I met Stacy two days ago in the garage of our hotel where I discovered a designated area for smokers tucked around the corner of Valet Services. It’s a retreat from smoking on the busy street, leaning against the building or pacing back and forth, trying to avoid eye contact with whoever’s walking by so they don’t think I’m soliciting. It’s more placid than smoking by the pool where it’s sunny and hot and where other lanyard-bearing convention attendees stroll by like stray cats just looking around, or where horny packs of college students who are lucky enough to forge flirtatious liaisons with the opposite sex are loud and jump into the water, making waves and splashing at each other. Stacy is from North Carolina. She has a nine-year-old daughter and is unsure of her ex-husband’s sexual orientation. She herself identifies as straight and, therefore, writes MF fiction, as apposed to MM or FF, although she does write a little MFM ménage. I discover this after she asks me for a light and I ask her, noticing her lanyard, what convention she’s here for.
“We’re romance writers. Harlequin. And everyone is here.”
“So that’s the other lit convention here. We heard there were some more writers. I’m with Sigma Tau. We’re an English honor society.”
“Oh, cool. So I’m guessing you write. What do you write? I mean, genre.”
We hit it off and she encouraged me to give MM fiction a try, or “whatever you like. It doesn’t even have to be sexual. I just read a novel about two police officers who are in love but never act on it. They can’t because of fear and life pressures and whatnot, but it’s so romantic. The tension is so, it’s so — well, romantic. Sad, but romantic.”
This conversation, our first, went on for a few more cigarettes. She spoke with so much energy that I could feel myself adopting her enthusiasm. That night I went to bed with the warm feeling of camaraderie that seems to materialize when those of like interests haphazardly discover one another, let alone find themselves in a hotel full of them.
Today Stacy and I meet again by chance. “Well, hey there.”
I look up, unsure of the voice, but recognize her immediately.
“Hey. Come sit.”
As she sits next to me, I see that she’s not wearing makeup and her rounded face now seems fallen. She is wearing glasses, which she wasn’t wearing before, and her hair is pulled up. We are much more tired today than when we last met. She leaves in the morning and I leave the next, we tell each other.
“So tell me a little more about yourself. We talked a little about your writing the other day, but I don’t feel like we really talked about you,” Stacy says so softly that I have to lean in to hear her.
“Well,” I say and smile real big before taking a drag of my cigarette.
“Yeah, sure.” I dig my lighter out of my pocket and light her cigarette. I do this habitually, forgetting that sometimes that closeness makes strangers, or me, feel uncomfortable, but by the time I’ve remembered this, she’s inhaling at the flame and pulls away with ease and exhales.
“So, tell me.”
“I’m not that sure what I know about myself. What do you want to know? Give me a prompt.”
She takes a drag but begins to speak before exhaling so that smoke slips out of her mouth every couple of words before it all billows out at the end of her sentences like a form of punctuation. Smoke.
“Well, you said you’re a junior? No? Senior? What do you want to do after you graduate?”
I laugh a practiced laugh — a comical indication that I don’t know, that I’m scared, but it’s O.K. (NOT REALLY, but it’s O.K.). I begin to talk about graduate programs, spewing out schools like NYU or UC Irvine or SCAD, even though I secretly know that my GPA may not be able to claw its way back up to an admission-worthy stratum in time for graduation. Realizing this, I begin talking about how I’m also considering teaching English in Seoul, South Korea, which I’ve already decided against, but I won’t tell her that. About maybe teaching English in Brazil instead. Or AmeriCorps VISTA. Or Teach for America. Or
By the time I get through the end of my list, I realize I have emptied my bucket. Everything has fallen out, flat on the ground like a stepped-on grape, and even after pouring out all of those stirring possibilities, I know that none of them could have kept my bucket full.
“I really just want to keep my options open, you know?”
Stacy smiles at me. I smile back, but not really.
“You have a broad future ahead of you. Another light?”
I dig for my lighter.
“So many options.” She nods in agreement with herself. “I know you’ll be successful no matter which path you end up on, of course your path is determined by the choices you make. You’ll be very successful, I can tell.”
“You will,” she says.
The wind carries my exhaled smoke into her face, but she looks at me unmoved, still with a smile, although not as weak as before.
“You know, you don’t know me from Adam or Eve. Well, I’m not Adam, but maybe Eve — except that I’m allergic to apples — anyway, that’s beside the point. You will succeed.”
My hands weaken and my smile, which I am so desperately trying to keep on for politeness’ sake, quickly crumbles. All I can do is look at her.
“You — you have such a positive energy,” she says. “Really, you do. An aura, very colorful. I can tell that your Mother is very proud of you. She must be supportive. She is very proud of you.”
My eyes are full. I inhale deep, breathing it all in to my fullest full and pushing it all out to my deepest empty.
“Such a strong female energy protecting you. I can see it. You see, now I’m about to cry, too. I can feel how strong Her energy is because I’m a mother myself. It’s so beautiful, so beautiful.” She wipes her eyes and cheeks with the back of her hand then rests her palm on my knee.
I look at her hand.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I just, I feel like I know you so well.” She draws her hand back.
“No. Please.” I want to feel her touch. I toss my cigarette into a concrete corner and place her hand in mine. I feel oddly connected and disconnected to her at the same time. The rational part of me wonders what has brought her to this point. What she sees. What she hears. But the tired part of me wonders what brought me to this point. I think of all the steps. All the decisions that lead to the placement of my hand on top of hers:
I enrolled at my university.
I started smoking.
I joined my English honor society.
I traveled to California.
I wrote a story about California.
I submitted my story to this convention.
I took a train out of Memphis.
I went to the parking garage for a cigarette.
There she was.
Here we are.
Here we are. I wonder what was the first romance novel she read. If she had a boyfriend in high school. If she has a strong, loving Mother. I can see the younger girl in her “almost twenty years older than you” face. I wonder why she decided to dye her hair, and I wonder why she has let her roots grow out. If she wants her natural coloring back, or if she couldn’t keep up with who she’d rather be.
“I can’t believe I’m telling you all of this,” she laughs. “I don’t tell anybody these things. But let me ask you this.”
I lean in close.
“Have you ever been to Venice?”
“Italy? A couple of years ago. Not just Venice, but I was there for about two days.”
“I knew it. I can tell when someone’s been there.” Her smile keeps getting warmer. “My guide, she’s here, you may meet her, tells me that I lived a past life in Venice. Tell me,” she says, “how did you feel when you were there?”
She nods speechlessly, pulling at the smoke from her cigarette.
“Well — ”
I don’t know what to say. I try to remember my time there. Water and brick. Leather shoes on cobblestone. Tea. Water. Stories. Rocking in boats. The waiter at Caffé Florian. Rocking in boats. Gliding ever so slowly by.
“Tell me this. Did you feel like you had been there before?”
The disconnect is growing thinner. I can feel my reason weakening — winding this way and that and growing more and more narrow and dark. On our last night in Venice, we were looking for a restaurant one of us had read about. We got lost in the alleys and the pathways, and were cut off by a canal just when we thought we were headed in the right direction. We walked all over that city. We walked so far in the dark, until our legs felt weak. We were tired and hungry. I wanted to give up. I wanted to eat anywhere. I wanted to sit. I wanted to go home.
“I did. I think I did.”
She takes my hand, the one resting on top of hers, and enfolds it in her own.
And I do think I did. I really do. I do.
I do. I do.
I do. •