Oh, boy. The secret is out.
It's true. I did write fanfiction. It's actually how I practiced editing and writing before I even started taking any of my editing classes in college. Then as I did take my classes, I kept beta-reading for other fanfiction writers as a way to hone my editing skills. I don't really know why it's called beta-reading, but it is. And it's a good way to practice becoming an editor. I wasn't as interested in the writing side of things until later on, but I liked knowing that I was helping people and building friendships as we all shared our writing with each other. In fact I'm still friends with a few people from my fanfic days. (You know who you are.)
Of course, I never wanted anyone in my real life to find out that I wrote at all, much less fanfiction. So I would stay up really late at night and write and write and write and then post something and go to bed. Not unlike blogging, actually. Then the next morning I'd wake up and desperately want to find out who read something I wrote and how many people read it and what they thought. It was thrilling in a weird secret sort of way.
Sometimes I worry that I'm getting too into this blogging thing. That I'm becoming obsessed with it or something. But then I remember my fanfic days and realize I've got a long way to go before I'm actually obsessed.
To pre-empt the inevitable follow-up question: No, I will not show you where to find it online. But it is still out there on the interwebs. It's just not very good. I mean, it's okay. But I could do better. In order to protect my now-not-so-secret identity, I won't even tell you what show/movie/book/thing(s) it was about.
But I will share with you this short story from about the same time period so you can see an example of my writing from back then. It actually started out as fanfiction and then I adapted it and used it as my final piece in the only creative writing class I ever took in my whole life. It was during my final semester of college, so that would be fall of 2008. I don't think I've written a short story since then. Maybe one or two, but they're not really my thing. I like this one, though. Mostly for sentimental reasons. I mean, it's really not that good. Don't feel obliged to read it or anything. I know it's long. Okay, I'll stop talking now.
Puzzled. That was how he felt—puzzled. How could something that looked so simple have turned out so complicated?
All the right pieces were there. They should have come together so easily. The picture always looks perfect on the box when you start the puzzle, but then you open the box and see everything jumbled up and you think it will be an impossible task to sort it into meaning. Edges here. Blue water here. Mountains. Wildflowers here. And over here some other things that don’t fit in any category. Five thousand pieces of confusion that may never make any sense.
“Goodbye,” he says, holding his hand out to her. He wants nothing more than to softly weave his fingertips in the ends of her curls. But instead she shakes his hand quickly, then drops it. The night is cool and moist with the remnants of a summer shower.
She looks up at him for a moment. In the dimmed light from the porch lamp behind them he wonders if he can make out a frown, but it’s been too long since he was able to read her expression clearly, even in the searing light of noon, and now her eyes just look blank.
With another sigh he backs away slowly. He’s holding his breath as he turns to open his car door.
“Call me when you get settled?” She says it like a question, not a command.
It’s not enough, and he imagines himself marching right back across the lawn to her to tell her so. That’s the kind of thing you say to your grandkids when they’re headed back for their third year of college. It’s not the thing to say now.
He nods slightly in response. Then he shuts the car door behind him, being careful not to do it too hard because he doesn’t want her to think he’s slamming it. He starts the engine and shifts into drive.
Twenty minutes later he’s on the freeway already multiple miles away. The darkness of the lonely road engulfing him, he lets a few tears drift down his face and doesn’t bother to wipe them away.
Piece no. 718: the view of their house from across the street.
Driving home from his new office, he looks out his car window. Where everyone else sees the ocean, he sees a patch of green lawn in front of a little, yellow house with white shutters and a porch. The images haunt him wherever he goes. Sometimes he’ll look up in the grocery store and know he just saw her turn the corner into the next aisle, but when he gets there it’s another head of curls framing a stranger’s face and that’s when his heart starts beating again and he reminds himself that she couldn’t be here because he is here and all she wants now is to be where he isn’t.
Yesterday would have been their five-year anniversary. Five years is less than the time they spent as friends before they finally got together; once they were married they couldn’t even make it for three.
He had tried calling her; she hadn’t answered. He hung up once. When he called back he left a short message on the machine. He tried to void his voice of emotion as he wished her well and hoped she was doing great, really great. Still, when he hung up he was certain she would feel the tension he hadn’t been able to erase.
He had also tried not to get her a gift this year. He wouldn’t send it, of course; he’d learned his lesson that first year they were apart. But it was her favorite kind of present: a first edition of an out of print book, The Sculptural Landscape of Jane Frank. He’d gotten some pencils to go along with it. The soft smudgy kind that used to mark her presence all over his laundry and the walls of their house. He just couldn’t bear the thought of letting someone else buy the book as a present for his wife who might love it, but more than that she would love her husband for being so thoughtful. If he couldn’t have that then why should they?
He set it on the top shelf in his hall closet next to the birthday presents he hadn’t been able to resist either. One for Sarah and one for another girl whose birthday he will never forget.
“It’s called grieving, and it’s totally natural that you should feel this way. It just takes time, Jon. Don’t be so hard on yourself, huh?”
Her office was light with a modern feel and funky furniture, but not a reclining couch or a notepad full of diagnoses to be seen. He wondered why he’d come. What could this annoyingly straight-haired, fashionably dressed woman possibly know about grieving?
“But, I can’t… I don’t think it should be this bad, you know? Not now, I mean. It’s been a year almost.”
“I know,” she replied, still in that too-calm voice of hers. “But think about it. How long did you spend being in love with her?”
“Too long,” He spat out the bitter words.
“Hey,” she said, her voice still calm, but authoritative.
“Was she worth it?”
He paused. He knew his answer, but he didn’t want to hear it out loud.
“And if you had to do it again, knowing that it wouldn’t last, would you still let yourself fall in love with her?”
It’s the end of another summer and he’s sitting on the beach. He’s absently grabbing handfuls of still-warm sand to squeeze into his fist. The tide is just beginning to come in and the beach stretches out almost impossibly far. Beyond it the sun is setting, and as he’s watching the fluorescent red circle drop into the horizon he thinks that this is the kind of thing he would do with her if she were here.
Everything is the kind of thing he would do with her if he could only see her again.
Piece no. 3,768: the way her forehead would scrunch up in concentration as she sketched his hands.
It had been a thing of theirs, for a time. She would help him to get his hand to fall “naturally” but in just a certain way and then he would stay there, frozen, watching her eyes as she studied him. Talking quietly now and then, they would let the peace of an empty afternoon stretch into evening and when they were done she would show him the record of their time together in the form of some particularly well-recorded tendons, and in her creations he would see himself as he never had before.
He found three of these forgotten pages tucked into one of his books a few months ago. At the time he had hesitated, wondering if he should send them to her, or save them, or just throw them out. Finally he’d slipped them back in where he’d found them.
His signature is so much broader than hers. You could blame it on handwriting differences between genders, but it’s more than that, he thinks.
“All done there, Mr. Ellison?”
“Uh, yeah, I guess. I, I think so. Is there anything else I can do for you?”
With an indulgent smile on a face full of patronizing sympathy, the man returns, “Now, Mr. Ellison, that’s the question I’m supposed to ask you.”
He nods, storing the words “divorce lawyer” in his memory, labeling them as just another piece to sort into another pile. He can’t fathom how this piece will ever fit into their puzzle.
Her hair had been short on that day they first met, just barely brushing her shoulders. She’d smiled at him in the elevator first.
“Hi, I’m Jon,” he’d said, hand extended.
“So you work here, too?”
“I’m the office manager.”
“Oh, cool.” He hesitated. “It’s my first day.”
“Yeah, well, that explains why you think it’s cool to be an office manager.”
“Aw, come on, I’ll bet you get to do lots of cool stuff.”
“Right. The endless joys of faxing.”
The elevator door had dinged and with a set of wry smiles they’d walked down the hallway together.
He spent that first night of being alone (more alone than he’d ever been before, more alone even than he had been before he met her, or in all those longing years before she was his) at a rest stop, sleeping in the driver’s seat from three to six am. He drove until he was too tired to think, wanting to ensure that there would be no waking moments in which to contemplate his current state. When the sun came up in the treetops he started the engine again. Chicago, Omaha, Salt Lake City, he’d drive as far as he had to, so long as it would keep the numbness intact.
“Jon? It’s me. Um, I don’t know if… well, uh, anyway I just thought you should know that I got a wedding invitation from Michelle today. She and Harry are finally getting married. It’s in April and um, well, it’s addressed to both of us because, you know I guess you probably didn’t have time to tell them before you left, so… yeah. Just thought I should let you know. Okay. Bye.” He kept the message for months even though it was crowded with words that made him cringe every time he heard her say them: “wedding,” “married,” “finally,” “us.”
Piece no. 2,643: that time they went to the park on a Sunday afternoon and watched all the little kids climbing on the jungle gym.
He laid his hand over her belly, rubbing his thumb back and forth, trying to grasp that there was a life in there somewhere. Their baby.
She looked up at him and he moved his thumb to her cheek.
“I love you.”
“Really? I hadn’t noticed,” she whispered back.
He just shook his head at her, smiling. “I can’t believe this is really happening.”
“I know. It’s so fast, isn’t it?”
“I guess so, yeah. But I’m so excited.” He smiled again.
“Me too, but, I don’t know, I guess I’m just worried, you know? Do you really think we’re ready for this? I don’t even know what you’re supposed to buy for a baby.”
“My mom was saying there are all kinds of stores with registries and stuff. We’ll figure it out.”
“Yeah. We’ll have to figure everything out.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you know, work, day care, all that.”
He found it amusing how her forehead was beginning to scrunch up a little with worry. “Sarah, seriously, we have months to get ready. It’ll be fine, trust me.” He leaned down to kiss her forehead. “You’re gonna be a great mom.”
Their baby lived four months. They named her Hope. She took theirs with her.
He’s not that old, even though after everything that has happened he feels like he’s middle-aged. But in reality, he’s still in his thirties for a few more years, in fact.
He sits. One hand cups his chin, keeping his head upright. The other hand roams across the table he bought used. His fingers trace connections between the knots and cracks and gouges in the wood. Distressed was what they called it, and the style had seemed fitting.
He gazes out the window at the gray storm clouds on the horizon. He thinks he might cancel that blind date his coworker arranged for him to go on tomorrow. It’s still too soon, and also he has a lot of things to catch up on this weekend, and besides that, he’s not sure he’s willing to inflict himself on some poor unsuspecting woman just yet. And besides all that, he’s still in love with his ex.
“So, you see, don’t you? What I’m getting at? Even though it hurts, isn’t it that same hurt that made the happy time you had together so wonderful?” The office is much too white, the furniture too slick. He actually thinks he might have preferred a couch of some sort.
“I can’t do this anymore. I’m sorry.”
“Jon, wait. I know it hurts to talk about it, but I think you really need to—”
He shut the door behind him and practically sprinted to his car. It took him four hours of driving down twisting, aimless roads in the Santa Cruz Mountains and more than half a tank of gas to force himself to finally return to his apartment.
He didn’t know how to keep Sarah from crying in the middle of the night. Every time he tried to hold her she pushed his arms away, or got up to go sit in the rocking chair in the baby’s room, leaving him with his own private grief.
Piece no. 1,084: the ebb and flow of pillow fighting.
He hadn’t meant to make it so, but over time he found he could measure the status of their relationship by the number of pillow fights they had every month. When there were a lot of them or a particularly long one that involved running from room to room in their house, they were doing well. When he couldn’t even get Sarah to toss a throw pillow back at him, he knew there was something wrong.
One time they’d invited their coworkers Harry and Michelle over to their house for a barbeque and by the end of the night everyone had a pillow in their hands and there were shifting alliances and safe spots placed strategically around the house.
The casualty of that night was well worth it for the sly smiles they shared for months afterward every time they noticed the bare spot on their end table where a lamp they’d gotten as a wedding present had once been.
“I’m so sorry for your loss.”
He nodded, looking down into Michelle’s eyes and catching the sincerity there in spite of her stale words.
Across the room from him Sarah was surrounded by her family. Her back was turned to him, but he could tell by the way her shoulders were shaking that she was crying again. As Sarah’s mom wrapped her arms around Sarah’s shoulders, Jon wished he could be the one holding her, but when he had tried it earlier she had merely stood there limply then walked away muttering something about just leaving her alone in a low voice that hadn’t sounded like hers.
Michelle tapped his shoulder and gave him a small smile. Then Harry was hugging him and Jon was so stunned and drained at that point that he just let it happen.
He wasn’t sure he had ever seen Sarah wear black before this week.
Here the sun would come out now and again to warm the sand, even in December. Here the distance to the stars appeared farther because the sky appeared bigger with only water to greet it on one side. Here the clouds blew in from the west in gusts and puffs and drizzles. Here he settled to forget everything that had come before. Here he was no closer to finishing the puzzle.
The fluorescent lights overhead only illuminate that he’s alone. It’s past ten and he’s forgotten how to stand up. He looks around their kitchen and thinks about how he needs to start the dishwasher. She left a note about staying with her parents for a few days and how he shouldn’t call her while she’s gone. He doesn’t know where she keeps the extra detergent, or if they even have any, but he’ll manage somehow.
For some reason he’s reminded of the first night they spent together. It had been almost too simple. After years of worrying about ruining their friendship, he’d just told her he loved her because he had to. She had responded eagerly because she needed to.
When he’d met her here in this kitchen the next morning, he’d tried to kiss her and she’d pushed him back a step, back into the early-morning darkness and the reality that everything was changing. And like a coward he had let her one little push propel him farther and farther away. He’d been too broken to do otherwise.
His head jerks up when he suddenly realizes that she’s doing it again. It’s taking more force this time to cast him off from her, but she’s pushing, and because he loves her, and all he has ever wanted was for her to be happy, he has no idea how to get her to stop.
When the phone connected she didn’t say anything and he thought maybe he should have ignored her and not called, even though technically she had asked him to on the night he left and it was the first time in the weeks since then that he’d actually felt “settled” enough to do it.
“Hi,” he said finally, giving up on her speaking first.
“I’m sorry, is it late there?”
“No, I haven’t eaten dinner yet.”
“So…what time is it there?” The words stung with memories of other phone calls from times they’d been apart, but this time they weren’t saying hello. This time they were saying goodbye.
“Um, it’s a little after five.”
“Oh, right, yeah.”
“So do you like California?”
“Um, I don’t really know yet. I guess, I think so. I hope so.”
“Sarah?” His voice was too intense and he knew it, but he couldn’t help himself.
“Yeah?” From across a continent he could still hear the way her voice trembled on the word.
“I… I still love you.”
For a long time they were silent—he kept thinking she was about to say something else and he didn’t want to interrupt just in case.
Then finally she said, “I have to go.”
“Right, yeah. Me too. Um, but do you think, I mean, could I call you again sometime soon?”
“Uh, I, I don’t know. I think maybe, actually, I really do have to go. But I’ll talk to you later. Bye.”
“Oh, okay.” The faint static disappeared before he had time to finish. “Bye,” he whispered.
Piece no. 4,435: the smell of her chocolate chip cookies baking in the middle of the night.
She would never tell him what was in the recipe, which, as he argued, was just silly because she really shouldn’t have to get up at two in the morning and make herself chocolate chip cookies just because she was craving them and she couldn’t stay asleep. If she would only tell him, he could make her a batch every night before they went to bed and then they wouldn’t have this problem. Or she could freeze a big batch of dough for him to thaw out and bake while she kept her swollen feet elevated on the couch.
But there was something in the baking of them, she claimed, that could calm her down after even the most horrible of nightmares. She had them frequently these days. Sometimes about ridiculous things like giving birth to a monster or being at the hospital and then having the baby suddenly disappear. Sometimes about vague things like catastrophic explosions or men with hoods and guns. And sometimes about things that didn’t sound scary at all when she tried to explain them to him but that would still leave her clammy half an hour later.
It was funny how being pregnant had revived her interest in cooking. He knew, because she’d told him, that as a teenager she’d loved cooking with her grandmother, but since they’d been married they had always traded off on the domestic duties, including cooking. So it was strange now to come home to a full meal every night. Not that he was complaining, of course. He just wanted her to know that she didn’t have to do it all on her own, even if she was spending most of her days at home now, and he was putting in as much overtime as possible and saving up his vacation days for when the baby arrived.
Besides, he missed the way they used to share the kitchen. He leaning against the counter, calmly stirring something, she fluttering around nervously, trying to mince, separate, core, and carve all at the same time.
There was one time, right after it happened, that she let him hold her. The night after the funeral, while her mom was out buying groceries, he came into their room to find her curled in a ball in the middle of their bed. Silently he’d shed his shoes and slipped between the sheets, pulling her into him and keeping her tightly there as the sobs ripped through them both.
“I’m sorry,” she had whispered. “This is all my fault.”
“Jon? It’s Sarah. I know it’s been a long time. Sorry, I meant to call you sooner. I, I hope you had a good Christmas. Um…well…bye.”
For the umpteenth time as he dialed her number over and over he cursed the thoughtless way he’d left his cell phone in his apartment instead of taking it with him when he went to play basketball at the park down the street.
Outside in the January twilight, the palm trees dipped and swung in the wind from a rising storm.
He left twenty-six voicemail messages over the next week. She never picked up.
Sometimes in the darkness as he’s trying to fall asleep after another endless day, he whispers her name, “Sarah.” Then their daughter’s name, “Hope.” Then his own, “Jon.” Reminders that for a precious piece of time he’d had his perfect family.
On that second night of being alone after being with her, he’d stopped at a cheap motel. He couldn’t remember the name of the city now, or even which state it had been in. But he couldn’t forget the feel of the unfamiliar sheets or the flash of the muted television that he left on all night long so that it would never get too dark and quiet.
And he can remember how in the morning he’d had breakfast, his first meal in nearly two days. He had ordered pancakes and orange juice at the counter of a restaurant with shabby bar stools and stocky men laughing over their coffee.
He ate two plates of pancakes dripping with super-sweet syrup. Thirty-five minutes later he pulled off the highway and threw it all up in a corn field.
It was a Tuesday night. They’d just finished dinner. He was thinking about having another roll and wondering if she’d let him help her with the dishes.
“I think I want a divorce,” she said. He let the word linger in the air, afraid to touch it for fear it would become real.
“I don’t understand.”
“I just, I can’t do this anymore.”
“Please. Sarah, please don’t. Just, just tell me what to do. I’ll do anything, I swear.”
“You can’t fix this, Jon. I… I can’t… I’m really sorry. I just… need to be alone. I can’t be with you anymore.”
“Please.” It was all he could get out from beneath the lump in his throat.
Neither of them did the dishes that night.
One winter when they had only been married for a few months they took a trip to a bed and breakfast in Vermont. From the oversized chair next to the window they had sat curled up in each other to watch the snow fall down in graceful swirls of flakes. They’d talked about the rest of their lives together and how happy they were to have found each other finally.
None of their plans that day had included the minute he was living now as the sun came up and he drove in to work along a familiar route that took him down the coastline for a few miles. This moment when he was hoping only to make it through the days until Christmas when he could go home to be with his parents, and his sister, and her husband, and their kids. When he could be at least near Sarah since he couldn’t be with her.
This moment when he was thinking about how on Christmas Eve, he would take Hope’s birthday present to the cemetery and then pretend not to notice when his dad went out later that night and snuck it back to their house to donate to another little girl for her Christmas.
This moment when he suppressed the tears because it had been almost six years since that trip to Vermont and he wouldn’t let himself walk into work with puffy, tell-tale eyes.
In time, the tears came less and less frequently. Not because he was getting better, but simply because he had reached a point where like those graphs he had learned about in high school algebra he was stretching farther and farther out to infinity, though he would never quite touch the x-axis. He had resigned himself to his new life without her. Not accepted, but resigned.
Perhaps one day it wouldn’t matter that acceptance could never be reached. At some point the distance between himself and the x-axis would have to become so small that it could be called unimportant even if it never really went away. That was what he told himself.
He kept going home for Christmas just to be close to her. Every year he would borrow his dad’s old pickup and drive the same route. He left from his parents' house; passed the office where they’d met at work, wondering if Harry and Michelle were still working there; drove through their old neighborhood, pausing only for a minute in front of their little yellow house, now painted a neutral green; then to the cemetery; and last he would make the long drive to her parent’s house where he would inch his way past, hoping to glimpse her familiar movements as shadows against her mother’s antique curtains.
One year her parent’s house had been dark by the time he reached it, and he’d parked the car across the street and just sat there with the heater running for a long time. It didn’t matter if she was there or not. He just needed to imagine that she could be.
On their seven-year anniversary he forgot to buy her a present. And when he realized what he’d done he wanted to call her to apologize.
Piece no: 2,566: not wearing a ring.
Six months after arriving in California he forced himself to stop wearing his wedding ring. He kept it in a box in his dresser. Sometimes he put it on just to make sure it would still fit. One time he slept with it on for a few nights in a row. Then he put it back in the box.
He walked down the hallway to his kitchen, made himself a sandwich, and called that girl he’d met at a mutual friend’s house a few nights earlier.
They went out twice. But, as he told his sister when she called to ask how it was going, “she just wasn’t his type.”
Whenever he returned to Monterey after a Christmas in Pennsylvania it struck him how few trees there were here. He noticed it again as he merged onto the freeway after retrieving his car from the long-term parking at SFO. The snow he didn’t miss too much. But the trees had always been one of those things that as a kid he just thought of as normal until he saw pictures of other scenery and remembered that not all places were the same.
January was the hardest month, of course, but he’d accepted that long ago, and as he neared his apartment he braced himself for another year of storing up the pieces.
It’s the shock of hearing her say his name that makes him realize this isn’t just another dream in which she shows up on his doorstep in that quiet, restless time between dinner and sleep. Behind her the palm trees sway softly and the intermittent noise of traffic drowns the distant sounds of the surf.
“Can I come in?”
“Yes, yes, of course, please.” He stumbles on the words and regrets each one as soon as it’s out of his mouth. After all these years he still sounds much too eager and the last thing he wants to do is drive her away with his enthusiasm.
But instead of stepping back she walks to his couch and sits down on one side, leaving ample room for him on the other end.
“What, what are you doing here?” he asks as he sits.
“I came to see you.”
It had to be a dream. There was no other explanation for this moment—yet another moment they hadn’t planned on that snowy day in Vermont.
“Jon?” Again it is her voice saying his name that shakes him from his reverie.
“I just can’t believe you’re here.”
“I’m sorry. I should’ve called.”
“No. No, no, no, no. It’s fine. I mean, it’s better than fine. I’m really glad you came. I just, still can’t believe that you did.”
She smiles at him shyly and he can’t help but smile back. And then he’s pulling her in for a hug and her eyes are full of tears.
They sit that way for a few minutes. He wants to just take in the feel of her again: her smell, her body shifting subtly as she breathes in and out. The facts of her presence.
There are still too many things to say. Too many ways this could vanish in the distance like a pair of retreating tail lights in his rearview mirror, or blow away like fall leaves in a big gust of wind. But he has her in his arms. He has that familiar, semi-sad smile. He has the soft lamp light reflecting off her corkscrew curls. And for a second there he had those innocent, brown eyes that have never failed to remind him of Hope. And those things put together like that are enough.
For now those things are enough.
For now until they share a smile over a small table in some sticky sandwich shop and he coaxes a giggle out from between her lips. For now until he drags her barefoot feet to meet the surf, even though it’s January, and they both pretend not to notice that his hand is on the small of her back as they walk in the wet sand. For now until some day when they finally talk about everything that happened and all the little things they haven’t been able to say in the time since she asked him to leave. For now until he pries her out of their old life and fastens her securely into her place in this new one.
For now until he can get all the pieces to fit in just right.
For now those things are enough.