Finding Your Legal High

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A week ago, my nephew and I had a brief chat that has since redirected (and refocused) my goal.  I had my laptop open and was skimming through the novel I started writing last November during NaNoWriMo.  I mentioned the word count (something like 36K) and he wanted to know what it was about.  I gave him some of the major points I could recall, but then I began thinking as I was talking.

I’ve had numerous excuses to explain why it’s not done: teaching HS and evening classes, family obligations, computer malfunctions, buying a house, etc.)  Where do those get me?

I do most of my writing within the confines of the month of November, but I never push myself as much during the other eleven months.  When I write–when I REALLY write–I get a rush that is unequaled by anything else I know.  I don’t mean to suggest it’s even in the same ZIP code as playing with my children, seeing my wife’s face when I’ve been a part of her happiness, or even getting through to one of my students about anything whatsoever–those are different “highs”.

No.  Writing, though, gives me that positive surge that reminds me how life should feel all the time.  I’m completely grateful for everything I have achieved in this life so far.  I do not often realize how good I truly have it.

But I want to take this just a few steps further and write a book good enough for a publisher to want to try to sell.  That’s been a goal for something like 15 or 20 years, and I’ve not pushed myself hard enough for it to happen.

I talk to my students a lot about the “fixed mindset” versus the “growth mindset.”  I commonly remind students that growth is always possible if you want it badly enough.  I’d be a hypocrite to say that I’m just not good enough to be published.

Imagine a world where everyone loved what they did for a living.  Imagine a time where people sought out their goals and didn’t always play it safe.

NaNoWriMo 2014 Ends! (Spoiler: I Didn’t Make It!)

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So, with 95-ish minutes left on the clock, I think it’s fair to say that I won’t be surpassing the goal of 50,000 words this time around.  Two wins, three…well, non-wins in five years.  I’m very proud of my 36K words so far and I’m continuing my project.  My wife and I each now expect to pass 50K by New Year’s Day.

I owe a great debt of gratitude toward the fine folks at Letters of Light and the NanoWrimo Challenge.  They do amazing work, and they inspire creativity in all of us.

If you’re like me and you’re feeling a little down about not meeting the challenge, just remember that you had 0 words toward this project a mere 30 days ago.  Now look at you!  I hope all of you work to accomplish your story-telling dreams!

The Start of Someting – Novel Excerpt (First Draft)

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This is a chapter from my novel-in-progress, THE START OF SOMETHING. Within the chapter is a short story written by my main character, Bill McKenzie. That’s probably confusing. Sorry…

CHAPTER XXXX

“A Reunion of Sorts” – Bill McKenzie – age 24- story outline

[note to self]: this is inspired by this book a girl named Melody was reading for some sort of Children’s Literature class she was taking. The book was about this kid who has to go to the four extreme corners of the continental US to place a memorial for a teenager the narrator kid was friends with before the kid died in a drunk driving accident. The cross-country trip was his dad’s idea, I think. Pinwheels, maybe, was the name. It got me thinking about how people deal with sudden deaths in ways we may not ever hear about.

Story idea: Each year, on the last day of classes, this teacher pulls aside one student and hands him or her a sealed envelope. They are instructed not to open it for five years or earlier if they finish college. He tells them he almost didn’t finish and knows several fine, successful people who not only didn’t finish but some never started.

The letter is an acceptance letter into a club of sorts. Once a year, and never the same time of year, the teacher meets with the members of the club for dinner out, dinner in, a day at the park, or some other fairly private event. These are students he would have never admitted were his favorites of the year. They were favorites for all sorts of reasons—many were academically successful, but some were C students or worse. Over half have earned M.D.s or Ph. Ds but some of the others never left that town.

The story is what turns out to be the final meeting of the group—the teacher’s funeral. People from ages 23 to over 50 attend. One mother-daughter combination (neither knew the other had been a member??) shows up. They’d all been sent a letter prior to his death to attend the visitation, but not the funeral. After the visitation, the letter read, someone, maybe all of them, would know where to go.

They meet in his classroom and they eventually talk. Maybe the story ends with an unnamed person finally saying something out loud.

The power of the piece could be that nothing is ever stated until that final line.

That was all he had. A single sheet of notes scratched down and never more. Bill McKenzie had gone home after having drinks with his old writing teacher to sift through notebooks and flash drives and could only find that one page. His shoulders drooped, defeated, and he shook his head and told the invisible people around his apartment that he had written more. He had been sure of it.

With just the sheet, however, he knew it was time to finally put it together. Opting for a water instead of one of the three beers in his fridge, he sat down at his writing table and tried to remember those characters.

Nothing.

To the non-writer, this may seem implausible—the guy had access to his notes and the memory of what he’d thought of a long time ago when the idea first entered his mind. Todd’s words, though, struck something in him and he tried to find it again.

“A Reunion of Sorts” – Bill McKenzie age 28

The old man was so sly about it. Every year, he did something very subtle, but this time was fairly easy. He had had a contest with his English 12 students: They average 90% or higher on their last exam of the year and he’d let them watch any movie they wanted over the last two days of classes before finals. The class won the contest and eventually decided on a film made from a popular teen love story. He’d made fun of the story and genre countless times and this was their playful payback.

This time, he was subtle in passing a note to Marianna Jenkins, seated in the middle chair of the middle row. The center of the room and the center of his Platonic heart.

That year.

The old man was perfectly harmless. Don’t get the wrong idea about him. He had had a wife, but she passed ten years earlier of a violent cancer that had not been caught at the right time. They’d had a child—a boy—and he was fine and successful. He loved his old man almost as much as the students who had been in his room year after year.

The subtlty toward Marianna Jenkins was in the form of a sticky note. In the darkened classroom, she didn’t even know he’d put it down while the movie was playing. He had been watching with the class—laughing when they laughed. Awwing when they awwed. Marianna Jenkins’ note simply said “Pls stay after class.”

She lingered as was told and waited until all of her classmates left and wished the old man a great summer. He nodded and didn’t look anyone in the eye as they passed on to another room on their final day.

Marianna Jenkins stood at the doorway—closed—with her remaining materials clenched tightly to her chest. She waited patiently for the reason for the note.

The old man began this year’s speech the same was as he had for the last thirty-seven years. He held the envelope the entire time, but the student he kept after each year never knew what it held. His words were crinkled and sentimental. Tears usually ensued, always by the student and never his. They were honored to be the recipient of such kindness.

The old man smiled under a long salt-and-pepper mustache. He reminded her the terms—that she may not open it for five years from today or sooner, if she’d earned a bachelor’s degree.

Marianna Jenkins stepped toward the emptying hallway and shot back, hugged him tightly, and thanked him for everything he’d done for her over the last two years. The old man reminded her that she had done the hard work, not him.

This year’s meeting, according to the letter sent out, was going to be at his residence. The first time since his wife’s passing. He’d been debating whether or not to sell it and eventually contacted a realtor who warned him that at the price he was asking it was going to go quickly. That would be okay with him.

The event at his house was to occur on the second Saturday. In June. In the late afternoon. The invitations were always worded just like this. Come if you can, he used to add. It’d be wonderful to reunite. For a teacher who valued the English language above his own diet and, some argued, his own family, the old man included few words on the handwritten invitations. For those who had come regularly over the years, they knew less was more. The first-timers, like Marianna Jenkins, had to do a little digging.

The old man deplored social media. A junkpile, he often called it. Eliot’s new Waste Land, he once offered in class. Did you ever notice that people don’t shake hands anymore, he said the previous year when he was asked why he isn’t connected.

That term used to mean something else, he told them.

He told them spending his youth indoors would have been tragic.

What’s the point of leaving the house if you’re only going to stare at your phone, he posited.

That shut them up.

And they actually talked.

While they maintained possession of their phones during their visit, they all but forgot about them.

But that was all last year. When the old man was a little healthier.

But it was also the summer before he met Marianna Jenkins.

Marianna Jenkins was, to the old man, the proverbial shining star student. She was genuinely respectful, smart as a whip (he’d tell her after she aced test after test), and always put others before herself.

She was one of the few students who never even had the time to request a recommendation letter; he had it ready in early November.

She offered to organize a toy drive and spearheaded a Coats For Kids campaign while others students filled out wish lists for their parents.

Marianna Jenkins, however, also had opened up to the old man. It had been in October when she told him that she’d spent many of her single-digit years in foster care before she was finally officially adopted. She loved her adopted parents so much that she didn’t think twice about changing her name to theirs.

It had been bad, she’d told him, in foster care. Sleeping in four different beds throughout a given week because so much drama was happening within the house and family. Verbal and physical abuse. It’d had made her stronger, she told him.

When she’d gotten her letter three years earlier, the old man had told her it might be the last one he gives out. That was all he said about it.

Marianna Jenkins finished her bachelors degree in eight semesters over three calendar years. She took the sealed letter with her to her graduation ceremony. She didn’t know it, but he watched her cross the stage before excusing himself out of his aisle and pumping his fist.

The June letter reached Marianna Jenkins a week later at her apartment. A dog she’d adopted two days after graduation yelped with enthusiasm but she kindly explained the letter was not for him.

The following Wednesday morning, for reasons she’ll never know, she was standing in line at the local convenient store. Something turned her around. Not a force from a person but a sensation. Her eyes peered downward to see the old man’s picture on the front page of the daily newspaper. Heart attack takes local teacher, it read.

In the same way she knew to turn around at the convenient store, Marianna Jenkins also called in to work (she’d never done that before) to attend the visitation. There was a modest crowd, given the limited time between the announcement of the old man’s passing and his celebration of life. That’s what they called them nowadays, he’d told her class once before. Funerals must be too morbid a term for this sensitive generation.

Marianna had driven to the funeral alone but sensed togetherness as soon as a young spirited man who introduced himself as Jack from Tennessee had smiled as she approached the door he had been holding open for her.

Once inside and slightly embarrassed as she revealed to Jack that it was her first funeral, he glazed that smile again and said it was nice to meet what he presumed to be a new member.

Jack walked Marianna Jenkins down the plush carpeted hallway, past an empty page on a signature sheet, and toward the room that held the casket. She bit her lip, suggesting she was not ready. He shushed her as if he were his older, wiser brother. The first row of seats were the only ones occupied. Marianna Jenkins immediately recognized the unmistakable bob of a recently retired teacher and the height of the school’s basketball coach.

He didn’t look real, but then again they never do. In class once, he’d talked about going to his own mother’s funeral and said he regretted it. Those words stunned Marianna Jenkins and probably her classmates, but he went on to state how he appreciated what the funeral home people do, but he wished he could erase that image of her permanently.

The open casket, she realized, might have been another lesson from the old man. He battled over irony with students (presumably year after year) and this was his final nod to, well, himself and his humor. Take that, he was telling them. I told ya it’s not how I really look!

She turned from the casket and nodded at the familiar teachers. Before awkwardness set in, Jack came from behind and pushed her on as if a train of people were waiting to see the old man one last time.

In here, he whispered.

The room where she was guided had four different colored walls and dozens of uncrying faces. These people weren’t sad, which seemed very odd to Marianna Jenkins.

A beat later, and Marianna found herself shaking hands with the people who bore these faces. They had to be club members, she realized. As she made her rounds, two faces fell into place as she remembered seeing younger versions of them in the school hallways.

Introductions done, Jack took the lead and suggested everyone follow him. He had a pretty good feeling where they were really supposed to be that day.

The caravansary led down Hall Street a mile and a half, through the light, and left at the curve. Marianna Jenkins drove in silence and held back every emotion that tried to muster its way through her heart and out her eyes. He was gone. It was done. Unlike her, these people knew what to do next.

In less than fifteen minutes, though it seemed like a longer drive to Marianna Jenkins, one by one the cars parked in a row at the back of the school, typically where teachers parked during the year. A few nods of hello passed between the group who had just seen each other back at the funeral home. She watched as Jack, the tallest of the group, produced a key and allowed everyone access to the back hallway. Everyone toed to the old man’s classroom door. Using a non-verbal circular motion, Jack instructed the rest to organize the desks into something of an oval—large enough for all twenty-three members to sit comfortably. Marianna Jenkins took a position she remembered from high school and adjusted accordingly into the shape.

Jack cleared his throat and eyed the group in a round again.

“So,” he said with a clap. “Who wants to go first?”

****

Jack slapped his knees and darted his eyes around the ring of classroom desks. “So. Who wants to go first?”

Headed Toward Complexity

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It’s truly amazing how much of your real life comes out in your writing, once you actually allow yourself to write at length.  I teach high school.  I have this bizarre proclivity to complicate things that do not need to be complicated.  I can attribute this trait to absolutely no one from my past that I can recall.  Maybe it’s just my thing.  Some people walk tightropes, I make instructions twice as long as needed.

But this is REALLY coming out in my NanoWrimo this year.  I started with the simplest of ideas and it’s spiraling into a (much worse) version of Inception, sans the flying fruit or stunning good looks.  I’m inventing characters almost every night.  Tonight, the novel went to a completely new depth I never anticipated.

Writers:  Is this good or am I setting myself up for a lifetime struggle.  I know what I want (in my mind) but how can I know if it will resonate with readers?  I teach the complexities of novels.  What was their true intent and what have we simply assumed?  I know it doesn’t truly matter what was intended, but I still don’t want to die thinking “Nobody gets me.”

Thoughts?

Happy Weekend, by the way

New Novel Excerpt! (Nanowrimo 2014)

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Need more to read before you return to your family?

Here ya go.

I warned you I’d do this.  Happy Election Day, by the way.  Is that a thing?

It was when I was really starting to see my writing turn to utter shit when Jazz called to ask me to pick her up from work. It was a believable ruse; her car was unreliable and needed attention. Even though I had pretty much stayed out of her business with the car, I knew she had to get it to a mechanic before too long or she was going to be bussin’ it to work. I told her no problem and slammed home my laptop.

Of course it was raining, and since my the passenger side of my windshield sometimes leaks, she got in and made a shitty comment about staying drier if she’d walked. Part of me wanted to let her walk, but I just drove on to the next light. Why do you always hit red lights when you don’t want to?

“I can’t work there anymore,” she began. She found some old mail in between our bucket seats and used them to sop up the saturated blackened area beneath her feet.

“What happened?”

“Well, you know how it goes, right?”

I did. But I wasn’t sure what could have happened this particular time.

“Wanna take me through Rally’s?”

“Sure.”

“It was Carlos and his stupid-ass way of running that place. He brings me in, right, and says he’s got twenty or thirty hours every week if I want them.”

“Right.”

“But what he doesn’t mention is that some of those hours are going to be hosting.”

“Oh,” I said. “Yeah, fuck that, right?”

“Exactly!” She’s pissed because hostesses make minimum wage and have really boring jobs. Standing at the podium and writing down names for four or five hours is as mindless as it gets. It’s easy money to some; to girls like Jazz, though, it’s a fucking nightmare.

“Well, what ya gonna do?” I ask absently. I meant it in a can’t-beat-em-join-em sort of way, but she didn’t hear that tone.

“I’m fucking gone, is what I’m doing.”

“Gone? As in, you quit?”

“Well, I didn’t storm out or anything. But I’m not going in Friday when I’m supposed to host.”

I found the restaurant she wanted and wheeled in. Two cars were in front of me, but at least the rain was lightening. She tells me the order without looking up from her phone. She’s scrolling through automatically, no real chance that she’s actually reading anyone’s status.

“You think he might let you have tables at all?”

“Oh…prob’ly not. There’s this new girl he’s been fucking obnoxiously flirting with all week.”

Jazz is too green to know this shit happens in all restaurants everywhere. At least, in my limited experience around this town it does. And we’re not a special town by any means, ya know?

NaNoWriMo 2014!

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This will be quick.  If you’ve been enjoying/ignoring my recent posts, then this is for you!

My workhorse of a wife (stay-at-home mother of two, organization/cleaning queen, blogger, and outstanding person) is adding NaNoWriMo to her November to-do list.  We’ve both tried for several years, but life has tended to get in the way.  She’s murdering this daily word-count goal (about 6 double-spaced pages) and I’m struggling to stay on par.  My story is coming together, and I’m really liking the free trial of Scrivener.  More about that as the month continues…

If anyone out there actually cares, I’ll post another rough draft of a scene.  I’m not asking for you, dear reader, to do anything.  Except recycle.  That’s important.

In the meantime, help yourself to a favorite beverage.  You’ve (probably) earned it!

NaNoWriMo Day 1 – 1700+ words

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This is meant to be read by fiction writers.  This is the first day of writing (some after midnight, the rest just now) for my NaNo project.  It’s crazy, disorganized, filled with errors, and probably illogical.  It’s a first draft.

–I’ll never fucking understand why fucking adults think I’m screwing with them when I tell them their fucking plate is goddamn hot.  Never fails.  Every time.  College kid or grandpa.  Men more than women, I’ll grant ya, but they all do it.  So I got tired of it, ya know?  It can’t be their first time in a restaurant, right boss?

–Bill, I know.  People are idiots.  You and I see it all the time.  But you also are old enough to understand liability.  Of course the plate should not have given that guy third-degree burns, but…

–Isn’t it first-degree?

–What?

–I think first-degree is the least worrisome.

–That doesn’t make sense, Bill.  First.  It’s top priority in a burn center.

–Well, it was the lowest level.  And I’m sorry it happened, but goddamn.

–I know, Bill.  Look.  Please let me go back and handle it.  Look.  It’s a quarter to ten.  We close in a little over an hour.  Maybe just hang back here and you can start on closing.

–I thought he was kidding, John.  I really did.

–I know, I know.  Look.  We can limit the damage.  The EMTs are coming on our dime.  Let’s just make sure we look proactive at this point.

–Fuckin’ hate lawyers, man.

–We all do.

–I’m not gonna get fired, am I?

He deep-sighed.  And stared at Bill for an uncomfortable four seconds.  Using his peripheral vision, he saw the flimsy red stick click between the three and the four.

–Look, Bill.  I’m going to talk it over with HR now that they’ll know about the EMTs coming.

Bill let his foodslime-covered kitchen shoe fall from his left knee.

–I’ll just go.

–No, please.  Don’t.  It doesn’t have to…I mean…I’m telling you you’re not…

Bill flipped a raggedy single on his desk.

–Just mail my last fucking check, John.  And fuckin’ thanks for the support.

“You did not,” Stacey cried out with that grin that’s all but forced me to hang around with her.

“Yeah.  Fuck that place.”  We’re at Legs, which sounds like it’d be a strip bar, but they are known for their southern-fried chicken after hours.

“Shit, man,” she said, the smile diminshed quickly.  “I don’t want to work there if you’re not.”

Stacey’s a real sweet kid.  Been hanging out for about six weeks off and on.  All the girls at that place have to tie their long hair back or pin it up.  When we go out for drinks after work–like straight after work, still smelling of gravy–she lets it down.  Somehow the dark hair gets curlier the longer we stay.  If we’re at a table, I’ll get caught just looking at those locks.

“Well, I feel a little bad about just taking off–probably shot my chance at a referral.”

“Yeah,” she said, still examining her tall pilsner glass.  She only just ordered domestic bottles before we met and came here together for the first time.  The shit these kids don’t know astounds me.

“Think I shoulda stayed?”

She shrugged.

“You’re too nice, young lady,” I stated, then signaled Bobby for two more tall ones.

She grinned and turned to me.  “I know.  I mean, I know why you took off.  Sounds like you were going to get the ax after you clocked out.”

“Exactly.”

“Well, anyway…what are you going to do?”

Bobby put the beers in front of us.  Without prodding, Stacey downed the rest of the first and reached for the new one before swallowing.

I offered my glass to be tapped with hers.  A small, congenial smile crept across her face.

“I have no fucking idea.”

We laughed, then chugged.

Bobby dropped a glass while trying to dry it.

 

“How old did you say he was?” Gina asked me.

“I didn’t say, actually.”

“Stace…come on!  Your first boyfriend since Thad?  I have to know every—”

“I’m just…he’s not my boyfriend.  Just this guy who I hang out with after work.”

We were getting birthday manis–gifts from our moms.  A tradition.  Being born on the same day in the same hospital meant–to our mothers at first–that we were sisters in another life.  I love Gina to death, but she also gets a little too cozy in my personal business these days.

“If I tell you, will you please drop it for now?”

She doesn’t even take the time to close the magazine she held before tossing it over her head onto a shelf of ancient issues Shape and Good Housekeeping.

“Hold still, please,” Gina’s woman says in Chinglesh, without flinching.

“He’s twenty-eight.”

Her eyes exploded open and I could tell her brain was overloading with simple mathematics.

“Really?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Now please let me just rest my head and enjoy the pleasurable service these fine women offer.”

“Okay, okay…that’s fair.”

I think I counted to nine this time.

“Have you two…?”

“allGina, come on!”

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

My girl tapped my foot to indicate its removal from the buzzing warm water.

“Your friend, she no listen well, no?”

“No, Dang,” I said, then coyly looked at my oldest girlfriend  “She doesn’t.”

 

—————–

(Much later)

 

So, Bill’s been working–actually just fucking around at–a handful of jobs.  Stacey texted him less and less.  One or two came from her little friend Gina, but Bill never really gaver her much to go on.  Another sweet kid, he thinks, but even less mature than Stacey.  Although two years earlier, breaking up their friendship might have been a little funny, he has no interest in that these days.  He’s starting to really see thirty creep up and fucking around with girls who still have the high school mentality is starting to make him look more and more like a fucking chode.

After putting in applications at more established restaurants and not getting any bites, Bill was strongly considering moving to a new town.  Like, far away.

He is actually packing one day when he hears on the radio in the room that a new place is looking for experienced restaurant help.

He goes in, applies, doesn’t get a chance to see the hiring manager that day but is assured he’ll be contacted either way.  They all say that, but no one has ever called, even just to thank him for his interest.  But he plays the game and feigns enthusiasm.

“Sir?” a voice called from behind him as he swung open the heavy wooden door.

Bill turned and watched a man his age–probably younger though–rushing toward him.  “Sorry,” he said, unnecessarily.  “My ‘screener’ back there just handed me this.  You’re Bill McKenzie?”

“Yes, sir,” he said automatically.  Addressing younger men in that manner was, at first, troubling, but now despicable.

“Got a call just last night from my old manager at Nantucket.  John?”

“Yes.  Good man.”

The man introduced himself has the HR coordinator–Bill thought about the person who comes up with all these different job titles for the same position.  What’s his title, by the way?

“Anyway, John said you might be applying and that maybe I could help you out.”

The door closed and Bill stood at the man coldly.

“Yeah,” he continued without affording Bill any space.  “He says to quote Fuck off unquote and for me not to hire you.”

Tearing up the application was just plain unnecessary.

 

——-

 

Bill starts dating.  Maybe a cliche coffee girl.  Whatever.  But it’s the one who changes him.  Let’s name her Jazmine.  She likes him to call her Jazz, but that reminds him of the Fresh Prince’s dim sidekick.  That is, until they (Bill and Jazz) have sex the first time.

I walk into her apartment and am smacked with the odor of a fishtank.  A few steps in and all I can think about is this fish I had as a kid who, in the most traumatizing fashion I can say, committed suicide right after I finished watching the baseball All-Star Game.  I was probably about nine.  I took shitty care of it, I know.  Probably overfed it or whatever.  But it was like it was WAITING for me to walk by to do it.  He or she did three or four vigorous laps around the glass bowl then just popped out like a performance dolphin at Sea World.

“Did you hear me?” Jazz asks.

She’s in the kitchen and searchiing through drawers.  Her question had to have dealt with food.

“No, I’m good.”

“What?”

“Wait…what did you say?”  I do this with her (and many people) when I don’t hear the question, guess with a vague answer, then try to construct a fictional misunderstanding of the original question.  It rarely gets executed well.

“I asked if you wanted to go to my room instead of the movie.”

Yeah…I’ve got nothing for that.

But I do smile and dart toward her.  She’syoung enough to get over it, especially when I lift her into my arms and spin around.  She’s having a blast and I take her to her room.

It’s our first time at her place.  The very first time was in my car–I know, it’s a tad embarrassing to fuck in a car when you pass twenty-five–but there was a good reason*.  Since then, it’s always been at my place, but now that I’m moving, there’s too much shit anywhere.

It’s her roommate who has the fishtank.  Her fucking door actually has a crayon-based drawing welcoming all entrants to “The Aquarium.”  If a girl ever wants to keep dudes out of their bedrooms, it’s by putting up fucking signs like that.

So we’re in her room and I sort of just dump her on the bed.  I can’t tell her that she’s getting a little heavy.  She’s definitely not fat or anything; it’s just that I’m too far removed from when I last regularly lifted.  A slight twinge in my back makes me flinch and bite my lower lip, though I cover it with a laugh.

She’s too involved in the romance of the carrying-to-bed to notice anything wrong.

It’s at this moment that I looked down and saw the copy of Emma on her nightstand.  I wouldn’t have noticed it, I’ve been telling myself, if I wasn’t meant to.