Aggressively Iconoclast

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.

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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.

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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.

trying too hard

 

 

 

The Tommy Twins

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.        ffet.grass2I 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.

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“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.”

young-man-smoking

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.”

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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 loved them both.  Immediately.

A Shower in Winter

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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.

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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?

He vanished.

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.

Intruder with Knife

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.

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