The first time I ever saw it was at a party.
College. Dorm. Walls constructed of Budweiser cases. Every door open, the hallways and rooms crammed with people, six different rock tunes competing for dominance.
Rituals of the young and innocent--and the not so innocent, I found out that night.
I had to give back the beer I'd rented, popped into the first empty room I could find.
He was sitting in the corner, hunched over, oblivious to me.
Curiosity made me forget about my bladder. What was he doing, huddled in the dim light? What unpleasant drug would keep him here, alone and oblivious, when a floor thumping party was kicking outside his door?
"Hey, man, what's up?"
A quick turn, guilty face, covering something up with his hands.
"Nothing. Go away."
"What are you hiding there?"
His eyes were wide, full of secret shame. The shame of masturbation, of cooking heroin needles, of snatching money from Mom's purse.
Then I saw it all-- the computer, the notebook full of scrawls, the outline...
"You're writing fiction!"
The guilt melted off his face, leaving it shopworn and heavy.
"Leave me alone. I have to finish this chapter."
"How can you be writing with a party going on?"
He smiled, so subtle that it might have been my beer goggles.
"Have you ever done it?"
"Me?" I tried to laugh, but it sounded fake. "I mean, when I was a kid, you know, drawing pictures and stuff, I used to make up stories..."
"How about lately?"
"Naw. Nothing stronger than an occasional essay."
"You want to try it?"
I took a step back. All of the sudden my bladder became an emergency again.
The guy stood up. His eyes were as bright as his computer screen.
"You should try it. You'll like it."
"I'm cool. Really."
He smiled, for sure this time, all crooked teeth and condescension.
"You'll be back."
I hurried out of the room.
* * * * *
The clock blinked 3:07 AM. I couldn't sleep.
To the left of my bed, my computer.
My mind wouldn't shut off. I kept thinking of the party. Of that guy.
Not me. I wasn't going to go down that path. Sitting alone in my room when everyone else was partying. I wasn't like that.
My computer waited. Patient.
Maybe I should turn it on, make sure it was running okay. Test a few applications.
I crept out of bed.
Everything seemed fine. I should check MS Word, though. Sometimes there are problems.
A look to the side. My roommate was asleep.
What's the big deal, anyway? I could write just one little short short short story. It wouldn't hurt anyone.
I could write it in the dark.
No one would ever know.
One little story.
* * * * *
"Party over at Keenan Hall. You coming?"
"Hmm? Uh, no. Busy."
"Uh, yeah. Homework."
"That sucks. I'll drink a few for you."
I got back to plotting.
* * * * *
I raised a fist to knock, dropped it, raised it again.
What's the big deal? He probably wasn't in anyway.
One tiny tap, the middle knuckle, barely even audible.
The room was dark, warm. It smelled of old sweat and desperation.
He was at his desk, as I guessed he'd be. Hunched over his computer. The clackety clack of his fingers on the keyboard was comforting.
"I need... I need to borrow a Thesaurus."
His eyes darted over to me, focusing. Then came the condescending smile.
"I knew you'd be back. What are you working on?"
"It, uh, takes place in the future, after we've colonized Jupiter."
"It's impossible to colonize Jupiter. The entire planet is made out of gas."
"In 2572 we discover a solid core beneath the gas..."
I spit out the rest of my concept, so fast my lips kept tripping over one another.
"Sounds interesting. You bring a sample to read?"
How did he know? I dug the disk out of my back pocket.
* * * * *
I knew it was coming. Short stories weren't enough anymore. The novella seemed hefty at the time, but now those twenty thousand words are sparse and amateurish.
I was ready. I knew I was. I had a great idea, bursting with conflict, and the two main characters were already living in my head, jawing off at each other with dialog that begged to be on paper.
All I lacked was time.
"Hi, Mom. How's Dad? I'm dropping out of college."
I couldn't make much sense of her reply; it was mostly screaming. When my father came on the phone, he demanded to know the reason. Was I in trouble? Was it a girl? Drugs?
"I need the time off to write my novel."
I hadn't ever heard my father cry before.
* * * * *
I don't need understanding. Certainly not sympathy. The orgiastic delight that comes from constructing a perfect paragraph makes up for my crummy apartment and low-paying job at the Food Mart. They let me use the register tape for my notes, and I get a twenty percent discount on instant coffee.
Reality is tenuous, but that's a good sign. It means I'm focused on the book. I'm not really talking to myself. I'm talking to my characters. You see the difference?
Sometimes I need to take days off, like for that problem I had with Chapter 26. But I worked through it. The book is more important than food, anyway. Who needs to eat?
* * * * *
The tears were magic, and the sob was more beautiful than any emotion ever felt by anyone who ever lived.
Helium had replaced the blood in my veins. My hands trembled.
I typed The End and swore I heard the Voice of God.
* * * * *
The alley is cold. I stuff my sweatshirt with newspaper and hunch down by a dumpster, my CD-ROM clutched in a filthy hand that I can barely recognize as my own.
It is my third week on the street. I've made some friends, like Squeaky, who is sitting next to me.
"They locked me out. Sold my stuff to pay the back rent. Even my computer."
Squeaky squeaks. I offer him an empty Dorito bag, and he scurries inside, looking for crumbs. I don't mind him being distracted. He's heard the story before.
"I've still got my novel, though." The CD isn't very shiny anymore, and it has a crack that I pray hasn't hurt the data.
"Best thing I've ever done in my life, Squeaky old pal. Wouldn't change a damn thing about the path I chose."
It starts to rain. I stare at the CD, at my reflection in it. My beard is coming in nicely. It gives me sort of a Hemingway look.
"Did I tell you about the Intervention, Squeaky? Right before I got kicked out. My parents, my brother, the chaplain, and some guy from WA. Tried to get me to quit writing. Follow some stupid 12 step program."
I still feel a twang of guilt, remembering my mother's pleas.
"They wanted me to admit I had a problem. But they don't understand. Writing isn't an addiction. It's a way of life. Like being a rat. Could you stop being a rat, just because your family wanted you to?"
Squeaky didn't answer. The rain was really coming down now.
"I have to write. I don't have a choice. It's who I am."
The CD in my hand got warm to the touch, glowing with an inner spirit that I knew for sure isn't just my imagination. It's worth something. Even if it never sells. Even if I'm the only one who ever reads it.
It validates me.
"I'm no one trick pony, either. I won't rest on my laurels. I've got more books in me."
I pull out my collection of gum wrappers and sort them out, chapter by chapter.
After reading what I wrote that morning, I take my stubby pencil from my shirt pocket and start where I left off.
After all--writer's have to write.
It's what we do.