A Writer's Dream
Chapter 1: Thesis Review
<Katy said you looked upset after meeting your thesis advisor. Can I stop by?>
I glanced at the text, then at my apartment. Would I like company? Yeah. Katy was right, the meeting had really done a number on my confidence and I’d been looking up prices for plane tickets back to my hometown without realizing what I was doing. But could I have company, with the state my apartment was in?
<I’ll be there in ten minutes.>
“Damn it, Jake,” I muttered.
He didn’t even have the decency to give me time to clean up. I wandered into the kitchen and looked around blankly. There wasn’t even a place to start. My stove was covered with empty takeout boxes (Thai) and empty TV dinners (Indian), and my sink had a dirty casserole dish (Mexican). Plus, all of my cups were inexplicably out and dirty. I don’t usually use cups; I drink out of a refillable water bottle.
The rest of the apartment was no better. Every horizontal surface held a pile of papers and books at least one foot high, mostly old copies of my thesis (I was too lazy to bring it to work to recycle and too guilt-ridden to toss it with the regular garbage). I had at least five coats by the door and three pairs of shoes, since I didn’t wear shoes in the house. The floor was relatively neat except for the cat toys and cardboard scratching posts littered about. Everyone who saw my apartment said it’s clear the cat was in charge, and it’s true. Not that I let many people into my apartment, though. Only Jake, Katy, and one of my cousins who lives nearby. It’s my refuge and I get nervous when the outside world intrudes.
I put one of the cups in the dishwasher and thought about taking the overflowing garbage out when I heard Jake pounding on the door. My cat leapt to attention and jumped on her lookout perch so she could observe the newcomer and decide whether or not to greet him. Camere was a very friendly cat and I had to train her not to greet the delivery people, or else she would run out of the apartment every time I ordered pizza. Now she knew to wait and see if they came in the apartment before greeting them. I swear she’s a genius.
Jake handed me a six-pack of beer when I opened the door, then went straight to my cat and scratched behind her ears. She hunched a little bit in fear until she recognized his scent, then leaned into the caress and turned so that he could rub the base of her tail, her favorite spot.
“Hey kitty, don’t get hair on my new shirt. Dude, your cat wants her butt rubbed again.”
“Don’t say that,” I said, even though I was laughing. “She’s a lady. She just wants her back scratched.”
I put the six-pack in the fridge, since there was no room on the counter, and hoped that was the right thing to do. I didn’t drink beer and wasn’t sure if it could be refrigerated, but I knew people drank beer cold and it seemed ridiculous to put it in the freezer. I picked Camere up and cradled her while Jake scratched her ears and she purred in absolute kitty bliss before squirming to be put down. She instantly rolled onto her back to beg for tummy rubs and I dropped to the ground without a second thought to oblige.
“She has you whipped,” Jake said. He had an amused smile on his face but he wasn’t watching the cat, he was watching me.
I blushed and stood back up, rubbing my hands together. It wasn’t fair. If I were a girl, it would be perfectly normal to adore a cat this much. Girls were allowed to have cats without being thought strange. Although I suppose if they have too many cats they might be crazy cat ladies. But still, it’s no big deal for a girl to have a pet, but for a guy to get a pet, especially a cat, it just seems to take away something. Unless he gets the pet to get the girls. One of the men in our graduate program met his wife while walking his dog, and he adopted the dog just for that purpose. That was a manly adoption. But I didn’t adopt Camere to get attention. I adopted her because I wanted someone I could love, someone who would love me unconditionally, and when I saw her at the shelter it was love at first sight and I knew that I could give her exactly the home she needed to recover from her past abuse. We helped each other.
“So,” Jake continued. “What happened at your meeting? You turned in your complete draft last week, right? Did you talk about that? She didn’t want you to rewrite the whole thesis, did she?”
“Not really,” I said.
Remembering was painful. I was getting a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, as were Jake and his girlfriend Katy. We were in our last year and for our thesis, we wrote and revised a collection of short stories that could potentially be published. Most of the stories started in workshops during the past two years of the program, but now we had to polish them and fill out our portfolio so that we each had a complete short story collection. My thesis director was tough. Early in the year I’d sent her five stories I’d written during previous workshops that I was thinking of including. She told me that two of them were good candidates, but it would take a far better writer than me to salvage the other three.
I’d worked on each story with her over the past few months, looking for minor fixes (should I mention that the car belongs to his father, or let the reader speculate? Is the water imagery too obvious?). She said she’d wait to see the entire collection before making sweeping statements about my writing, and she had. She had. I’d turned in my thesis knowing it was only a draft, knowing I’d be doing at least one more rewrite before my defense. Now I didn’t know what to do.
“She kept asking why anyone would care about the characters,” I told Jake.
I’d tried to answer her, to explain that they were three dimensional characters worthy of interest, but she kept asking and finally I wanted to scream that they were me, they were all facets of my soul dressed in costumes, parading around in an attempt to exorcise the demons of memory through creativity.
“Ouch,” Jake offered.
“Finally I realized the characters didn’t matter, nothing in the story mattered. Why even write it? Nothing important happened. No one will ever read it and feel like their life has changed, so why bother writing anything at all?”
Jake was saying something but I couldn’t make it out. If my soul didn’t matter when it was refracted onto the page, why did it matter in life? Her question kept bothering me: Why should I care about these characters? Really, she was asking why she should care about me and I finally realized that she shouldn’t. There was no reason anyone should care about me. I was just one more mediocre writer who taught college composition to hordes of college freshmen, as nameless and replaceable as they were.
I sniffed and was surprised to feel hot irritation in my eyes. I was on the brink of tears. My nose ran and I wiped it on my sleeve, looking for a Kleenex. I started to head for the bathroom and some toilet paper but an arm snaked out in front of me, planting itself firmly on the wall and blocking my progress. I looked at Jake in confusion.
“Did you hear me?” Jake asked. “You keep running and hiding when these things happen, but you need to talk them out. That’s why you have friends.”
“I’m not hiding,” I said, pushing against his arm. “I need some tissue.”
His other arm swooped behind me and suddenly I was facing him, with one of his hands on my back and the other at the nape of my neck, twisting my head up to stare at him. My breath caught and for a moment I wondered if this was what the characters in the stories felt when the hero leaned in to kiss them. My knees trembled but this was Jake and I wasn’t some fainting heroine. I was the hero in my story, or I was supposed to be. Not that anyone cared about my story, or me. I lowered my eyes in shame as tears began to flow.
I never cry. Never. I still remembered my grandfather’s funeral when I was seven, when everyone around me was crying, even my dad. But I didn’t understand. They said grandpa was going to Heaven and he was happier, so why were people sad? They said I couldn’t visit him anymore, but he would be visiting God and that didn’t seem bad at all. I was a little scared of God but I knew God would take good care of Grandpa and make sure he had plenty of pillows and lots of pictures of me and my cousins and play doh that didn’t make his arthritis-ridden fingers lock out of joint. Grandpa looked so peaceful in the coffin and the priest said he was happy with God, so I didn’t understand why everyone was so upset.
When we got home my dad took me into the garage and beat me with his good belt, both of us still in our church clothes for the funeral although he made me lift my shirt so I didn’t get blood on it. How dare you, he shouted. Your grandfather was a damn good man and you better cry.
My dad yelled and hit until finally my mom came in with her veiled hat still on so I couldn’t see her face and she told him the neighbors might hear and the boy was a child and what did children know of death. My dad turned to her with the belt raised and she braced herself. Get in the kitchen, my dad said, and looked at me. He spat on the ground. You make me sick. If you ever cry for somethin’ less than your grandfather dyin’, I’ll find out and give you a lash for every tear you shed.
I never cried after that, except when he was beating me. And when I was old enough to understand, I was disappointed with my reaction at the funeral, too. Whenever I felt on the brink of tears I remembered my grandfather. I barely remembered him, just his misshapen, swollen fingers helping me make dinosaurs out of play doh. If I didn’t cry for him, did I deserve to cry for anything?
Right now I was crying out of self-pity, because my thesis director didn’t like my characters. How pathetic. It was an insult to my grandfather and if my father barged in and started beating me I wouldn’t object. Tears were sacred, not to be wasted on trivial matters like this. But remembering only made me cry harder and my nose felt like a clogged pipe. I snorted in order to breath and tried to pry free of Jake’s arms.
“Let me go, Jake,” I whispered.
“Just cry,” he said, pulling my head against his chest.
I jerked back in shock.
He seemed surprised and so was I. But I did not want to cry in front of him, even though I was already practically bawling.
“I mean,” I said, “I’ll get snot on your new shirt. Gross. Just let me go.”
Jake rolled his eyes. He pushed me against the wall and pinned me in place with his knees. I was too surprised to escape, although I probably could have. With his arms, Jake pulled off his shirt and his undershirt, exposing muscles that flexed and shifted just below the surface of his smooth hazelnut skin as he placed his arms back around me and pulled me inward. My cheek found a home in the thin black hair on his chest and his warmth soothed my heart and a region quite a bit further south. He was beautiful, but his beauty, like the beauty of my stories, would always be unreal and unattainable.
These characters are all so noble, my thesis director had said. No one cares about characters like that. There’s no conflict at all in your stories.
I shut my eyes. Jake rested his hand on my cheek and cradled me in his arms as I let all of the hurtful comments sweep over me.