Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Ants Dig Cold

There’s an entomological adjustment involved with moving to Miami. If you’re easily startled, you brace yourself when flicking the lights on, mentally prepared for the mahogany sheen of a cockroach the size of your thumb, sometimes frozen, sometimes running for its life.

Cockroaches run on two legs. Just so you know.

You might shake your coat or clothes out before you put them on, or snap your shoes sole to sole. Okay, maybe you did that up north for spiders, but did you rattle your front door before you left so cockroaches squeezed between the door and the jamb didn’t fly into your face?

Cockroaches can wriggle through a crack the thinness of a dime. Just, you know, FYI.

And Florida cockroaches fly.

If you don’t want an ant problem, you make sure your counters are spotless. You keep your pantry items – the cereal, sugar, flour, corn syrup, bread crumbs, etc, etc – packaged in gallon bags. Even that isn’t always enough.

My first job in Miami was in the kitchen at Bennigan’s. I’d transferred from the Syracuse Bennigan's, where I’d worn the same pair of work boots. When I went to put them on for my first shift in Miami, the boots swarmed with ants. Northern bugs were apparently too sluggish to find the bits of food ground into the treads.

I tried hosing the soles down when I left work for the day, but it didn’t help. The tiniest bits drew crowds. Eventually, I ended up putting my boots in plastic bags and hanging them up when I got home.

To heat my place during the recent cold snap, I closed all the windows and opened all the blinds. I turned on every light in the place. Ants gathered around my lights and died. This is something I’ve never had happen. I’ve fought trails of live ants, but coming home or waking up and finding their corpses in droves around heat sources is new and frustrating. It could be the bug spray. They’re attracted to the heat but they have to pass through lemon-scented death to reach it, so all I find are ant corpses. Or maybe the cold is already killing them when they come inside and the light bulbs just delay the inevitable. Whatever the reason, I got tired of wiping or sweeping them up three times a day.

When the cold snap ended, I went into full-on spotless mode. I basked in a home without little black dots drifted everywhere for a few hours, then went out for dinner. When I returned, there was a cockroach near the coffee table (toe up and struggling, thanks to Minime, who provided torture but couldn’t be bothered to finish the job) and a silverfish on the stove. Damn.

You’ve heard that man plans and God laughs? In the Treehouse, Aaron cleans and Mother Nature sends small, hairy, armored guests.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Character Descriptions

A few years back, I was having difficulty with a volleyball scene in Ming. I introduced a lot of characters in a short period of time, many of them players who would only be used in the two gym class scenes. My writing group had a tough time telling the girls apart, except for Michelle Vale:

“Michelle probably brushed six feet. She was all knees and elbows, a praying mantis with braces on her teeth and sad, down-turned eyes. The dark roots of her blonde hair broadcast that it wasn’t her natural color. She’d applied her makeup with a less practiced hand than her friends, looking like a young girl playing dress up. She must have money, Ming decided. Popular girls could do sports but sport girls without money rarely did popular, even if she was a star.”
It’s not surprising my cohorts got a handle on Michelle. She was the only new character in the scene who mattered to me, the only one I saw clearly.

Eventually, re-writes made volleyball back into basketball, as it was in the original draft (switching computers, I’d somehow lost one hundred pages; changing the sport made me feel slightly better about having to rewrite what was my favorite scene). Michelle Vale became Michelle Polaski. I also introduced Michelle at the same time as Ming’s three other antagonists, much earlier in the story. I started with broad strokes, adding details as the scene continued.

It just occurred to me- I could further help the reader distinguish the girls by clarifying Ming’s different emotional reactions to them. Sometimes, I wonder how many years of learning on my own I could skip by taking a writing course.

Anyway, since giving new characters immediate distinction was something I struggled with, I’ve often noticed how folks I’m reading manage the trick.

Jay McInerney offers this in Bright Lights, Big City:

“You suspect that his sexual orientation is largely theoretical. He’d take a hot piece of gossip over a warm piece of ass any day of the week.”
Dennis Lehane's short story “Running Out of Dog” features a Vietnam vet whose only outlet for his demons is shooting strays. Lehane immediately presents the character’s emotional identity:

“Blue was the kind of guy you never knew if he was quiet because he didn’t have anything to say or, because what he had to say was so horrible, he knew enough not to send it out into the atmosphere.”
Mystic River was one of my favorite reads of 2009, a modern tragedy with pathos to rival Shakespeare’s best. Mystic River offered some of the best character introductions I’ve read.

“It was a strong face, never pretty probably, but always striking. She was not unused to being stared at, Sean guessed, but was probably oblivious as to why she was worth the trouble. She reminded Sean a bit of Jimmy’s mother but without the air of resignation and defeat, and she reminded Sean of his own mother in her complete and effortless self-possession, reminded him of Jimmy, actually, in that way, as well. He could see Annabeth Marcus as being a fun woman, but never a frivolous one.”
Not quick sketches but mental Polaroids. You understand where she’s coming from immediately; everything after these snapshots is gravy.

Unfortunately, these paragraphs didn’t blend as seamlessly as the rest of the story. Because Lehane has the luxury of page time with his main characters, they’re allowed to unfold like petals in the morning sun. He needed to present secondary characters quickly so they can make their contribution to the story. I noticed every time.

I’d like to point out, this is criticism so gentle it qualifies as a subjective opinion. More of an observation, really.

Also, it could just be a side effect of writing. One of the things I hated most about majoring in musical theater was being unable to enjoy movies without picking them apart. After I stopped being involved with acting and theater, it took years to dissolve that critical eye and let a story sweep me away.

In the mighty Ben Fountain’s short story “Near-Extinct Birds of the Central Cordillera” (one of ten gems collected in Brief Encounters with Che Guevara), he offers this:

“Hernan [was] a slight mestizo youth with catlike looks and a manner as blank and flaky as cooled ashes.”
The language fits right in with his descriptions of the “gelatinous drizzle” of the rainy Colombian jungle. In less than two dozen words, Fountain introduces a new character, gives that character a sense of place, and shows us how untrusting the protagonist is of him. Functional, simple, and poetic, a masterstroke of character description.

Thinking about how I stack up in all of this gives me a headache.

It would be much easier to use the method Christopher Moore employs in the upcoming Bite Me: A Love Story to describe his vampire-fighting detective duo, Cavuto and Rivera. Moore already described them in 1995’s Bloodsucking Fiends: A Love Story and 2007’s You Suck: A Love Story. He probably assumed readers were already familiar with the cops, so why not squeeze in another joke?

Moore writes “Cavuto, if he’d been a flavor of ice cream, would have been Gay Linebacker Crunch.”

Meanwhile, “Rivera’s flavor was Low-Fat Spanish Cynic in an Armani Cone.”

It might not have the poetry of “blank and flaky as cooled ashes” but it gets you to the same place. I don’t think we, as readers and writers, should dismiss this as a joke. I’m sure the first time movies featured people in France speaking French-inflected English among themselves it was a bit jarring, but now we just suspend our disbelief when the lights go dark. We accept that there are no foreign languages, just English with different accents. We accept when friends espouse exposition at the main characters instead of just chatting. We accept black best friends without depth and people too good-looking for their lot in life and men dating women half their age.

Using ice cream flavors as characterizations would save pages of reading and tons of ink.

“If Walter Mitty had been an ice cream flavor, he would have been Diffident Nut.”

“If Dr. Jekyll had been an ice cream flavor, he would have been Obsessive Guilt and Violent Desire Swirl.”

“If Sancho Panza had been an ice cream flavor, he would have been Sweet Loyal Chunk.”

If nothing else, it would make my job easier.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Coldest Winter Ever

I lived in Syracuse until I was twenty-five. It’s the lake effect snow that gets you, storms which come off the Great Lakes dropping fat flakes at a rate too quick for windshield wipers and snow plows. Those storms are the reason we have pictures of shoveling through several feet of snow dated in May, but that doesn’t necessarily mean April was anything more than slush that year. I can count the number of times it snowed on Halloween on one hand. It’s impressive to claim snow eight months out of the year, but those were banner years. Only January through March was it guaranteed to stick.

What’s cold in a place like that, when you’re not impoverished? Staying out too long for snow forts and snow men, shivering your wet clothes off in front of the radiator, stripping down to long underwear and running upstairs as fast as you could for fresh socks, sweatpants, and sweaters, leaning over a hot chocolate or a Campbell’s tomato soup that mom had waiting for you. Yes, your toes were numb, ditto nose and fingers, but it was in the service of fun. It made getting warm that much more comforting.

Waiting at school bus stops, dancing from foot to foot, hands stuffed in pockets, head ducked turtle-like in collars, it wasn’t the puffy flakes you worried about, it was the wind. Wind chill could make ten degrees feel like twenty below. But the busses were coming, Cheese Boxes heated with religious fervor. Your toes might not be dry by the time you reached school, but your hat and gloves would be off, your jacket zippered down, hairline dappled with sweat. We were too old to take a change of footwear without looking like dorks. If you were rich, you wore Timberlands. If you were not, you wore knock-offs. Either way, you waited until second period for your toes to dry.

College classes could get nasty. For the transplants, walking around Syracuse University – the Hill – revealed the crucial difference between Manhattan Smart and Survival Wear. For the natives, Onondaga Community College’s lack of foliage and low industrial buildings offered no protection from the raging winds.

Yet coldest I’ve been in my life was during this past cold-front, in sunny Miami.

The way few homes up north have air conditioning to keep cool during the couple months they may actually need it, few down here have heat. To keep warm at night, I had my usual sheets and blankets, plus a couple of fleece throws which Algonquin Books had sent as a promotion with paperback copies of A Reliable Wife, along with three pairs of socks, a toque, three t-shirts - two short and one long – pajama bottoms, and underwear. I hate sleeping in underwear. If I wear underwear to bed, you know it’s cold.

All this would have been fine. Nostalgic, even. Except the buying office at Books & Books doesn’t have heat. The Westin Colonnade across the street blocks our sun. Books & Books rents three of these offices, one for buying, one for marketing and events, and one for accounting. The architects who own the building occupy a fourth space, and the fifth is currently unoccupied. The architects worked from home a lot that week.

Why are we paying rent, exactly? They could have at least offered us space heaters. Instead Mark and I hunched at our desks, fingers white, noses dripping, toes numb, cracking jokes about Scrooge and coal and Bob Cratchit.

If you northerners think we’re weak, step outside and have a seat in the shade next November or December, whenever it gets down to the thirties in your neck of the woods. Sit there for eight hours. Believe it or not, typing doesn’t get the blood flowing like you’d think it would.

I walked instead of biking. The wind on your face in spring or fall? Delightful. This week it burned.

I was in a car a few times with the heat blasting, and the children’s section at Books & Books was toasty warm. Other than that, I froze my ass off the entire week. I used to say I preferred cold to the heat. It’s not so bad up north, I’d say. You can always add more layers, but what are you supposed to do down here? You can only get so naked. That’s logical.

But when you’re getting dressed in front of an open oven in a vain attempt to feel your feet, logic doesn’t keep you warm.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

I Carry a Big Stick

Harry, seventy plus years old, gay and garrulous, wants to know if I’m okay. I’m “even more silent than usual,” he tells me with his impish smile. He’s a sweet, good-natured guy, but the connotation is that there’s something off about me because I don’t talk much.

Am I that quiet? In work mode, I guess so. I thought I left the silent, shy version of myself behind years ago but it comes out when I’m buckled down on a deadline. Which, at Books & Books, is most of the time.

Still, I don’t see the point of yakking for yakking’s sake, except to make others more comfortable. It’s a skill I’ve developed somewhat over the years but nothing that comes naturally. That’s part of the reason I enjoy groups of people; there are others to share the burden of filling dead air.

I told Harry I felt great. In less of a rush (or with quicker wit), I could have used humor to prove to Harry how great I was.

“I like people to see me as the strong, silent type.”

“When you don’t talk much, you’re at less of a risk of saying stupid things.”

“God only gave me forty-seven million words in this lifetime, and I’m trying to use them judiciously.”

One thing I’ve noticed. In crowds where I don’t speak much, when I do open my mouth, people listen. On the rare occasion that I actually have something decent to say, this works in my favor. When I’ve been the victim of my own logorrhea, I’ve wanted the ground to open at my feet so I could disappear with nothing but an inward groan and a sheepish wave goodbye.

That’s why dialog is so much fun. You have weeks to put the perfect phrase in your character’s mouth, whether you want her to be dazzling in her erudition or cringe-worthy in her ignorance.

Truthfully, I wouldn’t mind being mute.

Monday, January 18, 2010

My Girl is Home (at Last)

I want to smooch her fury face.
Minime’s fuzzy little presence makes the Treehouse home.

I feel about my living quarters the way I feel about my job.  Unless I’m signing a book deal, never again do I want to sit across from a stranger, presenting some limited version of my best self, trying to convince her / him that I’m worth his / her investment.   Likewise, why bother moving unless it’s for something really great?

Up north they call it a FROG room, for Front Room Above Garage, but “Treehouse” fits.  Except for the tile floors and bathroom walls, it’s all wood.  It’s shaded everywhere by a variety of Coral Gables’ foliage.  The name also gives my dwelling a little je ne sais quoi.

I’ve hidden all sorts of fun things in the Treehouse for myself.  There’s a Hopper print, a signed Palahniuk poster, my 2nd-place cook-off ribbon, and a Bright Eyes concert poster taped inside various cabinetry.  A framed Tank Girl picture hanging in my walk-in closet.  A typewriter by the door is my mezuzah. There are tiny stone turtles and large dream catchers in the windows.  As a little bit of cheer to ease the transition into living alone, the name works.  I’ve only realized now that the name has allowed me to avoid saying “home.”

I used to have artwork from Cake CDs in the archway between the kitchen and the living room, but I took them all down this week. They stopped looking cheery and started looking like clutter. I must be more acclimated to my own space.

I also realize why I waited three months to bring Minime here; she is tied into my past with Andi.  Of course she is, you vacuous, imbecilic moron, I hear you saying (I’m just kidding; we rarely think thoughts as hateful of others as we think of ourselves), what’s your next keen insight? Teenagers are hormonal? Chocolate is yummy?

When I was packing up to move, some of the things I left behind surprised Andi.

“Are you trying to eliminate any trace of me?” she asked, only half-joking.  As if I could.  If I stripped naked, tossed all my possessions, and moved to a new city, my tattoos would follow me.  I don’t have “Andi and Aaron Forever and Ever” tattooed on my heart or anything, but we used to go to Zopie’s Caffeine Fix together.  Does that reminder of Zopie's count as a reminder of Andi?  What about the time we were tripping our balls off, making fun of the Tank Girl tattoo on my thigh, which barely looks like Tank Girl’s tattoo?

This is my problem with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; “Go through your house and take away anything which reminds you of her.”  It’s a neat idea for a story.  Charlie Kaufman looks at mementos of past relationships and thinks, what if one could use these objects to map the human brain and eliminate memories?  There is no collection of objects which can contain a person, and no way to remove all traces of a person from your life without removing yourself.  The way every song speaks to you when you’re falling in love, it works in reverse when you’re falling out.  Even if I had those tattoos removed, our sixteen years together would remain in me.

Is Minime a stronger connection to the past than my CDs, DVDs, clothes, dishes, shoes, and sheets because she’s alive?  Is it harder to make new memories around a fuzzy, pink-nosed baby than an object?  If Minime hadn’t scratched a little girl's eyelid badly enough to warrant a trip to urgent care, how much longer would I have dragged my heels?

Both my delay in bringing her here and the motivations behind that delay are obvious in retrospect. Most likely, they were obvious to an outside observer.

It makes me worry about what other obvious things I’m missing.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Two Weeks After the Fact

If New Year’s Eve isn’t the time for knock down drag out partying, what is?

“Knock down, drag out” is an interesting phrase. Google has killed speculation on such things; you can learn the origin of any phrase with a few keystrokes. I’m going to fly Google-free and mention that song which exhorts the listener, “let’s have a knock down, drag out, rock n’ roll party in the street.” Which came first, the phrase or the song? If the song came first, it sounds like we’re coming into your house, pushing you off your feet, dragging you out of your home, and forcing you to party whether you want to or not. That’s dedication to having a good time.

Maybe “knock down” connotes partying so intense walls come down, which I’d prefer. It’s less predatory partying.

“Drag out” could be a reference to all those gender-confused men on Halloween, or a New Year’s celebration in Key West.

On Halloween, men dress in drag, women go soft-core porn slutty, and it’s beyond encouraged; it’s a given. Likewise, drunken revelry on New Year’s. During my eleven years as a non-drinker, I managed a Starbucks and a Borders. I scheduled myself to open New Year’s Day, knowing I could trust me to show up. I told my co-workers if they called out, they were calling out for good.

Harsh? Not really. I was just being realistic about Miami the day after a given party night. I was a good enough manager the rest of the year that I could make that kind of threat / promise and have it honored; no one ever called out New Year’s Day.

Since I began drinking again (“re-drinking?”) five years ago, I’ve had a few hangovers but nothing on par with my college days (when I quit drinking in the first place). Words of wisdom from my friend Jeffrey have guided me through 100 proof waters. He was working St. Patrick’s Day at Books & Books while I was drinking at the bar in the courtyard. Several beers into feeling no pain, I asked him if he thought I should have another. Jeffrey, who calls St. Patrick’s Day “amateur night,” leaned in close.

“Aaron my friend,” he said, “once you’re over thirty, there’s no reason to throw up from too much alcohol.”

It deflated my buzz the tiniest bit, but even a drunken reveler knows truth when he hears it. I ordered a bottled water.

New Year’s Eve 2004, two beers were enough to make my head spin. 2005 – 2008? Let’s just say, more than two beers were required to get the job done. I didn’t throw up from drinking, but man, I would’ve hated to work for me the next day.

This year, my New Year’s Eve consisted of a dinner party for four. Hor D’Oeuvres a plenty, tossed salad, chicken pot pie, and carrot cake. One of our number fell ill (truly ill, not amateur-hour ill), so three of us stood on a balcony and watched fireworks ring in 2010. Becky and I shared a New Year’s Eve kiss. Since we didn’t want our host to feel like a third wheel, our kiss was hardly Miami style. It was more the smackaroo you give when your whole family’s watching.

Still, this was a good New Year celebration. If Akimbo hadn’t gotten sick, it would have been a great New Year’s Eve. No pressure to party, no awkward mingling with strangers, no dodgy characters, just solid friends you love. At midnight, texts were passed ‘round the world, friends and family at various parties coming together for one big virtual celebration.

I popped out of bed the next morning bright and early, but with a headache. Not a hangover, just a headache. It lasted all day, through breakfast, lunch, and dinner, through coffee and juice and water, through Bayer and Aleve, through reading and writing and movies. I’ve decided champagne is absolute evil.

Next year, I’m toasting with Jack Daniels. If I’m going to feel the punishment the next day, I might as well feel the buzz the night before.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

My First Christmas

When I wrote this previous post, in the back of my mind I knew there would be other firsts. Not in those terms, exactly, but I knew it was just the beginning of my separation. I had already made it through Andi’s birthday and I had a plan for mine, but I hadn’t even considered the holidays.

Andi has missed Thanksgiving a couple times before, and she rarely took off as much time from work as I did. It’s not like her absence up north was unprecedented, it was just a new kind of absence.

When I asked why no one had mentioned Andi this year, my mother explained, “We wouldn’t say anything because if you got back together it would be awkward.”


“Even then, we wouldn’t say anything,” Mom said.

“We’d just look at her,” Aunt Jeri agreed, demonstrating her flinty-eyed stare.

I told them about Becky.

Friday the 25th, I woke up alone on Christmas Day for the first time in my life. I didn’t play music. I made myself a mushroom and cheese omelet. I opened the Christmas gifts from my Aunt Jeri (and the Starbuck’s gift card from Uncle Nicky), who’d drawn my name this year. I brewed coffee and read for several hours. I showered and walked to Books &Books, not to work but to use it as my personal Kinkos.

It was a blindingly gorgeous day, Christmas served up Miami style. Not cold yet, but cool. Periwinkle skies, fluffy clouds. Jeans and t-shirt weather. I passed three fathers helping their sons ride the bicycles they’d just received, one boy far too old to be wobbling on his first bike. I couldn’t help but think of the bike Santa had brought Becky’s boy on Christmas. I also thought of learning to bike myself.

I remember my father jogging behind me. I’m not sure how long I’d been biking, weeks or months, but the training wheels on my hand-me-down bike were raised maybe an inch off the pavement. Dad urged me to go faster, jogging behind me while he held the bike seat steady. Everything clicked. I found my balance. I left dad behind like I’d been shot from a cannon. I remember him trying to keep up for a couple of steps, then giving up and just watching as I biked to the end of the block and back.

I’d like to put a smile on his face, add some triumphant shouting, but all I remember is his hand, letting go, and those two jogging steps he took before standing still. He was wearing jeans.

Walking alone under Miami’s sun, I realized how lucky I am. I’ve gone directly from a family-filled home to a girlfriend’s house to another girlfriend (and eventual wife)’s house. Every year of my life, I’ve woke on Christmas in a home filled with love. This year, I woke alone. But that was important to do, so I could realize the first part.

At Books & Books, I printed some things out and wrapped some gifts. Becky called. Her son’s second Christmas at her ex’s had begun; was I ready for our private Christmas?

“Nah, I’m enjoying my solitude,” I said.

Right. Solitude is great when it’s a state you know will end soon, but you can’t end solitude alone. I told her I’d race her to the Treehouse. I hopped on my bike (which I’d left at work before), the day so perfect I wanted to take a few extra laps around the gorgeous houses on my block. Instead I got home, showered, cleaned up, and ate a bowl of vanilla ice cream drizzled with one of the syrups my aunt had given me.

The syrup gift set wasn’t on my Christmas list, but it’s the things you don’t expect which make the best surprises.

Becky and I exchanged gifts. I thought she was a mind reader, but apparently she had asked what I wanted for Christmas while we were drifting off one night and I sleepily gave her the rundown. Along with all the fun stuff, we exchanged some personal gifts upon which we could hang the memories of our first shared Christmas.

Get your mind out of the gutter, I’m talking about the stories I printed out at Books &Books, which she’d been after me to give her for some time. She says lingerie is a gift more for the giver than the receiver, but really, giving her those stories is a selfish gift. She might enjoy my words, but I enjoy her reading them more.

Becky also drew me a picture and had it framed, a pencil drawing of us together on the beach in Sarasota, enjoying the sunset and each-other’s company. I hadn’t thought I could look on those days with any more fondness, but she proved me wrong.

This was a Christmas I'll never forget.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Christmas with Clan Cleopatra

The Christmas Eve Eve Party at Hilldawg’s was a little north of Miami, so Becky and I decided I should spend the night at her place to save her some driving. We left Books & Books, I packed an overnight bag, and headed up. Becky’s sister was in town from Orlando. Her parents, her son, her sister – all of them were waiting on us to go out to dinner.

When I walked through the door, Cleo Jr. smiled up at me and took my hand. He led me upstairs, down the hall, to his bedroom, and through a doorless frame perhaps a third of the size of a standard door. From the bedroom, the finished attic space looks like a picture you can enter. Inside is a little bookshelf, a cot, a lot of levels, and toys. It’s the kidspace you wish you had growing up.

Cleo Jr. and I flipped through a copy of Mary Shelly's Frankenstein too advanced for his reading level. He liked looking at the pictures, though. For my part, I was amazed at how faithful Kenneth Branagh's adaptation was to the original text. Of course, I’ve never read the original, so all my preconceived notions come from the various movies.

Anyhoo, Cleo Jr. wanted me next to him in the car and at dinner. He didn’t want Becky accompanying him to the bathroom, but me. Becky assures me this behavior is unusual, but I find it difficult to believe I have some kind of special connection with children only manifesting itself now (cats, on the other hand…). I think I’m just lucky enough to meet him at an age when he loves most everyone.

The Eve Eve party was great. Shooting the shit with folks who I don’t see nearly enough, all of us loose with drink. That’s a good night for me.

Some of our friends decided not to pick one Christmas party, but instead to attend them all. Festooned with lights and garland, wearing elf hats and painted shirts, carrying sheet music, guitars, and bongos, these folks caroled their merry way from house to house. They’d stop at one party for three or four songs, mingle a bit, then head out for the next stop. To hear them tell it, they will attend fifty different parties this year. They filmed the whole thing. It was all very Fellini.

On the day before Christmas (Christmas Eve morning sounds off to me), Cleo Jr. roused Becky bright and early. I slept until well past eleven. I’d planned on making Ropa Vieja for Noche Buena at home, perfuming the Treehouse with delicious cooking smells and avoiding the watchful eye of Cleo Mater.

I’d seen Cleo Mater hovering over Becky’s sister when she made rum cake. I didn’t want that kind of scrutiny. Unfortunately, being a non-Cuban on a Cuban holiday making a Cuban dish, the idea of my flying below the radar was ridiculous.

Since they’d begun cooking the night before – on the Eve of Noche Buena - there was room on the stove for my Old Clothes. The kitchen is right off the side entrance, which everyone uses because only strangers use the front door. After “nice to meet you,” the phrase, “I hear you’re making Ropa Vieja” immediately followed, again and again.

Imagine a Cuban dating an Irishman and deciding to make bangers and mash on St. Patrick’s Day. Although I’d made the dish dozens of times over the years, I still felt nervous. Maybe I should have done a practice run earlier in the week. Cleo Mater raised an eyebrow at the method I used to prepare the skirt steak, smiled broadly, and left me to my own devices.

Apart from Cleo Mater’s signature black beans and a mojito turkey, mine was the only Cuban dish on the menu. Becky made Cheesy Potatoes and Beef Brisket. Becky’s sister made a green bean casserole. We had tossed salad to start and bread rolls to wipe our plates clean. A delicious meal, with a large family gathered around the table. Clan Cleopatra reminded me very much of my family during Thanksgiving, except it’s only one night and they serve wine.

The Texan at the table pronounced Becky’s brisket the best she’d ever eaten (apparently brisket is big in Texas, so this is high praise indeed). It was the tastiest piece of beef I’ve ever had. While my Ropa Veija turned out perfectly, it may as well have been cardboard next to the brisket.

I was the only one who expressed this sentiment, but I’m sure it was universal. Cleo Mater had seconds, though, which I’m told is a rarity. At least I made a believer out of her.

After dinner, we stepped outside. Cleo Pater had built a landing in the back yard for his grandchildren. Palms and oaks shaded the flagstone paths and firepit he’d built. He’d done all the renovations on the house himself. As if that’s not enough skill, Cleo Pater pulled out his guitar and sang a beautiful rendition of a Bob Dylan song. I can’t remember which one, but his daughters said they always thought he’d written it.

The group of us gathered around a fire in the dark, drinking, thinking, chatting. Again, I was forcibly reminded of my own family. I thanked Becky’s parents for inviting me, but sometimes words can’t encompass the depths of one’s gratitude.

The hiccup came when Becky and I tried to make it to another Christmas Eve party closer to the Treehouse.

After lulling Cleo Jr.’s holiday spirit down with four Christmas stories, Becky’s lack of sleep caught up with her. She looked so peaceful cuddled up next to her son. I knew we’d be late, but I also felt guilty at the extra three hours of sleep I’d gotten the night before. Being pulled back-and-forth between a promise to attend Akimbo’s party on one side and affection for my girlfriend on the other won Becky a half hour of sleep. Being new to the whole child thing, I’d forgotten Santa Claus. There were presents to put under the tree, notes to write, cookies to eat, milk to drink.

It was Akimbo’s first Christmas Eve in the condo she’d just bought. But by the time we began driving back to Miami, Becky was near to nodding off. Exhausted as she was, knowing she had to drive back home and be up early for Christmas with her family, I couldn’t ask Becky to chauffeur me.

Andi was also at the Christmas Eve party. Andi, Akimbo, and I have known each-other since we were nineteen. Andi texted me, asking if she should leave. I didn’t know how to answer. If Becky just dropped me off, wouldn’t that eliminate any awkwardness? But Andi and I haven’t spoken in so long, was a Christmas Eve party the best venue to start? Plus, how would I get home?

In the end, we didn’t go. Becky dropped me off at the Treehouse and drove home. For the first time, I felt terrible not having a car.

A few days later, Akimbo gave me bag of some of my favorite things (Raven’s Wood Zinfandel, Starbucks, dark chocolate peanut M &M’s, and “He’s Just Not That Into You” on DVD) and I took her out to dinner.

Becky said she knew I didn’t have a car going in, and didn’t blame me for anything. Her family dug me.

All in all, my first Noche Buena was a great evening.

Monday, January 4, 2010

A Full Confession

Writing hasn’t been going so well. The holidays always play hell with my schedule; I’ll lug my laptop on Thanksgiving vacation but the only times I know for certain I’ll use it are at the airport on the way up and at the airport on the way down. I’ll probably do some editing and I might, might, get an idea worth a few fresh pages, but usually if I’m not chatting with family, I’m reading. Then Christmas parties play hell with my bedtime, which plays hell with my early-morning writing sessions.

In the past, I haven’t judged my muse for needing a break as badly as I do.

This feels different. I’ve had this problem since I moved to the Treehouse, and it goes deeper than non-fiction taking over fiction. Stephen King says the secret of his fecundity is stability. Interviewers point to his horrific accident and his struggles with addiction; he points to his wife, Tabitha.

I mentioned some good ideas I had a few weeks back. New ideas usually spring from stepping away from the daily cursor push and giving my subconscious time to shift things about. I’ll find a new way of looking at an old story, the realization of what it’s lacking or where it went off the rails, or I’ll discover an entirely new story. I credit this latest batch to Becky. I didn’t feel particularly desperate before we started dating. I felt sad and lonely, but not desperate.

I fooled myself, but not my muse. Like any good woman, she smelled my desperation and stayed away. As Becky’s presence has allowed me to look back on my marriage with more honesty, being with her also brought the sense of play back to my writing. Playing is what I enjoy most about fiction. The examination of reality is necessary for my mental health, but it can be exhausting when that’s all there is.

I’ve allowed my self-discipline to slide. What the hell, my life fell apart, right? Who would expect me to stay one hundred percent grounded? Now, I’m in the glow of new love. What the hell, I’ve been miserable for months, right? Who would demand I pull my head out of the clouds and do the work than needs doing on me? Emotional growth, self-examination, reflection, re-examination, yada-yada-yada. Not fun, but vital. And there’s work to be done on my stories, new characters to introduce to the world. Not vital, but fun.

For the most part, my family legacy is not steeped in success, it’s one of setbacks, lowered expectations, and bitterness. My goals this year should be loftier than getting my love life back in order.

Of course, it took getting love back in my life in order for me to see that. Life is odd.

I’ve often told people I’ve written past the point where it matters whether I’m published. True, but only part of the story. John Dufresne, in the excellent Lie That Tells a Truth, has an entire chapter on the profound indifference with which you can expect the world to greet both your decision to be a writer and the work itself. Basically, Dufresne says if you want to change the world, stop writing now. If you want to change yourself, have at it.

In that sense, I have written past the point where being published matters. I need it like sleep. I’ll have some restless nights, or stay out late reveling a few evenings in a row. I can still push through my days, but I’ll be irritable, on edge. Sooner or later, I need to make up for that deficit with a deep, coma-like sleep.

A friend of mine uses coma to describe any activity so powerful that it shuts out the rest of the world. Book coma. Food coma. I’ve been skipping days of writing and then settling at the keyboard for hours, but I’m missing a good writing coma. The one that pulls me out of bed the second the five am alarm goes off because it was the last thing I thought of before I slept, the one speaking so vividly it nearly writes itself.

The project which had been giving me that feeling – the third, final, and correct re-imagining of my first book, Scratch the Dead Places – died when my marriage died. I’m not sure why. I look back at things I’ve written before the accident and see how I’ve evolved (some have commented that the first and second drafts of Scratch could have been written by two different people). Writing starts with knowing where it put your commas and shit, but the process itself is about finding your voice, being able to communicate exactly what you want. But it you want more than your friends and family to read it, there better be truth, and depth. I was working toward those things, but the accident saved me many years of cursor pushing, putting me more in touch with my emotions and therefore the emotional lives of my characters.

The end of my marriage is more than a broken heart. It’s a broken world view. Love conquers all, until the end of time, etc. etc. I believed in all of that. Now, I don’t. To some people, that’s maturity. It’s left this former hopeless romantic floundering.

I don’t think I woke from my Scratch the Dead Places coma for the usual reasons. I don’t think the story went off the rails, that I need to step away so I can realize where I took the wrong turn. I don’t see a lack of depth or truth which makes it the unsalvageable effort of a fledgling writer. It might be a measure of guilt. It involves the murder of five children, the sort of lurid thriller I judge harshly. Really, Aaron? This is how you want to introduce yourself to the world? Isn’t there enough ugliness out there?

One of my favorite books in the thriller genre is Stephen Dobyn's The Church of Dead Girls. It’s disturbing, and grotesque, but not bloody or puerile, a literate study of small-town paranoia about as far removed from Chelsea Cain or Jeff Lindsay as you can get. I don’t think I can judge myself too harshly for following my muse down this path; my story is about consequences, not dead children.

If I push that safe reason aside, I’m left with the relationship between the protagonist, Thomas Walters, and the woman to whom he is telling his story, Laura Moya. Thomas Walters is not me. Laura Moya is not Andi. But they are only a couple turns of the kaleidoscope from reality.

Just now, those turns aren’t far enough.