inasmuch as it concerns Building Character:
Protagonists. Antagonists. Second-string chorus members. Meeting them, getting to know them, telling them what I want them to do, and finding out they don't want to do it, the bastards.
when in doubt, do the dishes
- 5,877 wds. long
Well, that was easy. All I had to do was have Andy wash some dishes.
That's a little glib, admittedly. There's a bit more to it than that. What it really came down to was remembering that he's a character, not a stereotype. And, despite my best intentions, I was alternately writing him as a stereotypically sloppy drunk or a stereotypically sleazy pick-up artist. But the initial detail I changed that turned him from a stereotype back into a character, was having Demi come back upstairs and find him not lounging around suggestively on the couch but instead cleaning up the mess left from the party. Hey, he genuinely wants to help. He's got entitlement complexes out the wazoo which have led him to do something very horrible indeed, but his conscience won't let him leave Demi to clean up dirty dishes and broken glass alone. Characters are complex, y'all.
This required rewriting all the stage directions in the beginning of that scene. In doing so, I realized another mistake I'd been making. In the second scene, Bobbie Mae gets drunk and climbs up on the kitchen counter, which results in a lot of broken glass and punch on the ground. In this scene, all that debris... has just disappeared? I certainly never mentioned it again, despite Demi surely having to walk through it to prepare their late-night dinner. Whoops. So now they're cleaning up that stuff together like a comfortable, domestic couple. Awww.
A comfortable, domestic couple who are, separately and simultaneously, playing very deeply in the Land of Creepy and Problematic Consent Issues, but still. Just for those five minutes of story time, before things get morally icky again, we can say "awww."
Once again, two problems in search of the same solution. Nothing there "just because." Previously unrelated things becoming related. Story getting tighter. My short story theory is invincible!
So this time through the draft I hit the steam-powered locomotive tipping point where it becomes effortless to type through to the end of the scene because now I know how to get there. It'll need some tightening up, but that's OK. I can do that tomorrow, after I write the final scene, which will be
easy a hell of a lot easier than this scene was. Yayyyy.
Exit author, in the direction of beer and popcorn and that pint of mango chili margarita sorbet from Glacier.
it is kind of the opposite of easy
- 3,071 wds. long
I'm finally beginning to peck away at the third scene of "Caroline's Wake." It is an entirely different order of difficult than the previous scene was. I believe that in a previous blog post I might have optimistically suggested that it would be easy? Ha! Ha-ha-ha. Ha-ha-ha-HA. It is not easy. It is not even within shouting distance of easy.
The problem is pacing and revelation. Also character development that feels natural but happens over a frightingly short space of text. This is the scene where We Find Out Important Things. The problem is, these Important Things are not things that the character revealing them is likely to reveal ever. So I have to make it believable that he'd blurt this shit out and expect the POV character to find it acceptable.
I do not consider "Well, he's really, really drunk" to be sufficient reason for him to spill the beans. They are very important beans. They are beans of devastation. They are the sort of beans you don't ever, ever cook for company.
On the other hand, one only has to page back through some Captain Awkward posts (with particular attention to this one) to realize that, out in the wide and very real world, there are men who will say absolutely ridiculous things, things that are multiple levels of wrong and bad and ew, and somehow expect these things to evoke appreciation and attraction or at the very least acceptance from the women they're trying to seduce. I can't count the number of times a man (or a woman!) has told me an appallingly sexist joke, and has then been flabbergasted and offended that, far from finding the joke funny, I experienced it as a rhetorically vicious attack upon my own self and person. Or men who unconsciously assume that the women they're trying to seduce have no wants or needs that fail to intersect conveniently with their (the men's) own desires. So I guess "He's really drunk, and he's also That Guy" can be enough of a reason, if executed correctly.
Except, if I didn't know better, there's plenty Captain Awkward examples I wouldn't find believable either.
So this will be the week I pick at it here, and pick at it there, and freewrite on it, and make lists about it, and experiment with pacing, and just up and splat some truly awful dialog onto the page. And then chip away at the "marble" thus created until what's left is a believable and emotionally satisfying scene that climaxes the story.
Hello, this week. You are daunting. Nevertheless, you and I must come to terms. So let's get on with it.
agency is for other people's characters
- 3,400 wds. long
I'm a lot better at spotting mistakes in others' fiction than in my own. That's why I participate in critique workshops. It means that while I'm pointing out the motes in my colleagues' eyes, I'm putting the ginormous vision-occluding planks of my own right where they can see 'em and tell me about 'em.
None of this should be a surprise. And yet.
I remember once telling a fellow workshop member that his story didn't ultimately work for me because his protagonist's emotionally satisfying ending came at the cost of the supporting character's agency. "I don't buy that she just accepts what he did to her and falls into his arms like that. I'd expect her to be angry. The romantic moment you're aiming for doesn't strike me as earned."
That critique session predated the first draft of "The Impact of Snowflakes."
You would think--well, I would think--that, having spotted in another author's manuscript this de-agentifying of a supporting female character to provide a touching denouement for a male protagonist--that having discussed it not only in terms of his story but also that of the larger unfortunate media trends it slots neatly into--well. I'd have expected myself to be alert to this sort of thing when writing stories of my own.
But what happens in my story? The female protagonists slowly learns the true situation (which is not a good one), comes to realize it was either caused by or at least known about far in advance by the male supporting character, and reacts to this realization by saying, and I quote, "The last man alive in my world is coming to meet me... I think I'd like to meet him halfway."
A close friend and one of my story's recent workshop critics gently pointed out that the ending was, well, kind of more gendered than what she'd come to expect of me. And also she wanted to know if the last woman alive in this world had a name?
I had not even given the protagonist a name, y'all. All the *facepalm.*
OK, so, now it goes like this. Her name is Ashley. She's been isolated much of her life because the male supporting character has been subtly and with the best of intentions manipulating her since her early years. By the end of the story she knows this, and she's kind of pissed off.
(She is also, seriously, I promise you, not into him that way. But that's the jumping-off point for a whole separate rant which I will save for later. Later!)
accidental literary conversations
- 267 wds. long
Writing at Fuse again today, which makes it three times this week. I think we've finally succeeded in making it a routine, John and I. Either that, or the prospect of a free beer during "Friday happy hour" is sufficient temptation to overcome all resistance.
I'm liking our Fuse workdays, but I find I like them best when we get there before ten o'clock. When we get there later than ten, then we have breakfast upstairs, there there's the inevitable settling-in period downstairs, and what with one thing and another I don't get to my first "real writing" task until about eleven-thirty. Momentum is lost and never truly regained.
But today John had a 9:30 AM meeting to "go" to, which is to say to be present on the phone for, so we made sure to be there by then. Suddenly the day stretched long and full of possibility, and I was able to do all the things with teeny breaks for Puzzle Pirates in between and still not feel I'd left anything undone by the time beer-o'clock rolled around.
One thing I had time for was a lunch-hour walk to the library, just three blocks away, for some short story research. Here's the thing: I'm beginning to realize that "Other Theories of Relativity" appears to have entered into a three-way conversation with Katherine Paterson's novel Jacob Have I Loved and Ray Bradbury's short story "The Kaleidoscope" on the other. So I've checked them out of the library to refresh my memory because these sorts of conversations should be held deliberately.
The Bradbury connection became obvious rather quickly. I mean, you've got some number of astronauts stranded in space and contemplating their inevitable demise--how do you miss that? Unless you hadn't read the story, of course. I had, and it stuck with me in the same menacing, unpleasant way as "A Sound of Thunder" and (I think) "The Rocket Man." Only I couldn't remember which collection it was in nor its name, so I spent some time in the library flipping to each story's first page and reading the first line.
"The first concussion cut the rocket ship up the side with a giant can opener." Yep. That's the one. And on an unrelated note, a story critique note: A line like that, I'm expecting the next line to start with something about the second concussion. But no, Bradbury left me hanging. I also find the story's ending to be slightly off-pitch and missing its rhythm; the little boy's line should be "cried," not "screamed"; and the mother only needs to say her line once.
Why yes I am critiquing a Ray Bradbury story. There's no chutzpa about it. I critique everything to do with story. I critique movies, and video games, and occasionally friends' conversations. It's a writer thing. (At least, it's this writer's thing.) Deal with it.
The nod to the Paterson novel only became clear to me once I'd got some vague idea of the sisters' relationship. The reflection isn't exact, but it falls along similar lines. The main character is very clearly the Louise of this pair, all her life resenting her sister's successes even as she's proud of them; yearning for a deeper connection and, in scrambling after her sister to try to regain it, constantly stepping into emotional bear-traps.
I'm really not looking forward to rereading Jacob Have I Loved. I remember it as being a beautiful, haunting novel, but I also remember how angry it made me. Every injustice visited upon Louise, every callousness committed by Caroline, every circumstance that made utter futility out of Louise's attempts to be her own person--argh. And there's no use being angry on behalf of a fictional character! There is nothing constructive to do with that anger! So I go through my days grumpy and cranky and I take it out on people and then I realize why and I feel stupid!
I think the only book that has come close to having that effect on me since has been Jane Eyre. I was not pleasant to be around while I was reading Jane Eyre.
For now, I might not so much reread Jacob Have I Loved as simply open it to random pages and see if I get an "a-ha!" out of it. I may save actually rereading that book for when John goes out of town in May. Then there'll be no danger of the book making me inappropriately cranky at him.
one of the other stories
- 897 wds. long
Wait, what did I say? That I'd get any work done at all--on a Sunday? After roller derby? On the same day as the Superbowl?
Well, I did have one of those 25-minute commute talk-to-myself "freewriting" sessions. Trying to figure out what version of my story idea I wanted to actually accomplish here in 250 words. The idea has to do with locking souls in specially created security vaults for safekeeping, and what the failure state for that looks like. But is it one person--a mother protecting her child, like the infancy stories of Baldur or Achilles? Or is it a whole societal movement? When it goes wrong, is it like Wall Street crashing or like a prisoner breaking free? What's the narrative point of view--omniscient? close third? first? (It could even be second. I do second a lot. A lot of my colleagues say they can't stand second person, but I seem to be able to pull it off now and again.)
At 250 words, one is almost composing poetry. There are stanzas. I sort of wrote a draft of it out loud on my drive home. And along the way I discovered that this isn't random social commentary--this is a Meff story.
Remember Meff? He of the evil toaster (and other stories) and the skeptical roommate? Meff of the "Ooh, Lookit Inscrutible Me" persona? (I got his last name today. He came up with it himself: Underwood. He was going for some sort of "forest of the dead" theme, and it disappoints him that it only puts people in mind of typewriters.)
So apparently Meff is all "Let's go try it out! For science!" and his roommate is more like "Um, how 'bout not? Seriously, when have your ideas ever made my life better?" But he goes along anyway, if only as a witness.
This means I'm having second thoughts about whether the roommate--a Watsonesque figure to Mephisto's Holmes--did in fact "never see Meff again" after the toaster incident. Maybe that's just the last story in the collection, and this came earlier. In any case, the idea of a temporarily soul-less Meff is both intriguing and baffling, and I should like to find out more.
the house in conversation
- 303 wds. long
Still no complete draft. But today I babbled to myself on the page about the layout and contents of Nena Santiago's house. I'm a firm believer in setting as character, for one thing. For another, if the entire story comprises a single conversation held in a single location, then that location better be able to contribute to the conversation.
Mostly, what the location has to say is how triumphant its inhabitant feels at having outlived an abusive marriage. It also has a few things to say about the lives she could have lived, and has not yet given up on living.
I was surprised to discover that Nena makes collages out of her junk mail and her magazine subscriptions. Her table is covered in evocative photography on glossy stock, letters urging her to accept life insurance policies and energy efficiency inspections, coupons for chuck roast, fancy card stock in all colors, and glue sticks. It's sort of like the way my paternal grandmother always had a jigsaw puzzle on the table, only this is messier. There's slivers of paper all over the floor.
Her house is a cluttered mess, not because she buys crap and hoards it but because she doesn't have to hide things away neatly anymore. It's clutter as ongoing celebration.
She's the most interesting person in the story, and she's never even on stage. That's why her house needs to be a real, living, breathing character in this story. It's her surrogate. It's her representative on the page.
Well, that and her journal, of course. Which Lucita (and, therefore, the rest of us) will be reading in backwards chronological order. Hey, her mother's up and vanished, she finds her mother's journal lying out on the desk in the bedroom--she's going to start with the most recent entry and work her way back, isn't she?
A draft tomorrow for sure. Because I want time to sleep on it and edit it before sending it in on Saturday.
Or I'll Put You in My Novel
- 26,601 wds. long
So I just did something rather unpleasant to my female lead. I'm sorry. It isn't even plot-related, not really. It's not that sort of rock. It's just... the world being the world. And me being exasperated with it.
Sabrina is Timothy's ex-girlfriend. She's an aspiring sculptor who is currently paying the bills by waiting tables at a diner. She met Timothy while in an art class at a vocational college in Taos; it's probably got a real-life counterpart, but I haven't done the research on that. Research is for December. But what little I've seen of Taos in person has given me the impression of a very artsy town. So, art. Yay! Also, Sabrina is of Mexican heritage, that being a rather important demographic in the U.S. southwest. In fact, it's rather an important demographic in the U.S. full stop, as a certain presidential candidate learned to his chagrin earlier this month.
(One of the problems with the first draft: Despite much of it being set in New Mexico, every single character was pasty white. This made me about as frowny-faced as realizing I had only one named female character. The second draft has Sabrina in the protagonist tier and her co-workers, Sonora and Rosa and Jazz, in the secondary character tier. It's a start. Rosa runs the diner where they all work.)
With me so far? OK good. Now, back in October, I had reason to drop my husband off at the airport. Having done this, I took myself off to the TravelCenters of America along I-270 and treated myself to brunch. Then I took home a hell of a lot of Popeye's fried chicken for eating over the rest of the week.
This may sound familiar. But what I didn't mention in that blog post was the conversation I overheard while taking revision notes and eating oatmeal.
It's a truck stop. Truckers go in and get fed. And while they sit at the counter and have second helpings of everything they order (at the Country Pride restaurant, every single menu item is all-you-can-eat; the waitress comes to take your plate and says, "You want seconds on that, hon?" whether you're a 250lb dude who just finished his steak and eggs or a 150lb writer gal who just had oatmeal), they talk about things that are relevant to the interest of truckers. Like, this one Denver-area loading dock guy who doesn't know the first thing about securing a load. Like, the recently approved increase on tolls on New York highways and its expected impact on long-haul freight. Everyone talks shop. Like you do.
But the bit that stood out for me was this one guy. I can't tell you what he looked like; guys who talk this way, you don't look at them, you don't want them seeing you listening in, because then they might talk to you. I can tell you kinda what he said, though, because I nearly snorted milk out my nose listening to him.
He was a genuine conspiracy theorist, I'll tell you what. He shared with his counter-mates his recent discovery, via this secret memo that "they" just released, this secret memo between President Obama and the president of Mexico (who will be hereafter referred to as Felipe Calderón because that is his name, a fact of which our conspiracy theorist appeared oddly ignorant for being so well informed on secret memos and the like) which revealed that Obama and Calderón we conspiring to flood the U.S. labor market with immigrants who would then "revert," that was the word he used, "revert" at a later time...
"What the hell are you talking about?" his conversation partners kept saying. "What memo? What do you mean?" In response, he would simply reiterate, which is to say repeat word for word everything he'd already said. He could not seem for the life of him to tell anyone where he read this, for instance, or who "they" were who uncovered this memo. Nor could he explain what he meant by "revert."
I am still befuddled to understand exactly what he thought was going to happen. Obama was going to relax immigration law specifically to allow cheap Mexican labor to flood the unskilled labor market, until at some point Calderón would give the signal and call all the workers to "revert" back to Mexico, leaving the U.S. economy to crumble in their wake? Or did I mishear him, and the word he repeated was actually "revolt," alluding to a future civil war in which good upstanding white workers will be forced at gunpoint to drop English for Spanish and replace their steak and eggs with huevos rancheros y bistec asado? I honestly do not know. This guy would not explain. He would only repeat.
Finally one of the other truckers turned to someone else and loudly revived the discussion about New York toll increases, and I heard no more from the conspiracy theorist for the rest of my stay.
What all this has to do with NaNoWriMo is this: Sabrina is on the road, half-unwillingly, with the Big Bad. She's helping him in some way to track down Timothy, mainly because the Big Bad has convinced her that Timothy needs their help. And so they have both stopped at a 24-hour diner modeled after that Country Pride Restaurant at the TravelCenters of America, only the one in Limon which I have not been to as opposed to the one in Commerce City that I have. And while she was there, I confess I made poor Sabrina, who absolutely did not deserve it, overhear this conversation.
Not that anyone deserves to get slapped in the face by random casual racism, mind. Or casual sexism, for that matter, which I have also run into at the TA. (Do not get me started on the guys ahead of me in line at the Popeye's who were relentlessly demanding that the woman behind the counter "smile, baby, come on! Smile for us!")
Forgive me. Sabrina totally did not deserve it. But it happens. Adding that conversaton to the scene not only helped ground the book in the real world (which has people in it and also racist people), but on top of that it did help to relieve my feelings about having been Racist Conspiracy Nutbar's captive audience. Though I'm sure if it had been Sabrina there rather than pasty white me, her feelings would have been a lot more intense and, frankly, more relevant than mine. And so, in the scene, they were.
The encounter added 600 words and three extra bit-part charecters to the scene, so I guess that's a win? Maybe I can have the Big Bad go back in there and eat them all.
High on Caffeine and Pseudofedrine
- 14,015 wds. long
This is apparently the only way to get anything done while in the grip of a cold. And even then I didn't really get upright until 7:00 PM tonight. Argh. Have I mentioned that this is extremely bad timing? Extremely.
Just now logged another 2000 words on the novel rewrite, though. I must be feeling better or something. Of course, it could just be the pseudofedrine talking.
The 2000 words all went into a scene I'd created blank and written "I don't know what goes here" in the description. It was going to be a driving scene, which is generally not the cleverest way to make time pass in the novel. But I couldn't see a way to get around it. When the last scene involving Timothy and Rocket involved the latter using his superpower to compel the former to get in the car and drive, the next scene involving them can legitimately take place in the car.
And so it did. It mostly comprised a lot of dialogue, a good bit of US 285 and State Highway 17, and a bunch of emotional reactions on Timothy's part. He has a lot to react to. There's Rocket's rather frightening ability to compel Timothy's actions; there's the idea that the person he thought was his ex-girlfriend was actually a really scary being disguised as her; and, last but very much not least, there's that peculiar embarrassment that comes from spending time, perforce, in the company of someone who inspired your lust-at-first-sight reaction and then kidnapped you. I'm sure you can sympathize, because this happens all the time, right?
A big difference between writing the first draft in 2010 and writing a new draft now is this: To a large extent, I know where it's going. In 2010, I stumbled across the sexual tension between the two male leads rather late in the story -- which is to say, rather early in the story I caught myself saying things like, "The slash just writes itself!" but it wasn't until quite late that I entertained the notion that the slash was canon. This year, I know the romance is coming so I can foreshadow it. Which means I can have a whole new layer of writerly insecurity about whether I'm laying it on too thick.
On the other hand, there's a lot about where the story's going that I don't know, mainly because I introduced an entirely new protagonist. In the first draft, there's a waitress they cross paths with who ends up getting pulled along in their wake. Mostly her role is A) to show how dangerous the coin Timothy found is, an B) to show how dangerous the Big Bad is. Somewhere between then and now, I realized that I was guilty of, more or less, fridging the poor woman. Oh, I tried to give her agency and let her play an active role in the way the story turned out, but there's only so much agency you can exert while essentially imprisoned, isolated, and assumed dead from about Chapter 3 onward. It didn't help that she was pretty much the only named female character in the book, either. I guess the combination of two male leads plus my tendency to underpopulate the story world led to almost total erasure of women from the novel.
For obvious reasons, this didn't sit well with me. So I've changed the character substantially and given her a bigger, more active role. She gets involved in the story for a different reason and she reacts to her involvement actively. She is no longer this random waitress that Timothy and Rocket run into on the road; Sabrina is actually Timothy's ex-girlfriend, who dumped him when it became clear they wanted incompatibly different things out of life. The story will throw them back together, create new conflict between them that has nothing to do with their previous relationship, and, because neither wants to see the other hurt, motivate them to protect each other.
So pretty much any scene to do with Sabrina is a brand new scene, a total departure from the first draft. Which means I'm still writing quite a bit of first draft. Argh. Still, it also means I get to keep being surprised by my novel. That's a plus.
With any luck, improving conditions or continued application of good drugs will mean I can get further progress logged tomorrow, both on this and on the WFH gig. Niki out, hitting the sack with fingers crossed.
Assembling Fiction and Other Stories (Also, Loons)
First off: A new review of Blood and Other Cravings has hit the internet this week. Reviewer Deirdre Murphy at Science Fiction and Other ODDysseys made me grin like a loon three paragraphs into the review. (Do loons, in fact, grin? They're birds. They have beaks. How do you grin with a beak?) LIKE A LOON, I SAID! DOWN WITH LOGIC! UP WITH GRINNING!
(There are many loons at this website. They are damn well grinning.)
Secondly: New story. Not the phone story. The other new story, the one I intend to submit to The First Line tomorrow. The due date is tomorrow, so I have to submit it tomorrow.
Is it done yet? Is even a single draft of it done yet? Well... no. Not unless you count the freewriting babble draft I did, using the appropriate first line as a prompt, at the laundromat back in mid-June.
But I have been assembling it. In my head.
So one of those beginning writer rules -- that is, the rules you're told to follow when you begin to write, which you continue to follow until you discover what your own personal rules are -- is "Thinking About Writing Isn't Writing." But staring at the word processor screen, moving a block of text from one place in the partial draft to another, editing the segue sentence yet again, then staring at the screen some more... that isn't writing either.
So I took a walk. Walks always help.
Walking the three miles home from downtown Boulder, I reexamined the pieces of scenes -- scenelets, if you will -- that make up this story. The story follows a structure that's sort of like this:
- Right now
- Teaser flashback
- Continue from right now
- More from the flashback
- Either back to present time, or else the rest of the flashback, I'm not sure
- Lather, rinse, repeat
- Finish up story in present time
You can probably figure out where I keep getting bogged down. And when I get bogged down in the structure, I start to wallow in details that don't really belong in the story. So the pacing gets bogged down too.
So during my walk I imagined writing each scenelet onto index cards. Not all of the text; just the first couple sentences and the last, in order to give myself an idea of where the segues are. This story is going to be all about the segues. Like, "This bit ends with the first mention of the umbrella. So the next bit begins with a flashback to the outerspace salesmen giving him the umbrella."
Yes, I said outerspace salesmen. Also, the umbrella is pink with silver letters that can only be read from very high up, and the silver letters say "KICK ME." The snow isn't really snow. It's outerspace gluey tar stuff that causes the end of the world as we know it. WHAT IS MY BRAIN.
(I suspect The First Line does not get a heck of a lot of science fantasy apocalyptic humor. But they do welcome all genres. Who knows? Maybe everyone is writing stories about space glue snow apocalypses.)
So now I'm home, and my feet hurt. In addition to new skating blisters from Sunday, I have sandal blisters. Blisters on top of blisters. Ow. (Next time I think "Oh, I'll only be walking a few blocks. I'll be busing home. Sandals are fine," it will trigger an autohypnotic safety mechanism that will not allow me out the house until I've wised up and put my running shoes on.) But I also have a story written on index cards in my head. The structure now makes sense. And in mulling over the structure on my walk home, I discovered that the protagonist is an entirely different character than I'd thought. The things I now know about him are the key to getting both structure and pacing deboggified. Hooray for deboggification!
And tomorrow morning early, I shall wake up and transfer the story from mental index cards to WP51 file to paper. And there shall be a proofreading and a "final" revision. And lo, it shall be good.
Or at least it shall be submitted.
Then I'll be free to revise the phone story.
But It Wasn't HER Responsibility
When the child started crying, I didn't turn around. That's what makes me a sorry specimen of humanity. I didn't bother to turn around.
Why didn't I turn around? I suppose I must have assumed the child was having the sort of tantrum children of that age do have, or that, at worst, he'd fallen down on his behind and startled himself. There were stairs behind me, but I hadn't heard any noise to indicate the child had fallen down the stairs. I remember that going through my head: "He didn't fall down the stairs. Oh good." So I assumed this was just toddler drama and nothing serious. And I didn't turn around to verify my assumption.
This was in the "Hangdog Lounge" at the Boulder Rock Club. When I go to the BRC on my own, I put myself through small sessions of bouldering interspersed with writing work or, more often, internet playtime. What with the free wi-fi and coffee, the temptation is to linger. So at the point when this happened, I had done my first bouldering session and was now scribbling through my Morning Pages. I was sitting at the single tall table across from the coffee machine. And I'd taken the chair that puts my back to the stairs. I don't usually, but when I came to sit down there was a small child under the table, and rather than shoo him away I'd chosen the chair he wasn't leaning against. Then I looked up and said to the man keeping an eye on him, "I promise to be extremely careful with this," meaning my coffee. If the kid was going to be under the table, I had best make sure he didn't get a hot waterfall on his head. The man nodded and chuckled, disavowing any suspicion that I'd do such a thing. But it was the kind of thing I'd be concerned about me accidentally doing, because I'm all aware and responsible like that.
Which is the long story of why, when this other child began crying some fifteen minutes later, I was sitting with my back toward him rather than facing him.
Also on the mezzanine with me were three women and at least one child, all of whom had shown up after the other man and kid had left. And the women were actually turned to face the crying child. I remember glancing up at them, thinking Is one of them the crying kid's mother? I remember that one of them actually looked up, craning as though to ascertain the crying child's situation. Then she returned her attention to her conversation.
I don't say this to excuse myself. There is no excuse for my not having turned around when the child began crying. But when I try to understand why I didn't bother to turn around, I keep coming back to this: I saw a woman look up to see why the child was crying and then look down again as though satisfied that her assistance was not required.
I finally did turn around when I heard several adults come onto the scene. And my heart just about stopped in place.
The child was crying -- screaming, really -- because his hand was caught in the door on the landing. He'd probably been trying to get into the kids' play area, and the door had closed on his hand. He had been screaming for a full minute. Hearing the new arrivals on the scene, I turned, and I saw, for a moment, the child's right hand trapped in the door. With his left, he was tugging uselessly at the door's side-grip style handle. He was far too small to be able to open it and free himself. His head barely came up to the top of the handle.
Then the gym staff member had opened the door and the man who was probably the child's father had swept the child up in his arms. By this time my hand was over my mouth and my eyes were wide -- I could feel my whole face straining to make itself large enough to encompass my shock and shame. "I'm so sorry," I said to the man holding the child. "I should have looked."
"You were all right here," he said.
There was nothing I could say to excuse myself or make it better. He was right. I was right here. I had done nothing. "I'm so sorry."
He left with his child in his arms, and I turned back to face the table, my coffee, my notebook and pen, the rest of the lounge. The women were all staring. The one who'd looked up and then looked away, she said, "His hand was stuck in the door?"
"Yes," I said, still processing the incident. I'm not sure whether I began shaking then or later. "His hand was stuck. He was in pain. And none of us did anything."
"Well, it's not like he was our kid," the woman said. "It wasn't our responsibility."
It wasn't her responsibility.
I had planned to do some more bouldering. I had planned to finish my Morning Pages. I had planned to walk across the street to Pekoe and do some of my day's writing with a pot of their tea, probably Imperial Pu Erh or Monkey-Picked Oolong. But instead I put my street shoes back on, packed up my bookbag, and left. And kept walking until I was home. I was just too ashamed to continue to be out in public. I didn't want the temptation to try to excuse myself to some random person. There was no excuse. I was right there. The child was in distress and pain. I had done nothing. I felt like too much of a worm to be out among decent people.
Besides, on my walk home I started crying and couldn't seem to stop. I was in no shape to face a barista and place an order for tea.
And besides that...
It wasn't HER responsibility. He wasn't HER child.
...I was also just too disgusted with humanity to want to be around other humans.
Times like this, I'm glad of my cats. Cats may be the epitome of selfishness, but at least they don't feel compelled to rationalize their selfishness by defining areas where they're allowed to not give a fuck about other beings' distress. They just do whatever it is they feel like doing. And, you know, they're a lot less selfish than we give them credit for. I've seen Uno nuzzle a crying person, or Null pull himself into their lap, as though specifically to comfort them.
I think I'll go hug my cats now.