Tiny Points of Life
Failure to Thrive: Act I — Flying and Lying
There was a moment, looking up at him, when I thought I wouldn’t move. I just sat there. Like I had died in my seat. I even stopped blinking and held my mouth open a little, just for effect.
He was patient. I’ll give him that. I couldn’t help but wonder just how long he would wait.
Behind him there was a collision of carry-ons. He turned to see. I unbuttoned the top of my blouse while he was distracted, exposing more than was seemly. I assumed he would take it as an oversight; another casualty of the security gauntlet.
He returned his attention. Glanced at the slip of paper in his hand. At the numbers and letters above the seats. Down at me. He smiled, his eyes never seeming to venture below my orbital bones.
He had a simple, boyish face and thick straw-colored hair that made him look ten years younger than what I had assumed to be his real age. He was sturdy. Thick. No stranger to football or hockey I’m guessing. Farm work. Construction.
He adjusted the backpack slung over his shoulder. Waited.
He had a book in his hand. A paperback. Failure to Thrive, by K.P. Sorenson. I thought that was funny in an ironic way. K. Sorenson. What were the odds of that?
The meat of his index finger was stuffed into the front of the book. He substituted the boarding pass for the finger. Waited.
It was not my intention to be rude. Or maybe it was. I had not written a single word in five weeks. I was empty inside. Utterly hollow. The twenty-six letters that I use and abuse to make my living were like a pile of broken sticks at my feet, and me with no imagination left with which to start a fire.
That, and air travel has a way of making me obstinate.
I used to like to fly. I used to look forward to it.
What a terrible understatement. I used to count the days.
There was something suspenseful about the prospect of arching over the earth, as if spit from a cannon. Or a snapped from a slingshot. With all of its preparation and waiting, the process of air travel was inherently anticipatory. Something big was about to happen. That was why we all packed a bag and called a taxi and waited in line and proved our identities. Something fresh and original was about to happen. New food and new people in new, exotic places.
New York City.
There was once an innocent time in my life when I conflated the idea of being someplace else with the actual process of getting there. Going somewhere else and being somewhere else were the same thing. Disneyland started at the Milwaukee airport.
When I was young, my sister Kelly and I used to dress up to get on a plane. Seriously. Dresses and nice shoes and coiffed hair. Necklaces. Bracelets. And hats. We loved hats.
Kelly and I are identical twins. We did everything alike back then. We watched the same television shows. We ordered the same food. We did our homework together and made the same grades. We were those kind of twins. The kind that went absolutely everywhere together and dressed identically in every context. Doublemint disgusting.
Air travel was no exception. We had matching carry-on luggage. Identical purses. We each carried the same Nancy Drew mystery on board to read, starting and stopping together so that neither could claim any greater knowledge of the young detective’s latest predicament. Reading ahead without the other was a kind of twin sin. We each did it, of course. But it always felt wrong.
When someone asked a question that applied to both of us ( “Are you girls all buckled in?” ), we harmonized our responses ( “YYeess, MMaa’’aamm. Wwee ssuurree aarree. SSeeee??” ) We moved in a silent, mirrored choreography that came to us by a combination of instinct, osmosis and a kind of freakish behavioral echolocation. We never had to work at it. It was like breathing.
Looking back, the digital technology analogies are unavoidable. We were continuously uploading data from each other. Actions. Reactions. Emotions. Intentions. We were always syncing ourselves to a common experience. A common existence. To see us coming through an airport, or down the jet way, or threading our way between the rows of seats was like watching Olympic synchronized swimmers who had seriously lost their way to the pool.
The double-takes were constant, which was good because it was often the reaction of others that kept our unity in focus. The more people stared, the more we knew that we were not Kathy and Kelly, but a perfect combination of Kathy and Kelly. A single, obnoxiously perfect, squeaky-voiced, color-coordinated entity.
Our mother had very clear ideas about what it meant to be a twin. For she, too, was a twin. The photos were everywhere in our home. My mother celebrated my Aunt Maxine like her Catholic friends celebrated the Pontiff; garlanded on the walls and the tops of dressers. But, as is probably always true with garlanded photos, the reproduction was wantonly unfaithful to the original.
Poor Aunt Maxine.
The whispered family lore is that she was so misguided as to think herself an original, chaffing constantly against the unwelcome likeness of her twin. She died in Kansas City, when she was eighteen, jumping into what she thought was the deep end of a quarry. Maxine, they say, was under the influence of marijuana and a wastrel named Dirk Duzz.
Well, Dirk duzzn’t any more. They jumped together. They were in love; a tragically heavy and shallow state of mind for people so young.
My mother was devastated for years after Maxine’s death, but emerged believing more than ever that twins were twins for a reason. Originality was unnatural. And dangerous. She worried whenever Kelly and I were apart. And because children adopt the fears of their parents, we worried too. We stayed shoulder-to-shoulder as much as possible. We slept in the same room in separate twin beds, but felt compelled to push the beds together. We brushed our teeth together at the sink. We showered together. Got up together in the middle of the night and padded down the hallway in our matching pink pajamas.
We waited for each other to pee. One flush. We were only trying to be safe.
I’m sure there is a clinical term for that kind of dysfunctional self-concept. There must be. Hyperphobic Sympathetic Siamesism. HSS. As children we suffered from chronic HSS. Thanks Mom.
My father was not a twin. My father was an only child and a disabled vet who left the better part of his left leg in a Southeast Asian rice paddy. He used a prosthetic that made the process of walking look like a barely controlled prelude to a pratfall; a rolling stumble. Every time the leg caught his weight seemed like it would be the last time such a thing was even possible. The next step always promised disaster.
At night, my father stood the leg up in the corner of my parent’s bedroom. It was crooked and covered in fake tattoos. Just to give it a little personality, he liked to say. Without the prosthesis, my father used crutches. His good leg – his only leg – seemed lonely without a mate. It was impossible not to imagine the real leg pining for its plastic counterpart, willing to ignore everything that was alien about it for even the slightest semblance of companionability.
My father was a complicated man, haunted and given to bouts of anger and self-loathing. As identical as we were, he always seemed to prefer Kelly’s company to my own. I have no explanation for this; she simply connected with him better than I ever did.
Of course, we each felt this way, convinced that my father’s affections ran disproportionately toward the other. So in that respect I suppose we were identical even there.
Eventually, with more than a little help from the savage crucible of high school, life warped Kelly and me out of sync. Whereas before we had resisted the voice of the self like it was the whisper of the Devil, suddenly we found ourselves starved for original experience and original thought and original expression. Similar, but not identical, was not an option. Originality was suddenly its own value. Broadcasting our originality was imperative.
Which meant that by our Senior year we were dressing like we had been shat upon by the St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Store Fairy. My favorite party ensemble included white pumps, plaid culottes, and a backless, banana-yellow, polyester disco blouse.
And a hat, of course. Go Brewers.
Kelly favored capes. And clusters of fabric fruit pinned into her shoulder pads. And high-top basketball shoes. She stopped wearing hats altogether and picked up a fetish for sunglasses instead. Sometimes in the right light she looked like Elton John in high-top basketball shoes.
I never wore make up, even on formal occasions. Kelly always went full Kabuki even if she was just going out to the movies or a ball game.
Our social circles fractured. Kelly’s friends hated me. My friends hated Kelly. We never went to the same parties, a development fortunate for the hosts, who surely would not have deserved the bolt of lightening hurled by whatever deity was in charge of punishing sartorial offense.
But, in truth, it was less an accommodation to the hosts and the god of fashion than a concession to the fact that Kelly and I, once inseparable, could not stand to be in the same room together, let along share a punch bowl. Inevitably, our exploding self-concepts as unique and original beings required that each of us see an enemy of sorts in the other. Each of us had, somewhere along the way, ceased being a twin and had become an evil doppelganger.
It would be overstatement to say that Kelly and I hated each other. We didn’t. But we did fight a lot. Terrible name-calling, slapping, hair-pulling, property destroying fights. She once used an iron to melt all of my Beatles albums. In retaliation (or because I was bored, I no longer remember) I drizzled a strand of glue into her mascara.
Kelly moved out of the house to live with a friend two months before graduation, leaving me to deal with our overwrought mother and the ghost of Aunt Maxine. Kelly was not into quarry-diving, but she was a bungee-jumping fanatic with a wastrel boyfriend. The similarities were almost more than my mother could take.
She did everything she could to broker a lasting peace. She made our favorite foods. She bought us identical, but different colored clothing. She even proposed a family trip to Disneyland.
But peace was not in the cards. Nothing worked. Not even the mountain of guilt that finally sloughed off the back end of my mother’s angina attack was enough to bring us together. Kelly and I showed up at her hospital bedside ashamed of what we had done and ended up fighting over which of us was the real culprit. My mother eventually saw the hopelessness of the situation when the nurse came in and asked us to keep it down or to leave. My mother asked that only one of us stay with her at a time. We fought viciously over who should leave first. The nurse returned in a huff to make the dispute irrelevant.
Kelly and I tumbled into an emotional, matter-antimatter estrangement that we each knew had to be enforced and reinforced if we were to survive as individuals. Kelly was my Kryptonite, and I was hers. As important as it had been to us as children to be the same – to be identical – it was equally important to us in our late adolescence to be different.
To be opposite.
It never occurred to us that one mindset was just as ridiculous as the other. Ridiculous because just as there were actually many things that individuated us when we were inseparable (I loved apples, Kelly did not. Kelly frightened easily, I did not), there were just as many things binding us in similarity when we were estranged. We liked reading. And creative writing. And long-distance running. And old musicals. We tended to bump into each other in the take-out line at the same restaurants, having ordered the same thing. Without consulting each other, we applied to the same six universities and were accepted by the same four.
As adults, we graduated from different schools with the same MFA degree. Kelly graduated thirteenth in her class. I graduated fifteenth. I moved to Minneapolis and married a civil engineer named Stewart. Kelly moved to St. Paul and married an electrical engineer named Stuart. I write fiction for a living and subscribe to the St. Paul Pioneer Press for my news. Kelly writes news for the St. Paul Pioneer Press and writes stage plays in her free time. We both drive 2006 Nissan Sentras. Mine is black. Kelly’s is silver.
Neither of us have children, but both of us have tried. I lost my son – Elvis, it is important to say his name—when he was two days old. He was born slightly premature. Stewart and I hadn’t chosen a name. We had wanted to be surprised about the gender. We assumed that when we first saw our child the name would come to us. We would be inspired in the moment. I was big on inspired creativity. I was the writer and mother, so Stewart deferred. Elvis and Angelina were just stand-in names; the ones we used until he or she was actually born and we, meaning I, was inspired with an actual name.
Inspiration never had a chance.
The doctors did not have any good reasons. They said Elvis suffered from a failure to thrive; a diagnosis that comes with a free shoulder shrug. Eight months later, my sister Kelly had a miscarriage.
I don’t blame the doctors. I am inclined to blame my own ambivalence about having children. I suspect the same of my sister. Neither of us is in a hurry to try again. I think we’re both terrified of having twins.
Having matured into our middle-adulthood and grown more secure in our individuality, we are on reasonably good terms and see each other three or four times a year. I no longer see my sister as a threat to the quintessential me. Indeed, our likenesses tend to bring our differences into sharp relief.
So, for example, we both write for a living. But, as a journalist, Kelly collects facts already in existence and then rearranges them on the page for an editor’s approval. Not unlike a six year old pushing magnets around the face of a refrigerator.
By contrast, as a fiction writer, I conjure my own facts and I answer to no one. I can use obscenities and poor grammar, Kelly can’t. I can play God, bending the fate of my subjects to my own will. Kelly can’t.
That makes me freer than she is.
That makes me more creative and original.
That makes me an all-around better person with a superior claim to happiness.
Not that I am always deeply creative and original. Far from it. I have my moments, but the truth is that my writing career is marbled with long, fat stretches of doubt; periods in which I feel completely bereft of any lean, original thought. I can stare at a blank screen for hours, waiting for some evidence of intelligence to animate my fingers and to start spelling itself out. The agony is enough sometimes to make me want to trade in my laptop for a Ouija board. Spooky maybe, but faster.
I imagine in those empty hours that I must be experiencing what it is like to work for S.E.T.I., staring up into open space, watching and waiting for something wholly alien to make its presence known.
I’m not picky about what this alien intelligence has to say for itself. I just need not to feel alone and powerless in a universe of possibility. So I will sit, staring at an empty screen, my single heartbeat sending out a message, waiting for a response. An echo. Anything. This can go on for weeks at a time. Months.
Even casual observers can tell when I am lost in the creative desert, because I seem to suffer from a kind of general I.Q. leakage. I start sentences with Like. Greetings are punctuated with cries of Dude! and Babe! My conversation is too often structured around banal observations about the weather. I drink cheap box wine and watch a lot of late night talk shows. My powers of discernment weaken. My political opinions all congeal down into a half-hearted preference for moderation in all things and a wistfully generic longing for the imaginary good-ole days.
It is a more persistent problem than I like to admit. The interval between my first and second novel was almost exactly a year. The interval between my second and third novel was three years, during which time I did a lot of marketing and website designing and book touring, and very little creative writing. I travelled the country accepting invitations to talk to book clubs and writing classes about my creative methodology. Character development. Plot mechanics. The tricks to staying fresh and original.
Which is great.
Except that it is all a lie.
There is no “trick” to being a fresh and original writer. You either are, or you are not, a fresh and original writer. There are only tricks by which you might make yourself appear fresh and original. Tricks like travelling the country and lecturing people on the subject of fresh and original writing. Tricks like slandering the up-and-coming generation of writers by penning essays for industry publications entitled “The Death of Originality” and “Plagiarize This!”
The only trick is in suggesting that there is a trick.
Certainly, there is no way to be an original writer if, in the pink of your marrow, you harbor doubts about the originality of your very existence. You cannot be an original writer if, despite years of stridulous and even violent individuation, you still think of yourself as a copy. As one of two.
My sister likes to visit me in such moments of despair. Not actually, but in my mind. She shows up in dreams and idle moments with that supercilious expression that I hate – made all the more aggravating because it is an expression arranged out of facial features identical to my own. It’s like I’m sneering at myself.
Kelly will look at me in my mind’s eye and say something outrageous like: Did you see that car accident on the corner? I think I’ll write a newspaper article about it. Won’t my editor be pleased? Won’t tens of thousands of my readers be pleased to read the words that will take me ten minutes to type? … What? Having trouble being original?
In my deeper slumps, it is impossible not to feel like a complete fraud both as a writer and a person. Drinking can become a problem. I pick fights with Stewart over ridiculous things like remote control monopolization. My libido takes a nosedive and yet I will often dress more provocatively and flirt compulsively with strangers.
And not eyelash-batting flirt, either. Pole-dancing flirt. Tuck-some-Washingtons-into-my-elastic flirt.
Not that I’d actually do anything with a stranger. I love my husband. But there are times in the depths of a writing slump when I have to convince myself that I really… might… just… do whatever it is I’d never actually do. Something completely unexpected. Something otherwise unthinkable.
Something Kelly would never do.
This behavior is highly dysfunctional, I know, but hardly idiopathic. I know well from whence it comes. I am trying to find that second, telltale heartbeat. The one to which my own heart is calibrated. I need to find it, to hear it, to feel it and then to snuff it out so that I might convince myself all over again of the independence of my own heart. This is how I remind myself that I am alive. That I am unique. Original.
I think of the trauma of being born; of being summarily expelled from the womb and no longer hearing that other heartbeat – the heartbeat of creation—enveloping my entire body.
I think of Kelly floating next to me. Thump-thump. Thump-thump. The two of us sounding off together, harmonizing like we do. TThhuummpp-tthhuummpp. TThhuummpp-tthhuummpp.
And then, suddenly, it is just me, a crimson, screaming half-truth, alone in the blinding light of the world, my heart like the stump of a one-legged orphan.
It is hard not to feel abandoned and forsaken. Less than whole. The feeling never really goes away. Thus the cloying eccentricities of twindom.
And thus, strangely, the urge to write original prose.
Writing something original – that is, creating – fills a circulatory function in my life. It works a kind of pump that moves the lymph and the blood, stimulates the brain, and aerates the viscera, not of the body, but of the soul. When my creative voice leaves me, I cannot write. And when I cannot write, the pump that animates my existence wheezes to a stop. All that is in me, all that is me, all that is not my sister, settles into an eerie stillness that portends an unbearable solitude and leaves only half a self.
So, in the grips of my recurring existential crisis – the one where, staring at a blank screen, I fear I may never be able to write another word – I tend to over-correct. I tend to overcompensate for the tenacious feeling that my creative life has left me for dead, trying to prove to myself that I am still a vital demiurge. I live to manufacture a kind of extreme spontaneity – the more outlandish the better – as a cheap substitute for originality.
In my writing life, this desperate overcompensation manifests itself in a fairly ridiculous and artificial profusion of language. My prose starts to preen and strut, leaving a trail of ostentatious and sesquipedalian paragraphs collapsing from the weight of their own pretension. All too casually I toss in glittering, distant words like they were alms to the poor. Words like stridulous and whence and demiurge and idiopathic.
In such fits of self-loathing it gives me shameless comfort to believe that if my readers do not understand what I am saying, if they cannot intellectually afford my words, then they will acknowledge the bargain of my original genius. I do not pretend here to be honorable, merely veridical.
Conversationally, my penchant for overcompensation comes in the form of what I call unsanctioned fiction. This is more commonly referred to as lying.
Were I to write it down on paper, put it between two pieces of cardboard, and adorn it with encomiums and a vaguely representational drawing, the world would call it a work of fiction. The world would even pay money for it and ask me to read parts of it aloud through a microphone at people trying to shop in local bookstores.
But if I fail to render the fiction on paper, and instead speak it to my neighbor over a hedge of shrubbery, then the world considers my words an intentional misrepresentation and judges me harshly. Nothing about this seems fair or sensible, but it is absolutely true.
And yet, even knowing this, I cannot help myself. The lie – that ugly, reviled, tiny, tiny, tiny stepchild of the novel (which, let’s face it, is really just a very long lie) – is an original creation. The lie is invention itself. It is the familiar creative heartbeat for which, in the depths of my alienation, I long. It proves to me that I am still alive.
Stewart knows me well enough to double-check virtually everything I tell him whenever I am in my creative doldrums. Trust but verify, said President Reagan. Stewart can see me coming and take precaution against undue reliance.
The same cannot be said for our friends who, knowing and suspecting less than intimates, are at the mercy of my threadbare compassion.
And strangers, I am sad to say, are sitting ducks.
The man with the backpack and the book and the patient look cleared his throat. His eyes, finally, took in some cleavage.
“I’ve got the window seat,” he said, gesturing. I smiled and bent my legs sideways, implying an invitation to crawl over me. He was nimble for his size. He stuffed his pack in the overhead bin and cleared my knees with room to spare.
I forced myself to leave him alone for much of the flight. Some part of me was conscious enough to be ashamed of how I can behave in those desperate moods.
But it had been a long, dry spell for me. My most recent novel at that time had been on the bookshelves for almost nineteen months. It was posting middling sales, but I had long grown convinced that it was terribly contrived. Worse, in all of that time, I had yet to have a single idea for the next novel, the one that would correct what I assumed had to be a growing misimpression among my readers that I was actually a stale and unoriginal writer. Nineteen months was a long time to keep the faith.
I was certain I would never write another word. I was dead. My epitaph was scrawled across the cover of my seatmate’s book: Failure to Thrive.
It usually does not get any worse than dead. But in my case I was dead and flying to San Diego for a writers’ conference at which I was to pretend to be very much alive. Specifically, I was scheduled to address writers and aspiring writers, my colleagues, my agent, and my publisher, on the subject of, of all things, productivity. How to turn out those pages. How to keep the creative momentum without losing that original signature – that certain j’ne sais quoi that makes you stand out on a crowded bookshelf. They wanted a positive, encouraging address.
That, by any measure, at least at that time in my life, was worse than dead.
So I lasted until we were somewhere over Utah. The flight attendant advanced, relentlessly swiveling her pinched expression left and right, left and right, left and right, a metronome of implicit rejection. She gave me a look as I thrust my three little empty bottles out into the aisle. She was obviously still miffed about having to tell me four times to turn off my phone. She took the bottles, stretched her lips at me and kept moving.
I looked over at the sturdy farm boy by the window, reading his book. I was wretched. I couldn’t help myself.
“Enjoying the book?” I asked. He looked at me a little surprised.
“I said are you enjoying the book?”
He looked at the paperback in his hands as if it had taken my question for him to realize that he was even holding a book.
“Yes,” he said. “I am.”
“Good,” I said. “It took me long enough to write it. Glad to know it was worth the effort.”
The man-child’s jaw went a little slack. A wisp of confusion crossed his brow like a lazy cloud. I jutted my hand across the seat.
“I’m Kathy Sorenson,” I said.
He shook my hand, simultaneously glancing at the front of his book.
K.P. Sorenson, it said.
He flipped it over to the back, confirming what I already knew: no headshot or biography of the author. I held on to his hand longer than necessary.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I have a strict policy about imposing myself on the reader’s experience. I’m just glad to know you’re enjoying it.”
“You wrote this.”
“Yes. Not one of my better sellers, but I have a personal fondness for it. I was writing that one when my kids were born.”
His face cleared. I could see he was impressed. This, for him, would be one of those you’ll-never-guess-what-happened-to-me story telling moments. I released his hand, smiling.
“You’re K.P. Sorenson?” He squinted. It made him smile, softening the incredulity in his eyes.
“Kathleen Penwell Sorenson, at your service.” I pulled the boarding pass out of the pocket of my very open blouse. I held it out with my finger on the name: Kathleen Sorenson. “You can call me Kathy.”
“Wow.” He looked at the boarding pass and then at me. “What are the odds?”
“Better than you’d think, actually.” I pointed to the book. “There are a lot of those babies out there. And I fly a lot, so…”
“I’m Lance,” he said, with a little self-conscious wave realizing, I think, that he had flubbed that essential, introduction part of the handshake.
“A pleasure. You’ve got a nice face, Lance. Wonderful eyes. People tell you that, don’t they?”
“No,” he said as his nice face began to take on color around his wonderful eyes. “Not really.” I let the awkwardness hang between us, watching him grope for another subject.
“So you were writing this when your kids were born?” he asked.
“Well, not literally, I was giving birth when my kids were born.”
We both laughed.
“I mean, I’m pretty good at blocking out distraction, but…”
We both laughed.
“I mean, maybe if it had been just one, but twins? Give me a break. I can’t develop plot lines giving birth to twins.”
We both laughed.
“How old are your kids?”
“Seventeen.” I rolled my eyes dramatically. Seventeen, the eyes said to him. God deliver me from the world of seventeen year-old girls. “Fortunately they live with their father now. I raised them while he was busy catting around, so now he can deal with the drama of teenage twins.”
I laughed. He watched me laugh.
“Twins. Do they not get along, or…?”
“My girls? Oh, they fight like cats and dogs. They’re very close. Clara and Carla. They love each other, but they hate each other a little too, you know I mean? They’re kind of too close, you know?”
“Mostly its all of the drama with boys.”
“Boy trouble,” said Lance, nodding.
“Lots of boy trouble. That’s probably my fault.”
It was a cautious question. Lance squinted as if fearing I would tell him that it was none of his business. I hesitated, as if plotting a course through a field of mines.
“Because I gave them the boy-trouble gene, that’s why. My engine has always run a little on the hot side. I could never get enough of the boys. Still can’t. Well, men. You know. Probably a good thing I’m divorced.”
I laughed. Then he laughed.
The flight attendant appeared from behind us and slowly receded up the aisle, twisting and untwisting her neck; left, right, left, right, left, right.
“You married?” I asked.
Lance looked away. There was sure a story in there someplace.
“No,” he said.
“You’re too young to be married. Take it from me. There’s a lot to see out in the world. A lot of people to experience. A lot to learn. You can only really take advantage of that as a single person. Marriage slows you down.”
“I know. Listen, since my divorce, I have gotten my body back into better shape than its ever been, I have better sex than I ever had, and I have traveled to every continent at least twice.”
“Twice? Really? I’m impressed.”
“Well, not Greenland. I’ve never been to Greenland. But all the others twice. Been to Africa three times. I go to Australia four times every year.”
“Australia. Just as a tourist, or…”
“Yes and no. I own a sheep ranch in Queensland so I have to go out there about once every quarter to meet with the managers and make sure everything is, you know, copasetic. I get a lot of writing done when I am out there too.”
“And horses. And kangaroos. More sheep than horses and kangaroos. Obviously.”
“What do you do with them?”
“Well,” I crossed my legs, sending my right unshod foot dangerously close to his leg. “The sheep… we harvest the wool. The horses we breed and sell. The kangaroos we rescue and relocate. They have a serious wild kangaroo problem in Queensland.”
“Really bad. Trampling and biting school children. Blocking traffic…”
“Biting school children?”
“Oh yeah. Well they’re starving. Queensland is getting so developed that the kangaroo have lost their habitat. It’s driven them into the city. They’re grazing in neighborhood gardens.”
“They’re not eating the children for food, Lance.” I pushed playfully against his bicep. The top of my foot made contact. “The children look out the kitchen window, see a kangaroo and, being children, their instinct is to go out and pet the pretty kangaroo. That’s dangerous.”
“I guess it would be.”
“We’re talking about a wild animal. They can be very aggressive.”
“Yes. And fully grown, that’s a six, seven hundred pound wild animal with razor sharp teeth.”
“Really? Seven hundred pound kangaroos.”
“Fully grown, Lance. You know, adults.”
“Right. So people get fed up and they just start opening fire on these poor creatures. It’s not their fault. They’re just kangaroos. But then you have seven hundred pound dead kangaroos in the street and slumped over vegetable gardens and playground equipment. Something had to be done. So the government is paying ranchers to capture the kangaroos and relocate them. Problem is there is a relocation backlog due to the tagging requirement, and…”
“Yeah, Australian law requires tagging of all captured wild horses, kangaroos and something else. Badger, I think. Monkey? Is there such a thing as a monkey badger?”
“You mean for scientific …”
“No, no. It’s all politics. Like everything. The Aborigines demanded some sort of reparations for some rather impolitic remarks… well, no need to sugarcoat it, some highly offensive remarks, made by the Australian Secretary of Indigenous Relations.”
“What did he say?”
“I don’t even know. All I know was that it created this national uproar and the Aborigines demanded satisfaction. The press was with them the whole way. So they won the right to tag and monitor kangaroos and monkey badgers.”
“The Aborigines. They tag and monitor the…”
“Yes. Absolutely. Contrary to the stereotype, they are a very tech-savvy people. Not all of them, obviously, but the Dingclatch Council – that’s the Aboriginal communications and public relations ministry – the council is very tech-savvy.”
“Anyway. Tagging backlog. We end up having to hold onto the kangaroos for as long as eight months to a year before we can relocate them and turn them loose.”
“That’s… that’s… hmm.”
“Yeah, fortunately the government pays most of our expenses. It’s kind of a financial loss, but we make up for it with the sheep and the horses. It’s a good cause.”
Poor Lance was quiet for a moment. I waited, the plane roaring beneath us. He couldn’t resist.
“What got you so interested in … sheep farming in Queensland. Are you from there, or…”
“No, no. I was born in Portugal. My father was in the foreign service. I lived all over as a kid. Portugal. Nairobi. Lisbon. Australia was about the only place I didn’t live as a child. I only started going to Australia after the divorce. I sold our place in the Hamptons and six months later I was the owner of a working sheep ranch on five hundred acres in Queensland.”
“Just like that? On impulse? An Australian sheep farm?”
“I can be very impulsive,” I said, giving him a wolfish smile and leaning just a little forward so that my blouse might hang just a little lower. “Dangerously impulsive. I see something I want and I simply must have it.”
I laughed. Lance swallowed.
“I love your name. Lance. Such a strong name.”
“So… lance much? I’m guessing you lance a lot?”
I laughed. He did not answer. He looked out his window, like he might want to jump.
“So are you working on something now?” he asked finally.
“Oh yeah. I’m always working on something. If I don’t write it down I’ll explode.”
“Yep. Yep. I’m writing a novel about a journalist.”
“What kind of journalist.”
“Newspaper. Turns out she’s a fraud.”
“She does an award-winning exposé on massive, clandestine investments by the fast food and cigarette industries in human genome research.”
“Because? Because? Lance, open your eyes. Think of the profits involved if pubescence triggered not only pimples, but a genetically encoded addiction to sugar, fat and nicotine.”
“Hmm. Okay. I get that. So she writes an exposé.”
“Right. Lots of accolades. Problem is she plagiarized the whole thing. Made it all up.”
His lights dimmed. His forehead wrinkled.
“Well… did she plagiarize it or make it up?”
It was a good catch. Well above, frankly, what I assumed of his capabilities. But I recovered quickly.
“Both. She plagiarized it from a short story. Spun it into pretend journalism. No basis in fact whatsoever.”
“So she plagiarized fiction for a newspaper story.”
“Right. Cheating is cheating, Lance.”
“So what happens?”
“Really? You want the spoiler?”
Lance smiled. “Now I have to know.”
“Okay. They take away her Pulitzer and she kills herself.” I lean in, putting my mouth close to his ear and whisper. “Or at least that is what big tobacco would have you believe.”
“Wow. Sounds like quite a yarn.”
“Oh, it’s all based on a true story.”
“I thought it was based on a short story.”
“No, her journalism was based on a short story. My novel is based on her, which is a true story. Mostly. I embellish a little here and there.”
“Wait. So all of that is true? The genome research?”
“Where was I when all of this was happening? I completely missed that. What was her name?”
“Kelly Altenbach. Early nineties. She wrote for the North Brunswick Sentinel in New Jersey. Big scandal. I actually met her just before she was fired. We were at a roll out party for another book of mine. She showed up looking for attention from my publisher, which was Knopf before I switched horses to Little Brown. She was really bragging it up. Coming on pretty strong, if you know what I mean. I don’t have a problem with the occasional lesbian tryst, but with a reporter? She had some nerve, I’ll give her that.”
I laughed. Lance laughed.
It went on like that for nearly an hour, the words pouring out of me into that flying microcosm of the world, and combining into a new, wholly imagined reality. I was creating again. Rebuilding myself from the ground up. Storytelling. Writing.
Lance was the perfect audience. Attentive. Encouragingly curious. Easily surprised. Just sequacious enough to make it possible, but not so intellectually servile that there was no challenge involved. It was all the more satisfying to have known nothing about him.
He was no one. So he was everyone.
I might have asked something more about him. I might have let him fit a word or two in edgewise. But he was too willing to let me have my way with the conversation. He was mesmerized. I could see myself blooming in his expression. I was unlike anyone he had ever met before. I was a singular experience. An original.
I reported nothing; repeated nothing; recalled nothing.
I created everything.
The needle on the seismograph all but seized. The more I spoke, the more my head ticked with new ideas begging to be sculpted into a longer, coherent narrative. Plot lines started to unfold like vast umbrellas opening above my battered esteem. Characters, twirling their leitmotifs like silver batons, started a small parade through story settings, both grand and mundane, that I could not have imagined only two hours earlier.
The aphrodisiacal effect of that airborne hour was undeniable. I wanted Lance like I wanted oxygen. He seemed too far away, like his word and interest could barely reach me. I needed to be closer.
I was not particularly subtle about it. I invaded his airspace. I invited his scrutiny. Caressed his calf with the top of my naked foot.
I told myself that I would never actually do anything. That I loved my husband. But that self, in that moment, was about as true as the Australian monkey badger. For I would have done something. In the throes of such exuberant invention, I invented a new self. And that new self certainly would have done something with young, sturdy Lance.
But the flight was not long enough and Lance was not so adventuresome. Perhaps all to the better. Aircraft lavatories have become so inconveniently cramped.
In the end, all he asked of me was to autograph his book. Just as the seatbelt and telephone police were making their final passes, I penned an inscription inside the yellowing front cover.
To Lance, from his friend and seatmate, K.P. Sorenson. I hope you enjoy the book as much as I enjoyed the flight.
Lance was silent during our approach into San Diego, book closed in his hands, gazing out the window at the sun extinguishing itself in a shimmering paleness of blue.
I left him alone. I was busy brainstorming. Unborn characters were falling over themselves to get to the head of the line for my attention. The ideas, coming fast, struck like arrows.
A newspaper reporter is fired for plagiarizing a story about commercial exploitation of cloning research. She is pregnant. Amid the blooming scandal, the baby is born and then lost in the same week. The doctors shrug, unable to offer a good reason. Unable to offer any reason. The grief is too much. Her husband means well, but he is too reassuring. Too resilient. Too forgiving of scandal. He wants to try again. He has a list of baby names. She feels like a fraud. As a writer. As a mother. She divorces, moves to Australia and hires on at a sheep ranch.
Lance elbowed me gently in the arm and pointed out the window at a flock of white birds. His expression was one of awestruck reverence. I waited for some explanation for his enthusiasm, but there was none. I took a second look, nodded, and then closed my eyes and resumed the birthing of my next book.
That night in my hotel room, lost in my newfound creative fervor, I neglected preparing my remarks for the conference. Instead I sat cross-legged on the bed with a notepad in my lap and roughed out a story arch, catching details in little ink boxes that I drew compulsively in the margins.
The reporter has offended powerful interests. She has a sister, working as a lobbyist for those very interests, whose motivations are suspect. The sister sends a man with a crooked leg and a gun to Melbourne to look for her. There are kangaroos dying in the streets.