1. September 8, 2011
Waking up on the observation deck of the Empire State Building. Fog has set in. Meeting a lady who asks “Do you know where you are?” Of course, he knows…he’s on a brief vacation in NYC. “Yes, but do you know where you are?” She puts a coin inside a binocular machine, and gestures for him to walk over. “You’re down there, somewhere, see if you can find yourself.”
2. Fog lifts. On a hunch he heads to Bryant Park. The sun is low in the sky. It is September. He apprehends someone familiar, hunched over one of the odd little chairs with tables (like desks from grade school) who is busy writing. “Do you know who I am?” asks the man, and of course, it is him. “I am stuck trying to finish this work. I have been for ten years. It is my sophomore effort.” The man rises abruptly and he tries to follow the man through the crush of the crowd back toward Times Square, but is unable to.
3. September 9, 2011
Bryant Park. He’s writing. In an hour, he will be getting on a shuttle to Newark airport to catch his plane. The vacation is at a close, and he never found himself again. He writes about the world he is returning to in Austin, TX where he is soon to be married, this having been his last bachelor vacation. He ruminates on what might have been, thinking back to the choice he made ten years ago to walk away from a promising career as a novelist.
4. June 20, 1999
Austin, TX. He’s fresh out of college and in love with the lady he’s moved down here with. The days are spent working at a forgettable office job, and the evenings and nights are spent finishing his first novel. There is all of the naivete of youth and improbability of dreams one has at that age. The lady is a bit of a nag, but he doesn’t mind, because he is full of romance and a heady future where anything and everything is possible.
5. September 9, 1999
Austin, TX. He’s engaged to be married, and they are picking out sites for the reception. He is also in the midst of taking classes to convert to her religion, Catholicism, after having all but disavowed religion when his younger brother died. Aside from dabbling in esoteric books about the Golden Dawn and Kundalini Serpents, he’s pretty much become an Atheist or at least an Agnostic. His novel, about all the unique tragedies and chaos that were particular to his own family, is almost finished.
6. January 15, 1999
Murphy’s Falls, Missouri. His little brother’s funeral, and all of the bizarre events in this week that were to change his destiny for good. The inexplicable nature of the death, as well as the choices that would send him and Olivia to Austin.
7. October 20, 1999
Austin, TX. Olivia has been supportive of his work on the novel only in the sense of giving him time to work on it instead of demanding attention from him. As to the quality of his writing, she has been all but mute, and frequently snaps at him to get over his little brother’s death and write about something else. The day of the wedding and his confirmation in the Catholic church are both drawing nigh. Then, he gets a call from an agent in NYC. He’s given a life choice, mostly at the behest of Olivia: come to NYC to meet the agent, sign the deal and begin a book tour promoting the book, or drop this dream and focus on raising a family. He’s just gotten a raise at the boring office job, and the advance from the publisher is so small that the steady income seems more sensibly worth it, with the family he and Olivia will be starting together.
8. September 9, 2011
He wakes up back on the plane in 2011, having arrived in Austin, TX. Nobody is there to greet him at the airport, as his current fiance is in Houston with her family, picking out a wedding dress and visiting with friends. He has no friends. He decides, on a whim, to drive out to the house he and Olivia had bought once married. He grows lethargic, lost in thoughts of what might have been had he taken a different turn, and walked away from the engagement to Olivia.
9. July 20, 2001. Everything is falling into place for the successful young writer–touted as the next great voice in American writing, mentioned as a probable heir to the greats like Faulkner, Steinbeck, Hemingway, Vonnegut. An adoring nightly audience of hangers-on and fans accompanies him as he moves effortlessly from chic restaurant to bar to club. If anyone owns this town, it is him.
10. November 20, 2006. He and Olivia are dividing up their stuff. After five years of stormy marriage, they are getting a divorce. She has met a wonderful hispter in a semi-famous band, and is moving to Brooklyn to live with him. They come across the box that holds the printed copy of his one finished novel. Olivia makes one of her typically, biting-but-sounds-innocuous comments about how much better it probably would have been for the both of them if he’d gone through with taking the agent’s offer.
11. June 20, 2010
He moves through a series of office jobs, some years successful, some not, typically losing them or getting stuck in dead ends when the drinking gets to be too much. One day, he finally steps into a church and meets his future second wife.
12. September 9, 2001
He’s in Bryant Park. He’s sitting at one of the desk/chairs, writing inside a composition pad, furiously trying to get his second novel right. Occasionally he is recognized by passer-by. Nothing is quite adding up to the expectations that will surely be there for his sophomore performance. For, he’s only had sweet life experiences since walking away from a respectable, middle-class life two years ago, and all of the boozing and carousing in the city seems to have been written by more masterful pens. A lady walks up to him. “I can help you finish it,” she says.
13. September 10, 2011
He wakes up and it’s Saturday, and his fiance is by his side. He enjoying his day off from the best-paying office job that he’s ever had. The trip to NYC weighs upon him heavily, and he can’t help but feeling as if he’s left behind a separate version of himself still living there and living large. The day is a perfect manifestation of the mundane–a trip to Target, a dinner at Chili’s, a movie from the cable TV. There is not a bad thing left in his life. All of the drinking, struggling, chaos and fighting days are gone. The economy continues to lag, but he has a respectable job. However, he can’t help but wonder if somewhere, out there, he is living a life of charm and magic, going to museums and shows every day, and rubbing elbows with famous people. He goes to sleep that night completely immersed in this notion.
14. September 10, 2001.
He is in Bryant Park again, standing before himself as he did ten years in the future (or, two days ago). He sees himself clearly now, standing out from the crowd, fashionably dressed, and reeking of artistic importance. “Oh, good, you’re here,” says himself of the past. “Maybe you can help me finish this.” His past self gets up from the desk chair and walks away. A composition pad filled with scribbles about big city romances and heavy drug use is left behind. He turns to an empty page, and begins writing something about all that’s happened with Olivia, and the office years, and this past NYC trip, and his fiance Kelly, and so on. He sees that his past self has left a messenger bag with a wallet and other composition pads.
15. September 11, 2011
He wakes up to the sound of the phone ringing. His agent has called him and told him that a private limo awaits him to take him to the airport to begin his book tour. He must catch an early plane from Newark to SF. Full of excitement at the prospect of beginning this new life, he has yet to begin paying attention to the clues about what year this is. Some people giggle at him as he takes his shoes off and puts them in the metal detector. Stopping at a news stand, he grabs a paper and a coffee, and waits until his plane is called. “Flight 93 to SFO is now boarding first class passengers and people with disabilities.” He is thrilled to be seated in first class, stretching and lightly dozing as the plane taxis down the runway and takes off. He finally sets about to read the paper and then sees what day it is. Frantically, he digs through his jacket pocket for the boarding pass stub, and sees what flight it is, and then it sinks in.
Jan 1, 2000 – Kevin is engaged for the first time
Sept 2000 – Kevin gets an offer from the publisher. He turns it down to keep is life with Olivia on track (for Olivia’s career) — where timeline diverges
Nov, 2000 – Kevin is married for the first time
Sept 2000 – Kevin breaks his engagement, and moves to New York, with only the small advancement from the publisher to live on.
Nov, 2000 – Kevin’s novel is in all of the bookstores, movie offers, royalties roll in.
You wake up on the 86th floor of the Empire State Building. A late afternoon fog has snuck into the city, catching tourists and locals alike by surprise. The elevator operators and ticket takers had urged everyone to come back on another day, even offering those who’d already purchased their tickets the opportunity to return when the city was sunny and visibility extended past a dozen city blocks.
The mists that now shroud many parts of the city have created a blanket of sorts for the bone-weary traveler. You are him.
On this trip, you’ve insisted on not taking any public transportation, foregoing the claustrophobic subway system in favor of the crush of hurried crowds, until each joint below your waist has taken on its own screaming, insistent voice. You aren’t exactly sure why you’ve avoided the subways and the buses–even eschewing a helpful cab or two. Other than the necessary non-stop flight, and the shuttle to the hotel, you’ve insisted on walking the entire time. Any other day of this journey, and you would have probably avoided the 86-floor elevator ride. Even the plane ride seemed a bit oppressive. You used to not be the least bit scared to hop on a plane to anywhere, but this flight felt smothering.
The blanket of fog, though, was not a smothering one, but a soothing vapor of manna, better than the three ibuprofen you downed at the drinking fountain below.
On a whim you decided to come up here. You weren’t going to come up here this time, because you’d “already done all that tourist stuff,” and this was supposed to be a trip to purge demons, appreciate art, and leave you completely ready to embrace the domesticated life that was coming your way in a few short months.
A woman catches your eye and smiles. Her eyes flash a light color–like hazel, only it seems almost orange, or maybe green. In this foggy late September afternoon, eye color is hard to determine. You are just startled by the brightness of her eyes on a face of olive, Middle-Eastern skin, slightly covered by black bangs that cascade onto her shoulders. She’s wearing a brown leather jacket, and a pair of dark, tight-fitting jeans. Having a city romance on your last bachelor vacation is the furthest from your mind.
You wouldn’t even know what to say to someone like this. Anything that comes to mind would likely bore her or make her think you were some kind of Midwestern half-wit, barely capable of keeping himself together in the big city.
You move in the opposite direction from her, and walk around to face the southern part of the island, up from where you’ve just walked. A sunny day from your past pops into your head. There is an old photograph somewhere, taken when you came here last in college with your punk rock sidekick Jerry. It was some time in July of 1997, and the two of you swore you’d come back and conquer this city once you graduated and had a little money saved. You can still see the Twin Towers standing, and barges and ferries smoking in the water.
On this trip, you made a point to walk all the way down to Katz’s Deli, but decided to avoid Ground Zero–was some hole in the ground really worth your time?
“Do you know where you are?” she asks in a voice that sooths and doesn’t startle you.
You turn and it is the woman in the brown leather jacket.
“Of course,” you mutter, not wanting to get caught up in whatever clever game of attraction or manipulation she wants to play.
“But do you really know where you are anymore, Kevin?” she asks. “Come with me.”
“How do you know my name!?” you cry.
“Shh. Just come over here to the north side.”
She puts some quarters in a pair of observation deck binoculars, and motions you to come to her side. They are pointed and focused on nearby Bryant Park, where just yesterday evening you’d stumbled upon some lovely opera singers, understudies of Met performers, giving anyone who walked by a free hour of ear candy.
“What of it?” you ask.
“You are down there, right now, Kevin,” she says. “Why don’t you go see what I’m talking about?”
“Who the hell are you?” you demand, but she is gone, slipping back into the building and somehow finding her way onto the next elevator car down before you have a chance to say anything more to her.
You put your face back to the binoculars, and just see trees and buildings. A few ants of people and tiny little cars. The purchased viewing session expires, and you can see that the city is already growing bright again with a setting fall sun as the fog moves on inland.
An odd sensation washes over you, and gives the woman’s strange words some plausibility. Distant memories of choices that were made ten years ago are now starting to come forth in your head, as if the fog is revealing the past as it reveals more buildings down below.
In fact, the sensation has accompanied you this entire trip, though you hadn’t really come to terms with what it was, or what was prompting it. You’d told everyone back in the office that this was a final “hurrah” of bachelorhood–though Kelly had known since she met you that you’d been wanting to have this kind of vacation. You weren’t the kind of man who needed to go out and find some stranger to tempt fate with, possibly catching an STD or having her cling in some kind of Fatal Attraction horror brought to life.
The demons you were trying to purge, trying to get out of your system were ones who’d first come to life during that NYC vacation of 1997 with Jerry, when the two of you with uncut hair and punk rock t-shirts had flown here to scope the place out and imagine how you’d launch your grand musical careers as punk rock-techno-dj types. The talk had been of wanting to live like Andy Warhol or Lou Reed, while making music like Ministry or Moby.
A couple of years later, having shorn your woolly hair and purchased knit polo shirts, your dream had shifted to one of finding fame by way of the Great American Novel, getting published and then all of the ensuing late night jaunts to bars and clubs with people that mattered. The dream morphed as such about the same time that Jerry ran off to Indiana, madly in love with a Goth chick he met in an AOL chat room, and you met Olivia.
A threat of rain has scared away tonight’s free Bryant Park performance. All of the jazz musicians are packing up their instruments, and tearing down the sound equipment. Most people have left, or gone over to the small, fenced-in area where alcohol can be consumed. Some giggly college tourists from Europe and Asia seem thrilled about possibly getting wet, and mill about sipping coffee, unperturbed by such a threat.
One man with dark hair and a black duster sits hunched over his tiny composition pad, which is placed on a little folding platform attached to many of the chairs in the park. He looks as if he’s sitting at a third-grader’s desk, furiously scribbling and erasing in an effort to bring forth some kind of coherent thought that will placate whatever ails him.
He looks incredibly familiar–can’t be more than twenty-three or twenty-four, with a face lined only by the clenching and scowling of the moment.
“Do I know you?” you ask him, feeling oddly compelled to ask this question of a total stranger in a city where you know you know no one.
“Hmmm. Yes, of course you do.”
And, you can plainly see now, that you are he and he is you, but maybe not precisely so.
“A woman told me that I would find myself here. And, I guess I have. So, why are you so full of angst? You appear to be fairly well off, and you are living in one of the greatest cities of the world. I’ve never been able to return for even a small vacation like this one since college.”
“Oh, but you have. And you will, again and again. But, I need you to help me finish my book.”
“What is it about?”
“Ah…I’m not sure. I started writing it ten years ago, you see, but I have never finished it. Something about life only providing me with enough experiences to write one great novel, and that’s it. Each day, I come here and start trying to write it again, and each day, something happens and it’s never finished.”
You sense something amiss about this manifestation of yourself, but you are unable to put your finger on what it is.
Clouds have now blotted out the sun, and thunder is crashing through the city. A wind has whipped up furiously, and a man is kicking everyone out of the area where they drink beer. What strange weather! You think, even though you’ve lived for over ten years in a city where strange weather happens all the time.
You turn your gaze back to the desk/chair where the man was sitting and he’s now gone, and a drop or two hits your face. It’s time to find shelter in some generic deli or coffee shop before you get completely drenched.
“Perhaps it was all a vivid dream as I slept in this park or nodded off while on the observation deck of the Empire State Building,” you write, back at the park the next morning awaiting your shuttle to arrive. Your backpack is stuffed with all of your travel items, and you’ve checked out of a nearby hotel–a shabby rotting Gothic structure with no hot water.
However, you hadn’t come here this past week to sleep, but to spend most of your time wandering around outside your musty room with packing tape covering leaky pipes.
“I wanted some kind of mystery to accompany me on this journey, with magic and meaning injected into my being here. I wanted closure on the end of the old era, the era of losing my little brother, meeting and marrying, then divorcing Olivia. Kelly is part of the new era, and I am properly ready to put aside those time-worn yearnings for a kind of Me that will never be.”
You decide that the woman on the observation deck, and the strange manifestation of yourself must all be some kind of attempt by the brain to integrate the past that was with the past that was merely dreamed.
In less than an hour, the shuttle will arrive to take you to Newark, and you may spend decades of your life raising children and growing old with Kelly in Austin before you ever return to this city. You’ve told the shuttle service to pick you up here, in hopes that you might catch a glimpse of the shade of you that never was, but he doesn’t return today to begin again his attempt to write his second novel.
As the plane begins to taxi from the gate, you realize just how exhausted you are, how sore every muscle in your body is, and how unforgiving every aging join below your waste has become. You slide out one of the all-natural sleeping aids that are folded up in a napkin inside your jacket pocket, and wash it down with a bottle of water from the gift store near the gate.
Within minutes, you’ve shed all connection with the present, and you are standing inside the first apartment you rented with Olivia when you moved to Austin.
“The guy upstairs sure creaks around a lot,” she says, as she rummages through the fridge. “Did you drink all the beer?”
“There’s a grocery store across the street, Hon,” you reply, still immune to the constant complaints and picking at you.
“You don’t have to tell me that,” she sniffs, turning her words into more of a snarl, “I just like to know I have at least one beer waiting for me when I come home, okay?”
“I can go get more,” you say, happy to have a reason to get out of the house for awhile.
“I don’t really want any now,” she says, “I’m just saying, I like to know that one is there if I want it. I think I’m going to go out this evening with some friends I just met, you can come if you like.”
“I thought we were going to start unpacking our boxes.”
“It’s Friday night, Kevin. This stuff can wait. Wow, the guy upstairs sure is loud.”
“I’m going to get some beer, anyway. I think I’m going to stay home and work on my novel. I’m like, almost halfway through.”
“Well, whatever. When are you going to let me read some of it, anyway?”
You are not nearly as gun shy of her snide little critiques of just about everything as you one day will be. Olivia has a way of making it clear that just about everything that she didn’t think of first is inferior to her own opinions and intellect.
“I can let you read some of it now, if you like, but the printer isn’t unpacked yet. I think it needs new ink, anyway.”
“Yeah, I forgot to add that to our list. We are probably going to spend, like five hours shopping tomorrow to buy everything we’re going to need.”
“We should go to the pet supply store. Maybe they have some dogs up for adoption out there.”
“Kevin, really! We haven’t even gotten unpacked yet. Let’s hold off until we get a little more settled in, okay?”
You are already halfway out the door, because you are eagerly anticipating an evening without Olivia, who has grown strangely cold since the two of you moved down here. The past month has seen you both staying in your Aunt and Uncle’s guest bedroom, and not connecting like you did back in Kansas City.
The novel is going to be your ticket to a much more fabulous kind of life. Olivia will be all fine and good to pal around with for the next few years, and Austin is a great city to try out after living most of your life in a small town, but you are really the sort of person who needs to be living in a much more glamorous city, among fast-paced, beautiful artsy people.
The novel begins with the morning of that summer day in 1984 when your dad kicked your oldest brother out of the house. You and your other brothers, Gus and Roy, are playing in the sandbox. Gus is fifteen, and really too old to be hanging out with an eight and two year old, but he’s just being nice until his friend Larry calls him up to go fishing. Gary, the oldest, is always up in his room, destroying his old remote-controlled cars and other electronic items he’s pilfered from the family.
Gary has stepped outside and is aimlessly loafing around the back door. Mom is busy hanging clean laundry out to dry on the clothes line.
Gary’s friend Eric Tinsley has pulled into the driveway in his little yellow Toyota pickup truck.
“Gary!” you cry, because you are a people pleaser at that age, and want nothing more than to impress your older brother, “Gary, Eric Tinsley’s here.”
“You are not going anywhere with him,” snaps your mom.
“I’m seventeen, Mom. I can do as I please. I’m a rebel, you know.”
“Eric Tinsley smokes marijuana cigarettes.”
“Goddamn it, Mom. I’m going to get in that truck and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.”
“Don’t you swear at me, Mister,” cries your Mom.
She screams, because Gary slaps her, and then she runs into the house to call your Dad, who is working in an office a half hour away. She runs back out and tells Eric Tinsley to get off her property, and that her husband is coming home real quick.
But, you are actually much further into the novel now, and so you stop reading about that story, though it’s a good one–the first real fracture that takes place in your family, and full of cursing, and a tea jar and a gun.
You are writing now about your own rebellious years–especially the year that started with you being seventeen, too. It doesn’t quite occur to you at first that with your little black Chevy S-10, mullet haircut and propensity to seek out anything and everything you could smoke, drink or otherwise ingest, that there is somehow a connection between the way you behaved at seventeen, and the way your oldest brother did.
He was a rebel who read Louis L’Amour novels, and you were very much determined to do the same. Your father and every other adult in the hick town of Murphy’s Falls were all a bunch of asshole losers, and had no idea what you were going through. While Gary favored Hank WilLs Jr., you tended to favor the Ramones and Pantera.
You are trying to write the scene in the novel where your great-grandmother, who was moved up to the Kansas City area after your uncle was caught stealing all of her social security money and she was unable to pay to stay at the nursing home, is now gasping her last breaths of air while your mom drives to the hospital every night to cry over her. You are supposed to be going with her, and being a good, supportive son, but damnit, you are a rebel with your first serious girlfriend, and she wants to go drink wine coolers with her friend Joleen and some other scumbags in a parking lot somewhere.
However, you’ve now had beer number eight from the twelve pack, and you are losing concentration. The dialogue isn’t coming to you anymore, and the words read more like the outline for a book than a book that someone would want to read. So, you go plop down on the sofa and see what’s on cable television that night. After beer ten, you decide that you will be generous and leave Olivia two beers, and crash into a snoring, messy slumber.
You wake up on a plane that is languidly circling the airport. It feels like you have been in the air forever, listening to the drone of the plane’s engines and the whir of the fans that deliver the recycled air. Somewhere below, Kelly Amherst is waiting for you patiently to return inside your one-bedroom apartment in Northwest Austin.
If it wasn’t for that recycled air (which so often makes you sick for days following a trip), you’d be completely mad with claustrophobia, jammed in the econo-class section between men twice your size who are quite liberal with splaying their limbs into your space.
Sometimes, you think that hell must be simply getting stuck forever in a segment of Time like this one–any of a million little moments in life where you have to wait seemingly forever. Zeno’s Paradox is made manifest in hell: infinity caused by an endless halving of the time required for one moment to move to the next.
An hour later, Kelly is rolling over, spitting up sleep drool, and lazily mouthing a kiss.
“Hi Hon,” she mutters sleepily. “How was New York?”
“Is there any beer left in the fridge?”
“I’m going to have one to smooth out my frayed travel nerves, and then I will join you.”
You think back for a moment, musing over your dream/memory of some twelve years ago. The novel you were hell bent on finishing that summer of 1999 sits copied on a few jump drives, as well as the hard drive of your old laptop. You’ve long since shredded the printed copy you kept, as well as the letter the agent in New York sent you from the publisher.
For some reason, you decide to fire up the old laptop and scroll through the manuscript while you sip your beer.
“What’s this?” murmurs a drowsy voice behind you.
You jump ever so slightly, and then regain your composure.
“Just something I wrote a long time ago.”
“I didn’t know you ever wrote anything.”
“I was an English major in college, with an emphasis on Creative Writing. I wrote a few things.”
“Why did you quit?”
“Just got busy with life, I guess.”
“Can I read something you wrote some time?”
You smile at your lovely fiance. “It’s really not that good.”
“I don’t care.”
“Maybe so. Let’s go to bed now, shall we?”
You wake up in a room in the Hyatt Regency Hotel, overlooking the Crown Center in Kansas City, Missouri. It has been one year since you and Olivia first kissed, that New Year’s Eve of getting snowed in to her charming, steam-heated apartment near Westport.
You’ve been working on composing the outline for your speech all of the way up to Missouri. While visiting her divorced parents during the past week, you almost worked up the nerve to tell them what you were going to do. Her father, a frightening man who looks like Hank WilLs Jr and was always shouting at you to talk more, finally wore down what little resolve you had. You decided you would just pop the question when the two of you were back in Kansas City, and be done with it.
After all, it was almost the 21st Century, and Olivia prided herself on being a very post-modern, fully-liberated feminist female.
“Olivia, how about you join me by the window?” you say, after the two of you have finished a rather fumbling, abortive love-making session.
You are wearing little heart-patterned boxers that she gave you for Christmas. While she was in the bathroom cleaning up, you snuck in some chocolates, champagne and flowers that you’d asked room service to bring up and leave outside the door.
“What is this?” cries Olivia, sounding almost alarmed.
“Olivia, please have a seat. There are some things I’d like to tell you.”
“Oh, all these chocolates have nuts in them, I hate chocolates with nuts in them.” She has completely ignored your request, and is rummaging through the flowers and chocolates.
You put your arms around her. “Sweetie, I really do have some things I would like to tell you. I can send these back and order some more. Can you sit down here, please?”
“I’m practically buck naked, and it’s freezing by this window. Can people see me?”
“Okay, what do you want? You aren’t going to drink up all of this champagne, are you?”
“Olivia,” you begin, now that she’s seated and is mostly paying attention to you. “Remember when we were getting off the interstate this afternoon, and I almost swerved into the path of that big rig, and you grabbed my arm?”
“Well, I used to think maybe I had some kind of guardian angel watching over me, to help me not end up in a bad accident.” You are making a thinly-veiled reference to the horrible car accident that killed your little brother last Februrary.
“Oh, Kevin, please, when are you going to get past this?” she snarls.
You push on. “But, now I know I have a wonderful angel here on earth. Someone I want…”
“To spend the rest of my life with, to be there by my side…and…” you are rapidly losing your train of thought as you fumble your grandmother’s heirloom ring out of the coat you’d strategically placed on your chair.
Olivia’s eyes are growing wide with alarm.
You drop to one knee, and proffer the ring, quickly sliding it on her cold finger. “Olivia Gruene, will you marry me?”
She sprays out a mist of breath she’d been holding in since she said “Gawd.”
“So, I’m your angel, huh?”
“I meant it to be, ah, romantic, and…”
“Sure, I’ll marry you. You did talk to my parents about this, already?”
“Uh, I intended to, but was having a hard time finding the right opportunity.”
“Well, my dad’s not going to like that, but, whatever. No man is the boss of me.”
“How about we crack open the champagne to celebrate, huh?” You start to fumble with the aluminum foil wrapper.
“Here, let me do it.” Olivia neatly pops the cork, and together, the two of you enjoy watching the New Year’s Eve celebrations on cable television, while outside, braver souls carouse in restaurants and clubs all around the hotel.
Room service brings up a bottle of Cabernet, Olivia’s favorite, and a chocolate mousse to replace the unwanted nut-filled chocolate candies. You get as drunk as you can, and leave enough for Olivia to keep her happy.
You wake up, and it is two months until the day of your wedding. Kelly belches a morning-breath kiss onto your face, and then rolls over to sleep some more. You make yourself an espresso using the machine someone has already purchased from your registry, and sit down at your old laptop to compose your thoughts.
Something is picking away at your brain. You left behind something or someone back in New York, this much is certain.
During most of the time you were there, you saw nothing but affirmation that you’d missed nothing by deciding all those years ago to marry Olivia instead of following your dream to NYC. The city was too packed, too expensive, and in too much of a hurry. Within a few square miles, everyone was always rushing from one activity to the next. Nobody, except other tourists, seemed to be capable of stopping and appreciating all there was to offer the senses.
You’d had some good years with Olivia, right?
“You devoted three chapters of your novel to his death, and you made me sound like such a bitch!” she snaps, slamming down the last third of the stack of the first draft you’ve printed her to read. “And, I can’t believe you were an English major, too. It’s full of spelling mistakes, bad grammar, and passages that completely wander from the central plot theme, whatever that’s supposed to be.”
“Did you enjoy reading it, though, and do you think it has any chance of getting published?”
“Well, thanks for the honest feedback. Much appreciated. What are you doing this evening?”
“My friend Gloria and me are going to Stubb’s to see Adam play. I guess you can come if you like, but I don’t think you would like his music.”
“Remind me again who Adam is, and what his music sounds like?”
“It’s sort of like Rush, but grungier and more free form. And, there are no vocals. Oh, and you know Adam. You met him at my company Christmas party.”
It’s been two and a half months since you and Olivia have gotten engaged. You had been mulling over a dinner at Romeo’s, with a horse and carriage ride afterward. But, she’d decided that such activities were lame.
“I’ve been to Romeo’s like three times with Gloria. Can’t we go somewhere else if we are going out to eat tonight? Besides, I don’t really feel like doing something so boring. And, a carriage ride sounds incredibly cold and kind of dangerous.”
She’d been quick to remind you that she hated carnations, though you swore you remembered her telling you they were her favorite flowers. And, the florist had promised a box of chocolates to be delivered with them that contained no nuts, but…
“Why did you get me chocolates with nuts in them?” she demanded, throwing the box down. “Gawd, Valentine’s Day is so over-rated and commercial, anyway.”
This was all in the first ten minutes of her arriving home, as you’d had the flowers and chocolates delivered to her workplace. She’d bought a generic card from the grocery store on the way home, signing it with a dying red pen scrounged from her glovebox.
Now, you were mulling whether or not to see the DynoSoars, as Adam’s band was evidently called. You weren’t by nature a very romantic person yourself, but felt like your engagement was already in trouble if the two of you couldn’t spend Valentine’s Day evening together.
You kind of remembered Adam–a gawky, boyishly handsome dude wearing a brown corduroy sport jacket, rubbing a few sprouts of stubble that had been left to wither in an abortive attempt at a full beard. He smiled a lot at the ladies, and scowled a lot at you. What a dick, you thought, why would I want to go see this douchebag that Olivia keeps raving about?
“Olivia,” you begin, trying to artfully communicate just how disappointed with her you are without setting her off, “Can’t we at least spend Valentine’s Day together? I mean, you are always going out with Gloria and your friends from work, and you’ve probably already seen Adam play before, right?”
“Stop making generalizations!” she snapped, “If you wanted a girly girl to be your wife, you should have asked one to marry you. I’m not changing for you or no man, and I will do as I please every night of the week. You probably will just get drunk and be unable to perform, anyway.”
“Look,” you try one last time, “I didn’t mean to make generalizations. It just seems like we were a lot more romantic and…together as a couple this time last year.”
“You don’t ever want to have fun, Kevin,” said Olivia, “And, I was mostly just trying to help you get over Roy’s death. You’ve been with me long enough now to know who I am. I’m going, that’s Gloria in our driveway. Do you want to come or not?”
“It’s been a long day for me at the office, and I have a headache. Maybe some other time.”
Truth is, you do have a headache from a long day at the office. You work at a company that sells corporate communications and training materials to big pharmaceutical companies, IT companies, banks, and other large organizations that spend a lot of money communicating with and training their employees. You proofread hundreds of pages of materials all day long, and hate coming home and trying to write.
If you attempt to write with your proofreader’s eyes open, then your fiction starts to read like business writing. If you attempt to free everything up, and let the words take you where they will, then your prose wanders, becomes full of imprecise meaning, and looks like a high school student trying to imitate James Joyce.
“But, do you really think that three chapters is too much to devote to the worst thing that ever happened to me?” you ask her, as she’s walking out the door.
“Well, meeting me and beginning our relationship is all tied up in those three chapters–maybe you could draw that out a little more.”
You hop in your car ten minutes after they do, and head for the liquor store. The hippy clerk behind the counter won’t sell to you, seeing your bloodshot proofreader’s eyes, and assuming you are already messed up. You make a mental note to never patronize that store again, and head to the next one, a brand new discount liquor warehouse kind of place, with thirty different kinds of affordable tequila. You are going to get messed up, and revise the ending to the novel.
The last few pages are meant to be a dramatic goodbye to Missouri, and all of the cold dark things that happened there, but somehow they are still leaving you unsatisfied.
“My parents came to Ophelia’s house to say goodbye. We’d already loaded all of my stuff into the fifteen footer that morning, in between bursts of Missouri spring showers. A tornado watch was in effect. Naturally, we were trying to make our Midwest getaway during the worst part of tornado season, while driving straight down tornado alley. It was certainly a symbolic temptation of God.
God, you thought, if there is such an entity. I mean, what kind of all-powerful, all-loving deity would have allowed such a thing to happen to sweet young Roy?
‘You all be safe,” said my dad, a lion now beat down to a lamb by the loss of two sons and his wife’s perennial cancer.
‘We will be flying down to visit you soon,’ said my mom.
I felt the most horrible mixture of emotions I probably will ever feel in my entire life. Guilt, for leaving them behind and guilt for Roy dying in the unsafe pickup truck I forfeited when I got my DWI. Excitement at leaving Missouri for sunny Austin, Texas with the love of my life, and the inexplicable magic only those who are on the sunny side of thirty can feel. Anger at Missouri, for all that she’d wrought upon my family and me–the town of Murphy’s Falls with its redneck bullies, the deaths and cancer, and the winters of never ending black cold that left even the warmest hearts frozen solid until at least July.
A small patter of rain was hitting the U-Haul truck, as Olivia drove us away. A brief vision of my dad swept through my mind: the one of him charging home to grab the jar full of steeping tea to throw at Gus. The angry father who had screamed at me so many adolescent nights while I tried so hard to follow in Gus’s footsteps. The vision was replaced by a much smaller, grayer, slumped over figure, hugging his sick wife, and full of only enough fire to keep the tidal waves grief’s fathomless ocean from washing over him completely.
I turned to face the west, and there was nothing but sunshine ahead.”
You are mostly pleased with it, though you hadn’t really intended the novel to be so much about your father, or paint a picture of your parents that was so feeble and helpless. They are strong people, and they are still very much alive, and making plans for retirement down here. It was supposed to illustrate a side of yourself you continue to wrestle with–that of abandoning them, even as they urged you to begin a happy new life and become the upstanding professional young man who would soon be making them grandbabies.
The tequila is so good, that you soon don’t need any lime or soda to cut it. Within an hour, you are blacked out on the sofa staring at random bad Monday night television.
You wake up to the touch of loving hands upon your shoulders, and lips are soon caressing your neck.
“What are you looking at?” asks Kelly, and you jerk yourself back to 2011.
“Oh, just some of my old writing. Thinking again about the novel I never quite finished.”
“Mmm. let’s make love…” she purrs.
You don’t feel very romantic or sexy or horny, or even interested in a sharp burst of selfish pleasure. But, you also want to oblige her because she is still so very hungry for it every morning.
An image of you getting Kelly pregnant crosses your mind. The two of you have stopped using condoms for months now, and you never really paid much attention to what birth control she used. Of course, you would be okay with having a child so early in the marriage, even though neither of you is planning for it.
Afterward, you lay close to Kelly, and can’t help but think of six desperate years of swinging from trying to get pregnant with Olivia, to simply trying to get yourself to perform consistently, and the final awful three months of the end of the marriage, when she was pregnant with Adam Lorry’s baby.
“What’s on your mind?” she whispers.
“Oh, I’m still a little sleepy. Maybe we should go get some coffee.”
Kelly Amherst is everything Olivia should have been. She is the kind of woman that makes it worth accepting another mediocre office job, for the sake of raising a family, because she lacks that misplaced sense of entitlement and selfishness so many people your age and younger seem to have these days.
In a few years, you will have saved up enough money to buy your first home together, and begin a family in a polite Austin suburb like Pflugerville or Round Rock. Your kids will be solid B+ students, never finding themselves among the misfits of the school, but probably never particularly popular, given the kind of genes they will inherit and personalities that will raise them.
All of this makes you feel very empty inside, as if there were before your NYC trip a little flame of the great still burning inside of you, and perhaps that strange woman and alternate version of yourself you saw on the last day were but vividly daydreamed manifestations of that flame.
At any rate, it’s gone now, and Kelly and you are in the car to drive up to IKEA and Target to shop for some random household things before heading over to a strip-mall chain restaurant to eat. Such are your Saturdays now.
You wake up inside a Catholic initiation class, listening to a short, priestlike man provide theology for dummies to a group of adults. Most of them are like you, future spouses of Catholics, who have obligingly agreed to go through the ritual of joining the church to get married there.
Because you are intent on making it through with as little pain as possible, you’ve remained mostly mute as the man tries to articulate why the Catholic church even needs to exist in the face of Jesus never mentioning anything about the necessity of things like Popes and Cardinals and Bishops and purgatory and hanging crucifixes around people’s necks.
A very cute Middle Eastern lady, probably four or five years younger than you, is sitting next to you. At each class, the two of you have smiled a lot at each other, but your own shyness and insistence upon being faithful to Olivia have prevented you from saying a word to her.
But, tonight, you’ve finally decided that the tedium of the class is too overwhelming, and want so badly to connect with someone here who might possibly sympathize with what you are going through.
“Are you enjoying the class?” you ask her as it ends and everyone gets up.
“Yes, yes, very much so. I think Catholic religion is wonderful. So much pain and beauty. And you?”
“Oh, sure. It’s kind of neat, I guess. I mean, I think everyone should be able to believe whatever they like, and if it makes my fiance happy…” you aren’t sure why you let that slip out.
Her eyes light up, and she nods fervently. “Yes, yes, I know what you mean. I love my fiance very much. I am, what you say? Secular Muslim, and I am not very religious. But, it makes him very happy, so it makes me happy.”
“How did you meet?”
“He’s a business partner of my father’s. I grew up in New York mostly, but he had an opportunity to invest in a dot-com here in Austin, and be a part of starting up the business. So, we came here.”
“Ah…yes. I bet Austin is very different from New York, huh?”
“Oh, yes. Very much. But, I like it. I like the hot summers and friendly people. I just wish I wasn’t mistaken for…being Mexican so much. You know? My family is Persian.”
“But, I bet you love Mexican food, yes?” you say, grappling for something more to talk about.
“It’s okay…what about you, are you from Austin?”
“No, Kansas City. My fiance and I went to school there, and met during our senior year at the university. I like it down here, though. I would never want to live some place with a winter again.”
“Not me. I love winter in New York. There is some kind of magic about it.”
You smile, and say goodbye. You will probably not get another chance to talk to her, as this was the final class in the series. In a few weeks you all will go through a very formal process of confirmation and acceptance into the church, and then, like most Catholics (including Olivia), you will only come to church twice a year outside of weddings and funerals.
“You have mail from New York,” says Olivia when you arrive home.
“Really? It’s from the agency I sent the manuscript to.” You tear it open.
“Listen to this, Olivia, they like my book, and are going to start shopping around for a publisher.”
“I mean, great news. That’s wonderful news, Kevin. Congratulations!”
“Shall we celebrate? We should celebrate. Let’s go eat somewhere.”
“I’m heating up my dinner, Kevin. It’s been a long day. Besides, we should really start thinking about saving some money. Have you contacted the travel agent about booking the honeymoon, yet?”
“Uh, no. But, I was going to get to that. Soon. Well, how about we have some special drinks? Come on, I’ll use what’s left of this tequilla to make some kind of slurpy, tasty stuff.”
“That’s okay, Kevin. I don’t really feel like drinking, but maybe I’ll do a toast with my glass of skim milk to your success.”
Olivia plops down in front of the television to watch must-see TV, and tunes you out for the rest of the evening. You want so badly to have someone to share your excitement with, but Olivia snarls at you if you interrupt her. She gets up during the commercials to go surf the net. It’s evenings like these that you wish you had a dog or a cat.
“Careful, Hon,” says Kelly, as she grabs your arm and rouses you from daydreaming about the past. “You just missed the exit for IKEA.”
“Shit,” you mutter, and hit the gas to speed down to the next exit and make a U.
“What were you thinking about?” she asks, gently.
“Oh, nothing. I have a bunch of work on my plate right now–I’m responsible for preparing two new training modules by the end of Q3, and here it is September.”
“But, you’re mostly done with them, right?”
“Not really. I’m still waiting on the technical writing team to revise the content, because the client was mostly unhappy with it. My boss knows it wasn’t really my fault, and has cut me some slack, but I still would like to have it wrapped up by our wedding.”
“Of course. Well, it’s Saturday, so let’s think about enjoying this time we get to spend together, okay?”
“Sure. You were talking about–all-inclusive Caribbean beach packages versus taking a cruise somewhere?”
“Right. One of my girlfriends, Tanya, said that she and her husband took a cruise that included some beach destinations, and had the time of their lives. The food was great, the entertainment spectacular, and the honeymoon was one of the best vacations either of them had ever taken.”
“Yeah, a cruise sounds nice, but where do you go to get away from people, or, get away from the cruise? You’re just sort of…stuck there, until it all ends.”
“You go to your room, silly, and make love…” she puts her arms around you, and plants a kiss, but you are already hackling up with the stress involved in finding parking at IKEA on a Saturday, and the impending process of running the store’s brutal labyrinth. It is the exquisite realization of the suburban consumer’s masochism. The trick, you found, was to just take Kelly’s hand, and kind of zone out while you zombied your way through the store.
“I have wonderful news!” cries Olivia into the phone. It is 3:30 PM, and you are dozing over a dozen training manuals that have hit your desk all at once for proofing.
“Oh, yeah. It must be amazing, if you’re calling me at work.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” she demands. “I call you all the time at work. Just last month, I called you and we went to have lunch together.”
“What’s the good news, Olivia?” you ask, crossing your fingers that she isn’t pregnant. You highly doubt she’s pregnant, as the two of you haven’t finished the act in almost a month, and you are guessing that when that day comes, her announcement will be a solemn, tortured affair, full of lots of innuendo that you are mostly guilty for getting her knocked up.
“I just got a huge promotion. I’m a Project Manager, now!”
“Kevin, come celebrate with us.”
“Yes, Gloria, Adam and some of my other team members are all taking me out to celebrate! I think we’re going to Maudie’s. I’ll call you back and let you know.”
You have a severe headache from work, and Olivia is like a fifteen-year old girl on her birthday. The margaritas aren’t working fast enough.
“Careful, Kevin,” says Olivia as you order a third one, “I want you to be the designated driver tonight.”
Olivia and her coworkers talk for two hours non-stop about their workplace, a medium-sized cookbook publishing house, full of gossip and complaining and mirth.
“Kevin, you haven’t said a word all night,” smirks Adam. You’d like to punch him in the face, or take a razor to that boy fuzz, not letting up in the least with your pressure when the razor hits his skin.
“Sorry, I’ve had a long day proofing.”
“Kevin, you’re a proofer?” asks Adam incredulously, “I’m a proofer, too!” Of course, you know this, and everyone knows you know this. “I guess I’ll be working for your future wife soon!”
Adam locks eyes with Olivia, and they smile that mellow, “sex eyes” smile that two people give each other when their hormones have become finely tuned to flow along the same wavelength. You remember smiling at Olivia this way back in college, and when you first started dating in Kansas City.
“Oh look, Kevin, you have something from New York,” says Olivia, as she tosses you the letter along with a few of your credit card bills. She plops down on the sofa and turns the TV on, abruptly tuning you out.
“Oh my God!” you cry. “Read it!”
She reads it. Her face scowls a bit and slackens. “So, your agent may have found a publisher?”
“Read it again,” you say, but know that she won’t. “It says that she’s found a publisher, and they are ready to offer me an advancement: $5,000. All I have to do is fly to New York next month, sign the contract, and make appearances at bookstores in the area for the rest of the year. This is huge.”
“Um, Kevin, are you forgetting something?”
“I know we’re getting married in November. I’m sure they can work around that.”
“But, I’m going to need you here. My career is starting to take off. Besides, $5000 isn’t that much money. We need your second income to survive as a family unit. I can’t afford to support you while you go gallivanting off to New York.”
“But, Olivia, this is my dream. I’ve spent over the past year working on this, and working to bring this to fruition. Surely there can be a way we can both realize our dreams together. I’ll be back in Austin once the initial book tour is over, and besides, look at the potential. What if it becomes a best seller? Then we would have enough money, you could own your own publishing company.”
“I wouldn’t want your money!” she snaps, and furiously focuses on clicking the remote and watching the television.
She is not listening to your pleas, and seems to think that the case is closed. You skulk off to the bedroom and lay there reading and re-reading the letter. It is a genuine affirmation of your talent as a writer, a validation that you have magic in you to be more than just some random office schmuck. You start to doze with dreams of carousing into the night with artistic and intellectual people who throw French phrases into their speech and throw back endless rounds of martinis.
“Hon, I was asking you a question,” says Kelly, bringing you back to the present.