Monday, August 3, 2015

Ghost stories of the West

Prologue: Dead books

We are all strangers
walking down the artificial hallway,
this boxy tube from plane to airport
that they'll collapse when they're done.
Other people roll their suitcases on wheels,
but not me;
I carry my baggage — it's my preference.
We go up the carpeted ramp
to whatever is out there,
and I know better than to expect to see you
waiting for me
— you have a life without me now,
a life, a wife, a dog,
private jokes, matching Fitbits —
but when you're not there
it is still a shock
and the book we conceived
is stillborn.

***


Ghosts of San Diego

My old friends in San Diego have been replaced by shadows and birds.

I came back, six years later, to look for them. They’re all gone.

There was that row of homeless guys who used to sit with their backs against one wall of the Scientology church on Fourth Avenue, harmless as old hobos in a family-friendly movie.

Among them was Jeff, an older guy with leather skin, longish gray Willie Nelson hair, blue eyes, and a vaguely bigoted vibe. (He said he didn't think being gay was "natural;" I told him I believed my gay friends were probably -- to quote Lady Gaga before her time -- born that way; we agreed to disagree.) He was flirtatious with me and suspicious of everyone else, but he was friends with Roan, a younger guy who looked like Keanu Reeves playing the part of a homeless person, who seemed normal until the schizophrenia kicked in and then you realized he wasn’t a poseur. There was Chris Carroll, another older fellow who told me a joke – he said his middle name was “Must,” as in “Chris Must Carroll”/Christmas carol, and then I swear to god he pulled out a harmonica and played what I guess was supposed to be a Christmas carol.

When I moved to San Diego and lived here briefly, six years ago after getting laid off back East and figuring what the heck and starting a new life in California, I didn’t have a job for a while, so I just walked around downtown. I felt a kinship with these guys and would often linger by the church talking to them, for 20, 30 minutes some days. (I once hung out with Roan for the better part of an hour or two, as I walked by the bay and he followed along like a chatty puppy, straddle-walking a bike, talking in a mixture of alternative-rock song lyrics and conspiracy theory and inviting me to “a nude beach.”)

I knew their stories, and except for when they called me “Cathy,” they knew and remembered mine. I had walked by on my 30th birthday soon after I arrived in town all those years ago – and a few of them tried to pool together some cash so I could buy myself a cake. (I didn’t let them give me any money.)

There was this group run by the city called “Clean & Safe San Diego,” these men and women in neon-orange vests and some on Segways, whose duty was ostensibly to look after the tourists and homeless people downtown and call 911 if anyone needed medical attention or the cops. But when I went to the group job interview, the director showed us a map of downtown and said he wanted us to help nudge the homeless people away from their beloved downtown – away from the eyes of the tourists and their flow of tourist cash to spend in safe, anodyne, bum-free cities. (I didn't return the call from the recruiter asking me to come in for a follow-up interview.)

I don’t know if the group’s ominous master plan succeeded, or if the guys I knew who sat outside the Scientology church found a different place to hang out, or if I was there at the wrong times or what – but six years later, when I walked to the place where they had been every day I’d lived in town, any time I passed by on my frequent rambles through downtown, they were gone. I had even planned to hand out some cash to anyone who was still there, now that I had some to give.

There were just shadows where they had been.

I took a picture of those shadows. 





***
Down by the bay is where I went walking at night when I lived here six years ago. I had friends on both sides – the brightly lit side close to the convention center, with its hotels and restaurant-bars and T-shirt shops and docks full of yachts; and the shadier side, where the Tom Waits characters lived for cheap on their ramshackle vessels.

There was a young couple, Aaron and Sarah, who lived on their small yacht over on the nice, tourist side of the bay, and took rich folks on “sunset dinner cruises” (they had a brochure and everything). The night I met them, they had just lost a lot of dough in the stock market (this was 2008, after all), and they were both drunk and Sarah had been threatening to take her life. In desperation, Aaron had gone out onto the deck, or the dock, and had called out to the first age-appropriate female walking by: “Hey, girl in the red hoodie!” That girl in the red hoodie was me.

Not everyone would have stopped, but I did, intrigued to be called out to by a guy on a boat. He quickly mentioned his girlfriend, said I should come onto their boat and hang out with them, and it didn’t take long for me to realize – he’d recruited me to talk her down because he’d been unable to.

What followed was a surreal and soap-operatic night, of Sarah raging at me (thinking, in her drunkenness, that Aaron had blatantly picked me up right off the boardwalk, right there in front of her) and Aaron drunkenly storming off – leaving us essentially trapped on the boat until he came back with the key to the dock, but Sarah kicked into hostess mode and made the best of it, teaching me how to fish and playing some songs from my iPod (I remember one called “Alone, Jealous, and Stoned” by a band called Secret Machines) through some speakers they had on the boat.

The charming fishing interlude didn’t last long, though, and before I knew it Sarah had changed into a long formal red gown and was talking, again, about ending her life. She found a spare key that would open the gate to the dock and she let me out. I protested and summoned up my best Dr. Phil sound bites about how life was worth living, but in the end I was back on the boardwalk, Aaron was still at some hotel bar, and I watched Sarah walk the length of the dock back to their yacht in her long red dress, like a girl in a Shakespeare play, Juliet, Ophelia.

A few nights later I was walking by again, and Aaron waved me over – everything between them was apparently A-OK now. They invited me to watch “Dexter” with them on their boat, and asked if I wanted to be a boat waitress – “a member of our crew!” – on a cruise some rich people had booked on their yacht for an upcoming evening. I said OK, and I tagged along for free. I helped Sarah grill vegetables below deck as Aaron steered the yacht and played tour guide, and I refilled the fancy guests’ wine glasses. We saw sea mammals and a gas station just for boats and clustered houses on the hillsides of Tijuana.

That all happened six years ago. When I came back to town this last time, I walked by the spot where I was sure they had docked their small yacht – and there was an eerie vacancy; it appeared to be the one slip without a boat in it. This was fairly late at night on a weeknight, so it wasn’t likely that they were out cruising around – they were gone.

In their place was a long-necked water fowl, ghostly and golden in the dim light, looking for all the world like a totem, like their spirit animal.

I took some pictures of the bird. 





***
One night during the four months that I lived in San Diego, I was walking through a little park near the bay when I passed a stone table with four stone stools around it – the kind of place where people play chess with other chess-happy strangers – that had three homeless people sitting around it. Not having a job or anyplace in particular to go in a hurry, curious and endeared by then to the friendly homeless people I’d already met while in town, I came over without hesitation when they spoke to me, and completed their quartet.

There was an older woman with unconvincingly dyed red hair who offered me a shot from her bottle of booze. There were a couple of guys, including one named CD who could have been Bill Murray’s alcoholic uncle. CD started talking about wanting to show me “the statue,” and the others groaned and said, “Oh no, not the statue…” “She doesn’t want to see the statue!” But of course, I did want to see the statue.

So I followed him a little farther out. There, looming giant and floodlit in front of the bay, was a statue version of the sailor kissing the nurse from that one World War II-era photo; it was tucked into an alcove and somehow I hadn’t seen it before. CD seemed to be something of a romantic, and I gathered from his friends’ reactions that I wasn’t the first girl he’d brought out there to ponder “the statue.”

Some predictably loopy conversation followed. While sitting on a bench, he asked me: “Do you know why he did that?” – presumably meaning, did I know why the sailor passionately kissed that nurse – and then he answered himself: “Because that’s all he’s got,” which sounded to me like as good a reason as any. Then he got caught up in the idea that I was an actual, literal, honest-to-god angel. He said things to me like, “My kind had stopped believing that your kind existed,” while peering at me sideways with a knowing twinkle in his eyes.

At one point while the two of us were sitting there, side by side on that bench looking out over the water like characters in an indie movie, something about the scene and other life drama I had going on in the background caused me to audibly sigh, and CD indicated that he had somehow comprehended the full emotional weight of my sigh. He said: “You’re like a poem within a poem.”

When I went back to that spot six years later – “the statue,” that bench we’d been sitting on – there was of course no CD, no quirky homeless clan sitting around a chess table, nobody but tourists and me. An alarming number of male tourists were having their pictures taken while pretending to look up the skirt of the nurse in the statue.

I sat on the bench and sighed again, but there was no one to hear it, and no one to tell me if I’m still a poem within a poem or if I’ve changed. 





***
One guy – there was one guy I saw, the whole time I was in town for my visit six years later, who had been there before: the guy who hangs out downtown shirtless and wearing a luchador mask. He’s a public joke, a crazy person, but I was happy to see him. I tried to make eye contact, wanted to tell him I remembered him from back when I lived here six years ago. He avoided my eyes, possibly used to being ridiculed by anyone bold enough to acknowledge him (and not merely snicker at him and point him out to their friends). He just stood there on a street corner, his hair grayer, shaking a dumbbell back and forth in some private crazy ritual.

It’s possible that it wasn’t even him – that the role of “crazy shirtless dude in a luchador mask downtown” gets passed on from person to person, like that guy who leaves three roses and a cognac on the grave of Edgar Allan Poe. 




***
My last night in town this time, I got dressed up to visit a special place. It was the SRO Lounge, although I hadn’t known its name when I’d been there six years before, stumbling in drunk on the night of my 30th birthday, just a few days after I’d arrived in town to “start a new life.” (I only learned the name years later, after a number of creative Google searches led me to travel-style reviews that let me know I'd virtually found the place.)

I had been to an alternative-rock nightclub earlier on that long-ago birthday night, but it was a Wednesday and all the cool kids at the club had work the next day. I hadn’t wanted my buzz to go to waste, hadn’t wanted to turn in early on such a momentous night (30th birthday! dawn of a new life in California!), and this subversive-seeming roadie-looking guy had told me where I could go to keep the party going while the geeks slumbered – “Fifth Avenue” or “a gay bar.”

The SRO Lounge was both, a gay bar on Fifth Avenue frequented by drag queens and painted bordello-red on the inside, with gaudy baroque-gilt frames around pictures and mirrors – the epitome of “dive.” I don’t exactly remember how I wound up there; I recall traipsing down the streets in my strappy bondage-looking high heels, hiccupping along in a zigzag, and just sort of arriving at this place, like it was my destiny.

Outside the bar I had met Bear, an obese man in a wheelchair, and Columbo, a scrappy black crack dealer with a white beard. “I want to dance!” I’d cried in my tipsy euphoria, and Columbo had said: “OK then, let’s dance!” and crooked out his arm for me to take, all formal, before leading me proudly into the bar, like we were in some black-and-white movie, a downtown Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire.

Inside I’d met more Alice in Wonderland characters, and Columbo and I played Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” on the jukebox (his selection), and we danced. It was like dancing with a wacky old grandpa; he was gentlemanly, not sleazy like the grind-y guys I was used to at clubs. Outside afterward, Columbo introduced me to street people – a man named Robert, snoozing in a sleeping bag in the open San Diego night; Jamaica, obscurely sinister and wearing sunglasses in the dark, with a man pushing a shopping cart containing all his belongings – before helping me find a cab.

When planning my return trip six years later, this was the part I had most looked forward to: revisiting the bar where I’d danced with Columbo on the night of my 30th birthday. I knew Columbo wouldn’t be there, but I thought maybe someone at the bar – a bartender? a regular? – might know what became of him. I had planned to play “Thriller” on the jukebox in honor of that long-ago night.

I was within a few blocks of the bar when a pedicab driver passed me. His speaker system blared “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” a Michael Jackson song. A nod from the universe – or simply proof that Michael Jackson songs have hit a critical mass in popularity and that one is probably always playing somewhere near you if you listen hard enough.

A block from the bar, I saw two figures standing in the shadows on the sidewalk. I knew it couldn’t be them, but I squinted and blurred my vision on purpose so I could imagine it was Bear and Columbo, standing outside as if no time had passed at all, as if I could just go up to Columbo again and say the magic words, “I want to dance!” and he would again say, “OK then, let’s dance!”

It was of course just two guys hanging out. They didn’t acknowledge me.

I arrived at the bar, seeing the sign with the name on it for the first time, and took a deep breath, stepping through the open door as if going through a portal.

It was the place – all red inside, tiny and cramped, the gilt frames. Pool tables that might have been there before, or not; my memories of that night are understandably hazy (I’d weighed close to 100 pounds back then and had drunk four cocktails before arriving at the SRO on my long-ago birthday night). A sparse crowd, mostly young white people. The bartender was young, a clean-cut hipster despite the trucker hat and beard; he wouldn’t have had a clue about Columbo.

The jukebox was gone.

I ordered a drink – a prop; I had promised my husband, at home back East, that I wouldn’t wind up drunk alone in a faraway city. The drink was a screwdriver, the same unimaginative thing I used to always order when I lived here, having only started drinking a few years before turning 30 in San Diego.

Sitting at the bar, I tried to look open to conversation. No one approached me and I didn’t approach them – stone-sober, I didn’t feel the warmth, the openness, the ebullience I’d felt on that long-ago night. (Was it really a magic time back then? If I were to drink a lot now, or if I were younger and amped up from the adrenaline of starting over – would *this time*, right now, be magic to me? Is it really a matter of being open, of saying “yes” to life – or was right now just watered-down and objectively *less*?)

Granted, there was also the fact that I was rocking cleavage at a gay bar – maybe the others there felt sorry for me, thought I didn’t know or had gone into the wrong place, didn’t want to speak up and embarrass me. (Maybe they were checking out the width of my shoulders and the squareness of my jawline to see if I were maybe a very low-key transvestite?)

I moved with my drink to a table along the wall, facing a mirror. I pulled my iPod out of my purse, hit “Songs” and found “Thriller,” popped in some earbuds, and listened to the whole song sitting there in the bar. I smiled out at the area where Columbo and I must have danced to it, conjuring his ghost. I did what I could but the whole thing felt hollow. I couldn’t shake the feeling that this wasn’t really the right place – that the *real* bar was maybe one street over, that Columbo & Co. (and the jukebox) were over there in *that* one; that this bar was some kind of fraud, a set in a miscast movie that wasn’t as good as the book had been.

I tried to not feel ridiculous. I tried not to think about how the anticipated highlight of my trip was supposed to be going to a gay bar and listening to a Michael Jackson song in memory of a drug dealer I’d spent maybe two hours with six years ago, who surely had no memory of me.

That was something else I didn’t want to think about – none of them were trying to find me.

A foxy transvestite walked in and hugged everyone, clearly a regular, and I wished she would come over and hug me so I could tell her some of my story and hear some of hers, but she sat down at the bar with her back to me.

I didn’t stay there for long; after paying my bill, without really meaning to, I left my unfinished drink on my table, almost completely full, as if on some subconscious level I wanted to have a reason to return, a reason to live the night again. A toast to Columbo, “one for my homies,” a full drink waiting for me if I ever want to come back. 




***



It was still fairly early – nowhere close to midnight – after I left the SRO Lounge, so I walked through my old neighborhood, Little Italy, trying to find the whitewashed Catholic church I’d wandered into on my very last day in town six years ago, before I got in my car and drove back East, back home, having lost another job (again, it was 2008; the new job out here couldn’t afford to keep everyone on full-time), lost love (a long story, and not a San Diego story), and lost pretty much all my money on just day-to-day survival.

On that day, the door to the church had been open, and I sat in a pew staring up at the stained-glass window up front. I just sat there, steeped in a despair so thick it felt like shock, until a priest went around and kindly whisper-asked each of us lone souls sitting in the pews to go; they had to make some preparations for a service. Time for the loners to move along.

Six years later, after listening to “Thriller” on puny iPod earbuds in an unworthy tribute to Columbo and my colorful times here, I found the church again. I had originally planned to see if I could go inside it the following morning, right before leaving town again, but after my dutiful-but-brief Columbo tribute I thought I might stop by the church on my way back to the motel, because hey – I had time to kill.

The church was now covered in waxy clear-plastic wrapping – everywhere, over the door, over the darkened light fixtures, over each of the stained-glass windows. I assumed it was under construction, maybe getting renovated. I stood on the sidewalk, unable to enter now or tomorrow, or ever. My past was under construction, demolition, renovation. They were changing it little by little. My friends had turned into shadows and birds. All that remained was me.

I sat on a nearby curb for a long time in the warm, hospitable San Diego night – the same night that had been a bedroom for Robert, Columbo’s friend in the sleeping bag, and so many others, so many friends who were wherever now.

A long-haired, heavy-metal-looking dude came by looking confused. “Excuse me – how far is it to the trolley tracks?” He was asking about the jolly red Mister-Rogers-looking tram that will take you as far down as Tijuana if you want it to. I’d passed those tracks all the time, walking around downtown, back when I lived here. I looked up at him and spoke, because I knew the answer as if I were born with a map of it on my hand: “It’s about ten or so blocks that way” – I pointed south – “not all that close, but definitely walkable.”

He thanked me and hurried on, and I felt happy, because he hadn’t thought I was a tourist – he had assumed this was my home.



***
The next morning I sat at a small table outside the deli next to my motel, badly sunburned and checking the time every five minutes because my cab to the airport was late. I was wearing a new lightweight sweater I’d bought that said “San Diego” on it. (The day I left town six years ago I had bought myself a San Diego T-shirt, the one souvenir I bought the whole time I lived here.) I must have looked frustrated about the late cab because a homeless-seeming man, with a bushy beard and wearing stained clothing, loped up to me and asked if I was OK. He said I seemed sad.

I wanted to pour it out to him. I wanted to tell him that my friends are now ghosts, that I don’t know where they are. I wanted to thank him for being the first person in town this time to really talk to me other than cashiers, waitresses, bartenders, and others with whom I was making a financial transaction. I told him, “I’m waiting for my cab to the airport. I used to live here. I’m sad to be going home.”

The guy stumbled in place; he seemed surprised that I had responded to him. He told me he could see why that would make me sad. He seemed to be straining for something empathetic to say, something wise or at least helpful. I wish I could have let him know – because of him, my visit to the city six years later ended on a kind note, a friendly note, echoes of my quirky, sincere, crazy, lovestruck, and sad pals who lived on these streets, in the embrace of the San Diego sun. Because of him, the city will remain for me a city of friends waiting to be met.

My cab arrived, and the guy with the stains told me to take care, and said good luck. And I said the same to him. 

Sunday, August 2, 2015

All the Eskimo words for snow



Jim headed for the language section. I think he said he was going to check out the Arabic offerings. It could have been another language, though. The things he said to me these days rolled off, raindrops on an umbrella.

I roamed the aisles of the fiction section. I looked for a few of the hard-to-find authors on my list, ones I’d read about in The New Yorker or in the Arts section of The New York Times, writers whose books I would probably have to special-order online because they weren’t available in Northern Virginia chain book emporiums. I didn't find any of them, so I wandered slowly, looking for a love story. Not a romance novel, but a love story that was imperfect and real.

I scanned the covers, recoiling at the obvious marketing tactics -- wacky drawings of twentysomething females lugging shopping bags to sell books about the sex lives of yuppie women. I picked up "Brokeback Mountain" by Annie Proulx, the one that’s just been made into a movie that Jay Leno can’t stop joking about in his nightly monologue, about two cowboys, each married to a woman but secretly in love with each other. I thought about a scene from the preview: one of the cowboys rushes to a closet and pulls out a denim jacket, and you know it belongs to the other cowboy, and he hugs the jacket to his chest and breathes in its smell, with a closed-eyes look of anguish on his face. That was how I felt about Daniel.

***

The first snow of the year looked like a miracle from the window of my office. People had been apprehensive all morning -- "D'ya think we'll get some snow?" was the elevator-conversation replacement for "Have a good weekend?" and "Eh, is it Friday yet?" Traffic reporters on the radio that morning were gearing up, getting ready for all ears to be on them as they described the snarls in DC's notorious traffic. Everyone said the same thing: "It's pretty, but I sure hate to drive in it." Even I said it, on instinct, when someone asked me whether I liked the snow. Somehow telling your co-workers that you think the snow looks like a miracle is the sort of thing that prompts concerned brow-furrows or "Ha, you're being ironic" knowing laughter. You just don't say that stuff out loud.

But as I sat in the swivel chair in front of my computer, facing the big window that looks out over an industrial corner of the historic downtown area, the snow fell so soft and pure that it was hard to imagine feeling anything other than rapturous.

New seasons always bring out the wannabe poet in me, make me drawn to words like "russet" and "auburn" to describe the shade of the fall leaves, make me strain to put into language the cicada shimmer and sprinkler sounds and mowed-grass smell of summer. So I sat in my office and thought about how the snow looked like the flakes of fish food we used to drop into the aquarium at my parents' house. I thought about how it looked like millions of little kamikaze snowflakes mounting a silent attack on the city. It was like being inside a world of that TV static that people aptly call "snow." Two black birds swooped and fled for cover, unceremoniously crowded out of their own sky.

After lunch, once the snow started falling, people panicked and began driving home from work. "What's it like on the Woodrow Wilson Bridge?" "Is it worse in Maryland? I have to head north."

I wondered whether the writing group would still meet. The month before, I’d seen the notice tacked to a Starbucks bulletin board. I don't seek out clubs or groups, but I have a black folder bursting with short stories, prose snippets, and character sketches, and I was wanting to find out whether it was all just self-referential, unmarketable crap, as part of me suspected. And secretly, I was hoping to find soul mates.

That's where I met Daniel.

***

I wasn't sure about going to the writing group, which met just a few blocks from the building where I work, easy walking distance. I'd never been to any of its meetings, or to those of any other writing group. I was a little wary, because I'd known since high school that Eva's was this self-consciously bohemian coffeehouse, where rich vegan hipsters with expensive downtown addresses walked their dogs and picked up chai soy lattes, and the barista was most likely young and pierced and sporting at least one piece of hemp clothing made by a company that she could guarantee paid its workers fairly.

But the real reason I'd considered skipping the writing group, even before the snow, was that Jim had a breakdown the night before. He had scratched and torn at his throat, at his wrists, at his chest, serrating the skin and leaving bloody scrapes, even one on his forehead, clawing a rippled tear in his shirt, convulsing with his head bashed into the cushion of my purple daybed and saying that he was sorry, but he wanted to die. It was his first breakdown in several years. I had nightmares about it that night.

In my office, I pictured those red streaks on his neck, each a fingernail's-width. Jim is so strong, and I'd had trouble holding his arms down, like a police officer making an arrest. I thought about telling my boss, and asking if I could leave a few hours early to go back to the apartment to make sure Jim was okay. At work, they know something's wrong with Jim, but I've never left early because of it or talked about it in much detail. I decided against telling my boss or anyone about it, in part because I was sure that eventually something worse would happen with Jim and I'd need the time off more badly. 

Yet when the workday was over, it wasn't to Jim that I went, and I don't know why. Maybe it was some sort of self-preservation instinct, the sense that I had been ignoring what I wanted for a long time. I went to the writing group.

***

Daniel immediately struck me as a character from a story. I was just arriving at Eva's that first evening, a thick ledge of snow built up at the tips of my boots, my cheeks and nose gone red and my fingers losing sensation inside my gloves, when Daniel's junky little car pulled up to the curb to parallel park. My first thought was that I wished I were ballsy enough to attempt to parallel park in Old Town, as this historic section downtown is called, where the parking-enforcement "Nazis" are universally reviled, and cars don't seem to budge from the most coveted spaces along the shops and restaurants, and people behind you honk reproachfully if you pause and turn on your signal.

Before Daniel emerged from his car, I could hear the raucous sounds of jazz within. The car leaned to one side, and his door scraped the sidewalk with a metallic groan as he opened and closed it. (He had parked on the left side; it was a one-way street.) The whole effect was of a one-man gypsy caravan, the tinny metal sounds of his car an accompaniment to the frenzied jazz. He was about my height, black-framed glasses, mostly bald, silver stubble on his face and neck. He moved in a distracted, youthful way, like a boy prone to daydreaming.

The cacophony followed him like a cloud as he bustled to the door of Eva's, searching his pockets for something, a pen maybe, patting down the chest pockets of his jacket in his search for it, snowflakes whirling around him. I halted for a moment and watched him hustle in. Some jinglebells hanging on the door clanged as he went in, still echoing slightly as I pulled the door open a few seconds later.

Inside from the cold, Eva's was warm and cozy, unlike the chilly hipster refuge I'd been expecting. The sudden warmth made me think of my grandparents' house and that big old-fashioned wood-burning stove they have. The seating was calculatedly bohemian: intentionally mismatched couches in perfectly worn purple and olive-green velvet, overstuffed brown corduroy armchairs, with low tables scattered here and there. Today's specials -- gingerbread latte, vegetarian chili -- were written on a blackboard.

It was easy to spot the writing group, the eight or so people sitting in a circle toward the back with notebooks, stacks of printed-out pages clutched in shy writers' laps. I gripped my poor black folder stuffed with printed-out or Xeroxed pages of my own writing. I wondered if we would be eyeing one another with apprehension, cattily, keeping our precious writing close to our chests like baby animals. I had the uneasy feeling of being at my first meeting of a support group. "Hi, my name is ___, and I'm a wannabe writer."

A couple of middle-aged women were chatting, familiar with each other. I guessed, from their authoritative air and good enunciation, that they were teachers, maybe high school English teachers. One of them was jolly and wore a vest with Christmas trees appliqued on the front. A young guy, maybe in college or even high school, sat off by himself, brooding, watching the Old Town shoppers and diners out a window. He seemed sulky and defiant, his legs crossed with one ankle resting on the other knee, as if he secretly thought this was beneath him, a waste of his time.

A few more straggled into the circle. I lingered at the edge, standing, my folder tucked under my arm. Daniel had made himself comfortable in an armchair facing the window, and he smiled at me in a welcoming way. My eyes met his friendly gaze, and I could feel my body growing warm and flushing beneath my coat and thick sweater in the intense heat of the coffeehouse. I pivoted, pretended to look up at the menu by the cash register for a moment, then hurried out the door.

***

"Hanble ceye."

"What the hell is that?"
"It means, 'To journey through the night, crying and praying.'" The book about the language of the Lakota Indians lay open-faced in Jim's lap, a small halo from a floor lamp behind the daybed illuminating the corner of the living room where he sat.
"Great."
"They think that's the most sincere kind of praying, when you're crying."
"Makes sense."

I was hustling back and forth, getting ready for my nightly walk. I'd put on a pair of ugly plaid flannel pajama bottoms over jeans, two sweaters, a hooded parka over my wool coat. I could have been overreacting to the first snow of the winter, but I wanted to withstand the cold long enough to get at least an hour's walking in.

I had a new CD, the score to the movie "Memoirs of a Geisha." I hadn't read the book, and the movie wasn't even in theaters yet. But ever since high school I'd had an affinity for anything Japanese. Once I even bought this CD called "Shakuhachi: The Sounds of the Japanese Flute" in the New Age section of the music store. I'm maybe the least New Age person you'll ever meet, but I'd wanted to find something that sounded like the lovely solo flute music that one of my high school English teachers played to get us in the mood for learning about Japanese literature. The flute's exhalations sometimes dipped sorrowfully like a flock of birds getting more and more distant, sometimes flared and circled like a wild animal about to leap onto prey.

"Tokeske ispa etulehci mahian yelo." Jim looked at me, as if waiting for a response.
"Um, okay." I wasn't in the mood. I couldn't find the spare batteries for my Discman that I always carried in my pocket on walks. I always got a little annoyed when Jim spoke to me in another language like that, proudly announcing some new phrase and expecting me to respond, as if he were lording it over me that I had no clue what he just said.
He laughed. "It means, 'Somehow I have a sore spot right on my elbow.'"
I smirked despite myself. "I should write that on a little card and keep it in my wallet with my health insurance card and stuff, because I'm sure I'll need to say that someday. In Lakota."

Jim was better now. After his breakdown, I'd been so worried about him that I decided to make the next evening like a birthday for him. This was after I ditched the writing group, telling myself it was because I was worried about Jim. I took him to a Thai restaurant he'd been wanting to try, where he was thrilled at the chance to eavesdrop on some of the waiters chatting in Thai. I took him to Borders, where I told him to pick out a book, and he had trouble deciding between Cherokee- and Lakota-language books. I told him to get both, even as I envisioned the quickly dwindling numbers in my already paltry bank account. Now he sat, content and cross-legged on the daybed, his mind working out the logic of the grammar of a new language, one of his favorite things to do. I left him, guilt-free, to walk laps around the apartment complex and listen to my new CD.

Outside, the drab apartment buildings and endless rows of parked cars were sugared with a bed of twinkling snow. I love it when that happens, when the snow makes your everyday surroundings look foreign, magical, like when it turns a patch of barren brown trees into white filigreed figures, and suddenly you notice each individual tree. An evergreen close to the sidewalk was burdened by shelves of snow on its branches, sagging down to wave some of its whiskery, needle-leafed branches in my face as I limbo-danced underneath. The music from my CD fit the scene so well: the muted woodwind sighs of the flute, tinkly chimes, orchestral swells.

I rounded a corner to circle around and pass my apartment. Jim stays there all the time, but he's not on the lease. He's been out of work for seven years now, the entire time we've been together. It's funny to see the expressions people have when I tell them this, because of course they always ask what it is my boyfriend does for a living. Most people look down and mumble something like, "Oh, I'm sorry" before changing the subject. A few -- men, usually -- offer advice. "It's the holiday season -- stores are desperate to hire new people right now." And I thank them politely, as if their suggestion had never occurred to me before.

It's been years since his nightly breakdowns. These days Jim's medication keeps him eerily sedated. While I'm at work, he teaches himself the Moroccan dialect of Arabic, or Basque, or Irish, or reads comic books, or watches old episodes of "Saturday Night Live" that he's taped on the VCR. When we first got together, I thought it would just be like that until we got his medications straightened out. But now he's content almost all the time, and we've both fallen into a strange, complacent lull, a fragile quiet.

Jim stormed toward me, his head bent down to keep the falling snow out of his eyes. There was something alarming and familiar in his walk, something I hadn't seen for years, as if he were on a rampage. I pressed the stop button on my Discman and waved at him with my gloved hand.
"Hey," he grunted, turning as I approached to fall into step beside me.
"How's your book?"
"Good." He stopped short and began to go on about his latest health-related paranoia. This month he's sure he has diabetes. Last month he kept having me check him for testicular cancer, and of course I sympathetically obliged each time he asked, sometimes every night, and everything was always the same as it had always been.

This hypochondria is a big reason Jim and I have never had sex. He's terrified that I'll get pregnant, even if we're careful. I'm pretty sure that when Jim has to touch a doorknob in a public place or thinks about sex, he sees images like the movies you watch in biology class, close-up shots of amoebae, millions of sperm in some sort of subterranean, peach-colored world, pecking at an egg cell. Those are the cartoon-like visions I think of when he starts to lecture about how disgusting cockroaches are or why you should never eat food that's fallen on the kitchen floor.

But a bigger reason we've never had sex, from my end, is that somehow over the past seven years I've become more like his mother than his girlfriend.    

I pretended to listen to him tonight. We went inside, and Jim stayed up late watching TV in the living room as I got ready for bed. I told him good night and closed the bedroom door.

***

The snow stuck around for the next couple of weeks, refreshed by successive dustings. In traffic going to work, I sat inside my car, the world around me glowing salmon-pink as the sun lit the snow. After the night's volley of snowflakes at the DC area, the sun seemed to peek over the scene like a stern mother coming home to the mess her kids made while throwing a party. I sang to myself quietly in the car. My breath came out in tufts of frosty air. It was no longer snowing, but people with cars parked in front of their homes in driveways and along the sides of the street scraped the snow off their windshields, like they were rubbing the sleep out of the cars' eyes.

I wondered what the writing group would make of these similes. I planned to go back, but only to eavesdrop, feel them out. I would order hot cocoa and sit near them, then maybe go back next time and share. Maybe.

The truth was, I didn't really care about getting feedback about my writing. I knew I was too arrogant to put much stock in what a group of strangers would say about it. I wasn't even looking to get any of it published. I've always been insular and self-contained; I write only for myself.

The real reason I was drawn to the writing group was: I was lonely. I had never met anyone like me. When I was younger, I would take walks at night around my parents' neighborhood, and I would always wind up sitting on this hill overlooking the boat docks. I would sit there for an hour or so sometimes, under the few stars you could see that weren't drowned out by the flood of lights from nearby DC, listening to all the boat sounds -- that bell-like clinging of ropes with metal pulleys against masts, flags and sails flapping, a slight creaking as the gentle tide heaved the boats up and down slowly -- and the wind chimes on the back porch of the house closest to the marina. In all the years I took those mad walks down to the docks in the middle of night, I never once saw anyone there doing the same thing. I was hoping to meet someone else who would do that.

I had nestled myself into a chair at a small table on the periphery of where the writing-group members were finding themselves seats, with my mug of hot chocolate and a book -- "Love in the Time of Cholera" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez -- when I looked up and saw Daniel looking at me. He obviously remembered me from that last time when I'd fled with my writing folder tucked under my arm. A little rudely, although I didn't mean it to be, I looked back down at my book and avoided his gaze. An awkward couple of minutes passed as I stared at this one sentence, about Fermina Daza going to the market to buy multi-colored inks with which to write love letters to Florentino Ariza, staring at the words until the black ink swam in my vision, without comprehending them at first, avoiding eye contact with Daniel and hoping he didn't come over to talk to me, and then the group got started.

The two teachers naturally took the lead; they were probably the group's organizers. I regretted my snap judgments from the time before; some of them were very good writers. The teachers read their pieces with a seasoned cadence, used to reading aloud. One of them read a snippet of prose about her childhood home near Amish country in Pennsylvania. The other teacher, wearing lots of gold bangles that looked as if they came from an Indian bazaar, read fiction about a girl growing up in Morocco. She introduced the story by sharing some cultural insights about Morocco, a country with which she'd recently become fascinated. The young, sulky guy had written a dark story that reminded me of that Ray Bradbury one, about the world in which the sun comes out for only one hour every seven years, and this girl can't wait to see it -- but a group of bullies locks her in a closet, so she doesn't get to see the sun. A pretty girl with lanky black hair cut in a short, edgy style and lots of dark eye make-up read poetry she'd written about the friends and lovers she met while traveling in Italy after college.

The others were supportive as each person read, asking polite questions about minor plot holes, commending a good metaphor, noticing a recurring motif. Daniel was the last to read.

I raised my eyes above the upper edge of my book to watch him. His voice was warm and confident, almost teacher-like, but shy and dreamy at times, hinting at the boy he might have been as an adolescent. He started with a vivid, whimsical opening scene that made everyone laugh, but it soon became apparent that it was a love story. My kind of love story, something beautiful and sad and real. I decided that I would come back again next week.

After Daniel read this first installment of his latest story -- he mentioned, in remarks before he read aloud, that a small press had published a few of his novels, and this was the beginning of his latest one -- there was praise, a few questions, then the group gave itself a round of applause and adjourned until next week. I pretended to concentrate on "Love in the Time of Cholera" as the group members got up and shrugged their coats on and headed out into Old Town. When it seemed like they'd all left, I dropped a couple of folded one-dollar bills on the table, paid for my hot chocolate at the cash register, and pushed open the cafe door, jinglebells crashing against the glass panes as it slammed shut behind me.

"Glad you came back." I had taken a few steps, heading for my office building's parking garage, when Daniel materialized from out of nowhere.
"Thanks." I gave him a small, tight smile and a polite nod, and continued on my way.
"Coming back next time?" he called out after me.

I stopped and turned around. He was smiling, standing next to his junky little car that listed to one side in its parallel-parking space. It was snowing again, the flakes coming down huge, and he squinted behind the snow-dusted lenses of his glasses. A periwinkle-blue twilight was falling on Old Town, warm and velvety like a cloak. Cars sloshed by slow and grumpy, spraying slush in little pinwheels from their tires. A wall of falling snow separated us. He smiled kindly, waiting for my response.
"Yeah." 

***

That night I flipped open my black folder and looked over the short stories and sketches that I'd written during the past year or so, mentally comparing them to the group members' writings. For some reason, many of the more recent character sketches were about older relatives of mine. There was one about my great-aunt Lucy. Lucy lives in a nursing home now, and she hates it. She's not mentally aware enough to take care of herself, but she's mentally aware enough to know that she's in a nursing home, not her little house in the country with the view of the cows on a mountain and her houseplants that she always only waters just enough to keep them one gasp away from death -- and that she hates it. Most of the others in the nursing home are practically braindead; they sit in wheelchairs parked in front of a large-screen TV, some of them moaning and occasionally screaming. It's cold, and Lucy, who's about four feet tall and weighs about 80 pounds, has had several of her nice cardigan sweaters stolen by other residents.

We visited her for Thanksgiving, and she sat in her wheelchair and glared, determined not to settle for this new existence that was not of her choosing, and when I perfunctorily said it was good to see her, she said, "I hope next time it's under better circumstances." She still thinks she's going to get better and go home one of these days. She's 96 years old. When she was younger, she and her husband were in a motorcycle club. The great-grandkids always got a kick out of telling people that our sweet little Aunt Lucy was in a motorcycle "gang." It wasn't a gang exactly, but when she and her husband were youthful and healthy, when he was still alive, before she found out that she could never have children and took up chain-smoking, the two of them would ride, through the hills, the motorcycle's engine putting rebelliously, a rude loud uproar, past the little houses and cows and sedate Appalachian mountains, their clothes and hair rippling in the wind, the world a delirious blur around them.

I get so sad when I think of all the people who die without their stories getting told, even if it's just a short character sketch written by a great-niece who doesn't really know them all that well.

I showed Jim some of my short stories when we first got together. Unimpressed but charitable, he told me not to worry, that we would discover what my talent was someday. I don't know what he was thinking -- that I would turn out to have some latent knack for landscape painting, that I had untapped violin-prodigy powers? I don't know, and I didn't ask him what he meant, and I have kept everything I have written since then hidden from him. Not that he ever asked about it again.

***

My pulse galloped as Emilia, the pretty girl with the dark eye make-up, finished her latest poem about wandering through Rome with an ex-lover in the middle of a warm Italian spring night. The images were haunting, her words lush, the pain of the brief love affair stinging throughout the poem. I didn't really hear the others' comments as I stared down at the black-ink letters of the word-processed writings I'd printed out and held now in a thin stack on my lap. Adrenaline sent my right knee bouncing, and the light and colors in the room blared. Finally, everyone looked to me, and one of the English teachers gave me a warm welcome and a formal introduction.

"I write a lot of character sketches. They're not really fully fleshed-out short stories. They're little portraits, sometimes fictional ones about interesting strangers I see out in public, and sometimes real ones about people I know. This one's about my Aunt Priscilla."

I remembered what my drama teacher in junior high said about projecting your voice "from the diaphragm." I tried to do that as I strained to rise above the din of conversation in the cafĂ© and read the sketch I'd written about Priscilla, my dad's half-sister, who had always fascinated me. She was the most sought-after girl in her small-town high school, a blonde drum majorette. A black-and-white senior picture of her, hanging in my grandparents' den, looks like a picture of a 1950s movie star. But her beauty seemed to have come pre-packaged with tragedy, as if to balance it out. Her parents -- my grandfather and his first wife -- had gotten divorced when Priscilla was a little girl, and she had to choose one parent over the other in court, in front of both parents and the judge. She chose her mother, and my grandfather never seemed to forgive her. Priscilla's mother was mentally ill, my mom told me once, and had the strange habit of pointing at homeless men and saying, "See that man right there -- that's your real father." No one knows why she did this; my guess is she was trying to say that Priscilla's father was no better than some bum on the street, or maybe she just wished that someone else, anyone else, even a bum, was Priscilla's father.

Instead of picking from among the decent, stable suitors who'd wanted to be with her since high school, Priscilla married the profligate son of a rich doctor for whom the local hospital was named, and the two of them relied on the rich doctor's money, living a bohemian lifestyle and not working much or caring about practical matters such as saving money or picking up around the house. Priscilla's husband was mean to her, forcing her to swallow a ton of birth-control pills during a fight once, and sometimes reaching over in the car while driving to pinch her until she bruised; she never said anything because she didn't want to upset their three kids in the back seat.

Priscilla
says strange things sometimes that prompt eye-rolling from some more practical people. Once, apropos of nothing, she said that she'd like to create a shower curtain entirely out of seashells. My relatives exchanged looks, but I could see how it would be beautiful in Priscilla's mind, a shimmering wall of tinkly seashells to make you think of the ocean while you were taking a bath. Once at Thanksgiving dinner, she talked about how she liked to turn off all the lights and walk from room to room in her house, looking at how the light from the moon made different shadows on the floor, and some of my relatives made fun of her for this after she’d gone home that night.

Priscilla
, accustomed to being told she was beautiful, gained a lot of weight in her middle age and became a recluse for many years, not wanting anyone to see her like that. But we continued to receive eccentric and wonderful gifts from her for Christmas: coloring books of butterflies on wax paper that you color with magic markers to make the pages look like stained-glass windows, grown-up girly things for my sister and me: fake eyelashes, press-on artificial nails. Priscilla likes photography and takes these moody, black-and-blue-toned photos of oil fields near her Appalachian home. She gives them as gifts, and the relatives politely accept them but say, behind Priscilla's back, they think the pictures are too depressing. In the photos, the sky is swirls of black and charcoal and blue, like a bruise; the clouds choke the sky, and the oil fields are an inky black swamp. I think the photos are beautiful, like some dark, neglected corner of the world where storm clouds are always churning.

I finished reading my sketch, admitting that there was no structure, no climax or conclusion, to the writing. The group clapped and offered encouraging words, as well as some good and pretty obvious advice: Write a story about Priscilla, with an actual plot, that shows what kind of character she is. I blushed fiercely from having all eyes on me for so long, and it was a relief to walk out of Eva's, the glacial air cooling my reddened cheeks.

Before going to bed, I checked my e-mail and saw one from Daniel -- I'd added my e-mail address to the group list, and one of the coordinators had sent a group e-mail with notes for the next meeting.
--- 
To: sapporo_violet_snow@yahoo.com
From: d_nippon@georgetown.edu
Subject: Majorettes taking bruise-colored photographs

Hi!

So glad you decided to join our group! I was moved by the sketch of your aunt, and kept thinking about her sad life on my drive home. I think she'd be pleased that you decided to immortalize her in your writing. Have you shown it to her?

Isn't it amazing how writers and artists can make people live forever? We also possess the power to transform the world, or create new ones, like Don Quixote.

Hope to see you next week!

Daniel

P.S. I like the e-mail address -- I've done some Japanese-to-English translation work off and on over the years. Have you been to Sapporo (Japan )?
---
I replied:

To: d_nippon@georgetown.edu
From: sapporo_violet_snow@yahoo.com
Subject: Don Quixote

Hi Daniel,

Thanks -- I appreciate the encouragement. Everyone in the group is so talented, so it's very humbling to sit there and listen to everyone, but should teach me a lot. No, I haven't shown the sketch to my aunt... I worry that it might upset her, but maybe I'll show her someday.

No, I've never been to Sapporo, or to Japan at all, but I think I lived there in another life. Speaking of Japan and writing, there was this great quote in the biopic about (Japanese writer, as I'm sure you know) Yukio Mishima. He said something like, "I began to recognize a difference between words, and the world, which has nothing to do with words." I might be misquoting. The basic idea -- an interesting one for a writer to voice -- was that there's so much in the world that can't be adequately expressed in words. It doesn't mean we can't convey so much with words, or that we shouldn't try, but I think it's good to have a reverent attitude toward the world and to realize that some things are just too big or sacred for words. Does that make any sense?

Anyway, see you next week, when I'll have an actual story (with plot, climax, etc.) to share.
---
I liked his e-mail, so I felt like opening up to him. 

The next day when I checked my e-mail during a lull at work, I saw that Daniel had replied right away.
___
To: sapporo_violet_snow@yahoo.com
From: d_nippon@georgetown.edu
Subject: The world has nothing to do with words

Hi again,

I've never seen that Mishima quote, but it's interesting food for thought. I agree that sometimes words just seem to trivialize emotions and moments. A reverence for silence -- or an appreciation for leaving some things unsaid -- is a good quality for a writer to have, I think.

What did you think of the bit of my story I read aloud Mon.? I haven't written a straightforward love story in years -- at least, not novel-length -- but I started this one as therapy for a broken heart several years ago. It's been in a drawer, and I recently brought it out again and decided to finish it. Not sure why; it just felt like it was calling to me, longing to be complete.

Daniel
----
I replied:

To: d_nippon@georgetown.edu
From: sapporo_violet_snow@yahoo.com
Subject: Therapy for a broken heart

Hi Daniel,

I think your story is wonderful. Love is my favorite subject, for a story, a movie, a song, anything. Yours is so touching because it's real. Without elaboration, it's so clear how much you care for the main female character, and how deeply she hurt you. 

I'm sorry if this is a little... inappropriate, but the scenes in which the narrator and the main female character make love are so crushing and rapturous. These characters are meant to be together, yet you know they're doomed not to be. I wish I could write a love story like that. I don't know what it's like to make love to someone. I've never shared that with anyone. Sorry if that's way too personal to share with someone I don't really know, but I value brutal honesty. Anyway, those scenes are so beautiful it made my heart hurt when you read them.
---

As soon as I clicked "Send," I regretted getting so personal, so I sent this:
---

To: d_nippon@georgetown.edu
From: sapporo_violet_snow@yahoo.com
Subject: (None)
Ugh, sorry if what I wrote in my last message was creepy. I promise I'm not a pervert. Anyway, I apologize, and hope it doesn't make you uncomfortable.
___

I checked my e-mail every half hour for the rest of the workday, until finally this message came through:
---

To: sapporo_violet_snow@yahoo.com
From: d_nippon@georgetown.edu
Subject: Honesty

Hi again,

Thanks for your kind words about my story! And no worries -- I didn't find what you wrote creepy, just honest. And if honesty, viewed in a certain light, is creepy, then I'd take that over bland dishonesty any day. See you next week!
---

A warmth spread through me after I read his message. Outside my window, large snowflakes spiralled like ninja stars from the sky.

***

That Wednesday night I met my best friend, Amanda, at an Irish pub called Murphy's in Old Town, a few blocks down from Eva's. I walked there after work on the brick sidewalk along blades of grass poking up from inside shrinking mountains of snow. A night out with Amanda is always cause for a mixture of apprehension and self-pity for me. Amanda and I grew up in the same neighborhood and have been friends since elementary school. I've always been "the other one" in her presence, because boys have always been inexorably drawn to her, as if a spray of Cupid's arrows precedes her everywhere she goes. She's tall and slim, with medium-sized breasts (like Goldilocks -- not too big and not too small) that swell out nicely from the snug sweaters and low-cut tops she wears that also show off the soft, creamy skin of her decolletage.

I resort to romance-novel-heroine terms whenever I search for words to describe her: luxuriant chestnut hair that cascades down her back in shiny waves; limpid blue eyes accented with lush, dark lashes. One time in junior high we went to the Merle Norman cosmetics store at a local mini-mall because we saw in the newspaper they were giving free make-overs. The make-over lady said to Amanda, "Wow, your eyelashes are so black and thick and long, you don't even need mascara. Do you model?" The make-over lady and another sales clerk told Amanda that her skin was flawless, her teeth were perfect, her nose was pretty and perfectly straight. When the same two ladies came at me with make-up brushes and pressed powders and colored lip and eye pencils, they spent a while using darker liquid foundation to "contour" my features, making my nose appear shorter, my face less round. The rosiness of my pale skin needed to be toned down, and they finished with a hearty lashing of black mascara for my sickly-sparse lashes.

Amanda
's family is part Irish-American and that's why she claims she likes Murphy's, but I know she really comes here for the preppy, macho, sports-loving, quasi-cosmopolitan guys who order steins of Guinness and watch the World Cup soccer games on the TVs hanging over the bar. Amanda works as a waitress at an upscale seafood restaurant here in Old Town, and she gets ridiculously big tips from male diners of all ages. I don't know how many times I've gotten free meals and other perks simply by hanging around Amanda. There was the guy behind the counter at Sbarro's in the mall who always covertly waved us through instead of making Amanda and her frumpy friend pay for pizza.

There was the time I tagged along on her Catholic church's youth-group field trip to Rehoboth Beach in Delaware; we were walking around the hotel grounds late at night when some guys vacationing from Italy approached her, kissed her hand, and led us to an abandoned playground where their friends were having a small private party, sitting on the swings with six-packs of beer parked near them on the blacktop. As we took swigs of beer and the guys fought over which Italian dude got to have Amanda sit on his lap, I stood off to the side, strangely grateful just to be witnessing the scene, the secret teenage party under the stars. I guess a lot of girls would have let the jealousy interfere with the friendship, but I've always felt indebted to Amanda for the experiences I've had with her that are ordinarily exclusively for pretty people.

Amanda
was off from work today, but I still arrived before she did. She takes a lot of time getting ready, and she likes to make an entrance after everyone else is already there. I sat at the bar and ordered a beer, which the bartender set before me in a multi-faceted stein. It's always dark in Murphy's because the owners try to create an authentic pub-like ambience, the walls painted a murky green, dark wood bar and stools, Notre Dame “Fighting Irish” flags among the ersatz-vintage Guinness ads.

There's hardly any standing room in here on St. Patrick's Day, when Amanda traditionally parades around in a green feather boa and flirts and lies to guys and tells them whatever fib happens to occur to her intoxicated mind at the moment: That she's a former Miss Georgia and runner-up for Miss America, that she used to be a back-up singer for Mariah Carey. Last Saint Patrick's Day, I stood by the wall even when she beckoned for me to come join her in the center of the crowd, laughing with her Cover-Girl-ad smile, a wreath of green-foil shamrocks glinting under the weak amber-colored bar lights. That night, I wrote a long character sketch about Amanda, the tipsy siren with green-foil shamrocks in her hair.

I didn't have to turn around to know when Amanda walked into the bar. The men turned to look, and the women they were with glared and stiffened in discomfort. I always feel a sort of pride when that happens; it's amusing to see the havoc Amanda creates just by entering a scene. Tonight she wore high-heeled boots and skintight jeans, and when she took off her black faux-fur-trimmed coat, I saw that she was wearing a white sweater that clings to her perfect torso and falls off both shoulders. Leave it to Amanda to find a way to be intimidatingly sexy in the dead of winter, to wear a sweater that required its wearer to don a strapless bra. It was hard for everyone to take their eyes off her golden shoulders, a surprising display of skin on a snowy December day. Amanda loves attention, so she strutted loudly to the bar stool beside me, commanding everyone to look up with each strident step, and she tossed her chestnut mane as she slowly removed her coat, like a striptease. 

"Well, hello, Miss Amanda. Always a pleasure." The middle-aged bartender knows Amanda by name and knows her favorite drink, but he doesn't know my name, although we've been coming here for years. He knows I'm Amanda's friend, though, and when I show up first he always asks me whether she's coming. He fixed a glass of her favorite pale ale. "On the house." Surprise, surprise.

"How was your day?" she cooed to me. Amanda likes to call people "sweetie," she likes to hug everyone and kiss them on the cheek. But she's known me long enough to know I can't stomach that sort of thing. It's not phony on her part, though, the way that sort of thing is with some people. I grunted and rolled my eyes, and she laughed.
"How's Jim?"
"The same. Still looking for a job. He scratched himself up pretty badly the other night, though. He hasn't done that in years."

Her pretty face registered sympathy. Amanda and Jim get along fine, and he's admitted before that he thinks she's pretty, but he's never seemed attracted to her, and when I'm lamenting how much better she is than me, he points out that she's also fickle (except to me) and irresponsible and that the only thing she reads is People magazine. Good ol' Jim.

I asked her about her week, since it'd been a while since we'd talked. She just started seeing a new guy, a pilot who drives a BMW. I started to worry -- Amanda attracts these status-conscious guys who are looking for a trophy girlfriend but don't wind up actually caring much about her. As always, Amanda's update contained tidbits that made me envious: A photographer friend she'd worked with for a modeling assignment knew someone who was making a local independent movie, and she was offered a small part. She had signed up to run a marathon. A male co-worker had invited her to go with him to Puerto Rico -- he'd pay for her plane ticket -- and she was thinking of going. "What about you?"

I told her about the writing group, really boring news compared to what was going on in her life. I laughed. "That's about it. Sad but true."

She laughed and said: "You're gonna be a famous writer someday. Then I'll get to say I knew you back when." That's another reason I put up with the humiliation of being "the other one" around Amanda -- she's loyal as a dog to me.

Amanda decided she could use some Irish coffee with whipped cream on top. As she ordered and flirted with the bartender, the door opened and a gust of cold air trickled in. I looked up and saw Daniel standing in the doorway, stomping snow off his shoes, pulling off his glasses to wipe the lenses on a corner of his coat. I turned away quickly, and he took a seat at a small table in a corner. He hadn't seen me.

"Why are you staring at that guy?" Amanda hadn't meant to be so loud, but she was laughing.
"He's in my new writing group. His stuff's really good. He's a translator, and I think he might teach at Georgetown . We e-mailed each other a couple of times, and he's got a georgetown.edu e-mail address."
"Cool, invite him over."
"No, I don't really know him. It's okay."
"God damn it."

Frustrated with my habitual anti-social tendencies, Amanda turned and peered at Daniel over her bare shoulder. He looked up and smiled, seeming a little confused. She cocked her head.
"Hi! Come sit with us."

I turned around, too, and Daniel said, "Oh!" when he saw me. He ambled over and sat on the only empty stool, next to Amanda.

Amanda's Irish coffee arrived, and she said, "Mm!" and dipped her finger into the cloud of whipped cream on top, sucking it off her finger. Amanda is always like this, even if it's just the two of us and there aren't any guys around to seduce. But this time, with Daniel, I felt a pang. He watched her, and I couldn't figure out if he was bemused or pleased. "So you're in the writing group?" She peered up at him through lingerie-model lashes as she took a long swig.
"Yes, we both are. Do you write, too?"

Amanda licked her lips, almost pornographically. This, too, wasn't conscious on her part; I know her too well. She's always like this.
"I used to write poetry."
"Oh!" Daniel seemed thrilled. Only I knew that Amanda's poetry -- the last of which, to my knowledge, she'd written in about the sixth grade -- read like the inside of a Hallmark card. "Well, we welcome all kinds of writers in our group."
"What do you write?"

As Daniel began to talk about the book he was writing, Amanda tossed her mane of chestnut hair from one side of her neck to the other. Then she did something that always only amused me before -- she straightened her back, reached both arms behind her and clasped her hands together, and stretched her back, arching her back and thrusting her chest way out. As Daniel politely tried to avoid blatantly checking out her body, I felt a fury boiling in my blood. For maybe the first time in my life, I truly hated her.

For another twenty minutes, Amanda pestered Daniel with inane questions, and he answered thoughtfully, and I made the occasional sarcastic remark. Amanda threw her head back and laughed at Daniel's jokes, and a few times she touched his arm. Beneath the bar, I had laced the fingers of both of my hands together, and each time she touched him, I tensed and squeezed my hands together until the blue veins in them bulged. Finally, we stood up and headed for the door -- after Amanda put her coat back on in reverse-striptease mode -- and she gave Daniel a hug before we left. I sheepishly waved good-bye, told him I'd see him Monday, and we walked in opposite directions on the snowy, crunchy sidewalk. It wasn't snowing, but the cold seeped through to my bones, and I thought about how much I hated winter.

***

I didn't receive any e-mails from Daniel for the rest of that week.

***

Monday night, I strode into Eva's with purpose. When it was my turn to read, I pulled out the character sketch I'd written, years ago, about Amanda. I didn't name her, but I hoped Daniel would know who it was.

In the sketch, I wrote about that time, when I was 12 and Amanda was 13, we'd met a group of young guys at a carnival. They'd all liked Amanda, and when she left to stand in line for the Port-O-Potty, the guys all begged me to put in a good word about them with her. I couldn't blame them, because I had a crush on the cutest guy in the group. Amanda wound up picking the cutest guy, and it had all been this perfect example of natural selection, in microcosm. I wrote about how a waiter at IHOP once came up to our table to tell Amanda that she should go to Hollywood and be in movies. But there was also the creepy kid in high school who wrote obsession-stricken prose about her, the catty girls on the soccer team who went out of their way to trip and kick her, the older men who asked her to dinner. Amanda dreamed of being a supermodel but was two inches too short, and she studied fashion magazines and frowned, mentally comparing her body and face to theirs and despairing over the photos of the really gorgeous models. I included an act of supreme loyalty and friendship -- when Amanda knows I'm really down, she will subdue her beauty, meeting me at a coffeeshop in gray sweats and no make-up, knowing that her toned-down hotness never fails to cheer me up, although it's not anything we could ever say aloud.

I wasn't trashing Amanda, but it wasn't an ode to her, either. I was just trying to be honest. I knew it might make Daniel even more attracted to her, but I felt compelled to make sure she was a real person, not just an unattainable goddess.

After the group disbanded, I hurried out before Daniel had a chance to speak to me.

***
---
To: sapporo_violet_snow@yahoo.com
From: d_nippon@georgetown.edu
Subject: Dulcinea

Hi,

It was good to run into you and your friend at Murphy's. But why did you rush off today after the meeting? I had hoped to talk with you about your sketch, which I thought was quite good. You're a good friend to be able to see her fully, to be able to see past the image of beauty and perfection that people seem to project onto her, like Dulcinea. The idea of Dulcinea is beautiful, but it's not real; it's what Don Quixote wants to see in the peasant he thinks is her.

How do you think my story is progressing? Tonight's portion contained a love scene, and it's always a little daunting to read those aloud. But that's no reason to omit them. Making love is about joining with someone, body and soul. It should be about -- for lack of a better word -- love.

Would you like to meet up for a drink tomorrow night, 8:00? It'd be nice to talk about our writing. I hang around Old Town all the time, so I can meet you somewhere there. There's a place near Murphy's called the Wharf -- seafood restaurant, but it has a bar upstairs. You don't have to bring Dulcinea.

Daniel

---
To: d_nippon@georgetown.edu
From: sapporo_violet_snow@yahoo.com
Subject: Re: Dulcinea

Okay.
---

***

I knew Jim would flip out if I told him I was meeting a guy at a bar, but he readily believed I was meeting Amanda. "God, what a lush. She's always wanting to drag you out to go drinking. Don't let her drive if she's drunk."

As I closed the door behind me, Jim sat on my purple daybed, a Vietnamese-English dictionary on the arm, a free Vietnamese newspaper he'd picked up when we ate at Pho99 splayed in front of him. It was like leaving a kid playing with blocks.

I arrived at the Wharf early and went to the restroom to make sure I looked okay. I'd taken a curling iron to my long, dark brown hair to create a wavy effect. I'd put on too much make-up -- my mom's voice saying "like some kind of floozy" surfaced in my mind -- and I was wearing my favorite tight red sweater with ropes of red beads around my neck. I would never stack up to Amanda, but I looked svelte in my tight jeans, and the make-up that looked garish and whorish in the restroom lighting was softer in the dim bar lighting.

Daniel walked in shortly after I'd ordered a beer. He smiled warmly and seemed genuinely glad to see me, even without Amanda. "Ah, maybe now the two of can talk without trying to get a word in edgewise." Amanda was rather chatty.

He first asked me why I'd read the sketch about Amanda right after bumping into him at Murphy's.
"I don't know. I have a love-hate relationship with her, mostly love, and I like to make sure people realize she's a real person, that there's more to her life and her personality than how she looks or how sexy she is."
"A lot of girls would be too threatened to be her friend."
"I'm too threatened to be her friend, too. Once, when we were going to the pool, I begged her not to wear a bikini. This was in high school, and when she wore a bikini to the pool, all hell broke loose. I wanted, just once, to just go to the pool with my friend and enjoy swimming and getting snow cones and stuff. So she agreed -- she wore this ugly one-piece bathing suit she had. And fewer people paid attention to her. That's why we're still friends."
"I see."

Daniel sipped his beer thoughtfully.
"Why did you flee that first meeting you came to at Eva's? Were we that intimidating?" He chuckled. "I'm sorry if I'm being too nosy."
"Oh no, it's okay." I stared down at the wood grain of the bar, which had a shiny, polished, lacquered look to it. "I was worried about Jim, my boyfriend. He'd had a sort of breakdown the night before, and I was feeling bad about not going straight home to him after work to make sure he was okay." It was partly true; I had been worried about Jim. "Jim's really into languages. You should meet him sometime." This I added to make sure my meeting Daniel wasn't misconstrued as a date.
"Oh, does he do any translation work?"
"No, he just likes learning about languages. He likes the structure, the logic. It's so different from language to language. He likes the offbeat ones -- Basque, Lakota. He's teaching himself Vietnamese now."
"What does he do for a living?"
"Nothing. He's been unemployed for seven years."

I let the silence that followed enhance the drama of the statement.

"I'm sorry."
"No, it's okay. I don't mind talking about it."

Daniel changed the subject. He tilted his glass and seemed to stare at it intently.
"Years ago, I found a book by a little-known Japanese writer in a bookstore. Only a small portion of his writings had been translated into English. So I decided to learn Japanese, and I set about translating his works so that English-speaking readers could enjoy them."
Daniel had become introspective, spinning the bottom of his glass slowly in its circle of condensation on the bar.

I said, "That's awesome. You're making sure these stories live on in the minds of all these readers, all these people who wouldn't have heard them if not for you. And it's really neat that you get to experience these stories in the original language. Then you have to be empathetic enough to understand how to retell the stories in a way that people in another culture will understand."


He smiled and seemed flattered by what I was saying, but he changed the topic again.
"Have you written a character sketch about Jim?"
"I don't show him anything I write. He doesn't really get it, or why it's so important to me. Which is fine. I don't get a lot about him, too, so I guess we're even."

I was ashamed of what I'd just said, but at least it was honest, I thought. Unexpectedly, I thought of the red scratch marks on Jim's throat and wrists.
"The other week, Jim clawed at his neck and wrists until they were bloody. I had to hold him down. He said he wanted to die." It was strange, how devoid of emotion my voice was.

Daniel looked concerned, and I felt guilty for blurting it out -- such an obvious plea for sympathy. We didn't say anything for a while.

There was only a few other people at the Wharf that late on a Tuesday night, most of them downstairs, eating. Upstairs in the bar area, a piano and bench sat vacant -- the piano player only performed on weekends, when the tips were good -- and a small wooden dance floor sprawled in front of it. In lieu of live music, songs were piped in from speakers in the ceiling. A sad love song, syrupy slow, came on, and Daniel asked if I wanted to dance. I was caught off-guard, but laughed and said yes, as if it were some kind of joke.

Daniel gallantly held out his hand, and I clasped his hand and he led us to the empty dance floor. My hand still in his, he wrapped one arm around my waist and I put my other hand on his shoulder. He led, and we took very slow, small steps, hardly dancing or moving at all. It was friendly, polite, like when we learned waltzes and fox trots and other archaic, never-to-be-used-in-real-life dance moves in P.E.

Suddenly, something came over me. I thought about Daniel's car with the hectic jazz floating out of it when he opened the door. I thought about how he'd wanted to talk to me without Amanda around. I thought about his sad love story. I thought about Jim scratching himself and wanting to die, about his seven-years-long unemployment, about his refusal to understand what writing meant to me, about holding him down and talking him down off the figurative yet just-as-real ledge. I thought about Aunt Lucy clutching her husband as their motorcycle zipped through and away from their small town. The acoustic guitar and the singer's bottomless, mournful voice resonated within me.

I released Daniel's hand, then I pulled closer to him, wrapping my arms around him, resting my head on his shoulder. He wrapped his arms around my back, holding me, as we swayed slowly in place. The bar, the Wharf, disappeared as I closed my eyes and pressed my cheek against the fabric of Daniel's blue cotton shirt. He leaned his head against mine, and soon I clung to him, as if I were drowning and he was swimming me to shore. The next thing I knew, the shoulder of his shirt was wet. I was crying right on his shoulder. It was ridiculous but it also felt like what I'd needed to do for all of my life.  

Finally the song ended and I pulled back, looking down in embarrassment and wiping the moisture off my cheeks. "I'm sorry." I looked at him, and his green eyes behind his glasses were concerned. "I'm sorry." I said it again, a broken record. Unable to bear it any longer, I walked down the stairs and out of the restaurant.

***
---
To: sapporo_violet_snow@yahoo.com
From: d_nippon@georgetown.edu
Subject: (No subject)

Hi,

I hope you're feeling better. I'm sorry that you were so upset. I know things have been tough lately. I hope Jim is feeling better, too. My fiancee and I are going out of town for a few days, but I should be able to make it to the writing group on Monday... There's more I want to say, but as we both know, sometimes words are powerless to help us explain how we feel. I'm glad I met you.

Daniel
---

I didn't reply.

***

The following Monday, I decided not to go back to the writing group. The temperature had risen, and instead of snow, we got a steady rain that began in the afternoon and kept falling until late at night. After dinner, Jim wanted to go the grocery store because he wanted salt 'n' vinegar potato chips. When the grocery store was sold out of them, I was worried, because he hadn't completely bounced back from his breakdown. Any little thing could trigger another one, I knew. We drove across the street from the grocery store to check CVS's snacks section. Lots of potato chips, lots of flavors, seemingly everything but salt 'n' vinegar. I said: "We can try the Safeway on Route 1." But Jim had stormed out of CVS's automatic front doors and was standing in the rain, next to my car.

"You can go if you want, but I'm not going." "Jim, come on. Let's just go to the other Safeway." "They won't have them there. You wanna know why? Because I want them. If I want something, I can guarantee you it won't be there." "Jim, come on." "No. You can go if you want. I'm walking." "Jim."

He walked off in the rain, in the direction of the busy four-lane road in front of CVS. I saw a woman in the passenger seat of a nearby car, apparently having watched us for a minute, staring at me. I sighed. Jim was crossing the road now. I got into my car and started up the engine, waited for the light to turn green so I could park and shepherd him into my car. But by the time I got to the parking lot across the street, he had disappeared. All around my car, the rain looked like endless strings of clear fishing line. I knew Jim was cold and soaked by now, but his pride would keep him walking, maybe the entire two miles back to the apartment. I drove slowly back to the apartment, keeping lookout for him the whole time. I got back to the apartment and he wasn't there. I circled back around, driving back to CVS and then slowly back toward the apartment, looking for him. I wondered if he would give up on life, collapse into a rain-filled ditch, clawing at his neck and wrists until he finally struck a vein, and the life slowly drained out of him, alone. I pressed one hand to my brow, trying to rein in the tears.

The rain was like madness all around the car, and I floated down the road inside my car, dry and isolated. On the way to the apartment the second time, I saw a Blockbuster and remembered that Jim had wanted to rent "Dances with Wolves" to hear the Lakota spoken in it, so I pulled over. I got out of the car, and raindrops pounded onto my head, dripped down my face, and I thought of a picture of Jesus I saw once with the blood from the crown of thorns dripping down the side of his face in fat gobs. I dashed into the video store, and there were tons of videos but no "Dances with Wolves." "You're right, Jim. If you want something, it won't be there."

I ran back to the car and drove back to the apartment, burying my face in my hands as I cried inside my car, when suddenly Jim walked up, sopping and crazed. He saw me crying for him, and I could tell that it pleased him. We went inside, where Jim draped his soggy jeans and leather jacket over the shower rail and walked around the apartment in his incongruously cheery frog-printed boxers. He started speaking, expressing skepticism at whether I'd really tried to look for him after he'd stormed off, and going on about how nothing in his life goes right.

I tuned him out, and let my vision go blurry as I imagined Daniel riding up to the apartment on a weary donkey that lists to one side, wearing his black-framed glasses and carrying a lance, like Don Quixote, and me leaving the apartment to wrap my arms around his waist and ride off with him, the world a delirious blur around the two of us.