Palo Alto Weekly 25th Annual Short Story
You are thirty-eight years old.
You sit in a hotel room, atop a yacht-sized bed with its marshmallow pillows and 1,000,000 thread count sheets. You have come home to attend your twenty-year high school reunion. Outside, rain slaps the window like nickels – the only sound that reaches you through the bomb bunker walls.
If you were to die here, tonight, an investigative team (glamorous, multicultural, of the sort found on TV), sweeping your apartment after your death would find the following, and use these items to piece together a life:
1. A photograph of you smiling atop a new Honda motorcycle.
2. An unsharpened pencil adorned with the logo for Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?1
5. A short story entitled Masquerade. Your author’s credit is followed by “4th Period.”
a. The opening lines:
You are 18 years old. In Amy’s bedroom, listening to Annie Lennox. The ice has made your earlobe numb. She lies on her back, silent beneath the artificial stars on the ceiling. The lamp, sheathed in red silk, highlights downy hair on her arms. You realize in hindsight that this is the type of memory one might refer back to when asked to name “A time you were truly happy.” In later retellings (to yourself primarily) you make yourself truly happy by lessening your soon-to-be sizzling agony, intense need to urinate, and the fact that your left foot is asleep, the circulation cut off by Amy’s resting head. This will sometimes seem like the last moment you were sure of anything.
8. A torn-open airmail envelope (empty), addressed to you, postmarked from Melbourne, Australia.
When Amy dashed off those words, seated on a bench at the school snack bar, her fingertips stained Cheeto orange, she could not have known the number of times you would return to that page. It’s possible Woodward and Bernstein paid less attention to the Watergate affair than you dedicated to her message.
You are 37 years old. On your couch with a goddess. She is way out of your league but neither of you cares. Your mouth is sticky with beer – this you do care about. The mole at the end of her eyebrow makes her an exclamation point. Her eyes are closed. You keep yours open to make sure this is real. At one point she mumbles a name – Tim? – and you pretend not to hear.
13. A copy of The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood.
a. Written inside the front cover:
14. A bachelor’s degree from a mid-level university.
16. A Planned Parenthood sexually transmitted disease testing form (results negative).
You are 22 years old. You finally say, “I love you,” and instantly want the words back, while the cement is still wet.
You are 26 years old. In a bar with Xochitl. Soft jazz, ten dollar drinks. Her wedding ring like the gaudy costume jewelry of high school plays. Back then (before Amy), you wanted her, would have given your left leg to be with her. Now, this. Still the girl you once adored, but also now someone’s wife and mother. The drinks are gone, decision time.
19. A photograph from a holiday party. You have your arm around Jill. Both of you wear semi-formal attire; you also wear a Santa Claus hat and appear intoxicated.
a. The opening lines:
21. A stack of letters from various publishers, rejecting your submission of The King of Wishful Thinking.
You are 33 years old. Sitting across from Gina, a basket of sourdough bread between you. The clatter of silverware on plates, dinner conversations all around. She waits until her mouth is full and then tells you she’s seeing another man. He makes her happy. You don’t ask for how long. You don’t ask anything, just nod and push your crumbs into patterns. You’re afraid to meet her gaze, knowing what you might see. Then someone comes to refill your water and she stops talking.
Multiple choice: Choose the best answer and explain in a well-reasoned paragraph.
A person creating their own mythology would find which of the following most useful?
A. A shortcut through a dark alley led him to a mugging (like something out of a comic book – where was Batman to swing in when needed?). He fought off the young criminal and received a knife slash across the chest for his trouble. Friends and lovers found both the deed and the scar fascinating. (NOTE: requires a scar to be believable.)
B. Croissants and espresso never tasted so good as under the slanting roof of a top-floor Paris apartment (with a view of Sacre Coeur), seated across from the freckled French girl who spoke all of ten words of English and liked to wear his dress shirts. Some days she wouldn’t let him out of bed at all.
C. Lurking in a hotel lobby – having escaped the dreary conference – he encountered an aging (but still sexy) movie actress and ended up spending the night with her. Seriously, someone like her, who had all those famous studs back in the day, giving herself to an accountant? But she was spectacular. They never spoke again.
D. Dad’s government desk job was actually a cover for a career in intelligence. Later, after the old man had retired and mellowed (well, somewhat) he shared the whole story with his son. “Business trips.” Brushes with death, or worse. He even kept certain souvenirs. Dad had pulled off the role of dull, moody suburban father with great aplomb.
25. A page from the May 10, 1999 issue of Time magazine, featuring the essay “A Note for Rachel Scott,” by Roger Rosenblatt.
You are 27 years old. On September 12, 2001, you go looking for a church but find a bar. Or maybe they’ve become the same thing. Too crowded but you can’t leave. TVs on the walls hawk their scenes of horror to everyone and no one. You keep ordering gin & tonics because you don’t know what else to do. (You like neither gin nor tonic.) Periodically a collective groan erupts from the crowd. Things like this just don’t happen in your America, the country in which you grew up. Someone down the bar mentions Pearl Harbor, but that might as well have been during the Civil War for all it means to you. You drink and listen, cataloging the experience for some future story.
28. A diamond engagement ring in a box from Tiffany & Co.
You are 25 years old. In a gray cubicle. You have become a man who wears a tie to work. You punch numbers into a spreadsheet all day and then you go home. All for the cause of buying the motorcycle – this is your mantra. Lily, in the cubicle next to yours, has a sign taped to her computer: “Follow your bliss.” You wonder if her bliss led her here. If you could invent another life for yourself, who would you be?
29. A printout of an eBay listing selling a Tiffany engagement ring.3
31. A sheet of paper from the Mandalay Bay Hotel, Las Vegas.
You are 36 years old. You shiver in the cold leather seat of Norah’s car. She dabs her eyes with a paper napkin from the glove compartment. You’ve never seen her cry before. She’s traveled to faraway lands to help doctors put broken children back together – maybe she cried then, too. The Tiffany box throbs in your jacket pocket, like a piece of plutonium. While you waited for a table earlier, Norah commented on the hostess’s pants and you realized that you could never offer her the ring. What if she said yes? A small white Buddha sits on the dashboard, smiling at you.
34. Your online dating profile.
You are 18 years old. On an early summer night, you watch a police procedural on TV with your parents. The moment the detectives ring the doorbell of the prime suspect, your doorbell also rings. Amy stands on your front porch, wearing a winter hat with an orange ball on top. She says, “I leave in the morning.” You say, “I know.” Moths dance an aerial rave around the porch light while you wonder what to say next. She finally pulls a laminated card from her pocket and hands it to you. “Don’t forget about me,” she says, then drives away in her VW Bug. You go back inside just in time to see TV justice served.
In the hotel room, you skim channels on the TV. The remote control trembles in your hand, or perhaps it’s your hand that trembles. A Zen koan?
In the bathroom an old man blinks back at you from the mirror. You wonder when this happened to you. You apply cologne and brush your hair and adjust your tie and he does the same. Is he ready to open the door when the moment comes? Are you?
In your suitcase, amidst the crumpled clothing and Ziploc’d toiletries, are two items:
* Amy Wylie’s high school student identification card, for the 1991-92 school year.
* A manuscript entitled Western Civilization.
a. The opening lines:
There is a knock on your door.
You are thirty-eight years old.