More than fifteen thousand years ago, late Stone Age man fashioned hollow tubes from wood, bone, and plants. Using these tubes, they blew pulverized pigments against the vast cave walls now known as Lascaux. Others dug and gouged the walls to engrave them. Before there was language, before there was writing, man told stories.
Every story serves a purpose, even if it is to simply relay a message. Without stories, there would be no history, we would not learn from mistakes, nor would we honor past heroes. We use stories to make sense of our world and to share that understanding with others.
For sixty-four years, stories have swirled within me. They circled around in my head, and when they had taken enough shape inside of me, I wrote them down.
There have been no stories inside of me since the Sickness. They have stopped.
I move from room to room in my new home. I sit in different chairs, at different desks and tables. I try out both the east view and the west. I end up on the couch — the one I brought from my home of the previous five years – in the room that possesses the most effortless blend of Gino and me. The room is comfortable and embracing and breathtaking, all at once.
I sit on the couch resolved to not move until a story – a skeleton of a story, the outline of a character who may later tell a story, any kernel whatsoever – gathers itself from the swirling mists of gray nothingness and gives me the barest hint that something will take shape.
I have been a writer all my life.
I sit on the couch. I scratch at tiny particles of dried food on the upholstery. I switch from the velvet pillow to the chenille one, giving it a number of sturdy punches to fluff the filling. I sit for so long – perfectly still — that I wonder if I no longer have the ability to make any part of my body move. This seems possible to me. It seems like an explanation for my paralysis.
*I am actively working on my fifth book, a novel with the tentative title The Reading. The book opens with an older author named Esme reading her work to an audience. An unexpected — and unrecognized — visitor attends her reading and brings events of forty years past squarely into her present. The foreground story of Esme reflecting on a year of her life is loosely based — in theme and in structure — on the J.D. Salinger short story for which the character is named (“For Esme — with Love and Squalor”). Running in the background is the idea that the author bore witness to things in that one year of her past that she believes foretold the awful mess we are in today (Trump, divisions and their resulting strife, inequity, the handling of Covid-19, etc.). Hence, the title The Reading also implies an experience that divines the future. The J.D. Salinger short story and The Reading are ultimately tales of hope and recovery, though set against a background of loneliness, alienation, and trauma.
The excerpt above is from the Introduction section of The Reading.
The audio book of THE ROCKY ORCHARD has been recorded and is in the final stages of production. Actor and voice artist Danielle Joy Foley did an outstanding job narrating the book — bringing life to the characters and beautifully capturing the spirit of the book.
Watch for details about the audio book release, and take a listen to the sample below:
I am actively working on my next book, a novel with the tentative title The Reading. The book opens with an older author named Esme reading her work to an audience. An unexpected — and unrecognized — visitor attends her reading and brings events of forty years past squarely into her present. The foreground story of Esme reflecting on a year of her life is loosely based — in theme and in structure — on the J.D. Salinger short story for which the character is named (“For Esme — with Love and Squalor”). Running in the background is the idea that the author bore witness to things in that one year of her past that she believes foretold the awful mess we are in today (Trump, divisions and their resulting strife, inequity, the handling of Covid-19, etc.). Hence, the title The Reading also implies an experience that divines the future. The J.D. Salinger short story and The Reading are ultimately tales of hope and recovery, though set against a background of loneliness, alienation, and trauma.
Here is a sample from the new book:
“Are you like her at all?”
“Would it kill you to talk in complete sentences, with complete thoughts and all?” I said to Tom. He had come over to where I sat — happily alone at a dining table in the massive dining hall — set his tray down and stood behind the chair, as if his final decision to sit rested on my answer.
“’I purely came over because I thought you looked extremely lonely,’” he said.
“Oh my lord,” I said. “Do you seriously have the entire story memorized? The whole thing? It sure seems like you do.”
“Nah,” he said.
“It’s weird. Kids our age don’t know that story. Generally speaking.”
He shrugged, pulled out the chair and sat down.
“Are you a Salinger fanatic or something?” I asked him.
“Nah,” he said. “I wouldn’t say so.”
“I still think it’s highly odd. Seems like someone who’s got such an exceptionally close relationship with a lesser-known J.D. Salinger story is the kind of person who should be in my English seminar thing. God knows it’s a whole passel of weirdos in there. Not in an awful way, really.”
Tom took a salt shaker from his jacket pocket and proceeded to pour an ungodly amount of salt across every single thing on his plate. “It would save time if you just took the top off,” I said.
“You didn’t answer the question,” Tom said.
“Are you anything like her?”
“Like who?” I asked.
He cocked an eyebrow and stared at me.
“I’m wondering if I might be able to get credit for this. Deciphering the subtle cues and clues of Tom…hey, what’s your last name?”
“Donahue,” he said.
“…deciphering the secret language of Tom Donahue. 101.”
“You’re witty, then,” he said.
“Please notice that I have four cups of coffee on my tray, whereas you have three glasses of milk,” I said. Which means that I have not forgotten your question. I think you are asking me if I am anything like Esme, the character in the story Esme, at least that’s what I think you meant.”
Tom winked at me while shoveling forkfuls of differently flavored salt into his mouth.
“I have a decent vocabulary,” I said. “Otherwise, you’ll have to decide for yourself.”
Considering that my novel, THE ROCKY ORCHARD, released just three weeks ago, of course I should be devoting all of my spare time — when I’m not working at my full-time therapy practice during immensely difficult times for everyone — to getting the word out about my new book. Marketing, in other words.
But the world is upside down, and all of us are impacted. For me, that has brought the urgent necessity to write something new. It brings me a much-needed sense of a future, a time after Covid-19, whenever that may be and whatever that may look like.
So, for the future, please have a look at this section from my next novel. Have a laugh. And do NOT send me notes of kind sympathy. This is F-I-C-T-I-O-N.
It works differently with old bodies. Aches and pains and injuries of all variety must be accommodated, those of the body and other kinds as well. Gino’s body, my body – they are the cases that contain our history and allow us to tote it along from place to place.
Locations that once were lithe and yielding and moist have dried up like old bones. Locations that once were solid and sturdy and persuasive have grown loose and lazy, laying about as if they have earned a life of leisure. Favorite stances of bygone days have demanded to be put away in mothballs. Poses that brought great gasping breathless afternoons have been trotted out and tried, but have proven impossible with the accumulated array of surgery scars, adhesions, prosthetic joints.
It works differently with old bodies. Perhaps the memories of seamless lovemaking where two bodies move agilely and organically in the creation of call-and-response melting melding will remain in the treasure box of time. Now, there are fits and starts. Continual adjustments for a flair of pain here, an ache or cramp there. Things slide out that are meant to remain inside.
In other words, I can no longer avoid a loud, prolonged, symphonic fart from escaping at the moment that, that, that I begin to have a really good time. I suppose if I were a more dignified person I would hold back and thus…hold back. Gino would be devastated, however, as he thinks my farts – at such a time – are purely hilarious. He considers this the most intimate thing any partner has ever shared with him. And, as this is a recent occurrence for me, it is a part of me that I have never shared with another before him.
On the rare occasions when the passage of voluminous gas does not accompany my…having a really good time, Gino is woefully disappointed. Discouraged and self-blaming. “Was it something I did?” Gino will ask. “Did you enjoy yourself?”
I think to myself: well, isn’t this an extremely odd turn of events? Women have been reassuring men since the beginning of time that everything is all right even when they don’t quite…get to the finish line. But, what about when they do get to the finish line, but don’t put the final exclamation point on the fact with the fart accompaniment? I would think the cacophony of other noises that I make would be reassurance enough, but Gino is inconsolable without the final coupe de grace that in any other context would be utterly graceless.
That headline is an actual sentence from my novel The Rocky Orchard, which releases from Amika Press on May 12, 2020.
I began writing the book in December, 2019, when no one had an inkling of how profoundly the world, and each one of its citizens, would be affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Rocky Orchard — as many of the early reviewers have found — is a difficult book to describe without giving too much away. I do believe the book has profound implications for our current time. In the wonderful words of Chicago writer/reviewer David Berner, this book is ultimately “A contemplative and deeply expressed story of human connection, loss, love, heaven and earth, and how we choose to define the mark we leave on the world. ”
Please take a look at my publisher’s pre-order page for a synopsis, sample chapter, and some of the early reviews.
We live in uncertain times. Probably a good idea to PRE-ORDER NOW.
I’m so excited to have just received my Advance Proof copy of THE ROCKY ORCHARD as we make our way to the JUNE 2 RELEASE! Meantime, here is a new excerpt from novel #5, THE READING. This passage begins where the previous post stopped.
Tom continued around the circle making introductions. I decided to preempt the possibility of tanked-up frosh teetering to a standing position and shaking my hand by saying, “Hey, really, don’t get up. No need.”
“This is Pauly,” Tom said. Over there is Nathan. The tall guy is Chip. And right here is Natalie. She’s from Texas.”
I had no idea why Tom singled out the Texas information, or what I was supposed to do with it. I waved kind of lamely at everyone and said, “Hi, all.” I turned to Natalie. “Yeah…Texas. Cool accent, I’m guessing.”
Natalie laughed and said, “Well, I’m thinkin’ it pegs me pretty quick as not being from around here.” She was right. Her drawl was leisurely and thick – to such a degree that it seemed like it must be deliberate. Natalie had very long, disturbingly unhealthy hair. She was quite lean, with long legs and big boobs that she seemed intent on displaying, as her polo shirt was a good couple of sizes too small. Wait. Polo shirt, again.
“Oh,” Tom said, “Oh, God, I’m so sorry. This is Adele.”
I felt like an awful person for taking one look at Adele and understanding completely why Tom would have forgotten about her. She was little, with hair and facial features that appeared to be all one color. She seemed to blend into the background so much that I had a difficult time focusing on her. I thought that this was probably the story of her life – not even being noticed, not significant-seeming enough to be overlooked because she hadn’t been seen in the first place. It made me want to like her, to hope that I would. “Adele!” I said. “Cool. I’ve only known one other Adele in my life. She was the piano teacher for my ballet class when I was a kid. She was a riot.”
“Yeah, it’s not a very common name,” Adele said. I felt an enormous sense of relief that I was able to overcome my initial inclination to laugh when I heard Adele’s voice. High-pitched, squeaky, nasal in a way that seemed to go straight from her mouth to that spot on your forehead, right between your eyes. Instant headache.
“Adele the pianist chain smoked the entire time she was playing classical ballet pieces for us little girls. The ashtray on the edge of her keyboard would be filled by the end of an hour long class. Her voice was so low, and so raspy-hoarse that I’m pretty sure she must have been hitting the whiskey pretty hard, too.” I pantomime like I’m taking slugs from a bottle.
I am trying too hard. Way too hard. I probably have been for a while, certainly since that idiotic remark about “who’s with me, brothers?” I’m some exaggerated version of myself. Aggressively iconoclast, or something. Thank God it’s gotten too dark for everyone to see me blushing. I can feel the heat in my cheeks. The pulsing at my temples.
I do this thing sometimes where I sort of turn off the sound. I stop listening — just for a minute — to what people are saying. I shut out the words. I watch them then, their gestures and their movements. With the sound track off, I can see different things. I saw that everyone was trying too hard. Every person sitting around in this random little group collected by the super extroverted Tom on our third full day of our first year at college.
We had a clean slate. We were all brand new. Each of us understood this in our own way, and the knowledge was at once thrilling and terrifying. We had no idea, none whatsoever, what we were meant to do. We introduced ourselves to other brand new people who knew nothing about who we were before we arrived here. Whether we were the one who spent every Saturday night in the bathroom, leaning into the mirror as we squeezed the zits under the harsh lights. Whether we were the one who left behind a sweet and tender first love full of breathy whispers and dreamy sighs. Whether we were the one whose parents travelled the world and left us completely alone while we rode a unicycle through the maze of our hallways. Whatever we had been, whatever triumphs and suffering lay behind us, we began anew.
THE ROCKY ORCHARD (coming June 2nd) has moved into the cover design and final formatting phase! Take a look at a new section from my next novel, tentatively titled THE READING. I called them the Tommy Twins. They were sprawled on the grass together on one of the endless stream of unbearably hot evenings that festered our entire first week on campus. Most of the freshman class was sprawled across the grass; the need to escape dorm rooms that clutched the day’s heat and would not let it go made the need to lay in the cool grass feel urgent.
Most of the my fellow freshmen lay about, but only one of those freshman called my name as I navigated a diagonal path from one far corner of the massive lawn to the other. I didn’t really know where I was going. Or, more accurately, I wasn’t going anywhere. I was walking. For its own sake.
My third day at college had been one of nonstop meetings, panels, discussions, information sessions, etc., that the college had amassed and assembled for our orientation week. I don’t know, maybe they thought everyone would be consumed with paralyzing homesickness as well as fear and dread of the academic brutalities that lay ahead, but they kept us very busy. I felt like I was at some sort of summer camp where none of the activities made any sense. All of us freshman marched around to the places that our individualized schedules indicated, on time, with our notebooks open and our sharpened pencils in our hands. When the time was up, we gazed down at a solidly white page and were perplexed that there had been nothing whatsoever to record. Unless we doodled; then we had something to show for our time, at least.
Walking – albeit from one far corner of the quadrangle to the other – gave me a weird sense of purpose that had been sorely lacking. Piercing through my overheated, dreamy daze, a voice rang out from a fair distance, “Jo! Hey, Jo from Pennsylvania!” I looked around the general direction that the shout seemed to have come from and saw a guy who shot up from the grass and continually waved a very long, very pale arm in the air as I navigated my way through the bodies of my fellow freshman. There were a number of guys sprawled around him in a haphazard circle, each of whom had their ever-present red cup filled with varying amounts of beer.
“Oh my God,” I said. “Are you seriously sitting here with the freshman directory seeing if you can recognize people from their tiny little pictures and then yelling at them?”
He laughed. His Adam’s apple bounced up and down on his long neck as he did, which I found completely disarmingly charming.
“Well, yeah,” he said. “I guess that’s pretty much exactly what I’m doing. I’m Tom.”
I took a quick glance at the motley group that surrounded him and said, “Did you start out all be yourself tonight and gather this whole group of people already? Pretty impressive work.”
“Yeah, that’s exactly right,” Tom said. “Actually, not really. I’ve met them over the past few days. Hey, Jo, let me introduce you to everyone.” Tom said.
“Oh, right,” I said. “You already know my name from the directory thing. And where I’m from. I feel like I’m at such a massive disadvantage. Having not studied my directory.”
He pointed to a body on the grass, “this is Tom.”
“Tom and Tom?” I said. “Great. Easy to remember. If all of you guys are named Tom, that would be awesome.”
The other Tom stood up, with some effort, put his cigarette in his mouth, rubbed his hands together to shake loose the grass and dirt, and held his hand out for me to shake. “No, just me.” He shook my hand, put the cigarette back in his hand after taking a very big drag, and plopped back down on the lawn.
“Wow,” I said. “A hand shake. Formal, if brief, introduction.”
The first Tom put his hands on his hips and looked up towards the heavens. The second Tom gestured toward him with his cigarette and said, “He hates me. Well, to be fair, we probably hate each other. Equally.”
“Wow,” I said again. “That’s quick work. How long have we all been here – is it three days now?”
“We went to the same high school,” the first Tom said. “We weren’t really friends, but I don’t think anyone actually hates anyone else.”
“OK, well, really glad to hear that,” I said.
“Different crowds. Different friend groups. We didn’t really know each other very well,” first Tom said.
“Then we drove here together.” It was second Tom who said that, and with his words, he shot a highly withering look at first Tom. “Longest eighteen hours of my entire fucking life.”
Tom the first laughed heartily, as if this was genuinely funny and we were all enjoying mirthful, lighthearted banter. The Other Tom sprang up like a shot, jabbed a finger in my direction and said, “Want a beer? I’m gonna get more.”
“Hey thanks,” I said. “I was actually thinking I’d swim way against the tide and demonstrate my radical side by not having any beer this evening.” I shot my fisted arm high above my head and mock-shouted, “Who’s with me, brothers!?”
Tom laughed. Tom the original. A beautiful, genuine, head-thrown-back, open-mouthed laugh. They stood there for a moment, side by side, the two young men named Tom. They both had curly hair, but all similarity ended there. The laughing Tom not only had an infectious and unfettered laugh, but a huge, ready smile as well. He was tall and rangy and slightly uncomfortable in his own body like a growing puppy. It made sense that he was the one person, of everyone I had met thus far, who had called out to me. He was putting himself out there, reaching and stretching his energy outside of himself, seeing if it would land on others.
Cigarette Tom was compact and muscly. Dark brown hair, even darker eyes, deeply tanned skin. He was turned entirely inward, intense energy coiled over and under itself, swirling around and around. It seemed an effort for him to form words, more effort to speak them. And once he had made the effort, the sound of his own voice tormented him.
I had always wanted to be a writer; that’s why I had chosen that school. The college had a special program for people who knew, right from the beginning, that they wanted to major in English literature. That was the closest you could come to studying writing in those days – you could become an English major and take as many creative writing courses as you could cram in along the way. No more than ten people were accepted into this program each year; then those ten embarked on a double credit, year-long journey with a single professor.
I got caught up the picture. Me, hunched over a worn, time-darkened wood desk that generations of eager students had used before me. I would be accompanied by the gentle hum of my Sears portable electric typewriter, bolstered and enthused by continuous cups of rich, black coffee. I would dream up characters as iconic as Big Chief and Nurse Ratchett. I would send the characters on journeys as epic as those of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables. I would devise endings as satisfying as those of Charles Dickens, but with structure and prose as thrillingly avant garde as Virginia Woolf.
I would find my voice. I would ferret it out from the bricks and the stone and the ivy. I would find my voice, and I would let it sing.
Turns out, I really should have read the fine print.
I came from a place where dreams were small. Not small because folks lacked the courage, or the vision, to dream bigger, but because small dreams were a great pleasure, a gentle way to approach a life of contentment. The people across the street from mom and me lived in a tiny little house. As a family of five, they were crawling all over one another just going about the business of living their lives. They made giant bowls of popcorn and watched TV together. They whipped up batches of frosting for no special reason and made them into dessert sandwiches with graham crackers. They had loud arguments. They laughed all the time. When the older two children were already teenagers, they were able to afford their first dishwasher. They rang our doorbell to tell us the news. They invited us over to see it and offered us frosting sandwiches. They walked on air, such was the level of their glee.
When it was time for their oldest boy to go to college, he didn’t look past our home state. No one did. There were a million colleges to choose from as well as the state universities, and desiring to reach further than the many options at hand seemed ungrateful somehow, a muddle of priorities.
My high school made a big deal of me being the first student ever to be accepted to this college. I’m pretty sure that I may have been the first person who had ever applied. In many ways, I embraced – and even idealized – the life of small pleasures and measured dreams. It was a big stretch for me to think about applying to this college in the first place. In truth, I couldn’t even begin to picture what it might really be like to be so far away, in so many different ways, from anything I had experienced.
As I said, I should have read the fine print.
Four months until the June launch of my novel The Rocky Orchard!. Meantime, onward with my newest novel, tentatively titled The Reading. I hope you enjoy the excerpt above.
The harbor has frozen solid in the bleak, squat days of January. Geese trot along in formation where water rippled just last week. The thin sheets of ice have formed fissures, cracks that divide the harbor into tectonic plates of distinct islands with amoebic coastlines. I think of the Leonard Cohen song: there is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.
I think of Leonard Cohen, the last time I saw him perform, late in his life. His smooth rapport with his audience and with his bandmates. Understated, pithy, casually eloquent. I learned later that Cohen carefully scripted every single word that he said during his stage performances, and he repeated that same script at every show for an entire tour. Every word of that seemingly casual banter had been laid out, edited, rehearsed, repeated. I felt cheated at first, when I learned this. Betrayed by the knowledge that he said the exact same things to us, this audience that he seemed so genuinely enchanted by. His vintage sports coat and natty fedora beautifully mirroring the magnificently restored theatre that he was performing in, he had said these identical things to countless others. And then it hit me. He wasn’t a dick; he was a writer. A lifelong believer in the power of words. While studying Zen teachings, he took a vow of silence to see what could be learned from a lack of words. His entire life was centered on words – their presence or their absence — arranging them to reflect our dreams and our agonies.
The harbor is what I see out my window now. Beyond the harbor lies the vast lake, stretching to, well, stretching to forever. To the horizon and to the idea of the horizon. I am well above the treetops, well above my old view where I looked out my windows to the street, to the earth. It grounded me, being at the same level as lives lived, just outside my old window, people rooted to the earth in their comings and goings.
The ground vs. the sky. The near at hand vs. the boundless. I think about how my view – the world in front of my eyes each time I glance up – affects the things that go on inside of me. How am I changed by being high up, far away, by having a vastness before my eyes?
My dog is old now. It was a hard thing to ask of her, the magnitude of a major move at this point in her life. Plagued by joint problems from an early age, the dog’s elbows have eroded in some places and sprouted the unwanted growth of severe arthritis in other places. Her walk has slowed. Her limp is often pronounced.
Her spirit remains undaunted. Each day, I ask her if she wants to see “the ducks,” our catch-all term for the sundry waterfowl that populate the lakefront. I am asking if she is feeling well enough to make the two-block journey to the lake. When we cross the street and reach the ramp that leads down to the underpass, the old girl breaks into a trot. She has figured out that, on the downward incline of the ramp, gravity will do enough of the work that she can feel as if she is running. It thrills her; the lift in her entire being shines out. She is able to run, just as she did for so many years in her youth.
Perspective is everything. On a downward slope, you can feel as if you are flying. From a birds eye view, the scope makes it possible to see a larger slice of one’s own world.
I had always thought of it as the worst year of my life. The year that I was robbed three times. The year that I had a stalker, before we had the word or the concept of such a thing. The year I flirted with the temptation of drowning my sorrows in alcohol as a possible future plan. The year I finally acknowledged that my father did not abandon my mother and me, not in the way she had always said, anyway. The year I acknowledged that my father had committed suicide. The year I finally told my mother that I knew, that I had always known.
And then, a million years later, someone comes to a book reading and tells me that I changed the course of his life that year. That same year. That worst-year-of-my-life year.
Perspective is everything. Perhaps it’s worth going back there, to revisit the story. You’re thinking: but wait, you’ve already given it away. You’ve told us everything that happened that year. Ah, but stories are never about the events. Never.
My fourth novel, A Rocky Orchard, will release on June 2 (Amika Press)! Watch for lots more news as launch events unfold. In the meantime, I am grappling with book #5. The sample above is a recent excerpt.
Writer and literary agent Nathan Bradford said in an article, “Nearly every writer I know is afflicted at some point by the sense that they are a complete and total imposter who does not deserve to be writing a sentence, let alone a whole novel.”
After a writing gap of several weeks on my fifth novel – due to the holidays, a major move to a new home, and getting my fourth novel into production for its June 2nd launch, I was not surprised to re-read what I had just written this past Tuesday and believe that it was possibly the worst, most amateurish, trite, overreaching piece of trash that anyone had ever wasted time on. Grandiose, perhaps; but when I go into self-loathing mode, I go all in. It’s completely consuming at the time. Paralyzing. Soul-wrenching. But it is also familiar. Which, I am sad to say, does not make it any easier. Just more familiar.
By the time Cheryl Strayed wrote her second book, Wild, doubt and self-loathing were so familiar to her that she thought, “Okay, so this is how it feels to write a book.” There’s nothing to do but push through, as best you can. A contest of will with one’s self. A contest where the need to write edges out the paralysis of doubt, even if the margin is a slim, fragile hair.
That same Tuesday, I came up with a totally different idea about how to begin the chapter I was working on. A bit later, I realized that the original material could work well as a later addition to the passage. That’s how any given day of writing can go. The entire gamut from despair to satisfaction, many times over.
Here is a sample of the passage from my fifth novel, tentatively entitled The Reading:
Rooms have stories to tell. Some hold on to their stories; the rooms are grim and tight-fisted and fearful that their stories, their precious histories, will be stolen from them and they will be left with nothing. Other rooms are dying to tell you about their past. It leaks out everywhere – the place where broken paneling reveals the tattered stuffing within the walls where a chair toppled during a drunken argument. The chip on a faded picture frame of an equally faded painting holds the memory of an exuberant toast given during a bachelorette party, though the marriage was fraught with deception from well before the wedding itself. The exact places where much-varnished wood has been rubbed raw by a bartender who polishes endlessly when conversations sadden him past the point of endurance. He sidles along the bar, moving away from the words. He rubs, and he rubs.
This was a friendly room. Old, tired even, but welcoming. A room that stretched out its hand and let you know it was pleased that you had come. Nonetheless, I was nervous before that reading. No rhyme or reason to it. No way I could ever uncover something that explained why I was so nervous sometimes – jumpy and clammy and hands shaking – and other times, I wasn’t nervous at all. I would feel comfy and relaxed, and like every single person staring at me was a kind and kindred soul who wished me nothing but the best.
This was one of the nervous times. I got there early. I always get there early. I like to check out the room, feel the feel of it for a time. Because rooms do hold their histories, and they do tell their stories, if you take the time to pay attention, look around, and listen to the walls.
I sat down at a table near the far back of the lengthy room. But the far back turned out to be the far front, as it was right next to the spot where a tall, wild-haired woman was setting up a microphone stand. I supposed that I was sitting a few short feet away from where I would be standing when I read from my latest book. That’s why I was there, in that room, trying to settle into the accumulation of what had occurred in all the time before I was due to stand in front of the microphone, which was still in the future as I was thinking all of this.
Seven o’clock on a Thursday night. Early. A seemingly random time to take a shower, but I had drawn out dinner as long as I could with endless cups of coffee, and I wasn’t ready for the evening – meaning either gathering folks to head to the bar, or possibly studying something. It was mid-winter, and the icy gray relentlessness had dug its claws deep into me. I took showers at all kinds of haphazard times, when I needed to feel the profound warmth that only full immersion can bring. Growing up, I relied on baths. But there were no such things as bathtubs at college. Nor were there children. Nor dogs. There were all kinds of things that you never saw; they simply disappeared from one’s landscape for years.
I had worked up a bountiful cloud of steam. The shower’s intense heat within the cold of the marble bathroom cause the column of steam to shoot toward the ceiling in a swirling frenzy. I closed my eyes and luxuriated in the feeling of my fingertips massaging the shampoo all through my scalp while the water fell on my abdomen and cascaded down my legs. With my eyes still closed, I turned around, threw my head back and rinsed the shampoo from my hair, feeling the rivers of suds tumble down my back and pool around my feet.
When my hair was fully rinsed, I opened my eyes. A pair of dark brown eyes stared straight at me, framed by the fingertips of two hands. The top of his head, encased in a ratty dark blue stocking cap, poked up from the back wall of the shower stall. The eyes. All I could see were the eyes. I couldn’t figure out what in the world he was standing on, that he would be able to look over the top of the shower wall. I couldn’t figure out what the hell he was doing, meaning, what, exactly, was his plan?
The silence was deadly.
I whipped around to face the other direction. Part of his body was raised over the opposite shower wall. He seemed to be hoisting himself. He seemed to be trying to crawl over the top of the shower wall to get inside the stall with me. It didn’t seem like a good idea to scream. I knew there was no one else around. I figured he was probably carrying – if not a gun, then certainly a knife. From what I could see, he seemed huge. Six feet three, maybe six-four. It just didn’t seem like a good idea to scream.
In the few seconds I took to weigh my options, I saw him out of the corner of my eye. That eye again. One eye this time. Looking at me. Looking through the slight space between the shower door and the door frame. The bulk of his body was directly behind the shower door. I put the full force of my weight into it and pushed the shower door right into his face. Right into his fucking face. Fast thinker, he turned out to be. He shoved the door back toward me, and he ran like hell out of the bathroom and down the five flights of stairs and out the freshman quadrangle gate and into the night.
I stood in the bathroom, with the shower still running, shivering head to toe. My teeth chattered. My body, bright pink from the scorching water, felt like it had no blood in it at all, as if the terror had leached it right out of my skin. At some point I turned off the water but felt swallowed by the silence, terrified by the absence of the sound. I turned the shower back on, focused hard on the sound of the stream so I could hold it inside of me, then turned the handle off again.
I wrapped myself in my towel and looked at my reflection in the mirror above the perfectly polished sinks. I needed to see myself. I needed to make sure that I was still there, still me. Though I had seen the man with the huge, bloodshot brown eyes bolting down the stairs after he tore out of the bathroom, I couldn’t trust what I had seen. I stayed in the bathroom for a long time, then tentatively, slowly, cracked the bathroom door open a bare sliver and looked around for any sign that he may still be close.
Nothing. The polished marble of the common area on the fourth-floor landing, the old staircase, four closed doors. Wait, not all of the doors were closed. The door to my dorm room was ajar.