"Your problem is you just do it," Kat says. She puts her iced coffee on the sticky metal patio table. We're sitting in the outdoor area at the coffee house, on those metal chairs that are about as comfortable as an autopsy table. When you get up there's a grid on your ass.
It's spring and everyone is thinking about sex. I am, and Kat must be but I don't really wanna go there with her because I'm married and she's engaged and besides, that sort of thing is bad between friends who want to stay friends.
Middle-aged guys walk by, unconsciously sucking in their guts as they blare mental images, days they used to catch frisbees, shirtless on tan sand beaches.
A woman glides past on rollerblades, her long auburn hair trailing in the slipstream, bikini top over jeans shorts, the world whispering past in her black plastic sunglasses. She slides through the lacey shade cast by the eucalyptus trees and I follow her with my eyes, soaking up summer Ray Bradbury style, a kid with brand new sneakers that speak the freedom of running on marshmallows. Reminds me of a time on spring break. Fort Lauderdale. Must have been something like 1979. What the hell was her name?
Remember the song was, "Always and Forever." Sing the first few words.
Kat tells me to cut it out, that it's rude to be having coffee with one woman and stare at another, which makes me forget for a moment that she's criticising me.
"What are you singing?"
"Little things can make you drift in the springtime. I'm singing a memory. My whole life has this maniacal soundtrack. It's stupid sometimes. Stuff like disco got stuck in there back in the seventies. I still remember them playing 'She's a Brick House' at the Homecoming dance I went to stag. Bad time. But that girl on skates...damn...reminded me someone a long time ago made me feel like like I didn't care if the world detonated and left me floating in space surrounded by sand that used to be California. Give my fortune to feel that way again."
"Fortune? You?" she asks, looking over the top of her sunglasses in a way that makes me really want to kiss her bad--(ly). So so bad.
"When I get one," I say. Then, "Why are you sitting all the way over there?"
"In your dreams," she says, stays where she is, goes back to telling me why she's not reading my book.
She says, "Writing is art. You...you just do it because you can, not because you love the art of it."
Kat's a professional writer. Been published in lots of the big magazines. No books yet, but all over the newspapers and national weeklies. Journalist. Some short stories not sold. Once her novel sells, she'll be my hero. For now she's just a friend who's better than me at what I want to do more than breathe.
"But I love writing," I tell her. Stutter a little trying to figure the words. "I love to be with writers. It's why I love being with you, right?"
"That's the only reason? Because you think you can get writing advice from me?"
"Shit. Damn. NO. I that's not what I mean. Okay--can we just rewind? Put one on the scoreboard for woman-kind. I fucked up. Fine. It's not what I meant and you know it. Don't jerk me around that way; you're not my wife. Why the hell are all my friends women now? What happened to all my guy friends?"
She says she's sorry and that I drove my guy friend away. Just teasing. Goes back to telling me why she doesn't like the short story I sent her, and the book I have a contract to produce even less.
"Your stuff is like a movie. I see everything that's happening, but I don't know what anybody's thinking."
"Uh huh," I say, remembering the cardinal rule of constructive criticism is you shut up and listen. But I'm thinking really hard I always put a lot of thinking in my stories.
"They're just not...I dunno. They're not enough... Maybe because it's like, I KNOW you. So I know how you think and when I read your stuff it's like...personal. Why are you doing this to me? This is hard."
"I'm doing this because you said you wanted to read my book and the short story for Bill's Antarctica anthology and then three weeks went by and you said nothing. I mean, I can take, 'Billy-bob, this shit sucks really bad.' Of course I want to hear, 'Billy-bob, you're a fucking genius.' But nothing is death. Stab me through the heart sort of death. Do you realize of the eight people I gave the book to, Laurie said she cried her eyes out, Paolo loved it, and the other six of you writer-types just went into your shells. So if you hate it, just say so. You're killing me with this bizzare non-functional kindness. Say something or let me go back to mentally masturbating about beautiful semi-clad women, thank you very much."
Kat rubs her head like something uncomfortably hot is going on inside. I take a swig of my iced latte wishing I could get on with the rest of my life, but I'm stuck. I have no job for the first time in 20 years. My writing seems to be selling, but then my best friend critics are saying zero about it, which makes me think it sucks. And even then I couldn't support my family on those earnings. Still need some kind of other job.
Two girls walk by in tight hip-hugger jeans and tube tops, wide white belts around their waists, hair flowing down their backs like Julie from "Mod Squad". It's like the 70's all over again, only now we have killer viruses you can't cure with a penicillin shot. I was too young for free sex in the 70's, too married in the new millennium.
Grew a beard in Antarctica and it's showing a little gray. Sheep dog kind of thing. Kat likes it.
I would much rather be having sex right now than thinking about being a failure at everything I do.
So I tell Kat she's not being helpful and I suggest something else not helpful that's coming from the sun and the hormones I still have even though I'm a lot older than spring break girl, Fort Lauderdale, Always and Forever.
"We could go somewhere and fuck. Ever wonder why the characters on 'Friends' don't just have one big pile-on orgy? How the hell can you have that many attractive people in one place and they all act like they're oblivious to the fact they're in their prime breeding years?"
She says, "Because the show would be over in two episodes. Joey would cut Chandler's throat and the women would throw each other off the balcony. The survivors would commit suicide. You don't fuck your friends, Billy-bob. Not ever."
I say, "Wait. Okay. Strike, 'Fuck.' Make that--make love. Look, I'm thinking we head over to the Marriott across the street, check in, get naked and play with each other's soft parts all night. Then tomorrow we catch the next flight to Toledo. Tire capital of the world. You must have always wanted to see it, right? Or Borneo. Auckland, New Zealand and we can raise sheep and I promise not to fuck them. Whatever. I got a fricking Amex Platinum I can probably run up about quarter a mil on before the love of my life cuts it off. Then your fiancee would dump you and kick you out of the house, my honey would divorce me and take every cent I had, my kids would disown me, my mother would pretend I was never born, and I'd be totally unemployable because I'd have a mental breakdown. Doesn't that sound like a great idea? I'm thinking, hmmm, yes. Yes. Great idea. Whadda ya say? We go wreck our entire lives on one hormone-enraged act of supreme stupidity and then you don't have to explain what the fuck you mean that my book seems to be good but written by a guy who doesn't want to be an artist. It makes about the same amount of sense."
"You're nuts," she says.
"Yes, I am nuts," I assure her. "I went to Ant-fucking-arctica. I got a fucking book contract. I'm a fucking silicon valley electronics company executive, not a novelist explorer. Or maybe I'm an adventurer. Maybe I'm a latent adulterer. Kat, goddamn it. I don't know what the fuck I am anymore. What I am is defined by what I'm not, rather than what I can do and it's killing me. Is this a midlife crisis? I'm not anything. Not working. Writing crap people don't want to read. Not in Antarctica dying of exposure. Not fucking blonde bimbos when my wife isn't looking. Maybe I should start robbing banks. Why the fuck can't you tell me why my stuff is not good? What's wrong with me that I can't write bad enough to be bad and not good enough to be good? What's with all this fucking 'not'?"
She says, "Are you done?" Folds her arms and stares at me.
"No. I wanna fuck or I wanna do something that can get me killed. Maybe drag racing. Winter mountain climbing in Alaska."
"Go home and fuck your wife," she says. "You're a good writer. Stop acting like a baby."
I pull down my sunglasses and flutter my eyelashes. "You sure you can resist me?" And truth is, I wouldn't know what to do if she said she'd go with me, but everything inside is hurting way too much for me to act like I don't care anymore. In my brain I've got a picture of her naked with a chapter of my book in her hand, glasses on, reading aloud while I'm over her making babies that will never come because I've been neutered by some Air Force surgeon with a sharp knife.
"What's wrong with me?" I say.
"You're freaking yourself out. Look, work harder at your writing. Read something once in a while. Try to tell stories instead of flipping metaphors around like you don't have to do anything but give people analogies. People want to know what's happening, not how you feel about the landscape."
"My book is already sold. It's going to be printed," I say, knowing she doesn't have a book contract and wants one bad--(ly).
"It will have to be fixed. You have a lot more work to do," she says, and my heart sinks like a rock through hydrogen. Alcohol. I need to be getting drunk now. Really bad--(ly).
"I found this place on the web," I say. "It's full of writers. Good ones. They're all over the place like some kind of weird headless death cult of writer apostles. I've written some things for them and they're NICE to me. They tell me if they love stuff or hate it. They threaten to castrate me when I insult the bands they like. I feel like I'm home. These people, they think like me. It's called Everything2. They have these rules. Dole out points. It makes them write better, they think. They really try to make each other happy with their writing. They can't stop. They write and write because their genes make them do it. Are you sure we can't go somewhere and fuck? How about just oral sex? No penetration. A hand job. I'm cool with that if you are."
Kat whacks me with her empty coffee cup and makes me love her by reminding me you don't go fucking your friends, figuratively or literally. It just doesn't work. There's no such thing as casual sex. She's been there, done that, and there are bodies in shallow graves all along highway 80 to prove it.
She says, "That thing you wrote about Blink 182. That's the funniest thing I've ever read from you. Why don't you write more like that?"
I say, "That was funny? You laughed at that? What's wrong with you? That was a sensitive piece about making my children happy. You tempt me with your feminine wiles and then mock me with your insolence. Harlot!"
Kat knows nothing serious is going to happen anymore. She gets up and fishes the car keys from her purse, says, "I'm going now. I'm going to call 911 when I get to my car. I'm going to tell them to look for a crazed 40-ish guy molesting rollerbladers by the coffee roasting house. If you're not gone in fifteen minutes they're going to feed you Thorazine and take you away in a hamster cage. I promise."
I pull out my Amex card. Wave it around. "In half an hour we can be at the airport checking in. Toledo is waiting, darlin'. All that rubber. More steel belted radials than could fit in Madison Square Garden. All you have to do is say, 'Yes,' and your retread days are over."
She says, "You can't tempt me with Toledo. It's Akron where the tires are, honey. Go back to your Anything-2, or whatever that writer death cult is. Maybe they can help you." She turns to walk away and stops, says, "Tomorrow? Same time?"
I say, "Sure," and wait for the men in white coats.
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