It had to be him. He was tall and broad-shouldered and he walked with that slight swagger of a man who knows his place in the world, but maintains an endearing humility. Illy studied her cuticles, waiting to see where he would sit. He didn’t seem to know anyone in the room, but didn’t spend much time analyzing the personal space layout before walking over to the empty seat beside Dave. Illy was both disappointed and relieved that he hadn’t sat by her. She really wanted their first interaction to take place at a horizontally equal level.
The question was why he had come by himself. If he really was Dylan—or rather the Man Who Inspired Dylan—he wasn’t from the building and was probably there because of his girlfriend. But where was his girlfriend? He hadn’t left an empty seat beside him. They must have recently broken up but his undying commitment to the craft of writing superseded any fleeting romance so he came to the meeting anyway. Illy loved his literary devotion. She could definitely learn from a writer like that. She scanned each of her cuticles one more time then tousled her hair with nonchalance. Finally there was someone here with immense character—and possibly romantic—potential.
Sally handed out a couple more mugs of wine and then sat cross-legged on the floor. Illy loved the quirkiness of wine in coffee mugs. She would definitely try that the next time she had guests, which now that she thought of it, would likely be June or her mother. June would probably appreciate the experiment and tell her honestly if it suited her general vibe. Her mother, on the other hand, only saw wine as a preventative measure against heart disease and gulped it down like cod liver oil. Illy wouldn’t waste a bottle of wine on her.
Sally cleared her throat. The room fell silent pretty quickly. No one was that committed to the small talk they were engaging in and turned their attention to her with relief. “Well, welcome to the first ever Harrison Apartment Writers Club. Simon and I,” she nodded towards Simon who was scribbling something on his smartphone. Illy couldn’t believe he had his phone out at a writers club. Some people had no sense of propriety or authentic artistic identity. “-are so glad you’re here. We’re not professional writers or anything, but we do love to write and we thought this would be a great way to get to know our neighbours while developing some of our writing skills.” A few people murmured in agreement. Illy agreed too, but was never much of a murmurer.
“So why don’t we jump right in,” Sally continued. “Hopefully everyone brought something they’ve written recently and we can all just read our stuff and get to know each other’s writing. Then maybe next time we can include more critique. Since we don’t all know each other, please introduce yourself a bit before you read. Anyone want to start?”
Illy braced herself for the inevitable awkward silence. She’d always hated these moments in high school when the teacher asked for volunteers and everyone stared at their desks, frozen, hoping not to be picked. She found herself doing the same thing now, as though Sally’s vision was somehow based on movement and it was crucial to remain absolutely still.
“I can go first. “ Illy jumped. There hadn’t even been five seconds of the obligatory silence. She turned to see who had been so eager. It was the skinny floppy haired guy. Mr. Penny Loafers. Illy smiled at him, trying to silently assure him that even though he had been a bit too keen in his volunteering and even though, based on the style of his shoes, he probably had written a bland historical report, he was still in a supportive community and no one would judge him. He caught her eye while she was smiling and winked at her. Oh no. She must have smiled with enthusiasm that surpassed supportive and moved into flirtatious. She reverted to the safer staring-at-the-desk position.
“Hi everyone. I’m Danny.” A few people said, “Hi Danny,” AA meeting style. Danny laughed. “I live up in suite 3C and teach Physics at a high school in the North End of the city. But what I really love is politics, so you’ll notice that most of my writing is political.” He flipped the hair out of his eyes and started reading. Illy hadn’t been far off in her historical report prediction. Except a political report was even worse. She wondered if this sort of thing even counted as writing for a writers club.
Illy fiddled with the frayed cuff of her jeans while Danny began his report. He was saying something about the new mayor’s proposed budget when someone snickered. Illy was horrified. Sure it may be boring and unliterary, but they were all adults. You couldn’t just snicker aloud at someone’s writing. Danny kept reading in his deadpan voice as though he hadn’t noticed, which Illy was grateful for, and then a moment later, Zoe giggled. Illy turned to stare at her but then realized that almost everyone in the room was on the verge of laughter. Dave let out what could only be called a guffaw. Illy looked at Danny to see how he was managing the humiliation. He was still reading—Illy picked up something about taxing the soup kitchens—but by now he too had a huge grin on his face. Then it hit her. His piece was funny. They were supposed to be laughing. By this point everyone was chuckling and when Danny read his last line, the room erupted in applause.
“Our very own Jonathan Swift!”
“That was truly hilarious.”
After the initial shock, Illy joined in the applause, and even looked up at Zoe with a forced laugh, “Wow, that was great, hey?”
Zoe nodded and turned back to Danny who was blushing and embarrassed, but obviously quite pleased. Illy couldn’t believe she had missed the whole piece. How could she have known that political writing would be so entertaining? She was also jealous. Everyone had loved Danny’s writing. If only she had thought to write something humorous. Her apartment block piece seemed so drab and lifeless in comparison. She wondered if she’d be able to add a little impromptu humour while she read it.
“Thanks, Danny, that was great.” Sally let out another giggle. “Really funny.” Illy was getting annoyed. It couldn’t have been that funny. “So who’s next?” Sally scanned the room.
“I can go.” It was The Maniacal Whistler.
Sally smiled. “Great. Go for it.”
“Pam. My name’s Pam. I live in 4C and I’m a hospice worker at St. Jude’s. I’ve been writing short pieces on some of our residents’ lives. And deaths.” She paused and chewed her lip. A few people shuffled and reached for coffee mugs. “Sorry if it’s a bit heavy. It’s just one of the ways I try to deal with it all, you know? This one’s about a woman named Helen. She just died last week.”
Illy knew she couldn’t listen. Pam’s introduction had already made her a little teary and there was no way she was going to cry at the first meeting. She tried to distract herself by thinking about Albert and The Man Who Inspired Dylan. Pam was saying something about false teeth and lemon drops. There were a few quiet sounds of laughter. Illy picked at the threads unraveling at the cuff of her jeans and willed Pam to end her piece. It was so personal and was probably making other people uncomfortable. She wondered if it would be rude to get up to go to the bathroom. Maybe a bit of movement in the room would help diffuse the tension.
Pam’s voice was getting shaky. “Her eyelids fluttered for a moment, then closed. I thought of butterflies as her husband George leaned over and kissed her cheek. He paused over her face and inhaled, breathing in the wisps of her life still floating by. I imagined hundreds of tiny white wings flitting in the air around them, rising to the ceiling like upside down confetti. There was so much life in Helen’s death.” Pam closed her eyes. The room was silent. Finally Sally started to clap and soon everyone joined her, the applause growing strong and loud, although not as boisterous as for Danny. Pam smiled, her eyes still closed. Illy watched her and was amazed at the contentment on Pam’s face. How could someone who watched people die for a living look so peaceful? A tear escaped down Illy’s cheek, which she wiped away with her sleeve. She tugged at her eyelashes a little as though there was something in her eye, but realized that no one was watching her. She slumped back in the beanbag chair.
“I’ll go next. Maybe lighten the mood in here a little.” It was Mocha Man. He snickered at his non-joke, but no one else joined him. Somehow Illy didn’t think people felt the need to lighten the mood. They were still soaking in Pam’s butterfly images. Pam even still had her eyes closed, although they snapped open at Mocha Man’s snicker. Illy’s first instinct was to be annoyed, but she realized he probably felt as awkward as she did and so nodded at him in encouragement. And really, she couldn’t wait to hear his writing.
“So it’s great to be here everyone.” He was speaking much too loudly, as though he was trying to drown out any remnants of Pam’s voice still lingering in people’s minds. “My name is Jay and I don’t actually live in this building. I heard about this club through a friend and it sounded like a good time, so I just showed up.” He snickered again. Illy stared at his hair, trying to find the best word to describe its colour. Umber? Ochre? She really needed to remember these details to use later in her book, though her colour vocabulary was limited.
“I thought for a Writing Club you had to write poems, so I whipped up a little something poetic for all of you.” He looked around the group and grinned as though about to do them a huge favour. Illy admired his confidence. And she loved that his poem was written on the back of an old receipt. Very bohemian.
“Her eyes are like the ocean, blue, blue, blue. Her hair is like a wheatfield, blond and blowing too. Her body is like a treasure map,” Jay paused and then looked up at Illy. She started at their unexpected eye contact, then quickly looked down at her fingernails. He wasn’t talking about her, was he? She felt her neck turn warm and blotchy, her unfortunate and unfailing embarrassment signal system. How could he be so forward in front of all these people? “-that’s filled with caves of gold. And her kisses are like a rock concert that never will get old.” Jay leaned back in his chair, crumpled up the old receipt and tossed it into the middle of the circle. The room was still as everyone stared at the crumpled piece of paper lying on the hardwood, like it was the final installment in a work of bewildering performance art.
Illy was sweating. She felt like her own destiny was somehow tied up in that grimy piece of paper and she knew she had to do something to end the awkwardness. She inhaled. “Bravo!” There was an unfortunate hint of a British accent in her outburst, which had startled her with its volume, but at least it snapped the room back into action. Sally raised her eyebrows at Illy, but began clapping. A few others joined in and Dave reached over and patted Jay on the back. The worst was over.
Illy tried to act nonchalant and clasped her hands behind her head, but then noticed major sweat circles under her arms and folded her hands in her lap instead. Her mind was racing. It seemed impossible that Mocha Man would have written a poem about her, and yet he was so direct—so passionate—in his look at her. She tried to remember when it had happened. Was it the part about the hair or the treasure map body? Maybe her hair was similar to the woman’s he was describing and so he had looked at it for emphasis. But her hair was dark brown and couldn’t really be compared to a wheatfield. Unless maybe the texture was grain-like? Her thoughts were interrupted by Sally.
“Thanks a lot, Jay. You seem to really be in love. And every woman loves to inspire a poem.” Her words sounded like she was placing them carefully on the table, one at time, but her smile looked genuine. Jay nodded at Sally, clearly aware of exactly what a woman loves. “Who’s next?”
The next half hour was a blur. Illy was vaguely aware of Dave reading a short story about two cats journeying through New York City, and she tried to pay attention to Zoe’s poem about rivers, but she had so much to process that she hardly heard a thing.
Continue Reading: Chapter Fifteen