It is really, truly, the worst coffee I’ve ever had.
I smile into the watery brown pond. I know I’ll drink it anyway. I’m tired, and my dress is too short, but maybe caffeine and warmth will make me a better intern. I meant to work yesterday. I wrote a poem instead. Novelists are worthless at nine-to-fives.
Today is a whisper day. A day when the stories don’t stop, the ones for publishing, the ones for me alone. If I’m not careful I’ll mutter. My heels clack across the linoleum to the bathroom. I don’t check one stall—no—but all of them, exhaling in relief when they’re empty. Then I sit in a stall and talk.
As I test the words ricocheting between my ears, seeing how character voices, metered lines sound in open air, I think: this is what sick people do.
Like, really sick people.
Or hermits. Or ten-year-olds who never grew out of pretend. I want to make it a virtue, a sacred passion, and I guess it is. But it’s also a drug…or rather the syringe. Some days life is too much with me. The memories and experiences back up and fester in every vein. I use my pen as a needle to draw them out, and my body sags, regaining its equilibrium. For now.
I sit. One moment my mind is miles away in some aerial place, and another it is vividly, painfully here. What the heck am I doing? I’m at work. I’m a mess. No, I’m fantastic. I run diagnostics, trying to pin labels on butterflies. Maybe I’m exhausted, maybe in love, perhaps depressed.
Perhaps the tiniest bit crazy.
What am I doing? I think, and this time I don’t mean my use of company hours. I flash back one month to a diner in the Houston airport. My uncle sat across from me, his wide, charismatic jaw grazing a crisp white collar. Flight numbers echoed over the PA. I scooted my pancakes around the plate, trying to hide my jitters.
We were about to get on a plane to Michigan. My first business trip, I thought. Wow, I’ve really made it. That is, if I didn’t fall flat on my face.
“Don’t worry,” my uncle said. “I wouldn’t have hired if you couldn’t do it.”
I smiled wanly. “Thanks.”
He flagged down a waiter and then checked his Blackberry. We sipped coffee and discussed the company. I hinted that my corporate career would be temporary, and he paused, appraising me.
“Jordy,” he asked, “what is your mission?”
I winced. This was a test—to what end I couldn’t know. I pretended to think, much too nervous to do it genuinely, and blurted, “To write novels.”
He shook his head. “That’s a goal. Writing books, buying stocks, making ten million dollars—they’re all goals. I asked, what’s your mission?” I racked my brain, but he held up a hand. “Don’t answer right away. It’s a tough question. Just know there’s a difference.”
I flash back to now. A harpy has invaded the bathroom stall. She sits on top of the door, watching, waiting for my mind to slip back to its familiar loop: my novel.
The harpy dives, screaming her poison songs. You’re biting off more than you can chew…Most of it’s crap anyway…and the plot? What’s with the plot?...And can anyone invest in that protagonist? Will anyone care?
At last she has my mind. She smiles, and I whimper in her shadow. “What if,” she asks then, “you never finish it?”
The spell is broken. A twist in a nightmare betrays that I’m sleeping, allaying my fears. Like a dream, she has posed a terror too impossible. I know what the novel means to me. I know how far I’m willing to go.
“No.” I shake my head. My confidence resurges. “Not possible.”
She nods, admitting my parry. Her next words are worse.
“So you finish it.” A pause. “What if it never gets past the corner coffee shop? Never bigger than a display on your parents’ mantel, next to the collage you made in kindergarten? What if writing is leveled with baking, and yoga, and Hulu? What if your so-called life calling is nailed in the coffin of Hobby?”
I inhale sharply, head in hands. The stale fluorescent light whirs above me. But at last, I look up and face her.
I know my mission.
“I don’t need to be a best-seller,” I say.
“Don’t you?” she sneers. I blush. She knows too well my frequent dreams of grandeur.
“I’m not saying it wouldn't be nice,” I reply carefully. “But it’s not about fame. It’s about being known.”
“And the difference is…?”
I stand, words backing up in my throat to choke me, fists clenched in desperation to get this right.
“The difference,” I say at last, “is having the courage to love what is true, and noble, and beautiful, even if half the time I don’t know what the heck those things are—it’s having the guts to be honest, letting the page mirror every tarnish on my soul—it’s clinging to the God I neglect—it’s having ears to hear, lips to taste, fingers to explore. It’s hoping,” I rasp, “that someone, somewhere, will read my words and find”—
I stop. The right word escapes me. Peace? No, not quite. “Solidarity,” I say at last. “The knowledge that their deepest longing is shared by every other person on this earth. I read to be touched, to be pushed and shaken. But I write to push back. It’s searching for life on distant planets, sending messages into space: ‘Look—hear—listen. I am here. Are you here too? Are you as confused as I am? Tell me what you know—what you don’t. Maybe we’ll teach each other. Or maybe we’ll just sit and be confused together. I write because it is the closest I will ever come to touching eternity, and loving with all the strength of infinite hope.”
My words are solid and grand, and as they echo in the dim stall I begin to doubt them. The harpy leans in, leering.
“Are you sure?” she asks.
I stare back into her mocking eyes, shamed out of indignation. So instead of fighting back I look inward, exploring my soul, feeling every groove and crevice. Searching for the lie. My fingers come up clean. With a small, quiet warmth I reply, “Yes. Yes, I’m sure.”
And with that, she’s gone. I am returned to myself, Jordan the Intern, alone in the restroom with work to do. I rise and go back to the office, mind already arranging time budgets and Excel worksheets. The sounds blend together; the whir of my Macbook waking from sleep, the murmur of my uncle’s voice Skyping with a client, the secretary’s greeting and my polite reply.
And somewhere beneath it all, a dragon with violet eyes rears its head.
I pause, arrested by the image. It begs for context, for knights and castles, true love and betrayal. It’s the seed of a story.
I murmur, “Wait for me." Then I pound the keys. I click the mouse. I sip my terrible coffee.
And I am happy.