Six Weeks and Counting!

Not wholly on purpose, I took a bit of a blogging break for the height of summer. To be honest (and the aghast of my friends) summer is my least favorite season; the heat, humidity, and long hours of intense sun make me want to hibernate in the AC, drink cocktails, and try to move as little as possible. It is also when I’m at my least creative, so I’ve been struggling with something to blog about.

But this week marks six weeks until Calm Undone‘s release, and there are many things to share.

First, for those that have been asking, Calm Undone is available in paperback! Release date for both the ebook and paperback is October 1st, 2021. You can always pre-order an ebook or paperback through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple, Rakuten Kobo, or your local bookstore. And to add to the excitement, my shipment of books arrived over the weekend!

Second, BQB Books (my awesome publisher) has created a Street Page on Facebook for their great collection of award-winning books by my fellow authors. You can keep up on all the news about my books and other authors by joining.  Also, there is a kick-ass image of a t-shirt with the Calm Undone cover (and I’m trying to get my hands on some of those).

Finally, Calm Undone has been nominated for an International Literacy Association young adult award! Decisions come out in spring of 2022, but still (as they say at the Oscars) it is an honor to be nominated – especially as a debut book!

In hindsight, maybe summer isn’t so bad.

To All the Books I Loved Before

As I am debating and discussing final edits to Calm Undone with my (always helpful) editors, I find myself revisiting favorite characters and books. I truly believe that if you want to become a good writer, you will first have to become a good reader. When I struggle with things like pacing, character development, or how to get the right balance of telling a story without getting lost in minutiae, I pick up books I have strewn about my house that I think did all of that well. As I take a little break this evening from revising (and revising and revising again), I want to share my thoughts on two books (and the authors) that I remembering thinking, Yes, I want to create something like this.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (Jesse Andrews, 2012). What I love about this book is the narrative voice. Andrews’ protagonist is Greg Gaines, a snarky, witty and self-conscious teenager who just wants to hide in mediocrity. Except when he doesn’t: he wants the attention of the popular girl; he wants the cool nonchalance of his best friend; he wants to move on from high school, but is so scared of being less than mediocre he won’t apply to any colleges. And above all, he wants neat, happy endings to the worse life dishes out, knowing full well it doesn’t happen. Which makes him your typical teenager. Andrews balances self-introspection and stream-of-consciousness story telling with enough dialog and straightforward exposition to keep the story moving forward. It is a space I struggle to occupy comfortably with my characters and plot.

The Outsiders (S.E. Hinton, 1967). I envy Hinton, I truly do. I’m still in awe of how she captures the internal voice of a teenage boy. I doubt I could ever write a female character as strongly as she wrote Pony Boy. What brings me back to this book over and over again, however, is the sense of yearning she creates in Pony Boy (Let’s face it – she does it with Johnny, and Soda Pop, and Cherry, and . . . well, she does it). Pony Boy constantly observes that he plays the role society gave him: Being a greaser. But all he wants is to know that if he wanted, he could be something else. It’s not that he thinks being a greaser is bad, it’s that if he wanted to NOT be a one, he could. Without being fake. Without betraying his brothers. Without someone telling him he can’t. Because he can – if someone just gave him the chance. That yearning to have a choice is a theme I want evident in Calm Undone, but it is hard to achieve. Well, not for Hinton, from what I can tell.

Coming in October . . .

So, I wrote a book. It took some time – about 10+ years. I mean, to be honest, in that time I finished graduate school; moved across the country; got a faculty position at Northwestern; spent seven years working as an Associate Executive Director… not to mention lots of other things. But I always had this (and literally hundreds of other) stories in the back of my head.

So in the midst of a year-long lockdown and nearing 50, I finally submitted my manuscript to a little publishing house a friend of mine had used. And here we are!

You can learn all about it at my new author website: garthafowler.com

You can also purchase pre-sale copies on Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Nobles (for nook), Rakuten, and Indie Bound.

The Last Heist

Secretly, I’ve been working on a book.  And this is one of the chapters. Actually, one of the last chapters.

Like always, walk in and play it cool.  The whole thing always amazes me – how can two guys, dressed in black, carrying large duffel bags be so inconspicuous?  How do we get away with this every time?

Then Jan starts the whole thing.  It’s standard by now.

“Everyone down on the ground,” he yells as he pulls out his gun.  “This is a robbery, and if everyone plays it cool, we all get to leave.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I see a little kid holding his mother’s hand.  He looks at me funny, not sure what is happening.  Then he smiles and waves.   I wave back.  No reason not to be nice.

As I watch Jan jump from teller to teller, I realize he’s moving slowly.  Too slowly.  But it isn’t just him.  Everything is moving slowly today.  I close my eyes, shake my head, and try to concentrate.

I look back at the little boy.  He’s crying now.  It breaks my heart.  I want out of here.

“Move it,” I yell to Jan.

“Shut up.”

“It’s taking too long.”

“I said, shut up.”

But I won’t give up.  Something’s not right.  I want out of here.  Everything’s moving slower.  Slower.  I start to yell, “Listen, forget the rest.  We’ve got enough.  Let’s just…..”

But I never get to finish.  From the back –  behind the tellers, the wooden cabinets, the large office desks –  there’s a gunshot.  A single one.  Then another.  Everyone in the bank starts to scream or cry.  And then I hear what I think is a third, but it is actually the door banging open as a security guard comes running from the back.  He’s bleeding from his chest.  Or is it his stomach?  His face is ashen, and as he runs, he bumps up against desks, chairs, walls.  There’s a trail of blood behind him.  He’s King Midas, except everything he touches runs with blood.

“There’s two more in the back,” the guard yells, tripping over a lady that is lying face down on the ground.  She screams as he falls on top of her, his guts starting to come out of his shirt.  He lands on his stomach and I see that the back of his shirt has a gaping hole it in and is soaked with blood.

“Beat it,” I yell to Jan.  My feet feel like lead, though, and I wonder if maybe we had a bad hit before coming in.  What happened to the good days of cheap H?  Good H.  Pure H.  I feel as if I am running through concrete.  Jan continues to empty each drawer, but by now I want out.  “Fuck the lot!  Just beat it. The cops will be here soon.”  I run towards the back, from where the guard came, and bust through the door.

Mickey is in the back room, kneeling next to Deb.  “She’s shot,” he said to me.

“How?  What the fuck were you two doing in here anyway?  Why weren’t you in the alley?”

Mickey looks me square in the eyes.  “There’s fucking cops everywhere.  Plain suits, uniforms, vests.  This is rotten, Danny.  Rotten.  Someone knew. Why do you think there was a fucking rent-a-cop in the back, and not out front?”

I have a sudden urge to vomit, but then it is gone.  My mouth is dry and my lips are pasty.  I run the back of my hand across my face and realize I am sweating.  A lot. Through my shirt, my hat, down my back.

“Danny – what we gonna do?  We got to get Deb out of here.”

“How much blood she lost, you think?”  I look down at Deb, and she’s panting, eyes wide open, staring straight up at the ceiling.  There’s no blood on the floor, at least not yet.  Her sweater is wet, almost purple.  It’s just her left side, right below her ribcage. “How much?” I ask again.  Mickey shrugs.

“Deb darling,” I touch her face.  “Deb, sweetie – you hear me?  We got to get out of here.  We got to go.  Can you move?”  She turns her head to look at me.  “Deb, I gotta look, okay?  I’m not going to hurt you.”  She looks over to Mickey, and he grabs her hand.  I reach down and pull up her sweater.  As soon as I pull it back, blood pulses up through a dime-sized hole in her stomach.  Her entire front is covered in blood.  I think of the security guard out front.  I put my hand on the hole, trying to stop the blood from coming, and Deb moans.

“Danny, Danny, Danny,” Mickey whispers and pulls back my hand.

I sit back on my knees.  Shit.  Fuck.  This is bad.  The nausea hits again.

“Danny, where’s Jan?”  I give Mickey a blank look.  “Jan?  Is he out front?  What’s taking him so long?  This is rotten, you know? “

I nod.  I know.

Jan bursts through the door, with two bags full of money.  “Cops are coming,” he says.

“What about the customers?”

“Gone – ran out after you left me alone.  What was that for?”

“What was that for?  If you hadn’t notice, nothing was right.  Gunshots.  Bleeding guards.  I told you to bail.  Then Mickey says there are cops coming to the alley.”

“Already here,” Mickey motions out back with his head.

“Out back?  You sure?” Jan asks, cooly.  He walks toward the back door.  “That’s early.”

“You think I fucking made this up?” Mickey yells.  “All of it?  Deb and I only came in because we wanted to warn you.  But when we came in the fucking guard shot her.”

“So you shot him?” I ask.  Jan, halfway to the back door, stops and looks at us.

“Fucking hell, I did,” Mickey snarls at me.

“It’s fine,” I say.  “Look…”

“Its not fine,” Jan says.  He turns and looks down at Deb for the first time.  He puts his hands on the back of his head, his elbows out like wings, and paces.  “Not fucking fine.”  Mickey and I just stare at him.  He paces more.  “Not fucking fine,” he yells, and kicks a filing cabinet over.  No one says anything, and I realize we’re wasting time.  Stupid.  I stand up, grab one of the duffel bags, toss it to Jan.  I pick up the other, and bend over to grab Deb.  “Mickey, pull her up.  We’re moving. We can’t stay.  Jan, you gotta give us cover.  How far is the car, Mickey?”

“Fuck the cash,” Jan says and drops the bag.  Mickey and I haul Deb up.  She’s limp, and her eyes are closed.  Her sweater is heavy with blood, and she slips through it as we try to keep her between us.

“I said, forget the cash.”  Jan walks over to me and pulls the bag from my hand.  “It’s marked.”

“How?” I ask.

“What do you mean how?  Its marked, that’s how.  Traced.  They know. They knew.”  No one says anything.  Jan rubs his eyes with his forefinger and thumb of his right hand, pinching his nose.  Without opening his eyes he says, “We go out the front.”

I drop the bag, and wrap both my arms around Deb.  I start to drag her towards the door.  My heart is still pounding, like it is going to jump from my chest, and my legs tremble.  I fumble with the doorknob, and turn.  Jan and Mickey stand in the center of the room, staring at each other, and not leaving.

“What did you do, Jan?”

“We gotta go, Mickey.”

“What did you fucking do, Jan?”  Mickey runs toward Jan, but Jan steps to the side, and throws a fist into Mickey’s face.  Mickey spins around toward me, blood already coming from his lips and nose.  He drops to his knees, and keeps himself from falling flat with his hand.  He stands back up, keeping his eyes locked with mine.

“Jesus,” I say, looking at Jan.  My throat goes dry, and I feel my eyes start to burn.  I loosen my grip on Deb and she slides to the ground, limp.

“You fucking cunt!” Mickey runs at Jan again, arms swinging, but Jan is taller and bigger. He wraps his arms around Mickey’s head and shoulders, and throws him down against the filing cabinet.  I open my mouth to say something, but nothing comes out.  I struggle to put it together.  Kind of.  Mickey is crawling on the floor, trying to stand, crying.  “Aw fuck.  Aw…  Did you?”  He looks up at Jan.  “Did you?”

Jan hasn’t moved from the spot.  I realize now how pale his skin is, how blackened his eyes are.  And he’s thin, and haggard looking.  He stares at me, and his eyes are flat, gray, and dull.  Suddenly, Mickey jumps up from the floor, with his gun pointed at Jan, and screams. Not a word.  Not a curse.  Just a painful yell.

Jan doesn’t move.  He sighs, “Mickey.  We have to go.  Now.  And we have to go out the front.  Do you hear me?  The front.” He motions towards the lobby, and starts to walk.

Mickey cocks his gun. “No man.  Not we.”

“Mickey, you can’t get out without me.  Seriously.”  Jan stands with his face towards the door, and squeezes the bridge of his nose with his finger and thumb.  Behind him, Mickey sways back and forth, shaking his head.  Jan continues in a slow, calm voice.  “Mickey, we have to go now.  Deb is….”

“Don’t say it,” Mickey says. He sways some more, then yells, running towards Jan, and puts the gun against his head.  “What did you do Jan?  Why?  Why man?”

Now I figure out it.  My hands and legs start to shake, and I realize my heart is beating faster than I have ever felt it.  “Mickey,” I say.  “He’s right.  We have to go now, and we have to go with Jan.”  I bend down and grab Deb underneath the arms, and haul her up. “Come on.  We’re wasting time.”

I struggle with Deb, and no one moves.  We all just stand there. The tears are balancing on my lids, and when I blink they run down my cheeks.  Jan stands facing the door still, but I can see his face.  His eyes are closed – he looks almost dead.  Mickey is crying so hard he can barely breathe.  Finally, he sobs, “Go.”  Jan takes a step towards the door, and Mickey jumps up behind him again, gun to his head.  “Slowly,” he adds.

“I know,” Jan says.  He looks at me, but I only turn away, and step aside so he can open the door.  He walks through, with Mickey behind him, still holding the gun in both hands.  I reach down and grab Deb’s legs beneath her knees, and carry her into the lobby.  It’s empty, except for the guard.  He’s on his stomach, the left side of his face against the marble floor.  It looks as if he tried to crawl towards the door, after everyone else left.  There’s a swath of blood on the floor behind him.

The entire front of the bank is glass, and there is a crowd gathered in the street.  Some people stand at the edges of the building. I don’t see any cops.  “Now what?”  I ask.

“Out the front,” Jan says.  “We always go out the back, so that is where they are suppose to be.  They aren’t expecting us to come out the front.”

“You first,” Mickey says, and pushes Jan with the gun.  Jan stumbles forward one step, catching his balance.  He takes a deep breath, and pushes open both glass doors.  Inside, it had been quiet, so the noise that greets us shocks me.  Cars honks at the people in the street, the wail of sirens in the distance.  As we come out, the crowd backs up, and a woman screams.

Jan turns around.  “We need to…”  Before he can finish, Mickey shoots him in the head, and he falls backwards with a loud thump.  More screams come from the crowd, and people start to run in all directions.  Mickey puts his gun in the back of his pants, turns to me, his face covered with tears.  “Come on.”  He turns and starts to run toward the south corner of Thorndale.  I don’t move.  “Danny!  Run!”  He turns and seeing that I haven’t moved, comes back and grabs me.  I start to run with Deb in my arms.  “Danny,” Mickey says.  “Danny – she’s dead.  Leave her.  She’s dead,” he cries, putting his head on my shoulder.  I look at Deb, and her skin is pale, lips white, mouth slightly open, eyes closed.  I slowly kneel, and put her down to the ground, and touch her face.  It’s feels strangely rough – and my hand is so covered with blood that I leave two red smears on her chin.  I try to rub them off with my sleeve, but Mickey reaches down and grabs me.  “Fucking run, Danny.  Run!”

I get up and run after him.  Finally, my legs feel normal, but my heart still feels as if it will explode.  We turn the corner onto Thorndale, and facing us is the car Mickey got the night before.  I go towards it, to hop in the passenger side.

“No,” Mickey hisses.  “They know it is ours.”  We stop, standing still, confused.  Behind us, to the east, we hear the rumble of the El coming to the Thorndale stop.  We both turn and sprint across Broadway towards the massive stone bridge that keeps the El above the city.  As we go past a sewer grate, Mickey tosses the car keys down it.  We hop the turnstile and bound up the stairs for the south bound trains.  There are only a few people, and no one notices my blood soaked clothes, mostly because everything I have on is black and hides the blood.  Finally the train arrives, and we enter in the last car, which is empty.

I sit down in the seat nearest the door.  Mickey stands with his head hanging out the door – looking up and down the platform.  Finally, a chime announces the doors are closing, and Mickey pulls his head in, and walks to stand in front of me.  With a lurch, the train moves towards the next stop.

Suddenly, I burst into tears.  Uncontrollable, gut wrenching, sobs.  Mickey stands in front of me, and puts his hands on my shoulders.   I shove him to the ground, and then lunge towards him.  I drive my shoulder into his chest, and warp my arms around his waist, grabbing for his gun.  But he is bigger, and stronger, than me, and with both legs kicks me back up against my seat.  I hit so hard it knocks the wind out of me.  He gets up, and grabs my head in his hands, and pulls me into his chest.  “It was rotten,” he sobs.  He holds me so tight I can’t move.  I am crying so hard I am leaving wet spots on his shirt.  “Fucking rotten,” he says again.

I nod.  I know.  I think I knew from the very beginning.

Joe Camel

I work for a sales company that promotes cigarettes.  Camels, to be exact.  It’s really not a bad job.  I go to bars, meet great people, keep myself amply supplied in the nation’s most expensive legal habit, and I love it.  In short, I get paid to be a slacker.  Occasionally, customers ask me if I don’t feel guilty about my job.

“You’re promoting cancer,” they protest.  “You’re encouraging people to pollute the earth.”  And as they sip their microbrews, eating greasy cheese sticks, I ask how am I any different than the bartender?  Doesn’t he promote cancer?  Doesn’t he encourage people to massacre one another with their cars in the streets?

To this, they say nothing.  And I know to leave them alone.  Until later, after a few more beers, and the bartender has pointed out my name is Joe, they come begging for my wares.

Isn’t that a riot?  My name truly is Joe.  Joe Ravenna.  I really think I got the job because of my name.  I’ll admit to being kind of a shady character – head shaved bald, nose ring, a tattoo on my temple, two on my fingers.  I don’t exactly make the best first impression.  I usually wear black, shin-high combat boots.

But, when I introduce myself to a drunken frat-boy or to a teased-hair sorority chick as Joe, and whip out my pack of Camels, I can tell by the smile on their face I am guaranteed a sale.  They cannot resist the temptation of going home later that night, and saying to their drunken frat-boy clone of a roommate, “Dude, I like, bought these from Joe Camel.”

I’m a marketing wet dream come true.

I usually get from bar to bar by bus.  Thankfully, many of the buses here run late enough into the evening that I don’t have to cab.  The other night, while I was waiting for the 18 to come along, some fag waltzed into the bus stop. It was pouring down rain, and he wore a tweed jacket, working hard to have that “aren’t-I-all-pathetically-wet-and-cute” look.

“You just missed the 15,” I said, dropping my Camel bag to the ground beneath me and opening up a spot on the bench.  “The 17 will be here in 10 minutes, and the 18 is suppose to be here now.”

“Oh, thanks,” he said as he sashayed his way towards me.  “I just need to cross the bridge, but it is raining so darn hard.”

Queenie, I thought.  And a very good looking guy.  Thin and probably works out.  Despite the fact that everything he had on at the moment was drenched, he dressed well.  It occurred to me he probably writes poetry.  Good thing he is gay, or us straight guys would be in trouble.  “I thought about walking,” he continued, sitting cross-legged next to me.  “But I really was worried about getting my shoes all wet.”  I looked down, seeing his brown, patent and suede, saddle shoes.  Fashionably unfunctional.  Very him.

“Ah, not worth it,” I said, watching the rain pour down.  I took a long drag on my cigarette.

“Mind if I bum one,” he asked?  Without removing mine from my lips, I pulled my pack from my breast pocket and flicked my wrist.  One solitary cigarette slid half-way out of the box, pro-offering itself.

“Thanks,” and he placed it between his lips.  “So.  What do you do?” he asked, puffing between words as I lit his stick with my Camel emblazoned lighter.

“Sell cigarettes,” I said, putting the lighter away and finally getting a chance to flick my growing ash.

“Get. Out,” he said blowing smoke out of the side of his mouth, and emphasizing the beginning of each word.  He was fully flaming now, foot kicking over crossed-knee, slightly bent wrist, hand brushing back his hair.  “You go from bar to bar then?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I like it. I have about 8 places I hit regularly throughout the month.”

“Pay well?”

“Nope.  What about you.  What do you do?”

“Grad student,” he sighed exasperatedly.  “Writing my thesis on Walt Whitman.  Don’t know what I’ll do with that.”

We sat for a moment, enjoying our cigarettes and the silent company.  A shuttle pulled up, and dropped 3 people at our stop.  They gave us dirty looks as they stood out in the rain.  You’re not supposed to smoke in the bus shelter.  City law.  But I’ll be damned if I am going to give up my warm, dry seat.  My taxes paid for this shelter, just like theirs did.

Finally, the 17 showed up.

“This will get you across the bridge,” I said.

“Thanks,” he said, and crushed his smoke out on the bottom of his shoe.  He grabbed his bag, and climbed aboard.

Suddenly, I felt alone.  The women standing next to me kept coughing while throwing me disapproving glances.  Out of spite, I offered her a Camel, to which she cleared her throat most indignantly and walked away.  As I puffed on the last bit of my cigarette, I missed the fag; he was a nice guy.

Safe Parachuting

“Pastoral literature,” I groaned.  I leaned back in my chair, and let out a heavy sigh.  I fanned myself with the manila folder that held the notes I had taken that semester.  My room was hot, so hot that I was sweating.  The air being forced against my body by my floor fan was hot, so I didn’t really feel any cooler.  The bright spring sun was beating in my window.  The brown sandstone building that housed my dorm room felt as if it was radiating heat, both in and out.  A year ago, when I started receiving brochures about attending this small, liberal arts college in the rolling fields of Ohio, there was no mention of hot and humid spring oppressing me now.  There were images of students playing on green, grassy quads outside collegiate looking buildings, of award winning writers giving lectures, and students smiling pleasantly as a professor pointed towards her chalk board.  It all seemed so idyllic, the type place that years later would evoke feelings of nostalgia and longing for my carefree college days.

Instead, I was regretting letting my academic advisor suggest I take a composition class despite the fact that I had earned enough AP credits in high school to already fulfill my requirements.

I reached over and turned up my radio.  I had a Cure tape playing.  Boys Don’t Cry.   “How ironic,” I said to myself.  I felt like screaming at the top of my lungs “I hate Pastoral Literature!”  Why had I taken this class?  For having spent 12 weeks listening to the chair of the English department lecture three hours a week, I knew nothing about Pastoral Literature.  And now I had to write a paper on the subject.  Not just a paper, but a final paper. There was no final exam in the class, just this 10-page paper.  And I did not want to write it.

I looked at my watch.  Five o’clock.  I decided to go to dinner.  I needed an excuse to leave my desk, and the world of sentimental stories about rustic people.  To lend a little credence to my procrastination technique I decided to tell my roommate it was time to eat.  I looked across the room to Steve, lounging on his bed.  Steve was what the college called a ‘scholar-athlete,’ a student who supposedly met the admission requirements as all the other applicants, but whose greatest contribution to the school was keeping the wealthy alumni happy by seeing their alma mater’s name appear on the sports pages.  The college was a division III school, which meant there were no scholarships for athletes, but everyone knew that a marginally qualified student who planned to join one of our better sports teams – soccer, swimming, lacrosse, or tennis – did not have to have the same academic qualifications as their non-athletically inclined counterparts did.  Steve, like most of the other scholar-athletes, was well aware of this.  We all were, and usually the college assigned the ‘Steves’ of the campus to live together.  But somehow, I ended up as his roommate.  Despite our differences, it worked out well.  During the week we usually went to dinner together with other people from our dorm, and had no problem procrastinating late at night by sharing stories about high school, or Steve filling me in on the happenings of the weekend lacrosse team party.  Most often these were stories of extreme drunkenness, and near-successful attempts to hook up with ‘a hottie,’ as he referred to most the girls he found attractive.

At the moment, Steve had on a pair of headphones, and had his eyes closed.  I could barely hear the music coming out of the speakers snug against his head, and for a moment I fantasized that my ‘scholar-athlete’ roommate might actually be a true intellectual and was listening to a pastoral symphony.  Maybe he would know something about pastoral literature.  Now I am being ridiculous.  Steve usually spent his spare time hurling a small white ball down the length of the hallway with his lacrosse stick.  One day he actually had someone draw his outline on a large piece of butcher paper he bought at the local grocery store, and then tacked it to the wall.  Then he dipped his lacrosse ball in a can of cheap paint he bought, and hurled it at his own image.  When he scored a hit in the crotch of his own silhouette, he called everyone out into the hallway to see it.  “That,” he said, “is what makes the other teams fear me.”

Any conversation I would try to have with Steve about Pastoral literature would involve lewd acts and sheep.  I wadded up a piece of paper, and threw it at him.

“What do you want?” he asked without even opening his eyes.

“Dinner time.  Wanna come?”

“What are we having tonight?”

“How the hell should I know?  What we always have – a plethora of nastiness.”

“Wiseass,” he said, and sat up.  “Did you call the slime line?  I really do not want to venture out into the heat for broccollini and breaded cod tail.”  He walked over to the phone, and dialed the dining hall’s hotline.  Steve closed his eyes, and began to repeat what he heard over the phone.

“Tonight, we are serving Big Beefburgers, home cut French fries, three cheese lasaaaagna, vegetable medley, soft serve ice cream, salad bar, fresh fruit cocktail, assorted beverages.”  He put the phone down, and walked back over to his bed, rubbing his eyes and knocking a piece of sleep to the ground.  It drifted into the current of the fan, and was shot somewhere off into the corner of the room.  I watched the whole event with more interest than I realized is healthy, and quickly turned my attention to my roommate.  My tape clicked to the end, and all was silent.

“Well?” I asked.

“Ah… fuck it,” Steve said, scratching just above the band of his white cotton boxer-briefs.  “Let me take a shower.  I’ll be ready in ten minutes.”  With that, he stood up, walked over to his dresser, and dropped his shorts.  He wadded up the underwear, and tossed it into a dirty clothesbasket.  He then rummaged through the closet, muttering the entire time.  Finally he turned to me and said, “Hey, do you know where my bathrobe is?”

“Why the hell would I know that, moron?” I said as I stretched in my chair.  “If you can’t find yours, then wear mine.  Just hurry up, cause I’m starving.”  He scratched one more time, and then opened my half of the closet, and pulled out my plaid robe. He drapsed it over his shoulders, and not bothering to close the front, grabbed a towel and headed out the door.

I reached up to my radio, and flipped my tape over.  More Cure to brighten my mood, I thought.  I rubbed my eyes, and opened my folder again.  I stared blankly at the semester’s worth of notes I had taken, and wondered what I was getting out of the $100 per class hour I was paying to go to school here.  What use was it to study about mid-sixteenth century peasants?  I really did not care to hear idealized stories about rustic people living simple country lives.  As Dr. McCall read long sections from works by Virgil and Spenser, I realized that not much happened in the lives of their characters; instead shepherds engaged in impromptu singing contests (with lots of text dedicated to the lyrics), or took turns delivering elegies of deceased friends.  In some regards, my having spent the afternoon sitting at my desk, attempting to write a paper on pastoral literature was a close to a modern-day pastoral poem.  I was saved from the truly depressing nature of that thought by a knock on my door.

“Yeah… come in,” I yelled, not getting up from my chair.  Rebecca opened the door, and walked in my room.  She lives two floors beneath Steve and me, with her roommate Penny.  They are both from Michigan, and got along great as roommates.  Of the two, Rebecca was definitely the more social one.  She spent most her evenings hanging out on our floor, and was friends with most the guys.  On Friday nights, she usually entered the floor from the stairwell, and called out “Fourth floor men, let the party begin!”  And the floor would respond by calling out “Rebecca!”

About two weeks ago, Rebecca asked if Steve and I were going to be roommates next year, and if so then the four of us should try to get in the same dorm again.  “It would be fun,” she said, and I took a strange sense of pride knowing that she associated me with fun.  Although Rebecca was friendly with all the guys on the floor, I secretly harbored the belief that Steve and I were actually her friends.  Her plans for being near us next year confirmed it.  I finally worked up the nerve to ask Steve what he thought about us rooming together again, and passed along Rebecca’s idea.  “I like that everything will be the same next year,” I told Steve.  Steve shrugged, which I learned was his way of agreeing to the idea, and then said “I like the that I will get to see Rebecca’s tits everyday again.”  I decided to keep that to myself when I reported back to Rebecca.

“Hey, how’s the paper coming?” she said, as she plopped herself onto my bed.

“Well,” I said.  “Not bad.  I only have 10 pages to go.”

“Ten pages?  You haven’t gotten anything done?  Weren’t you going to start on that when I was here at three?  What have you been doing?

“Nothing.  I haven’t moved from this chair all afternoon.  I just don’t know a thing about Pastoral Literature.  So it is impossible for me to write about it.  I am such a loser for having taking this course.  I just do not care about Pastoral Literature.  I think I want to be a mechanical engineering major.  What does a mechanical engineer need to know about pastoral literature?”

“You study it,” she said, half yawning, “because it makes you a better person.  You know, you’re more well-rounded, and it helps you get good jobs and stuff.”

“I truly don’t think anybody is ever going to say, “Well, he’s only an okay engineer, but did’ya hear him discussin’ pastoral literature at lunch?  We gotta take him,’” I  said.

“You’d be surprised,” she said.

We both laughed, only half-heartedly because only half our hearts were truly in it.  We sat quietly for about five minutes, listening to Robert Smith moan about not having someone to love.  Having grown tired of sitting on my bed, Rebecca flopped back in full repose.  She threw her hands back over her head, and in doing so pulled her shirt just the slightest bit up her smooth, flat stomach. Right then I thought about Steve’s comment, and wondered why I had never thought about Rebecca’s tits?  And if so, what did that mean?  When Steve had made that comment, I actually just sat there, stunned, and did not say anything in return.  Finally, Steve just shook his head and said “Dude, you need to pay attention more.”

I realized that I had been just staring at Rebecca – or at her tits, actually. She turned her head, and smiled at my coyly.  I dipped my hands into the glass of ice water I had sitting on my desk, and with all the skill a completely un-athletic bookworm could muster, I flicked water at her.  I hit my mark.  She immediately jolted upright, pulling her t-shirt down tight against her flesh.

“Hey, bucko,” she warned.

“What?” I asked.  “You mean you didn’t like it?  I mean, you looked hot lying over there on my bed.”

She struck a most pious look on her face, and said, “I will not tolerate blatant come-ons.”

“I meant you looked as if your body temperature had exceeded normal due to the conditions of the environment,” I said back.  “It would be so inappropriate of me to call you hot,” I added with a smirk.

She giggled.  “So, where’s your slacker of a roommate?”

“In the shower.   I think this is something like his third shower today.”

“Seriously?  What’s he do in there?”

I gave her an “are you kidding” look, and said “Boxing with the bald champ, if you know what I mean.”  This time, we laughed uproariously, with all our hearts.

“So whenever he isn’t in the shower, he’s between rounds then,” Rebecca added.  By this time we were both laughing so hard, I couldn’t talk.  I only doubled over in my chair and pointed to her as if to say “good one.”

The door swung open, and in walked Steve, dripping from his last round.  The timing was too much, and I fell off of my chair laughing so hard.  Rebecca once again lay sprawled on my bed, her body heaving as she howled with delight.  Steve rubbed a drop of water from his nose.

“What the hell is your problem?” he asked, just slightly upset by the outburst that occurred when he entered.  He had decided that my bathrobe was unsuitable for wearing, as he had it flung over his left shoulder.  His white towel was wrapped around his waist.  “So, what’s so funny?” he asked again as he dropped my on the closet floor.

“Nothing, really,” Rebecca said, gaining some composure.   She started to stand saying, “Well, I’ll wait outside until you’re done Steve.”  With that, she started to giggle again.

“Hell,” escaped from Steve’s lips.  “I ain’t got nothing I’m sure you haven’t seen before.  Don’t bother.”  He walked over to his dresser, loosening his towel as he went.  With a shrug, Rebecca sat back down on the bed, which was directly behind the dressers.  Steve dug through his dresser looking for some boxer-briefs.  He found a pair, let the towel fall to his feet, and bent over to pull up the (this time gray) cotton shorts.

“Are you coming to dinner with us?” he turned to Rebecca, adjusting the band about his waist.

“Dinner?” Rebecca asked.  “No one told me you were going to dinner,” she said, giving me a hurt glance.

“Hey Rebecca,” I said, “want to join us for dinner?”

“Am I intruding on a roommate thing?” she said mockingly.

“Hell no,” Steve said as he pulled on a pair of linen shorts.

“Okay.”

“Great, but we’re not leaving yet,” Steve said as he rummaged through my half of the closet looking for a shirt to wear.

“What?” I exclaimed.  “Look at me!  I’m wasting away to nothing!  Why aren’t we going to dinner now?  And yes, feel free to borrow my shirt.”

“Thanks,” he said with a smile. He turned to the mirror that hung next to the closet door and began fussing with his hair.  “We aren’t going to dinner now, because we will go as soon as I get back.”

“And where are you going?”

“Upstairs, to Heidi’s room.  I’m gonna ask her if she wants to go with us.  So, wait huh?” he turned, with an open, honest smile.

“Okay,” I said.  “But hurry up, because I am really hungry.  You might need to borrow my suit when you get back, because you’ll need it for my funeral after I starve to death.”

“No, you won’t,” Steve called as he disappeared through the door. “From the way this shirt fits me, you could stand to lose about ten pounds.”  He pulled the door shut and was gone.  The Cure was still playing, and Rebecca and I just stayed where we were.  Since I was still sitting on the floor from when Steve had walked in the room, I decided to crawl my way to my bed.  I flopped down beside Rebecca, and let out a heavy, discontented sigh.

“So,” she said, turning towards me.  “Are you gonna come on Saturday?”

“Tell me about this again,” I said, rolling my head and rubbing my eyes.

“Okay,” she said, sitting up in excitement.  “You go up, and we all sign-up for the class.  Then, we spend like, four or five hours or something like that, learning how to dive.  Right?  You know, how to pack your chute, how to fall…”

“Wait, wait, wait,” I said laughing.  “They think they have to teach me to fall?  I mean, you basically step out of the plane, and you fall. That’s what gravity is for.”

“You know, like how to slow yourself down, work with the wind resistance.  Come on, you said you’d listen seriously about this.”

“I did not,” I quickly countered.  “What I said was, I said I would listen to what you had to say, and think about it.  I never said I would be serious.  I always reserve the right to not be serious.”

“Well, just for once, be serious.  Because I really want you to come.  I think you would like it.”

“You think I would like spending $300 to fall to the ground from 3,000 feet?”

“It doesn’t cost $300. It costs $180 for the first time.  That is why we get there at 5:30 am.  We spend all morning in the class, so we can get a jump certificate.  Then we jump, with an instructor.  After that, whenever we want to jump it is only $40, because we are certified.”  She sat there quietly for a moment, as I said nothing.  I ran my tongue over my teeth, an annoying habit I had whenever I was really thinking about something.  I really didn’t know if I wanted to do this or not.  It sounded fun, no doubt.  To sky dive, with your friends at the end of your first year of college.   But there were so many things that I just could not get past.  The cost was just about what I had left in my bank account, and unlike Rebecca’s parents, mine did not have extra cash to send me.  What I earned over the summer and each semester was all I had to spend at college.  I had explained this to Rebecca, and she had offered to help pay, which made me feel both excited and lame.

Then there was a silent, crazy fear I had.  Something I had not shared with Rebecca, or anyone.  I kept having thoughts of myself falling from the plane, and not pulling the ripcord.  That I would somehow forget, or be so paralyzed with the whole aspect of having just jumped – voluntarily jumped, no less – from a plane, that I couldn’t do it.  I knew that I would be jumping tandem, attached to a jump instructor whose own life preserving instincts would intercede even if mine did not.  The last thing I wanted, however, was for everyone to know that I could not even save my own life when I needed to.  And strangely enough, I found myself torn.  Part of me wanted to prove to myself that I wasn’t a chicken, and would be fine.  And part of me just wished Rebecca had never dreamed up this whole scheme at all.

“Come on,” Rebecca said, grasping her hands in her lap as she leaned forward to plead.  “You won’t regret it.  I promise.”

“Well, you know, I want to. I do.  But it sounds so, just dangerous or something.”

“It isn’t dangerous.  God, loosen up,” she said exasperatedly.  “You aren’t in any danger.  You have a parachute.  You’re falling toward the earth, fast as can be, and POP…” she jumped up from my bed and stood in front of me.  “Suddenly, everything is just kind of drifting.  It’s a jolt, a great shock, and you realize that the falling was fun.  It was the falling that makes the landing so worth it.”

“The falling, huh?  You’ve done this before?  You know about the falling, and the landing and jolt and everything?”  I sat up.

“No, I haven’t,” she droned and rolled her eyes.  “But I know about living.  I know what it is like to feel the rush of taking a chance.  I know how to live life, and take a chance and not be safe for a moment.”  She leaned forward, and put her lips right up against mine, kissing me with enough force to push me backward onto my bed.  I stopped breathing, only for a second.  Not knowing what else to do, I kissed her back.

She pulled away from me, hoisting her body up from mine with her arms locked at the elbows.  We looked at each other for a moment.  Then the door flew open, and there stood Steve stood with Heidi smiling beside him.

“Hey, ready? Are you guys coming?”  he asked, with a quizzical look on his face.

“You know, I’m not really in the mood for Big Beefburgers,” Rebecca said as she stood and adjusted her t-shirt.  She pushed past Steve on her way through the door.  “I think I’ll order pizza later tonight.  In my room.  At ten.”  She looked right at me.

“What about you?” Steve turned to me.

“I’m not hungry either,” I said, still leaning back on my elbows in my bed.  Steve’s face simultaneously dropped to the floor and flushed with frustration.  “Fine, whatever,” he intoned.  “Whelp, its you and me Heidi.”  The door closed and I was alone.

I rubbed my hands over my head and rubbed my eyes.  I got up, and headed over towards my desk.  I took out the Cure, and shuffled through the random tapes on the shelf until I found U2’s Joshua Tree.  I dropped it in, hit play and “Running to Stand Still” filled the empty room.  I sat down at my desk, and began to tap my fingers.  Finally I picked up my pencil.

“Pastoral literature,” I wrote, “is about life.”

My Cuban Girlfriend

Finca Vigia

Hemingway's Finca Vigia

“You want a girlfriend?”  I look up, and I guess she is about twenty-two, although if I hadn’t already been here two months I would have gone higher.  Living in Havana is hard, and it shows on everything: the dilapidated cars, the worn brick buildings, the lines and creases on everyone’s face.  She is literally squeezed into a pair of red satin shorts and a pink tank top.  The aesthetic here is not the heroin-chic from up in the States.  Women are big, and strong, and hefty.  The men are lean and emaciated.  It is all backwards.

“You like me, be your girlfriend?” she asks again.  If I said yes, she would immediately pull up a chair and sit silently with me at the table.  In return I would buy her a sandwich – thin flat meat and cheese on white bread.  Back home, it would be a Cuban sandwich. Here, it is a girlfriend sandwich, reserved only for tourists who have no idea what they are ordering, and for girlfriends.

It confused me at first, why  hookers were called girlfriends.  But now I’ve seen enough single, lonely retired US Army officers (you can always tell by the haircut and the tattoos) smoking cigars with a girlfriend half their age to learn the intricacies.  A girlfriend is more than just someone you spend the night with.  You spend time with a girlfriend, perhaps days or your entire stay here.  You treat each other nice – which means you buy her a sandwich (and perhaps food and diapers for her kids), and she gets your rocks off twice a day, no questions asked.

She reaches out and caresses my hand.  “So, you need a girlfriend?”  I shake my head, say “No thanks.”  I look down, staring at the peeling laminated table.  I have learned the best way to make girlfriends go away is to avoid making eye contact.  Two months and I feel that is all I have to say about this place: keep to yourself.

After she leaves, Miguel comes over and brings me a new beer.  I do not even have to ask anymore, he brings them when he sees I have a few sips left in my bottle.  Miguel lives in the hotel, in what he describes as a ‘closet behind the kitchen.’  In the morning he works the lobby bar, and in the afternoon he waits the tables at the outdoor café.  Every day we chat, and he has become the closest thing I have to a friend.  The money he makes he sends to his sister and her family, who live somewhere far from the city, in what I imagine is a picturesque cabana on the beach. When he asks what I do that allows me to sit aimlessly in a hotel bar everyday, I answer that I am a writer.  He laughs, saying, “Every American comes thinking he can be the next Hemingway.”

“I forgot he was here,” I say, which is true.  When I confess that I haven’t written a word since arriving, Miguel volunteers, “You have to go to Casa Hemingway.”  He makes all the arrangements, and two days later I am standing in front of a beautiful, tiny oasis.  Everything is as Hemingway left it when Castro’s regime stopped him from coming.  Miguel is the ultimate of guides, and recounts stories about Hemingway with pride: His record of drinking sixteen Daiquiris in one evening at the El Floridita hotel; That there are eight thousand books lining the walls of the tiny house.  In Miguel’s opinion, it was not depression that caused Hemingway to blow off his own head with a shotgun, but the knowledge that he no longer could come visit this small piece of Paradise. Then he says to me, “My sister lives not too far from here, and she can get us lunch.”  Thirty minutes later we are sitting on the beach, as I had imagined, but in a deplorable shanty. Lunch is a sloppy cheeseburger, so rare that the unkempt mustache I have grown is sticky with the juices.  It is the best burger I have ever had, but I wonder if later tonight if my intestines will implode.

Miguel plays with his nieces and nephews on the beach, while his sister offers me homemade Mojitos, sickly sweet and slowly getting me drunk.  When she asks why I came to Cuba, I pause to think of an answer.

In the States, I had to fight the deforestation of the Amazonian Rainforest, protest oil drilling in nature preserves, and only eat range-free chickens.  I had to do all this, and still eke out a living on 300 word assignments and the occasional feature for a cooking magazine.  It was too complicated, and I felt guilty, mostly for not caring and simply going through the motions.  I figured coming to Cuba I could find some beauty in the Cubans and the nobility of living simply.  Despite the fact I had to sell my car to get here, I realize I have more money in my hotel room than most Cubans will make in their lifetime. Now I realize I have seen Miguel’s sister at the hotel bar, looking for boyfriends even while Miguel waited tables. Part of me is sickened by it, and part of me realizes she does it not because she is lonely, but because she needs to buy diapers. This doesn’t free me at all, but makes me feel even guiltier.

Miguel comes up from the beach, sweating and breathless, and sits down beside me.  “This is paradise, for you, right man?”  I nod.  “I hook you up, help you write, see the real Cuba.”  He leans over and whispers, “And my sister, she’s beautiful, right?”  My stomach churns, not from the hamburger, but from what I know is coming next.

“You need a good girlfriend, keep you happy and help you write.  She’s good for you, I know.”  I realize now that Miguel was not being my friend, but an opportunist.  All three of us sit there, watching the surf, and I look down at my feet.  But that won’t make this girlfriend go away.