Monday, November 14, 2005

Chapter 13 - Writing

The day after Thanksgiving, Jeremy didn't eat.

It wasn't that he didn't have any food. His refrigerator groaned with leftovers his mother had practically forced on him. It wasn't even that he wasn't hungry, although certainly his hunger hadn't risen to the level of demanding attention that hunger always had in the past if he was so remiss in his obligation to his stomach as to require reminding. He had felt rumblings in his tummy, as Pooh put it, but he'd just ignored them, thinking always to himself "Hmm. I need to eat something. I'll go fix myself something to eat as soon as I get this next bit done." And then he'd do the next bit. And the next bit. And before he knew it, it was 3 a.m. and he hadn't eaten and his brain was so fuzzy he couldn't even read what he'd just written and his body felt like several people had been beating him all day with baseball bats.

But he'd written an entire 20,000 word novella start to finish in a single day.

Saturday, Jeremy slept until noon. He got up and made himself an enormous breakfast out of foods not normally thought of as breakfast foods, essentially an entire Thanksgiving dinner, including pumpkin pie. The primary difference between this meal and the one he'd had two days before at his parents' house was that he washed it down with coffee.

Refreshed, he printed out and read his novella to make sure it seemed as good to him as it did when he was writing it. It was a science fiction story about a little girl -- well, a preteen adolescent, really -- whose mother wants her to start treatments that will essentially enable her to be immortal, or at least to live for hundreds of years. Or so people believe, anyway, the treatments are relatively new so the oldest person in the world is only about 200 or so but on the other hand no one who has gotten the treatments has died of any natural causes.

The girl, however, doesn't want to be immortal. Her mother doesn't understand this at all. Doesn't everyone want to be immortal? Aren't poor people rioting in the streets because the treatments aren't covered by insurance and are extremely expensive so only rich people can have them? Everybody wants the treatments!

Except the girl. She doesn't want them. She explains to her mother that it's precisely because she saw the protests on the TV (well, it's not exactly TV -- Jeremy spends considerable time explaining exactly what the 3-D holographic video looks like and hints at how it might work; Jeremy thought of then just going ahead and calling it TV, and thinks himself that if something like this were to actually come about it's entirely possible that people would indeed continue to call it that, but he realized that the reader needed a reminder every time it was mentioned that this is far enough in the future that ordinary TV has been left behind, so he opted to call it "holovideo," or "3V" for short).

Annabelle (that's the girl's name in the story) didn't want to be immortal, she told her mother, because it wasn't fair that some people should live forever and other people should die. "Well, of course it's not fair," her mother had answered, "But it isn't fair that you have a beautiful home and a closet full of clothes and a toybox full of toys and plenty to eat and parents who love you and some children in the world have none of these things. Just be glad that you're one of the lucky ones."

But the girl felt that death was different, somehow. This wasn't just the basic unfairness of the world. This was something else entirely. So she grew up to become an anti-permalife (that's what a major company that held patents on some of the treatments was called, and it came to be the name for the entire phenomenon) activist, arguing that no one should be allowed to circumvent the laws of nature -- to which, of course, the politicians and the businesspeople and the celebrities answered that if you really believed that you'd have everyone living in caves, without even fire to warm themselves; the entire history of man's existence on earth can be easily seen as a series of increasingly ambitious and mostly successful attempts to circumvent nature.

The novella consisted of a full biography of his fictional character, presented in slices from just before her twelfth birthday to her death at the age of 84. And along the way the reader, and finally, long afterwards, Annabelle herself, comes to realize that it is not just the unfairness, not just the fact that poor people will have to die, that drives her unwillingness to get the treatments. Her last, poignant meeting with her mother -- who still, at the age of 122, looks exactly as she has looked through Annabelle's whole life -- reads as a meeting between a human and an alien, one with whom the reader will, if the story works as well as Jeremy thinks it will, sympathize and identify with, and the other totally foreign and incomprehensible and inhuman, and perhaps even ugly and evil. And the tour-de-force was, of course, that in the initial scene it is the mother whose arguments are obvious and understandable and the little girl who seems odd.

It was the best story he'd ever written, and Jeremy was very proud of it. Reading it over, he found it every bit as good as he'd thought it was, although he did find thirteen typos and couldn't help tinkering with a few passages here and there. But it was good. It was very good.

He made the changes on the computer and printed the story out again. He put it aside to mail off Monday.

Then he started working on a poem.

He did remember to eat again, Saturday night, although he didn't eat much. He went to bed before midnight, although not long before. He had a good night's sleep, but he woke up the next morning feeling listless and restless. He didn't feel like writing. He didn't feel like doing anything, really. He sat on the couch and watched the Sunday morning news shows, but he couldn't even work up the energy to get mad at the pundits and politicians the way he usually did. He didn't forget to eat, but he didn't eat much, either.

He thought about trying to write a story, but he just didn't feel like it. He tried to force himself, dragged out the notes to himself that he'd written on the way up to
St. Louis from Caledonia, but while Thursday they had all seemed really great and he was excited to get to them, today he couldn't get excited about any of them. He tried to write a poem, but didn't get very far with that, either.

He sat on the couch with his computer on his lap and just started typing, rattling words out through his fingertips without any thought whatsoever. He started out just complaining about the fact that he didn't have anything to write about and felt stupid doing this, but before long he actually found some things coming out of him, feelings about his parents and the trip to the country, resentments about his job, frustrations about his relationship with Liliana. It all poured out of him.

It wasn't something he could sell, of course, or even anything he would ever want anyone else to read. But it was therapeutic to have it on paper, to read over it and realize, in some cases, feelings he'd been denying but recognized as real as soon as he saw them in black and white.

After doing that for fifteen minutes, Jeremy went back to the pad of paper he used to work out his lines of poetry, and turned some of his pain and anger over Liliana into sonnets. He had three more sonnets by the time he finished, and for the first time they were raw and nakedly honest -- not that the other Liliana sonnets hadn't been honest, they had honestly portrayed a part of what he felt for Liliana. But before he had restricted himself to the kinds of romantic feelings he thought of as being associated with sonnets, even though he knew himself that the great sonnet sequences in history also contained the kinds of poems he'd just written, and indeed were great largely because of those poems, rather than the ones in the more traditional vein of "romantic poetry."

He went to bed that night feeling that he had passed an important marker in his life. Once upon a time he had thought of himself as a writer. When he first got the job at the library, he was a writer who worked at a library. After year after year of not being able to make it as a writer, however, he gradually became a librarian who wrote, and then finally just a librarian, and he had quit writing altogether.

Now, he was a librarian who wrote again, and he suspected that after this weekend he was back to being a writer who worked in a library. If he started selling, maybe he could even move toward just being a writer, and give up the library job altogether, although he knew that that was probably a pipe dream. Writers didn't make much money, except for the few at the very top.

But he was good. He could really do this. He felt a confidence he had never before possessed.

He was a writer. This was going to work.

Chapter 12 - Thanksgiving

"So, Jeremy, are you seeing anyone?"

Jeremy had known his mother would ask that question. He'd been dreading it all day, because he didn't want to lie to her but also couldn't imagine how he could possibly begin to explain about Liliana.

"Well, I -- "

"Leave the boy alone, momma. He's a grown man, now, it's his own business who he sleeps with. Or doesn't."

Jeremy blushed. His father laughed. "You don't have to be embarrassed, son. Either tell your mother what she wants to know or tell her it's none of her damned business."

It had been an eventful week. Jeremy had sent two more stories off to magazines, polished three more sonnets, wrote drafts of six more poems, including two more Liliana sonnets, as he had come to think of them.

He had also been late to work again on Tuesday, and Cecilia had warned him that he was skating dangerously close to having an official reprimand placed in his folder, which would trigger a suspension if he committed the same offense again within six months. He told her he was still sick, and that the upcoming four day weekend should help him get back on his feet.

He had a four-day weekend because he'd managed to get off Friday. It was the first year he'd been able to do it. Vacation days and personal holidays were by seniority, and Jeremy had finally managed to outlast enough of his co-workers on the job to actually accumulate some clout when it came to choosing time off.

Wednesday night Liliana had come to him, waiting for him in his bed when he came home from his nightly walk in the park.

Thinking about making love to Liliana while sitting at his parents' table over Thanksgiving dinner made him blush again.

"There is someone, but I . . . I don't know much about her yet."

"Where did you meet her?" asked his mother.

"In Tower Grove park. By the fountain pond."

"Oh, that's a lovely spot. What a place to meet! It sounds like a movie."

You have no idea, thought Jeremy. Nor any idea what kind of movie. But he didn't say anything.

"Well?" said his mother finally.

"Well what?"

"Is that all? What's her name? How old is she? What does she do?"

"Her name is Liliana," Jeremy answered. "I . . . I said I really don't know much about her. We just met last week," he lied. "I'm not even sure she likes me."

His mother's face, which had the shine of anticipated grandchildren, lost its beam as if someone had flicked a switch. "Oh," she said. "I thought . . . " she didn't finish, and didn't have to. Jeremy knew very well what she thought. The same thing she thought every time he mentioned any interest in a girl. That pretty soon her son would finally settle down with some nice young girl and begin producing the grandchildren she was itching to spoil.

"Sorry, mom. Maybe next Thanksgiving I'll be able to bring a girl down for your approval." He said the same thing every year, but so far he'd never had a relationship get serious enough he'd wanted to subject the poor thing to the inquisition he imagined his mother would have prepared against the eventuality that sooner or later he'd find someone to marry. He was pretty sure that, as much as she wanted him married off, his mother would find a hundred reasons why he shouldn't marry any girl he brought down to meet her. Back in high school, she had disapproved of every single girl he'd dated.

"Pass the green beans, please," Jeremy's father interrupted. Ever the peacemaker, he tried to move the conversation away from these troubled waters. "Looks like a pretty mile winter this year. I supposed it's more of that global warming they talk about."

"Actually," Jeremy said, "global warming is no guarantee of a mild winter. The overall average temperature is up, but one effect seems to be that the climate is becoming more extreme, so we could have pretty severe winter storms and some days even have record cold and it could still be associated with global warming."

"Wait a minute. You're saying global warming could cause us to get record cold? That doesn't make any sense."

Jeremy's mother was having none of it. "I asked if you were seeing someone, not if there was anyone you liked that you wished you were seeing. Have you asked this girl for a date, at least?"

Jeremy looked at his father, who shrugged, retiring from the battlefield. He'd done his best at deploying diversionary tactics, but now Jeremy was on his own.

"Mom, look. I just don't want to talk about my love life with you, OK? Whether Liliana and I have gone out or will be going out or will never go out just isn't . . . Well, it isn't any of your business."

"None of my business? Whether or not my only son remains single for the rest of his life and never gives me any grandchildren is none of my business? Whether or not your father's name carries on in the next generation is none of our business?"

"Frankly, no. And I'm not talking about that anyway. I promise that if I'm thinking of getting married, I'll let you know. Otherwise, it's none of your business."

"Well, I never!" Jeremy's mother sputtered. She was so angry her face was turning red.

"Mom, look. I'm sorry. I just . . . " he shook his head. "I'm 27, Mom. I'm not your little boy. I have my own life now, and I need space to live it on my own terms."

"You're twenty-seven years old and you haven't had a steady girlfriend for more than a month at a time since you were seventeen. It just seems like . . . You know, Jeremy, if you're gay I just wish you'd tell me so I can start getting used to the idea that I'm not going to have any grandchildren."

Jeremy started laughing, unable to stop. "No, Mom," he managed to squeeze out between whoops, "I'm not gay."

His mother was not mollified. "Well, all right then. Don't you think it's about time you settled down?"

He shook his head. He would never be able to explain to her the difference between his generation and hers, between his view of what was important in life and hers.
It wasn't that he didn't want children. Or rather, it was true that he didn't want children, but to his mother that must mean that he wanted not to have children, and that wasn't true either. Children weren't important to him, one way or the other. If it worked out that he married and had children some day, that would be fine. If he married a woman who didn't want children, that would also be fine. If he never married, he would miss not having found a woman to be his wife, but not because it would mean that he would be childless.

His mother -- and his father too, he suspected, though he didn't say much on the subject -- couldn't understand that. Children were so central to his mother's existence that he still marveled that he was an only child. He supposed there must be some medical reason why his parents didn't have more children, but he never inquired about it. His mother made up for it by volunteering to work with children in a variety of ways. She taught Sunday school, and in the summer Vacation Bible School, and volunteered at the local elementary school. "Children are our hope for the future," she would often say.

To Jeremy, children were not the hope of the future. They were just children. Noisy and annoying and cute and amusing and exasperating and endearing. He enjoyed being around kids in small doses, and he supposed he could get used to the idea of fatherhood if it ever came up. But for right now he was perfectly happy to deal with kids on the basis of termporary relationships he could end at any time. Children were best tolerated when one could quite easily hand them back to their parents, as far as Jeremy was concerned.

Driving back from the country, Jeremy wondered why he'd even gone. He could have spent more time with Liliana. Well, OK, he probably wouldn't have seen Liliana anyway, since he just saw her last night and she had so far never come to him to nights in a row. But he could have written. He could have done a lot of things instead of get into an argument with his mother. She always had criticism for him.

"My goodness, you're awfully thin!" was the first thing she'd said to him. "What have you been eating?"

He mumbled something, because the fact was he really hadn't been paying much attention to food lately and he probably had lost a bit of weight, but he didn't think it was as serious as she made out.

"You need to eat! Put some meat on those bones! Good thing you're here, we've got lots of food!"

She had insisted on loading him with leftovers, most of which he knew he wouldn't eat. It would sit in his refrigerator for a week, then he'd throw it out. Not that he didn't like his mother's cooking, but she had loaded him up with a week's worth of leftovers, and he'd get tired of eating turkey and mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes by tomorrow.

It was a long drive up in the dark, and the first part, from his parents' place -- which actually wasn't even in Caledonia, wasn't in any town, just closer to Caledonia than to any other place marked on a map -- to the major highway that connected bigger towns to St. Louis was a winding, twisty two-lane blacktop road that could be scary and dangerous at night. He felt comfortable on it, felt like he knew it, despite the fact that he traveled it only a few times a year these days. He'd grown up riding and then driving on these roads. Nearly lost his life once on this very road once, going too fast around a curve, finding himself in the wrong lane facing an oncoming car, and flying out of control when he jerked the wheel to avoid it, spinning around and landing in a ditch, wedged against a culvert. He had told his parents that the wind must have taken his car, and it was a windy day, but he never told them about the other car that he almost hit.

He had lost friends here, too. Not close friends, but in a town the size of Caledonia everyone knows everyone else. And one of his best friends was paralyzed from the waist down after crashing his sports car into a tree. Now he drove a van with a wheelchair lift.

So he drove carefully and not as fast as he once did, though not as slowly as a stranger to those roads would have been advised to do. Every curve had a sign posted before it saying what speed the highway department thought it was safe to use on that curve, but Jeremy knew from long experience that those signs were unreliable. Several signs said "50" for curves that Jeremy wouldn't even bother slowing down from his regular 60 m.p.h. for, while one posted "45" he took at 40 in the daytime and 35 at night.

Despite the fact that it took some brainpower to negotiate this tricky road, Jeremy knew it so well that he could almost do it in his sleep, so by the time he made it to the highway he'd already worked out the idea for another short story. He hoped he didn't lose it before he got home. He'd just have to keep thinking about it all the way home.

Or maybe not. There was a flourish of stores and gas stations at the intersection where the highway met the smaller road -- which was also officially a highway, of course. He stopped in one, got a cheap pen and notebook, and scribbled down his idea before getting back on the road.

He pulled off the road and scribbled ideas three more times before he made it home.

Chapter 11 - A Week Passes

Monday night Jeremy walked to the park after dinner. She wasn't there, but instead of waiting around hoping she'd show up, he went home. He finished revising the ghost story (among other things, he revised the description of the ghost to make it still scary and horrible but less disgusting).

He took it to work the next morning and looked up "Horror" in the latest Writers Digest, which the library had in its reference section. He picked out the best-paying magazine, found their website to double-check that they were still publishing and still had the same editor (some magazines change editors like shirts).

On his lunch hour, he wrote a cover letter and printed it out, and walked over to the post office and mailed out the package.

That night, he again walked to the park after dinner. Lilian was there waiting for him. She came home with him and they made love late into the night. The next morning, he was late for work, and was tired and listless all day. He planned to go to bed early that night, but he found himself walking to the park again after dinner, and when Lilian wasn't there, he went home and wrote four more sonnets -- or perhaps three and a half, since the last one was terrible and would have to either be completely rewritten or abandoned.

He was surprised to look up to find that it was two a.m.

The next day, he was late again. Cecelia pointed out that he'd been late two days in a row. She didn't say anything about the way he looked, but he knew he must look awful, and he dragged through the day barely able to think. He didn't do a very good job. He felt really bad about that, but he got through the day.

Tired as he was, he still walked to the park after dinner, and he couldn't keep himself from sitting down and outlining a story that had come to him during his walk, and writing out the opening scene. He only let himself write for an hour, though, before turning in.

Thursday night, Liliana was waiting for him at the fountain pond.

Friday he called in sick.

After lying to Cecelia, claiming that the last few days he'd been coming down with something and now had full blown symptoms best not described in detail, he went back to bed, but he got up about noon and started writing. He wrote two more sonnets, polished a couple of earlier ones, and finished the story he'd started. He made what he now thought of as his nightly walk to the park, but did not see Liliana.

He wrote late into the night, slept until noon, got up and started writing again.

He knew there was something strange about his sudden inspiration. He had gone through of periods of productivity before, he'd even had a few poems and stories that poured out of him in a rush, as if he hadn't written them but they'd been written through him, like someone had poured them like water into his head and they'd flowed out through his fingers on the keyboard onto the computer. That's what this was like, but it wasn't once or twice, but every night, every day, every time he sat down to the computer or picked up a pen and pad of paper.

He knew that he was writing like this because of Liliana. He didn't know exactly how or why, what exactly it was about her that affected him in this way, but it was too much of a coincidence that this had started happening to him at the same time that she came into his life.

And the sonnets were all about Liliana.

He wrote other poems, too. And story ideas were coming so fast he couldn't even get them all down on paper. In addition to the two stories he'd finished, he'd written scraps of half a dozen others that he might or might not write later, if his inspiration ever flagged.

Saturday night he went to the park, and again Liliana wasn't there, but this time she was in his bed when he got home. He no longer questioned why or how she showed up in his life, he just accepted it and was happy when she did.

That night, after they made love, while they were cuddling in his bed, he asked her about the holidays."

"Holy days?"

"You know. Thanksgiving. Christmas. My parents are expecting me to go down there Thursday. To their house, I mean, which is in . . . well, it's a little town a hundred miles south of here, I'm sure you've never heard of it. It's called Caledonia."

"Caledonia? You mean . . . I don't understand, I thought Caledonia was called something else now. Something . . . Scotland. Yes. Caledonia is Scotland, isn't it?"

"Scotland? I think . . . I don't know. Maybe. Now that you mention it, I think that is an old name for Scotland, but it's also the name of a small town here in Missouri, and that's the Caledonia I'm talking about. It's where I was born. Where I grew up. Where my mom and dad still live. I'm . . . I'm supposed to go down there for Thanksgiving dinner Thursday -- that's this Thursday. You do know that this Thursday's Thanksgiving, right?"

She looked stricken.

"Who are you? Where do you come from?"

She looked distressed. She bit her lower lip. "I do not want to answer that right now, Jeremy. Please."

"OK, OK. I'm sorry. It doesn't matter. Or . . . well, it does matter, but I can wait. What's important is this Thursday. I'm going to have to go out of town. Or at least I'm supposed to go out of town. I'd like . . . I don't suppose you can go with me?"

She smiled sadly. "I think not. You will go in your . . . car, will you not?"

"Oh, right. You don't like cars. Well, yeah, you can't go 100 miles in a couple of hours on foot. I'll have to drive. And if I go by myself, I . . . well, I won't be back until late, so I won't . . . I won't be able to go to the park that night."

She smiled. "I will see you Friday, then. And at least once before then. Missing Thursday won't be a problem."

"And what about Christmas?"

She frowned.

"You do know about Christmas."

She nodded. "Yes, but we . . . do not celebrate it. Are you of the Christian faith then, Jeremy?"

He shrugged. "I haven't been to church in a long time. I don't know what I believe, I guess. But everybody celebrates Christmas, don't they? I mean, it's not really a religious holiday these days. Just a season of goodwill and buying presents for each other."

"We called that Saturnalia, once upon a time."

"Well, anyway, in the past I've gone down to my parents for Christmas, too, but I'd really rather spend it here with you, if that would be possible. But I don't know if . . . I mean. . . "

He looked away, bit his lip.

"I'm afraid this is going to sound really silly, but I just have to ask. Is it even possible for you to be here in the daytime?"

She smiled the same sad smile she'd given him earlier. She leaned over and kissed him. "It may be possible for us to be together on December 25," she said. "Let's wait and see what happens. You'll have to trust me, though. It will be a bit . . . strange for you."

"I love you," said Jeremy. He was surprised to realize that he'd never actually said the words to her before.

"Ah, Jeremy. Your love is a precious thing to me, yet also a burden. I feel rude and unkind not to repeat your words back to you, but I am not permitted to."

"Not permitted? What do you mean?"

"I mean that . . . it is hard to explain exactly what I mean. My . . . existence is more complicated than you realize, though I think you suspect more than you allow yourself to think about. But please," she added before he could ask a question, "no questions tonight."

She kissed him, and ran her hands over his body, and he found himself becoming aroused.

"If you will promise to ask me no more questions until I tell you that you may, I promise I will give you a chance to have your questions answered before Christmas," she said.

He would have acquiesced at that moment to any request she made of him, because he knew that she was going to fulfill other thirsts than knowledge.

"I love you," he said again, and they came together.