It has been a while since Laurie’s last short story. And getting back to work by starting from scratch isn’t easy. The journey of a story is tricky. You draw a starting point and a destination on a map, and then you begin to sketch out your trip.
However, if you’ve had a long break from writing, you’ll feel anxious about embarking on that inner journey. Talents don’t go rusty, even if you keep them in the basement. But Laurie no longer has confidence in writing fiction. Whom does she write for other than herself? Of course, her muse.
Stephen King calls that person the “Ideal Reader.” She knows where her I.R. is hiding. She packs her bags and drives to the coast in Lübeck.
Laurie is knocking on I.R.’s door and hears a faint “come in.”
The door squeaks as she opens it. The hotel room is stuffy and reeks of cigarettes.
“Hi,” she says.
I.R. is sitting at his desk, scribbling something onto paper. He looks beautiful as ever, but the loneliness in that room makes him appear distant.
“I knew you’d come back crawling one day,” he says.
“I’m not crawling.”
She looks at the crumpled paper in the overflowing garbage bin, ignoring the guilt creeping up on her.
“You know things haven’t been easy for me,” she says.
“Same here. But you needed some space, and I respected that.”
He lights a cigarette and continues scribbling. There is a pile of paper on his desk.
“What are those?”
I.R. looks at her briefly and smiles for the first time since her arrival.
“Well,” he says, “these are ideas locked up in the back of your head.”
“Yeah, with me inside.”
The chair squeaks when she steps closer.
“Don’t,” he says.
I.R. stops writing, and she thinks of an animal sensing danger. She stays put, accepting the shield between them–separating two worlds that have trouble reconnecting.
“How can I unlock it?” she says.
There are signs of fear and desperation on his face.
“Only I can open it,” he says.
He returns to his writing as if she wasn’t there. She is still standing in the middle of the room, unable to touch I.R.
Laurie remembers how they first met; they were eleven and became inseparable. Holding him accountable for writer’s block was her fault. And then, the lack of trust tore them apart.
“I’m sorry for pushing you away,” she says. “I didn’t mean to give up.”
He finally turns the chair to face her. His dirty blond hair looks half washed, just like hers. And it seems like they both haven’t been eating healthily. Maybe he has missed her too.
“I know.” He smiles.
He does miss her.
“You’ve just read Mr. King, didn’t you? Sort out your toolbox and get started.”
She’s trying hard to hide her grin.
“So, you’re still my muse?”
He gestures at the pile of paper on his desk.
“Well,” he says, “first, work on your language, improve your grammar and build on your style. They are appalling.”
“Your recent stories are good,” he says, “but they need a lot of polishing. I can’t unlock the door if you don’t start putting your shoulder to the wheel.”
He puts out the cigarette.
“Will you forgive me?” she says.
“You are writing this right now. You’ll make me forgive you. Do I have a choice?”
“Honestly…” he said, “don’t you know me at all?”
I opened my eyes. The blurry tartan patterns were dissolving in the air. How weird to see those in the daylight instead of the dark. My neck felt sore when I got up. I dreamt I was at the cemetery of miscarried children. The atmosphere was that of a Shakespearean tragedy.
I rubbed my eyes and saw a man sitting by the window with a book. When he tilted his head, his glasses threw the reflection of the sun at me.
“I’m sorry,” he said and took them off.
“Who are you?” I looked around me and realised that I wasn’t home. The bedroom was small and reminded me of a student dorm.
He placed the book down, which turned out to be my journal.
“You’re reading my journal?”
“Secrets are no crime,” he said, “not in this case anyway.”
“Who are you? Where am I?”
He looked disappointed. I touched my chest and noticed that I was wearing no bra underneath that jumper. I glanced over to the radiator, where my clothes were drying.
“Good to see that you’re recovering. Out-of-date medicine seems to work!”
“What happened?” I said.
My throat was dry, and my muscles were aching. The sunlight was too much for my brain to handle.
“You had a fever when I found you in the rain.”
“You found me?” I asked.
“There.” He pointed out of the window without further explanations. Instead of asking any more questions, I tried hard to remember what had happened. My head was aching now too. I looked at the little night table on my left and noticed a pack of suppositories next to some papers.
“Out-of-date medicine works,” he said.
He stepped away from the light and came closer, his hands deep in his jeans pockets. I stared at him for as long as I could without blinking. His dark hair and bright eyes bore a resemblance to someone that I had once known.
I got out of bed to get my journal. The dizziness and lack of energy made me sink in the chair by the window. My eyes had adjusted to the sunlight.
“What else do you know about me?” I said.
I pressed my journal tightly against my chest. He didn’t bother coming close again, but instead, he sat down on the bed, running his hand through his hair.
“I understand your sentiments. I’m sorry.”
He patted on a stack of paper, which was on the night table.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
He chuckled and shrugged his shoulders.
“Call me, Ian.”
“Where did you find me?”
He pointed swiftly at the window again.
I moved closer to the window, which suddenly struck me as a bright painting, illustrating a beach. I saw some sails far out in the sea. The sunlight was, in fact, seeping through a hole that looked like a cigar burn.
“I’m glad you’re writing about me again,” he said gently.
“I’m writing about you?”
“Why are you here, then?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
I realised on the toilet that I had woken up in a hotel room rather than a student’s dorm. A sign on the wall said, “Please place the towel on the floor if you wish to have a new one.”
The showerhead had a dual system allowing the guest to choose from a full drench to a light sprinkle. When the water drizzled onto my face, I began to picture myself running in the rain the night before.
Tears had disappeared in the rain when I was sprinting down to the beach. I was listening to the waves that looked like dark claws or the mouth of a giant octopus. I imagined the soapy foam at the shore as the mouthpart of the moving shapes of darkness. The lights behind the railing were flickering and reminded me of a romantic scene in a movie. In that scene, a girl sat at a counter in a diner, drinking a latte. I was outside in the downpour, looking at her blurry shape through the window. She propped her chin and stared at nothing. She was oblivious to the boy next to her, who was smelling her hair real closely.
Like a castaway, I fell unconscious on a small dune, a low-lying area vegetated with plants that would catch all the windblown sands. That night they caught me.
For a final rinse off, I switched back to full drench. When I came out of the bathroom, I saw Ian at the desk, typing. It looked familiar. He didn’t notice me, so I went to the window again and looked at the beautiful coastal dunes. It looked like the painting became real.
“You came here to see me, right?” Ian said.
“I don’t know.”
“You know more than you think; you just never think straight because the back of your head is locked.”
He took a deep breath and finally looked at me, scanning me from top to bottom. I was only wrapped in a towel. He turned away from me and pointed at my clothes on the radiator. They smelled fresh.
“Did you wash my clothes?” I asked.
“Are you my servant or something?”
He pointed at the door and raised his voice.
“Why don’t you go out and work on your story, for God’s sake!”
The next thing I knew, he pushed me out of the hotel room and slammed the door shut. I hadn’t finished dressing yet. A cleaning lady was coming up my way with a trolley full of dirty towels.
“Hey!” I shouted and banged against the door. “My journal and my wallet!”
Ian opened the door to hand me my journal and a 20-Euro note. He shut the door again before I could say anything.
“Where’s my wallet?”
“You lost it,” he said through the door.
The cleaning lady was still there, staring.
“It’s not what you think it is,” I said.
I went for some continental breakfast at the hotel restaurant. My favourite type of rolls was the sunflower seed roll, which I used to eat with turkey slices, cheese and tomato. I couldn’t taste the actual richness of the texture, not to mention the saltiness of the turkey. Other hotel guests were enjoying their breakfast tremendously.
Afterwards, I walked up to the server and asked why the food tasted like paper. His broad smile looked like a big part of him, some kind of a customer service habit that he applied to get better pay.
“Excuse me,” I said, but he didn’t move. His smile was still solid, like the hyperreality of a wax figure. I pushed his shoulder lightly, and he fell over. He turned out to be a six feet tall piece of cardboard. All the guests in the dining room had gone quiet and motionless—cardboard people.
I pressed my journal against my chest and left the hotel as fast as I could.
I walked towards the dunes and the beach, enjoying the fresh air on a midsummer morning. I could smell the salt of the Baltic Sea – similar to ocean water. Then, the smell of turpentine and oil paints hit my nostrils. I encountered an artist painting in front of the railing that separated the beach from the public footpath. From behind, I noticed his extraordinarily oversized head. His elegant arm movements reflected the delicacy of his fine brush strokes on canvas. I carefully peered over his shoulder and saw that he had painted the dunes in deep purple colours–the sand in pale orange and the sea green.
When the artist turned around, I saw his deformed head. His eyes were gazing downward–his mouth twisted, indicating fear. The thought of having water in my brain made me feel like drowning. A lump was forming in my throat.
He suddenly vomited on his feet and began to convulse. I helped him lie down on his back and propped his heavy head. It looked like it was about to spurt out water. He raised his trembling hand and pointed at his painting, which had fused with the real scenery around us. I watched the vigorous waves moving in the square frame.
“Easy, easy,” I said. The man’s eyes had turned white as his mouth foamed up.
He mumbled something that I couldn’t understand. I carefully laid his head down and searched through his painting bag, where I found a lorazepam injection. I pushed the needle in his thigh and waited for him to relax gradually.
He regained consciousness on my lap but shied away from me. Next, he packed away his paintbrushes and walked off, leaving me alone with that painting. He looked back at me once and said clumsily:
“You need find missing reel.”
He pointed at the painting again.
I took it and climbed over the railing to the beach. It felt like I had just climbed through Ian’s window. I walked a mile down the coast, marvelling at the beautiful horizon where Uranus was talking to Poseidon.
I rested on the sand, watching how the waves were washing flat stones ashore. To my right were a couple of lost bumblebees crawling around. The salty sea air felt good in my lungs.
About thirty yards away, I saw a big man walking towards me. He was wearing a red suit with tartan patterns.
“It’s nice to meet you finally,” he said.
“Who are you?”
“I’m Tautou – a filmmaker.”
He sat down next to me and lit a cigar. His voice was clear; it was soothing to hear someone in this town speak other than Ian.
“I help you visualise your stories,” he said.
“Yes, let me show you something.”
He opened his bag and showed me his camcorder.
“I copied my latest short film onto this.”
A woman travelled to find a man she knew to seek help. They argued a lot, mainly about her being clingy and bad-tempered. One evening they went to a diner to find shelter from the rain. There, he told her that they should stop spending so much time together, but she got upset and ran away. She bumped into a man in red who placed his hand on her forehead. Next, she ran toward the beach, where she lost consciousness.
A black and white flashback scene depicted the artist with the deformed head. The scene was laid parallel to the woman’s miscarriage, showing the death of a baby that suffered from hydrocephalus.
After that scene, Tautou stopped the video and placed his hand on my forehead.
We continue watching in silence until the film indicates a missing reel. Then, it jumps straight to the end where the woman gets in her car and drives away. A man is standing outside the hotel, waving goodbye at the car, and walks back inside. Fade out.
“Why did you show me this?” I say.
“I need your help.”
“You need to complete this story.”
I stare at the artist’s painting and hold it up against the sky, blocking the sun. Tautou, who is smoking his second cigar, takes the canvas and burns a hole through it. The sunlight is seeping through the painting now—my jaw drops.
“What did you come here for?” he says.
“I have to go.”
I walk further down the coast until I see dark clouds nearing the beach. I suddenly feel detached from this place. I think about Tautou’s question or what Ian said this morning.
I reach the diner before the heavy rain hits.
Everything becomes clear. Last night we argued here, which resulted in me running away. It feels like last night hasn’t ended and that I’ve run back to the diner to apologise, but he isn’t here. I take a seat at the counter, grab some napkins to dry my face and neck.
I order a large latte.
The waiter looks surprised when he sees me and starts looking for something underneath the cash register. Next, he puts my wallet on the table.
“You forgot this,” he says.
I open my wallet and find my I.D. with my real name.
I feel no desire to drink my latte anymore. I prop my chin with one hand and begin to stare holes into the wall. I listen to people’s loud conversations until I only hear the echo of the words spoken. It’s like the noise is filtered through a long tube. Then the voices begin to fade, and all I can hear is the rain. Waiters and waitresses dash by in a blur – fast and sometimes slow. There are distorted images of the beach on the wall–I can’t blink.
Tautou is probably watching me from outside through a lens. I imagine the rain running down the lens.
Someone’s breath is tickling my ear. I turn to the side and see Ian grinning at me.
“Sorry, I’m late,” he says.
“Are we on a date?”
He shrugs his shoulders and folds his arms before resting his elbows on the table.
“Is this latte even real?” I ask.
“If you want it to be.”
I lean my head against his shoulder, waiting for him to wrap his arm around me, which he does.
“I love working with you,” he says. “It’s like I’m the architect, and you’re the engineer.
“It will never change,” I say.
He squeezes my arm lightly.
“But,” he says, “you don’t belong here.”
I look at the latte, which must be cold by now. Warmth is not something that you can fathom for as long as you’d like, and you don’t want to consume it either because it’s beautiful the way it is. But warmth, however, is transitory. Everything will run out of energy one day; the heat cools down, the water runs dry.
“I’ve enjoyed your company,” he says. “But my job is to keep you writing. Get your hand dirty.”
It is now that I see blue ink smeared all over my right fingers. I’ve been painting real circles on the table. I cover up that spot with some tissues. Ian holds my inked hand and carefully touches the calluses on my middle finger.
“Have you finally let go of the water?” he asks.
“The water in the brain?”
“He’s fine here.”
“I think I should go back,” I say.
The noises in the background have faded, and I wonder what has happened. I turn around to the crowd and see nothing but naked mannequins positioned in a way that they appear to be kissing or hugging.
“So, you’ll keep the door open for me?”
“Only if you promise to get your hand dirty regularly,” he says.
“Deal. I have your window anyway.”
by P-chan (c) 2010 – 2011
In dedication to King’s On Writing
Fallen Angels – Dir. Wong Kar Wai (1995)