Writing is, in physical terms, one of the safest professions you could ever choose.
Save for freak accidents where someone rams a car into you (I’m looking at you, Stephen), there’s no danger in picking up a pen or sitting behind a keyboard. The only physical ailments you can gain from writing too much are arthritis and poor eyesight, which compared to some other jobs, doesn’t seem so bad.
That being said, you have hundreds of writers who lost it over the course of their lifetimes. Twain was broke at the end of his career, Sylvia Plath decided to shoot herself, Jane Austen was an old maid, Whitman sold a mere handful of books, and God only knows what the hell was going on in Poe’s head at any given moment. There’s your danger on the job: you have to prepare to be a little bit tragic, if you want to be a writer. All of the greats have some sort of dramatic life to tell, and they say all the best fiction is founded in real life, so, somehow that seems to make the most sense.
I think it’s because those writers with interesting lives had something to say, some meaning they needed to pound into the heads of anyone — anyone — who could be bothered to pick up a book. Take Fitzgerald, for instance: the man was an alcoholic, his wife had a mental breakdown, and you could almost say he died with the Jazz Age, a name he came up with himself. He was convinced he had died forgotten. A failure. A hack.
We just finished reading The Great Gatsby in my English class. They call it “The Great American Novel,” because in its rather concise forty-seven thousand and ninety-four words, Fitzgerald says more about the quality of the “American Dream” and humanity than anyone else ever has. That’s saying something, considering the number of downtrodden writers who have written countless novels on just those two subjects.
Our final assignment before finishing the unit off was to rewrite the last page or so, which confirms all my past suspicions that Ms. Sanders is just trying to torture us, because how can you? How can you alter what some people consider to be one of the greatest pages in American Literature? How else can you span so much of American history — from Dutch sailors to the height of the twenties — in such few words? I mean, look at some of these lines: “Gatsby believed in the green light, the future that year by year recedes before us.” Don’t tell me you didn’t tear up the first time you read that, because I did. It was two in the morning and I’d gone eight chapters past the assigned reading, but that doesn’t diminish the fact that those were real tears. When I got to, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past,” I picked up the phone and called Rory, who is always up at that time anyway, and in the middle of my blubbering he told me that I was deranged.
I am used to being the best writer in my class. But with college looming before me — just like Gatsby’s green light — I don’t know if I’ll ever slip past the hordes of countless, unheard artists. I am not a Fitzgerald. I don’t think I know what real tragedy is, and I think because of that, I’m not really sure what it is my writing could ever say.
I tried to explain all of this to Rory, when he came over under the pretense of working on the rewrite together. I was on my bed scribbling furiously into a notebook, ranting, while he sat upside down in my desk chair, cleaning the undersides of his nails. “Sounds to me like you just don’t wanna do the goddamn project,” he said at one point.
During the week I would usually make the trek to his house, but it was a Friday, and my father would be working the night shift all weekend. He had been since my parents split. There was no love between my father and Rory; not because we were secretly screwing (we weren’t), but because Rory preferred romantic interests of the male persuasion, and my father hadn’t forgotten the AIDS scandal of the seventies and had never looked at any medical research to convince him otherwise. He treated Rory like a virus, and sure, maybe it had something to do with Rory’s nonchalance, the bite behind every word he put forth into the world, but it was easier for me to swallow my dad’s anger with a dose of homophobia rather than the belief that my best friend was a deadbeat, who hadn’t even looked at colleges yet and had no intention to. It was already the second half of our senior year.
“No, I don’t, but it’s more than that.” I slid the notebook to one side, thumbing through used pages. I hadn’t written anything that I felt was substantial in over a year, and this project — pouring over someone else’s prose — had me red-faced. “I can’t do it, Ror.”
I flopped back onto the bed, exhaling. I was a safe kid. Didn’t party, didn’t drink, didn’t do drugs or get involved with throwaway guys. Who was I, to believe I could write about these big concepts and overarching themes when I hadn’t accomplished much of anything story-worthy? These were supposed to be the wonder years, and I had shit to show for it. I peeked up at Rory, whose piece of paper laid untouched on my desk. Rory had seen some things. My list of “don’ts” completely matched with Rory’s “do’s,” and he’d told me some great stories about shenanigans he’d gotten into, parties that I had abstained from. I bet Rory could write a killer story or two, if he decided to care about anything except when the next party was going to be. But I knew that he must’ve cared about something more. That night I called him at two a.m., he told me I shouldn’t have been surprised when Gatsby died, although I don’t recall mentioning his demise.
What I mean is, I don’t think I’m the only one who read the whole damn book the night it was handed out to the class. I don’t take his persona at face-value. I won’t let him bullshit with me like he does with all his other friends. We met in our freshman English class, and when we had to do a project together, I wouldn’t let him slack off on his half. I would make him come over every day to work on it together. He kind of just kept coming back even after the project was done, and we’ve stuck with each other ever since.
Of course I couldn’t make Rory write, and being jealous of his own experience was lunacy, at best. It wasn’t his fault that I stayed at home on late weekend nights. He always invited me, I just never said yes.
“You realize you don’t have to write it this second, right?” He leaned his legs down to the side, bracing his hands on the seat in order to right himself. It’s a dangerous move, but he’d perfected it over the years. “If I’d known you were planning to spend hours over this, I wouldn’t have come over at all.”
“That’s a lie.”
“Maybe. But I would’ve been hard-pressed to get you to go somewhere else, instead. It’s a Friday night, Sam.”
“What, you had something better to do?”
He paused — he would always pause before telling me about the party he’d ditched to come hang out with me, instead. “Something going on down in Cambridge, but I figured your sorry ass could use some company. Little did I know, you were planning to drown me in quotations.”
“Shut up.” I paused, considered my options. “What time does it start?”
Rory took a bit longer than normal to respond. “…Ten?”
“How do you know someone down in Cambridge?”
“Friend of a friend.” That was almost definitely code for someone he was sleeping with, but I wasn’t about to ask.
I thought about it for longer than I should have. I’d never wanted to be a partier, but for a moment I convinced myself that this was perhaps because I didn’t want to risk my dad finding out, or my grades shooting down. But dad wasn’t going to be home until the wee hours of the morning, and he never checked on my room when he came upstairs to go to bed. I’d gotten the letters of admission only a few weeks ago, my down payment was in, so, what was I scared of?
The answer seemed clear. Screw it, I thought, I’m gonna do it. I’m gonna have a story to tell.
“Can you bring a plus-one?”
“…Are you serious?”
I sat up on my bed, throwing my arms out from my sides. “What? Why not, for once?”
He crossed his arms, leaning back in his seat as he eyed me over, waiting for a crack. I didn’t give him one. Sighing, he stood up from the chair, checking his watch. “Alright, fine.” He jabbed a finger in my direction. “You, however, need to change first.”
We found skinny jeans and an old black tank-top in my closet, took boots and a leather jacket that had once been my older sister’s out of storage. They were beat-up, and I protested, but Rory said “Fuck it, they’re vintage,” and that sealed the deal as far as he was concerned. Armed with enough money for a bus, the cover charge, and the taxi ride back — and not a cent more — we walked far enough down a couple of blocks to a bus stop, and were on our way to Cambridge in less than half an hour.
The stop we ended up getting off at wasn’t far from the party itself — some rented broken-down town house, normal fare, I’d assume, for a party like this. It was closer to eleven by that point, but people were still streaming inside the front door, and I could see the sway of bodies every time a newcomer was admitted inside.
I took a step forward onto the lawn, but Rory caught my arm, forcing me to look back at him. “Don’t get lost in there, okay?”
I nodded. I thought he meant “stay by me.” Even after that night, I never really asked him to propound. I didn’t have to.
We paid the cover-charge at the door. I could see how packed the hallway was, could hear the downbeat of whatever music had been put on the stereo in the living room, but no romcom or teenage sitcom had ever prepared me for the smell. It was over-arching, but it came in pockets, where one scent was stronger than the rest — weed (or what I thought must have been weed) and cigarettes, mingled with sweaty bodies that made my tank-top seem conservative, and all of it was drenched in the smell of alcohol, sloshing from cups both in hands and kicked over onto the floor.
The first thing I can remember Rory telling me when we got inside was “don’t you dare drink anything anyone hands you,” and I told him I wasn’t an idiot, but he just rolled his eyes and dragged me into the living room. It was wall-to-wall bodies, dancing and pulsating together. I wondered, momentarily, if they were too drunk to hear the music, and just felt it inside, thrumming through them and forcing them into the rest of the chaotic movement. But it was too loud to think or focus on much of anything, save the fact that I was dancing with Rory — or maybe it was everyone, because bodies touched bodies indiscriminately, and while you never saw the faces, you could feel practically everything else.
Rory was done with dancing much sooner than I was ready to part ways with the dance floor. It was like he felt obligated to be dancing for X-amount of time, and with his dues paid, was ready to move on to the next social encounter. I probably could have stayed there for hours and would have, had I not promised to keep up with him. Once more with a hand on my arm, he moved us both into a kitchen. I could still feel the bass, but the predominant sound here was talking over plastic cups, continuously being refilled from the keg on the counter. I watched Rory get his drink, and clumsily followed suit — ignoring the smirk on his face.
Drinks in hand, he led me over to a group of boys standing around, introduced me as his friend before his hand let go of my arm in favor for one of the boy’s backs — it was one of those rare occasions where I got to meet the boy Rory was seeing. He had dimples, and long brown hair, and looked like he was only a few years older than us. I liked him. He made Rory laugh. I don’t know how long they were together for, or if it was his house, or even what his name was, but I can remember that he made Rory laugh, and that was enough for me.
I can’t remember much else because my drink was a lot stronger than I had initially anticipated. I didn’t ever really believe that such a tiny amount of liquid could alter your perception so much, or maybe I just wanted to think otherwise, because I could feel it burning going down. I would screw my face up, despite every attempt not to, and just kept drinking.
I don’t remember how much I’d had when the alcohol stopped burning, either.
It was a stupid decision, to drink like that in front of a bunch of veteran college students — they could all read my face with every pull; they knew when I was gone. The only person other than myself who didn’t understand how much I’d had was Rory, who was drunk on something else entirely. He grabbed my arm again at some point, whispering to me. “We’re gonna head off for a little bit — you okay here?”
I pushed at his chest, laughing. “’Course I am.”
He hesitated. “Stay in here, okay? Just — for chrissakes, stay in here.”
I nodded. Rory’s arm was taken by the guy’s, pulling his hand away from me, and they were gone before any more could be said.
The handful of boys left were probably just as drunk as I was, but they all seemed nice enough, even as one by one they trailed off, to talk to someone else or return to the dance or to hook-up with some girl that had just passed by, and I was left with a boy who had blue eyes. The rest of his image floats and ripples even when I squeeze my eyes shut, but that’s all I can remember. I don’t even recall walking away from the kitchen but the world changed around me, from fluorescent lighting and the stench of alcohol to dimness and sweat, and my fingers were clutching into the bedspread even though for a long time we were just sitting there, talking. Or maybe I was just rambling, and he sat waiting.
I think he kissed me first. I can’t really be sure. I remember being warm, and the feel of his cotton shirt under my hands, and that I liked having his fingers splayed over my lower back. He pushed the material of my tank-top up, and I didn’t know if I wanted to push away or not until he reached the clasp of my bra, and at that point, some part of me had vaguely decided no, I didn’t want to be there, not like this, not when I didn’t even know his name.
It was a feeble kind of pushing, soft enough that he didn’t realize at first, and I panicked. I think I bit his lip or down on my tongue because I could taste a little bit of blood as I scrambled up from the bed, pulling my shirt back down into place as I made for the door. He called after me; I think he was apologizing, but my stomach was churning from standing so quickly. Nothing looked like it had straight edges and for a moment, I could almost see myself walking down the hallway between kissing couples, indefinite and murky, no beginning and no end. I was just a part of the atmosphere.
The only thing that opened up my tunnel-vision was a familiar face, mushed together with someone else’s. I put a hand on Rory’s shoulder, tugging him away from the wall where the boy from the kitchen had him pinned, but I was unsuccessful. It was only when they stopped kissing that Rory saw me, mouth open as if he’d suddenly been woken up.
“Rory.” My voice was raspy and thick; I wasn’t even sure that I was the one talking. “We need to go. We need to go, Ror.”
They exchanged rushed words. The boy who made Rory laugh was trying to make sure that I was going to be okay, and Rory replied with “just water” before grabbing my arm again, guiding me into the bathroom. He held my hair while I threw up into someone else’s toilet. I asked, weakly, if I’d screwed his chances with the boy, if I was throwing up into his toilet, but Rory didn’t answer. The boy came back, handed him a glass of water which he left on the sink counter, and then left. I was instructed to take small sips between heaves. Rory sat on the linoleum with me, back to the wall or standing over me, for what must have been an hour.
“What the hell, Sam?” he asked me when I was somewhere close to being coherent again, albeit still puking. “What the hell were you thinking?”
I picked my head up from the bowl, breathing hard and wiping at my mouth with my arm. “I just” — it came out in a tumble; I knew it sounded bad but I was unable to stop the force of my own voice — “I just wanted something to write about.”
“I just — you come back from parties like this and — you tell damn good stories, Ror.”
“Do you have any idea how much of that is bullshitting? You’re eighteen, Sam. That’s too young to be having a — a goddamn existential crisis. Christ.”
“At least I’m going to college.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You’re not even trying, Rory.”
“Really? You wanna go there?”
“I know you care. I know you care a hell of a lot more than you let on.”
“You don’t know shit.”
“Then why are you friends with me? Why the hell are you here?”
He didn’t respond, mostly because my stomach had rebelled once again. Holding my hair at the roots, he swore loudly. “So did you find your fucking story, Sam?”
I didn’t have to answer, because he already knew. When I finished puking, I started crying, right there on the bathroom floor. He threw an arm over my shoulder, sat there with me until I was completely dried out. When the shaking had stopped, he pulled me upright. “Let’s get our stuff. I still have to sober you up before I take you home.”
Walking in fresh air did me more good than I thought it would. The cold wasn’t exactly preferable, but it was the warmest it had been in weeks, so we counted ourselves lucky. Rory got us coffees along with a bottle of water for me at some late-night café, dipping into valuable taxi fair. I thought he would hail a cab, but instead we ended up on one of the gardens along the Charles. He sat me down on a bench, and for a long time, we said nothing.
I looked out over the water, at the lights in the windows of apartments and how their reflections shimmered on the river as the current rolled onward. For just a moment, I could feel the lives that those windows stood for — a student, a couple, a family just starting out. All just souls, trying to get along like everyone else, living both with each other and without. Even the lights on the water seemed to be the flickering souls of those whose time had come too soon. I wondered if, with a few more drinks, I could have been one of them tonight.
I am no Fitzgerald. I am maybe a Nick Carraway at best, but I know that reserving judgments is indeed a matter of infinite hope, so I have to admit that I am a Gatsby. Sitting on the water I was beginning to understand the pull of that Green Light shining out over Long Island Sound, and I can see myself in some makeshift rowboat pounding furiously at the oars, getting nowhere because the current only ever allows me to move forward in inches. It choked me up, and I wondered why no one ever bothered to jump and try swimming instead, because as desperate as it sounds, isn’t drowning better than just going along blindly?
I started crying again, pulling my feet up onto the wood of the bench. Rory moved to put an arm around my shoulders.
“I did apply, you know.” I blinked at him, unsure of his expression because my own vision was watery. “Yeah, it’s a community school, but… I did apply. And I’m gonna go.”
“Wh — what?”
“I didn’t want to say anything to you, because I figured you’d rub it in my face.”
“No, that’s not — ” I wiped at my eyes, sniffling but under control again. “Why are you telling me this now?”
He blinked, this time. “I thought that’s why you were upset, again.”
“Oh.” I turned to face the river, shaking my head. “Well, no. Not exactly. But I’m glad.”
“…You know, you don’t have to drink yourself into a stupor to be a writer. Just because it worked for some of them, doesn’t mean it has to work for you. C’mon, Sam, you’re better than — ”
“It’s not about the drinking, Ror it’s — look, what can I write about? I don’tdo anything. I live this safe little life, and I just… wanted something different. That’s all.”
“And you thought copying me was — ”
“But you always tell such great — ”
“Just because I can tell them doesn’t mean I can write them down. Sam, look, I…” he trailed off, hands running back through his hair. “I’ve always been jealous of the way you write, okay? I love listening to you read what you’ve written because when I’ve tried it’s just — it’s just like reading. The words swim. I can’t do it, okay? So you better not waste that. I’m begging you, here. It’s not worth wasting. You’re eighteen, you don’t have to know what it is you’re saying, just…say it.”
I pulled my knees up, resting my chin on them. “And in the mean time?”
“Worry about that stupid Great Gatsby project or something, okay?” He stood up, stretching his body upwards as he examined the river. “Write about this,” he said, gesturing every which way around him.
I sat up a little straighter, brow furrowing. “Why?”
His body bounced with laughter, shoulders rising and falling like the bends of a river. He turned to me, and his teeth were like stars that you could never see on nights like this. “Why not?”