I really should have picked the piece about the go-go boy I think, all day Saturday I should just entertain, that’s all they’ll want. But it’s too late, I’ve already told my instructor what I’ll read, and the class has expressed their opinion; read the piece about your mother and the restaurant, the piece with the box cutter and the fucked-up therapy session. Oh yeah, they’ll love that piece. Just call me Killjoy.
After the gym I have a few hours alone, to read it through, to clean it up. I resist. I open the lap-top, walk away. I come back, read it once, walk away. Come back, tinker a bit. Open a book. Compared to her I suck I think. Mine’s so simple, where’s the rich descriptive language that she has?. I put the book down. Back to the lap-top. I read it again, clean up a few sentences, tighten a flow of words. I think back to the night I read the piece to the class, searching for the questions the instructor asked. “Why is he so scared to come out of the closet if both his parents are gay?” she wanted to know. I type a few more lines here and there. I open another book, scan a few pages, put it back. Take another. He’s so intelligent, I think, so literary. I can’t catch half his references. I put it aside. I come back, read it again, clean it up a little more. The sentence I added is clunky, tighten it up, delete a few words. Read the section over and over till it flows right. Then read the whole thing. I walk away, draw a bath. Let the dog outside. It’s a beautiful day, sun on the warm wooden deck just out the backdoor, but I need to stay in here and get it right. I take the first book with me to the bathtub, but I only read three pages. Time is slipping past. I flip the drainswitch with my toe. Too early to get dressed for the reading, so I put my sweats on, back to the glowing screen. Read it aloud for the first time, timing myself. I’m reading fast and I’m three minutes over. Read it again, forget I’m timing myself and tinker with another sentence. Stop, start over. You get the idea.
I’m twenty minutes early to the bookstore. I’m always early, to everything. I walk among the broad tables with piles of books facing up. I scan them, marvelling at their colors and their clever designs, all the stories everyone has. I pick up a few, scan the back covers, set them back. Try to remember the author of that book about the middlesexed charater. Too stubborn to ask the guy behind the counter, I play a little game, I’ll just wander and try to find the book myself and kill some time. I stand by the new hardcover fiction shelf, my head tilted to the right, scanning the spines of the books. Oh, she has a new one. And there’s the one that one the Pulitzer. I pull it out, open the book and read a few words. That’s so clever, I wish I were that clever. Maybe I should exchange earnest for clever. I imagine myself a published author, what it would be like to see my book among the others; would there be a sense of satisfaction, or would I worry it’ll end up on the sale table in a few weeks? I never find the middlesex book. I wander to the back of the store where they’ve set up about twenty-five chairs in front of a microphone. The store is so quiet, won’t it be obnoxious once we get up there and start reading? Luckily Bearbait is there, browsing as well, so I can escape my head for a bit.
“Hey,” I say.
“Hey,” he says.
Back to my brain. I stake out two chairs in the third row. Bearbait seems tired. What if he doesn’t really want to be here? He blinks slowly, tells me about his day. Other students come, bearing wine and bags of chips, eyes shinging, laughing a little too high and loud. Everyone looks nicer than they did on Wednesday nights. Bearbait heads for the refreshments while I stay seated. Then a voice at my shoulder.
“Is this seat taken?” It’s Richard. We hug and I move in another chair. I feel so flattered people are here. And nervous.
“I should have picked the go-go boy story,” I tell Richard. He lets me babble nervously, nodding patiently at my ten-minute long disclaimer about how I don’t want to be too heavy and bring everybody down by reading a piece about cutting up my hand with a box cutter.
My instructor stops by, “You’re reading sixth,” she says. A little more than half-way through. How did she decide that? I wonder. Is there some sort of hierarchy here? I let that rattle around inside my head along with everything else. A lot of people are showing up; more chairs are pulled from a back room. I look behind me at all the unfamilar faces.
“This looks like a Marina crowd,” I tell Richard. He agrees. Bearbait comes back. “This is Richard, he keeps a website, too.” Bearbait smiles. “And this is ____. I call him Bearbait on dogpoet.” They smile patiently at my clever nickname. I tell Bearbait to start his own weblog, as a way of luring more bears. He smiles patiently at me and sips his Pepsi.
The reading starts. The woman’s head in front of me blocks my view of the podium. So I listen, staring at her neck or at the bright colors of the children’s book section behind the podium. There is a clock cut out of construction paper hanging on the wall, its hands stuck eternally at seven o’clock. It’s very disorienting. As the fifth student walks to the podium Bearbait leans over and tells me to breathe. Apparently I had stopped. I lean back and take a couple of deep breaths, test my eyesight by reading the titles of books several feet away. I was expecting the intermission but the instructor calls my name. I reach under my chair, grab the four sheets of paper waiting there. Richard moves his legs and I squeeze by, hoping my jeans look good as I walk up to the podium.
“’Michael McAllister used to write a lot of poetry,” the instructor reads from my hastily-written bio. “Lately he’s been writing little stories from his life.’” She pauses and looks at me. “Maybe not that little,” she says. Everyone laughs. “’He lives in San Francisco and keeps a website.’ She looks at me again. “Should I tell them the website?” I shake my head. They’ll ask if they want.
The reader before me was short. I pull the microphone up a bit, set the pages down, take another breath to calm my nerves.
“My mother has a good arm,” I read.
They’re laughing by the end of the first paragraph, laughing at all the appropriate jokes. They’re quiet in the other parts. As I read I remember this feeling, the feeling I used to get when I’d read my poetry in Minneapolis. The feeling of a room full of people listening intently to the words I’ve strung together. I remember how I loved it. What was I so worried about? I wonder. It’s a good story. When I finish there is warm applause that carries me back to my chair between Richard and Bearbait. I sit, my adrenaline pumping, as the intermission is announced. The women in front of me turn around “that was great,” they say. I smile and say thanks. The instructor stops by. “Bravo,” she says, “that revision is wonderful, it brought it all together.” She shakes my hand. “I tried to remember the feedback,” I tell her.
A woman with bright red hair and a commanding presence comes up to me. “You have a website?” she asks. I nod. “Is it a blog?” she asks.
“Yes,” I say.
“We have blogs too!” she says, indicating her boyfriend. As she searches through her purse for a pen, a familiar face walks up.
“I recognize you,” I say. It’s Chad. He introduces himself briefly, then slips away, late for a dinner party. I exchange URL’s with the couple.
The rest of the reading is great, everybody sounds so good. There is another student who I love, someone who’s lived a rough life and is writing about it in a vivid, humorous, heartbreaking way. I think she’s the best writer in the class. She was so nervous about reading, didn’t want to do it. “You have to read,” I told her at the last class. “You’re too good.” She reads and everyone eats it up, they adore her. I want to write as good as she does.
Later Richard, Bearbait and I grab dinner at Max’s Opera Café. A waitress sings “Killing Me Softly” over by the piano. Richard orders a “BIG! BOLD! SALAD!” and we order cheeseburgers. We talk about art and life, and living the lives we want. It’s a good night with good people. The anxiety is behind me. I dip my fries in ketchup and horseradish.