July Camp NaNoWriMo

It’s been awhile since I’ve posted, so I figured I’d stop by give an update on what I’ve been working on since I wrote last.

Currently, I’m mired in indecision when it comes to selecting which project to take on for Camp Nano, which somehow is already less than a month away. Out of the two manuscripts (Heaven Beside You and Where The Light Gets InI’m considering revising next month, I’m leaning towards the latter because there’s a lot more actual rewriting that needs to happen. Heaven Beside You needs some tweaks for historical accuracy and tightening– more finicky, less fun.

On the other hand, I’ve got a much clearer vision of what needs to be done to polish up HBY, and it would be nice to push through and get that taken care of once and for all. I still haven’t landed on a consistent tone for Where The Light Gets In, figured out how much magical realism the story requires, hammered out all the plot details, or grappled with (after all the changes I’ve made since the first draft) what exactly the book’s even trying to say anymore. Both books deal with a lot of heavy material, but I’m more confident that HBY deals responsibly with the issues it raises.

Where The Light Gets In has a reveal 3/4 through the story that one of the main characters (presented in an extremely sympathetic light by the narrator until that point) is actually a criminal who’s done some despicable, unforgivable things. The idea behind the reveal is that it makes the narrator/MC confront the fact that he’s never been as perceptive as he’s fancied himself, and grapple with his existential loneliness; the unknowability of others’ minds, etc. He realizes that he’s been making excuses for behavior on the part of this other character that, in light of this revelations, was quite apparently unhealthy and harmful, and struggles to come to term with the fact that he’s spent years of his life loving an idea of this person that didn’t reflect reality.

You know what, I was going to avoid specifics because “spoilers,” but none of y’all care, lol, so I’ll elaborate on what I mean.

In light of the Brock Turner case that’s been getting so much attention in the news that past few days — and the statement given by the woman he raped, who articulates with devastating honesty how vile his attack on her was, and how warped it is that throughout the trial the case was consistently framed as being about him and how the “mistake” he made would affect his life, rather than that vileness — I’ve become concerned that the story, as I’ve conceived it, will be playing right into this warped narrative our culture has on rapists. Does the POV of the novel inherently do disservice to rape victims, since it’s all about the guy who committed the crime, and cannot by its very nature give an equal voice to the woman whose assault he is a party to? (I’m not mincing words for the heck of it; he films the assault and makes dismissive, joking comments about it, but doesn’t actively participate. He’s basically a coward who uses his passivity and indifference as a shield from criticism/blame throughout his life.)

The book is supposed to be, in part, about toxic masculinity and misogyny, so I’m scared of undercutting my intentions by writing a book that just amounts to excuses for a young man’s cruelty towards women. Am I subverting expectations by setting up this character as a tragic figure and then exposing his true nature, or am I basically inviting people to identify with him at the expense of the woman whose life he rips apart? If so, how do I fix this without scrapping the entire project? I’ve thought about working in some scenes where we get to know the woman, and to also hear her perspective on the assault, but that just seems kind of ham-handed. And like I’m frantically scrambling to cover my ass. (Which I suppose I am). I dunno.

And entirely by coincidence, this character’s name is Jace Brock. Which I may have to change now.

Beyond that, I’m still having trouble working out the structure of the mystery portion of the novel, weaving it in with the more personal/nostalgic elements of the flashbacks (which are important to the plot– but it doesn’t become obvious why until more than halfway through), and figuring out how to tie all the disparate elements together in a satisfactory way without making it too neat and cute.

Waiting patiently for a breakthrough… *ahem* *nudges muse*

Don’t Disappear

A snowy field under an expanse of stadium lighting, glowing electric in the night.

I’m walking on the opposite side of the street, on a sidewalk crawling up a hillside in the quiet past the cheery downtown restaurants, so I’m looking down on the field from above. All around, the world is clouded with shadows and tiny flecks of snow stinging the wind like sand, but the radiant stretch of grass is clear and bright. There are students on the field, dark bulky silhouettes, cross-armed, shivering, or bending over and tossing snowballs. I can’t see their faces. I wish I could. I wish I could go to them, but the road is vast and black between us, and if I tried to cross it I would lose myself forever.

I stand apart and above, lonely, and I watch them.

I feel I am about to witness something significant. The field is clear and gleaming like the polished wooden boards of a stage, and the students’ movements feel rehearsed like something out of a movie, every curve of their faces well-lit, every turn choreographed just so, so the snow turned up on their heels splash up like the hems of swirling white ballgowns. The snow that falls between myself and the students like a curtain soaks up the sounds of life into a velvety silence; a silence that is somehow full rather than lacking; murmuring with the hushing of snowfall, which is a silence full of portent, like the footfall of the hunter stalking a hart on the mountainside.

The silent draw of his bow.

When life disappears into darkness, there is no sound. It vanishes like a secret that no one ever dared to whisper, and its meaning rots and disintegrates like a corpse.

I cannot hear the students’ games. They must be talking and laughing, but the words are insignificant, as are their shadowed faces. It’s the movement that’s important. The dance, the pantomime. The wide field is hallowed with streaming light, and it grants a holiness to their presences, so their snowball fight becomes an enactment of a ceremony. The field becomes and altar, or the stage of a nativity play. Soon the curtain of night will close, and the players will go home and sleep in soft warm dreams. The snowfall will melt. Most will not return, and any that do will no longer be the same.

Someday, it will snow again and the field will fill with revelers, basking in the snowy artificial light that vibrates like the hollow-humming sign above a cinema. The scene will replay, as before, on the same stage, in the same light, only the actors will be different. I too, will be different, somewhere else and far away, and, in an indeterminate number of years, dead. Dead as the snow. But the scene will play on, indifferent to its witnesses, like the tree felled in an empty wood.

Only the stars will bear witness to the scene repeated, again and again into perpetuity. The ballet enacted in a perpetual rehearsal for a showing that will never come, trying to find meaning in itself, repeating, repeating, stuttering itself into utter absurdity.

I look at the snow, and I find it beautiful, but I can’t imagine what this means. These streets are familiar. I’ve walked this path so many times, it feels like I’ve been pacing in circles. I hardly notice where I am anymore. The scenery fades into the background, until all that’s left is me.

This is how things fall apart. When you become too familiar. Like a well-loved book whose pages have been turned a thousand times, a million times, until they crumble from overuse. That is what my life has been. Still, I resist the urge to travel from this place. I lack the energy for futile endeavors. No matter where I go, it’ll still be me, with my same thoughts, my same life. Just a different place, a different room reflected around my edges in the mirror. And myself, a little older. I too am being worn. I am wearing out my face like an old costume that I can’t take off.

I don’t know what the seasons are trying to signify to me or anyone when they cycle again and again. I wonder if the earth gets bored of the same old dance, or if it looks forward to the day when it is swallowed by the sun. But we know that the earth’s death is not the death of the universe, just as my own death will not be the death of the universe, only my ability to perceive it. And it seems too that the death of the universe will not be the death of all things.

All things circle in on themselves. There is no end. Eternity grinds everything down to meaninglessness with its gravity; flattens them out until they’re featureless. There is death and there is birth and there is what exists in between before it forgets itself. The universe is a grinding, furious engine of perpetual forgetting.

It is. It is. It never stops being. It denies language or explanation.

I’ve left the stadium now, on to my destination. I walk out over the dam in the dark.

The earth is littered with snow. There are trees. There is water. There are homes in the distance, peeping out in the woods, stairs that lead to doorways that contain the secrets of human lives, but their movements are obscured to me. I’m closer to the people in this town than anything else in this vast stretch of meaningless star-scarred dark, but I’ll never know them. There are other people on the hill beside me, too, sledding down into the dark, drinking beers despite the cold, laughing screaming as they whisper down the steep incline, vanish into the dark and reemerge, grinning. I’m alone. I whisper past them like a ghost. I don’t think they notice me. I’m alone. The skin of the lake is cloudy with the first formations of ice. Molecules arranging themselves, according to the physical laws of the universe. That’s why everything’s here, according to an arbitrary rulebook written by no one, in gibberish, constantly trying to interpret itself. That’s how the world was born, by accident, a freakish unwanted child.

The snow falls for no reason whatsoever. Down, down, gravity grinding everything to dust, because it can, because it should, because it could have never been otherwise. The night is not dark. It is alive with lights. Snow gathers on the branches of trees, and every second is a still life, perfect, crystallized. The water is flat and rheumy like a stretch of polar emptiness. It is beautiful. It is impossible in its perfect beauty, and that keen beauty enters my heart like a knife, and it kills me.

I am not the same.

I decide I want a cup of coffee. When I turn and walk away, I leave a shade of myself standing perpetually on the hillside. She’ll never escape. I can never rescue her from the cold. It is cold here. The snow falls forever. I know it will never cease.

I try to remember a time when I was not alone.

The Bearded One

Some people take well to loneliness.

Jehan was one of those types. I’d see him around town, drinking alone, surrounded by the patient branches of smoke from his cigarette. Always with the drinking– tea, coffee, beer, shots, Red Bull, appletinis, didn’t seem to matter– and always with the cigarette, even in the winter, when he’d be the only one sitting outside, collar pulled up, brow furrowed, puffing away like a disgruntled pigeon. When I first saw him, he had a well-tended beard. I was at a point in my life where I’d discarded my utter distaste for beards, but I still couldn’t say I found them compelling in the least. A beard is a secretive hairstyle. It’s hard to get a good feel for someone’s face or disposition when they’re all covered with hair. It’s unsettling.

But I was immediately attracted to gingery, pale, hapless-looking Jehan, with his dark eyes and broad shoulders, even despite the beard. Not sexually attracted, mind you. Merely intrigued. It suited him, the beard. Made him look despondent, like a thwarted Russian intellectual who’d been strong-armed into a career of lumberjacking. I guess you could say he looked like a hipster, but I wouldn’t. He didn’t look like he had the energy for sustained irony. He always looked kind of dazed, actually. Too dazed to notice anyone more than five feet from his nose, anyway, let alone worry about how he presented himself to people. He’d give his attentions to the barista or bartender, settle at his usual table (at every establishment he and I both frequented, he had a usual table. I on the other hand could never settle comfortably anywhere, preferring to imbue my life with that small illusion of adventure. Where will I sit today?) and promptly lose himself in some intimidating looking volume of poetry or, God help him, the Bible. In Clemson, South Carolina, where we lived, it was not uncommon to see people sitting in coffee shops, pens and journals and laptops spread impressively over the tabletop like a banquet, poring over the good book like it contained all the secrets of life. Which, I guess, they thought it did. I consoled myself that when Jehan read his Bible he wasn’t haughty about it. He looked bored as ever.

Nevertheless I tried to ignore the Bible.

I tended to watch him, nervously of course, over the rim of my book or coffee cup, hoping to catch his eye. I’d gotten it into my head, you see, that we were kindred spirits. That’s the kind of thing I was always thinking when I saw someone alone. A coward, my instinct was always to hone in on the stragglers, and Jehan never seemed to belong to anyone. Just to himself and his books.

It was summer when I first saw him. I was hanging around, reading Love in the Time of Cholera on the front porch of my favorite coffee shop, All In. It was upwards of ninety degrees outside and sweltering, but I was on a rocking chair in the shade with an iced coffee, trying to medicate myself with fresh air. On the horizon, a black tide of storm clouds brooded behind the Tillman bell tower, sharp and ominous as if they’d been drawn in charcoal. From the distance, I could hear thunder grumbling moodily like someone’s upset stomach. I wondered if the storm would carry cool rain over to downtown, and determined that I would monitor its progress. I wanted the storm to come. I liked sitting out in the rain, sheltered under the porch roof. It was nice, and Clemson needed the rain. There was a drought at the time. The lake had been dry for ages, no longer even a sodden, muddy crater as it had been in the earlier days of the drought, but a sea of overgrown grasses stretched out under the boardwalk. I missed the water.

Anyway, that was when Jehan showed up.

I glanced up when I sensed his approach– I always glance up when I hear someone coming. I’m that nervous of a person. Usually I look right back down after I’ve determined that the one approaching isn’t likely an assailant or government agent or old acquaintance that I really don’t want to talk to. But if the person looks interesting enough, he might hold my attention for a little bit.

And I found Jehan striking. Despite the fact that we were in the depths of summer, he had the tragic look of a dying choleric orphan. Skin so pale he seemed to glow. Auburn hair, long enough to look pleasantly wind-tossed. And that intoxicatingly awful beard. How he could stand having what was effectively a sweater glued to his face in this weather, I could not understand. But Jehan was a trooper. He made no concession to the heat. He wore a long-sleeved t-shirt, dark jeans, and a flannel jacket, and walked with one hand thrust in his pocket, the other gripped around a book so thick and bursting with post-its and folded pages that he could barely clutch his fingers around the spine.

I watched him enter the shop. Handsome sort, I thought. Makes it all the more unfortunate about the beard. Then I shrugged and went back to my book.

It wasn’t holding my attention. I was having one of my headaches, and was in a state of mental agitation. The usual thoughts that plagued me when I read a good book. What am I doing with my life? Whose stupid idea was it to allow me to exist? I have no talent. I’ll die a failure. Etcetera. Even my worries about my own banality were banal. Alas. I fancied myself an author, but I the more I read of Love in the Time of Cholera that day, the more convinced I became that not only was I not any Marquez, but that I should let myself quietly expire in a gutter somewhere, eyes cast to the stars, hand clasped to my breast as my heart sputtered to blessed silence, for the crime of being such a deplorably mediocre writer.

Mediocre at bestI corrected myself.

At least I was no slouch when it came to melodrama. Maybe I could make a career in writing maudlin gay romances. There was big money in gay erotica, I consoled myself, and briefly imagined my illustrious career writing classy pornography. Yes. There was always that.

It was fucking hot. Sweat tickled my thighs and gathered at my hairline. I pressed the back of my hand to the damp of my forehead. The humidity buzzed in the air like a swarm of mosquitoes, and my iced coffee had gone warm. I watched the dark clouds trundling across the skyline and wished they would hurry. I closed my book. Considered opening my laptop and writing something, but the thought exhausted me. Too hot. And my head hurt.

The door jangled and I looked up. The bearded one, I thought. He has returned. Using my novel as a shield, probably not as subtly as I imagined myself, I watching him settle down at a table to my left, in the full torrent of the scalding white sun, and open his book. Certainly he was going to catch some sort of cancer, I mused, that wan redhead baking in the heat like an albino lobster. He was fearless. He had a mug full of steaming black coffee as well. It was almost one hundred degrees, the fool! I was astounded by his fortitude.

You see I lead a very boring life.

I turned my attentions back to Love in the Time of Cholera more determined than ever to make a go of it. I had a mind to impress the bearded young man much has he had impressed me. And so we sat for an hour or more, he the unknowing object of my ridiculous sidelong glances. I was lucky that Jehan was oblivious. I kept checking on the progress of the storm too. The sunlight became murky and somber, and a cool-tinged breeze rolled in, playing with the pages of my novel. I simmered in quiet triumph. When the rain came, the bearded kid would be compelled to relocate under the umbrage of the roof. Next to me. This was the sort of thing that could kindle some sort of conversation, I knew. Only I never actually conversed with strangers. For all the cafe-lurking I did as a writer, I never bonded with my fellow regulars. What are perfect strangers supposed to say to one another anyway? I had not a clue. There mere ghost of possibility for friendship, however, sustained me.

What was left of my coffee had melted into a swampy, watered-down mess. I slid back into All In to order an iced tea.

I opened the door to the watery laughter of bells, and the cool, conditioned air embraced me. I breathed in relief and headed to the counter. The barista, a doll-like blonde named Colette, smiled at me in greeting. She was slight and composed looking, with a neatly pretty face and her hair pulled back into a respectable ponytail, secured behind a black headband. A few feathery wisps of hair escaped the band and curled around her brown eyes, and this, along with her freckles, made her look more approachable than she would have otherwise. I could imagine her as a nun someday, but for now her flushed, cheery youth softened her natural severity.

“Hey-hey,” I said, and grinned. I hoped my smile didn’t seem forced. I was actually, truly happy to see Colette. She was a sweet-tempered, funny girl and I enjoyed talking to her. There’s just a gap between my feeling something and my ability to emote. Left to my natural inclinations, I’d be monotone and expressionless, despite my admittedly high sensitivity. So I’m put in the position of having to playact as myself. Not sure how convincing I am. Probably not very.

“Hi. Bernard, right?”

“Uh, yeah,” I laughed, and scratched behind my ear self-consciously. Man, I’d figured that by now Colette knew my name. What a life.

“I thought so. Sorry. Terrible with names.”

“No-no. No worries. I am too. Besides, I never talk. So. Well. Wouldn’t expect you to know.”

Colette laughed, “But you’re here all the time!”

“Yeah, well. It’s awesome here. Best coffee in Clemson by quite a measure.”

“That’s right. Gordon would be glad to hear that.” She glanced behind her shoulder, to the kitchen. Gordon was the owner.

“I do what I can.”

Awkward silence. Help me, I screamed into the void.

“You’re Dillan’s roommate, right?”

Brash, loud-mouthed Dillan was everyone’s best friend, so it made sense that I’d be known as that quiet dude who hung around him sometimes. “I do have that honor. Heh.” I grinned again and pulled at my hair.

“That must be a blast.”

“Oh, yeah. It is. A blast and a half, really.”

Colette beamed at me.

I bit my lip. “Errr…”

We both giggled. I scratched at one of my sideburns. I had a pimple growing under there. Good God, that was disgusting.

Colette looked off into the distance.

I wanted to keep talking to her, but I wasn’t sure if she still was keen on conversing with me. Maybe she wanted me to order. But I didn’t know how to transition from small-talk Bernard to customer Bernard. Small talk was horrible. I briefly wished I had stayed home and spent the day masturbating. I’d have been so much happier.

Colette took charge. “You wanna order something?” She struck a friendly, business-like tone. The consummate professional. I was impressed by her coolness.

“Oh, yeah. Yeah, uh. Can I have…”

And I ordered my iced tea blushingly, taking heart in the fact that Colette had not ceased smiling. She did not seem to begrudge me my awkwardness. After I’d paid, leaving a generous tip, she twirled her finger around one of the pale wisps of hair tickling her forehead, and then brushed it primly behind her ear. “You know we have Bible study on Wednesdays?”

“Yup.” I did. Oh man, where was this going.

“You’re welcome to come.”

“Oh!”

If Dillan was there, I might have been tempted to formulate an obvious dirty joke (welcome to cum, you know, something mature like that) and smile at him slyly, but I was alone, and I’d been caught off-guard. I didn’t know how to respond.

So, Colette wanted me to go to Bible study. That was a revelation. I’d figured that the staff of All In realized that me and Dillan weren’t the Bible-types, since we’d often hold riotous, gigging conversation about man-ass, of all things, over endless cups of coffee. We were generally irreverent, even when we weren’t discussing sex, which wasn’t often honestly. That’s what Dillan and I had in common. Our favorite game was called “Does He Want to Do You– or Do Your Hair?” and basically consisted of us running a series of grueling tests on our respective gaydars. All In presented a unique challenge, because it was swarming with Christian boys, and, interestingly, it’s often very difficult to distinguish whether a guy is very religious or very gay. Or both. But basically, I’d thought it obvious that me and him weren’t well-suited to their mild Bible talks about finding your path, avoiding temptations and resisting worldliness, interpreting scripture, saving souls, and whatever else. But, no. My tastes for debauchery and chaos had gone undetected. I felt simultaneously proud of myself for seeming so goddamn respectable, and deflated. Colette had no idea about me.

Today was meant to challenge all of my preconceived notions, apparently.

Maybe Colette did know I wasn’t religious, though. She might want to save my soul. The thought should have offended me, I guess, but I’m easily flattered by attention. The idea of someone trying to rescue my eternal soul from hellfire could be romantic, in a certain light.

“Thanks,” I said. I yanked at my hair some more. A characteristic gesture. It was likely I would soon grow bald. “But I…”

How to explain?

Colette flourished her hand, as if dispelling a magical curse. “It’s an open invitation, if you ever happened to be interested.” Her smile was sweet and wholesome as fresh cream. I didn’t know how she managed it.

“Thank you,” I repeated. “Really.”

“And here’s your tea.”

“Thanks.” Again with the word. I said it so much it lost all sense.

“Going back outside?”

“Yup.”

“It’s supposed to rain, you know.”

“I know. I could see the clouds over campus, out there. But I like watching the rain. Very cozy. Very peaceful.”

“But what if your book gets wet?”

“Meh. It should be fine. If it gets too bad I’ll come in. Besides, there’s a mysterious bearded man outside reading a mysterious book and I’m trying to gather intel.” I put my finger to my lips. “Always heartening to see someone in Clemson reading a book that’s not for class or, uh,” (I realized my mistake too late and finished the sentence in a lame whisper) “the Bible.” Then I laughed loudly to compensate and cocked my eyebrow.

Colette laughed too. “Mysterious bearded man?” she said. “You mean Jehan?”

And that was how I learned his name.