Read Part One here . . .
Dinner out with Stacey, two days after the phone call with Vic that had said much and achieved nothing. Neil’s head still ached from staring at sheets of paper, willing himself to just touch the pen to the paper and write something, anything. His cuticles were jagged, torn as he picked at them. Stacey, on the other hand, looked good, as she had every moment since the day they had met.
“You are not here tonight,” she said as she sipped from her beer. God, he loved that she was a real woman who was unafraid to drink real beer; none of that Bud Light water for her. “You’ve adopted a thousand mile stare for the majority of the night. I know you’re not checking the game over my shoulder, so why don’t you tell me what’s going on with you.”
Neil sighed and gently spun his glass around between his hands. She had put up with the hollow version of him for well over a year; things must have come to a pretty pass for her to call him on it.
“It’s just . . . nothing, I suppose.”
“Or something,” Stacey said. “Something’s been eating at you. What? I’m afraid if you want a divorce, I won’t be giving you spousal support.”
“Heh. I have gotten used to a certain life-style, but no, not that.”
Neil took a long sip, gathering his thoughts. He had been thinking them for the better part of two years, pondering them while his hands refused to write.
“Do you know,” he said abruptly, “that feeling you get, driving down 20, just as you get to Dowdy Ferry Road?”
“Maybe not the same as yours,” Stacey said. “I’m usually asking myself what the hell I’m doing out by Dowdy Ferry.”
Neil laughed, which Stacey took as a good sign. If he was still laughing, even at jokes as bad as that, then his thoughts, while undoubtedly heavy, were not yet dire. Yet.
“No. I mean, you’re at Dowdy Ferry, and you’re thinking, ‘I could just keep going. I could see what’s further along down the road.’”
“This is not sounding good for me.”
“No, it is,” Neil said. “Because I think, ‘I could keep driving.’ But then I think, ‘What? And miss all of this?’”
He waved his hand vaguely, taking in Stacey, the bar, the entirety of the world it seemed.
“I’d never keep going, cause I couldn’t give up all of this, couldn’t turn my back on my real life, you, Harper, any more than I could wake up tomorrow and fly. Wouldn’t want to even if I could.”
Stacey took a sip of her beer, gathering her thoughts. “I see what you mean, Neil. I truly do. We all have that fleeting thought of just taking off that we ignore because deep inside it’s not what we really want. I just . . .” She clenched her fists, dreading this moment, knowing that it needed to come now. “I don’t understand what that has to do with your recent problems.”
Neil had a hunch as to where she was going with this, but if he was actually going to respond, he felt it was only fair that she had to actually ask.
“What problem? What problem do you think I have?”
Stacey had one of the most beautiful smirks that Neil had ever seen. One side of her mouth would poof out just a bit, in a half smile/half sneer, her left eyebrow arched up. She was so very good at saying so very much with that expression. He wondered, not for the first time, how many thousands of times he had seen that expression during their years together.
“The writing problem,” Stacey said. “That problem. When was the last time you actually wrote something?”
Neil looked away, wishing for a moment that he had a cigarette. He hadn’t smoked in five years, and wasn’t even craving the nicotine, but there was something to be said for the long pause that a deep drag on a cigarette afforded.
“Two years, or so,” he admitted. “Which seems a lot worse when you say it out loud like that.”
“I’m sure. You once told me that it’s harder to write when you’re happy. I hope that’s still the problem.”
“Oh, honey,” Neil said, giving her her favorite grin. “I’m happy as hell, never worry about that. I’m fairly certain I was wrong about happiness making it harder to write. But it is the happiness that gets in the way, the desire to be happy.”
“I’m wanting to follow you, but I’m clearly going to need more words.”
Neil drummed his fingers twice, a quick roll, thinking. Then he pulled a small, battered memo-pad out of his pocket. “Here’s a thing. I come up with ideas, all the time. Like this one,” he said flipping open the book, “a sad little short-story about a marriage breaking up after their child dies. I hear their voices in my head, I know the first line: ‘He could tell by the tilt of her head that she was trying not to cry.’ I know the plot and the characters and . . . and . . .”
Neil trailed off, dropping his eyes to the table. His hands suddenly balled into fists, the memo-pad taking another beating. She could tell, by the tilt of his head, that he was frustrated, not angry.
“And what, baby?” she asked, sliding her hand over his, forcing his fist to unclench, relax. “What happens?”
“I pick up a pen, and . . . I’m scared, scared to write those horrible things down. What if by writing it, I somehow make them happen in reality? What if the act of me writing them gives the universe an idea? What if I write about a baby dying, and Karma will cause it to happen?”
“I don’t think autobiographical writing works that way, baby.”
“You laugh,” Neil said, but a smile played over his lips. “And I know it’s a crazy thought, but it doesn’t mean I can stop it. I worry that just by writing about a man having an affair, you’ll start to think I’m having an affair, and just-“
“You know better than that!”
“-write the words.”
He stopped, trying to catch his breath.
“Baby,” Stacey said. “I want you to know, I understand what you are trying to say. I get it.”
“I know honey,” Neil said. “I always knew you’d get it, that you’d understand, but I didn’t want the problem on you. I’m scared to write, just scared, ‘cause sometimes I think the bad things will come true and all the good things will stop.”
“That you’ll keep driving past Dowdy Ferry? ‘Cause that’s what your story does?”
She squeezed his hand. “Honey, you know we’re good.”
“I know. There’s not a doubt in my mind about us.”
She laced her fingers between his. “Then understand this, nothing you write can change us, because I know what fiction means. I know that your stories are just that: stories. They’re not things you’ve done, or even things you want to do, they’re stories.” She gave him the delightful smirk again. “Now, that isn’t to say that if you ask me to proof-read a story where a guy named Neil starts having a torrid affair with his sister-in-law Amber that I won’t be a little concerned. But beyond that, I know how to separate fiction from our real life. Fiction from fact.”
She leaned back in her chair, sipped from her glass. “I’ve had a thought.”
“About four years ago, you wrote a story about a man who fell out of an airplane. The whole story revolved around those moments before he hits the ground. You remember that one?”
“Of course, yeah.”
“See, the thing is,” Stacey said, “you told me the idea came to you after a nightmare. You said that there was something so terrifying about it to you, because the situation was inescapable. You were scared of it.”
“Yes . . . So?”
“Have you ever, for even one moment, beyond the writing of that story, considered the idea that you might fall out of an airplane?”
“Do I actually need to answer that?”
“Then, no. I’ve never considered it beyond that.”
“Exactly,” Stacey said, a superbly smug grin on her face. “You were scared of something, because of a dream, something you knew in your heart would never happen. And you wrote it down, without ever considering that it might happen because you had written it down.”
“I already told you, this feels different.”
“Baby,” Stacey said. “That’s just the point. Now you’re afraid that what you write will come to be, that the very act of writing will cause it. Back then, you put your fears on paper, showing an acceptance of what could happen.”
Stacey felt a huge smile break over her face. Neil’s eyes were almost on fire they had lit up so much. Excitement was pulsing off of him in waves. She could practically taste it.
“You gave truth to the fear and called it out. And when you did, you took away whatever power it may have had over you. That’s what your writing is in a way. Calling out the fears so that you face them, putting them on the paper. Same reason people see scary movies and read scary books, they face the fear head on. You haven’t been facing those fears, you’ve been hiding from them, and that’s why you’re having so much trouble writing them.”
Neil drained his glass in a single gulp.
“Will it work?”
“Guess you’ll have to try and see.”
Neil leaned across the small table and kissed her full on the lips, lingering long enough to get kicked off a Southwest Airlines flight.
When their lips parted, he whispered, “Goddamn, you’re the best of me.”
“Damn right I am.”
It was well past two a.m., and the house was asleep. He leaned back in his chair, lightly drumming his fingers on the glass of whiskey on the rocks. A college ruled notebook lay open in front of him. He twirled a pen loosely in his other hand.
He paused for a moment, inhaling deeply, as if he was about to dive deep into the ocean, gathering himself, drawing the world into him.
He exhaled, and leaned forward over the paper, pen raised:
“He could tell by the tilt of her head that she was trying not to cry.”