“So, how can you handle working in the same office as that woman all day?” Illy took a bite of her overstuffed pita, cool slimy tzatziki sauce sliding down her hand. That was the great thing about Greek food- it was such a full sensory experience. She inhaled the aroma of garlic and parsley. Heavenly.
“I don’t know, I guess it’s the hope that it’s temporary. That some day I’ll have put in my time and the fates will reward me with a job in editing.” Margaret popped a stray olive in her mouth. “And I eat lots of chocolate.”
Illy hadn’t imagined Margaret with any ambitions beyond receptionist. Somehow she’d pictured her at her desk, perfecting imaginary sonatas and avoiding unnecessary eye contact for the rest of her life. Illy was annoyed with her unwitting but unfailing judgmentalism. “You want a job in editing? Like proofreading for grammar or running a publishing house?” Illy was still a little unclear on the job title lingo in the publishing world. And the marketing world. She wondered if she’d missed some essential career counseling course in high school.
“Either.” Margaret’s eyes widened for a second, like Illy had just asked her about a secret she’d been dying to tell. Her eyelashes reached above the thick frames of her glasses. “I love all of it really- reading a new work, analyzing its overall patterns, discovering its soul. And also weeding through the syntax, yanking out the comma splices, all of it.” Margaret paused to bite into her pita.
“You love fixing comma splices?” Illy had a vague recollection of hearing the term. She decided to feign understanding for now and Google it later.
Margaret nodded, tzatziki sauce pooled in the corners of her mouth. She bounced her head back and forth, trying to chew as quickly as possible. “It’s all connected. A few unconscious comma splices, an incorrect modifier, and the whole thing- the magic castle the author was so carefully building- shatters. The soul of a book is a fragile thing, totally at the mercy of unforgiving syntax.” She was still chewing.
Illy couldn’t help smiling at Margaret’s excitement. She loved it when people were passionate about unusual things, although comma passion was a new one for her.
Margaret had abandoned her pita on her plate, freeing her fingers to return to what seemed their natural state, fluttering over invisible piano keys, this time in the air and punctuated by flying bits of onion. She was unconcerned about the onion. “You know how sometimes you read a book that seems on one level to be well written and interesting, but really you have to force yourself to get to the end of the chapter before you put it down and watch TV or something?” Illy wished she could hear the music Margaret’s fingers were playing, the silent soundtrack to her speech. “It could be something as unassuming as the wrong typeface.” Illy’s eyebrows went up. “Seriously, typeface affects your reading experience more than you’ve ever imagined. Or it could just be an unrefined sense of commas, dashes, anything really. But then sometimes-” Her fingers froze for a moment mid-air. She licked a drip of tzatziki from her fingernail. “Sometimes you read a book that moves into your skin and settles in like a childhood memory. You don’t even care that much about the plot, you just want to keep reading forever because the act of reading is so stinking enjoyable. That book had an editor who knows comma splices and typeface. That’s the editor I want to be.” Margaret collapsed back in the red vinyl booth, grinning.
Illy was grinning too. Margaret’s enthusiasm was infectious. At the moment she couldn’t imagine anything more fulfilling than a career choosing typeface and fixing punctuation errors. She and Margaret reached for their pitas simultaneously and took giant bites, eyes smiling, onions dropping in soggy piles on their plates. The alchemy of a great idea and really flavourful food seemed to produce an electric desire to sit in red vinyl booths forever, sharing life with other creative women. Illy sucked up an escaping strip of lettuce.
“What about you? What do you want to do with your life?” Margaret was sopping up the sauce on her plate with a corner of pita.
“I want to write.” Illy said it without even thinking. As soon as the words were out of her mouth, though she remembered Louise and the Publishing House Debacle. She realized she hadn’t thought of it once since they’d started eating. Maybe there really was something emotionally restorative about falafel, although now she felt the weight of her demoralizing morning settle back on her.
Margaret must have noticed the slump of her shoulders, because she quickly said, “No thinking about Louise allowed. This is a time to think about Greek food and dreams, nothing else. ”
“Okay…” Illy took a deep breath to muster the courage of honesty. “Well, it’s true. I want to write. It’s really all I want to do. The problem is, I rarely do it. I mean, I think about writing a lot. I come up with ideas and cobble together descriptions, but for some reason I almost never really get anything written. It’s my grand disappointment with myself.“ Illy paused and drank some Coke, examining the bumpy brown plastic of her cup. She had never admitted this aloud before and it felt like both a relief and a failure. Margaret waited. “But when I do write, which I do sometimes, it’s the best feeling ever. It…well it re-centers me or something, reminds me who I am and makes me enjoy everything else about my life so much more.” She glanced up at Margaret, who in a momentous manifestation of kindness, was not rolling her eyes. “Sorry, I know that sounds like I’m trying to be super profound, but I think it’s sort of true.”
“I believe you. And I get it. You’ve just described exactly how I feel when I play the mandolin.”
“You play the mandolin?” Margaret was turning out to be the most interesting person Illy had ever met. She exerted great effort in suppressing the envy that she felt swimming upward in her chest. Also the accompanying instinct to try to learn the mandolin as soon as possible. She knew emulated coolness never transferred into authentic coolness, but it was so tempting. Maybe she could look into the ukelele.
“Just a little. And just in private. I’ve been playing the piano since I was four, but two years ago my Grandpa died and I got his old mandolin. I started playing it in a misguided attempt at manufacturing a relationship with him that I never actually had.“ Margaret’s hands were no longer moving. At the mention of her Grandfather her body seemed to fold back into itself. She sat still for a moment as though considering a return to Disappearing Mode. Illy thought of a book she’d read in junior high about people who were really shadows, whose edges were blurred. She held her breath, hoping Margaret would choose visibility.
Margaret stared at the hands lying motionless in her lap. “Sometimes days or weeks seep by and I feel shallow and…grey-”
Like the shadow people, thought Illy.
“-but then I’ll pick up the mandolin and I remember that I love my life- well, besides my job. But even work is more tolerable when I’m playing the mandolin regularly.” Margaret looked up, back safely on the shore of solid presence, and smiled at Illy. “So, anyway, I think I get you. That’s writing for you, huh?”
“Yeah, it is.” Illy fiddled with her straw and thought of days seeping by, grey and shallow. That was it exactly. “But then why don’t I do it more? I know how important it is to me, but somehow I manage to spend whole days flipping through magazines and eating animal crackers instead.” Her shoulders drooped again. She’d never before realized the emotional revelations hiding in a pair of shoulders.
“Hmm. That doesn’t sound so bad to me.” Margaret wiped the drips out of the corners of her mouth.
Illy grinned. “No, sometimes it’s pretty great actually… But it’s not what I want to be doing. I want to be writing.”
“Okay, then it sounds like you need some motivation. Deadlines or something. Or a writers group where you have to show up with something that you’ve written each week or month or whatever. Do you know of something like that?”
Goth boy. An apartment writers club. “Actually, yeah. Well, no, but sort of. I mean I don’t know of any that exist right now but the other day I met some people from my building who talked about starting something just like that.“ Illy cringed when she thought of how rudely she’d responded to the idea. How in the world would she redeem her image with the Goth People? She’d have to bring over cookies or something. Although they probably didn’t eat sugar or regular flour. She could bring bananas.
“That’s perfect! That’s exactly what you need.“ Margaret leaned forward, eyes wide. “Just think, you’d be forced to come up with something each week which would prevent the animal cracker syndrome, plus you might get lots of great feedback and ideas.” She took a gulp of her Coke and set it down with so much enthusiasm that it splashed on to the table. She didn’t notice. “Did these people seem like people you could really connect with? Are they accomplished writers?”
“Well, they have matching black hair, write about flying robots, and quite likely mastermind a drug smuggling ring under the pretense of bananas. But besides that, I’d say they have potential.” Illy and Margaret both burst out laughing. Illy licked the remnants of tzatziki off her fingers and leaned back in the booth, basking in the magic falafel spell.
Continue Reading: Chapter Twelve