New Mother

Julie Marie Wade

You cannot go back. julie marie wade

Leah had sketched the words on every scrap of paper, every grocery list, even the coupons she handed over at the store, the newspapers she bound with string and set out for recycling.  They, too, bore her new mantra beneath the bylines—four words from a soft-tipped pencil she rarely sharpened. 

Leah was a lucky new mother in that her child slept well.  She could lay him down after lunch and not hear him again until close to supper.  These were the hours she had been told to savor—to do something special for herself. “You should take hot baths and read books you never thought you’d have time for,” her mother advised, the faraway voice on the telephone she no longer recognized.  But no sooner had she settled into the tub than she heard the buzzer on the dryer and realized it was time to change loads—transfer the wet ones, fold the warm ones, prepare for another cycle of burp cloths and bibs.  The clothes, it turned out, needed the bath more than she did. 

Sometimes Leah sat a long time at the bottom of the stairs, the soiled garments at her feet, the soft light streaming through the cellar door.  She watched the day stretch ahead of her, then beyond, wide as the winter prairie, bare as the winter prairie, and she feared she would never again glimpse what was buried under that snow.

You cannot go back. julie marie wade

“Hello? Leah?—I tried knocking, but there was no answer.”  She heard the thump of thick heels, and then Zoe appeared on the landing.  Zoe, like no,  one syllable without an umlaut.  Seeing Leah below her, she called out, “Oh my God!  Are you in pain, Lay?  Did you fall?”

“No, nothing like that.”  Leah turned slowly—she had lost her speed, surrendered it all to caution. “I was just sitting here.  I was just—waiting for the laundry to dry.”

“You have chairs for that, don’t you?  A comfortable couch?”

“I know it sounds silly,” she said, pushing herself up with her hands, “but sometimes I think I just get up there and I have to come straight back down here again. I know I shouldn’t be—I sleep a lot now—but I still can’t seem to shake this tired.”

“Can I help you?” Zoe offered, her hands outstretched.

“Really, no, I’m fine.  Embarrassed actually.  It’s one o’clock, and I’m still in my bathrobe and slippers.”

“Don’t sweat it,” Zoe smiled, wrapping an arm around her friend and leading her through the pantry to the hall.  “I’ll make some coffee, and—I brought a Bajan sweet bread.”

“You didn’t.” julie marie wade

“I did. They’re back by popular demand at the bakery, and you know I can’t sell them without taking some home.  That would be a far too efficient business model.”

Leah leaned against a cushioned bar stool and watched Zoe work her way around the kitchen: every gesture smooth and precise, the way she had of making slicing and serving a dance.  Zoe stood tall in high boots and tight-fitting jeans—dark denim with slim, pointed pockets in back—and a lavender fleece vest, the perfect complement to her spume of red hair.

“I shouldn’t be eating any of this,” Leah sighed.  “At the rate I’m going, I’ll never get my figure back—such as it was.”

Zoe ground the beans, scooped them generously into the waiting filter.  When she looked at Leah, her brows were knit in problem-solver fashion.  “You need to start being nicer to yourself,” she said. 

“Nicer doesn’t take the weight off—and neither does your devil bread.  But it is delicious.”

***

Leah spread a white linen cloth over the polished mahogany table.  The woman Michael had hired—the one who came once a week, avoided Leah’s eyes, and didn’t do laundry (it was in their agreement that she wouldn’t “operate machinery,” which included the vacuum cleaner, too)—seemed to have a particular passion for what could be done with an old rag and a bottle of furniture polish.  She liked to make all the surfaces shine.

“The house is still filthy when she leaves, Michael,” Leah had complained.  “The only difference is that it looks clean.”

“I’ll have a talk with her,” he said.  “Where she comes from, women don’t do the negotiating.  Instructions come from the man.”

Leah didn’t know where she came from and didn’t care to.  In fact, she fantasized the next time the woman arrived she would play a tape-recorded Donald Trump shouting “You’re fired!” and see if that voice was manly enough to convey her message.

“Lost in thought, are you?”  Leah refocused her eyes, and there was Zoe, still smiling, holding out a slice of warm bread propped on the saucer of a piping hot coffee cup.

“You do everything so fast,” she remarked.  “Since I had Liam, it takes me forever to get anything done. Mostly, I don’t.”

“Isn’t that typical, though?  I bet a lot of new mothers feel that way.”

There was that phrase again—new mother.  Leah had heard it so often in the last four months she feared it would replace her name.  Before long, she wouldn’t be a “new mother,” yet she would always be a “mother,” and in time, an “old mother,” someone even Liam didn’t want around.  The thought of it—this word competing with her own name, competing even with her general name of “woman”—threatening to replace them both as the truth of who she was—caused Leah to brace her hands on the chair and stand bent over, gasping for air.  This happened from time to time and had been happening more since the birth of her child. Michael called it a “momentary lapse” and told her she should drink more tea, get more rest, stop pushing herself so hard.  She scowled at him: As if there was any choice.  By the time Zoe returned from the kitchen, Leah had taken control of her breath and posed herself on the chair, not wanting her friend to see her that way, not wanting to appear any more pathetic than she already felt herself to be.   

“Do me a favor,” Leah said.

“Sure. Anything.” julie marie wade

“I don’t want to talk about myself today—or the baby.  I want to talk about you—maybe do a little vicarious living.  Do you mind?”

“No,” Zoe replied, “I don’t mind.  I’m just afraid I’m going to disappoint you.  I have nothing sensational to report.”  With that, she tore a small piece of bread dusted with powdered sugar and dipped it into her coffee.  “Hmmm…manna from heaven,” she sighed, and closed her eyes with the impossibly long lashes.

“Then make something up.  I don’t care what it is, so long as it takes me far away from here…Are you seeing anyone?”

“No one of interest.” julie marie wade

“Trust me—I’m interested.  I watched a two-hour special on dung beetles yesterday.”

Zoe laughed and sliced more bread.  “Well, when I say no one of interest, I mean no one of interest even to me.  I’m beginning to think all the nice girls are straight, and all the straight girls are married.”  She handed Leah another slice, which she declined at first, then reluctantly accepted.

“Michael says it’s important not to eat your pain.  That’s why he bought me the exercise bike—so I can ride it when I’m feeling hopeless and out of control.”

“Is it really hopelessness?” Zoe asked.  “I mean, I know it’s hard, and Michael has to travel so much, but Liam’s getting bigger now and sleeping through the night.”  She hesitated, picking small dried cherries from the bread.  “I thought this is what you wanted.”

Leah sipped her coffee to keep her lips from trembling.  “Let’s talk about you,” she said. 

“What do you want?” julie marie wade

“Some version of what you have, I suppose—someday, not now.  A person who holds my interest, a house with window treatments, maybe a big, drooly dog of some kind.  I’m not sure about motherhood, though I’d consider it,” she sighed—“but if we have a child, I’ll make her carry it, whoever she is.  Giving birth is not on my life’s to do list.” Then, Zoe laid a thin, freckled hand on Leah’s, which was dark and plump by comparison.  “Nothing against you, of course, or of all the women who do it every day.  I’m just a big chicken when it comes to that sort of thing.”

“I am too, apparently,” Leah murmured, thinking of her sliced stomach muscles, the scar that stretched like streetcar tracks across her abdomen. 

You cannot go back.

***

“I ran into Missy Compton the other day,” Zoe remarked.  “I guess it’s Missy Jordan now.  At any rate, she was all atwitter about the reunion, and she asked if I was going, and I couldn’t bring myself to say yes.  I mean, I’m not going, but if anyone could convince me otherwise, it would be you.”

“Do you think I want to see those people?” 

“Well, you’ve got something to show off,” Zoe teased.  “C’mon, that rock alone could make some heads roll.” 

Leah looked down at her diamond-studded with sapphires, the coveted Marquis cut that twice she had let slip down the drain and had to retrieve with the rusty head of a hanger.  “Fifteen years.  That’s something.  Is the future what you thought it would be?”

Zoe walked over to the window and slid open the interior shutters so they could see the street in the distance and the flower boxes brimming with snow.  “Just about,” she said.  “I wanted a bakery, you wanted a family—we did our thing, and for the most part, it seems to be working out.”

You cannot go back. 

Leah wanted to say it aloud.  She wanted to clutch Zoe’s wrist bone in her rising panic and shout at the top of her lungs: You cannot go back!  Instead: “How are you not terrified?” she asked, her voice tiny and solemn, her face but a shadow in the frugal January light.

“Everything always works out,” Zoe promised, pulling her chair close and leaning her body closer.  “Part of it’s just the winter.  You always feel a little sad in winter, a little scared—everyone does—but it passes. You’ll see.  Six months from now, you won’t even remember the way this feels.”

What Leah remembered was the way Zoe used to look at her in high school.  She was famous for her impish grins, her Anne of Green Gables earnestness, the way she would lie to the math teacher right to his face and never flush, walk away breezily with a homework extension or a higher grade.  But Leah had intercepted glances, had caught Zoe smiling shyly in her direction, with nothing of her signature moxie.  She found herself wishing that her boyfriend John—and later even Michael, her husband—gazed at her with such attentive eyes. 

Zoe snapped her fingers.  “Lay? Post-hypnotic suggestion?”

“I’m sorry,” she murmured. 

“You’re tired,” Zoe said, patting her hand and standing up to collect their cups. “Shall I get you more coffee, or would you like to lie down for a while?”

“I was just thinking how I’ll never go parasailing.”

“What?”

Parasailing.  I always wanted to do that.”

“So you’ll do it,” Zoe replied.  “You’ve still got a few good years left” and grinned at her friend.  “Sometimes I think I’ll never have sex again, but it always turns around.”

“You don’t understand.”  Leah’s desperation was mounting, but Zoe seemed impervious, refused to permit it. “There are things I won’t do now, not because I can’t do them or because I’m too old to do them, but because it wouldn’t be responsible.  I could get hurt, and then where would my son be?  Michael says we can’t think about ourselves so much anymore—we have to think about the future with Liam in the foreground.”

“Well, he gets on a plane every week, doesn’t he?  That’s dangerous.  Driving is dangerous.  Hell, people fall getting in and out of the bathtub, and you’re not going to stop bathing, are you?”  Zoe came and stood behind her, stroking her hair.

“It’s greasy. I’m sorry,” Leah winced.

“Don’t apologize to me—for anything.  We’ve been friends too long for that kind of formality.”  Leah closed her eyes and let her shoulders settle again, her hands unclench from the seat of the chair.  “Why don’t you let me draw you a bath?” Zoe offered.  “It’ll feel good—and I promise it won’t kill you,” she whispered in Leah’s ear.

“I have laundry—”

“I’ll take care of it.”

“I have to spot-treat some of the shirts for the next load, and—”

“Lay, I know how to do laundry.  I may live in Single Land, but we still have washing machines there.  Next week they’re even sending us samples of Clorox color-safe bleach.”

“I’m sorry—”

Zoe slid her long, pale hand across Leah’s mouth.  “No more apologies.  No more protests aimed at people who are trying to help you.  All right?”

Leah nodded. She brought her own hand to her face, stretched it over Zoe’s, kissed the deep crease in her palm.

“You’re sweet,” Zoe said, and kissed the crown of Leah’s head, there where the first silver hairs mingled with the brown.  “Let me start the bath.”

***

When she heard the tap at the bathroom door, Leah startled.  Had she fallen asleep?  Had she been dreaming?  The water was cold now, her toes badly pruned.

“Look who’s here,” Michael smiled, stepping in from the hall with Liam in his arms.

“You’re home.” Her voice was flat, though she had meant for it to rise.

“I got an earlier flight,” he said.  “I thought maybe we’d get dinner out.”

As Michael approached the tub, Leah felt herself shrinking, had to fight the urge to cover up. “That would be nice.  Just give me a few minutes to dress.”

Michael sat down on the toilet seat and gazed at Liam.  “Look at how perfect he is.  I’m so jealous that you get to see him every day.”

“I’ll need to nurse before we go,” she said, her voice so low it seemed like growling.  Michael didn’t notice. 

“Where are we going?

She glared at him, but he was busy adoring their child.  “To dinner—where do you think?”

“Oh, I thought we’d stay in,” he said.  “I can pick up some take-out, or we can have something delivered.  I’m up for anything.  You choose.”

You cannot go back.  The words flashed, marquee-style, on the tile walls.

“I’d rather go out,” she said.  “I haven’t left this house for three days.”

“Don’t you think it’d be easier—and then if he starts crying and we’re in the restaurant—it’s too late to ask anyone to babysit.”

“Maybe Zoe would.”

“I ran into her,” Michael smiled.  “She was just leaving when I arrived.  She left us some bread from the bakery and folded all the clothes.”  Leah watched the tassels on his shoes twitter as he tapped his feet on the checkered floor.  “I always liked her.”

“Everyone likes Zoe,” Leah sighed.  “Don’t you know—she was voted Best Personality Girl of the Class of 1995. And Best Legs.  And Most Likely to Get into a Bar Brawl.”

Michael rocked the baby without looking up.  “It’s still so funny to me that she’s gay.”

“Why is that funny?”

“Well, not funny ha-ha, but amusing, I mean.  Do you know how many men in this town—”

“What does their desire have to do with hers?” Leah intercepted him.  She pulled the curtain closed before she rose to her feet, using the towel bar to steady herself.

“Do you need some help?” Michael asked.

“You have your hands full,” she replied, “and I’m fine.”

“It’s nothing against Zoe,” he continued.  “I’m not trying to say she shouldn’t be who she is.”

“Then, what are you trying to say?”  Leah poked her head out from behind the curtain and studied him as he stared enraptured at their child.

“Nothing,” Michael replied.  “I don’t want to start anything—”

“Could you leave then?  I’d like some privacy.”

***

An hour later, they sat together at the dining table, Chinese food cartons bulging before them, Leah in her bathrobe again with a fresh towel wrapped around her head. 

“Shall I fix you a plate?” Michael offered.

“That’s fine.”

“Tell me what you want.”

“Does it matter?”

He stopped, laid down the spoon, let his eyes roam the length of the table until they came to rest on Leah’s vacant face.  “Is this how it’s going to be from now on?” Michael asked, loosening his tie and letting his collar fall open like a torn sail.

“How is it for you?” she replied.  “Do tell me. I’m dying to know.”

This,” he said, gesturing toward her with a wide, emphatic palm.  “It’s either sarcasm or silent treatment.  It has been the last few times I’ve been home.”

“Interesting.” Leah folded her arms and leaned back in the chair.  “I’m curious. Why do you think it’s been like this—” mimicking his gesture, then resuming her pose.

“I don’t know. Dan says it could be hormones, that Shelley had a hard time adjusting after—”

“So you talk to Dan about me?”  Michael scratched his light stubble and looked down, guilty.  “What do I have to do to get on that list?”

“What do you mean?”

“The list of people you talk to about me.”

Michael was pretty, Leah thought, observing her husband like a specimen, something apart from herself and bound by her purview.  Too pretty to be faithful? she mused.  His slender face and hazel eyes.  His softly cleft chin.  Leah wondered what Michael had been voted in high school.

“I can’t play these games all the time,” he said, rolling up his sleeves now, becoming determined.  “Tell me what you want, and I’ll do it.” 

“I did tell you what I want.  I said I wanted to go out to dinner.”

“Lay!”

“You explained why it wasn’t practical.  I understand. I am familiar with the strength of your veto.”

“Do you want some of this or not?” Michael demanded, his cheeks flaming beneath the gold shadow of a new beard.  When Leah said nothing, he served himself and ate hungrily, angrily, in silence.  She wrote You cannot go back in junior high school cursive with her finger on the dustless table.  

Then, Michael softened.  His mood changed.  “Maybe we could go away next weekend,” he said.  “Someplace warm?  Miami maybe.”

“Sounds impractical.  Who’ll take the baby?”

Michael cocked his head.  “We will.”

“I don’t see how that’s much different from staying here,” she said.

“Bright sun? Palm trees?  Strolls on the beach?”  His lips turned up gently.  “Room service?”

“It’s a long way to fly with a baby,” Leah replied.

“It’d be worth it.  It’d be—” he groped for the word, that helpless, pretty specimen of hers—“romantic.

“Since when are you interested in romance?”

“Leah, for Chrissake, just say what you mean!  I’m sick of all your little codes and rhetorical questions.”

“All right. Eight months.  No sex.  What now?”

He looked down again, cracked the fortune cookie in his hand—not the usual way, but single-fisted, so it shattered, a confetti of hard flour on his plate.  “It’s not for lack of trying,” he muttered at last.

“You never had any trouble trying before.  You were always so persuasive in that department.”  Leah was strangely enjoying herself now.  Everything out on the table, Michael squirming under her gaze.

“You never had a baby before!  I don’t know the wait time…I figured you would let me know when you were ready.”

“I did, Michael. Two months ago.  But you were so tired from the red-eye, and then six weeks ago, but the baby was crying, and then a month ago—”

“Stop.”  He held up his hand like a pretty, helpless crossing guard caught in the intersection without his vest or flag.  “This isn’t about blame.  This is just an observation.”  She watched his chest rise and fall under his wrinkled shirt. “You’ve been distant.  Everything seems to mean the opposite of what it used to mean.  I didn’t want to force anything on you—”

“I appreciate your concern,” Leah said, rising slowly and walking around the table to where Michael sat with his sleeves rolled up, his collar gaping.  “I just wish I believed it was really concern for me.”

Michael’s brow creased, and he looked up at her, puzzled.  Leah lifted his fortune from the plate.  You like Chinese food.  “Who else would it be for?”

Leah patted his cheek before turning around.  “My mother always warned me—don’t marry a man who’s prettier than you are.  Nothing good will come of it.” 

They did not go to Florida.  Michael fired the housekeeper, and Leah kept the exercise bike as a makeshift garment rack. When he left for the airport, they kissed tersely in the dark, and he promised to call.  Leah invited Zoe to come for lunch the following day.

“What’s with the formal invitation?” Zoe asked.  “You usually just text something like get over here.”

“It’s not that kind of lunch,” Leah said, a lilt in her voice.  “I’m serving white wine and tuna niçoise—made from scratch, mind you—and it’s going to be…lovely.  Restaurant quality, but without the noise.”

“You know, we could go to a restaurant.  Save you the trouble.  Let someone wait on us for a change.”

“No,” Leah replied.  “I want you to come here.  Consider this a thank you for all the help you’ve given me these last few months.”

“I won’t come if it’s some kind of payback,” Zoe said.  “But if it’s just a lunch between friends—no gratitude involved—then I’ll be there.  What can I bring?”

“More wine. I only have one bottle.”

“Aren’t you nursing?  I mean—is that allowed?”

“Bread, then,” Leah said, and hung up the phone.

***

When Zoe arrived, the note on the kitchen door read Come In!  Zoe rubbed her heels on the old straw mat, brushed off the snow, and when she came inside, she left her ear muffs dangling over the door knob so she would remember them when it was time to go.

“Leah?”  She set a Tuscan boule to warm in the oven, then wandered into the dining room where the table was set, the white tapers already burning.

“Zoe.” Leah whispered her name so softly Zoe didn’t hear her at first.  When at last she turned, there was Leah holding a vase of tiger lilies, effusive and orange, her long hair pulled back from her face in an elegant twist, her lips set to smiling.

“You didn’t tell me this was a formal affair,” Zoe smiled.  “Look at you—you look beautiful.”

“Not beautiful,” Leah said, “but better,” setting the vase on the table and touching Zoe’s shoulder as she passed. “Take off your coat.  Stay awhile.”

“Is there something I can do to help?” Zoe asked, watching Leah glide about the kitchen in her handkerchief skirt and stockings, a little cloud of perfume trailing behind her.

“Not a thing. Sit down.  Make yourself comfortable.  I’ll serve the wine.”

“All right,” Zoe replied, unzipping her boots and folding one leg under her body as she perched on the chair.  “You get three guesses who came into the bakery today—ordered a cake for his three-year-old’s birthday party.”

Leah stood close to her, pouring the wine into both their glasses.  “No idea.”

“Peter—” When Leah’s expression didn’t change, Zoe clarified—“Peter Schoenlaub.”

“Oh.  So I take it he’s married then?”

“To Jeanette Farrow, no less.  That threw me for a loop.  Lay—” Zoe intercepted her with one finger to the wrist—“aren’t you going to ask me how he looked?”

“No,” she said, shaking her head, peering down at Zoe with her wide gray eyes.  “I don’t need to know about Peter Schoenlaub.  It was prom, it was sex, it was over.  I doubt he even remembers me.”

“Well, I hate to disappoint you,” Zoe replied, toying with her silverware—“this is nice, by the way—”

“Wedding gift. We hardly ever use it.”

“He asked about you.  He remembered we were always friends in high school, and then he offered to set me up with one of his single friends.”  She rolled her eyes and slipped the napkin onto her lap. “Just when you think you’ve gotten the word out, another well-intentioned man with a friend comes around.”

“Maybe he meant a woman,” Leah offered, and hurried to the kitchen for the rest of the meal.

“No—an army buddy named Carl.”

“So you told him, I presume.”

“I did, and it was awkward—but you know I kind of like that part.”  Zoe winked at her in a way that made Leah feel vaguely like a math teacher.  “Then, he back-pedaled and stopped just short of the some-of-my-best-friends speech. That’s when he asked about you, actually—if we still kept in touch.”

Leah almost did it then, almost reached out and touched Zoe on her cheek.  When she couldn’t, she sat down beside her and began to serve the food.

“There’s bread in the oven.”

“Yes, thank you,” she whispered, her breath caught somewhere deep in her chest.

When they had been eating and drinking awhile, Zoe with her easy way of keeping the conversation alive, Leah felt a new urgency rising up from her toes, the way she couldn’t sit still without her ankles twisting, her knees bending out and in like butterfly wings.  “I’ll be right back,” she promised, excusing herself, but instead of the first-floor powder room, she climbed the stairs to the master bathroom. 

***

You cannot go back

She watched the words materialize, one by one, in lipstick on the mirror.  For a moment, she almost believed she had written them, until she blinked and they slowly disappeared.  Leah splashed water on her face, added color to her lips, then removed it quickly.  What did Zoe like?  She didn’t know.  Michael thought her lips were thin and liked when she traced them with pencil, then colored between the lines—something glossy and pink.  Would Zoe like that? 

Leah lowered her hand to her chest, just below the gold necklace Michael had given her. “It looks like a cutlass,” she had told him, surprised.

“Happy birthday, warrior woman,” he said, kissing her eyelids.

The hard clavicle bones were harder to find now.  She missed the way a crevice used to form when she bent forward—large enough to rest a finger in.  One button at a time, Leah opened her blouse until the lace camisole was showing.  Was it sexy? Was it trying too hard?  Why could she never call to mind the faces, the bodies, of any woman Zoe had ever brought home?

“Knock, knock.” Zoe peeked her head in.  “The door was ajar, and the bread was getting cold, and I wanted to make sure you were ok.”

Now Leah’s whole body flickered like a pilot light.  “I’m fine—I”

“You look flushed.  Are you running a fever?”

It was not what Leah wanted—not sympathy, not mothering, not the concerned hand to the flaming forehead.  She leaned against the counter as Zoe approached her.  She said, “Everything’s fine,” but Zoe wouldn’t take no for an answer.  This was the wrong way.  This was not how Leah had envisioned it.  When the hand stretched toward her, she intercepted it. When the face bent toward her, brows knit with concern, she brushed her lips against Zoe’s curious mouth, set always in the shape of an “o.”

“Oh,” Zoe murmured, stepping back.  “I’m sorry. I—didn’t expect that.”

Now the balance shifted.  Leah was the one standing tall, leaning forward.  She kissed her again, surprised by how small her mouth seemed compared to her own.  Or were they both small?  She had never kissed a woman before.

“Leah?” Zoe receded again, hands pressing lightly on her shoulders.  “What’s going on?”

Zoe like “no,” without an umlaut.

“Do we have to say anything?”

“I think we might.”

“Why?”

“Because—” Zoe looked helpless, startled—“you’re a married woman, and my friend, and—because—”

“Don’t you dare say new mother!”

“I wasn’t. It isn’t about Liam, or even Michael exactly.  I think it’s about you, Lay—I think you’re a little mixed up right now.”

“I don’t understand.”  Leah’s temples pulsed, and she felt the tears prickling behind her eyelids.  She wouldn’t let them out—she wouldn’t.  “I thought this is what you wanted.”

Zoe leaned against the bathroom wall, tucked her hands deep in her fleecy pockets.  “I don’t see how this has anything to do with me.”

“Oh, come on!” Suddenly, instead of tears, it was rage. “Stop pretending, Zoe.  I know how you feel about me.  You make a good show with all the girlfriends, but you’re never serious.  You never want to settle down.  And now when I’m finally interested in reciprocating, you decide to play like it never crossed your mind before!”

Zoe raised her hands, like a helpless, pretty crossing guard caught without a flag. “You’re my friend, and I love you—I really do—but not that way.”  She bit her lip.  “And not this way either.  This isn’t the Leah I know.”

“There are things I’m never going to do now!” Leah exclaimed, almost like an accusation.

Zoe’s face began to turn to match her hair.  “By things, I hope you don’t mean that grand, elusive lesbian experience that earns you a merit badge in some sorority circles.”

Leah wasn’t listening.  “I admit it. I should have slept with you in high school.”  The tears came anyway, even against her will.

“Who says I would have slept with you?! I was in love with Tracey Carmichael, and you were my best friend!  This is absurd!”

Stunned, Leah took a step back.  “What about the way you used to look at me?”

“What way?  Leah! I’m a forthright person.  I’m an honest person.  Do you think I’m going to carry a torch for—for almost twenty years—and never let on?  You’re like a sister to me.  Jesus!

“But—this doesn’t make any sense.  You always come here and touch me and—you’re always so warm.”

“That’s just how I am, Lay!  That’s how I am with everyone.”  Her brows knit in disappointment now then rose again in indignation.  “Did you honestly think I was flirting with you all these years?!  Did you think I was just waiting for you to give the go-ahead so I could what—what did you think I was going to say?”

“I thought you—” Leah’s breath was fading again, the tears falling faster than she could wipe them away—“I thought at least you would—” gasping again.  “Oh, Zoe, are you sure?”

Zoe, like no, without an umlaut.  She stood with her legs spread, the door between them.  “I’m not what you need,” she said, softly now. “I’m not even sure I’m what you want, but I can tell you this—I’m not what you need.”

“I think you could be,” Leah murmured mournfully.

“I’m your friend,” Zoe said, firming her lips, the color draining out of her face.  “I’m not your parasail.”

“That’s not—”

Leah’s protest was interrupted by Liam’s cry.  She had just laid him down an hour ago.  “He never cries,” she said, incredulous.  “Not at this time.  Can you wait?”  Zoe stepped aside to let her pass.  “Can you wait for me?  Please?”

Zoe kept her head down, refused to meet her eyes.  “Just wait for me, Zoe.  I can explain everything.”

Leah walked into Liam’s room and lifted his squalling body from the crib.  He was screaming now, and she tried to console him, even as she listened for Zoe’s footsteps in the hall.  “It’s all right, it’s all right,” she promised, sinking down into the rocking chair.  “You cannot go back,” she said.  “Remember that, baby.  You cannot go back.”

When he stopped shaking and began to coo at last, Leah heard it—the kitchen door snapping shut, and one flight below, the dryer buzzing to announce another load was done.

Developmentally Editing Characters in Eight Steps

developmentally editing characters

Developmentally Editing Characters

    1. LIST CHARACTERS: When developmentally editing characters, first make a list of all characters within the narrative, both main characters and secondary characters.
    2. SEARCH CHARACTERS: Do a search for each character within the manuscript and identify how many times a character appears by name within the manuscript. Do one or more of your secondary characters appear more often than your main characters? Why? (Perhaps this is simply pronoun usage, or it could be due to a neglect of character treatment.)
    3. COLOR CODE CHARACTERS: Do a search/replace for each character within the document, highlighting each character with a different font color. Do your main characters appear consistently throughout the manuscript? If not, why? Do you main characters appear in the first chapter or paragraphs? If not, why? (Again, this could be intentional and successful, or it could be a neglect of character treatment.)
    4. AMALGAMATE MAIN CHARACTERS: Study each character for necessity. Would one or more of your main characters benefit from amalgamation? What would happen if you amalgamated the protagonist and antagonist?  (We often write too many characters into our early drafts. This is okay, it is part of the process, AND it can be a fantastic first step toward developing surprisingly deep and diverse characters upon amalgamation.)
    5. AMALGAMATE SECONDARY CHARACTERS: Study each secondary character for necessity. Would one or more of your secondary characters benefit from amalgamation? 
    6. DIVINE INTRODUCTIONS: Each time you introduce a new character, give this character a “divine moment” in which this character makes an unforgettable impression upon the reader. If a character does not lend itself to a divine moment, maybe the character should be amalgamated into another character or cut altogether from the narrative.
    7. CHARACTER TIMELINES: Using Excel or some of other software, create a timeline of your characters, main and secondary, beginning with their birthdays and continuing to the last date of the narrative. Add place details, global events, national events and community events to the timeline.
    8. CYCLICAL DEVELOPMENT: Developmentally editing characters is a cyclical process. With each major revision of the work, repeat the above steps, always looking for ways to tighten characterizations within the narrative.

Why Online Writing Workshops?

Online writing workshops present the best of both worlds for creative writers: creative isolation and craft interaction. The New Yorker article by Louis Menand, “Show or Tell: Should Creative Writing be Taught?” proposes the perennial question of whether or not writers can be taught or must be born. Our stance at The Eckleburg Workshops is that writers can be shown many craft writing skills and be encouraged to explore voice through the practice of these skills as well as the observation of these skills in both master and developing narratives. It is our stance that creative writing can be sculpted and nurtured and is best taught by published authors and experienced writing teachers. This is what we give you in each and every writing course and in our One on One individualized manuscript sessions.

The Eckleburg Workshops: Online Writing Workshops

Eckleburg offers noncredit online writing workshops in fictionpoetryessays, short stories, the novel and more. The writing workshops are intended for writers who want to focus on craft in an encouraging, professional, diverse environment. 

All writing workshops are work-at-your-own-pace. When you are ready for individualized feedback—developmental edits, line edits and endnotes—submit your work. Our instructors have graduate degrees and professional publication experience in their writing workshop focuses and are happy to meet participants at whatever writing stage and focus participants find themselves. Participants may complete assignments anytime. We are open to English-speaking and writing participants both locally and globally and encourage gender and cultural diversity with a focus on historically marginalized voices.

Our instructors are award-winning and published authors and hold degrees from/taught at the Iowa Writers Workshop, Iowa’s International Writing Program, Johns HopkinsYale, BrownHarvardColumbiaNew SchoolNew York UniversitySUNY, Portland, San Diego State UniversityNew York University, Bennington, the University of Illinois at Chicago, Loyola University Chicago, the University of Oregon and more. They live in Washington D.C., New York, Chicago, Ankara, San Diego, LA and Denver. Several of them are award-winning and with books out. They have been interviewed and published in The Paris Review,  The New YorkerAtlantic Monthly, McSweeney’sThe RumpusThe Nervous BreakdownThe New York Times, Salonand more. What our instructors share is an eye for innovative storytelling with solid narrative structure as well as a focus on personal voice. Learn more about our individual instructors. More Questions? Visit our FAQs Page.

Methods

Each work has its own strengths and needs, successes and focus areas. I approach each new work with an eye toward individual voice so that the work can take on a life of its own that focuses on your intentions. Below, you’ll find a link for submission guidelines and submitting your manuscript. As we move through your work, we’ll look at the following:

    • What is the intention for the work, as communicated on the page and as is essential to the main characters?
    • What is the authentic voice of the narrator, and how can this be brought out thoroughly and to the work’s best interest?
    • What is your authentic voice and how can this be coupled with the needs of the narrative voice?
    • Developmentally, how can the character arcs and the overall narrative be brought to fuller realization?
    • Linguistically, how does the cadence, syntax and repetition in language support the overall artistry of the piece? 
    • Mechanically, are the choices being made in the overall best interest of the authentic narrative voice?
    • What can be strengthened from word choice and comma usage?

Thank you for joining us at The Eckleburg Workshops. I promise to honor your hard work and talents.

How intensive is the Eckleburg Writing Workshops schedule?

You will be able to log in and complete the weekly writing prompts, readings, discussion prompts, etc. as it best fits into your schedule, whether you are at home or traveling. The online visual structure of the course makes it easy to read and respond via your desktop, laptop and smartphone.  Submit work for individualized feedback when it is convenient for you and your project.

How do I register for the Eckleburg Writing Workshops?

Begin by clicking on the workshop link you would like to take. Next, click on the CART link and you will be taken to the payment portal where you can pay by credit card or Paypal. You can CANCEL at anytime with a click. 

Tinnitus

"[mb] Tinnitus" by Merrick Brown is licensed with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/

I

The first time was in the fifth grade, where I sat in the back of the room, with a large window behind me. One late-winter day, I heard a shrill whistling. Startled, I made a dramatic jump to the window. While not outgoing, I liked getting attention, and I got it, causing a stir in the class. Irritated by the disruption, the teacher asked, “What are you doing?” followed by a glare more stinging than the words. I said, “I heard something.” Not impressed, she said, “Sit down.” While my behavior was inappropriate for a phonics lesson (or whatever the subject was), the teacher’s harsh tone surprised me. I wasn’t playing a game. I did hear something, though I couldn’t prove it. Through the metal-framed window, I saw only the faded, winter grass sprinkled with gravel and dirt next to the building and a swing set in the distance, with no hint of the origin of the noise that interrupted our humdrum instruction. I sat down, chastened by the glaring adult and embarrassed by the giggling kids. So went my earliest acquaintance with tinnitus.

Tinnitus, “a ringing or similar sensation of sound in the ears” without an external stimulus, is most often associated with age-related hearing loss, afflicting up to a third of adults over sixty-five. Although not everyone who is hearing impaired has tinnitus, everyone with tinnitus has a hearing deficit, sometimes minor but sometimes significant. Incessant ringing due to genetics, obstruction, or damage to the fragile inner ear can bring on fatigue, sleep deprivation, memory loss. The resulting stress and anxiety can induce, in some sufferers, psychological problems, including depression.

I no longer have a silent moment. When an audible activity has my attention—street bustle, people talking, running water—I don’t notice the tinnitus, but when it’s otherwise quiet—the moments before falling asleep, reading a book, sitting at a stoplight—I’m aware of a droning sensation. It may be a muted but rapid, cicada-like humming, though occasionally it will take on a piercing timbre like worn-out brakes. There are moments when I’m not sure of the source of what I’m perceiving: Am I listening to actual cicadas on a summer evening, or is it an illusion? Either way, the constant, internal hubbub is always present.

When in my fifties, an audiologist told me exposure to loud machinery in my youth caused my tinnitus. As a teenager, I drove a tractor each spring and summer for seven or eight years plowing, mowing pasture and hay. The old tractor’s worn-out muffler did little to stifle the engine’s thunderous eruptions. Some days I’d sit on it for an hour or so, some days for eight to ten hours. There were times, too, when other machinery—a hammer mill for grinding grain and a hay baler—engulfed me in a clamor.

Since seeing the audiologist, I notice my hearing has declined: I may have trouble determining what someone is saying if on the phone or if the other person has a quiet or piping voice. And while the steady humming in my ears still doesn’t irritate me, the intermittent shrillness I experience does. I’m troubled by the possibility that someday the shrillness won’t end. Fifteen years after the first exam, I had a second one with an ear, nose, and throat specialist who said the primary cause of the tinnitus came from hearing loss, though he didn’t deny the impact of loud noise. When he learned my mother was nearly deaf in her last years, he told me I inherited my problem from her.

II

My mom was in good health until a few months before her death, in all but one aspect. Her inability to discern what people were saying progressed from an inconsequential annoyance to an acute infirmity during the final two decades of her life. From when she was around seventy-five, I often had to speak up and repeat myself. She would become embarrassed when she failed to comprehend what someone said to her but compensated by learning to read lips, at which she became adept though not flawless. She refused to acknowledge her limitation. One night, while I drove her and my dad home from our house, she asked, from the back seat, how my daughters were doing. However, she couldn’t see my lips and didn’t register what I said. She asked again, and I answered in a raised voice. After her third request, I was shouting, not only sounding but feeling angry. I couldn’t control my wrath. I resented her unwillingness to accept her condition. She didn’t catch what I was saying, but she knew I was yelling. I saw her hurt frown in the rearview mirror and detected an aggrieved tone in her mumbled words, acting as if she understood me. Abashed, I kept my eyes on the road.

About six months before he died, my father went to a nursing home, and my mom moved to an apartment complex for senior citizens. In some respects, it reminded me of a cruise ship, with social events, daily activities, and wine with afternoon snacks in the common area, yet, because of Mom’s poor hearing, she couldn’t follow conversations, thwarting her penchant for mingling. There was also a well-appointed dining room with wait-staff, and despite sitting at a table with other residents, she ate dinner in silence, isolated by her disability. My wife and I would see her every week, making small talk for ten or fifteen minutes—we talked while she pretended to listen— before taking her to church, and my sister would drop by on a different day. Mom seemed to get pleasure out of these visits, but they amounted to just two or three hours a week. The rest of the time, she was alone, reading the closed captions on a cable news channel.

In the last few years of her life, my mother made sporadic comments, when we were alone, about the other occupants of the residence. For no apparent reason, she would say most, or all, the women living there were men. Incredulous, when she first said it, I thought I misunderstood her. I asked (in a loud voice), “What are you talking about?” She repeated, “I know they don’t look like it, but they’re men dressed as women.” Her resolute expression conveyed she wasn’t kidding or being ironic. I made a mild protest during several subsequent reiterations of this tale but eventually dropped it. I knew arguing with her would be a wasted effort.

I later found out that while aberrant, her behavior wasn’t rare. People who have hearing problems are more likely to hold beliefs that defy proof, to be delusional. For instance, some see peril in non-threatening surroundings, believing others are denigrating them or, as with my mom, trying to fool them. Stress is a leading trigger, with isolated individuals being the most vulnerable. Deliria of this sort runs in families.

III

I grew up and lived most of my life convinced that my mother and I were not alike, and in some ways, opposites. She was religious, and I’m not. She was precise in her language—saying she’s going to “lie down” to rest, while I, not a stickler for correctness, say “lay down.” In some situations, her speech struck me as pretentious, causing me to cringe: I recall a stranded motorist, waiting at our house for someone to get her stalled car running, asked my mom if she was from England. Yet, realizing my hearing has diminished brings to mind various of my traits that mirror hers.

My mom was vain about her looks and wouldn’t admit it. To hide the gray strands of middle age, she dyed her hair black, changing the shade to a mature bronze as she grew older. I, too, am preoccupied with my appearance. I used to dislike my thick, hard-to-comb, curly hair, but with age, my hairline has receded, the curls are gone, and I have a bald spot. Trying to hide it, I carefully brush my hair back to make it appear thicker than it is.

And Mom always looked young—a handyman painting our house one summer guessed she was twenty-five when she was forty. She never told her age (misleading the handyman to think he’d made an accurate guess) until her grandchildren began entering high school. But even at ninety, she was elated when a doctor, taken aback when told how old she was, exclaimed, “I don’t believe it.” As for me, I like to think I look half a decade younger than I am. On several occasions, an old (older than me) lady in a nursing home has told me I’m “fine-looking.” I make an effort to appear unmoved, but such compliments are secret thrills.

We shared another kind of self-centeredness. For eight years, my mother had to look after my partially paralyzed father. They were in an assisted living facility where staff did tasks such as dressing and bathing him. Still, Mom had to keep a constant eye on my dad and aided him with less demanding undertakings, such as eating. Even with the help, she resented having the extra responsibility and sometimes moaned that she couldn’t keep caring for him. I could see she felt sorry for herself, becoming more vocal about her travails as his condition worsened.

For as long as I can recall, I’ve fixated on evidence of my insignificance. After my sister was born, I was no longer the center of my parents’ attention, which led to frequent tiffs and a sense I was a victim of unfair treatment. I desired to be among the most favored, such as being someone’s best friend or the top choice when choosing sides for schoolyard games. But I was no one’s boon companion and a middle-of-the-pack pick for competitive contests. As an adult, I was the outsider, the guy who ate lunch at his desk, not understanding the cliquish jokes or in on the latest gossip. Though my circumstances have been different than my mother’s, I often feel sorry for myself.

IV

About six weeks before she died, the place where Mom lived contacted me. They told me there were several incidents in which she was making nonsensical statements and appeared disoriented. Two days later, she fell in her apartment, and the staff had to call an ambulance to transport her to the emergency department. By my arrival, a doctor had seen and admitted her to the hospital. When an aide was taking her in a wheelchair to a room, I heard my mom tell her, in a weak voice and pointing at me, “He’s my son. He’s my favorite.” I was embarrassed and confused; from my viewpoint, she held us all in the same regard. So, I don’t know if she meant what she said, was humoring me, or her mind was slipping away. And I can’t say with certainty my hearing wasn’t playing tricks on me.

I didn’t realize until the doctor’s exam revealed my mother had an advanced case of shingles that she had been suffering from severe pain for a couple of weeks, overlapping the period her troubling figments had escalated. Despite the pain, she didn’t tell anyone. Initially, her silence mystified me, but I now see she didn’t want to worry us or be a burden.

Some people adapt to the noise, and tinnitus doesn’t rattle them. So far, I’m in this category, but tinnitus is associated with hearing loss, and as mine worsens, I’m concerned other problems will emerge. I worry about latching onto fanciful beliefs and becoming emotionally agitated.

The cicada-like hissing and teakettle whistling never stop. I relive memories of my mother stepping out of reality, and I wonder if there is a connection between my tinnitus and her delusions. As I grow older, I envision the discomfort I may face one day. Chronic or infrequent, mild or acute, the images vary, but they are simplistic reveries. I’m painting a picture of my situation with a drab backdrop in which shadows are absent, without nuance. Fearing I’ll become delusional as my mother did, I overlook her example of selflessness in considering her family’s feelings. Her fantasies didn’t vitiate her humility and kindness. My musings about my future mental stability have missed the point: I’ll have the capability to deal with what happens to me until I don’t. Ingrained habits and character will determine how I grapple with a fate I can’t foresee.

Photo at the top of the page: “[mb] Tinnitus” by Merrick Brown is licensed with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/

Snapshot

"Writing words.." by _StaR_DusT_ is licensed with CC BY-NC 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/

When I was nineteen, I moved to Montreal both for school and in the hope that the city would be for me what Paris was for the Lost Generation. That moveable feast, to quote Hemingway; that Babylon to be revisited, to quote Fitzgerald instead. Unlike Hemingway or Fitzgerald, I wasn’t chasing the modern novel. I thought I’d write a few plays before making my fortune writing sci-fi.

Montreal was cheap in those days and, for the first few years, I bounced between apartments and soon ended up with a roommate in a spacious two-bedroom that cost less than six hundred dollars. When our lease ended, she decided to live with her boyfriend and I decided to save money and so, for the love of a man on her part and a hundred dollars on mine, I moved to a place with two less rooms and twice as many problems.

In Montreal, new leases start on Canada Day, mostly because the separatists like it that way. July opens with tenants roaming like snails with their homes on their backs. My new home didn’t amount to much and, once my futon was interred, there was only a desk and my cat and many boxes of books. It was a sad place with a common room/kitchenette and an optimistic bedroom, which is what you call a bedroom that’s anything but. There was a small balcony but the floor creaked and every movement was a shot in a war with the woman below.

I knew right away that moving had been a mistake and I felt like the surgeon who realizes, long after the patient is sewn, that they’re missing their watch: I had lost something I could never reclaim.

***

It was that liminal period after Y2K didn’t change the world and before 9/11 did. I got a job cooking at a Mexican restaurant and wrote at night. The science fiction wasn’t going well and, since I had become a Gershwin fan, I decided I would write a play about his life. Gershwin wasn’t part of the Lost Generation, but he was their soundtrack—the American in An American in Paris could have been Hemingway, Fitzgerald, or any of their friends.

Every night I worked and vowed not to sleep until I was unashamed of what I’ve done. In other words: I became an insomniac. This didn’t help the war with the woman downstairs and, one day, I came home to find felt-pads for furniture waiting by the door. I put them at the bottom of everything, including myself. When I wasn’t writing, I was reading and when I was being pretentious, I was reading Shakespeare and, either way, I was on the balcony in the light of the rising sun.

There was a laundromat on my street and, for the first month, I stuck around due to the misapprehension that my clothes were something others want to steal. The understanding that I was wrong became a moment of what the Greeks called anagnorisis: the protagonist makes a critical discovery, after which his life is never the same. Oedipus plucked out his eyes but I just threw my clothes into the machine and left to buy every Gershwin album I could find.

These were the days of video stores and the one nearby was open late. I wandered the aisles and memorized the names of directors. I was an actor too and pretended this was research, but what I was really doing was working up the courage to rent porn. I never found it and, for months, I was stuck with whatever scrambled French films my antenna could find.

***

The city was a paradise of colorful personalities. Banana Man mugged people with his eponymous fruit. Tattoo Man had a skull etched on his face. Guru Man offered the secrets of life if I bought him a burger. I’d tell you what he told me but, naturally, you’ll have to feed me first.

There was an all-night bistro where they left me alone while I wrote. I wanted it to be my Café des Amateurs, that haven on Place St. Michel where Hemingway liked to work. I fell in love all the time but I never approached because I thought the whole point of writing was to dream and if you live the dream then you become the story. “It doesn’t take long to write things of which you know nothing,” says Francine in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. “When you write of actual things, it takes longer, because you have to live them first”.

Of course, you get tired of writing about things of which you know nothing, especially when you’re writing about women (Gershwin had a lot of lovers). Soon, I had fallen for a French-Canadian artiste with Rapunzel-like hair framing a face that could launch a few hundred ships. It’s an old saying that one has to date a French girl to speak French but that only works when the French girl is on the visiting team. I was on her home turf; there was no need for la belle femme to settle for the likes of me. But Rapunzel took pity on me. My apartment was a humiliation but she was kind. “You have the sort of place writers write about writing in,” she told me. Then she pretended to enjoy having sex on a futon.

Things went well until she tired of having long hair. I didn’t care for the haircut—what is Rapunzel without her locks?—and told her she’d made a mistake. Of course, the mistake was mine. Insulting your lover’s new hair is akin to crossing the Rubicon, from whence there can be no return. A week later, the woman downstairs surrendered and broke her lease. Simultaneously, I found an infestation of ants and, after following the troop back to headquarters, I took care of the queen. So that’s three women I drove away. In the theatre, this is called rehearsal; I was learning a skill I would someday wish I had never had.

***

In September, I went back to school and filled my schedule with classes in U.S. History and mythology courses taught by a professor I adored. I daydreamed of afternoon delights interspersed with private tutorials on anagnorisis and xenia, that concept of showing virtuous hospitality when a stranger is in your home. The Gods punish those who violate it; this, along with a certain face, is what started the Trojan War.

On tests, I apologized when I didn’t know the answer. “I’m sorry I don’t know this,” I wrote. “But might I add, you’re looking great today….” A pathetic attempt at courtship and, thankfully, one which the professor ignored. We never had a single private conversation; in spite of my compliments, she remained fair and gave me a B.

Although I went to Concordia, I found opportunities to produce theatre at McGill and, that winter, the miracle occurred: I was given the chance to produce my play about Gershwin. The play’s focus was on Gershwin and Kay Swift, his great forbidden love. She was the first woman to ever write the complete score for a Broadway show; the “forbidden” part stems from the fact she was someone else’s wife. The impossibility of this situation would later drive him to work in the movies. “I am not marrying Kay Swift,” my fictional George declared in one scene. “I came to Hollywood specifically to get away from Kay Swift.”

I built the set at home and my apartment became overgrown, like a forgotten jungle. Friends had moved away and la artiste didn’t return my calls. I was out of shape and lonely and tired of writing and thinking how, as Fitzgerald once remarked, writing was a dog’s life. I thought about Gershwin and Kay and thought that even forbidden love wouldn’t be so bad.

Before going home for Christmas, I needed someone to feed the cat. Someone recommended an acquaintance friend who was studying to be a vet. I barely knew her but she was pretty and, when you’re shallow, this is the only reference letter you need.

I returned to find the girl had been living in my apartment—she didn’t get along with her roommates and her boyfriend lived at home. She asked if she could stay an extra night and I agreed. And so opportunity had presented itself: here was my chance to walk into the world of forbidden love. But she was a guest and there was xenia to worry about. My professor had taught me well. To please her—and, for that matter, the Gods—I remained a gentleman. We shared the futon, but I stayed on my side.

I never saw her again and this, mixed as it was with the holiday season, imbued the encounter with the magic of ether and dust. Sleeping with her would have likely brought disaster, so I suppose things are better as they are. Still, one never knows and the moral of the story, if there is one, is that if I had taken Introduction to Economics, my life might not be the same.

***

At the end of January, we moved into the theatre. Things went well until one of my actors booked a commercial and announced she couldn’t make one of the performances. She offered a solution: a friend from theatre school who could play the understudy and replace her for the night.

During this time, I was working at the restaurant, running rehearsals, and preparing to play Gershwin. Like hockey players, I had a superstitious aversion to shaving. This turned me into an unkempt actor-playwright, plump like a pumpkin. I was grouchy all the time and barely acknowledged the understudy who was saving my show. Naturally, she declared me ungrateful and smug. At rehearsal breaks, she ignored me and passed the time in the corner, doing crosswords with a pen.

In some circles, this is called a wonderful beginning.

She played Mollie Charleston, a chorus girl from Gershwin’s past, and on the day she was to appear on stage, I arrived to find her nervously running her lines. By then, I had shaved and was in better spirits. Once a show opens, it no longer matters if the show is any good. All you can do is hit your mark and hope nothing falls on your head. In a rare moment of self-reflection, I realized I’d been an ass and offered to buy Mollie a drink.

Later, in the entertainment district, we swallowed martinis in a fashionable club. She noticed I was still smug but a little more grateful and mentioned she might get into Heaven if she did a good deed. So she came home with me. I had class the next morning and left a key so she could sleep-in and rifle through my drawers. Love is a game of discovery. We believe we’ll unearth treasures no one else has found. Whatever she found didn’t scare her; she was still there when I came home.

***

Mollie works for an accountant but doesn’t enjoy it. She finds my apartment bohemian and the cat paws through her hair while she sleeps. She smokes on the balcony and chews gum before we kiss. We rent movies and make love while they play in the background. She calls me “Sunshine” and signs her emails with a row of Xs and reads my literary efforts. She tells me they’re very good, which is a lie, but wonderful to hear.

When my lease ends, she helps me find a new apartment. It’s just around the corner and, on another Canada Day, we drag everything by hand. I leave the futon behind—Mollie pulls rank and demands an actual bed. The new apartment is a glory and, as we unpack, I discover the camera I received for my birthday. I never used it. A pictorial history of my love life would suggest I’ve lived as a monk; there are few pictures of me with my arm around a lover, a fact that is likely a relief to those who would prefer to forget the whole thing. This photographic deficiency stems from an unhappy talent for having too much faith in my brain. Why take a picture when you think you don’t have to? I may forget things all the time, but you’ll never convince me this is true.

However, on this day, Mollie is disheveled and sweaty with a kerchief holding back her hair and she looks tough and strong, like a soldier on break from sacking a city, and I’m so in love that I recognize the moment for what it is. “Smile,” I say and, with that, the moment is preserved.

After that, I start keeping the camera around, waiting for more moments. Mollie and I don’t start living together, but her toothbrush moves in and her unmentionables are loafing about, not paying rent. It’s common for her to lounge on Sundays while I work away. One weekend, I glance over to find she’s fallen asleep with the cat nestled in her arms. Again, I reach for the 35 mm camera. The resulting picture is black and white, 5×7, with a white frame. The cat sits in the crook of Mollie’s arm, splayed across the cover that’s been pulled to her neck. There’s a pen in her right hand and the unfinished clues of the crossword that put her to sleep. 42-Across: French Lady Who Still Carries a Torch. Her head is turned and she wears a beatific look as if she’s dreaming of stardust. The cat, if you’re interested, looks at the camera with the what-is-the-silly-human-doing-now expression that is typical of the race.

There’s a silence in pictures; too many things aren’t there. A picture, for instance, can’t tell you about the smoking or the nicknames. It also can’t tell you that, two weeks after I take this picture, Mollie decides we’re better off apart. I’ve been told men mourn relationships after they’re over while women do it before they end; the spiritual departure happens long before the physical one. Put another way: by the time a woman leaves, she’s already left. It wasn’t stardust she was seeing as she slept; it’s more than likely she was dreaming of her great escape. In trying to preserve the moment, I had captured something already lost.

***

All relationships go well until they don’t; if yours is going well, it just means you’re still trying to run out the clock. In our case, the problem was my age. When Gershwin was my age he had written the hit song Swanee, had shows on Broadway, and was mere months away from premiering Rhapsody in Blue. I was an unpublished writer graduating with a useless degree. My late-night writing sessions were fruitless. I hadn’t read Shakespeare in weeks. Fearing I was falling behind, I buried myself in my notebooks. Suddenly, I had many desperate pieces on the go. Mollie saw she’d been left behind. I suppose she could have rushed to catch up but it’s likely I gave the impression I wasn’t worth the sweat.

During the post-love malaise, I developed several manias. One was for salad—I was never healthier than in those anything-but-halcyon days. Another new trait was that, whether from shame or self-flagellation, I refused to have my picture taken. When a mutual friend married, Mollie was a bridesmaid while I was asked to read from Corinthians. If I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing… Perhaps this was what drove my prohibition. No one wants a picture of nothing. When I fled the wedding, it was just so the photographer wouldn’t waste her time.

Near the end of his life, Gershwin was, like most in Hollywood, completely miserable. After a lifetime of romantic near-misses, he wrote to several ex-girlfriends with redemption on the mind. No one replied. He’d enjoyed a lifetime of symphonies and Broadway shows, he had looked up from the piano to see he was alone. “I am thirty-eight, famous and rich, but profoundly unhappy,” he told Alexander Steinert. He was blunter with his cousin, Harry Botkin: “This year, I have got to get married.” The year in question was 1937, the same year he died from a tumor in his brain.

Researching Gershwin in those early years, I was smart enough to see the warnings but foolish enough to believe they didn’t apply to me. After all, a piano is not a notebook. But women haven’t changed since the Jazz Age. There were those who would have liked George to put away the music just as, I’m sure, Mollie would have preferred for me to put the notebooks away. I could have been in that bed; I could have supplied the name of that French lady who, after all these years, still carries a torch. 

Image at the top of the page: Image by “Writing words..” by _StaR_DusT_ is licensed with CC BY-NC 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/