Illustration by Andres Garzon
After ten months of writing it was done. My first novella. I read through it twice, and thought it was pretty good. Strong enough to be published, but I could never be sure. What mattered most was my friend’s opinion. He was an author. There was an unspoken recognition between us. A gentle camaraderie fostered by a shared struggle: the artist’s impassioned toil.
He said that when I finished the first draft he would read it, and give me his thoughts. I told him that I wanted the truth: “Don’t spare my feelings,” I said. He promised that he wouldn’t. His opinion was the only one that mattered to me. I gave the draft a final read and emailed him a copy.
Ten days passed. I took a break from writing, and I even made the time to have dinner with a girl I had started seeing. I told her I had finished the first draft of my novella. She asked if she could read it.
“No,” I said. I was only letting one person read it, my novelist friend.
“Why not get a second opinion?” she asked. “What makes his thoughts the only ones that matter?”
“He understands,” I replied. “He knows what it takes to really make it, to get published.”
She shrugged. We ate our pasta in silence, dispirited and unsure of each other.
I got home that night and checked my email. No response from my friend yet. I opened up the draft on my computer, read the first few lines, and had to stop. Reading my own words was like hearing the sound of my own voice. But what really mattered, all that really mattered, was what my friend would think of it. From his thoughts I would get an idea of how close I was to breaking through as a writer.
A few days later, I woke up at 6 am to give him a call. He didn’t answer. Everything in my room looked overexposed, a few measures too bright. I called in sick to work, and checked my email every fifteen minutes, hoping his notes on my draft would appear in my inbox. Any second now. Nothing came. But it will. He will get back to me. Soon.
I kept a knife on my bedside table. It was a gift from someone I hadn’t seen in years. I picked it up, and felt its weight in my hands. It had a real presence. I wiped the dust from the blade, and put it back down
What if the writing is terrible? Maybe that’s why he’s not getting back to me. He’s embarrassed. He’s hiding from me because of the manuscript. My pathetic manuscript.
That idea stalked me through the night. It was still in my head when I woke up the next morning. And then the phone rang. It was him.
“Hey man.” He sounded nonchalant. “How’s it going?”
“Great,” I said. “Just taking it easy, feels weird not having the novella to work on. It became a part of my routine, a real part of me.”
“Oh yeah?” He told me to hold on for a second. I heard him chat and laugh with a female voice in the background. “Why don’t we meet today at the Coffee Hour? How’s four o’clock?”
“That works.” I hung up the phone. I tidied the trash and clothes from around my apartment, ran the shower until my bathroom was thick with steam and bathed for the first time since finishing my novella. The water washed over my soapy skin as I brushed my teeth –– all the tedium and irritations of daily hygiene.
The streetcar was crowded as I made my way to the Coffee Hour. I arrived at 3:30 pm to prepare for the bad news. I was ready to be told that my work was awful, that it needed to be rewritten. It was OK. That’s what the process was all about: building and destroying, killing and resurrecting.
He showed up twenty minutes late –– he had nothing to prove. He was an accomplished writer, after all. We sat down together and ordered black coffees. He started talking about a girl he met online, about her body and her face and the way she spoke. “She speaks like a baby, dude. She has a baby voice.”
I listened. I waited for a chance to ask him what he thought of my novella, but he kept talking about the girl. I felt something twist in my guts, a raw resentment. I watched his mouth move, anticipating the moment when he’d say: “I read your manuscript.” But it never came.
He finished his coffee and left. I stayed in the cafe alone. My phone buzzed in my pocket, and it was a text from him: “Sorry man,” it said. “I forgot. I wanted to tell you that I really hope things work out with you and that girl. I really do. Love you, bro.”
I sat thinking about all the things I could have asked him. I was angry at myself for not having the guts to bring up the novella. Couples in the café ate full bowls of fresh fruit and yogurt. I watched feeling at odds with anything kind, anything neutral and easy.
I got home, and checked my email again. I was sure that he had sent me another apologetic message, this time about his failure to bring my novella up over coffee. This must be a trick of his –– an April fool’s joke delivered in the wrong month. But my inbox remained empty.
Another two days passed. He still hadn’t got back to me. I really needed some form of validation now, a bit of dopamine, a bit of serotonin for my brain. I called the girl.
“I’ll send you my novella if you still want to read it,” I told her. She told me to send it to her. She got back to me that evening.
“I read your novella. It was good!”
“Good?” I asked. “What do you mean by good?”
“I mean, it was pretty good. I mean, I think I liked it.”
Someone laughed outside my window. I heard a streetcar grind along the tracks.
“You ‘liked it’? That doesn’t tell me anything,” I replied. “That’s like something my mom would say. Be honest! Tell me what you actually think.”
The laughter outside got louder. Shut up, I wanted to yell.
“Are you ok?” She asked. “Something has been really off with you lately. You’re acting kind of weird.”
“Weird? I’m not fucking weird. I’m pissed off. Tired of the bullshit. Just tell me what you think. I don’t have time to hear a coward’s critique.”
“God, what’s wrong with you? It’s good, OK? It’s not bad. I kind of liked it”
“Oh, so you kind of like it now? We’re getting closer to what you really think of my work. I know what you think, but you’re a coward just like him. You’re too scared to come out and say that you hate it. You think I’m pathetic, you think my writing is pathetic!”
She hung up, and then texted me: “Never call me again.”
The laughter outside was intolerable. I ran to the ledge, and looked down and out onto the street, but I couldn’t find its source.
I closed the windows, drew the blinds, ran the kitchen sink cold, and stuck my head under the tap to cool off a bit. Then I printed out a copy of my manuscript and read it in fragments, but never start to finish, scanning a paragraph here, a sentence there, the last page and then another page in the middle. My stomach hurt, so I skipped dinner that night and breakfast the next morning. I read my manuscript again, only this time I pulled my friend’s novel from the shelf and juxtaposed our pages in contrast, comparing our work line by line, word by word, and I felt sick again. “Fuck this, I shouted. “Fuck all of this!”
I grabbed the bedside knife, and stabbed the wall ten or twelve times, compelled by something ancient, a timeless blue anger. It felt good to stab the wall. It felt right.
I placed the knife in my pocket, blade out. I left my building, and walked towards my friend’s house. Only to talk to him, of course. Only to ask him, face -to- face, what he thought of my novella.
NILS BLONDON is a writer from Toronto, Ontario. His work explores his experiences with the human condition at its most raw, addiction, alcoholism, and loss.
Copyright © 2018 by Nils Blondon. All rights reserved.