Snotdrops on Roses and Scissors on Kittens

From Flickr user takomabibelot
From Flickr user takomabibelot

My number 1 favorite thing about residency is that I get to spend a week not explaining myself or enduring weird faces from people because all the other humans there are precisely my sort of weird/neurotic/thinky.

A close second, however, is that a lot of people there call me April Line.

I have a really cool name for a writer. Perfect, even. It’s as if my parents knew. Hell, maybe they did.

And then there’s the pursuant wordplay: April Line, you so fine; April Line, where’s my wine? Of course, I am in a tribe of people who, like me, enjoy the sounds words make when they scrape across tongues. We enjoy rhyme for its own sake. We slide words together in lines because they are fun, because of the sounds, because because words. The words do not have to be true. I am not fine in an objective sense nor do I make a habit of fetching wine.

My favorite thing since I got home? The thing that gives me more joy even than particularly delicious beer, running, or good food?

My Writing Workshop, the first of which happened last night. I met a new student. I had an hour of that lovely thing where I can talk about being a writer like it’s normal. I can explain to people who get it about the weird writer brain thing. I can help them cultivate their own, give them guidance for how to overcome their inner critic, I can talk about all the articles I read about writing and writers to people who are interested.

I am knowledgeable and there’s huge power in knowledge. It’s energizing. I got home feeling excited and light and right.

It is micro-residency. It is how I’m sure I want to be a writing teacher forever. Because to teach writing is to always have a way into that world, the world where I’m not just a loon who has a big vocabulary.

Come join the tribe. The workshops are fun and affordable.

Saddest Picture In the World + Stuff for you, Cos I Like You.

I took this picture at Trout Run Park

They were just an abandoned pair of Crocs that blended in with the landscape such that I nearly didn’t see them.

Immediately, I started to tell myself the story of the person who used to wear those shoes, how they got there, why there was a ponytail holder just next to them.  The brownness of the scene struck me as sad and serene. And when the picture (that I took with my phone) came out so well, I wanted to share it with you, and to offer you this prompt:

In 500 words or fewer, tell me the story of those shoes.  Do it in the comments.  I’ll repost the really good ones on my blog next week with credit to you, and a link to your blog/social media/whatever; and if you share your email address, I’ll send you a free critique.

An Exciting New Thing

I want to invite you to Writer’s Boot Camp.

It’ll be a mind-bending day of all different sorts of writing activities.  You’ll push your comfort zones, engage in all manner of writing activities and exercises like Weight Training, Gimmie Twenty Words, Gimmie Twenty Sentences, Cross Country Writing, and of course there’ll be a groovy, mind-massaging lunch break.  Show up at 10, leave at 4 with a refreshed or revolutionized sense of yourself as a writer, of writing as a creative act, and some new ideas for getting motivated beyond Boot Camp.

You need a clip board, a few pens or pencils, a notebook or paper (at least 20 sheets), and a brown bag lunch or $5 to chip in on pizza.

The cost is low, $55, and you can pay the day of or via paypal, you’ll get instructions by email when you register.

The spot is Gallery #13 at The Pajama Factory, 1307 Park Ave. Williamsport. I’m teaming up with Susquehanna Life Magazine on this effort.

The first one will be November 4, it’s a Sunday.

You can register here.

Open Letter to Vanity Publishing Crowd

From Flickr User Ian Wilson

Dear Book Writer,

What is your profession?  I’m dying to know.  I will show up there and take over your clients.  I will prescribe their pills or write their briefs or cobble their soles.  I can slice and stitch with the best of them; after all, I took Home Ec.

Or maybe I should show up at your workplace and insist that you show me what you have learned to do over years, what you have paid to learn, and how to do it, free of charge?  Or maybe I should laugh at you when you say that one must diagnose the disease before making the incision?

Here is how we writers become so: We spend years feeling tortured, true or not, and scribbling onto any scrap of paper that’s large enough for a word or two.  We have journals.  We have burned some of them.  We have saved others.  We have many half full, many overfull.  Then we pursued writing-related tasks with vigor, fading into the background in school and work to observe, store up material, notice how people talk and act and are. We have been called odd snobs, different, dangerous, powerful.  We have been taunted and less frequently heralded our “gifts” with the word. Our gift is obsession with the music of language, the ability to tune in.

We have read with quiet abandon.  We have studied the written word, intentionally, osmotically, we find no greater joy than in the annals of another writer’s imagination.  We have allowed others’ voices to inform, infuse our own.  We have studied, studied, and continue to study the story, how it works, when it’s working, when it’s not.  We have made our rookie mistakes in the privacy of our own rooms or in the semiprivacy of our educations, writing workshops, writers’ groups, families, friends, LiveJournals.

We do not insist that these mistakes be proffered publicly. We are not proud of them. We do not hear editors’ rejections or suggestions with scorn for gatekeepers.  We thrive in rejection, we allow it to make us better, we recognize that we may never have success.  We do not write for publication, we write for writing, for self, for art, for work, for pain, for pleasure, for sex.  If we are published, of course we are pleased, but we do not begin with that in mind.  We begin with the word in mind, the story, the sadness, the soul, the voices, the joy around us.

We do not begrudge you your desire to be heard.  But we wish you would stop blabbing so loudly about how unfair the world that does not welcome your scribbling is.  We wish you would remember how you toiled to learn your trade, the one that is not book writing.  We wish you would stop believing that because you can speak you can write.  We wish you would stop thinking of writing as a cash cow.

Please, write.  Please do.  There can never be enough writers.  But before you fire up CreateSpace and start selling your print-on-demand for $24, read.  And read again.  And read until your eyes are dry and shrunken.  Until you’ve read more books than anybody you know.  Then write.  And write long and hard.  Until you’ve logged millions of words, tens of thousands of pages. And once you’ve done these things, you may be surprised how many of those pretentious, self-aggrandizing, gate keeping, nay saying, parade raining editors are willing to reconsider your work.

Love,

A Writer

Slow Down the Train! Notes on My Personal Relationship with Blogging.

From Flickr User ErinKphoto

When I first started blogging in Earnest, was it only half a year ago?  Sheesh…  What happened to the first half of 2012?

But that’s how I roll:

If I’m excited and passionate, it’s total immersion with very little space for perspective until I’m a few weeks in.  So with this blog, I was building and researching it at the same time.  That’s a model that works great in book writing, but not so much with business, I’m finding.

And those of you who know me personally know that I get excited and passionate about a lot of things, easily in fact.  I’m not really cool with just, you know, living the life of a mom, doing the bare minimum to get by.  I always need to be thinking about or studying something or working toward my next Big Goal.

So this blog is that: it’s a next Big Thing kind of goal, a “Holy shit, I can be successful at doing something I love and look at these tools to use to get more successful.  Life is awesome!” sort of thing.

And I get so many ideas.  I get more ideas than I can write.  Sometimes, I try to pile them all together into a single post (that’s when you get weird, but sort of popular, ones like the one about New Girl).

And sometimes, rarely, I don’t really want to write.  Usually, that’s if something else is going on, and I need to chill out.

And I do.  Reluctantly.  I’ve got a ticker running in my head at all times of the 80 million things that need to happen.  And I get in kind of a hurry about stuff–I start to worry that time is running out, and if I don’t do all the laundry in the house, write 1700-2400 words, pitch 8 articles, submit 2 stories, and spend some time with my child & fella in the next hour, that I will have failed at life.

But all this aside, there are some things that need to happen in the next month or so, when things get really hairy at the start of grad school, and one of the things I’m doing to prepare my life for it is to slow down on blogging.  I will to continue to write with energy, but instead of posting what I’m thinking about today, I will schedule it for another day.  I’ve been practicing, and I think I can get comfortable with thinking about tomorrow’s audience instead of today’s.

This pace will give me a week and two thirds worth of material from every week on my present schedule.  It will allow me to get ahead, will give me more time for working on other writing, give me some space to watch and participate in Twitter to greater effect, maybe, and getting some projects I’d like to finish before the end of the year in hand, and it will keep me from going insane over the next three years while I’ll be relentlessly busy with life, my writing & editing business, and school.

So here’s the new blogging schedule:  the posts will go up Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings starting Monday.  That’s May 21, 2012.  There may be occasional Tuesday, Thursday, or Saturday posts, but these will be the exception instead of the rule.

And thanks for hanging out, subscribing, and for being dang cool.  I hope you’ll continue to enjoy the blog.  I suspect it’ll be better written and polished.

And keep your eye out.  You’ll see some commerce type changes over there in the right menu bar pretty soon.  And I’m also thinking of toying with the color scheme.  Thoughts?

Self (Publishing) Help: Do You Need Beta Readers?

This is what it feels like to let someone else read work in progress. image courtesy http://www.publicdomainreview.org/images

 

A beta reader, as far as I can glean from the world wide web is a term that originated among fan fiction writers, on forums.

Fan fiction writers are people who write in the style of an author they admire, or continue story lines where the author left gaping chasms, or had the nerve to die.  These are typically fans of classics in a particular style (the victorians, for instance: George Eliot, The Brontës, et al) or contemporary commercial fiction (J. K. Rowling, Terry Pratchett, so on).

My friend Robin Kaye, who is now a romance novelist (and not a shabby one, either), started out writing Jane Austen fan fiction.  Fan fiction writers are definitely a subculture, and one of which I am generally ignorant, so apologies in advance if I make any misrepresentations here.

My sense of things is that a beta reader is a developmental editor who works for free.  Another term for roughly the same thing: critique partner.

So the short answer is, yes.  You should get yourself a beta reader.  At least one.  More than one would be good.  And, as I mentioned before, you should not be related to or having sex with your beta readers.

Think of it this way: Getting the truth about your fiction (or any writing) from someone who loves you, or even strongly likes you, is as likely as an honest answer to, “Does this make me look fat?”

 Where would I get a beta reader?

If you’re already a part of a writing forum online, that’d be a great place to look.  Or a club or social organization that focuses on writing (like a poetry society or writers’ guild, these often exist by region or state), or a professional organization (like AWP or National Writers Union), or your Facebook page.

I will suggest Craigslist, but advise you to proceed with caution, and probably only if you live in a very large urban area.  Craigslist is mostly useless if you live in a small town unless you’re giving something away (like baby clothes or appliances).

On LinkedIn there are discussion forums for writers and editors.

The thing that has always bugged me about online forums is that the core group of people on a forum is often lonely and mean-spirited, and using the forum as a way to take out hatefulness on other people who they’ll probably never have to face.

OR, there’s such a long and massive history of in jokes and forum jargon and stories that it’s almost impossible to feel welcome. These lodge a stone of discomfort tight in my belly.  I have never found the forum model to be elevating.  But it works for some people.  And it’s out there.  So go do it.  Tell them I said hello.

There may also be writing courses or workshops in your community.  Check out your public or university library or any organizations and nonprofits devoted to writing, like Attic Institute in Portland, or  Mid Atlantic Arts on our fair East coast.

Please, please don’t be a dip and send these people email asking for a list of writers.  Go on their websites and look for opportunities to network with other writers, like taking a workshop or doing a residency.

There is a different way.

You could start a writers’ group.

Writers’ groups are awesome.  Not least because you can actually go to a coffee shop and look writerly with other people instead of by yourself (which is idiotic and pretentious).

The Pros

  • You actually get to look at other people. Watch other writers interact socially.  It can be revealing.  Writers are a cagey bunch.  We’re all full of self-deprecating jokes or wry comments.  And when we’re engaging on the topic of our work, unless we have piles and piles of practice at a workshop poker face, we’re defensive and possibly prickly.
  • It’s a give-and-take relationship.  It’s not some stranger giving you hours upon hours of their time for absolutely nothing.  You are as obliged as the other members of your group to provide thoughtful feedback.
  • And let’s be honest: it’s more likely that you’ll get quality critique if you’re working with a group of people who are serious enough about writing to be in a group.  On purpose, with meeting times and all the accompanying social anxieties.
  • A random beta reader that you scared up online is as likely to be a fan fiction troll as a person with something valuable to say about anything, least of all your pride, joy, and toil: your draft.

All you need is one other writer to begin, and as you meet and work together, you’ll accomplish some of the following: you’ll increase your network, you’ll open a gateway of potential for partnerships, you’ll get accountability, you’ll learn stuff about yourself and your writing, your writing and critique abilities will increase, your outlook will improve, you’ll have camaraderie, an outlet for writerly venting, or you’ll eat less cake.

Cake is like band-aids for boo-boos of the soul.

The Cons

I am of two minds on the value of beta readers and critique partners and writers’ groups.  My stronger mind on the topic feels like the value of the writers’ group–the social critique–far outweigh the potential downsides in terms of community building and potential growth.  But my devil’s advocate mind would like to make the following points:

  • It’s still better to pay a professional when it comes time to prepare the manuscript for submission to agents and publishers.  Professionals have a vested interest in your work, not in your friendship.
  • As with every social endeavor, on and off line, writing groups can turn ugly and cost you potentially copacetic relationships.
  • Groups require time and organization, and unless you’re lucky enough to know a bunch of obsessed, competent, organized humans, the brunt of the organization will fall on one person, every group needs that person, and she can be hard to find.
  • There’s always the possibility that the group will fizz out, after–of course–you’ve devoted considerable time and energy to getting started and offering critique.
  • The critique partner/writing group relationship is difficult to get right.  So resist the urge to become BFFs.  It will be strong, since when you show somebody the unedited draft, you’re inviting at least some bad news, and that is hard on the ego–and much easier to take from somebody you’d have a beer or a movie with.

Self (Publishing) Help: Grammar and Influence Are Important!

First a quick note: I’m going to relegate fiction sharing to every-other Friday, possibly every third.  Partially because of Stanford’s advice at Pushing Social, and also partially because I’ve got a ton of helpful blog posts brewing, that are of use to you, and sharing Fiction every Friday feels narcissistic to me.   Onward.

What is Influence?

This image is much funnier when you know that these guys are blind. This is from http://www.publicdomainreview.org

One of the things I find to be most infuriating about artistic hacks is their insistence that they “shouldn’t” or “can’t” be influenced.

First of all, the assertion that real artists are above influence is both naive and arrogant.

Invariably, the person who makes this claim believes herself to be an artist, and regardless of her ability, believes that she is doing something original.  To make sure you’re with me: The claim is arrogant, and it highlights the speaker’s ignorance.

If an artist is actively avoiding influence, it gives her an excuse not to absorb other artists’ work.  Which is wrong and lazy.  Artists of all sorts need  to know, understand, and appreciate the artists that came before them.  I think classical musicians understand this best, because music must be a discipline before it can be an art.

So too with writing–though it seems that the notion that writing is a discipline before it can be an art has been largely lost to the masses, both educated and not.

So we’ll stick with the musicians for a moment: In order to play as well as Beethoven, one must play Beethoven’s complete work at least a thousand times, then interpret it with one’s own musical personality.

You still with me?

Fact is, folks, to quote my favorite dubious authority: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”  Ecclesiastes 1:9

Despite all the other absurdity that gets justified on the basis of that body of religious fiction, the notion of a collective unconscious is nothing new.

Here’s the secular authority, Jung himself in a document about his theory of the Collective Unconscious.  Jung’s thoughts on the topic are decidedly denser than those in Ecclesiastes.

My point: nobody is doing something original.  What we can and should strive for is authenticity, and a unique–or at least lesser-considered–way of filtering things.

And in order to do that, we must know what has come before, we can’t escape influence–nay, we must invite influence–and we must study our craft.

What is Craft in Writing?

My friend Jamie’s blog today talks about slang and some popular slang terms she’s personally tired to death of.  That’s what got me thinking about craft, and what it is, and why so much commercial fiction is so poorly crafted.

*Haters, remember the rules about trolls.  No personal insults just because you disagree.  I welcome your cogent, considered disagreement.  Comment away!

A lot of people who read genre fiction would agree, without really knowing what they’re agreeing about.  For example, I spoke to a woman the other evening who, after sheepishly admitting that she reads romance novels, said, “But I do it to escape.”

Awesome!  I want you to read to escape.  I’m a writer, after all!

Romance Novels and other Commercial Fiction are the literary equivalent of your favorite, mindless TV show.

But reading is healthier than watching TV, and being escape for the reader is no excuse to ignore craft, and intentionally not learn things that will make you a better writer!

Now here are some things that genre writers do super-duper well: plot, chase scenes, flashbacks, internal dialogue, tropes.

Here are some things they like to make excuses about not doing well: grammar, character depth; using sentence fragments, italics, em dashes, ellipses, and semicolons judiciously; spelling,  tense, varied language, point of view.

I spent five of my best years sitting in workshops and loving the hell out of getting critiqued, a process that I have internalized to such an extent that I am incapable of evaluating my own work because regardless of its quality, I am keenly aware of what makes writing good, and what is missing from mine.

Craft is a writer’s tool belt.  It is the larger concerns of story telling like narrative arcs and characters and settings, but it is also spelling and grammar and understanding how to use point of view and tense.

I am trained in the whole enchilada.

And knowing the difference between the following tenses: present, past, past perfect, present subjunctive, and past subjunctive does not “influence” or “interfere with” your art, it makes it better!

Restricting your use of punctuation & style short hand may be more challenging than actually writing the damn book, but it will make the book better.

Just like quality paints are easier to use and yield truer hues than their budget bin counterparts, quality writing–even when it is genre writing–is worth more to more people, and will be more clearly understood.

Novelist Wannabes?  If you are in a different career now, but “have always dreamed of being a writer,” great.  But take some classes first.  I offer them.  And private lessons.  But if you don’t live near me, there are probably courses that you could take at the nearest college or university.

Watch for my “Quick Guide to Tense: Reference Pages” sometime next month.

Being acquainted with the workshop environment will make you happier to take editorial advice when you get to publish your first book, and it will also make you a better writer and reader yourself.

Friday Writing: Scenes & New Promises, Honor the Process

from: http://www.public-domain-image.com

I’ve been under the freelance water these last couple of weeks, doing a ton of writing and editing and a “special” project for one of the papers I write for.  That’s all winding down early next week, but I haven’t spent too much time with my draft.  In fact, today is one week since the last time I did any draft writing.

This morning, however, I wrote around 1500 words in about an hour, and thought, “gosh, if I did this every day, I’d have a complete draft in no time!”

So that is my new promise to myself.  Write 1500 words a day.  No matter what.  I do feel a ton better about getting on with things.  It helps me to honor other people’s work and demands if I am honoring my own.

But that got me thinking about promises to readers.  As writers, we make tons of them.  We often make them without realizing that’s what we’re doing.

I’ve talked before about making a promise to the reader in terms of point of view and tense.  But you make a series of promises in scenes, too.  Props that are introduced will need to be managed either within the scene, or before the end of the story.  Sometimes–like with foreshadowing–the reader doesn’t even realize you’re making the promise if you do it well.

But these promises always start out as promises to ourselves as writers, the shorthand of our subconscious.  So be mindful of these notes to yourself once you have a full draft.  Sometimes, you give yourself something that’s better than what your conscious mind can do.

When you’re in the drafting stages, the best tack is to just write–do not think too hard about what your characters are doing or why they’re doing it.  Just let them.  Sometimes, you’ll make yourself promises too unwieldy or cliched or silly to keep.  But don’t evaluate the writing while you’re doing it.

When I was in high school, in art class, when we did drawing from observation or blind contour drawing, the teachers encouraged us to just shut off our consciousness and draw.

It’s kind of like meditation.  I’ve learned to do this while I’m writing, too.  I think it’s what Fiona Cheong was trying to teach her highly resistant graduate students when I took her workshop.  We began each class by meditating. Fiona would sound a gong, and we would start.  The practice would end when she sounded it again.  I loved it, but I think I was the only one.

In the scene (or parts of two scenes) I’m sharing today, the beer is a promise about a particular character’s behavior.  You get to see this character two ways: one having had too much beer, and one sober and maternal.

Also, last week, I said that my narrator, Paige, is the guardian of these friends?  I was wrong.  This is her book.  It will be her messy life.

I offer this to remind you that you have to stay flexible and keep your ego at bay as much as possible as you write and revise.

Scene/s

PUSS was Lauren’s idea, but most of the time, we felt relieved if she couldn’t show up.  She recruited me after I ran into her at a showing of Run Lola Run at the Lisbun Arts World Theater.  We were in the same Brownies troupe when we were kids, and I remembered her turning up her sleeves to hide a cigarette when we were eight.

She was always wild, and I was always intrigued in the way I was intrigued by a dead mouse in the bath tub.  When she was ebullient, she was fun.  She could be the perfect party host: sweet and accommodating and welcoming, all of it.  Her mom hosted our troop in their basement, but refused to participate.  She said Lauren had to do Brownies on her own, that she couldn’t be involved in all of her extra curriculars.

So, by the time we were thirteen, Lauren was sexually active and skipping girl scouts, but telling her mom she was going, expecting me to cover for her and getting her birth control from Planned Parenthood.

Part of me wondered how her parents didn’t know, or if they even cared.

Of course there was Leon, but Lauren seemed sad about him.  She seemed to sprint toward promiscuity to erase the memory or something. The boys ranged in name and character from Greasy Gerry who was sixteen and Lauren said “hung like a horse,” which meant less than nothing to me at thirteen, to Serene Samuel who had large brown moles on his face, sensitive eyes and a brillo of hair that was the precise color of milk chocolate.  Lauren said he demanded to touch her tits, and that it turned her on.

Even to my inexperienced ears, it sounded like she was putting on sex like she put on a winter coat, or a pair of leggings or ear muffs.

So it’s tourney time, and she’s slurping her 4th cocktail with that clumsy confidence that reminded me of junior high, and I am watching, watching her, tapping my toes against hope that she’ll meet a slow simmer and we won’t spend a day watching her smear her mascara.

Her phone buzzes.  I see Leon’s name in her black touch screen.  His digits flashing below it.  She hits ignore.  She turns it face down and eyes it, seeming to fear it, or to expect it to grow legs and hop up and touch her.

It buzzes again.  She flips it over and stabs ignore.  I can’t see that it’s Leon, but I know it is.

“I hate him.”

I wish I could ignore her.  This is Lauren’s in-comment, it’s the comment she always makes that tricks me into expressing empathy.  Once the empathy’s on the table, it’s supersonic to the Pity Lauren party ball.  Whenever we get in neck deep and I’m an accessory to her bitching, I picture myself wearing a lovely, black, Victorian taffeta gown, an updo that rivals the best 60s bee hive, and a tall, lean, dashing dancing partner who I know nothing of and owe nothing to.

She knows how to trick me, because she knows I can’t not empathize.  So I do, and in fewer than twenty seconds, I can see the racehorse of her misery’s tail end about half the way around the track. “He’s just so fucking lazy.  He won’t get a fucking job, and he spends all our money. He ignores the kids, and he won’t help with housework…” In my taffeta gown, I am regal, beyond the ether.  I weigh nothing.  I rest my tiny hand on my partner’s wide shoulder and he touches my waist with such honor.  I focus my gaze on the Grandfather clock that ticks seconds like a metronome in the corner of the gilded ballroom.  “Mm hmm.” I intersperse.

“You won’t believe this, but he called me a whore the other day.  He thinks I’m fucking my boss.” She does this when she thinks she’s losing your attention, she adds a spin that she perceives as extreme.  I know this is not true because I have heard Leon say that the only reason he stays with Lauren is that he knows she can’t cheat on him.  Not that she doesn’t want to, but she can’t. He says, “she doesn’t have time, and nobody would fuck her.  She’s too much of a fat shrew.”  I sweat in my fantasy.  I twirl in the gown, but as it gaps at my chest, I can smell familiar tang of my sweat, and I realize as Lauren talks that I’ve forgotten deodorant.  She prattles on, and I fish in my bag for the stick I keep in there.

“Excuse me, Lauren.  I have to go to the bathroom.”

“No problem,” she says, looking lovingly into her last sip of candied apple.

We’re not even through the first giro, and Lauren’s already drunk, Leon’s already calling.  We have five more giri, and I’ve got that heaviness in my gut that tells me we’re in for a drama fueled afternoon

In the bathroom, I look at myself in the mirror.  My dyed red hair in a sloppy pony tail, looking like straw on the ends, puffy under my eyes, my skin looks drier, older.  I sigh and concentrate on washing my hands.  I think about my own wasted youth and worry about my looming thirty-fourth birthday.   At least I can say I don’t have a child.  Or children.  I don’t want them.

And my current boyfriend is nice.  He’s troubled.  But nice.  I do a lot of Jedi Mind Tricks on him.  I suggest something that I want to do, and anywhere from 72 hours to three weeks later, it is his idea.  This works out ridiculously well for me.  I have always had a too-deep understanding of the fragility of the male ego.

His name is Chester.  I know. Shhh.  He’s sweet.  He loves going down on me.  Sounds shallow, maybe.  But it’s his way of saying he loves me.  It’s also his way of saying he’s sorry.  Or that he thinks I’m sexy.  I’ll take it.  He’s a lot better than the last one whose mother was a suffocating banshee, whose ex girlfriends tried to poison my mind against him while pretending to be pals, and whose general love of ferrets turned our apartment into a cheese stinking pit of shit.

I am not great at relationships.  Perhaps my barometer of Lauren and Leon’s is not to be trusted.  Still.  I can almost hear the tension building out there over the Aerosmith ballad.  I’m afraid to go back.  I do find it to be entertaining that no matter how long a pause in our conversation, Lauren remembers precisely the last thing she said, and can pick up without missing a beat.  It is eerily narcissistic.

I’m not even back to the table properly when she’s started back in, “So you know how I’ve been putting in extra hours at work?”

“mmhmm.”  I don’t.

“That’s why Leon thinks I’m fucking Chad.  Chad’s gay.  Besides, Leon spends all his free time with his bestie Noah.  I swear to Christ they’re gay for each other.”

“Wait.  What?”

“I think Leon’s gay.”

Leon is one of the most hetero men I’ve ever met.  He likes art, but only because he figured out young that arty girls with strange accessories are generally as hot as popular girls when they’re naked, and way more fun in the sack.  Lauren has regaled me with tale after tale of his college girlfriends who were all stringy and purple haired.

****

So I’m watching her tend to them in that deft, mothering way, surprised that my friend who was so fucked up for so long, who wanted this motherhood thing so hard, but who did it on dishonest terms, has fallen into step with herself as a parent.  I feel warm for a minute.  Then she looks at me with this face I’ve only seen her make one other time, it was when I picked her up from a car accident.  It was a pure version of her regular face, grateful and with the blinds open and the guard dismissed, a much prettier version of her regular face—like her blemishes disappear and she radiates light.  She says, “Sometimes I hate watching you and Chester together.  I’m jealous.  I know I shouldn’t be, but I am.”

I tell her, “Don’t be.  We’re just new.  Thirty percent of the time, I wish I was still single.  I would be if I didn’t like sex.  It’s not good because it is natural.  It’s good because we lie about it.  We show off.  We barely speak at home.”

Her face is back to normal and I wonder if I’ll ever see that other, nicer face again.  “Anyway,” I say, “your kids are great.  I’ve been thinking maybe I’m wrong to be so anti kid.  Watching you with these guys.  It’s elemental.  It’s beautiful.  I like how they smell.”

“We’re honest about this,” she says, “but me and Leon aren’t good.  It’s not going well.” She whispers t hat last part.  She says it with something that sounds like haughtiness, but that I know is shame and fear and helplessness.  She knows she’s too proud to do the work of fixing it.

Her kids are in their beds, and we’re standing sentry in the hallway, waiting to make sure they’re out before we go downstairs and crack our own beers, get dealt in on Blackjack.