When she scurried down the steps and out of her apartment Christine's thin gold wristwatch said 6:53 p.m. She pulled the door behind her and jabbed it once with an elbow, making sure it had locked. She hurried down Franklin Street-awkwardly, on black high heels-to Union, stopped at the curb and flagged the first cab. "Marina Middle School," she told the driver. "Chestnut and Fillmore."
The driver was a white guy in his mid-forties. He tapped the meter-$130 appeared in red digits. "You O.K.?" he asked. "Sounds like you've been running."
"I'm o.k. now that I've got a cab," Christine said. "I'm supposed to be there at seven." She laughed: "I'm late every Wednesday-you'd think I'd learn."
Taking care not to wrinkle her pleated, burgundy skirt, Christine settled into the back seat and opened her notebook. She flipped through the eleven double-spaced pages of her short story and started to proofread, but the sight of the first two sentences nauseated her. That's as good as it's going to get, she told herself, and put it away. As usual, Christine wasn't happy with what she'd written, wasn't sure it was good enough to read, but she was glad she'd written something. There were at least a couple of good parts, she knew, and thinking of them brought the first twitches of a smirk to her upper lip. She fought it off-she would wait for the praise of others-and stared out the window, hoping the scenery would cleanse the story from her mind. Three white people and a dog were queued up at a Wells Fargo teller machine; Christine thought: "Parishioners, confessional." The cab rolled through a stop sign and ran two yellow lights. Christine composed half an analogy: "...a cabbie's contempt for convention..." A block from the Marine Middle School the cab stopped for a red light. Christine saw her reflection in the window and slid her lips back and forth, evening her red lipstick.
"What happens here on Wednesday nights?" the driver asked, seeking Christine's hazel eyes in the mirror.
"I'm in a writing class. There are about ten of us who write fiction. On Wednesdays we critique each other."
"Really," he said. They were pulling up in front of the school. "I write some myself."
"What do you write about?" Christine asked him, passing a bill over the seat.
"Cab stuff," the driver said, turning to admire her while he made change. "Like yesterday. This guy told me to take him to the bridge so he could jump off."
Christine smoothed a stray wisp of black hair toward the bun at the back of her head, tugged a dangling earring, and pretended not to notice his stare. "Did you take him?"
"He had the money," said the driver. "If you wanna go and you've got the money I'll take you."
Christine froze that line, froze the entire scene-the grainy twilight, the driver's unclipped nose hairs, the whiff of poison from the ashtray-here was next week's story. "Well," she said, while tipping him, "if you're in the neighborhood about nine-thirty I might need you. I'm really nervous about the story I'm reading tonight. If it bombs I just may need to go to the bridge."
TALKING WITH THE DRIVER had calmed her, and when she walked into the meeting room at one minute past seven Christine was smiling. Several people looked up; there were nods and waves and returned smiles. She thought: My family. She was the group's only black person, and when she'd shown up on the first Wednesday, thirteen weeks earlier, she had felt conspicuous. But now she barely noticed-she felt safe here, felt valued, and indulged in the notion that her unique point of view lent depth, or at least contrast, to these gatherings.
A casual banter was going on at the long table. Three were eleven of them all together, and as Christine removed her coat-the black one with the padded shoulders-she overheard the others discussing their trade: royalties, agents, lecture fees. But it was all farce; rejection slips were the actual currency of this group.
The group's leader, a balding man named Roland who wore a tweed jacket and had once led writing workshops at Harvard, asked how many people had brought things to read. Christine and three others raised their hands. Two of the four had brought chapters from novels in progress, while Christine and one other had brought short stories.
"We're in good shape," Roland said. "Let's hear the chapters first and the short stories later." Christine nodded her assent, but her belly had other notions. Novel chapters and their ensuing discussions often ate up so much of the two-hour session that the short stories were held over until the next week. And now the part of Christine that had conceived and mothered this week's story, that had polished it until two o'clock last night and then come home from the bank early this afternoon to polish it yet some more... that part of her was throwing a tantrum.
Writing short stories and reading them had become the core of Christine's week. She had originally joined the group for support in writing a novel, but was quickly sidetracked. The day after the very first class, during work, one of her bank's internal auditors had come to Christine's office for a meeting. The auditor, a puffy white man, had spoken on the phone with Christine many times but they had never met, and although he tried to hide it, the fact of her blackness startled him.
That night Christine wrote her first short story. She called herself Carla and changed her business from banking to publishing. The auditor became a handsome writer's agent who took Carla to lunch in an expensive restaurant; their sterile meeting turned flirtatious-"You know, I was expecting you'd be white and not nearly so pretty" (someone had actually said this to Christine once)-and ended with a sailing invitation (Christine had never before been sailing). That story was well received by the class; even Roland said it showed "rare sensitivity."
Christine, encouraged, decided to sharpen her talents by writing more short stories, but now-three months and eleven short stories later-she could barely remember the plot of her intended novel. This desertion might have been less bothersome to Christine were in not accompanied by the loathsome suspicion that she had become pitifully addicted to the group's approval. No longer, she noticed, did she strive to write of things universal. Her stories had become blatantly narrow, tailored to titillate and please this one small cell of would-be writers. If she crafted one or two clever phrases each week, if she got some laughs and a few strokes, she was happy. It was a horrible trap, she knew. A dead end. She must stop. Next week she would start her novel. No, next week she would write about the cab driver and the bridge, but the week after that... Oh, whom was she kidding? As long as these people would listen to her stories, Christine would write them.
A man named Joseph, a pipe-smoker whom Christine was fond of, was first to read. He stroked his salt and pepper beard and cleared his throat.
Chapter SevenSomething molten dropped from Christine's chest into her stomach. Instantly she saw the truth: She did not belong. How could she keep forgetting this simple fact from week-to-week? These people could WRITE! Every one of them should have been published long ago. What was she doing here? She was a fraud. Joseph's opening passage-now THAT was writing; what Christine had been doing was preening in front of the mirror. How had she deluded herself? They had been tolerating her, patronizing her blackness. She couldn't write. She couldn't construct a story or build a believable character, and she never would. To write, one needed strength, needed the ability to shimmy up a wet spaghetti noodle for an elevated view of life's entire banquet. One needed a backlog of excruciating experiences to draw upon, needed to know right from wrong, and how to act accordingly. One does not pull up a chair some random night and drain robust brawling characters from a cheap pen and a milk-fed imagination. Characters come from character, and character is not something thought up; character is something lived, something owned, something earned in a dark alley with a tire iron and a switchblade, not something summoned slavishly by the ratcheting sound of paper being rolled into a typewriter.
There was no relief the next day. They awoke to the muffled clanging of the radiator, to a motorbike passing under the window like a dying bee losing its buzz, and they were in darkness so complete the bedknobs at their feet were impossible to see...
As Joseph inflated his characters to life-sized, breath by careful breath, Christine realized once again that her personal character was as thin as the eleven embarrassing pages in her notebook. Her parents, had they not spent themselves launching Christine from the underground silo of poverty to a soft landing in the great blank plains of the middle class, would have been gutsy writers. They had struggled; they had broken themselves on the rack of tedium, slaving at hideous jobs under ignorant bosses so that this horror would never be forced upon their lone offspring. And, as people of character do, Christine's parents had succeeded. Her own life had been a model of ease. By the time she graduated with honors form a thoroughly integrated high school, the government was commanding that the establishment recruit her. Christine's biggest struggles so far in life had been over which scholarships to accept, and later, which lucrative job offer. She often thought she might as well have been white-her bleached story had no theme; her life had no life; her character, no character. Her writing was predictably boring, and if she was foolish enough to read aloud the limp tale she'd buffed so meticulously and frantically last night, this saddle-weary gang of vigilante writers would lynch her so savagely that the cab ride to the bridge would be necessary only to dispose of her twisted remains.
This self-bombardment happened every week, but never lasted. Christine was always drawn in by the readings. Joseph's story about an old man's love and loyalty for his recently crippled wife was beautiful and touching and embodied everything that was good about the human race. In her notebook Christine jotted the phrase "squashing her lips together until her toothless gums met" and during the follow-up discussion told Joseph that it was her favorite line. Roland, the group's leader, voiced some minor complaints, but stressed the soundness of the piece and its tight mesh with the novel's first six chapters. There were a few nit-picks but the class's general consensus ran toward unfiltered praise.
Roland looked at his watch. "Let's change things around a bit,' he suggested. "We'll do one short story, and then it'll be time for a break. Christine's gut buckled-maybe she would read now! -but Roland nodded at the woman sitting beside him, a tall handsome woman with the stiff posture of a toothbrush: "Why don't you read yours, Ann?"
Christine's confidence returned while Ann read her story. It was the same thing Ann always wrote-a well-written, thinly disguised account of her attempts to deal with a recent unwanted divorce. Over the last three months the mood of these tales had evolved from despair to acceptance to self-deprecating humor, and now Christine joined the laughter as Ann's loveable main character told a bartender: "I had a five-minute marriage and a four-year divorce."
Ann's like me, Christine thought; she tries to hide in different characters, but it always winds up being about Ann. Christine reflected back on her own series of characters: after Carla, the black publishing executive, there had been: Ramona, a fat woman with the rounded shape and rich dark color of a coffee bean, who ran a laundromat in the Marina District; "Whackin" Jack Watkins, a white man who played Triple-A baseball until he outdrank himself; Lee, a Chinese janitor who cleaned offices at night in the financial district but spent most of his time composing a screenplay on a computer whose passwords he'd found in the trash; and a Porsche driving white playboy named Arthur who sold stocks by day and bought women at night. But even if her characters didn't look like Christine, they thought like Christine, acted like Christine, and not only did they all live in San Francisco with Christine, but in her very own neighborhood. In the feedback sessions, people compared her latest character to the previous ones as though they were all really the same, and now as she listened to Ann's story Christine knew they were right. She brooded over the sudden awareness that tonight's character was no less transparent that the others. Am I that shallow? That self-centered? Can I see only me? Is this why I've never had a serious lasting relationship? If I can't stand my own make-believe characters for more than one week, what hope have I got with one that breathes real air?
The end of Ann's story produced sustained silence. Finally Joseph said he'd especially liked the scene where the distraught main character threw herself at a speeding car in Golden Gate Park, but missed, tumbling instead into a fishpond. Others concurred. A Vietnam vet named Eric, who had a bouncing sickle-shaped scar on his left cheek, said that the main character's contradictory attitudes toward men-lust and loathing-"rang true, hit the nail on the head." Joseph called the story "very visual," said it had "wonderful texture." Roland offered a couple of possible remedies for the ending, which, he said, "leaves the reader feeling stranded." Various class members murmured agreement, but promised they liked the story and found it funny, which seemed to satisfy Ann.
At the break the group gathered around a coffee machine in the lobby, quietly injecting quarters. Christine saw relief on the faces of Ann and Joseph. She playfully squashed her lips together at Joseph and mumbled, "Izz zhis ow zhe vooked?"
Joseph said: "You can try for the rest of your life, Christine, but you'll never look as pathetic as she looked."
Tall, stiff Ann leaned in. "It's great, Joseph. I hope you're sending it out."
Christine said, "If that doesn't sell, there's no hope for the rest of us sinners."
A woman named Wendy entered their circle. "So, Ann. How long did your real marriage last?"
"Five minutes," said Ann.
"I made it about ten," Wendy said.
This sparked a discussion about marriage and divorce, a discussion that Christine stayed on the fringes of. She found herself wondering about Wendy, a young pleasant woman with straight buckwheat-colored hair and a penchant for wearing lumberjack shirts. Why did Wendy come to these meetings? She was there almost every week, but only once had she brought something to read-a dreamy story she'd written several years ago about a fall day in Colorado. Christine liked Wendy and wanted to tell her how much she appreciated her presence and her feedback-Wendy's thoughtful, incisive comments had strengthened several of Christine's rewrites-but she could not understand why Wendy so seldom read. Christine would never consider spending $50 and five nights a month merely to hear others read. She would share her opinions and insights, but Christine also needed an occasional dance on center stage, no matter how hot the light or intense the glare. I should have a party, Christine thought. Invite all these people, get 'em loose. She what they're like after a couple of glasses of wine. I bet they'd be fun. If I invited them all, I wonder which ones would show up?
BY THE TIME the group re-convened, Christine's anxieties had lessened. In an hour she would be on her way home, having read her story or not. She still hoped to read, but she knew that Eric's chapters-one of which was now droning on-often ate up an entire hour. Either way, Christine would live. If she didn't get to read tonight she would use the next week to make her story sparkle; last Wednesday someone had asked for more "sparkle" in Christine's stories, a comment that was sitting on the foot of her bed waiting for her on Thursday morning. More sparkle.
But if her stories needed sparkle, she wondered what Eric's novel needed. Eric wrote about a homosexual awakening in Vietnam, and Christine found the nasty mix of napalm and semen so gruesome and unrelenting, and Eric's need to tell it so pathetic, that she was revolted. She wondered: Does my writing revolt these people? Aren't they all revolted right now? You can never tell about white people. She flicked her eyes covertly around the table. Was everyone as absorbed as they appeared, or was this attentive look something they learned in those lifeless churches? Sometimes Christine drifted away for as much as half a reading, but from the others' comments it always seemed that each scrap and every nuance of every story had been heard and absorbed. Christine wondered: How was it possible to concentrate completely on any one thing for ten or twenty minutes without having your mind wander? Especially from something like Eric's novel, an endless glorification of the male anatomy, heavily punctuated with racial slurs-"gooks," "slants," "slopes"-two weeks ago one of Eric's leering soldier's had even called his lover "nigger." I belong here, Christine thought. Eric doesn't. And I bet I'm not the only one who feels that way. Maybe he'll get the message, like the Western scriptwriter. The Western scriptwriter had gutted it out for three weeks and then mercifully taken his six-guns and his spurs and jingle-jingle-jangled on down the old lonesome road. Couldn't Roland just tell Eric to leave?
But the worst thing about Eric's writing was the endless critiquing. The rule "If you don't have something good to say..." applied in virtual reverse at the writers group. Good work required little comment, just a dollop of praise, but a bad piece-something as godawful as Eric's, for instance-received the same treatment a fat dazed cow would receive in a piranha-filled swamp: when the waters finally settled, only a few ugly bones would remain floating in the muck.
Christine caught herself floundering in this sucking whirlpool of judgement, and ordered an immediate halt. I am no better than Eric, she scolded herself. How dare I judge him? He puts up with my "puffy" white people, my awkward analogies, my clumsy love scenes; he even stuck up for my Chinese janitor when everyone else found him cliched. Eric writes for his own reasons, comes here for his own reasons, and it only diminished ME to judge him. He, at least, hasn't bent his testicular vision just to please the group. Got to give him that. Still, there's only half an hour left, and if this goddamned story doesn't end soon, I won't be reading mine.
But the bloody tale sloshed onward. Eric's former lover (Eric had allowed that the story was naked autobiography) was irrevocably disfigured by a Viet Cong ambush, his "balls blown westward like shredded burger toward the Cambodian border." In retaliation Eric shoved three Viet Cong prisoners from a helicopter the next day and emptied his machine gun at them as they flew to earth. "Human Skeet," the chapter was titled.
"No way I'm going to get to read tonight," Christine thought. With eighteen minutes to go, the chapter ended with an anus-by-anus account of Eric's celebratory visit to a brothel full of ten-year old boys.
Ann said, "I think I'll have nightmares."
Wendy said, "Awfully gory."
"Wheee-ooooff," Christine ejaculated, and fanned her cheek with her hand.
Someone else complained: "No sense of connection. What happened to the black guy from the last chapter?"
Eric defended himself: "It'll all come together next week."
Christine thought: I'm staying home.
The closest thing to encouragement that Eric would get was Joseph's comment: "I felt like I was there. I'm not sure I wanted to be, but I was."
Roland passed final judgment: "We have no sense that these events are related to something larger," he told Eric. "The meaning of all this blood and other bodily fluids is unclear. It's confusing to experience something if it doesn't lead us somewhere."
"Just like Vietnam," Eric spat. His scar twitched once.
"Then SHOW us that," Roland told him. "We need to get that from the STORY. How does Ricky feel about his ex-lover's balls flying toward Cambodia? It's not enough to just see them airborne. What is he thinking when he murders those prisoners?"
Eric bit his jaw shut. He scar twitched twice, and then twice more, suspending all criticism. Roland looked around the group. "Any other comments?"
The room was quiet as dawn on Death Row.
"Well, thank you, Eric," Roland said. He glanced at his watch. He looked down the table. "We've got eleven minutes, Christine," he said, deflating the tense silence. "Do you have something that won't give Ann nightmares?"
"I hope so," Christine said, sounding more eager than she would have hoped. She opened her notebook, evened up her pages, paused, and began:
"The Writers Group..."