I was stuck for fiction, though, because the only new thing I've written this year was my NaNoWriMo effort which is unpolished (at best!) and is mostly unacceptable due to its subject matter for this contest. Then I decided to break out a book I haven't worked on in a few years - If This Were a Novel - and to see if I couldn't excerpt one of the chapters as a short story entry. I did this a couple years ago when I won with a short story called "Excpectations" which was actually just chapter two.
This short story then is from the end of chapter three, and I call it
He was early. I knew he would be—he always was—and so I was earlier. I got to the museum at 1:30, which gave me about 20 minutes to acclimate to the place and prepare for the encounter. I had been to the Museum of Fine Art a dozen times, including once with Kevin and twice with Kelly, so I didn’t have to get used to the museum itself. But dealing with Kevin again, one on one, that was a challenge I didn’t know how to prepare myself for. How should I act? What should I say? More appropriately, how shouldn’t I act and what shouldn’t I say? How did I feel about all this anyhow?
I was not getting back with him: that was for sure. He wasn’t going to walk back into my life after breaking my heart years before. “Breaking my heart” is not the right phrase, really. I was sad when it all happened and missed him terribly over the first year, but it wasn’t as if I couldn’t function without him. In a way, what happened had made me stronger, more sure of who I was as my own person, independent of any man. On the other hand, I hadn’t had a relationship since he’d left either. I dated a few men and even felt somewhat serious about a grad student I met when I was a freshman, but nothing ever developed more than a few instances of deep, involved kissing that went well into the morning hours. It had been a while since I had seen anybody, but I was by no means desperate, and—I told myself resolutely—he was the last person in the world I wanted to be intimate with.
What was I scared of? That’s what it was, after all: fear. Fear that he would reopen a wound that would never be closed again, that he would make me believe in him again only to disappoint me, that he would be less than I remembered him being. Certainly over the years I had placed him on a pedestal as the icon to which all other men had to aspire. I had dated men with better bodies, clearer complexions, nicer hair, straighter teeth than he had, but no one had matched up to him yet, or at least to the “him” I envisioned. Kevin made me do the two things no one else had really made me do: he made me think, and he made me laugh. But what if my memories of him were embellished to provide me an avenue of escaping from other relationships?
The only thing I had decided by the time he showed up was that I was not going to be won over by him. If he wanted my forgiveness, fine. Friendship, fine. Fooling around, no way. I was smarter than that.
He parked his Toyota half a block away and plunked change into the meter, then began walking jauntily toward the bench where I sat. Why does everything have to be about choices and right actions? If I rise and walk to him, it means something. If I watch him come, it means something. If I turn away, cross my legs, tilt my chin, throw back my hair, everything means something. I put my journal and pen into my purse and decided to watch him come; this, I decided, placed me in the position of power.
“Hey, Becky,” he hailed me when he was still a dozen stairs from the top. “Thanks for meeting me.”
I shrugged noncommittally and moved my purse so he could sit down. “So how have you been?”
“Good,” he responded, “but I’ve missed you.”
“Really? Why?” That was a good strategy, I decided. Just ask why.
“You’re my Muse.”
“I’m your Muse.”
“You know, like from mythology. The Muses were—”
“I know who the Muses were.” He wasn’t expecting that, to be shut down. I hadn’t been majoring in English Lit for three years without knowing a thing or three. “How exactly am I your Muse?”
“Are you upset?”
“No, just curious.” I didn’t say cautious, but that’s what I meant.
“You’re the meaning in my life. You’re my inspiration.”
“You’re quoting a Chicago song from the 80’s,” I told him with disgust evident in my voice. “What’s happened to you?”
“What do you mean?”
What I meant was that I expected him to have his game on, to have pithy witticisms to throw at me to show his cleverness. Instead, he had given me a clichéd appellation and song lyrics. “I don’t know,” I said finally. “I just expected more from you.”
His face grew perplexed, and I saw his eyes move back and forth rapidly as he searched for what to say next. “It’s true, though.”
“Yes. Becky, there is stuff you don’t know about that has happened over the past four years. There were times when school overwhelmed me, when life tried to shut me down—”
“And the only thing that kept you going was your memory of me, right?” I smiled patiently. He had lost this round; I was miles past him and driving hard. “Come on, Kevin, why did you miss me?”
He didn’t answer right away, just stared at the paper I hadn’t seen in his hands. “This isn’t going as I expected,” he muttered.
“You can’t always script everything out.”
“I know. Look, Becky, I meant it. Maybe I didn’t say it the way you thought I would, but when I needed motivation to keep going, I got it from your letters. I kept your picture on my desk so I could see it, and it just gave me something to aim for.”
“Why didn’t you ever write back to me?”
“I did write. I probably wrote to you a hundred times.” He looked up at me imploringly, abashed at my dubious expression. “I just never sent the letters.”
Now this was a different story. “Why not?”
“I wrote them, and then I put them in my desk, and then I just…didn’t send them. It was weird, but I just kept putting them into a box I kept on my bookshelf.” He looked over my shoulder, and I knew he was seeing that box in his mind. “It’s like, by the time I got ready to send the letters, they didn’t really tell who I was anymore.”
I mulled that over. He had actually given me a feasible excuse for not writing, but I wanted to hear more. “Who are you, Kevin?”
He smiled at me, and I saw the millennia of heartache behind his eyes. “I am who I am, I guess. A formless idea in the constant battle to be born, a shadow of a doubt behind a fortress of certainty. I am always in the process of becoming, yet I have never become who I am.”
“You sound like a fortune cookie,” I chided him gently. Suddenly I was seeing the part of him I had most missed, the sideways thinker.
“I know, but there are no words to say what I am trying to say.” He shifted the paper from one hand to the other and cleared his throat. “Four years ago, I went away and knew what was what and why, but once I got to college, everything changed. No more mommy and daddy there to be sure I did my homework, no more teachers giving me extra credit for typing a report instead of handwriting it…no you to make me feel as if I were head and shoulders above the crowd. And once I lost sight of who I thought I was, I wasn’t anybody at all anymore. And I couldn’t very well write to you and tell you all this, not when you thought so highly of me.”
“That’s exactly what you should have done, Kevin. You should have written to me and told me all this, and maybe I could have helped.”
“You did help. Remember, you’re my Muse. If I thought of you, I felt better. You gave me what I needed to study harder, think deeper, achieve more. But I needed you to still be you: not the you you became, but the you you were.”
“That’s a lot of you,” I joked, but he went on without stopping. Apparently he had saved this up for a long time.
“I was afraid that if I sent you the letters I had written that you wouldn’t think the same way about me. And if you changed, it might change me.”
“That doesn’t make any sense. I’m a dynamic character, Kevin, not static. I change as I go through life; I cannot be the same person every day.”
“I know,” he said. “You’re different now that you were then. More serious, less forgiving.”
Was that an insult or a challenge? Kevin was lucky I knew him as well as I did, and in a way it was fortunate that he had stayed such a static person over the past four years. It disappointed me that he had not grown more than he had, but I at least understood what he was trying to say. “At least I’m here, listening to you, giving you a chance.”
“A chance to what?”
“At least I’m here.” I refused to rise to his challenge.
We sat there for a full minute without speaking. Have you ever sat with someone for an entire minute and not talked? I wondered what was going through his head, what he was thinking. Probably planning a new strategy to initiate the conversation he wanted to have now that I had shut him down from his first plan. In my head, right then, I discovered Kevin’s biggest weakness: he didn’t respond to plot twists very well. Had I been the smiling, accepting girl I had been when he left years ago, he would have easily won me over. I had thrown him for a loop, and he was actively re-scripting the situation in order to salvage what he could.
In fact, though, he had already won a victory: I could accept his reason for not writing. Again, this was because I knew him as well as I did; I understood exactly what was going through his head when he decided not to mail the letters, and I believe what he said about my being his inspiration. It didn’t excuse him for not writing, however, and I decided to take the initiative to restart our conversation.
“You should have sent those letters. It wasn’t fair of you to make decisions for me.”
“You said you didn’t send the letters because you didn’t want me to change how I felt about you. You didn’t even consider how I would feel when I didn’t hear from you. Why is that?”
“It’s hard to explain.”
“Did you know that all of my college professors ceased to exist when I left college?”
This was different. “I know you don’t mean that literally, so I am guessing you’re aiming for profound. Lay it on me.”
He smiled. No, he smirked. “People don’t exist to me unless I am interacting with them. That’s something I learned about myself while I was in college, and I don’t mean it as an insult to you, but if I do not see and communicate with a person, it’s as if they don’t exist. Until the next time I see them, of course.”
“That is about the most self-centered thing I have ever heard in my life,” I expostulated. “So we’re not real people to you? Just characters in a book you’ve got written out in your head?”
“No, not…well, yes, kind of. No, not exactly. I didn’t explain that well.”
“I guess you didn’t.”
“There’s a guy in Australia right now, right? His name is Jack. Outback Jack.”
He was getting no points at all for trying to be cute. “Yeah.”
“I don’t know Jack, so whatever he does is none of my concern. He drinks beer, fights alligators, juggles Bowie knives, whatever. It doesn’t affect me, so as far as I am concerned, he doesn’t exist. Not in my world context.”
“I’m not sure this explanation is helping your case.”
“Hear me out. Think of all the people in the world; everyone has a different path they take through life. Sometimes those paths intersect, and sometimes they don’t. When they intersect with mine and our paths converge, then they’re very real to me. You know how much I care about the people in my life?”
It was a question that I chose not to answer. I was pretty sure I knew where he was going with this, but I still didn’t think I liked where it was going.
He continued. “Well, when I was in college, my classmates and professors were very important to me. But—this is when it is going to sound harsher than it is meant—the people back here, they just…” He shrugged.
“They just stopped being real to you. I stopped being real to you.”
“And my parents, and my friends, and my dog for that matter.” He stopped and looked into my eyes for understanding. He found none. “I knew you all existed and were going forward with your lives, but my path had taken me somewhere else. You didn’t stop existing altogether, but—” He pursed his brows in another gesture I recognized: troubling thought. “But it’s like you did for a while. Just to me.”
“I think it’s time I went home,” I said coldly. Nothing he had said had given me a reason to continue listening, and I had done my bit for politeness at this point.
“That came out all wrong,” he said by way of apology. “Everything I’ve said today has come out wrong, and I don’t know how to make it right again.” I unsnapped my purse and removed my car keys, hoping they jangled as loudly as my nerves. He gave his last, best effort: “Becky, I love you.”
Strike One. I closed my purse and placed it in my lap.
“I need you in my life.”
Strike Two. I stood up and straightened my blouse.
He tried to take my hand in his but I angled myself away from him. “You’re the reason I came back. Nothing else matters.”
“Good-bye, Kevin.” I started walking down the stairs toward the street but stopped artistically on the third step down. “I’m glad I got to see you before you left again. Keep in touch.”
“Wait, I want to give this to you.” He came to me quickly, holding out the piece of paper he had been worrying throughout our conversation.
I took it from him and placed it into my purse unread. “What is it?”
“It’s a poem I wrote. For you. I wrote it for you. When I was feeling really low in my junior year, and I was kicking myself for not calling you or sending all those letters, and I was just really lonely.” He blushed and looked at my purse. “I’m not a great poet, but it’s how I felt.”
“Are you going to read it?” His eyes lit up in the way he had; he needed my affirmation.
He wasn’t going to get it. “Not now, no.” I was just a little too angry to deal with anything else just then. I shook his hand, and he valiantly tried to embrace my hand with his own as if it were a special moment, but it was just politeness. I drew my hand back, away from his warm caress. “Good-bye, Kevin.”
I walked down the stairs and away, knowing he watched every step I took, knowing too that if I glanced back even for an instant that he would win. I kept my gaze straight ahead and my stride paced and even. It was not until I drove around the corner, out of his sight, that I allowed myself to cry. I used his poem to blot the tears, my mascara merging with his metaphors.
I do value feedback, positive or negative, so please let me know what you think. What have I done well? What could I do better?