MY LAST DAY NOT WRITING
the 70's summer of drugs, and too unconnected for the 80's summer of greed. It was the 90s, a throwaway decade in American history, years filled with angst, confusion, and irrational pursuits of wealth and fame. I was just as deluded as the next person, believing that I could make it as a novelist, but I still felt removed from the crowd, as if no one else harbored unfulfilled desires.
On a cold winter night after the decade of war and sex and the following decade of booze and drugs and the next decade of money and power, I came into my own as a writer. I'd grown up on authors like Hemingway and Dickenstravelers, adventurers, first class showmen who knew the value of their deeds if not the weight of their words. I was almost thirty years old, too young for the 60's summer of love, too poor for
Seated in an East Village nightclub, I waited for my next lukewarm mug of beer between sets from a popular New Jersey cover band. I'd quit cigarettes and whiskey, but the jury was still out as I inhaled the secondhand smoke that enveloped me like a comforting blanket. I was caught in the in-betweens, having just exited a long-term relationship with an extended blonde headache who could blow my mind beneath the sheets while twisting it each second above them. Every time we touched the mattress, I felt as if I'd reached base safely, no danger unless I wandered too far away.
I'd met Trish while working for NASA, designing satellites that flew to Mars in preparation for an eventual landing on the red planet. Trish worked in the clean room where they assembled the crafts prior to testing. She had maroon eyes and curves that the white jumper couldn't hide. I studied her shape from the two-story overlook into the clean room. She poured over satellite design schematics while studying her grad school chemistry homework. She was a geek's fantasy. The male technicians ogled her without shame, but whenever I visited the floor to spot-check the progress of my latest designs, I determined to play it cool. The room smelled like the inside of a brand new TV set just unwrapped from the bagplastic, silicone, solder catalyzing the senses. I methodically toured the twenty-foot manmade constellations that hung from the ceiling in silver, gold, and platinum. I answered the technicians' questions about circuitry placement and wiring. I told stories of launches gone awry and the day Challenger exploded over Kennedy like a star-crossed supernova. I avoided Trish. She was a mystical tome that you shouldn't approach yet promised wonderment for the risk. My aloofness toward her, she confessed over bedroom hits of Jack Daniels and cigarettes, hardened her resolve to get my attention. In her eyes, I was the head geek of the clean room.
And I was an aspiring novelist, scribbling ideas and sentences into journals, waiting for a break that might never come. I rose from my barstool in Rick's East Side Rock'o'Rama to take a piss, as the band tuned for their final set. In Manhattan, you can locate the men's room by the odor of evergreen scented urine, but inside Rick's, I already knew the spot. As a way to coast the in-betweens of my life, as a sure method of avoiding the blank pages to fill, I wasted Saturday nights in this dump, helping the band set-up and breakdown for the 11 P.M. showcase. I was moonlighting, paid with the promise of free beer and killing time. In many ways, it was the best and worst job I ever had. The band's lead singer was a girl named Lisa who wore spandex and a big ponytail and mimicked the better singers on the circuit. She sounded fine, but the group was destined for no more than weddings and junior proms. They talked of disbanding during the rickety van ride into the city, as if separating and reforming elsewhere might improve their mediocre talents. I thought about quitting too, considering an end to my writing aspirations. I wasn't practicing my craft regularly any longer, and as I stood at the urinal, my father's recent words echoed in my mind: You don't have enough experience to be a novelist.
I returned to the bar at the back of the club, catching a glimpse of a blonde working the foosball table with a Puerto Rican guy who wore enough gold medals to open a devotional stand. I immediately thought of Trish. In our final days, I'd been avoiding her, working late, not returning her calls to my beeper. I was sick of her escalating moods, her orbits that defied all telemetry and signals from Earth. On a rainy Monday evening, after she'd submitted her final chemistry thesis at grad school, I'd asked her to get out of my apartment. She'd expected a bottle of champagne and an all-nighter. She anticipated a trivial argument exploding into broken glass, the smashing of dishes, and maybe the perforation of plaster with fists. She'd been raised by an alcoholic mother and a father who managed crisis like a dysfunctional fireman handling a flood. Every celebration was to be tempered with heartbreak. I popped a cork on a bottle of Moët and broke her heart for good. I'll never be certain, but I think she never loved me more than at that moment, although lately I'd heard rumors that she was flirting with a biker gang during her first internship at the nearby pharmaceutical corp. I guess she had more expansive dichotomies to explore.
Right now, a cute brunette with a small nose and short hair that spiked at the fringes sat on the barstool in front of my writing journal and foaming beer. She chatted with a dark-haired woman with slender hips and a belt made of chrome-plated chain. They both wore the black uniform that the 50s beatnik poets donned and Lou Reed made famous but likely stole from Andy Warhol. They leaned toward each other the way women do, as if no one else in the joint existed. Men's eyes constantly roam the horizon, even when they aren't searching.
I sidled into the narrow space behind the brunette to snatch my journal and beer from the bar. The brunette didn't budge, but the dark-haired one shot me the oh-was-that-your-chair look with no intention of moving either. The women were faux bohemian. Their clothes should have been purchased from the rag shop on Bonn Street but were uptown dress-down all the way to their designer boots. The brunette's jeweled Rolex was likely more expensive than my car, although none of this offended me. I felt more comfortable with phonies these days.
Sorry, the brunette finally said.
I ignored her apology. One more set from the next backup players to the K.C. & The Sunshine Band reunion tour, and we'd be loading drums and guitars into the van for a depressing trip through the Lincoln Tunnel where the hookers waited for a turn and, if traffic backed up, just a few encouraging words. I glanced at the stage as the band broke into someone else's hit. Lisa's spandex outfit with the pink stripe racing up the thigh wasn't all that different than the hookers' getup by the tunnel.
The beer drained faster as I lamented my denial of whiskey. This was my version of being monasticno smokes, no hard liquor, no Trish, no writing. If I eliminated every vice, I might tally the leftovers. Maybe my father was right. Maybe there would be nothing to findno wheat, all chaff.
The dark-haired woman asked for a light. I still carried a book of matches, perhaps testing my will to quit smoking. I carried my writing journal too, and I didn't seem to use that either. I dug into my pocket for the matches and flicked them onto her lap.
Thanks. Her voice crackled at the start and end of sentences, as if her words broke through from a far away place. It reminded me of the gravelly transmissions I'd receive from space.
You don't work on Wall Street, do you? the dark-haired woman asked.
The brunette was just as lively. She studied the notebook beneath my arm, the pen tucked in my ear. Are you some type of reviewer?
Funny, no one had ever before confused me for a writer. I finished my beer and ordered a refill. Actually I'm a rocket scientist. I often hid this information, certainly never phrased it this way. I considered myself in transition, even though I was entrenched in the business of spinning gyros and solar array deployments. I had lost the gumption for becoming a writer. I used to arrive at work early each morning, pretending to be absorbed in paperwork and calculations, while instead working on my latest novel, but I never believed in myself as an author. I hadn't mustered the courage to make the incredible leap of faith that I would take three years laterabandoning a six figure income, placing it all on the line, putting a bullet through the head of a brilliant career as my boss would say. For now, my existence was just an elaborate sham. I hadn't yet realized that the fantasies and human insights, which would dominate my thinking over the next decade, stood just beyond the gossamer veil that kept people separated.
But I wasn't the only one hiding behind smokescreens. Marci, the dark-haired one, and Sheila, the brunette, were stockbrokers, but they weren't interested in stockbrokers, financial advisors, or anyone connected to their industry. We began rapping about the band and music in general. I'd made the mistake of expecting them to be ditsy rich girls, not successful women of their own mind. They avoided all the dumb questions and barroom feelers. Trish had taught me every one. Women ask if your girlfriend is waiting and if you just came from your job, assessing potential income right from the start. Men size up breasts and hair. Men are stupid. They study the landscape by trudging through it. Women already know the pitfalls and hairpin turns.
The band's set was loud and obnoxious. I felt loose and brave. Trish had been in my rearview mirror for almost two months, although I partly expected to find her ranting at my apartment door with a shotgun or, even worse, a member of the Pagans biker gang who was pumped up on fairytales of abuse that he was ready to settle with the sharp edge of a switchblade. I used to worry about escape velocity and stress points on spacecraft that can barely manage their own weight within Earth's gravity, but Trish was a heavier load to bear, not to mention a schematic without a logical circuit. Even Einstein had no workable theories about crazy super blondes, and it wasn't for a lack of hands-on experimentation.
The non-blonde pair at the bar tag-teamed me in conversation for forty-five minutes. Just when I caught the vibe from one, the other stepped into the banter and took the lead. Messages transmitted between them like coded signalscurious eye movements, hand gestures, indecipherable phrases. Perhaps I was tired and distracted and imagined their interest.
Marcie had painted her eyes Egyptian style but not overdone. You needed to be as close as I was getting beneath the blare of the snare drum.
Do you play an instrument? she asked.
Blues guitar, just for fun. I threw a shoulder toward the stage. Not this stuff.
We have a synthesizer back at the apartment, Sheila said.
That's cool. I reduced my vocabulary, moderating my beer consumption too. I was minutes from packing the van for the return to Jersey. What type of synth do you have?
Marcie stared at me over the edge of her gin and tonic. We like to double team.
I believed that they were talking about playing the keyboard at the same time. In my ignorance, I was the coolest customer on the planet. I doubt my eyes dilated in the slightest. Great.
Marcie gave a slight head tilt, a private acknowledgement that I'll never mistake in the future.
I smiled, all reception, like the huge dishes at Goddard Center on the coast of Marylandready, waiting for no one knows exactly what.
As the band hit their finale, Sheila leaned over to whisper in Marcie's ear. This was my cue. They were doing one of two things: selecting who was going to give me their number or deciding how to get rid of me. There was no other option in my mind. I leaned over the bar and asked for a glass of water, feigning no notice of the deliberating jury. It was ironic. At this very moment, my better manuscripts circulated Manhattan. I will be judged by this town on all levels. I prepared for rejection, sort of.
When the set broke, the houselights went up to the haze of smoke and exhausted patrons. Marcie disappeared into the bathroom. Sheila threw her purse over her shoulder. We have a place in Battery Park.
OK, it was Sheila. I felt an ancient cultural response. Sheila wins. She chooses. The American Indians operated like this. A man was much better off with a woman who selected him, not the other way around. History is littered with arranged couplings that were spurned by unreceptive women. They spawned cataclysms from murder to all out warfare. I started thinking about Sheila in a less dangerous sense, how I'd write her up in my journal: a bold and balanced chin, quick wit, sarcastic laughter, guarded yet open-minded, slender and agile arms like the flawless titanium controllers of an AS3000. It felt so damned right for the evening to go down this way after all the insanity with Trish. Sheila told me she'd read The World According to Garp and cried when Jenny Fields screwed a dying soldier in the hospital without ever speaking to him. I realized that I better find my words. I needed a semblance of vocabulary to evoke her imagination.
I told Lisa, because she was the only band member who wouldn't be angry with me for not helping them break down their equipment as promised. I was quitting the job for a more hopeful position. Lisa eyed Sheila and Marcie lingering by the door. She'd caught me during many egghead moments in the pastreading Stephen Hawkins at the bar between sets, sketching designs on a cocktail napkin. Her image of me seemed suddenly shattered. I waved my journal in a grand good-bye gesture.
Sitting between two slightly older but deliciously clean and attractive women in the back of a midnight cab ride through the city of blinding lights is enough inspiration for most men to write a book. A moment of perfect expectation arises that you hope will freeze in a holding pattern for hours like a typical flight into Kennedy International Airport. Energy resonates between your shoulders and the person sitting beside you. Anything is possible. I was jetting toward Sheila's downtown apartment to cleanse my soul. I fully expected Marcie to clear the runway.
Martinis were in order upon our arrival at the ladies' tiny one bedroom palace. Their place overlooked a couple of towers that waited to collapse into oblivion on a day that changed everyone's lives, but tonight the transformations were singular and private, yet no less irreversible.
I threw my leather bomber jacket over the kitchen chair in the far corner and plopped into the middle of the couch near the door. I dared to kick off my shoes and stretch, yawning like a lion amid the pride. Someone threw an R.E.M. CD in the player. Sheila poured the mother of all cocktails into fluted glasses with twisted fuchsia stems. Her bare feet parked beside my socked feet. She had elegant, painted toes like fingers. Her breath was sweetmeatgin and anticipation. My throat went dry. I wanted to steal a kiss.
Marcie took a seat on the opposite side of me. I counted three drinks on the coffee table. Three drinks? Shit. Somewhere I heard Trish laughing from inside a laboratory or around a campfire with the chrome of motorcycles reflecting in the flames. Several of my old writing journals and collector's editions of Faulkner's works had evacuated my apartment with Trish. She was ripping the pages one by one from the stitched bindings and burning them in a campfire, or perhaps she sat locked inside a dim laboratory, feeding Faulkner to a Bunsen burner.
I leaned back against the velvet cushions. A Tarkay diptych spanned the wallwomen in Victorian getup taking tea on a European veranda.
Tell me what it's like in space, Marcie began.
It's a vacuum. It's both hot and cold, depending on the position of the sun. I thought about the ride home that I'd missed in the East Village and the lonely train ride that awaited me. I remembered Trish and how I'd wanted to work things out between us, as crazy as that sounded. I thought I could be her savoir when I couldn't even plot my own trajectory. I knew I wanted to be a writer as long as I could remember knowing anything, but instead I chased satellites across the heavens and the odd freelance journalist assignment to nowhere.
I picked up my martini and swirled it beneath my nose. I was getting drunk with a couple of classy women who felt I was as safe as I imagined them to be, and then I would scramble through the frigid Manhattan streets for a ride home beneath the pitiless New York sunrise.
I can't imagine what it would be like to circle the Earth, Sheila said.
I used to dream about going into space, I said.
I don't know anymore. It's anticlimactic. You work on the spacecraft. You're nervous at launch. You hope every critical piece initiates as designed and then sometimes they don't.
What happens? Marcie leaned closer on the couch, putting her hand upon my shoulder, getting comfortable like old friends do. The clock showed 2 A.M.. Somewhere along the line, Sheila called me rocket man, which is the dumbest of all clichés, but I forgave her.
Batteries run out of power, I said. Solar panels jam, programming goes haywire. All your plans go to hell. You're left with the drawing board, apologies, and the long faces of the guys in the clean room who'd believed for months that you would pull off the impossible.
The women interrogated me like CIA agents, easy and steady, never breaking from their line of questioning. They seemed to examine my word selection and tone, and I became acutely aware of the structure of my sentences, hearing my voice in my ears. I downed the martini and shuffled to the bathroom by the front door. I imagined that one or both of the roommates were interested in me, maybe neither. It was too late to fumble for the answer and too early to wedge between friends. I gathered water from the faucet and examined my face in the mirror. An unfamiliar reflection presented itself.
The living room was quiet. I heard the sound of the clock humming in the kitchen before I noticed the women on the couch. The couch faced away from the door, and when I entered the room, only the occasional sight of a foot rose above either end of the arched back. The women's shoes were discarded, their calves bare, and they were quiet, until Marcie crackled a moan that weakened a young man's knees.
The rocket scientist in the room finally understood, sort of. He realized that the girls were friendly, very friendlymost friendly with each other. I heard Marcie again. I didn't need a roadmap, just one to steer clear. Hey, had they thought I left already?
Across the room lay my leather bomber jacket on the kitchen chair. I really liked that coat and it was freezing outside, otherwise I might have slipped out the door unnoticed and left the girls to their pleasure. I sauntered across the apartment to grab my jacket, throwing it over my shoulder like James Dean cutting corners through a porno film lot. I'd planned to salute the pair, Paul Newman style, hardly a gesture, as if I'd seen this couch show a million times prior and was bored.
The girls were stripped naked, down in the muff, their clothes tossed on the floor. I stutter-stepped to catch a glimpse of what I might never come across again, not in any deep space exploration for certain, not within a million miles of the exotic territories that I explored for a living.
Sheila raised her head. Aren't you joining us?
This moment returned to me three years later as I handed in my resignation and received a lecture from my boss, who was livid over my irresponsible decision to pursue my dreams. I recalled Marcie and Sheila who dropped the veil to share their own experience. They were thoughtful and intelligent and operated by a completely different set of precepts, and they would learn more about me in the next forty-eight hours than Trish had in months or my boss had in years of working side by side. I was governed by angst, fear, and a set of rules that no longer worked and likely never did. I rewrote my operating instructions in Battery Park. I started looking up, down, and behind, less often straight ahead like most others did. People rarely understand what lurks behind their own veils, much less someone else's. It's my job to unearth the details and report on them.
At the beginning of my writer's journey, a pair of exquisite women near Battery Park offered directions. Sheila laughed, knowing the steps toward liberation better than me. Marcie, behaving more like Cleopatra by the minute, beckoned with a curled finger in case I lost my resolve. A man enters such late night engagements primarily out of curiosity and with the naivety and stamina of youth, the way an aspiring novelist enters his first attempt, determined to distill thought and emotion into being. The second time involves affirmation, and perhaps the following times invoke the hard combinations, but again, I am a writer of limited experience, as my father so assuredly stated many years ago. I explore new landscapes for clues, up to my hips or my eyeballs, depending on the horizon in sight. Occasionally I come across a piece of slick technology that seems sexy, but there’s nothing as appealing as a ballpoint pen and a fresh idea.
CHRISTOPHER KLIM is an award-winning author/journalist of several books, including the satires Jesus Lives in Trenton and The Winners Circle. His other books include Everything Burns, Write to Publish, and the Firecracker Jones juvenile series. Forthcoming will be a new novel, Idiot!, about isolation and the worth of one individual, as well as a collection of short stories, True Surrealism. He is the senior editor of Writers Notes Magazine, an international journal of stories, essays, poems, interviews, and visual arts. Nearly every day, he works with aspiring writers. (Visit www.ChristopherKlim.com and Writers Notes).
[copyright 2006, Christopher Klim]