Once upon a time I fell in love with a girl who didn’t love me in return.
And while that may not be, as openings go, altogether novel (for who among us hasn’t felt the sharp-barbed long-constant prick-pull of unrequited love?), still I’ve always known it’s how I need to begin this story. I’ve always known I’m going to eventually need the big guns if I intend to make my way through, and I’ve known that since before I even started, back when I was sitting next to Veronica—the girl with whom I fell in love but who did not love me in return—and across from Angus Silver, about whom I will tell you more as we go along, because Angus Silver is an idea you need to be eased into.
Back then, when I understood, finally, how to tell this story and thus redeem myself, I also realized it wasn’t going to be an easy story to tell, and even that I might not actually have the talent to pull it off.
Still, I understood, as well, I had to try.
And so I shall. So I begin to recall and to recount even if not for the first time; I have test-written and re-written this opening so many times I’ve lost count, but not a single one has yet worked. This is, in fact, the only opening so far that has carried me beyond false starts and falser endings, which I can tell you because, in the spirit of honesty, I have already finished this story, and am now swinging back around to revise it, to polish it and to make it gleam.
Then again, in the spirit of honesty, I must also admit that, though I finished it, I did not do so successfully. Much of the revision before me may be making the words gleam, but I am already aware I need to scrap the ending. The ending is the messy part, of course, and while I think I may be close, the conclusion has not yet felt as right as this opening. There are certainly other ways to begin—
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.—1
Call me Ishmael.—2
but those beginnings have only ever made me wonder why Dickens could never make up his mind, not to mention why parents might name their child Ishmael and whether that was only the beginning of the abuses the poor boy suffered.
But ‘once upon a time?’ This is how stories are supposed to begin if only because it seems like how they have always begun back since before there were any previous times to pin a ‘once’ upon. Even the phrase itself has a singular power you can feel in your gut, a primal quality that opens us as easily as a key a lock. Simply hearing it makes me believe my father is the smartest person in the world, my mother the most beautiful. Suddenly I feel like I am wearing my old powder-blue Dr. Dentons with the crinkly foot-pouches to protect me from whatever under the bed was drooling.
It runs silent and deep to find, within me, the memories of my mother reading me Little Bear and “The Leap-frog”—
A Flea, a Grasshopper, and a Leap-frog once wanted to see which could jump highest; and they invited the whole world, and everybody else besides who chose to come to see the festival.—3
and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland—
Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, “and what is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations?”—4
and stories about mist-shrouded castles overlooking emerald green realms. Wolves with big teeth, and evil stepsisters. Bears and chairs and porridge-eating intruders, evil witches and alchemical hobgoblins, grandmother’s house and gingerbread cottages. It calls to my mind Disney princes with thick, black hair and big, blue eyes, who gallop trusty steeds through sun-dappled forests in enchanted lands to save from untold danger the women they love, because the one thing all princes charming have in common is the girls in whose names they pursue their noble quests.
Princes charming are silly like that.
But then, all boys are. I once heard a story about William Faulkner, known to many as a Nobel laureate—
It is the writer’s privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past.—5
but known to probably more as an Oprah pick, and known to some few besides as a Hollywood writer. My own favorite work ever by William Faulkner is his adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, one of Hollywood’s first, not to mention smartest, action movies, much of which one can attribute to Chandler himself—
When in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand.—6
and the thing about The Big Sleep, the reason it’s among Faulkner’s finest work, is simple: Faulkner knew what the story was about. It’s ostensibly a crime-noir, with stolen pictures and missing persons and triple crosses, and it’s easy to get lost in the complicated plot, but Faulkner understood the story was simple and reminded himself of it in a very simple way. His supervisors and managers did not know of his reminder until after he had left Hollywood and they cleaned out his desk to find two items.
The first was a bottle of Jack Daniels. Which I would say makes sense because Faulkner was a writer, but that would only propagate the myth of writers as drunks and bypass the truth: Faulkner was an alcoholic, who sometimes thought he wrote best when he was intoxicated but, given the state of his novels, perhaps should have waited till he had sobered up to revise them.
The second is more important: a single sheet of paper on which was typed, over and over and over again, in classic 12-point Courier font, a single phrase:
Boy meets girl.
Because that is what so many stories hinge upon. Not all of them, I know: some are about whales or a young girl’s adventures in a strange world or even—well, I’m not entirely certain what A Tale of Two Cities was about, but then, who is?—but many of the real ones, the true ones, begin with a boy meeting a girl.
Because that’s what we do. We meet girls, and we fall in love with them, and then the real silliness begins. In ode to their beauty we compose poetry—
Who will believe my verse in time to come?—7
and in honor of their faces we launch a thousand ships. In pursuits of their oft-capricious affections, we undertake quests of monumental foolishness. We tilt at windmills. We storm castles using only a wheelbarrow and holocaust cloak despite that we were mostly dead mere moments before and have been revived solely via ingestion of miraculous chocolate dispensed by Billy Crystal in bad prosthetics. Hell, I’m not sure what sort of motivation Melville said Ahab had, but he gave his character a peg-leg and an obsessive quest for a marine creature whose most distinguishing feature, besides a ‘hump like a snow-hill,’ was a blowhole, both of which sound more than a little Freudian to me.
Being a boy myself, I am no different, which is why I need to tell this story hoping for redemption, and that girl with whom I fell in love—who did not love me in return—was Veronica Sawyer. Veronica Sawyer has wavy, black hair highlit blonde and eyes the color of natural emeralds in mahogany. Veronica has a quick laugh and an easy smile and dresses like she belongs in a Banana Republic catalogue. Veronica speaks no fewer than three languages and knows how to request wine in several others besides. Veronica believes there is some point to graduate study in philosophy, and if you think, now, that I have somehow idealized Veronica Sawyer, I will say, simply, well, yes, that’s very much the point, isn’t it?
Because it truly was that sort of Love. Veronica is that sort of girl whom boys meet and fall in love with and do spectacularly blunderous things for. Veronica Sawyer is the sort of girl who makes writers capitalize words, who in times of yore would have inspired gallant knights to find dragons solely that they might fight and slay them. Veronica is the sort of girl the memory of whom could have inspired Cervantes, in his squalid prison cell, to write of Quixote’s Dulcinea, to dream the impossible dream, to fight the unbeatable foe. All of which, of course, is why I felt I needed to begin with those four famous words.
Because, you see, once upon a time, a man who told me to call him Angus offered me what should have been a very simple choice between someone I thought I deeply loved and something I very deeply loved to do. I, being the sort of boy who would, if not storm a castle (for want of a cloud) nor launch a thousand ships (for want of an armada), certainly compose bad poetry to win the affections of a girl I loved who did not love me in return made a spectacularly bad decision.
When she discovered what I had done, Veronica became the kind of infuriated I would need phrases like ‘hellfire and brimstone’ and words like ‘venomous’ to adequately describe, and even then I’d be comically understating her degree of righteous indignation. Then again, she certainly had every reason to become so righteously indignant, because the choice I made had every bit as much to do with her and her future as it did with me and my own, even if I didn’t quite realize that at the time.
I didn’t realize a lot of things at the time. If I had, I might not have made such a spectacularly bad decision, a choice so bad, in fact, that the only way I can make it right, the only way I can redeem it, is to tell this story. I’m very much aware that much hinges upon my ability to tell it, which is in addition why I began with ‘once upon a time’—not just because of old stories or big guns or fairy tales or romanticism, but because two futures depend on my ability to tell this story through to its rightful end, and beginning with those four words inspires some hope, however small and however distant, of three other small words.
I think I can reach them.
So help me, I’m going to try.
And so help me, I promise you one thing: I will pull out every damned trick I’ve got to do so. You can look up my sleeves and examine my hat to confirm that I have absolutely nothing in either, but in the end I promise you that I will either produce the flowers and the rabbit you so desire, or I will fail spectacularly and conclusively to do so, and really, isn’t it worth reading even if only to find out which one occurs?
On my honor, I will do my best.
Words, don’t fail me now.
(Will the meta continue? How did I meet Veronica Sawyer? What on Earth am I going on about? Tune in next week for another exciting installment!)