All these years I’ve held on tight to the finger licked corners of stale crusty novels. I’ve held them open between my clammy hands and felt my eyelashes flicking across their stretched jackets. I’ve peeped. I’ve peered. I’ve gawked. I’ve gazed. I’ve stopped. How many times I’ve read my thoughts away. I’ve slid my finger under embellished words, delicate lines, and snaky pages, until one page remained, and it was time to slam it shut.
“Be less abstract, more concrete Jim,’ she said. She was young, and everything is abstract to the young, but this was the only writing class within five minutes’ walk of the bus stop and my hips weren’t getting any looser.
“Be more accessible, more comprehensible. Don’t be so mysterious that you elude me. If you elude me, you will elude everyone. I am more than the common reader. I understand the complex, the abstract in its finest form, but you need to be more concrete in your abstraction.”
There were no more pages to hide behind now. She had read me and taken my breath on its way in and out. What a long torment. My greatest fantasy had become my greatest fallacy. I was pursuing my dream of writing something decent fifty years too late. I was learning about my long-lost love, and her conduit was reminding me of how and why I had rejected her countless advances.
She continued to berate me.
“Mystery is only fun if somebody can solve it. It’s only brilliant if somebody, other than you, can crack the code. Do you know what I mean?” She tilted her head and chewed juicy fruit clumsily behind her collagen immobilised lips.
Her strong sense is the sense surrounding me all day long. I am the old breath that mingles with the new. I am a teenager in the body of a seventy-five-year-old man; sitting in a college full of young guns, loaded with years, pressing their triggering pens like their ammunition will never run out.
“Drop the mystery honey. Don’t you know we don’t want to read what we don’t understand? Drop abstraction. Fiction should sound real. No point tormenting folk during their leisure time. No point at all.”
She was starting out – a young professor, a toddler in her career. I was aware that I could be her first page and her every reference for the rest of her life. I was the stale crusty pages I had once held on to. Now she peered at me and I wondered how long her reproach would last.
But for the love of it and the time delay, I would have stood up to her. I would have told her she was wrong. I would have told her to grow up. But I was the one who was there to grow, not her. For the love of words, I would remain quiet, and let her raging waves of criticism wash over me. I didn’t have that kind of time anymore.
My wife had said it.
“There comes a time when small boats need to stop playing in the sea, and float on the easier tides of quieter rivers.”
As the years went on, she put it more plainly.
“The moment has passed; it’s too late. There isn’t enough time.”
She had stopped sailing a long time ago. Her little steps echoed in her words. Words she cut with the tip of her tongue on the top of her mouth; stalling only to stand on one leg of the word at the end, to chop its head off, to make sure you heard.
She moves in short sentences now. A few words, a short lingering comma, but for a conjunction, she would stop. And that she does, more often now – stop. As much as you notice her hurried strides, she continues a few short steps to pause again, for a rest. Often, just for a rest.
“Hemingway!” the professor shouted.
“Now there’s where you’ll find what I’m talking about. Have you read any Ernest Hemingway?” She leaned over me on three taut fingers, hovering above a man in line for God’s waiting room.
She wanted to blow her trumpet of authority and achievement, so I let her play her game of seduction. After all, I was her student. After all, I had ignored her knowledge for over fifty years. After all, the professor’s music is always sweetest at the start and I’d better listen this time around.
“I’ve read The Old Man and the Sea,” I said, as a sort of peace offering, as a sort of bridge to her patch.
Her music was sweet indeed, but all I could hear was the breath between my own notes. As the sound left my ears, I could hear her breath shivering down her throat as the low notes boomeranged down. For the love of words, I thought, as she drowned out all my low notes.
“Maybe your age might lend itself better this time. When did you read it?”
“About forty years ago love.”
“Did you see it, touch it, hear it, smell it, or even imagine tasting it?”
“I can’t say. There have been many books read since then.”
“Then I suggest you read it again to see how he manages to tell a concrete story without a hint of tormenting ambiguity. The senses help us remember. Philosophical meanderings just send us to sleep.”
I think of the beautiful words I’ve read in every sound that slips into my ears and see them in every shape that forms around my eyes. I scribble all sorts of meaningless deeds to take me away from my flashbacks. I relish in the thought of them later, of allowing myself to give them all of my attention – another adventure for another lonely bedtime story.
“Don’t submit this again. Start over. Start again. Fresh sheet for you Jim. Fresh Sheet,” she says, plucking a sheet of paper from her desk and waving it like my surrender flag to the rest of the class.
Another one read. Another one bed. Another love dead. Her reading of me has finally finished. This one lasted longer than the rest. I must get to the pen before tiredness ruins me.
She returned her attention to the rest of the class, praising the already praised, and tormenting the already tormented. Poor suckers. They don’t even know that she doesn’t know either yet. At least I know. For all the good I can do with it, I know.
I sat at my desk and begin the usual process of indulging all the details that I stored away for the final moments. I retrieved every second of every moment from those eleven classes. How fortunate I was to have her plot every story that I wrote. My writing was the reward for her punishment.
Every utterance of every conversation is replayed, every action is scrutinised, and every corresponding feeling is felt all over again. My life is on replay. Rewind. Replay. Rewind. Replay, but never forward. That tape is too short left to chance.
What will she make of it? Time tortures me again. It goes by too slow – unknowing – I want to know. It goes by too quickly – knowing – I want to pause, rewind, anything, but go forward. The pendulum swings back and forth and each way strikes me hard and yanks me up and down.
I let myself become immersed in the reverie and begin to write again. It hurts more deeply than it has every hurt. Under my eyes are frog’s bellies. The thin skin is stretched, ugly, and bloated from fifty years of nagging nights.
I have lived fifty years too many for the one I love. She would have loved me in my prime. A twenty-five-year-old hot shot playing with her words, showing off his tongue before abusing any cliché, before abstraction was a curse, before my aching hips and stiff fingers interrupted my courting for the hundredth time.
I remember the day I stopped being faithful. It was the day I met my little quick worded wife. Two demanding lovers exhausted me. Writing was the mistress that cost me more than deception.
“It’s time to grow up, time to get a real job,” she said, after a year of struggling to pay the bills.
Her eyes had closed for a moment afterwards. She wasn’t finished.
“I can’t do this anymore. It’s me or the writing,” she said.
End of Scene. End of possibility. End of hope. Pen down.
So, I gave her up. My demanding lover haunted me until I sat down at this freshly painted desk.
“You’ll get the hang of it Jim,” the professor said, letting the sheet fall gracefully onto my desk.
“Take your time.” She raised her smile to the top of my bald head, the sun almost certainly bouncing off of it and blinding her manic wide-eyes.
So, there it was – a fresh new sheet, waiting for concrete words to give it another dimension. A fresh start to my life as a mature student. The start of my life as an aspiring wordsmith. The end of my unrequited love affair. The end of the old young me. An end and a beginning all in one place and all for one last time.