Chapter Six, in which I finish a novel, get drunk, fall in love with Veronica again, buy a tattoo, and finish up the first act, pretty much all at once (though perhaps not necessarily in that order)
Because that’s just about what happened. That woman brushed aside the curtain to allow me entrance back into the foyer, where Veronica looked up and asked: “Already? I thought you’d take longer.”
I didn’t think much of her question then.
The woman chuckled and ushered us out of her home as she admonished me that my fortune and reading were mine and mine alone; I could share them if I so chose, but nothing required me to do so. She told me, too, that if I chose to tell anyone, I should choose those people carefully.
Veronica and I walked back toward the mall, where my car was still parked, and I attempted to tell her about the reading, but she stopped me. “You heard her. That was yours. Maybe you should keep it for yourself for a while. Besides, what’s really important is what you’re going to do.”
I considered that, the woman’s talk of choices and changes. I would’ve given anything for that threesome.
“I think you should finish your novel.”
I didn’t respond.
“What else are you going to do? You’re just going to stick what you’ve written in some drawer and forget about it just because it’s a little tougher than you thought it was going to be? I think we both know that’s bullshit. You’re all paid at your apartment, so I think you should take the next couple of weeks to finish it. And when I say finish it, I mean do it right. I’m not talking about just writing on and on until you hit a spot where you can type ‘the end.’ I mean finishing it like a sprinter just totally shattering the world record at the Olympics, the kind of finishing where people aren’t like, ‘Well, he won,’ but where they’re like, ‘Sheeit, I didn’t realize a dude could go that fast.’ That’s the kind of finished I think you need. And you know your novel deserves it.”
She was right, of course.
Because there’s no point if you can’t finish like that, is there? I think of all my favorite stories—Macbeth and Rift and Hamlet and Stardust and Harry Potter and King Lear and Needful Things and The Lovely Bones and The Time-Traveler’s Wife—and none of them end like Shakespeare or Cox or Gaiman or Rowling or King or Sebold or Niffenegger just kept writing until the first moment an opportunity to stop writing presented itself. Those are novels and stories and plays that make you believe their writers finished in a white heat that caused (to extend Veronica’s metaphor) blisters on their feet. I don’t know about you, but I want the kind of ending it feels like the author had to sweat and bleed for.
And so, at the end of that weekend, I took another Greyhound back to Manhattan, where I caught a connecting PATH train back to my crummy apartment, and I sat down, and I started sprinting.
One hundred thousand words and two weeks later, I set my laptop on my desk. I want to say that I was breathing heavily and sweating profusely—wouldn’t that be cool?—because I want it to seem dramatically more difficult and strenuous than it actually was, but I wasn’t, because no matter how much author-types might want you to believe otherwise, that’s not what writing is about. It’s not the sort of debauchery that earned Bret Easton Ellis and Morgan Entrekin the legacies and reputations they deserve, nor the sort of Benzedrine-fueled sprint for which Kerouac is canonized; it is, in fact, a solitary gig writers accomplish best on their own, alone in a room with nothing but a blank page as a challenge.
It’s challenge enough.
But I kept going. I set them up and knocked them down. I turned my hat backward and I stared down every blank page I found and I put my story on them like it was my job. I put one word in front of the other, and about twenty thousand words in I started to realize that I wasn’t going to stop anytime soon.
That was when I called Veronica to read her the most recent scene in the novel. Which earned me a “Wow, that was terrific,” from her, and “Wow, that was terrific” is not praise to be lightly taken, especially coming from Veronica. Veronica had become precisely the person who could challenge me, and whom I trusted to call me out on things, the person who asked the right questions at the right times.
Based on that “Wow,” I continued on through another eighty or so thousand words. I sat at the piano bench that doubled as my desk and I just kept going, word after word after word so long as they continued the story.
I’d say I fell in love with Veronica all over again at some point during those hundred thousand words, but if the aim here is truth, I can describe it to you more accurately that I suddenly realized, hearing her voice, writing those words, that I had never actually fallen out of love with her. The more I wrote, the more deeply I understood that I had attempted to bury those feelings, partly because I realized that writing is not a process of building so much as digging; I dug deep for those words, disregarded life and time and college and everything else and attempted truly to strip myself onto the page.
I realized as I stripped away the layers that my love for her had never gone away. It was like writing was a magnet and my feelings for her were iron ore, and page after page brought those feelings finally again to the surface after years during which I’d tried to push them aside or move past them. Part of it was also that I felt, as I wrote it, as though Veronica were my own personal Burgess Meredith; finishing a novel requires more effort than most people care to invest, at least if you want to do it well, and sometimes you need someone in your corner to get you through it. Sometimes you need someone to cut your swollen eyelids and squirt water into your mouth, someone to rub your aching shoulders and whisper into your ear, when that bell sounds, that you can go on, you can go another round, you got this, Rock, you got this. Sometimes the body blows become sounds long after they’ve actually stopped hurting, and that’s when you need the coach to urge you on and the girl at the side of the ring to keep fighting for, and I know I’m now mixing characters, if not metaphors, but I think you get what I mean. Veronica had become my coach and my Adrienne combined, my reason for fighting and the training to get me through it, and it can’t be unbelievable that I fell for her all over again.
I don’t know if I would call Veronica my muse, if only because I find the idea uncomfortable; it seems to put the impetus and the origin of the creative process beyond us, and my argument there is that we can’t, or at least shouldn’t. I fear that, if we do, we end up with empty art that might superficially display excellence in craft and mechanics but, more deeply, lacks honesty and soul. A guy named Walter Smith, whom people called Red, is famous for commenting on how easy it is to write—
All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.—
and while I know most people read irony and sarcasm into the truth of that, I think there’s more to it. I think that if you really want to create something worthwhile, instead of seeking the help of some mythological muse whom you hope might show you the truth, you’ve got to reach way down deep within yourself to find it.
What I’m getting at is that I think too many people regard writing and literature as spiritual and metaphysical, and my feeling is that for it to really work, you can’t feel you need to look beyond yourself for inspiration. The real process is finding the inspiration inside you and hopefully using it to inspire others, whether by word or by deed.
Not to put too high a value on the whole thing, mind you. But then again, I’m not sure one can.
My point is, Veronica wasn’t my muse because I don’t believe in one, but I think I once read that D.H. Lawrence told someone that all novels are a perfect letter to a particular person. I don’t argue with that sentiment as vociferously as I might with the idea of a muse, and though I’m not altogether certain I wholeheartedly agree, I can nod and say that, if it’s true, that novel was my letter to Veronica.
While I can’t say I finished in the sort of white heat that would require you to shield your eyes, I can say that I was elated to finish that story by closing that document, and I decided to celebrate. I considered ordering in before I remembered the bottle of Scotch my supervisor had given me, and I figured that if ever there is a time for one’s first glass of Scotch, celebration of the completion of one’s first real novel—bad Dean Koontz rip-offs don’t count—is probably as fine an occasion as one might find. I poured a small glass and realized how strongly it was about to hit me even as I brought it to my lips, its scent so deep and visceral I could smell the stories of Macbeth and William Wallace, while in my gut I felt the same pull as on hearing the first few notes of “Ave Maria” blown through a bagpipe.
I nearly hacked up that first sip. Caught me like a dagger in the back of the throat, and I coughed like an adolescent trying to pretend it wasn’t my first cigarette, trying to stifle great wheezing hacks, while I dumped what little I had poured from my glass and filled it again with water from the faucet, which I glumped down like a thirsty man straight out of the desert. I realize that might be a horrible cliché, but I had just finished my first novel and felt entitled to horrible clichés, thank you very much. I then refilled my glass with Scotch, because, I figured, surely the second sip would go down more easily.
It didn’t, but the third did. The fourth finished my first glass, by which point I had decided Scotch wasn’t half bad and warranted a second glass, after which I decided I actually enjoyed the glass and would prefer a third while I ate dinner. Of course, I didn’t find much in the way of food when I opened the refrigerator, just a half-full 20-ounce bottle of Sprite, some old bread, and a doorful of condiments, all of which made me reconsider ordering in until I remembered the pizza joint just a couple of blocks away. I thought I might grab a couple of slices until I realized they would probably be cold by the time I got back to my pad to wash them down with the Scotch, and then I had what I then thought was a brilliant idea.
I poured the Scotch into the Sprite bottle until it was full, then stuck the Scotch on the inside of the refrigerator door because I wasn’t sure if I should refrigerate it after opening it, like salsa, and I took my bottle of Scotch-Sprite and left my apartment aiming for the closest pizza joint. I believe its name was Three Guys from Italy, and it was a completely nondescript restaurant save one extremely (at the time) important feature; it was just fifteen or twenty feet away from the escalator that led down to the PATH trains and, by extension, New York City.
Could I have had a better idea than to grab a slice and bring it into Manhattan proper? Sure, the trains featured signs banning both food and beverages, but I’d seen people scarfing down Big Macs on their way from the 33rd Street to Hoboken, so I didn’t figure there’d be much harm. The pizza counter guy shoved a couple of slices into a triangular box, and I descended that escalator with my pizza in one hand and my Scotch-Sprite in the other (which, incidentally, made it more difficult than expected to withdraw my PATH card from my pocket, but still I managed), with the City on my mind and stories pulling me forward. I considered calling my friends, invoking the ever-popular “Hey, I finished a novel, let’s celebrate” clause (affirmative response is obligatory), but in the end I took my seat and rode the PATH into the tunnels. Not sure where to go, exactly, but I figured 9th Street seemed a pretty decent destination: the Village. Grungy and leather and studs around universities and brownstones.
I followed the stairs up and around the corner to the street, where the first thing I saw was a blackboard placard advertising health food specials and the second thing I saw was the Gray’s Papaya sign. Hung a left down 8th, and there, among shops that sold leather jackets and pipes ostensibly crafted for fine tobacco but obviously meant for marijuana, saw a sign adorned with Cassiopeia neon-pinpricked against all black, in the window the sorts of tribal markings and glittering jewels that indicate a tattoo and piercing parlor—
What better way to commemorate the completion of a novel than the celebration of permanent ink upon my skin?—
it made sense at the time.
Here I would like to ascribe to the receptionist and tattoo artist the same quasi-mystical aspects as were possessed by that red-haired Tarot reader from just a chapter ago, but the truth is, nothing could have been more completely ordinary than the evening I got my first tattoo: the Japanese symbol for “dream” upon my chest, over my heart. After paying the brunette at the front counter, I ascended a narrow, spiral metal staircase up to a room that appeared to be a cross between a dentist’s office and an extraordinarily clean residential bathroom, and in that room, a man named Paco, who spoke only enough English to indicate how little he knew, applied to the skin above my left pectoral muscle a handful of strokes that have since become a three-dimensional character. One of the few words he spoke sounded like “valor,” and he told me, as he pressed that needle into my skin, that the particular area I had chosen for my tattoo counted among the most painful for men, as it was short on fat and close to the bone. At first, I felt each vibration shudder through my body, but eventually it got to a point where my brain decided the pain it was feeling wasn’t actually a signal for anything dangerous, at which point the whole thing took on a more surreal feeling, as if I were feeling the tattoo pricked and pierced into someone else’s chest, as if the pain I was feeling were more a result of sympathy than stimulation.
All of this, Paco told me, signified my bravery.
But I tell you now I am not a brave man. Looking back, it scares me to consider that I might never have finished that novel had it taken longer than two weeks, because I am, if nothing else, a man of short attention and brief tenacity. Part of me hoped that getting a tattoo of the Japanese symbol for “dream” on my chest would ensure that, no matter where I went or what I did, my heart would follow it; the rest of me hoped there would no longer be a choice in the matter, because sometimes, given a choice, I will choke. Sometimes, given a choice between what’s easy and what’s right, I choose to attempt to demonstrate that the former is, in fact, the latter, when even I know it’s not the case . . .
Scotch-Sprite neon whirl cacophony of leather and gleaming silver and pounding asphalt, shouts and murmurs and the hot scent of . . . what the Hell is a hot dog, anyway? Fried pork? . . . ketchup and kraut, the sort of fragrance so thick you can crunch it between your molars, and I’m pretty sure I picked up a hot dog as I stumbled my way back to the PATH, bandage over my bleeding heart, giant pump-bottle of Jerkins Vitamin-E moisturizer tucked under my armpit, if only because I can’t figure out how else I might have gotten a mustard stain on the knee of the jeans I found crumpled on my bedroom floor the following morning. Brushing my teeth the following morning, the previous evening remained little more than a fluorescent rush on tracks through tunnels but don’t touch that third rail for fear of the jolt through your soul. I wasn’t sure it needed to be anything else; my novel was done, my rent was paid, and even as I brushed, even then again as I showered, even as the water struck my neck and coursed down my body, still my heart beat behind my dream as if propelling it ever forward. Tender to the touch, raised beneath my exploring fingertips: this is what I want.
I would have thought, then, it would also be what I would have chosen, but I hadn’t yet exchanged Christmas presents with Veronica, and I hadn’t yet met Angus, either.
But all that’s gotta start:
What has to start? What will become of our narrator’s novel? What will he and Veronica give each other for Christmas, and just who is this Angus guy, anyway?
Find out some of those answers next week in another exciting installment of Meets Girl!