Monday, November 21, 2005

Chapter 20 - Transitions

A few days after the new year, Jeremy received his first-ever check for a piece of fiction he'd written. He'd had stories published before in small magazines -- fanzines, really -- which paid in copies of the magazine to show off and distribute to friends. But this was real money.

And it was real money, a check for $480 - almost as much money as Jeremy made in a week. More money than he'd ever seen in a paycheck, thanks to taxes. He threw himself into writing, spending long hours at it every night. Inevitably, one day the second week of January, he stumbled around so sleepily one morning that he ended up being late for work.

It actually wasn't the first time he was late. Despite his vow to be early every morning -- which he broke often, but which did usually keep him coming in at least on time -- Cecilia had let pass silently two occasions on which he had walked in a minute or two after eight o'clock. Today, she couldn't have ignored it even if she wanted to, as he came in nearly twenty minutes late.

"Jeremy, you're late," was all she said.

"I know. I'm sorry. I --"

"I don't even want to hear it," she said, holding up her hand to stop his excuse.
Later in the day she called him into the conference room. She slid a piece of paper across the desk.

"What's this?"

"It's an acknowledgment that you came in late today after a warning and that you're aware that as a consequence you'll be suspended for a day."

Jeremy's eyes narrowed. "What if I refuse to sign it?"

"Then I'll have to fire you."

Jeremy's eyes widen, but Cecilia just nodded to indicate that yes, he had heard her correctly.

He signed the paper.

"I wish you had picked a better time. We're already shorthanded tomorrow. Francine is still sick."

"I'm sorry," he said, sounding as miserable as he felt. "Maybe I could come in tomorrow and take off another day for the suspension."
Cecilia thought about it for a moment, then shook her head. "I think we're both better off if we get this over with. Please, Jeremy. You have to stop doing this."

"I know."

"I'm afraid you're going to be docked a quarter-hour pay for today, too."

They sat a moment in silence, then Cecilia said, "Well, I guess we'd better get back to work," and left.

Jeremy followed shortly after. He felt miserable, tired and not wanting to be there but also guilty at putting everyone under the gun tomorrow working with two people out. And at the same time feeling put upon, unfairly singled out for punishment for something that happened to everyone once in a while. He hadn't been late in two months!

So after work he went home and wrote a story about a guy who gets fired from his job and decides to go back and kill his supervisor and as many other people he can take out before they come and get him. The character was nothing at all like Jeremy, a beer-drinking redneck in his late 40s with a wife and two kids and a gun collection that would make the NRA proud, and the job and supervisor were similarly dissimilar.

The story is told from mister disgruntled former employee's point of view, and without actually quoting thoughts manages to get the reader inside the head of this guy, which is a very uncomfortable place to be, not just because he's crazy and full of rage, but because he's so ordinary, and Jeremy hoped the reader would begin to feel that the guy really had been screwed over, and if his reaction was a little over the top -- OK, way over the top and obviously unacceptable behavior, to say the least -- nonetheless they could almost understand how he felt and why he ends up doing what he's doing.

Except he doesn't do it. On his way to work, he stops at a convenience store to fill up his tank, because he's almost out of gas. And he goes inside to get a cup of coffee to steady his nerves. And a guy comes in and points a gun at the cashier and says "Gimme all your money."

The cashier gives the robber all the money in the register, but the guy insists that he open the safe.

"I can't, man. Only the manager can do that."

"Open the goddamn safe, motherfucker, or I'll blow your fucking brains out."

And mister disgruntled finds himself holding his gun pointed at the robber, saying, "drop the gun and step away from the counter." And the robber instead turns and points the gun at him, and they both shoot.

He wakes up in a hospital. He's a big hero. The cashier told the police -- and TV news -- that he'd have been dead if it hadn't been for the good samaritan who stopped the robbery. Everybody wants to talk to him. Everybody wants to be his friend. One of the reporters always tracked down the fact that he just lost his job, and viewers have started raising money for him and two different men who own companies have left messages about the possibility of employing him.

So he's lying there in the hospital bed and he realizes that he was crazy. He's glad that he didn't kill his coworkers and end his life in a blaze of terror.
But on the other hand, if he hadn't planned to do that stuff, none of this would have happened. So is he a good guy? Or a bad guy? How does he live with the knowledge of what he really had planned that day when people tell him what a hero he is?

Jeremy wrote the whole thing in one long night of more-or-less continuous writing, stopping only to eat and go to the bathroom. He finally finished about 10 a.m. -- and fully realized the irony that by now he'd be at work if he hadn't been suspended from his job.

He wondered how much longer he'd be working at the library anyway. If he could make $500 just from one story, he should be able to make more money writing than he made at the library.

He saved the story, printed up a copy to read later, and went to bed. He set his alarm for 2:00 p.m. -- he'd just sleep a few hours, then get up for a while and try to go to bed at a more-or-less normal hour that night.

But when he got up at two, he had another idea for another story.

* * *

On his nightly walks to the park, on the nights when Liliana wasn't there, Jeremy often stood in front of the stone doorway and looked out at the fountain and tried to remember exactly what Liliana had said and how she moved her hands. He wanted to be able to do the spell himself, to go into her world. He wanted to surprise her with a visit for once, to be able to decide when he wanted to see her instead of just waiting for her to decide she wanted to see him.

It wasn't that he was dissatisfied, he told himself. It was just that it was such a wonderful place. It was the realm that was the basis for fantasy novels and fairy tales, he knew, but it didn't seem unreal. Indeed, it seemed more real than the real world, which seemed dull and colorless ever since he had come back.

Most of the stories that he wrote involved that touch of strange that had become so much a part of his own life that he no longer even thought of it as "fantasy." Ghosts, elves, magic in various forms, creatures who shouldn't exist. He never wrote about anything he actually knew to be true -- he only wrote about Liliana in the series of sonnets he had dedicated to her, which was now up to three dozen -- but he had a sneaking suspicion that many of the things he made up weren't made up at all. Ghosts, for instance. He had never seen a ghost, and if you had asked him a year ago he'd have said that although he wasn't at all sure that ghosts didn't exist, he thought most supposed hauntings were bogus and that he was leaning toward unbelief rather than belief.

Today, it was rather the opposite. He still believed that many -- perhaps most -- supposedly true stories about ghosts were either misunderstandings of perfectly ordinary phenomena or simply made up tales to get attention. And he wasn't absolutely sure that ghosts did exist. But he was definitely leaning in the direction of believing that there was probably something out there that at least resembled the common idea of what a ghost was, whether it was actually the troubled soul of someone who'd died and was unable to transition properly to the next world or not.

He was almost certain that there were unicorns. And he had a pretty good idea where he might find one, if he could only figure out how to open the door.

He got another check -- a smaller one this time -- and then two rejections in a row. Suddenly the idea that he could just quit his job and be a writer didn't seem to be quite so simple.

And just as he was realizing that, the unthinkable happened. He stayed up until 4:00 a.m. writing a story, somehow went to bed without setting his alarm, and woke up to the phone ringing at 8:45 a.m.

"Hello?" Jeremy answered, still half asleep and not fully realizing the full meaning of the time displayed on the clock."

"Where are you?" it was Cecilia.

What a stupid question, Jeremy thought. She'd called him at home.

"I . . . um. I can be there in an hour."

"Don't bother."

There was a long silence. Jeremy was fully awake now. He didn't want to believe he'd heard what he'd just heard.

"You mean . . . ?"

"Jeremy, you were suspended less than a month ago. Not even three weeks ago. Even if it wasn't six months, if it was two or three, I could argue for another suspension, a longer one perhaps, but as it is . . ."

As it is, he was fired. That was that. He'd really screwed himself up this time.

"Oh, my God," he moaned.

"I'm sorry," said Cecilia, sounding distraught herself. Then she seemed to gather herself together, because her voice became very clear and cold. "You brought it on yourself, Jeremy."

She hung up the phone. He sat there in bed, holding the empty receiver. He wanted to cry.

He wanted to tell Liliana what had happened. But he didn't even know when he would see her again. She couldn't be there to comfort him, to support him. What good was she? Why did he have to fall in love with someone who couldn't do anything for him except give him sex?

And the stories, he reminded himself. You know it's because of her that you have the stories.

Yeah, well, I'm going to need better ones and more of them. Cause now they're all I've got.

Chapter 19 - December's End

What Jeremy saw the next morning was Liliana, lying in bed next to him. She had never spent the night before, and he had just about convinced himself that she couldn't exist in his world during the daylight. But there she was, sleeping peacefully.

He leaned over and kissed her cheek, and she woke up and smiled at him. "Good morning," she said.

"I'm full of questions," he said. "But I won't ask any of them. I'll just enjoy the fact that you are here."

"You're learning," she said.

He went to work with a spring in his step, happier than he'd been in a long, long time. He caught himself whistling and humming several times during the day. He laughed at himself. He rarely shushed anyone, and the library he worked at didn't have a policy of silence, but he still thought it was pretty funny that he was so going against the stereotype of a librarian as to actually be whistling in the library.

When he got home, Liliana was still there, and she had cleaned his entire apartment. She'd even washed the silverware. He thought of asking her how, but then he saw the heavy latex gloves lying next to the sink. He had bought them for doing some paint stripping on some old furniture he'd bought at a yard sale that he'd intended to refinish. He wondered where she had found them -- he'd forgotten he even had them, and had no idea where they had been.

They made love that night as if it was the first time. No, far better than the first time because their bodies knew each other, knew what felt good and what felt better and how they fit together best. Jeremy discovered that he had only imagined he had known ecstasy before. This night was more than he could ever have wished for. He thought it was the beginning of a long succession of wonderful nights, that now Liliana had moved in with him and would be with him forever.

But when he woke up in the morning, she was gone again, and he didn't see her after that for more than a week.

At first, he thought they had merely lapsed back into their old routine, that he had misjudged her overnight stay, but he would surely see her in three or four days. When five days passed and she had not showed up, either at the park or in his apartment, he began to worry.

Would he ever see her again? Was he someone she had merely played with, and now would abandon? What did he know about her, except that she was not really human and had relatives who were decidedly less so and lived in a world of beauty where time flowed differently?

Christmas came and went and he didn't even notice. His mother called him Christmas day, wondering where he was, and he realized he'd never even told her that he'd planned to have Christmas up here with Liliana, and of course that plan had never made much sense in the first place, because how can you plan anything when your plans depend on someone whose very essence is undependability. And he couldn't really explain any of this to his mother anyway, so he was surly, and then immediately sorry about it, and the whole exchange wasn't very satisfactory for either of them.

New Year's Eve was approaching, and the only notice Jeremy gave it was the sour realization that it looked like he'd spend another New Year's Eve without someone to kiss at midnight after all.

Yet still he went to the park every night. Still he walked around the pond, hoping to see her, hoping since she wasn't at the park that she'd be in his apartment when he got home. And every night he got home to a cold and empty apartment that seemed colder someone for the emptiness.

But then, on New Year's Eve, there she was. Waiting for him in the park.

His heart leapt. He was overjoyed to see her. But he was annoyed, too. He remembered what her sister had said, and realized there was a certain amount of truth in it. He was angry at the way Liliana came and went from his life, at the fact that he not only had no control but not even any knowledge of when she would or wouldn't be around.

She smiled and held out her arms, but he didn't rush to her. She stood there, arms out, and the smile faded from her face and she looked uncertain.

"Aren't you glad to see me?" she asked, her voice sounding on the edge of breaking into tears.

He relented and went to her and hugged her. "Of course I am. But I must admit I'm a little hurt and angry that you keep disappearing from my life and I never know whether or not I'll see you again and you just are gone for days and days and then suddenly show up again and . . . well, it's hard to take."

She squeezed him. "I'm sorry that I've hurt you," she said. But he noticed that she didn't promise not to do it anymore.

They walked to his apartment with their arms around each other, but they were quiet. In the past, they had chatted along the way about this or that, Jeremy's day at work or something interesting in the park that Liliana had seen while waiting for Jeremy. Tonight, neither of them spoke. There was a wall between them, Jeremy felt, even though they were touching and hugging each other.

He knew his words had created the wall between them. No, he suddenly thought, it had been her actions that had caused his words, after all. He wasn't going to take the blame for this.

They got to his apartment and sat on the couch, still quiet.

"What are we going to do about this?" Jeremy finally said.

"About what?"

"It's tearing me up to have you come and go like this. You don't even leave me a note saying when you'll see me again. You just leave. I really thought . . ."


He sighed. "I thought the last time when you stayed the night and were still here the next day that you were going to stay for good, that you wouldn't be coming and going anymore. And then suddenly you were gone. And not only that, but you've been gone for longer than you've ever been since I first met you. I've always seen you within three or four days but it's been a week -- more than a week. I don't know how much more of this I can take."

"I see."

She sighed, stared off into space a moment. She straightened up, folded her hands in her lap. "Would you rather have my sister?"


"My sister. Would you rather have her here instead of me? She would allow you to control her, insofar as she was able, come and go as you pleased, and if she could not obey your commands, she would let you punish her, give your anger a vent that some men find arousing in itself."

"I don't want your sister," Jeremy said miserably.

"Or is it me you'd like to punish as my sister suggested that you punish her. Oh, yes, I know what she said to you. She couldn't wait to repeat it to me, and I knew that sooner or later it would come up, because once a man has had her voice whisper in his ear he can't forget her words, no matter how he tries."

"This has nothing to do with your sister. It's about us. Before I ever met your sister this bothered me. It bothers me more now because I thought we were past it, and because the wait has been longer than ever this time. That's all. It has nothing to do with her."

Or did it? He couldn't deny that her sister's voice had been insistent in his ear, had in fact aroused him and influenced his thinking, that he had, in fact, just two days ago fantasized about punishing Liliana, when she finally did show up -- if she showed up, which of course two days ago he hadn't been quite certain that she would.

"Jeremy, I cannot stay with you always. I have to come and go. I do not know myself when I can see you again, nor can I get a message to you in between times. You must accept what we have or send me away."

He reached out for her and she came into his arms. He held her tightly, afraid that if he let her go she'd vanish into the night, knowing that sooner or later, she would indeed do just that, again and again and again, and that each time she'd break his heart, and there was nothing he could do to stop it, because he wanted her and needed her too much to send her away.

At midnight, they kissed, the first time Jeremy had ever kissed a girl at midnight when he'd believed there really was a chance he'd spend the rest of the year with her -- the only other times had been girls he'd met at parties who were as lonely as he was. This time was special, this time was magical, and Jeremy whispered to her just before the kiss that he wanted to be kissing her next New Year's Eve and the next and the next.

And that was how the year ended, with Jeremy happy, but knowing that his happiness was a transitory thing that would come and go with Liliana. He was worried about it, knew that it wasn't wise to be so dependent on her. But he was not wholly in control of himself, and could not help but be in love with her.

He knew that she would be gone again soon, either tomorrow morning or the next day or the next, and that he would be sad and angry and frustrated until she came back, and he knew also that it might transpire that some day she would not come back, and he would be bereft and unable to cope with her absence. It would be sensible to make a clean break with her now, to be glad for what he already had and savor the experience and get back to the real world and real women, now that he was over the hump of having rid himself of his troublesome virginity.
But instead he held her close, and kissed her like there was no tomorrow, and told her he would love her always, and promised never to send her away, and to always wait for her, no matter what.