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Tears from the Compound Eye November 7, 2009

Posted by monty in books.
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So, I’ve stalled – and stalled hard – on National Novel Writing Month.  In stalling terms, I’m like a car that’s swerved sideways across two lanes of traffic on the northbound Hollywood Freeway at 5:05 P.M. on Friday evening.  And leaking gasoline.  A big part of the problem rests with my sneaking suspicion that what I’m currently writing isn’t any good.  I was able to soldier away on the initial draft two years ago because I was surprised at how good it was – funnier and more emotionally resonant than I figure my amateurish writing has any business being.  I was having fun writing it, and I was getting solid, frequent, and positive feedback from a group of people whose opinions I trusted.

But what I’m doing now?  Not so much.  Here’s where the story was going next: I wanted to write not so much a novel as a cycle of related stories.  Basically it would be snapshots of the Garrett character at various points of his life – starting at age 16 in 1989 and continuing until middle-age or later – and each snapshot would tell a different story about how Garrett was never able to get his romantic relationships right.  They’d be funny (or so I thought) and profound (or so I thought), and by the end the reader would have watched Garrett grow up and try to get his life right.    It would be a collection of individual stories, but taken as a whole, the stories would add up to a life.

That was the plan, anyway.  I’ve written a wholly disappointing second story, and am currently lying battered and bloody by the side of the road a couple pages into the third.  I’m going to post the conclusion of the initial story below, and, starting tomorrow I’ll post the second story (in two or three installments), which I wrote last week.  At that point, based on my own re-reading of the story as I post it (and whatever feedback I get from people), I’ll decide whether it’s worth continuing.

So, without further ado, the conclusion of the original story.

*****

Garrett was finding it hard to drive slowly without it being obvious that he was trying to drive slowly.  He wanted to prolong his time with Steph, and was even willing to risk being a little late in order to make the evening last that much longer.  To that end, he found himself driving at least five miles below the speed limit, being extra cautious at stop signs, and in a move that he thought skirted dangerously close to transparency, actually stopped the car and rolled down his window before venturing through a railroad crossing.  He thought he could probably admit to Steph that he was dawdling in order to spend more time with her, but he somehow thought it would be more special if the evening magically, of its own accord, seemed to elongate, as though his mere presence were enough to warp the fabric of time itself.  But if she asked about his unusual procrastination, he had decided he would proclaim a desire to keep her safe, thus the need to drive slowly, look side-to-side half a dozen times before passing through an intersection, and be especially careful of runaway locomotives.

There wasn’t much conversation.  At first he thought she was embarrassed, either at him for crying or herself for making the first move.  He imagined her head filled with second thoughts, doubts, regrets – all the conflicting voices that he found nattering away in his own head on a daily basis.  It wasn’t long, though, before Steph rested her head on his shoulder, and Garrett discovered, for the very first time, the beauty of silence.  He didn’t feel like he had to struggle for something to say, nor did he feel like she was bored or disappointed.  It was a silence so rich and comfortable he could have rolled around in it, like velvet, like silk.  Luxuriant was the word that surfaced from somewhere in Garrett’s subconscious, stored away, he thought, from a book he had read, or maybe from one of those “Calgon, take me away” commercials.  It honestly could have been either.  As he paused for an unusually long time before entering downtown Edgewood’s traffic roundabout, she broke the silence.

“Do you have your tape with you?”

Things were going so well that Garrett had actually forgotten the deception allowing him to get to this point.  Suddenly reminded of it, anxiety began to prowl his perimeter once again.

“My tape?  No.  I left it at home.”

“Too bad.”  She looked up at him with a mock pout on her face.  “I wanted you to sing to me.”

Garrett made a face.  “I wouldn’t wish that on anyone,” he said, and flicked on the radio.  “I’ll see what I can find on here.”

He dialed backward past a country station, the top 40 station, talk radio, another country station, and finally settled on 97.7, the distant college station.  Most of the time he was lucky if the ratio of static to music was fairly balanced; tonight, things seemed to be in his favor as the final churning, distorted seconds of “Gigantic” by the Pixies filled the car.  It was musically a little rougher than he would have liked for this evening – it was miles away from the mix tape he had compiled, and a bird of a completely different feather than the “mood music” his dad had once lectured him about (“Marvin Gaye and nothing but, trust me on this one, Garrett”) – but he figured as long as “Too Drunk to Fuck” by the Dead Kennedys didn’t come on, he’d be in good shape.

“Who’s this?” Steph asked, as “Gigantic” ended, and the next song began to fade in, all jangly guitars, a clattering drumbeat, and ooh-ooh falsetto vocals.

“New Order.  This is a great song: ‘Temptation.’  Really super great stuff,” he said, warming to the subject and a chance to show off.  “The members of the band used to be in this other great band called Joy Division.  This was the late 70’s in Manchester, England, and Joy Division were this super depressing four-piece who played this kind of chilly, sorta claustrophobic stuff that was almost punk but not really fast enough to be punk – does that make sense?  Anyway, their singer was epileptic and he used to have, you know, seizures on stage, and  I guess it was getting worse and worse because the night before their first U.S. tour, he killed himself.  And the rest of the band, rather than just quitting, renamed themselves New Order and kept playing and over time turned from, like, this dark, depressing band into a weird dance band.  I mean, a complete turnaround.  Really weird, but still really good.” Garrett suddenly caught himself.  At some point he had crossed over from showing off into the realm of the spooky obsessive.  He sounded like what he was: a rabid fan who often found life easier to deal with if encountered through headphones.  “Whoops.  Sorry,” he mumbled.  “I get carried away sometimes.”

“You love music, don’t you?”

“I really do,” he replied.  He paused for the briefest of seconds before continuing, then thought Why the hell not?  I’ve gotta start being honest sometime. “I get confused about life a lot, and sometimes it’s all that makes sense to me.”

“I like that about you,” Steph said simply.

“Really?  I think it makes me sound a little, you know, kooky.”

Steph furrowed her brow and squinched up her lips in a look Garrett had never seen before.  It said, Don’t be an idiot, Garrett. “It makes you different, but who cares?  So many guys at school, they don’t really care about anything that matters. Like, they want to win the game or whatever, but think about it, Garrett: Two years from now we’ll be graduating, and who’s going to care about the touchdown you scored or the test you aced or how many beers you drank?”

“Or the fact that you were student body president?”

“Exactly.  None of it lasts.  And you’re better than other guys because of what you care about.  You love music and it helps you and you don’t care what other people think.  You don’t hide it and pretend to have it all figured out.  You are who you are, and that makes you the most honest guy I know.”

As Garrett’s chest constricted, he thought, This is how it must feel when a bird has a broken wingIt wants to fly, but it can’t. As encouraged as he was by her words, the stupid tape kept him earthbound.  He imagined his confession, the way it should sound, and his thoughts were corrosive: Funny you should mention honesty, Steph, because – this is really funny – you know that tape I gave you?  It’s not really me.  And you know what’s even funnier?  I can’t really sing, I’ve owned a guitar for two years and can barely pluck out “Ode to Joy,” and when I was eight my piano teacher told my parents they’d be better off spending their money on something else.  The most honest guy you know is actually a complete fraud. He saw in an instant that this was how self-loathing starts: not in the actions of others, but in the lies we allow ourselves to tell.  He didn’t have a reply for Steph; he wasn’t courageous enough to tell her the truth or strong enough to keep up the lie.  So he smiled through gritted teeth, and kept driving in silence.

They passed through downtown Edgewood and out the other side, and now Garrett was in a hurry to get Steph home.  The faster he got her home, the faster he could concoct the story that would kill the band.  He hadn’t mentioned the names of anyone else in it, which meant the story couldn’t be corroborated with anyone at school.  It would be easy.  He’d say the other members lived in Hilliard, over an hour away.  It was too hard, he would tell her, to keep meeting for rehearsal.  Nothing more complicated than that.  It was too far and too hard with school, and maybe they’d reform the band in college.  He could find it in himself to tell one more lie, and this time it would be a good lie, a lie to save his standing with this girl he liked so much and who seemed to like him, really like him, who laughed at what he said and made him feel comfortable in his own skin.  One lie.  He could do it.

And he raced down the country road, doggedly pursuing the twin beams of his headlights.

And “Temptation” ended.

And the radio station advertised its call sign: “You’re listening to 97X: The Future of Rock and Roll.”

And tremeloed guitar uncoiled from the speakers.  The Smiths.  “How Soon Is Now?”  The first song on Side 2 of Meat Is Murder. The first song on Side 1 of the tape he had thrust into her hands two days ago.

Garrett had never known his reflexes to be so sharp.  As soon as he recognized the unusual, distinctive riff, oscillating from speaker to speaker, he snapped off the radio. “Almost home,” he said, and faked a yawn.

But Steph was sitting up, looking at him strangely, lips pursed in concentration or puzzlement.  She reached out to turn the radio back on, and Garrett briefly wondered if he could turn it into a game: playfully slap her hand, distract her, get her to forget what she had just heard.  But he knew it wouldn’t work, knew it would only delay the inevitable, and he let her click it on.  The song had kicked in, the backbeat of the drums sharply underpinning the guitar, and Morrissey’s unmistakable voice on top of it, singing the lyrics which couldn’t be confused for anyone else: “I am human and I need to be loved, just like everyone else does.”  Garrett watched her out of the corner of his eye.  Did he dare hope she’d think it was a funny prank?  Or a bold maneuver to win her over?  He watched for laughter, for tears, for a swung palm rapidly approaching the side of his head, anything that might indicate what was coming next, and how he should act in response.

“What is this?” she asked.

Once again, Garrett didn’t have an answer.

“Garrett.  What is this?”

Could he sell it?  Say it was him?  The college station was one of their biggest supporters?  No.  These were the thoughts of the condemned man, and they would only make matters worse.

“The Smiths,” he muttered.

“What?”

“It’s The Smiths.  One of my favorite bands.”

“How …?” She stopped.  There was no need to ask, and no need for him to answer.  It was all so obvious. “Get me home.  Now.

He reached for the radio, hoping to turn it off and end the torture.

“Leave it on,” she said.  “I want to hear.”

So Garrett drove, letting the rest of the song play out.  He didn’t know for certain what would come next, but he could guess.  All he hoped at this point was that she wouldn’t tell her friends.  Embarrassments like this had a way of sticking, and even though high school would last only two more years, ridicule could make even five minutes last an eternity.

The song was ending as he pulled into her driveway, and she finally reached forward and turned it off.  Garrett parked, but instead of flouncing out of the car the way he expected her to, Steph turned to him.

“So the tape isn’t you.” It wasn’t a statement.  She wanted him to confirm his guilt.

“No.  But Steph –“

“You lied to me.”

“I just –“

“How stupid do you think I am?” Her voice shook with anger.

Garrett didn’t answer, merely ran his hands over the steering wheel.

“Garrett.  How stupid do you think I am?  Did you think I wouldn’t find out?”  Again, and this time it was a shout: “How stupid do you think I am?”

“I wanted you to like me.” It was a feeble retort, and he knew how pitiful it sounded, but he didn’t see how he had any option left available to him but the truth.

“I did like you, Garrett,” she said.  “I liked you a lot.  Didn’t it mean anything to you that I said I’d go out with you before I’d even really listened to your stupid tape?  The night you called I’d listened to, like, two minutes of it.  But you called and you asked if I wanted to do something and I said yes.

“I know.” Try as he might, he couldn’t keep the whining despair out of his voice.

“And I was really looking forward to it.  And I still hadn’t listened to the tape.  When I did listen to it, I liked it, and I was impressed, but what really mattered is that you chose me. This smart, funny guy had given me a tape he could have given to anyone.  The tape didn’t make me like you.”  Her voice was shaking again, and even though Garrett could tell it wasn’t with anger this time, that didn’t make it any less devastating.  “The tape made me trust you.  It made me think you were different.  But you’re not.  You’re as shallow as everyone else.  What a joke.”

She fumbled for the door handle.

“I’m sorry, Steph.  I just.  I wanted you to like me,” he repeated, lamely. “I didn’t think you even knew who I was.”

“Whatever, Garrett.  You lied.  And that makes you the stupid one.”

She pushed out the door and slammed it.  He watched her stalk to the house, and in the screening room of his imagination he saw himself rush after her, grab her, spin her around, apologize profusely, and then they would fall into each other’s arms as the orchestra swelled.  But of course that didn’t happen.  Steph walked through her front door without so much as a glance over her shoulder.  She didn’t even hesitate, which would have afforded Garrett the opportunity to think she had at least considered turning back to him.  But no.  The front door closed, final, definitive.

Because there was nothing left to do, no other realistic alternative, he backed out onto the road in defeat.  Garrett didn’t often let himself feel optimism, especially where girls were concerned.  Optimism opened the door for disappointment, and up until that night he had preferred to go through life feeling pleasantly surprised when things went his way.  But now, driving home, fighting back tears he felt ridiculous for wanting to shed, the positivity he’d felt just thirty minutes ago clung to him like stale cigarette smoke.  He had liked thinking he had something to look forward to, and now that the moment was gone, he didn’t know if he wanted it back.  The hope was nice, but the cost – as he now knew ­– was steep.  He knew what he’d done wrong with Steph – lied, misrepresented himself, manipulated someone he truly liked – and he would never do that again. But at the same time, he was realistic enough to know he could do everything right and still end up disappointed in the end.

Garrett left the radio off, needing concentration to subdue the voices that compelled him to surrender to anguish.  He needed to try to look logically at the core of his dilemma.  And the core, he finally saw, was this: He wanted Steph back, to atone for what he had done, to see her smile at him, to feel like he had more in his life than the walls of his home and the tapes in his room.  But he never wanted to feel again the way he felt in that moment – Steph’s anger and sadness and hurt making his breath come in short, painful swallows, as though his lungs were running on guilt, and oxygen would only distract him from this strange new fuel that curdled in his bloodstream.

What he wanted and what he didn’t want were in unavoidable conflict with one another.  To pursue the former was to risk the latter; to avoid the latter meant never achieving the former.  But did he have it in him, to swallow his pride, to risk humiliation, to accept the blame that was his alone?  Could he do all that, not knowing the outcome in advance?  He didn’t know.  But what was that line he had read earlier that year in Macbeth, the one he had liked so much?  Yes: “Screw your courage to the sticking-place and we’ll not fail.”  Like everything else Shakespearean, he figured his interpretation left something to be desired.  But he liked the sound of it.

The country road unfurled before him in the darkness.  It could take him anywhere.

Garrett smiled.

He knew he wasn’t courageous.  But it was April, the night sky above him was infinite, and maybe it wasn’t too late to learn.

*****

For anyone just joining the story, here’s a recap of where you can find the rest:

Part 1: Let it All Hang Out (11/1/09)

Part 2: More Stars Than There Are in Heaven (10/15/09)

Part 3: Factory of Raw Essentials (11/3/09)

Part 4: The Coast Was Always Clear (11/4/09)

Part 5: Love, Hate, Love (11/5/09)

So now you’re caught up.  Tomorrow I’ll start posting the all-new story.  It’ll be the first time I’ve looked at it in a few days, so maybe it’ll seem more appealing to me after a little time off.

*****

Current listening:

Longpigs sun

Longpigs – The Sun Is Often Out

Current reading:

BANR2005-full

Douglas Trevor – “Girls I Know” (in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2005, ed. by Dave Eggers)

Last movie seen:

law_abiding_citizen_poster

Law Abiding Citizen (F. Gary Gray, dir.)

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