this is my After

August 14, 2009

Note To My Readers: This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is purely intentional. If you see yourself here please rest assured that I have liberally embroidered upon who you are and what was said so that although there is truth in this story it is built out of lies.

miro“Would you mind being pond scum?” he asks. The designs on his shirt swim before me, a wash ‘n’ wear painting by Miro with abstract minnows darting in between watery waves of blue and yellow fabric.

I stare at the delicately inked red “2” on the inside of his right wrist. It sits on the tender white skin where the doctor searches for sounds of life. I wonder what font he has used and why he has chosen a “2” instead of a “1” or a “3.” I intend to break the code if I’m allowed to stick around long enough.

“You can call me P.S. for short.” I counter, keenly aware that I am sounding glib, too clever. Will he notice and disinvite me?

I deflate inside afraid that I have exposed myself. My profession is showing. Next thing you know I’ll be spouting out catch-phrases: “What a deal! The whole nine yards! When push comes to shove!” and my favorite “Let’s pull the trigger” which a client once told me disturbed her because it was evidence that I was supporting a violent paradigm.

“If you’d like to come back, please do” he extends.

There was a moment during class when I watched from the outside of the circle, in but not quite in, pond scum instead of part of the pond and I saw him scribble a note on the palm of his left hand. I wanted to stand up and shout “I do that too! I write on my hand just like Tom does except I usually write on the top fleshy part because I’m going through menopause and my brain is like a sieve and if I write on my palm I will forget to remember that I have written anything at all!”

The faces in the pond would have turned to me, staring as I ripped off my emotional outerwear and stripped down to full disclosure of how fucked up, scared, no make that terrified, I was to be wanting something so bad and being afraid I would not get it.

ear“Sometimes I just hate to hope” Tom begins the class. Is he a mind reader or is my desire that contagious? I sit a mere three feet away and study the size of his ears. They are large and, like God, maybe all hearing.

Later I skip down the sidewalk, my silver platform Mary Jane’s have transported me to Oz and back and the wizard has just given me an assignment. He asks that I write about something that has changed my life, a moment so huge that it separates before from after.

“I’m thrilled.” I repeat in threes, needing to say it over and over until I believe this is really happening. We stand across from each other in the backyard where we have gone to talk privately and I clear my throat several times the way I do when I am nervous but cannot stop.

“Thank you so so so much for the chance to come back” I say and walk quickly out the gate, afraid that my desperation will frighten him away like the boys who stopped calling knowing I wanted more then they could give.

Errol FlynnI speed dial Laurence to tell him I am in. Like Flynn. In like Flynn. The phrase, like a tape loop, replays itself and I realize I have no idea what it means. I google it when I get home and discover it is a reference to movie star Errol Flynn, popular in the 40s for his flamboyance, fame and what was rumored to be a very large cock.

And I think Tom will like this because he has a blown glass cock sitting in the middle of the writing table alongside piles of books and a plastic wind-up toy nun. He jokes in class that he is “nothing but a sentimental old homo” and my heart breaks for him and the virus he carries to prove it.

For twenty years, I have silenced my voice in journals that nobody read and writing classes where they praised me for knowing how to spell. Along the way I have found and lost two good teachers; one helped me turn abstract to concrete and the other taught me that pauses were as potent as words.

Vase-With-ZinniasMostly I write to myself on the kitchen table with confetti-colored zinnias blooming in an Italian pitcher. I look out the plate glass window at a bird feeder without any birds. It hangs from the eaves filled with barley corn and sunflower seeds packed tightly in a plastic tube advertising a free meal with no takers. I tell Laurence it is too close to the window but we never seem to get around to moving it.

I steal time to write between showing houses and writing up offers. Each year I grow more successful and more afraid that I have sold my soul to the National Association of Realtors. I skip staff meetings and forget to mail thank you notes to clients who have referred me to friends and friends of friends who never suspect I have a secret life hidden behind my Lexus and lockbox key.

“You look like a prude.” my sister-in-law observes, “Too straight to be a writer.” The sliver of her nose hoop quivers as the words pour out of her mouth and onto my shame. She is from Manhattan and sees me as a lost cause. She tells me she has read my blog and says my posts are getting better and then reminds me she has an MFA in creative writing.

“I need help” I say, staring down at my 500 Mile Chai as the fountain trickles behind us in the corner of the teahouse. She nods and we split a plate of spinach rolls. She is a therapist now but I think she should have stuck to creative writing.

the man who fell in love with the moonI need help” I tell my shrink. “I need a community, a teacher, a mentor.” He leans forward, his bushy gray eyebrows forming a V as they reach for the top of his forehead. “Dangerous writing” he says and grabs a book from the bookcase behind his ergonomically-correct chair. “Tom Spanbauer” he adds, pulling out a thick hardcover wrapped in a book jacket illustrated with pictures of flying Indians, buffaloes, and a burning skull. “The Man Who Fell In Love With The Moon” he beams like the moon itself floating large white and yellow across the cover of the book.

He tells me Tom is a renowned writer and teacher of the minimalist school who specializes in the technique of dangerous writing. He is an underground legend and mentor to Chuck Palahniuk, the diesel mechanic who fleshed out his famous novel Fight Club at Tom’s writing table.

“How do I find him?” I ask. The shrink hands me a slip of paper, a non-refundable ticket to my future. I carry it home, a life line held tightly to my palm.

It takes 30 minutes for me to write the five line email. I am a wordy girl and work to impress him with less is more. Hoping to entrap him with well-cut words and minimal sentences: writing in shorthand.

Within the next week I meet three more people who tell me about Tom. “You must meet Tom Spanbauer” says my allergist plunging a needle into my arm. “It was life-changing” states my new friend Jane describing the workshop at Haystack when Tom changed the course of her literary life. “I’ve heard about him for years” says the bartender who dabbles in words between dabbling in drinks.

The email arrives. Simple words without flourish. Inviting me to observe a class. Telling me his table is full, there is a long waiting list but that he’d like to meet me.

African flagsOne week later, I sit in Tom’s basement on a love seat behind the heavy wooden chairs that pull up to farmhouse-sized table. All 15 chairs are filled, pages are handed out. Tom readjusts his floor lamp, the shade hand-painted the colors of an African flag.

He has greeted me warmly and I realize he has no idea who I am. Does not remember my well-parsed message or the story of how I found him and what I was looking for.

“You are pond scum” he explains and at first I don’t understand. The writers grin and someone laughs loudly across the table. I am a private joke but nod happily, willing to be anything to be in that room.

Later I learn that the writers at the table are the pond. They have earned the right to read their work aloud, to sit with Tom around the well-lit rectangle. The rest of us are scum to their pond, perched on a group of mismatched chairs sitting in dark corners. Aquatic algae we are primitive plants, no true roots, stems or leaves we bloom on their surface.

“We’re all so fucked up” Tom says to the group and I know I am where I need to be.

Four and a half hours later we stand outside the back French doors and he asks me to write something. A before and an after. About a time in my life when something so important happened that everything changed. Forever.

I turn to leave, my insides filled with fireworks and the flash of roman candles and suddenly I see the moment he has asked me to find and realize at once that this is my After.

Fireworks Illustration