The Fiction of Owen Thomas

Tiny Points of Life

Failure to Thrive: Act III — The Birds

Sleep, long in coming, arrived without warning. I overslept and had to race to the convention center without breakfast. I looked over my notes in the back of the cab, circling essential points in red.

        Outline (have a road map).
        Set production goals.
        Write every day.
        Kill your television.
        Plow new ground.
        Hemmingway: only take breaks in the middle of a good sentence.
        Write first, edit later (just get it down!)

The cab driver wanted to talk about sailing. “Je ne comprends pas,” I said, shrugging into his rearview mirror and forgetting that I had only moments ago ordered him to the convention center in perfect English. He took the hint and I went back to my notes.

When I arrived, the agenda was already under way. Not wanting to interrupt by taking my seat at the presenters’ table, I stood quietly in the back of the ballroom. My seat at that table sat empty behind a glass of water, a yellow notepad and a paper placard: Kathleen Sorenson.

I waited, looking across a sea of floating heads. An agent of some repute paced behind the dais and spoke with amplified authority about trends in non-fiction publishing.

“Things are moving very fast,” she said. “It is not enough to know what people are interested in reading now. Your agents and publishers are green-lighting the stories that people will be interested in reading a year from now. Stories they do not even know about yet. The now is already too late. If you are not thinking at least one year ahead of the now, then a whole lot of work will go into delivering a product that will completely fail to thrive in the market.”

She popped imaginary balloons with her finger.

D…O…A. Why? Because by the time you bring that book into the world there will be a dozen others on the shelf just like it. And everyone will be putting their money on the next original story.”

She finished twenty minutes later to enthusiastic applause. During the Q & A, I made my way to the presenters’ table and took my seat, offering my whispered apologies to the panel. Each of them nodded an unconvincing pardon.

Three more presenters would come and go before my turn. When I finally took the dais, the room had a heavy, somnolent air. My audience was in the thick of digesting its lunch. Men crossed their arms over their chests. Women checked their teeth in tiny mirrors. Words died in my mouth. Those that cleared my lips sank quickly, as stones not shaped for skipping. I made all of my points in more or less the way I had hoped, holding myself out to them as an expert on maintaining creative productivity.

        Set production goals.
        Write every day.
        Kill your television.
        Plow new ground.

If I convinced any of them, I did not convince myself. The night’s creative frenzy was rapidly receding, seeping back into my soil, leaving behind the residue of self-delusion. Even as I lectured, my mind grasped for those ill-conceived characters – the reporter, the sister, the man with the crooked leg, all of those sun-soaped sheep and dying kangaroos – as proof of my fertility. One by one, the characters abandoned me, leaving me with shadows and clouds that no longer resembled anything.

I’m not quite sure what I expected. Perhaps that a grateful audience would rise to its feet in ovation. Reflecting. Confirming. Urging me forward with a renewed confidence in my claim to demiurgical greatness. I received a smattering of perfunctory applause and a spinach-speckled yawn from a fat man in the front row.

There were no questions.

I returned to the presenter’s table, sat heavily and poured myself a glass of water wishing it were gin. The woman next to me, an agent for writers looking for international distribution and/or screenplay credits, patted me on the forearm and lied politely. She was tan and draped in silk and expensive jewelry. Her honeyed hair was pulled back into a tight bun, no doubt fastened to the same bolt that kept her skin taught. She diddled with a pair of expensive sunglasses on the table. It was all I could do not to empty the pitcher of non-gin into her lap.

The conference coordinator leapt Peter-Panishly to the podium with extra verve. I can only assume he sensed the gathering ennui. A mass, mid-afternoon exodus would have reflected poorly on the conference, so I knew better than to mistake his motive as a favor to me. As he emoted I drank my water and planned my escape. 

“Well,” he gushed, “thank you Kathleen Sorenson for such great advice. That was really spectacular. Kathleen is with us every year, all the way from Michigan.”

“Minnesota,” I said, leaning towards the table microphone.

“Minnesota!” He laughed like I had given the winning answer to a difficult game show question. “My apologies, Kathleen. Minnesota. Kathleen’s latest book is a thriller entitled Don’t Forget. I believe it’s still out the on the bookshelves so pick up a copy or search for it on-line. Okay…”

Not … Forgotten, ” I said in a loud, slow over-enunciation, trying not to spit into the microphone.

“Excuse me?”

“It’s titled, Not Forgotten.

“Well… I’m zero for two, aren’t I? My apologies, Kelly.”


The audience was laughing. He was laughing. My fellow presenters were laughing. I was scowling like a wet cat. I realized too late that he was having some fun at my expense just to rouse the restless, under-stimulated attendees. 

My resurgent smile was far too slow to convey sincerity to anyone in that room. Ms. International Movie Star Agent patted my forearm again and beamed enough for the both of us. The coordinator laughed and gestured like we were in on the joke together.

“Well, enough funning around,” he said. “Let’s move on, shall we? We have a real treat for you this afternoon. As many of you may know, Katja Sorenson…” He broke off. Looked over at me. “No relation, I assume, Kathleen?”

I shook my head, warily.

“Just checking. Anyway, Katja Sorenson died a year ago in February. If you were a fan of Katja’s writing then I know you have mourned her passing. She was a magnificent writer, all the more so as a Norwegian émigré for whom English was a second language. Orphaned as a young child, she came to New York when she was nine. She arrived in the care of an uncle who died in a traffic accident only a month after setting foot on American soil, leaving Katja in the hands of the state. I will not depress you with the details of her captivity – and there is no other word for it.

“We remember Katja for the incredible works of fiction, both long-form and short-form, that she gave to us in her sixty-year career. Fifteen published novels, dozens of short stories, countless letters. Katja was alone in the world for most of her life. She was a solitary writer. She was a solitary person.

“But she had one good friend. Just one. Those that have followed Katja’s life know that it is difficult to not hear her name as one-half of a pair: Katja and June. Those countless letters, to which I earlier referred, when you weed out those sent to editors, agents and publishers, were written almost entirely to June Cale. It is a remarkable friendship that spanned almost the entirety of Katja’s professional writing career. June Cale was a British journalist of impressive talent who lived and worked all over the world. The decades of correspondence between these two women, these two writers, these two amazing friends, is truly something to behold.

“If you have not read it already, I highly commend to you the authorized biography that June Cale wrote of Katja Sorenson’s life entitled Letters from Katja. The book, a wonderful tribute to her friend, was published six months before June Cale tragically died in a plane crash in Africa.  It is no surprise that Katja was devastated by the loss and lived only another handful of years.

“Our guest for you today is a tremendous fan of both Katja Sorenson and June Cale. In fact, there may be no greater fan. Please welcome June’s son, Lance Peters.”

Gone was the somnolent buzzing that had greeted me at the podium. The room was alive with fresh interest. The applause was loud and sustained as a young man in a dark suit rose from a seat in the middle of the room and made his way to the dais.

He was sturdy looking.

With a boyish face.

And thick, straw-colored hair.

I choked on my water. Ms. International Movie Star Agent swatted me smartly on the back.

Lance, I marveled in abject horror. It’s… Lance.

My mind scrambled to reject everything my eyes and ears were confirming to be true. Rejected that he was here at all. Rejected that he had been in the audience from the beginning. Rejected that any of this could be happening.

He strode confidently to the podium. Cleared his throat.

“Good afternoon.”

The voice was the same. Good afternoon. Those two words were like loose boulders, announcing the coming avalanche. I closed my eyes.

“Good afternoon. Thank you. Thank you for having me. Thank you to Bridgette and Steven for inviting me.

“I will not keep you long. I am not a professional writer or a speaker. I own a construction company in Deluth, Minnesota. I do not belong in this distinguished group. Not because I cannot write. I can. Like many of you, I have an MFA certificate on my wall. Sadly, however, I was never strong enough to take the vow of poverty. I have a weakness for comfortable living. That, and I have a problem with rejection.

“My only occasion to speak to groups of people is by invitation from organizations, like this one, that represent writers of all stripes – journalists and fiction writers – to talk about my mother, June Cale and her famous friend, Katja Sorenson. I have done it many times since Katja’s death. It is something I like to do and that I feel obliged to do. These were truly remarkable people and I think they have left an enduring legacy. So I speak to you now in that connection and as an avid reader of books. I love reading what you write. You people keep me alive. You really do. So I thank you for that.”

He waited as the group applauded lightly in its self-congratulation.

“I also want to thank Steven for plugging Letters from Katja. If you do not already have a copy, I encourage you get one. You will not regret it. I am here in part because my mother’s publisher pays me to help them promote this wonderful book. I would certainly do it for free. But let’s keep that just between us. That’s not for publication.”

The audience laughed heartily.  The sound pried my eyes open. I still could not believe my eyes.  Lance. Lance of the window seat.  Lance with the burly bicep beneath my unbidden palm. Lance with the book by K.P. Sorenson.

He had the book with him. He pointed with it. He caressed it like a talisman.

K.P. Sorenson. I wanted to slither beneath the presenter table and die.

“I was fortunate enough to spend many hours with Katja Sorenson. My parents were both Brits. They met in London in 1963 when fate steered his taxi into her bicycle. Ironically, as the story goes, he was the one who was injured, cracking his head against the windshield. Within the space of five years, my parents had exchanged names, had their first coffee together, conceived a child, married, separated and divorced. It was a short and frustrating union for both of them. My mother’s globetrotting lifestyle meant that full custody went to my father. Happily so for everyone, I think. My father was a civil engineer. Around that time his company got a contract consulting on a series of bridge projects in Michigan. One trip to America and he was hooked. The last time I called London home, I was six.

“I had a wonderful relationship with my mother. I called her “June”, not mother or mom. She was not one for labels. She thought they got in the way of things.  My father and I lived in Michigan, and then Minnesota, and when she was able to stay in one place, my mother lived in Australia, just outside Melbourne. Her father, my grandfather, had been a cattle rancher. Henry Cale was his name. He died several years after my parents divorced and left June everything he owned, including the Melbourne property. When she was not out traveling the globe for a story, the ranch in Melbourne was where she could be found. She visited me and my father many times in this country, for she was often in either New York or Chicago on her way to someplace else. But when I went to see her, I went to Melbourne. And it so happened that many of those trips coincided with visits from Katja Sorenson.

“June and Katja loved horses, even in their later years. We all went riding as often as possible. We camped out under the stars. We sat around the campfire telling jokes. And I remember reading to each other. That was tradition. We were each required to bring a book. Any book would do. As long as we liked it. After eating, we took turns reading our favorite passages. It was a wonderful experience.

“I have a good friend in Melbourne and I visit him as often as I can. I still go riding and camping. But I miss the nights with Katja and June. Sitting around the fire reading by firelight.  There is such comfort in those memories. I like remembering Katja and June together, sitting arm to arm on the other side of the fire. Even after having known each other for decades, their mutual affection was always so fresh and palpable. It stayed that way to the very end. It was like they could never get enough of each other’s company. They occupied the same thought. They shared something visceral.

“It was difficult to think of one them without the other. It still is.

“June met Katja in 1955 in a hospital room in Sirsa, which is in the state of Haryana, India just south of Punjab.  Katja, who was then visiting India researching the book that would become A Thousand Broken Moons, had been admitted for an emergency appendectomy.

“June at that time was living in India, working as a stringer for the London Times. She had been admitted to the hospital because she had been nearly beaten to death covering a riot near Patlala. She suffered internal abdominal injuries, a broken jaw, and head injuries so severe that they put her into a coma for nearly two weeks. June was four months pregnant at the time. The baby did not survive her injuries. There was no guarantee that June would survive either.

“The way June tells the story, she woke up one day in a fog of pain to the sound of a woman’s voice, speaking at her bed side. June did not know this woman. She thought maybe the hospital had provided her with an English-speaking nurse to make her more comfortable. There was so much pain that even after she was out of her coma, June wafted in and out of consciousness for days. But each time she awoke, it was to the sound of a woman speaking to her in lightly accented English.

“Not speaking to her. Reading to her.

“When June was coherent enough to think past the pain and discomfort, she learned that the voice did not belong to a nurse. The voice was that of Katja Sorenson, an American writer in a wheelchair recovering from an appendectomy that had produced some life-threatening complications.

“Katja, it turned out, when she was well enough, was permitted to wander the hospital in her chair at night. She was a very active and independent person and did not take confinement easily, even in her convalescence. One evening, she had happened upon the unconscious June Cale and began asking around about her.  Katja learned from the nurses the story of June’s injuries and that June was apparently alone in the world, or at least alone in India. She had received no visitors and no calls. Her baby was gone and there was no degree of confidence among the hospital staff that June would ever wake up.

“On every subsequent evening, Katja returned to June’s room and read to her. It did not matter to Katja that June was not conscious. It only mattered that June was alone and that if there was even the faintest pulse of a chance that June might hear Katja’s voice and follow her words out of the darkness, then Katja wanted to give June that chance.

“So she read. Every night she read, feeding June syllables in the soft spoon of her voice as a kind of nourishment. This went on for days. The Indian doctors, to their credit, were very accommodating. They had done all they could do. They let Katja have her chance.

“And then, one day, June fluttered back up toward the light.

“And there sat Katja. Reading. Still reading.

“The book from which Katja was reading was actually the book I have here in my hand. It was her very first published book called The Long Night of Dwindling, republished many years later under the new title, Failure to Thrive. At that time in her life, Katja Sorenson had only published two books and she was in India working on her third, A Thousand Broken Moons.

“That makes it sound as though Katja Sorenson was on a winning streak. As though she was holding onto some comet blistering its way towards fame and fortune.

“Far from it. Katja was going nowhere fast.

“At that point in her life Katja was engaged in a very rough conversation with herself about whether she had what it took to be a writer. Her first two books, including this one, were not selling well. She despaired that maybe she did not have a voice that anyone would care to hear. Alcohol showed up dangerously early in her life and kept her company far too often. Katja was used to being alone. She had always been alone. A child of orphanages. On that trip to India, she had almost nothing to her name. No friends. No family. Nothing to think of as a real home.

“At that point in her life, Katja Sorenson had an undeniable talent, a cautious but willing publisher, and two books to her credit. She had been born into the world of books. But there was still hanging in the air above her the very real question of whether she had what it took to actually thrive as a writer. In the throes of answering that question, India in 1955 was a very dark and desperate time for Katja. As she has said several times over her career, Katja felt lucky to have survived India at all.

“I have read all of Katja’s books. Objectively speaking, Failure to Thrive is not my favorite. It is an early precursor to Katja at her best, which was still a decade away. But it is my sentimental favorite, because I believe that book saved my mother. I believe that June did follow Katja’s words out of darkness. I believe those words saved her and, in so doing, made her life possible.

“So then that book made me possible.

“So I read it again every so often, tracing those words; imagining the sound of them in the quiet of an Indian hospital ward. I found this book on a shelf in the airport bookstore yesterday as I was waiting for my plane. So I bought it. I’m reading it all over again. It is one of those absorbent books that seems to fill itself with the world around you at the time you are reading.

“I try to stay receptive to the things and to the people I encounter when I read good literature. It helps me see my life and remember it in a way I otherwise would not. The next time I pick up Failure to Thrive, maybe several years from now, I will remember this afternoon and speaking to all of you in this beautiful city. I will remember the dinner that I am going to have tonight with the parents of my life-partner, Robert. I will remember the … well, how to describe it … the remarkable plane ride out here yesterday. I met a woman who I believe was quite desperate to become a professional fiction writer.  I suppose mental illness is another possibility. It can be hard to tell sometimes.”

I felt him look at me. Impossible, since I was behind him. But I felt it anyway. Since he knew I was back there listening to him speak, he had effectively just told me that he thought I was mentally ill. Or, worse, acting like I was mentally ill. I closed my eyes, willing myself to burst into flame. Alas, my lack of spontaneous combustibility only added to my disappointments for the day. 

“You laugh,” he said when the carbonation around him had settled. “If you doubt me, ask your spouses.

“Seriously though. The next time I read this book, I will remember the woman on the plane. I will wonder how she is getting on. I will worry for her. She too is now in these pages.

“That is the mark of any great literature, I suppose. When one encounters it, it is an experience in and of itself, and like all experience, it comes to you in memory infused with everything and everyone that crossed your path in that moment.

“The paths of Katja Sorenson and June Cale crossed in the pages of the same book – this book – and from that moment, they were in each others lives forever.

“People have long spoken of Katja and June as sisters; enough so that there has been much confusion on this point over the decades. It did not help that they were each striking women who vaguely resembled each other. Nor did it help that their obvious affection for each other was so easily interpreted as familial. In several of the more circulated photographs, particularly when they were both staying in Australia, they could have passed as sisters. They were not actually sisters, of course. But they thought of themselves as such, if not in a familial way, then in a life partner sort of way. They reflected the world for each other. They celebrated and grieved for each other.

“They wrote for each other.

“When I say that they wrote for each other, I mean to include more than the voluminous and eloquent correspondence for which they were known. I mean to include everything they ever wrote after meeting each other. Every one of the hundreds of newspaper articles my mother wrote from nearly every country on the globe. Every novel and every story that Katja published, and all of the things she wrote but, for whatever reason, did not publish.

“Katja wrote for June. June wrote for Katja.

“And this is what I want to say to you today. This is what I would say to the woman on the plane and to anyone who aspires to be a professional writer. Literature – the written word – is a binding agent. It is connective tissue that holds together the human family. I like to think this is true of art generally, but it is undeniably true for music and writing. After India, Katja came to believe that the act of written story-telling, if it is done correctly and in the right spirit, is nothing less than a confession by the writer of what he or she has in common with the reader. It is the author’s way of reaching out over distances and dimensions great and small to say, simply, I am like you. We care about the same things. We love the same things. We have the same nightmares. We have the same heartbeat in our ears. We are twins in the womb of humanity. Do not forget that I am here. Remember me. I am here.

“I think the meeting and enduring friendship of Katja Sorenson and June Cale epitomizes the embrace of literature. The written word introduced them, bonded them, saved them. I believe that Katja was successful as a writer because she was doing so much more with her talent than simply making things up for attention. She was writing for someone. She was throwing a ball, not just anywhere, not just high or fast, but throwing it purposefully, to that person over there, June Cale, standing in the sun with her hands stretched out, waiting to catch it.

“Writing for someone – writing for June Cale – gave Katja’s talent for words purpose and meaning and soul. June saved Katja in that hospital room every bit as much as Katja saved June. It was June, whether she knew it or not, that set Katja on the path as a true writer. Because from the winter of 1955 on, Katja was always writing for someone.

“As writers, you are feeding someone with your words. Nurturing someone. Exciting someone. Wooing someone. Terrifying someone. You are assuring someone that they are not alone in the world, that they have a brother or sister in words, and that your heart beats with theirs.

“My mother died in a twin engine Cessna outside Webuye, Kenya, right near the Ugandan border. She and a colleague with the London Times were off to cover a story on the Ugandan elections. It was a follow-up to a story June had written the previous year. It had been another groundbreaking story for June and the follow-up was much anticipated.

“There were no survivors. June was 72 years old. I do not think that anyone could deny that she died doing what she loved.

“As perhaps you already know, Katja Sorenson took that tragic turn of events very hard. She went into isolation for two or three years. We all tried to reach her, and by that I mean emotionally connect with her, but it was no use.  She kept everything to herself. She kept herself to herself. The alcohol, which had been waiting fifty years for a promotion, finally found its time to reintroduce itself. I will spare you, and her memory, all of that.

“Eventually, Katja pulled herself together enough to come back into her small society of friends. She even published two more books: Unchaining the Wind and The Holcroft Affair. They were not bad books. Sales were certainly okay. But Katja candidly hated them both.

“If you ever read them you will see that those last two books were not written by the same person that gave us All Saints Summer, and Tomorrow as Ever, and Under the Waterberry. That magnificent author, Katja Sorenson, I believe, died in the wreckage with June. The person who remained in her place wrote books for a living, looked like Katja, signed Katja’s name inside the book cover when people asked her for autographs. But it was not the same Katja. She wrote those books, but she did not write them for anyone. She just … she just wrote them.

“Katja Sorenson died at the age of eighty-three on the tenth anniversary of June Cale’s death.

“On the tenth anniversary to the day.

“She had spent most of those ten intervening years living in June’s home in Melbourne. My father and I were both with her when she died. She was eighty-three, but she seemed reasonably healthy for her age. She did not have pneumonia or congestive heart disease or cancer.

“The doctors did not have any good answers for us. Katja simply let go of the world. There was no longer enough to hold her here. She failed to thrive, as they say.

“Thriving takes a kind of whole-heartedness that Katja no longer possessed. In the end, we are either thriving … or we are not at all. We cannot, it seems, simply live. Living takes effort. We must thrive to survive, which his to say that we must live for something. We must have someone or something to wake up to every day.

“Every day. Every day.

“We must wake up to someone or something every day or we will fail to thrive.

“It is the connections we make in our lives that keep us in the game. We live as a narrative between lonely bookends. We are born alone. We die alone. The length of time between those two events depends on how successful we are in finding reasons to thrive while we are here.

“I am not a writer, but I have taken a lesson from two writers, Katja Sorenson and June Cale, about living. The lesson is this: connect whenever you can. Reach out. Let others reach out to you. Even strangers at 35,000 feet. They will do the most outlandish things. They will astonish you with what they say. Let them. Let them. Don’t resist. Let them. Let them read to you from the book of their own lives. Let them autograph your book; the one you carry around inside you. They are only trying to connect. They are only trying to find themselves in you. I’m here. Don’t forget me. We are the same.

“Don’t resist. Let them.

“If you wish to be a true writer, then you must write purposefully, with enthusiasm, not as an act of distinction, but as an act of communion.  You must always write for someone. You must write with the heartbeat of your reader so hot and close in your ears that you are not be able to distinguish the reader’s pulse from your own.

“If you are lucky enough to see your name on the cover of a book, then I hope you are also wise enough to know that the book is not a testament to you. It is a testament to the relationship that you have forged with another person. A reader. It is a testament to how alike you are, how much you need each other, and how fortunate you are to have found each other.”

The applause was warm and robust. I began gathering my things in hope that the commotion of applause and changing speakers would allow for an undetected exit. It was bad form, I knew. My agent-to-the-stars tablemate rotated her rhinoplasty concernedly in my direction and stretched her eyes as best she could. You’re not leaving, the eyes asked. I was supposed to stay for the duration of the conference. But I was not about to risk bumping into Lance Peters. I would feign illness. A bursting appendix. Scurvy. Rickets. The Black Death. Anything.

I smiled back at her with my best you bet your fake face I’m leaving expression. But before I could stand, the room calmed back into quiet.

“I have time for just a couple of questions,” Lance said, pointing. “How about you? What’s your name and where are you from?” I settled back into my chair as a man in the middle of the ballroom was rising.

“Glen. Kansas City.”

“Hi Glen. What’s your question?”

“Did you ever think about following in your mother’s footsteps, or in Katja’s footsteps, and making a living as a writer?”

“No, actually. One of the things I learned early on from these two women is that you are either a writer or you are not a writer. It is either in your bones or it is not a part of you. Building is in my bones. I work with my hands. I have no interest in devoting my life to being someone I am not. And neither should any of you. Writing is not about making a living. God knows that too often writing is about not making a living. Plumbing, now that’s a living.”

The room boiled over with mirth. Glen from Kansas City sat down as dozens of hands snaked up into the air.

“Writing is about something altogether different than making a living. Or it should be. Don’t waste your time, and as an avid reader I would say, don’t waste my time, if you don’t feel it in your bones. Yes, you in the blue.”

A woman stood in the second-to-last row. Many in the audience looked at her and then swiveled their heads in confusion to the presenter table and back again. They were wondering how I could be in two places at once. I would have liked to help them understand, but I was as shocked as they were. Almost.

“Kelly,” said my sister, wearing the exact same blouse in a different color. “From St. Paul Minnesota.”

“Hi Kelly,” said Lance, slowly rotating himself to look back at me. My eyes tried to skitter away in different directions like frightened mice, but in the end I could not help but meet his gaze. I gave him a sickly, apologetic smile. Yes, the smile said, there are two of us.

“What’s your question?”

“I’m a journalist. I write for the St. Paul Pioneer Press. My sister is a novelist and she takes a certain pleasure in lording that over me. She believes that creativity unconstrained by objective fact has a greater access to truth than objectivity unconstrained by the need to entertain. So, I ask you, as the son of a great journalist and the friend of great novelist, which do you think has the greatest claim to truth?”

An uncomfortable murmur rippled through the audience like a breeze over the surface of a lake. The attendees were each busy answering that question for themselves. Lance crossed his arms and stared down at his shoes, thinking.

* * *

After the conference, Kelly jabbed her arm between the elevator doors just before they closed. She was surprised to see me inside, but she covered well.

“Nice blouse,” she said, poking the already lit Lobby button. “You sure bolted out of there in a hurry.”

“Since when do you come to these things?” I asked.

“Since all the time, Kathy. I didn’t come just to hear you speak if that’s what you’re implying. I didn’t even know you were speaking.”

“I’m not implying anything,” I said. “Just surprised to see you is all.”

She smiled a little and we both snickered at the odds of picking the same writer’s conference wearing the same blouse. I looked down. The shoes were also the same. As the elevator doors slid open I was remembering my sister, my other self, holding hands as we sang songs and creeped out our fellow air travelers. It must have been tempting to see each of us as each one-half of a single being; a Kekathlly. But that is completely wrong. I am not one-half of a Kekathlly. I am a whole Kekathlly. And so is my sister. That is the paradox of twindom. We are simultaneously separate and combined. We each occupy two whole spaces in the world. We are not half-anything.

When Lance had finally looked up at the audience, I was, true to form, already heavily invested in my sister’s question. To suggest that the journalist, who simply regurgitates “the things that happened,” has a greater claim to truth than a novelist was plainly absurd. I wanted him to put her in her place. Not brutally so. Kindly dismissive would have sufficed.

“What a great question, Kelly. I’m not quite sure how to answer it. I’m not sure there is an answer. But this is what comes to mind. When my plane was landing yesterday, as we were coming down out of the clouds and you could see San Diego as a cluster of buildings huddled up next to the immense, glimmering Pacific that was then in the process of swallowing the sun whole, there was a flock of birds. Maybe a fifty or so, below and in front of us. I’m not an ornithologist. I can’t tell you what they were. They were small and white and beautiful in the last breath of the dying sun. And I watched them intently for the minute or so that they were in view. They kept changing directions. Fifteen degrees seaward and then, suddenly, thirty degrees back towards land, and then seaward again. I was amazed at how they seemed to act as a single organism. There was no discernable leader. No hierarchy. No arguing or negotiation about which way to turn; whether climb or descend. It was one organism. And yet there were dozens of them; dozens of unique, individual feathered beings.

“They were all going to the same place. No. That is not quite right. They were all looking for the same place. For they – it – kept changing course. Wherever that place was, they were all looking for it as a single organism comprised of separate beings.

“Is it fair to ask which of those individual birds had the greatest claim to that destination? I don’t think it is. We are all looking for the same thing. If you want to call that thing truth, I will not quibble over semantics. The point is that, whether we know it or not, whether we like it or not, we are looking for that thing together, in a flock of individuals. We are adjusting course as a species. I cannot tell you what binds a group of individual birds together. But for us, in my opinion, that thing, that connective tissue reaching throughout our single human organism, is simply the innate desire not to be alone in this life. Each of us wants to be able to look into the face of someone else for confirmation that we are alive and that the world around us is miraculous and horrifying and wonderful.

“Katja and June were dramatically different people. Different skill sets. Different temperaments. Different professional focus. In some respects it is hard to imagine two people less similar. But even separated by half a planet, they always flew together.”

Well, since Lance had chosen to put it that way, it was difficult to disagree. I remembered him pointing to the birds and not caring. His words had the effect of garnishing my humiliation with a renewed sense of professional inadequacy. I thought about my dizzying electric brainstorm the previous night, scribbling page after page to outline a novel about a pregnant newspaper reporter fired for plagiarizing a story about commercial exploitation of cloning research as kangaroos died in the streets of Melbourne. It seemed, suddenly, a purposeless invention for the sake of invention; an arrow fired out into the void, never aimed with the intention to hit any human target. It seemed pointless and beneath me. In my humiliated beeline from the ballroom to the elevators, I felt almost queasy at the thought of how ready I have been to write and think and live short of my true potential. I wanted to write with purpose. I wanted to write for someone. I wanted a June Cale of my own.

Kelly and I ended up sharing a cab. It turned out we were both staying at the same hotel. Not terribly surprising since we both prefer Marriott. I think it is the logo that appeals to us. We stopped at the front desk to ask about late checkout. The clerk could not stop staring.

“Wow,” she said in amazement. “That’s just… wow.”

Kelly and I rolled our eyes at each other and headed down the hallway, making plans to have a drink and maybe dinner. It was easy to shrug off the clerk’s amazement. We had each experienced a full childhood of those kinds of reactions. In any event, there was no way for the clerk to know that I always book the highest floor available and Kelly always likes the ground floor. 

Which I tend to think makes me just a little bit better.

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