“Nikita,” an excerpt from my novel “You, in Your Green Shirt”

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I have longed to be the title character in the film La Femme Nikita.   She  decides one day that from that minute forward, she has no past.  She refuses to discuss it.  Ever again. 

One afternoon, she stops at a local grocery store.  The man at the check-out counter makes a shy attempt  to engage her in conversation.  She can see a genuine kindness in him, a fundamental openness.  She invites him to her apartment and they prepare dinner together.  He never leaves.  They love one another passionately and devotedly.  He yearns to know more about her, about her past.   The yearning shows as an expression of worried expectation on his face when she is not looking.  But he knows he can never ask her, that she will never tell him.

This seems like the best possible solution to me, every part of it.    I go to five different grocery stores in the area, including two supermarkets, a warehouse club and two small neighborhood stores, at all hours of the day and night, needing only one or two things at a time but full of hopeful possibility.  If ever the line between reality and fiction were clear, believe me, it’s in the difference between Nikita’s paramour and the real people manning the check-out lines in suburban American grocery stores. 

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Nikita resolves to start a whole new life, and she does.  A life with no past.

There’s a man on my block, around my age.   He moved in to an apartment down the street when he left his wife of nearly thirty years.  He has a whole new life.  A younger, long-legged, smiling inamorata whom I see driving his car around, or I see the two of them getting out of the car with bags of groceries for the evening’s meal.  Just like Nikita.  They are always smiling at one another, and though there is somewhat of the tentativeness and gentleness of a new love, there is also the ease. 

 “Is it really so easy?  Is it  as easy as you make it look?  This business of having a whole new life?”  I am dying to ask him this.  But I don’t.

Sometimes I study him.  The way he bounds out of his apartment when he is running late.  The way he balances his brief case, gripping it confidently and tightly in one hand while swinging the other arm briskly back and forth, back and forth.  I study his movements, his gestures, as if I am a student of method acting.  As if I believe that perfectly adopting every nuance of his behavior will hold the secret, will open up my own doorway to a whole new life.

That the next time those glass and silver doors at one of the five grocery stores whooshes open to welcome me, and I stroll in, confidently gripping my purse in one hand while the other arms swings briskly back and forth, that it will happen.  There he will be at the check-out.  He will make a shy attempt at conversation, and I will see his kindness.  We will make dinner with the fresh groceries I have just purchased, and he will never leave.

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This is what I am thinking: that maybe one day I can be Nikita.  Maybe if I go back once more, just once more.  If I can put it all in order.  This is what I need you for, to go there with me, to be my witness. 

I read something recently.  It said that the hardest part, the most arduous hurdle, is not learning how to trust a man again.  It is learning how to trust yourself.  And I thought: yes, that’s it.  That’s exactly it.  How can I be sure there was not something that I missed.  Something that I failed to see, failed to understand.    Maybe early on, maybe even right from the beginning.  Maybe not even from the beginning of my marriage, but from the beginning of my very life.

A Little Birdie Told me (excerpt)

Just because it feels like time, here is an excerpt from my second novel.  The narrator is not quite sixteen years old.

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May 26, 1972

            I can’t remember how old I was when I first started thinking that I had been born into a family of aliens, but I know that I was pretty young.  For some reason, this feeling was always most pronounced when we were sitting around the dining room table, eating our nightly dinners together.  Mom at one end of the table, Dad at the other, and Lizzy and I sitting directly across from one another.  Every so often Mom would rearrange the dining room and face the table in the opposite direction, exactly perpendicular to where it had been before.  She did this regularly, at random intervals and without warning, so it’s hard to get a clear picture in my mind when I try to think of this scene. 

             I guess I feel like Emily in “Our Town,” you know, after she dies, and she’s up in heaven or whatever exactly it is, and she’s horrified, simply horrified at how everyone just seems to be going through the motions of life, unaware of everything, and she begs and begs to be allowed to go back, and everyone tells her this is a terrible awful idea, but still she begs, and so she’s allowed to return, for one day.  But she finds out that everyone is right.  She goes back,  she runs around, she’s frantic, she wants to let everyone know how much they’re missing, how precious every single thing is, how fragile, and full, and fleeting is every second, but they just go on. Moving through their lives in blind slow motion.  In the end it’s too much for her, too painful.  She begs to go back, to take her chair among the dead.

            So there we sit at the dinner table, night after night. 

            It just feels like there aren’t the same things going on inside of these people, like they exist on some kind of a different plane.   I want to wave my hand in front of their faces half the time.  Or snap my fingers in front of their eyes to see if they’d really blink.  But really, I wish I was there with them.  On their plane, I mean.  I really do.  Their world seems simple, and purposeful, like they fit right into the world like a hand in a soft fuzzy glove. 

            When I was little I would follow Mom around the house while she did all of her chores – changed the sheets, started the wash.  I would sit and watch her, just watch her, as she fed the bed sheets through the giant, hot, steaming “mangle” we used to have that ironed them.  She pressed the pedal with her knee, and moved her hands and arms back and forth, barely missing the burning metal plate, as she offered the sheets like a gift into the presser.  A smile on her face the entire time.  Pearls at her throat.  A dreamy and resolute expression like she knew exactly who she was and what she was meant to do. 

            I thought if I followed her around, watched her movements, studied them, copied them, strained to commit them to memory, that I could be the same, that I, too, could fit right into my life like she could, like Lizzie can.

            But the truth is, inside of me, I felt more like Captain Ahab.  When he’s talking to the blacksmith, and he says to him, “Thou should’st go mad…Why dost thou not go mad?”

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            OK, I’m starting to sound like a total dork.  I don’t want you to think that I’m one of those people who goes around quoting from books all the time, dear God save me, or that I don’t have any of my own ideas.   That I’m one of those people who swallows everything whole and then regurgitates on cue. Maybe I am a little dorky, though.  I mean, I was the only person in my entire class that actually liked Moby Dick.  Even the teacher looked at me a little funny when I would get excited about a particular passage that we were supposedly discussing.  But the truth is, I loved it, every word, every obsessive detail.

            OK, I also just realized that I’ve been comparing myself to totally fictional characters.  People that are invented, not real.  Weird.  But I guess that just proves my point that I feel like an alien.  Like I know exactly what Ahab meant.  Like sometimes when I do something so simple, so everyday, like brushing my teeth at night.  Sometimes I go into the bathroom, and I take my toothbrush –a nice new one every six months when we go the dentist as per ADA standard recommendation — and I open the mirrored cabinet that hides the Crest – you know, the fresh, minty green paste that sports that wonderfully comforting and pretentious and official, medical sounding paragraph: “Crest can be an effective, cavity-preventing dentifrice when used in combination with a program of twice-daily brushing and regular professional care.”  Wow.  I hope they paid their ad agency millions and millions for that one – and I squeeze my line of preventive dentifrice on to my brush, I know just what Ahab meant  I close that mirrored-cabinet door, and I see my face staring back at myself, and it’s like I suddenly get a picture, like a million mirror images, or how many times in my mere fifteen years I have stood right in this spot, and done this exact same thing, and then I get a picture of a million more times, way way into the future, doing this thing, this teeth bushing thing.  And I freeze; I just simply freeze.  I momentarily forget how to go on.  How to do anything.

            Dear lord, I can just imagine trying to explain this to Lizzie or Mom.  Especially since this is the exact kind of thing that makes them feel all warm and toasty inside.  Routine.  Repetition.  Detail.             

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“Pushing the River” excerpt introduces Auggie and Bess

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“Now, exactly what is our role here, Madeline?”  Auggie was barely able to contain his delight.  “What do you need from us?”

            After the walk with Ellie, Madeline’s renewed burst of enthusiasm for the prospect of Living in the Moment manifest in the form of shooting off a text to Dan: “Hey, no idea what you’re up to this evening, but having some friends over for dinner.  Join us later if you’re free.  I made pie.”  8069027891_3e0726af21_bHe had texted back that he’d love to come by, but didn’t want to infringe on her time with good friends.  He suggested he stop by around eight.

            “Auggie, you’re being weird,” Madeline said.

            “No, no.  I’m serious.  We want to be there for you. We just need to know what our role is.”  Auggie radiated a decidedly boyish quality, in the best sense.  And in his unbridled enthusiasm for the task at hand, he was adorable.  Bess nearly always found him adorable, and made this obvious in frequent, glowingly loving glances at him.  Across the dinner table from Madeline, the two of them radiated exuberance, good will and love.  It delighted Madeline, and made her misty, and wistful, and, as her son would have said when he was a little boy, sickenated.

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            Auggie continued: “I mean, are we chaperones here?  Do you want us to stick around until after he leaves?  We would love to do that for you.”  He put his arm around Bess, and pulled her head over to lean against his own.  “Wouldn’t we, babe?  Chaperones!”  He caught Bess mid-sip with her wine, and as she gurgled an assent into her glass, he said, “Or wait.  Do I have the wrong idea here?  Maybe you want us to leave right away!  Maybe you’re dying to be alone with him! Maybe the whole ‘why don’t you come over while I have friends here thing’ is just a ruse to make it seem innocent.”  Bess could barely get her wine glass safely onto the table, she was laughing so hard.

            “Auggie, seriously, don’t do anything one bit differently than if Dan wasn’t here.  Really.  Stay as long as you want to stay.   Leave when you want to leave!  Like always!! ”

            “What about a sign?  Maybe we should come up with a sign – two signs – one if you think it’s going well, and you want us to leave so the two of you can be alone; one if it’s not going so well, and you want us to stay.”

            “It really doesn’t matter what I say, does it?  You’re deep into your own thing here.”

            “F I N E,” Auggie said.  “Mission aborted.”

            “More pie, Auggie?”

            “You betcha.”

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Writing: Lessons Learned?

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I promised myself that if/when I ever wrote another novel after the first two, I would not put one word down until I had a story, a plot let’s say, with a distinct beginning, middle and end that was already known to me.  AND, that I would write the thing in order, starting with the first word of the first chapter and proceeding in an orderly fashion to the end.

            In this way, I thought, I could avoid the pitfalls and stumbling blocks of the past. (I’m not delusional; in no way did I think this meant I could avoid all pitfalls and stumbling blocks – only, if I was extremely lucky, the ones that sucked little bits of my soul as I wrote the first two novels).

            My first novel began as a memoir, for which I was lucky enough to land a wonderful literary agent rather quickly.  She and I worked really hard together; she edited my manuscript with the proverbial fine-toothed comb, and I re-re-re-rewrote the book extensively based on her suggestions.  Here is where I summarize several years of events in one sentence by saying, long story short, I ultimately decided to rewrite the entire thing as a novel, based on early feedback from editors at publishing houses. 

            The novel is episodic and, in parts, impressionistic.  It moves around between the past and the present.  What this translated into, at various points, was me having hard copies of all 45 chapters spread out on the tables, floor, window sill and chairs in my dining room, thinking about the exponential alternatives there were for putting the fictionalized chapters in the order that worked best for the book overall.  Sometimes I spent long hours staring at pieces of paper that had chapter names listed – by this time I knew the material so well, I could look at title names and rearrange the whole manuscript in my mind.  Then do it again.  Then…

            This was not fun.

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            When I wrote the 2nd novel, I had the experience that authors dream of – I felt as if I were channeling the main character.  She told her story to me, clearly, in wonderful bursts, and I wrote it down.  Sadly, horrifyingly, she went silent.  For a really, really long time.  She had no idea where to go, and I had no idea how to end her story.  She and I stayed there for a long, long time.

           AND, as her story was told via entries in her journal, 56 entries to be exact, I realized again that the order of events could be, and needed to be, reordered.  Yep. 56 chapters spread across the dining room.

            The 3rd novel has a very definite story to tell.  It has a beginning, middle and end.  I!  know!  how!  it!  ends!!  Its characters are full and fleshed out.  Its narrator has a distinct and clear voice. Sigh.  Perhaps next time I will take the 2nd part of my own advice and write something in order.  Do writers do this?

            I can hear the universe laughing.

*Artwork is two designs that were considered for the cover of my novel “You, in Your Green Shirt”