For several years, this novel confused me. That's putting it mildly. The novel scared the shit out of me. I would open the file periodically and tease out a few more words, move a sentence here. Cut a paragraph there. As if I was writing, but I wasn't. I didn't really understand the combination of characters. And I didn't know what they wanted from me.
Then a few weeks ago, I had a breakthrough. The novel is frightening to me because I have multiple strands to keep track of. In fact, at the moment, this is my abbreviated character list:
the stranger who saves her
an angry young man
the John who loves her
the girl who broke his heart
a bookstore clerk
What happened a few weeks ago was that I finally understood the overlapping story lines. I got it. I felt as if I'd been standing outside an exclusive club, trying to sneak in, when suddenly the front doors opened wide and the bouncer waved me through. Except my characters would never go to a club. They're much more Nighthawks at the Diner.
Still, I'm working without a net. I've never written this type of surrealistic, multi-layered fiction. And I've got a constant inner monologue of doubt to contend with. You're not good enough. This is out of your league. You don't know what you're doing.
And being *my* inner dialogue there are often swears. So: This is out of your fucking league. You don't know what you're fucking doing.
But I'm shutting that voice down the best I can. And I'm trying so hard to make this work.
He takes the paper. He reads the words.
“What happens next?” he asks.
I know better than to pretend his question confuses me. I know better than to respond with, “What do you mean?”
“What happens next?”
I don’t know yet. They haven’t told me. I reach for the pages, but he catches my wrist and drags me to standing. We’re going to the wall. I can feel it. He cuffs my wrists together so I’m facing the cold white plaster. I rest my cheek against the wall and wonder if he’ll flog me or fuck me.
I hear the belt whisper through the loops on his slacks.
I didn’t do well enough. He wants more. This is for my own good. I close my eyes. I take the punishment.
The window is gone the next day. There’s a new light on one wall. A neon light with a low buzz. The letters spell out Open like in my story. Or nearly. O_en. When I walk to the wall where the window used to be, the plaster is seamless. It’s as if there never was a window.
I wonder if we’re going back to the same story.
I don’t start writing until he arrives. I walk the length of the room, the chain trailing with me. The room is always the perfect temperature, and I am always naked.
He enters the room and locks the door behind him. He puts the key in his pocket. I look at him carefully, but I can’t tell what he’s thinking. I can read my characters easily. He’s always a puzzle. Are we going back? Will we work on the story in progress?
No. He wants something new. I can tell by the way he appraises me.
“Write me a story,” he says.
I wait for the prompt, the match, the tiny snapshot he holds in front of me. “There’s this café,” he says next. “No, that’s too fancy a word. It’s like a truck stop. She’s a waitress, and she’s got a bad habit.” That’s all he says, the only hints he gives me. But I can already feel the people moving around in my head. The man with a scar from his wrist to his elbow, a woman’s name inked on his chest. The waitress with a tear in her black stockings, a collection of safety pins chained together at the bottom of her second-hand purse.
He leaves and I stare at the wall. Is it early in the morning or dusk going to night? I don’t know. In my room, time doesn’t matter. In my room, it’s all about the words.
The diner was off the path from nowhere to nowhere else. A stopping place in what always felt like the middle of the night. That couldn’t have been possible. Day must have broken regularly, the way day does. But this trucker always found the spot in the wee hours. That’s simply how the schedule worked out. The sky was black and the restaurant was bathed in a halo of gold.
He was looking forward to seeing her. She had tired eyes but a kind smile, and she made him feel good when she poured his coffee. He went to a lot of diners. He met a lot of waitresses. This one was unique. She had dark brown hair with a hint of red, like maraschino cherry juice mixed with cola. When she smiled, he felt like he was home.
He hadn’t been home for a long time.
She glanced up when he came in this time, and she reached for one of the old porcelain mugs and filled it to the brim. By the time he sat at the counter, the cup was waiting for him.
He had planned to say something this time. More than the average dishwater small talk. The ebb and flow of plates and cups in the sink. He was going to say something, tell her what his apartment looked like, with the view of the empty field that people cut through to get to town. A place he could hardly bear to stay in, even for a night. He needed to be moving. When he was in his bed, he rocked himself to sleep.
Objects in motion stay in motion.
He couldn’t stand to be at rest.