by Nijiiro Sumi (虹色 墨)
illustrated by serenity_winner
“Every book I’ve ever written ends with someone dying; every one. Really nice people too. I wrote a book about the school teacher. I killed her the day before summer vacation. How cruel is that? And a civil engineer, Edward, the one I trapped with a heart attack in rush hour. I killed him. I killed! I killed them all.” – Kay Eiffel, Stranger Than Fiction. [REPLACE THIS QUOTE WITH SOMETHING MORE SUITABLE]
You’re drinking at the lesbian bar down the street to avoid antagonizing your roommate any more, and that’s when you encounter Joan.
The problem is that Joan is not real. Joan Truant (which is a working name, you swear, you will come up with something better by the time you actually submit the damn story) is a character in your head, and not even a fully developed one. In fact, the below list is pretty much everything you know about her:
– black hair, short
– black eyes
– dyke (duh)
– maybe looks a little like Demi Moore
– favorite food: Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups
– most disliked food: asparagus
– occupation: anything but tattoo artist; maybe a dental hygienist?
And there she is, sitting at the other end of the bar, dressed in tight jeans and the kind of ripped t-shirt that went out of fashion in the 80s. She’s wearing jewelry, specifically bright red dangly star-shaped earrings, which hadn’t occurred to you, but now that you see them, they’re perfect. She’s short enough that her feet don’t quite comfortably reach the floor, and she has them braced against the bottom rung of the stool. She’s drinking something amber-colored in a glass.
Before you can think enough to talk yourself out of it, you take your beer and move your seat two away from hers. “You look just like one of my characters,” you blurt out, and then immediately want to beat yourself to death with your own beer bottle. Worst pick up line ever, and you’re not even trying to pick her up;
she just happens to look a lot like one of your characters.
She laughs, predictably, but not in a mean way. More like a, “Oh, how cute,” way. She angles her body toward you and smiles. It’s all you can do not to let your tongue unroll onto the bar, like a cartoon wolf in one of those old Chuck Jones cartoons. “What’s your character’s name?” she asks.
“Joan.” You can’t believe she’s still talking to you. You can’t believe you’re still talking. “I think I’m going to change her name, though.”
“Oh, why? Joan’s a great name. It’s my name, as a matter of fact.”
Your jaw drops. “No way.”
“God’s honest,” she says, taking another sip of her drink. She’s probably lying. She’s probably just humoring you.
“You can’t wait for inspiration, you have to go after it with a club.” – Jack London
Every writer has a process. Some can only write when they’re drunk. Some can only write when they’re stoned. Some start with an outline; others just vomit words out onto the page. For you, it’s less writing and more opening a vein onto the page.
Part of your process is avoiding the story. Well, not really avoiding it. It’s more like you work best under pressure, or like the idea has to reach a certain critical mass in your head before. . . well, before. It might look like you’re just playing video games, but actually you’re taking the story apart in your head, adjusting a piece here, removing a piece there, examining character motivations, constructing backstory. You eat, drink, breathe, and sleep the damn story, all without lifting a finger to actually write it.
So you refresh your friendslist every five minutes, check your email every fifteen, and play video games when you’re not doing the above two. You do your laundry, including all the towels in the apartment, cook dinner, wash and dry all the dishes in the sink, dust the mantle, and stop short of actually sweeping and mopping the floors, although you do take the dustbuster to the particularly grody corners. To just about anyone else in the world, it looks like you’re avoiding the story.
“Hey, so, how’s the story coming?” asks your roommate while you’re slumped on the couch staring glassy-eyed at the screen, mashing buttons. That’s code for, “Are you done procrastinating yet?”
“It’s coming,” you say, which is code for, “Stop bugging me.”
“Have you started yet?” she asks, which is code for, “Yeah, right.”
“Shut up,” you suggest, which is code for, “Die in a fire.” Thematically, the last
zombie shadow on the screen dies in a burst of flame.
That night, though, you finally start writing. Or rather, you type the word “The,” then backspace and replace it with the word “One,” then backspace and replace it with a quotation mark, which you also erase. Once, you get part of a sentence out: “This story starts when,” and then angrily highlight it all and delete it, too. Then you get really drunk on some tequila in the back of one of the cabinets and stumble into your roommate’s room at one in the morning, stubbing your toe on her nightstand.
“I’m not any good,” you blubber.
“Whu?” says your roommate.
“I’m a hack. A complete fraud. I don’t deserve to live,” you moan, getting snot all over her shirt. “I should cut off my hands at the wrists so that nobody else has to suffer.”
“Oh my God,” says your roommate. “Go back to bed.”
“I can’t,” you sniffle. “I suck.”
“I don’t disagree, but go back to bed or I will beat you to death with this lamp.”
“Writing is the flip side of sex: it’s good only when it’s over.” – Hunter S. Thompson
Which is, eventually and indirectly, how the next night, you and Joan end up in bed together, rutting against each other like animals
or really horny people. She’s gorgeous, these lean, long lines like you’ve always loved in women. Normally you feel fat and squishy, but tonight you feel like the sexiest thing alive. It helps that she keeps moaning under you, writhing against the sheet like you’re a sex god. You know exactly where to put your hands, where to put your mouth, when to pinch and when to caress. Her breasts are really sensitive, and you dig that, you love it; you could suck on them for hours. You kiss her neck, her mouth, her collarbone, and resist the completely juvenile urge to leave hickeys. She pulls your hair when you go down on her, just a little, hard and gentle enough for it to be sexy instead of annoying. Then she goes down on you, and you arch your back and just about scream the house down because sex like this just doesn’t happen to real people. Boy, your roommate is going to be pissed tomorrow, you think, in some distant corner of your mind that is still capable of rational thought. [EXPAND THIS INTO AN ACTUAL SEX SCENE, MAYBE.]
Except that didn’t actually happen. Maybe. You’re not sure. Because the next day you apologize to your roommate about the noisy sex, and she just gives you a baffled look over her cereal and says, “You must have had a really good dream last night.”
“Huh?” you say, still mussed, holding a mug of milk in one hand.
“I’m saying that you did not have noisy sex last night,” your roommate informs you, matter-of-factly.
Your roommate sleeps deeply, but not that deeply.
Gravel trucks on the freeway have woken her up before. (They wake you up, too.) Also, you sure were a screamer last night. And you’re still sore. You sink down into one of the kitchen chairs and mull this over. This doesn’t make sense.
“Who did you have sex with, anyway?” your roommate continues through a mouthful of cornflakes. “You didn’t go out.”
You stare. “I totally went out. I went to [NAME OF BAR].”
“You went where?”
“[NAME OF BAR],” you insist. “You know, that lesbian bar down the street.”
Your roommate gives you a concerned look. “There is no lesbian bar down the street,” she tells you. “We live in
Indianapolis Cleveland Witchita.”
Cleveland. Witchita. You have no idea how or why you thought differently. You get up from the table and stumble into your room, still clutching your glass of milk, because it is now the only thing that makes sense. Must have been a really, really vivid dream last night.
“It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does.” – William Faulkner
decided it was just time to start over, yanno? cut my hair, deleted my old LJ. none of my rl friends know about this, so i feel like i can say whatever i want. its pretty cool. total anonymtiy.
Would Joan Truant even have an LJ, you wonder, staring at that entry. She’s not the kind of person that would spend a lot of time online, not someone like her. LJ is mostly for geeks and fans, at least in the US. Maybe she’s Russian.
the weirdest thing happened today. i was on my way to work, listening to my ipod, and i got that feeling like someone was behind me. so i turn around, but there’s nobody there, just some old dude with his briefcase. creeped me out, tho.
You’ll make fake comments too, you decide. Comments, instead of footnotes. That could be awesome. Set up some sockpuppets to be Joan’s friends, have them leave comments, and then delete all their accounts so their usernames will shown up struck out in the end.
It’s thematic, see? You’ll have to get your roommate to help, though, because the deadline just keeps rushing toward you, and all that time you spent drinking and fooling around means you don’t have as much time left for writing.
That nonexistent bar still pisses you off, though. You know it was all a dream, but still, it didn’t feel like a dream. It wasn’t just dream-sense, like when you’re clearly a lion-tamer in your dream and have been all your life. It was–you remembered going there with your roommate a few times, you recognized the bartender, and this is not really convincing you. Of course stuff seems real in dreams. And you live in Cleveland. There isn’t a lesbian bar down the street.
But you go on a walk just to see, even though you know the most happening thing around is a little strip mall plaza thing, with a Jewel and a Starbucks and an arts and crafts store and a hair salon and a Denny’s. You stand there in the parking lot, wondering where the bar was in your dream–you lived in a totally different neighborhood–when you see Joan in the Starbucks, slouching in one of those armchairs, staring at something on her laptop while a paper cup of something cools on the little table by her knee.
You bolt through that door and lunge into the seat across from her before some other punk yuppie can snag it with their Apple laptop. You’re aware that you look like a completely crazy person even as you blurt out, “Joan??”
Joan looks up
, so that must really be her name. She looks different–long hair, straight, and wearing respectable jeans and boots and a well-cut top. But it’s Joan, you know it is, maybe Joan in some alternate universe where she went to college and got a real job and now hangs out in Starbucks drinking three dollar lattes while working from home on her laptop. It unfurls in your head; you can see exactly how this would have happened, if just one event in her life had turned out different, if her mother hadn’t–
“Who are you?” Joan asks, suspicious.
You deflate. “You don’t remember–” Of course she doesn’t remember. You never met in a lesbian bar down the street. “Never mind. It’s totally crazy. I just thought–we met in a dream, I guess.”
Joan laughs. “Well, at least I’ll have something to blog about later,” she jokes, and you smile weakly. You get up to go, and Joan says, “That’s not the worst pickup line I’ve ever heard.”
You weren’t trying to pick her up, you swear, and you try to tell her this. Joan just keeps laughing, though, in that “You’re so cute” way, and next thing you know the sun’s gone down and Joan invites you back to her place, and history repeats itself, and you are having the best goddamn orgasm of your life. Again. Make that orgasms.
“You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.” – Ray Bradbury
When you wake up in the morning, you think, “Well, at least I don’t have to apologize to my roommate this time.”
That’s because you don’t have a roommate.
Joan isn’t there anymore. She probably had to go to work and didn’t wake you. Better hope she left a key somewhere so that you can lock up, then. You heave yourself out of bed and shake the cobwebs out of your head, then spy a notebook next to the bed, with a pen on top of it. You know you shouldn’t, but you reach out and pick it up. There’s nothing on the cover to show what’s inside, so you crack it open, figuring it for a dream journal or something. What you find, instead, is your own handwriting, full of crossed-out words where something didn’t quite work, sometimes a sentence breaking off mid-word so that you could turn to the next page and try again, the occasional grotesque doodle where you were trying to figure out what came next.
You flip to the last page, where you wrote a bunch of Joan’s fake LJ entries. She’s thinking of getting a cat. She met a nutty person in Starbucks who claimed to have met her in a dream. She thought it was charming and took this person home and had sex with them. i luv giving ppl multiple orgasms. it makes me feel so powerful. i luv having this lj that nobody knows becuase i can talk about stuff like this w/out anyone judging me. The hair rises on your neck.
This apartment only has one bedroom. You determine this after walking its length and width four times. It’s a very small apartment, with a cramped kitchen you can barely turn around in and an electric stove, and a living room with delusions of grandeur. The carpet is brown and smells funny. You don’t have a roommate. You’ve never had a roommate. Come to think of it, you can’t even remember your roommate’s name. Was that all a dream, then? Some very elaborate dream brought on by writing too much and working too hard?
The only thing that makes sense in your life anymore is the story. You close all the windows, because you’ve always worked best in the dark, free of all distraction, and get to work.
“A good novel tells us the truth about its hero, but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author.” — G. K. Chesterton
These are things you learned about Joan by accident. You were shampooing your hair, or eating a bowl of cold cereal over the sink, or fondling your clitoris with two fingers, and something bloomed in your head and sank into place: oh, of course and this is how it happened and one time. And then you dropped whatever you were doing and wrote it down, because this is your life now and always has been.
Here are the things you’ve learned about Joan:
– Joan used to smoke because it made her look sexy, and because a lot of lesbians smoke, but she gave it up when it started to deaden her tastebuds. She likes being able to taste people’s kisses, people’s cunts, the salt on someone’s skin. Also, one of her girlfriends complained that she always oversalted the eggs. [WAIT, WOULD JOAN REALLY CARE WHAT OTHER PEOPLE THINK, EX-GIRLFRIEND OR NOT?]
– Joan likes listening to music in the car, the kind that shakes the whole body and that you can hear from the sidewalk, whether or not she has the windows down. Anything that she can bang the steering wheel to is fair game; this includes the Red Hot Chili Peppers (the older stuff), hip hop, [INCLUDE SOME OTHER BANDS/GENRES HERE]. Things she doesn’t like: country music, classical music, stuff that old people listen to, musicals. She just doesn’t get the point.
– [SOMETHING ABOUT JOAN’S FAMILY]
– Joan likes to masturbate with her clothes on, one hand thrust down the front of her panties, the other one splayed across her lean stomach, under her shirt, moving with the rise and fall of her breath. Usually she does it on her back, eyes closed and legs splayed open in a triangle, but sometimes she does it on her stomach, one arm bent under
neath her. She likes it how long it can take on her stomach, how difficult it can be to achieve climax. Usually she can make herself come multiple times. She doesn’t fantasize or relive old sexual experiences; mostly, she just thinks about how sexy she is.
– Joan really, really would not have a LiveJournal. If she were a real person (what are you saying, she is a real person), she wouldn’t have an LJ. She would think the entire concept of blogs was silly. But it’s too late now.
Things you’ve learned about yourself:
– Absolutely fucking nothing.
You can’t even remember your name. You can’t find any identification in your hole of an apartment. You don’t even know where you live.
It doesn’t matter anymore.
“Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” — E.L. Doctorow
Someone knocks on your door on the–you think it’s the seventh day. You freeze like a startled rabbit, eyes wide and ears standing stiffly at attention. Then the knock comes again. You jump, bolt–bolt where? You’re safe in your own home, or so you think. Then a voice calls, muffled through the wood, “Are you okay? You’ve been missing for a week!” Which is what makes you think it is the seventh day. You peer through the peephole and see a woman with messy brown hair, glasses, and an expression that’s half worried, half exasperated. She’s dressed like she’s on her way back from work. You think that this might not be entirely abnormal behavior for you. Writers are supposed to be a little eccentric. You’ve taken advantage of that stereotype in the past. You wonder why you know that.
How you know that.
“I see you!” she snaps, and bangs on the door hard enough that it trembles. You unchain the door, twist the lock, and open it just a crack, so that you can peer out at her with one eye. She shoves the door open the rest of the way, almost knocking you back against the wall.
“Oh my God,” she says, recoiling as soon as she takes a step into the apartment. “Shit, you reek! When was the last time you showered?”
You take a moment to think about it.
“Never mind,” she says. “Oh my God. Go shower. Jesus Christ. What the fuck have you been doing? We’ve been trying to call and email and–we thought you might’ve died or something
“Who’s ‘we’?” you croak at last, holding your hands up in front of your chest like the aforementioned rabbit. You wring your fingers a little.
She gapes at you. “Holy shit, are you okay, man?”
You shake your head. “I don’t–I can’t really remember what’s been going on,” you confess. A little needle of hope sinks into your chest. This person knows you–maybe she knows your name, your occupation, what the hell has been going on in your life. You try to smile, but your face feels stiff and your lips twitch.
She peers at you, like maybe she can see in your pores if you’re lying, but you aren’t. Shock takes up residence in one eye and pity in the other. Finally, practicality wins out. “Okay, look, go shower. I’ll wait out here.”
It’s nice to have someone tell you what to do. So you go and shower, then realize that you don’t have any clean clothes, or if you do, you don’t know where they are. Fortunately, whatshername has anticipated all your needs, and she knocks on the door of the shower a few minutes after the water has stopped running (it was a long, hot shower–it felt good) and hands you some clean clothes she found somewhere, along with a soft white towel. You take your time drying yourself off, and the clothes feel so good against your soft, clean skin that you wiggle and dance a little. When you leave the bathroom, she’s cleared off a space on the kitchen table and even produced some food from somewhere. It’s just an old box of mac n cheese, but she mixed tuna and some frozen vegetables into it. You’re ravenous and bolt down the impromptu casserole. In between bites, she asks you questions, and you tell her everything: about the story, about Joan, the nonexistent roommate, the Starbucks, Joan again.
In return, she tells you about yourself. You’re a student at the Iowa Writers Workshop. You’re widely acknowledged as being brilliant and having a great deal of potential, but unstable. It’s not unusual for you to descend into a fugue state when you get particularly absorbed in a story, and sometimes you even take on certain characteristics of your characters. She introduces herself as Charlotte and says she’s an ex-girlfriend that you stayed in touch with. Your friends at the workshop, not to mention your instructors, have been worried about you, as it’s unlike you to drop out of sight for so long, and Charlotte volunteered to drop by and see how you were doing. No one expected to find you in such a state.
You’re humbled and gratified. “Thanks,” you say. Maybe you turned into Joan, a little bit. Joan must be a mess. You’re going to have to do something about that.
Charlotte sighs and runs a hand through her hair. “Look,” she says. “Maybe we should. . . I mean, I know you don’t like the idea of drugs, but this isn’t normal. You can’t tell me you got much writing done like this.”
You shake your head, then change your mind and nod, then shake your head a little bit. You did get some writing done, but not much of it was usable: most of it’s just notes and thoughts, written in a crabbed hand one on top of another. When you ran out of pages in your notebook and couldn’t find any more, you started writing on top of your old notes in lines perpendicular to the old ones. It never occurred to you to go outside and buy another notebook. There’s something wrong with you.
But you don’t want drugs. You’ve always heard they’ll turn you into a zombie.
She reaches across the table, takes your hand, and squeezes it. “We’ll get you some help.”
This is all bullshit, by the way. No one knocked on your door, told you the truth about yourself, and offered to get you help. You’re alone.
You got yourself into this.
“Every writer I know has trouble writing.” — Joseph Heller
You are so close to finishing, but you don’t know what happens next. You don’t know how this story ends, and that’s a problem. You could just keep writing and writing and writing, trapped in this room forever, surrounding by dust and garbage, clothed in nothing but your own helpless flesh. The thought makes you nauseous, and you stop and heave into the trash can, though nothing comes up. You can’t remember the last time you ate.
If there is a hell for writers, this is what it’s like: forced to write the same story for eternity, over and over and over again.
The story is there. You know it. You feel it. It’s drifting out there, somewhere in the aether, the Platonic ideal of this story. You catch a glimpse of it now and then, when you’re not paying attention, and it disappears from your peripheral vision before you get a good look. It infuriates you, so you put it in the story. The last resort of the troubled writer: write about writing. Write about something that’s happening to you.
i think im going crazy. i keep seeing her out of the corner of my eye, even tho i know she’s not there. she cant be there. this is all in my head.
And now, somewhere out there, Joan is
dead going crazy. You are driving her crazy. That seems only fair.
“Writers aren’t exactly people…. they’re a whole bunch of people trying to be one person.” — F. Scott Fitzgerald
You look for recs of your own work. It’s a guilty pleasure, but you know that everyone does it. People track comments, count hits, search for themselves on delicious.com. It’s a dangerous path, one filled with self-affirmation and self-loathing.
You find on, on some random community somewhere, for a story that you don’t remember writing. awesome, writes the reccer. like a gay lesbian version of House of Leaves Isn’t that redundant? You click on the link–you love clicking on links to your own writing–and find yourself reading [INSERT TITLE HERE], a story about a girl that stumbles on a blog about an incident, and the author that goes crazy writing it.
You’re drinking at the lesbian bar down the street to avoid antagonizing your roommate any more, and that’s when you encounter Joan.
It’s always really strange to read something you wrote after it’s been “published.” It’s chiseled into rock now, untouchable, uneditable. You see it from the point of view of a reader, and suddenly all the little flaws become apparent, places where the words are stiff and out of rhythm, typos, jagged syntax, malformed imagery. This time, though, it’s even stranger because now it’s finished, the cracks sanded over and filled in.
She looks different–long hair, straight, and wearing totally respectable jeans and boots and a well-cut top. But it’s Joan, you know it is, maybe Joan in some alternate universe where she went to college and got a real job and now hangs out in Starbucks drinking three dollar lattes while working from home on her laptop.
. . .
Joan ran away from home when she was sixteen, convinced that she could only find herself with her father in Santa Fe. Her mother, a lawyer in Berkeley, California, was convinced that Joan fell into a life of dissolution, selling herself for drug money on the street, even after Joan called her from New Mexico.
. . .
And now, somewhere out there, Joan is going crazy. You are driving her crazy. That seems only fair.
You keep scrolling, heart pounding. The story is difficult to read, pale gray font over a suffocating black background.
It adds to the atmosphere. But there’s an ending; there’s more at the bottom. You need to know how this ends. You know how this ends. You know what happens next. You know what happens next.
What happens next is that the door will open, spilling in the bright afternoon light. You will turn around, throw your hand up in front of your face and squint, and you won’t be able to see who it is: just a long, lean silhouette surrounded by white.
“Who is it?” you’ll croak, thought you know the answer, even though the answer is already written and already read.
“It’s you,” she will answer, stepping out of the light and brushing her cool fingers against your face. You won’t be able to see her very well, still. “It’s Joan.”
And she is. And you are.