I am not opposed to getting hurt, I told him, but only with good reason.
He was sitting on the same couch I was when I said this, but far enough away, because reasons abounded.
Evening then, the only light made by my little Target lamp. Both our sets of knees avoiding the first coffee table I have ever owned. Well, purchased with money. This data-point is only significant if you consider that, bloodwork-wise, I am now considered geriatric.
I understand, he said, and hope not to cause you any hurt. That is the last thing.
When he said that, I could see a different kind of light, other rooms and time zones. Knees ducking a slightly better coffee table. All in the future, which is funny, because I tend to see things better once they’re past. (Well, who doesn’t?) The last thing I want, I think he meant, but what he said was the last thing. The want was implied. Then he left, because reasons abounded. But I could still see it, that other light. And it was morning there.
There aren’t enough mornings in stories. Face it: it’s not our strong suit. The world believes that important decisions are made in the afternoon, evening, night, and we’ve bought that hook, line, sinker.
I don’t have quantitative data on the mornings.
Qualitative, yes. Having since tipped his chin to kiss salt from his throat in what we’ve all agreed are the first hours, I believe I now have authority to speak on the subject, and wish to make amends on behalf of my profession. Fiction, that is. We have not given the first hours their due.
A line, when I asked how he slept: All night I was so sure of you.
A sinker: ear pressed against sternum, telling me how fast my heart.
I teach fiction, too, but I try not to harp on the basics, because we all know them. For instance:
the last thing in a story is called the ending. We readers and writers have all agreed the ending is very important.
But when this man said the last thing, he made it sound like a beginning. I am trying to understand how he did that. I am trying it myself here. That’s why this story travels in rough reverse.
And also because that’s how amends are made, by going back.
Right now he is crossing time zones on a plane to a conference on the other coast.
I am back here in a truck on a snow-felted road two hours earlier than him, trying to remember the angle my knee took in his hand.
You are somewhere later, hearing all this and thinking, so what? Every day, a knee in another hand.
“So what” is something I tell my fiction students. I tell them this question is the story’s engine. Every character must, once she is roused by event from the stupor of minutes we are all elbowing through, hold onto the door/steering wheel/kitchen sponge and ask herself: so goddamn what.
A fancier way of saying this might be: What is at stake for her? As in, what will burn?
Then we do a whole diagram thing on the blackboard, because early on in the semester, as in life, no one wants to put their people in peril. Who would?
But the thing I draw on the board proves they must.
Where peril might equal: the one place a character thought they would never go, but now finds themselves hurtling towards to get what they want.
Or: the place they thought they would be is suddenly in the rearview, and they would do anything to go back, make amends, but the highway is one-way, median, no services for X miles, so they barrel on, a little reckless because they’re stuck on the mirror and it’s night and all the people who have ever touched their knees in wound or love are behind them or out there ahead of them. And so their single task is to make it out of the dark in one piece.
Which brings me to my other rule about peril: car crashes and apocalypses don’t count.
I don’t offer examples anymore because the one time I did I got a bunch of stories putting characters in my kind of trouble. Like we need any more of that.
So now I avoid saying: Put your character at my coffee table, only worse. Have the man—the prettiest man she has ever seen—look at her the way I was getting looked at.
Then have your character show him out because of reasons 1–34: he’s married.
Have her stand at the door and feel a new hollow in the rented beige room of her middle life. Make her stand there facing the door like it’s the threshold that it is. Make her pick right then between a complicated love and none. Make her pick between being forever the second woman and being a good person with a second-hand coffee table.
(That’s where my kind of peril tends to lead: second woman stuff. Where what’s at stake is usually not mine to lose, and where my line has always been: But you love her. Or: But you’re married.)
None of this is even hard unless you have never been the first woman, and his first woman has been first the whole time. Has his daughter. Then second woman becomes a decision, one you were warned about. Then you must factor in what kind of light is available to you in these future rooms. How old you are, according to your blood.
My students are busy becoming themselves. First woman, for some of them; others are young enough that they have not begun to count. Their blood tests are marked: Young! Everything’s fine! Their rooms are full of furniture younger than mine. The nearest ending some of them can imagine is an apocalypse. And in the non-fictive world, they may be right.
Still I ask them to pick a setting that’s not an apocalypse but also not my coffee table. I ask them to pretend there is anything in between. To understand that place should press on the character’s fear the way that door was pressing on mine.
Then I draw Venn diagrams with circles labeled urgent and costly and necessary, like that will prove it. I write in the margins and try not to bend their pages too much.
One of the ways they can test the stakes of their story is to ask themselves two questions:
• What and how much will be lost if this character doesn’t get what she wants?
• What is she willing to lose?
My students, less muddied than I am by the effects of time on longing, are good about parsing the difference.
Sometimes I am, sometimes I’m not.
Just remember, I say: no one just gets what they want on the first try.
Not if it’s a good story, anyway.
My mother and father live on different floors, except to sleep. When I call, one picks up the phone, then hollers for the other to join. Last night, after my mother puts down the phone upstairs, my father says to me, I just feel lousy.
What does? I say. And he says: me!
Well, what will be lost, and what is she willing to lose? Only one of these questions may matter soon. So which one do you teach first?
One way to not lose something is to know where it is at all times.
This man: he knows where things are, even in the center of a dark morning.
Even before he touched me, I knew that he would. How? Weeks ago, strange to each other still, we were walking through a parking lot as two people sometimes have to, and he was admitting that he liked paper-books over screen-books. In a book I know where I am, he said. If there’s a line I like, I can find it again because I know where it was on a page.
Same with me. Freud called this uncanniness: to have someone say your mind back to you in a parking lot.
Years ago, I saw a copy of Whitman’s poems flapping against the sill of the monastery on Dolores Street and took a video of it with my phone. The caption of every photo in the world like this might be: Remember this.
Another, better one might be: For I have no one to tell.
In the parking lot I told him so—not about Freud—but that I was the same way about the pages.
I think he knew this already, how I believed that seeing something once meant I could keep it. He’d already noticed my tendency to photograph trees with my phone and had begun to lend me his phone in the presence of good ones, knowing that my phone has too many tree photos on it already and won’t open the camera unless I delete something.
You’re a tree photo junkie, he said. You’ll delete photos of people just for another hit.
He wasn’t wrong. I’ve been trying to keep too much since I can remember; the technology has changed, is all.
Before, whenever I saw a tree that broke my heart, I kept it to myself.
Exhibit A, from my journal, age eighteen: Fog on Cook Ave. Just before the turn at the Fort, four deer ambled across the road and I braked for them. Out of the fog madrones arrive like signs posted in some other country that are just a color, a warning I should know how to read by now but don’t.
I know: so what? All it means is that I was carrying around a lot of heartbreak by the time he got to me.
Sometimes if I add something to my work calendar wrong, a grayed-out message appears: This event occurs in the past. “Then why are you using the present tense?” I whisper to the machine, and then, “Doesn’t everything?”
Before any of those trees, before my father taught me to drive, he was always driving. My mother alongside, me in back. If I saw an animal, I would say, Dad! And he would pull over on the side of the road so we could regard whatever it was. Deer, bison, squirrel—didn’t matter. Majesty, population abundance, pest quotient—all inconsequential. We were just there to regard.
Here, the profound lesson of reception, Whitman wrote about the road. Is this not the fullest love poem?
Another: a glass of water placed on the nightstand. A man two hours in the future and six miles up still wearing the light from my bed. Not that I can see into the future; it’s just a poem.
Another story I will never put on the board: Now I’m the driver, my father shotgun, and we are driving through the north woods of Wisconsin in search of his childhood home. (I can’t tell you when this rule changed, when the daughter started driving.)
This event occurs in the past. Several years ago. His parents worked as caretakers for the family responsible for Windex and he and I are on a Nostalgia Tour. His term, not mine. He’s telling me about getting picked up for school every day in the back of Don Chapin’s chicken truck when he says, I think that was it.
The lane to the Big House? I say.
He isn’t sure, because roads have changed in seventy years. And to me, being fifty years newer, everything looks the same. Like trees prepared to break my heart.
I think so, he says. My father is looking for a turn in the road, trees arranged the way they were in a memory he has been feeding me since I can remember but which still has no navigational purchase in my body.
I brake, turn around.
What are you doing? he says. We’re not driving up there. Can’t you read? He is reading from a no trespassing sign that says something about violators and bodily harm.
But we’re here, I say like an idiot. What I don’t say: I can read.
Don’t be stupid, he says, we could be shot.
But my case is stronger: we are there. I stop the car, get out and shut the door, and begin to walk up the lane of fall-shorn trees. The only reports ones made by my shoes.
Because, look: it was morning and I was willing to lose everything to see where the story had started. I heard my father’s door, the long pause between close and open, how he followed.
At the beginning of the semester, if this is a story prompt in fiction workshop with x students, two students will have the daughter or father get shot for trespassing. Two more will have them shot at, but unsuccessfully. My goal as a teacher of fiction is to bring that rate down to (x–4). To have one of them write the story where the larger wound is the father saying, Don’t, and the daughter getting out of the car anyway. Heedless. To have one of them write about the hours and years they both have to live with that broken rule.
After all, every time I had seen an animal from the passenger side and said, Dad, stop! he did.
And the one time he says stop, I won’t.
So what if reasons abounded.
Well, we were not shot. But a truck turned in, passed us in the narrow lane, slowed. A window rolled down. I saw no gun. A man half my father’s age leaned out, offered his hand, said Dan. I said my own name, explained who we were, our improbable mission—to tour the past as innocents.
It was the same house. The right lane. Dan, the caretaker now. I heard my father ten yards back, then next to me. From his truck Dan asked us in for coffee. We followed him up the drive and through the door to the kitchen. He showed us the rooms. The icebox my grandmother opened and cooked from.
Then he led us down a steep flight of steps to the boathouse where my father had helped his dad let down the Chris-Craft to fish for sunnies. And I saw my father go shy with welcome. And I went shy with the long generosity we had each been accorded, its overlap in this hour none of us had planned. My father pointed at the platform where he learned to dive headlong into the lake, a lake from which his father cut ice in winter. Laughed, seeing it.
This is the kind of scene I discourage my students from writing because I still do not know how to do it myself. I know that’s not a good reason. There is no ready port in the narrative machine for such minutes, yet they are at the center of that diagram I am always scrawling: Urgent, necessary, costly. At that moment on the dock nothing about my life was of any consequence except for this one fact: that I had stopped the car, disobeyed, and no one was hurt. Everything else was lost under the rush of recognition: to see my father permitted access to the site of his first memory by a benevolent stranger. To see what it was to arrive back to the far shore of your life and find it still holy there. Still morning. The man who has held my knee knows none of this because it is, as we say in fiction class, not strictly relevant to the plot.
Another rule I have in class: no stories that begin with a character waking up in their bed.
You see how I’ve been part of the problem, with the mornings.
Mornings I’ve lost: many. That’s the best I can do, quantitatively. Lost to years, to a blank pillow looking roughly like any other blank pillow, a sameness that sets in no matter how thin the window is between you and the world. Between you and the thing you are ready to forego if you must, between you and the thing you are least willing to lose.
So what do you do to get those years back?
You can’t, I tell my students. For the record, this rarely lands, because few of them have enough regrets to tally. Still, I insist, there’s not enough time. That is the promise each story is making in its own way. If your character doesn’t lose anything on the clock, then it’s not a story yet.
So they dig. And they find the thing they would keep after all else.
Mornings I want to keep as long as that: being carried back to bed by this man from wherever I’d strayed. His shoulders. His mouth in the blue forelight.
To keep: that morning my father pointed to the diving platform in his lake and described the summer he swam the day the ice went out. My eyes hurt for days
after, he said, but the rest of my body was, what?—elated. The points of my elbows suddenly seemed important. My heels, he said, they rang.
And one years before: following him down different stairs to a different shore with a pail, eager to collect sand dollars, the white parched dead kind I knew from other beaches and gift shops, but finding only live ones, furred and black and refuting my desire to keep them with their aliveness. Leaving my bucket in the sand, I followed my father along the shingled hem they made. He stooped and held one between us in his palm. Its feet moved in search or greeting and we were still. Then he set it gently back in its bed, because reasons abounded.
After all else: this man’s face when I tell him I am trying to read it. Incredulity, he says, touching my brow. How are you so?
And the light comes in at us before I can answer.
After all, the long pause between close and open could be a poem about last night.
Before, another knee in a hand. Who says first tries don’t make for a good story? I mean, I do. But how would I know?
Before, in my journal: eight squirrels, nine deer. A bad poem about dawn.
Before and more relevant to the plot: I’m fourteen and buckled up and my mother is taking me to piano or riding lessons and she says out of nowhere, If I’d known what it would be like to be the second woman, I don’t know that I would have signed up. She meant marry my father.
Well, it wasn’t nowhere for her.
For I have no one to tell.
Before that, my father calling up the stairs before school, Are your feet on the ground?
(Well, are they?)
When I was ten and eleven and not-quite-fourteen I would call back yes, feeling for the carpet with a toe so it was not really a lie. Those years I was reluctant to rise, and would sleep an extra ten minutes, a foot on the floor like I was a character in those stories about love and the perils of sleep.
And maybe that’s why we think about night the way we do: because that’s when Lancelot goes to Guinevere’s room. When Borachio pretends to visit Hero.
When Cinderella leaves the ball and things pumpkin. Decisions do get made.
Last night, too near my coffee table, I sensed one of his feet on the ground, so I suggested the bed.
The only other rule I give my students: no hands in stories. Flaubert got there first. Unless the hands are doing something. Pushing a knee to the side, say.
They like this one. After all, it’s easy to edit out hands. Make them do something. I’m right about this, but in those first years, I worried I was too young to be believed. Now it’s possible I’m too old to be believed. About hands, anyway.
Among those whom I was too young to believe then but did: my mother.
Among those whom I’m too old to believe now but do: my mother.
She says that before, as a kid, I was fearless. Her scant evidence? I ran headlong into the surf. This was before the desire to keep got installed in me; I was after nothing.
But now I fear losing everything, including the shadow of a tree I’ve just met. The sound of my father’s shoes along that lane.
A line this man wrote to me once in an e-mail: The world headlong. He was talking about his own before, but he could have been talking about mine.
And is such coincidence reason?
Don’t fall, he says in the morning when I near the bed’s edge, but shifts me before I can try.
I am nearing some other edge, and who is stationed there to warn me?
A better question: What tide is coming in, that we must keep our feet dry?
And the light through the windows makes its old pedantic threat: this event occurs in the past.
My first memory, according to my mother, is of my uncle slamming his finger in the car door outside a grocery store. For a long time, I just believed her. And then one day in my twenties when I told the story, I was the one who’d slammed the door. (Most days, I still think it was me.)
In feeding me this memory, my mother made me its host and vector. She said: the first thing your mind could keep was pain. So here: keep it.
And why? What reason would she have?
I don’t mind getting hurt, I told this man, knowing how to establish my terms only after I’d declared my aptitude for pain.
This morning I kissed his knuckles though I have no real memory of a broken one.
(Uncle, I am sorry for only witnessing the door, not stopping it. I have not stopped enough in this world, nor have I caused enough.)
The light begins to separate this man and me into consequences: since and then. Before you, and after.
How are you so?
So what, I asked my students.
What I wanted: for their characters to do something besides take a picture of the book. Just take the book—that’s what I was after. It’s free, after all. The woman wants to see the story advance? Then she has to turn the pages. It’s not enough to witness, is what I was trying to tell them. Is what I was trying to learn.
Get out of the car, no matter how well you think you know the story. Maybe it was the only thing I knew to teach.
To tell you about his hand is just another story about the past.
But there’s no other story until it’s morning and someone either leaves or they don’t.
So cause me, I say to his absence, the room gone light. Make of me one long commensurate effect.