My October weekends have been filled with all sorts of writer-ly, bookish goodness! Two weekends ago I did a reading at the Slover Library in Norfolk, this past weekend I moderated two panels at the James River Writers Conference, and tomorrow I’m headed to Philadelphia to attend the Women’s Fiction Writers Association’s regional conference. It’s odd how things lump together like this, isn’t it? How you’ll go months without any weddings, and then have three friends getting married in the course of five weeks. Or you’ll go six months without seeing your extended family and then seem them repeatedly in the one month span between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Seems like fall is the season for book events, at least in my little section of the east coast. Therefore, I’m officially renaming October weekends: “bookends.” (Get it, like books and weekends …)
Anyway, bad wordplay aside– in celebration of this bookish season, I thought I’d share some pictures and the excerpt of How to be Alive that I read at Slover, just for fun.
Setup: The scene takes place not long after the death of the main character’s fiancé. She’s trying to reach a panini press on the top shelf of a closet to make herself a grilled cheese sandwich (comfort food):
I stood on the tip of my toes on the second step of a small stepladder. Nothing. My fingers didn’t even touch the shelf. I stepped up to the top of the ladder and could touch the shelf, but was still nowhere near reaching the press, which was pushed to the back of the shelf. Tanner must have put it up there. I added “get taller ladder” to my mental list of things to do around the house. I sighed and stretched up onto my toes again. My middle finger made contact with the cool metal, just before I lost my balance. Heart pounding, my hands flailed, grasping for shelves, boxes, anything to keep myself from falling. Because who would know if I did? My cell phone was in the other room. Maybe they would notice tomorrow at work. But they might just think I had taken a grief day. I was going to lie on the floor of my closet with broken bones for hours, days maybe.
Steady again, feet flat on the top step. I took a deep breath. Crazy. I was going crazy. People lived alone all the time and didn’t die. But I hadn’t. Ever. I put my hand on the large box in front of me to steady myself, and something slid off the top of it. I screamed and ducked. Get off the ladder, some still rational part of my brain commanded. I obeyed, one shaky step at a time, then crumpled to the closet floor and stared at the rolled up paper that had fallen. I knew immediately what it was.
The Plan. Our Plan. I stared at it for what felt like an hour. Eventually I saw my hand reach out for it. I felt the thin, worn paper between my fingers. Took in the lines of the ledger paper, once bright green, now sort of a yellow-brown color. As if it were sick. My stomach turned over as soon as I saw his handwriting. I closed my eyes and leaned against the doorframe of the closet. I could see the two of us face to face in bed, first semester senior year. It must have been very late morning or early afternoon, because I remember sun splashing across his face from the window in what was his bedroom at the time, ours later.
“Stay with me after graduation?” he implored, his blue eyes searching mine.
“That’s months away,” I had attempted to distract him, stretching over and kissing him.
“They’ll go fast. I need you to stay.”
“I can’t do it without you.”
“Do what?” I asked, smiling and raising an eyebrow, hoping he would catch my weak effort at double entendre.
Instead he propped himself up on his elbow and looked into my eyes, “I have a plan,” he announced.
“A plan?” I teased, running my index finger up and down his forearm and biting my lower lip, in a manner that I supposed to be seductive. Though I was never sure if it really was.
He caught my hand in his, smiled, and said, “Yes, a plan. Try to be serious, just for a second.”
“Okay, so what’s the plan?” I asked.
“You stay here with me. Maybe get a job at the college …”
“I want to travel. To write about travel.”
He placed a finger on my lips. “Just listen. I’ll work with my dad for some set number of years; I need to run some numbers, but anyway, we figure out where we want to go, how much it will take to get there, and I’ll work, save money, invest in high-yield stocks, and then we’ll leave. Travel. I’ll write my novel, and you’ll write travel pieces. We’ll have enough to get started and then once you’re working for magazines they will pay for your travel. I’ll sell a novel to cover other stuff when the money runs out. Great, right?”
“But how long? How much money? What stocks?”
“I don’t know all the details yet. But I will. I was going to get all that together before telling you, but I just couldn’t wait.”
I remember the excitement dancing in his eyes. I remember thinking it was all so nebulous anyway. We were 21 and lying naked together in bed on a lazy Saturday morning. It was a good time for dreaming.
“I like the sound of your plan,” I said.
And then I completely forgot about the plan. Until he mentioned it again the next day. And then again and again. Until eventually it took on a life of its own, occupying hours of our time as we hashed out details and mapped our future together.
I ran my finger over the words on the faded paper in front of me. It was so detailed and yet so very naive. So much we hadn’t known. He had shown me this written manifestation of our months of planning the week after college graduation. We were at the beach, and the days stretched long. They were simple, lazy, full of hope sort of days.
“What’s this?” I asked, as he handed me the scroll of paper.
“Just open it.”
I remember sliding the loose rubber band off and unrolling a green ledger sheet.
“You finished it,” I said.
He nodded proudly and sat next to me on the bed, going over each column to show the details that we had hashed out over the last year. His details — the money stuff — on the top. My details — the dress for our tiny wedding in D.C. on the way out of town, the modest furnishings for a tiny studio in New York, the destinations we would travel to — sketched out on the bottom.
Today when I looked at it, it was obvious how off our cost estimates were, how much faith we put in things that were largely out of our control (the stock market, selling a novel), but that day I remember saying, “I love it,” and smiling unstoppably.
When we got back to Parktown we used tiny nails to affix the plan to the back of the closet door, where it had stayed until Tanner took it down two months ago.
“What’s going on?” I asked, walking into the bedroom and finding him wiggling the nails out of the wood.
He turned around, as if he had been caught doing something illicit.
“I, uh …” he started, “I’m sick of the reminder, that’s all.”
“That’s it. You’re just taking it down?” I remembered feeling my face start to flush.
“I don’t want to fight about it,” he said with no emotion.
“Did you think I just wouldn’t notice?”
“Would you have?”
“Of course,” my mouth had said, though I’m never sure my heart had truly agreed.
He just shrugged.
“Can we at least talk about it?”
“What’s there to talk about? There was a plan. It failed. We live here. Our lives are here. I am going to run Harrison’s Furniture when my dad retires. Done.”
“Why does it have to be done? Why can’t there be another plan?” I had asked incredulously.
He had crossed the room and laid down in bed with his back to me.
“I’m going for a walk,” I announced.
“Of course,” he mumbled.
As I wiped my face again with the back of my sleeve, the tears now pouring heavy and burning down my face, I could see myself that night, in much the same state. I think I was probably the closest to leaving that I had ever been that night that he took the plan down. The plan that we hadn’t talked about in nearly three years, that had a conglomeration of robes and jackets and sweaters hanging over it in the closet. Yet, there had been something so final about it. I remember thinking that I didn’t know Tanner anymore. Back at home I had stared in the mirror and wondered who I was.
I looked at my engagement ring again now. And at the plan. My stomach growled. I looked up, through tears, at the panini press I couldn’t reach, and I thought about the dinner I cooked for Tanner the night after he took the plan down, the night after I almost left. It was a repeat of the first dinner I had ever made for the two of us — chicken roasted with rosemary, broccoli, and couscous. I twisted the ring on my left hand and thought of the things we do to memorialize the past. To try desperately to hold on.
Such a fun day! And if you’re ever in Norfolk, Virginia– the Slover Library is so worth a visit. This picture below is of the metal work at the top of the glass atrium (and it dons’t come close to doing it justice). And if the architecture isn’t enough to make you want to visit, there also a cafe stocked with uber-fancy waters. Which are an essential ingredient to any quality bookend.