Dec '03 [Home]
Hunter MFA Fiction
In a plain white room with straw-bottomed chairs arranged in a square, facing each other. That's where I met her. At a Wednesday night meeting for the Society of Friends in the Village. I remember the silence. I had forgotten about it, although I'd grown up with it, but the silence killed me. It was the best part. Off and on, people popped up and offered their kernels of wisdom, Quaker-style, as they were moved by the spirit. It was supposed to be present with us in the room, as it's supposed to be all the time—with you in the shower while you lather up, with you on stage at Mongolia when you sing your favorite tune to a bunch of drunken bozos, with you when you kiss Lara on her notched right eye, with you when a song lyric comes out of thin air, out of absolutely nothing, and grabs you by the throat and shakes you. But I hadn't felt the hope or the possibility or even the memory of it for a long, long time and I was going under. This was after my meeting with Billy Saturn, after I had broken up Bloodless Coup, in my dark period, when I didn't have a band and it was just me in my home studio surrounded by cables, keyboards, drum machines, samplers, multitimberal synths, blinking LEDs, and a computer screen. Me and the machines. I was drowning.
Earlier that afternoon, I had felt entombed in my apartment, an astronaut in an explorer pod that had lost contact with the mother ship and was drifting off farther and farther into deep space far beyond the Orion nebulae. Soon the food and water packets would give out. And then the air. Without any final destination in mind, I lit out on a long, meandering walk down 10th Avenue. Past the bad-smelling trucks gurgling toward the Lincoln Tunnel, empty warehouses silently staring down. Everything looked ugly: dog turds on the concrete, grafitti-splattered cinderblock, a gray-haired bag lady between parked cars scrunching down for a pee. This was my New York.
I ended up in the Village that night, and remembered I was only a block away from the Society of Friends, and it was meeting night. I poked my head inside. It was early. I found a seat. I closed my eyes and listened to the pipe organ play. Long, clean lines. Breathy. Calm. It felt like the universe talking to me, telling me that everything was OK. Everything OK. No matter how it seemed. And I got this feeling that this organ music was playing all the time. No matter where I was, what I was doing. But it was so hard to hear it sometimes, above the noise—Are you going to make it, Jason? Are you going to get signed? Why have you wasted so much time? Where will you be five years from now? Ten years from now? Are you just another NYC loser? But Lara, Lara sat to my right. And I hardly noticed her until halfway through the hour when I became faintly aware of the intermittent tosses of her jaw-length hair, like a filly shaking off flies. The meeting ended, and they had this schtick, where you were supposed to shake hands with the person on either side of you. There were two empty chairs between us which could have easily excused her, both of us, from our duty. But she turned her head, quickly, swinging that shiny dark hair, and looked (I saw this out of the corner of my eye), and seen that there was no one near me on my left, no one to save me from drifting farther out into deep space, that she was my primary connection, had reached over, shyly, with a grade-school smile, extended her hand toward me, across the empty chair gap, and shaken my hand. Cool. Firm. I remember the handshake, it seemed to ground me to the speckled white tile like 1000 pounds of centrifical force, and even though I'd always thought the handshaking custom so uncool, so pandering, I guess I was grateful for it this one time.
"You wouldn't want to get a cup of coffee would you?" Lara asked.
Very unlike her, she told me later. She'd never asked a guy out for anything before. But something told her to do it, and instead of brushing the thought away like a tiresome gnat, she'd given it audience. She was good at that. At giving unexpected thoughts audience. Like when she'd given up acting. She hadn't expected to do that either. She told me about it on that very first talk. Ever since 7th grade, she'd wanted to be an actress. Ever since she'd seen Vivian Leigh's gut-wrenching smile in the final scene of Streetcar, she and her sister crouched on the rec room sofa, mouths full of peanut butter and pickle sandwich, faces rapt, bathed in cathode-tube blue. Ever since that night, which she could still recount in detail, because even now—after she'd pursued her passion and decided it was something better left behind to simmer on the back, back burner—even now, that night and the feeling that had singed her heart, meant something to her.
It had hit her during a cattle call for The Importance of Being Earnest. Sitting in a frigid hallway with a hundred other medium-length brunettes. Each of whom, like her, must have banged around in dozens of chintzy off-off-Broadway productions, or bus and trucks, or summer stocks, to earn their Equity cards. Each with her own unique, and maybe not so unique, hardship stories of putting up with a screetchy director or bad-breathed leading man. And here they were. All lined up. Tugging at their bras, snapping open compacts, touching up their eyeliner, sitting with their eyes closed trying to zone in, or out, or just let their minds drift to that summer cottage they used to go to with their parents up in Michigan on the edge of that blue, blue lake, with the wind whipping through the birch trees and the white caps marching in, repetitively, relentlessly, marching in.
And a novel thought had flitted through her head, like a bluejay in a tree of starlings: You don't have to do this anymore. And she had said, "What, what was that thought?" And it had repeated itself: You don't have to do this anymore. And she couldn't believe it at first because it felt like heresy, blasphemy, against all that she'd poured her heart and soul and waiter's wages into. But it had sat there, perched, in her mind. It flapped it's wings and settled in. And she opened her eyes and looked around at all the brunettes, and all the blondes, and the ones who were prettier than she, and the ones that weren't, and the ones who were thinner, and the ones who weren't, and the ones who looked like they might be more talented, and the ones who were definitely fluff, and all of sudden she could see them for what they really were—not for what they wanted to be in the future, in their ambitious dreams, prepping and primping for three minor roles in an English farce—but for what they were right now—somebody's wide-eyed daughter, yes, daughter, with a mother, a father, maybe a sister, an obnoxious brother, a tender-fingered grandmother. And they were beautiful. All of them. They didn't have to become anything, get anything, change anything to make themselves any more beautiful than they already were. That was absurd. She laughed out loud and something shifted—and this didn't last very long she said—but in those precious stupid minutes, she felt heavenly. Just as high as when she'd read her name posted on the bulletin board, cast for the lead in her college production of Taming of the Shrew. And even though she'd already been at the audition since nine in the morning (an hour outside and three hours in the hall), and only had three girls ahead of her (two of them blondes), she'd thrown on her coat, scooped up her backpack, pushed down the steel bar on the backstage door, and walked out.
There was—still is, I passed it just last week—a diner around the corner from the meeting house where we dunked stale butter cookies and talked that first night. That's when I first noticed her voice. Although the rich, fudge-like quality didn't come fully into focus until a couple of months later when she started leaving those good-night messages on my machine. They became her signature.
(In a former life, Nate Ouderkirk was a rock singer/songwriter who performed all around New York City. In his new life, he has received an MFA from Hunter College (2001), taught in the Freshman Writing Seminar at Principia College, and learned the true meaning of patience while working on a novel.)