore.

After what must have been a year watching life happen to everybody else, he got impatient. The year had gone by so quickly – he didn’t remember most of it – but now time had slowed down again. He would wander the white hallways and look wistfully at the black lacy buildings, wishing he were in them instead of shut out. Everything seemed so well-crafted, in the way one relationship built up to the next.

He had been dating Amy, so briefly. She was having another romance now, one that took hold of her and didn’t let go. Ferdinand knew that he hadn’t been a very good boyfriend. He was sort of boring with her, forgot things, wasn’t attentive enough. The problem had been that he was so nervous. She was beautiful in the way that made you catch your breath when the light caught the angles of her face. Every once in a while he would just be staring at her, marveling at the shapes that made her, and she would catch him looking. Her face would turn confused, a little worried, and he would give a weak grin. He hadn’t been a very good boyfriend, but he had been so afraid. So in love with her, after two dates and a couple conversations over coffee. Nobody would have been able to tell that his quiet dullness was only wonder. Nevertheless he remembered it with the sweet ache that comes with memories of the beauty that could have happened.

Anyway, after that year he had set himself to figuring it out. Watching Amy speed through the early throes of love with her new guy was painful enough. He needed something to distract himself. Ferdinand had always been curious about their world. It was a blank, airy sort of world piled up from the white in daydreams that slid through the air. Sometimes it changed. People were always noticing little details – the edging on a coverlet, the sheen of silverware, the cluster of paintings on a wall. Other than those things, though, Ferdinand had noticed that there wasn’t much detail anywhere else. His own house was so faded and smooth that he sometimes wasn’t sure that it existed at all. When Amy had been there – the one time – things had brightened. The colors had spread, lines and curves traced themselves into the woodgrain of the coffee table, and the floor had sprouted smudges and scuffs. She’d been gone so long, and he couldn’t even see the coffee table anymore. Sometimes it felt as though there was a fog in his life, and once she left it had spread until everything was far and white and softly fading.

That couldn’t have been it, though. He was stuck in the margins of everything, watching life go on with other people while he nursed his broken heart in his pale timid house. It had occurred to him that going on a trip might break through his gloom, so he had. He’d gotten into a plane and flown over to a city in Italy, where there was some complex intrigue unfolding. Everyone was tense and passionate and there was a man with a mustache who wanted to kill a young couple. He had mostly been confused, and left early.

Something happened on the flight back home. He craned his neck to peer out the window, and through the scratched glass he could see something bigger and more terrifying than anything he had ever imagined. He was flying past huge bulky cliffs, square tops rising and falling. The colors changed, and there were lines carved up the side of each. When the plane banked to land, Ferdinand stared out the window again. What he saw there changed him forever. There was a person out the window. A giant. She was bigger than anything he’d ever seen, and she was holding something. It was white, and he couldn’t get a good look. Before he could squint to try to make out the designs on the white object, the plane dipped and dove straight into it. The page and its script had rushed at him until suddenly the world filled in around him and the plane was rolling toward the airport. As he was hurrying through the bewilderingly nondescript terminal, he figured it out.

Ferdinand got home, made himself a strong pot of coffee, and took to his sofa with a notebook. He reasoned it out, peppering what he wrote with arrows and circled words, until there splayed on the sheet of paper was an understanding of everything. It gave him a strange sense of pride, though of course he would never tell anyone.

In his imaginings, he had sometimes wondered what it would be like to be a story told by somebody else. He had never imagined that something like that was his life, his world. Nobody knew that their world was just structures made of the words in a book. Maybe he couldn’t even choose what to do – free will couldn’t really exist in a book. He had never thought that his life only amounted to being a fleeting secondary character.

Ferdinand sipped his coffee and pondered. He did that for a month while the idea settled into his mind, and then he put on real clothes for the first time in weeks and left the house. Amy might be written into a relationship, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t try to talk to her. It was hard to push into the black script city, but once he did he thought he could find her easily. There might be time for him to try to change things. He was going to try to change everything while Olivia read. He would do what he could and be glad of it, until she got to the end and closed the book.