Become a Fan
Another excerpt from Part Four of my unpublished novel EDGE OF CALIFORNIA. In this one, the narrator gets to know the young woman who will be his girlfriend. Readers should know that, other than the setting and some of the circumstances (and the literary discussion near the end), this conversation actually happened. Interested publishers, please contact me.
After work the next day, I went to Rob’s. Not to see him, but to catch a glimpse of Emily. I passed by the daycare center, hoping she was outside. No dice. I parked across the street and waited. Minutes later, Emily popped out of the center toward a cute aquamarine Chevy. She got in and carefully left the parking lot, waving at some kids in the playground. I watched her car recede in the distance, and, unthinking and bored, I decided to follow her.
I followed her a few blocks west to a coffee shop in University Heights, a neat urban area not far from the Mission Valley hotel circle. She parked on the street and went inside; I found a spot half a block away and examined the coffee shop from across the street, Sartre’s Nausea in hand (reading material is essential in any coffee shop, otherwise you’ll be stuck there making more eye contact than necessary with fellow patrons, and you’ll fall in love or something). I crossed quietly and looked in the window: it was crowded; I could see Emily, sitting alone, a cup of something cooling on the table in front of her. She was peacefully doing a crossword puzzle.
I entered the crowded coffee shop. Some technicians were loudly setting up a sound system in the next room for that night’s live entertainment. I made my way past the wave of yuppies trying to find seats and waited in line, glancing every so often at Emily, whose gaze never strayed from the newspaper. I ordered a cup of joe and a Frisbee-sized chocolate chip cookie. I couldn’t find a place to sit, so I headed to Emily’s table. What would Tim do in this situation?
“Hey doll,” I greeted. A cute punk with pink-streaked hair and her man fiend (at the next table) at once glared at me in mock shock; I indicated Emily, who smiled when she saw me, and sat across from her. “Mind if I join you? There are no seats here.”
“I see plenty of seats, silly,” Emily noted, playing with her pen. “Most of them just happen to be occupied.” She then sat up in her chair. “Well, only for a few minutes, okay? I’m meeting someone.”
“Sure,” I promised; meanwhile thinking, damn it…
“Thanks.” She went back to her crossword. I sat there cooling the surface of my coffee with soft puffs of breath, hoping she’d stop doing the crossword and start a conversation.
“Hungry?” I pushed the cookie her way; she declined. “I got it for you,” I added, at which she grabbed it and tore off a handful without even giving me another look. I had to chuckle. She peered back at me with blissful eyes. Her lips were caked with lip balm, sticking tiny crumbs of cookie onto every minuscule fissure in the pinkness.
“Sure”—not skipping a beat—“Brian, actually.”
She placed a hand on her cookied mouth. “Oh! Sorry.”
“It’s okay.” I leaned over and stared at the crossword upside down. “New York Times?”
“Yeah. These are super-hard.”
“I can help you if you want,” I told her. “I’m good at crossword puzzles.” Yeah, TV Guide or People magazine, maybe, but the NY Times?…
“Six letters. Tropical bird. Second letter’s O, fourth’s C, fifth’s A.” She looked at me innocently, tapping her pen on the table. “Isn’t there a bird called a mocccaw or something?”
“It’s actually macaw, and it’s only five letters,” I corrected her. “The word’s T-O-U-C-A-N. Like, um, Toucan Sam. You don’t get Froot Loops for breakfast tomorrow morning.”
“I like Cap’n Crunch,” she murmured happily, inserting the new word into both the crossword and her mental dictionary. “Okay. Five letters. Greek breastplate. Fourth letter’s I.” I inspected the crossword. Below the second and third letters were two empty boxes. The “I” was from “deride.”
“What’s the clue for the second letter down?” I asked.
She read, “Diamond stat.”
I thought for a moment. Then it occurred to me. “Oh, it’s E-R-A.” She thoughtlessly added it to the crossword. I added, “Baseball,” which prompted a surprised look on her face.
“I thought you said it was era.”
“Oh, it is. E-R-A,” I explained, “it’s a baseball term. It stands for Earned Run Average.”
“I wouldn’t know. I don’t really follow baseball.”
“That’s too bad”—adding slyly—“I guess we can never be together then.”
“Oh, that’s terrible,” she said, giggling.
“Really?!” I wanted to kiss her all over with that last remark.
She spluttered a raspberry at me. Around us, the crowd chatter rose because the band—some cheap local band—had arrived.
Another thought occurred to me. “I think the word’s aegis. A-E-G-I-S.” You can go far with a friend of Greek origin (and a super-intelligent high school mentor).
“Okay.” She read over the other words connected to “aegis.” She looked up at me. “What’s gad mean?” She pointed out that “G” down became “G-A-D.”
I’m not the smartest guy in the world, but reading Webster’s Dictionary in the bathroom may be useful later in life; this particular situation would be an example. I’d skip the longer words and go for words most likely to be used on Jeopardy! And other assorted trivia (trivial) game shows.
“Gad’s from ‘gadabout’—someone who wanders about…”
By that point I began to feel Ally-ish, PRETENTIOUS. Looks like Nighttime Bathroom Hour skimming through the dictionary made me look like a jerkwad.
Who’s your ideal man, Emily? Some pretentious asshole who gets a hard-on when he feels superior to everyone else in the room? Am I him? Do I feel superior to you? Do girls like you want super-intelligent guys? Do girls in general prefer that? Am I seriously like that? I worry too much. I don’t feel any self-worth. Not at this particular moment.
In a year (maybe, if not already), Emily will meet a nice Midwestern Christian mama’s boy who has his own software company in Silicon Valley. He’ll drive a neat reliable little BMW, and he’ll ask her to marry him, and he’ll bring her up to the Valley with him, and maybe today will be the last time I ever see her again.
But that’s fine, just as long as she’s happy. Right?
Emily noticed the silence and placed the crossword puzzle off to the side. This conversation was not over yet; she wouldn’t allow it. She stared at my shirt and tie and asked,
“Do you often wear shirts and ties? Every time I see you, you’re dressed like a yuppie. Like an Asian Alex P. Keaton from Family Ties.”
“Ha, well, I grew up watching Family Ties.”
“That explains it. Me, I didn’t watch it growing up, but I catch it on Nick at Nite every chance I get. That Chinese kid Alex had to be big brother of in one episode—Ming, was it?—that’s you, aching to be a dashing young conservative like Alex Keaton.”
“Wow, thank you. It’s appreciated.”
“No, I’m kidding. I enjoy these…”
“Dime store analyses? Yes. So do I. You’re from here, aren’t you? From San Diego?”
“Born and raised. You?”
“Ugh, ha. You’ll never get it. It’s not even on the map. A little blip”—at this she pinched the air with her cute fingers—“on the earth you’ll miss in the blink of an eye if you drive through it.”
“Give me a hint.”
“Can’t. What hint could there be?”
“What state is it in?” I asked.
Emily held up her gel pen; made a sick look on her face; tapped the inside of her left arm as if ready to inject heroin into it; and finally, after much thought, gave me a very confused look and concluded, “Ee-yuh.” It was this exact moment that I realized I had to spend the rest of my life with this girl or else retreat to a monastery or something.
“Pennsylvania,” I declared, and Emily tapped the end of her nose in approval. “I’ve never been east of Vegas,” I continued. “But…I can rule out Philly and Pittsburgh, since they’re…”
“Let’s say it’s very solid matter on the edge of a mountain.”
“It’s a type of music on a high-rise.” At this she laughed.
I stared at her glumly. “Give it up, you heartless wench.”
She hit my arm playfully. “Rockledge. I’m from a small town in Pennsylvania called Rockledge that’s not even on the map. Silly Brian,” she teased, a shit-eating grin on her face.
“You’re right, never heard of it.” We shared a mutual laugh.
“So what do you do?” she asked, delicately chewing the cookie. I told her; she feigned interest. “Really? That’s interesting.”
“Boring’s more like it, actually.” But really, I didn’t want to talk about work. “How’s the daycare thing going?” I asked, changing the subject.
“That thing is going well, thank you.” She giggled. “I go nuts taking care of all those little rugrats all the time, but”—shrugging her shoulders—“I love my work.”
“It’s better than what I do.” My stomach began to churn with sad memories of work.
“Oh.” She tapped the cover of Nausea. “Sartre, huh?”
“Yes.” I’d forgotten that I’d brought it in with me. “This is really the only book by Sartre I ever liked. Or read, anyway. You like this book?”
“I’ve never read it. But I know of Sartre.” She mispronounced it (“Shar-chure”), but pointed this out, “Jeez, I can’t even pronounce it. I’m wrong, aren’t I?”
“Doesn’t matter,” I assured her. Really, it didn’t.
“What’s that about, anyway?”
“It’s about this man who starts to question his own existence. It’s existential and it’s pretty good.”
I wanted to tell her how cynical it all was, how Sartre felt man is void and life’s just one big daydream, a constant negative trip, a string of existential events that are horrible, empty, and ultimately futile. I wanted her to know—realize—that I didn’t completely agree with him, that life isn’t void, that by doing nothing all day but analyze all the realia around us makes life void. Do something—anything—and your life will improve.
I noticed a Frenchman, one of those drunk Sixties Parisian bohemian beatniks, several tables away from us. I lightly chuckled and motioned his way; Emily turned and glanced at him. I explained that the guy symbolized the very nature of Sartre, a scholar who’ll lay this whole existential mind trip on you all night long, yet, after savoring last call, when he staggers away from the clean, well-lighted place, you discover his philosophy may really all be bullshit triggered by alcohol.
“That’s essentially what I want to do with the rest of my life—become this alcoholic writer, observing people in coffee shops and writing them down in little notebooks, and maybe having loveless sex with beautiful women and sleeping on the beach at three a.m.” I tapped the cool Formica surface of the table. “That’s life for me. Although I don’t believe in loveless sex. I find it inhuman.” I gave her a confused puppy-dog look, hoping I hadn’t offended her. “What do you think?”
Emily stared at the table blankly and managed a forced smile.
“I think that’s nice.” She leaned forward, brushing hair from her brow. “So you find loveless sex inhuman?”
“No. I don’t know. Sex doesn’t have to involve conception, I guess. But sex without love, well, I don’t believe in it, no matter how screwed up your life is, but I guess it isn’t a matter of choice sometimes. A lot of times it is a matter of how screwed up your life has become, and in that case, you can’t do anything about it. You’re just going to have to live with it. But well…oh, I don’t know.”
Emily winked. “I was being sarcastic, silly. So,” she began fidgeting in her seat, nervous, “you want to be a writer?”
“Yeah. Heavily inspired by Kerouac, Shepard, Coupland, etc.”
“Oh? You read Jack?”
“He’s my fave. Though I dig Shepard very much.”
“Sam…He was Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff.” Upon her confused look, I explained, “It was a movie that came out in 1983, about the space program…”
“Oh,” she said, “before my time, unfortunately. I was only a year old.” 1982—I calculated—she’s twenty-one now. Katie’s age. “But Jack, he’s someone I do read. And adore.”
“Oh no. Well, I used to. But fear has instilled in me a need for a steady career. The daycare center…isn’t it, but I hope to teach elementary-level someday. I’ve realized lately my disappointment in the fact that we no longer live in Jack’s world, living on the beach, haunting the local bar, what have you. I mean, really, there’s just no living to be had in it, you know? Spending sixty-three days on a mountaintop, becoming this desolate being…”
“Oh, you’ve read Desolation Angels…” I interjected quickly, nodding.
“It’s my personal fave…” she said. She began to say—I think it was, “Who’s Coupland?”—but my mind was elsewhere. The crowd had risen by that time and began piling into the other room. I began to feel drowsy. I stood.
“Well,” I said, “I’ll see you around. I have to go.”
“Wait.” She scribbled something on part of the newspaper and ripped it off. She handed me the torn piece. “Give me a call sometime, okay? We can watch that movie together. The Right Stuff, whatever it’s called.” She pushed the newspaper, along with her pen, toward me. “Let me get yours.”
I wrote it down. “Here you go. Well…goodbye, Emily.”
“Talk to you later, Brian,” she cooed dreamily.
I hurried outside. The sky was reddening. I looked back inside. Emily was back at her crossword. Girls like Emily are all destined for better men. Emily’s meeting some handsome dapper gent who’ll wrap his strong arms around her and pummel her sweet face with kisses. Some nice Midwestern Christian mama’s boy.
I walked back to my car. It was getting dark.