21 July 2011

My First Foray into Short Fiction: "Temptress of Fate"

Temptress of Fate

Jeff Shepley

The elevator was empty when she entered on the 7th floor. Five floors to pass through on the descent to the lobby—five opportunities for a stranger to enter and judge her with a quick glance and an awkward silence. Mercifully, the elevator reached the lobby without delay.

As she passed through the elevator doors and into the lobby she pulled her skirt down as far she could. It still just reached mid-thigh, but you can only cover so much with so little. Descending the apartment complex’s front steps and feeling the cool Sunday morning air wash over her gave her goose bumps. The sun cast an angelic glow on each shiny surface as she blinked the hazy sleep from her eyes. On any other day, she would have stopped to savor the cleansing tingle produced by the faint struggle waged on her skin between the cool air and the subtle warmth of the sun’s rays.

But today she just bent her head, letting her hair fall over her eyes and began to walk away from the apartment building steps at the quickest pace her three inch stilettos would allow. The first order of business was to put some distance between her and the possibility, however slight, that she’d hear her name called out from a certain 7th floor balcony. The thought alone was cringe-worthy,

God, I hope he doesn’t even remember my name.

Two blocks later, and with that risk out of the way, she looked up at the city skyline for guidance. “My lucky day,” She whispered under her breath with a faint smile that no one would see. Recognizing that she was already headed in the right direction was a small victory along the morning’s path to recovery. As she plowed ahead with renewed vigor, she felt betrayed by the duplicity of a city whose landmarks served as a beacon guiding her to the privacy and comfort of her apartment, but whose streets paved the way, quite literally, for this agonizingly public and uncomfortable morning excursion in the first place.

The ‘walk of shame’ is obviously a byproduct of urban culture. It’s not like girls in Nowheresville, USA don’t end up in strange beds on Saturday nights. They have tequila, even there. Only there is no way in hell you’re walking home from wherever you end up. And who can tell how short your skirt is or how high your heels are when you’re riding shotgun in a Ford F150?

As she let her mind wander through the logistical mine field that must be the one-night stand in rural America, she found her physical progress halted momentarily by the orange glowing hand on the other side of the crosswalk. She looked up and down the busy street, weighing the risk of dashing between each opening against the risk, increasing with every moment, that she might run into someone she knew.

She wasn’t the only one eyeing potential gaps in the flow of traffic. Just then a tall man jogged up alongside her. He was sweating lightly and his dark skin glistened as he bounced in place, panting softly as he waited for his opportunity to tempt fate. As she looked left and he looked right, their eyes met, and their gaze held. Perhaps in defiance of this stupid situation she had gotten herself into, or perhaps because she was startled by just how piercingly blue his eyes were—she held her side of the gaze. And he held his. A shiver ran up her spine. She had a sense that in that moment he saw through her own eyes and into her soul. She couldn’t help thinking that even if she had been wrapped up in a parka, she’d be just as exposed to his penetrating gaze as if she were wearing even less than she was now.

See searched his eyes for meaning,

Is he judging me? He must know that I’m wondering whether he is or isn’t. Surely, now that we’ve made eye contact for this long he has to say something. ‘Good morning’ would be the worst, but it’s inevitable. I can almost hear him saying it even with his mouth closed—so much sarcasm and condescension in his voice. God, just like my parents used to do when I slept in past noon after staying out too late.

He smiled and held out his hand. “I’m John.”

This cannot be happening to me right now.

She smiled noncommittally and willed him to just give up and jog away. Even so, he stood there unfazed, hand still outstretched, still bouncing in place, still smiling. She envisioned the scene as it would surely play out two years from now:

Me and John, engaged to be married in two weeks, yet finding time to attend his ten year high school reunion. John’s high school girlfriend walks up to us right as we enter the banquet hall, like she has been waiting for this all night. The ex’s name turns out to be Chastity. No ring on her finger—how terribly convenient. The two of them had split up after senior year because she got into Stanford and he was staying in-state. The split had been on friendly terms but they had lost touch through college. Chastity gives John a hug that lasts too long, takes an exaggerated deep breath, sighs heavily and says, “It’s so nice to see you, John.” There is no way I am going to let Chastity and John get into a big memory fest about summers up at “Lake Skinny-Dip” and winters skiing on “Remember-When Mountain”. But Chastity seems content to leave the distant past behind, somehow knowing the dark secret that will cut the deepest is tied up in a more recent memory.

“So how did you all meet?” Chastity asks with superficially veiled malice.

A simple question but I don’t dare let John respond. “I met her on the street during her walk of shame,” he would say. That was the only think he could possibly say, right?

So I step in, “It’s not that exciting of a story, really.” That little preamble was essential. I’m laying the ground work for ensuring that no awkward questions get asked later. If you expect the story to be boring you tune it out. I go on, “We first met one day at a crosswalk. Then we ran into each other a week later at the grocery store, in the ice cream aisle no less. Hahah,” I am laughing now, but I know it sounds forced. No matter—really the whole point is to put conversational distance between us and that god forsaken morning. I press on, “John loves ice cream of course. Anyway, we remember each other and he asked me if I’d like to go to this frozen yogurt place on...” I am about to say on 10th street when I realize with horror that maybe John used to take Chastity there. God, why is this so difficult? “…on a Tuesday. And I’m like, who goes on a date on Tuesday? Anyway, I said yes, of course, and obviously I so glad I did. We talked for hours. We had to get two frozen yogurts so the owners would stop looking at us like we were taking up too much valuable table space. Hahah, you know how it is?” The worst part of it is that through it all, I am staring right into Chastity’s eyes, trying to hold them as tightly as John’s is doing to my eyes right now. When Chastity looks over at John during the story, the hairs on my neck stand up. Is he following the story or is his mind stuck in that moment when we just met, thinking about who I had shared a bed with just moments before. Was he somehow communicating these salacious details to Chastity with that hot blue stare?

She snapped back to the present, John was still holding out his hand, with only the slightest hint of rejection beginning to furrow up on his brow, perhaps inspired by the confused look she was giving him,

This was not part of the atonement for last night’s sins. You aren’t allowed to meet your future husband while on a walk of shame. If I had had time to get home, take a shower, put on a cute summer dress and then walk down to the street to pick up some milk from the corner store, then you could meet your husband, your neighbor, your pastor, whomever, it didn’t matter. But on a walk of shame—it just wasn’t right. It could never work out.

But those eyes!

Somehow John’s eyes had wrapped all around her and through her and knew all these things that she was thinking, even now, and told her to take a chance anyway.

She tucked her hair behind her ears, reached out and grasped his sweaty hand. “Hi, John, I’m Megan.”

15 July 2011

Fictionalization of Second Glance

This past week I started an 8-week fiction writing class through Arlington County's Adult Education programs. The course is VERY basic, but my motivation is more than just educational--I'm taking the course primarily to motivate myself to write. So far, I'm about halfway done with the draft of my first assignment--a short scene (which I think could double as a very short story).

My 2 or 3 blog readers may have noticed that I have not blogged nearly as often in recent years. I ascribed this not to a lack of ideas so much as a diminished enthusiasm for writing in the blog medium. So I hope to express some of my new "bloggable" ideas through the medium of short fiction (stories anywhere from 500-2,000+ words). By "fictionalizing" my ideas--I'm sure there is a more accurate term--I hope to bring more life to the idea.

So why not a novel? I think my recent increased interest in writing short fiction has stemmed from a thoroughly practical matter. Weaving many ideas into a novel-length piece would take a lot of time and much effort, and frankly, I'm not up to the challenge right now. I came to a similar conclusion 6 years ago. But also, I've recently started reading short fiction and was inspired by what Paulo Bacigalupi was able to do with the medium in Pump Six and Other Stories.

Writing fiction, even short pieces, will take me a lot longer than writing a blog post, so I would not expect my contributions to this site to increase. In fact, I'm considering migrating to a more reader-friendly format for longer pieces. Suggestions welcome.