“The best stories reveal secret feelings,” the writing professor says. “The most important thing is to say the truth.” Are my feelings complex enough, Christine wonders, to be interesting? The other women in the class seemed unhappy and wrote about boyfriends who didn’t love them enough. Christine, at twenty seven, has been happily married for the past three years. Do I lack dissatisfaction? she wonders. She has beauty and, thanks to Paul, money and love. It dawns on her that, although she writes well, she might lack imagination. The suspicion doesn’t affect her excitement for the class, nor her hope that it might distract her from her bad moods, which she takes out often and unfairly on Paul.
She considers writing about her new neighbors. They have just moved in to the house facing theirs and, within a week, have built a tall and mysterious wooden fence around their yard. Christine pictures the blonde woman, wearing diamond studded flip-flops and a velvet sporting outfit that says JUICY across the elbows and buttocks, and her husband–burly, loud, a golden chain shining above his V-neck. They remind her of other people she has encountered throughout her life–the adventure type, whom she has always avoided, certain that if she didn’t, they’d avoid her. She tries to imagine the neighbors talking, but, since she has only seen them fleetingly and from a distance, she finds this impossible. Not able to make up a story about them, she writes about the vacation of a married couple very much like her and Paul, except that she changes their names to Rita and Leon. She describes their most recent vacation—a room at the Royal Hawaiian, a long walk around Waikiki. She wonders if the story is too much like a poem, descriptions mostly, not focused enough on interior states and action.
Her classmates’ comments surprise her.
“What appeals to me about this story,” says one of the women in the class, “Is Rita’s quiet dislike for Leon.”
“She wants to hurt him,” says another. Some of the students nod.
“There is nothing happening in the story,” says a brisk woman with glasses, who is older than the rest and speaks with affected authority because of it. Her crude comments are followed by awkward silences.
The professor waits till the end. Without looking at Christine, she says “Rita’s anger towards her husband could be more explicit. The writer should add an additional scene, which will speak to her true feelings.”
During dinner that evening, Christine goes over the story in her mind. She pictures Leon and Rita on the deck of a boat, where they’ve come for a dinner cruise. Leon is wearing the suit that Rita bought him for his fortieth birthday, the gray one with a pink stripe and is running circles on her back with his fingers. When he leans over the railing to look at the water, Rita feels the urge to give him a little push, to see him soak and sink.
“How do you like the potatoes?” Paul asks and stretches his hand towards Christine’s back. He has been cooking the whole evening without so much as turning the music on, so not to disturb her writing. He tells her of a new method of cooking the potatoes–boiling them first, then baking them. Because he is simultaneously talking and eating, something he does quite often, he chokes on a fish bone, turns red in the face and starts to cough. There is no water on the table, so Christine rushes towards the kitchen, but, after opening the refrigerator, she can’t decide if she should pick up the plain or the sparkling water. Her indecision lasts a few seconds during which, Paul walks towards the kitchen himself, pushes her aside and grabs one of the water bottles.
After he calms down, she thinks that he’ll question her delay, but he doesn’t. He walks towards the window and looks outside.
“The couple across the street are having a party,” he says. “They invited us.”
Christine unties her hair and lets it fall on her shoulders. “We should go,” she says. “Please, darling, let’s.”
The unique thing about the party is that all the couples are acting single. Christine and Paul sit next to each other and look at all the men and women drinking wine and laughing with each-others’ spouses. In a few minutes, the neighbor comes over and sits next to Christine, while his wife sits next to Paul. They aren’t at all like she has imagined them from a distance– self-involved and nearly foreign– no, they seem obliging and a bit nervous.
“Where did you move here from?” Christine asks the neighbor.
“From Hawaii. I’m a diving instructor.”
“We were in Hawaii last month. We went snorkeling once.”
“Come, I’ll show you something you’ll like,” says the neighbor to Christine and grabs her hand.
“I’ll be right back,” Christine tells Paul. She and the neighbor enter a dark room, lit up by the light of two large aquariums filled with miniature caves, from where small, orange fish emerge and disappear. The walls of the room are covered with goggles, diving suits, masks and fins. The neighbor talks at length about his underwater excursions. When he asks Christine if she wouldn’t mind wearing the goggles, or if she’d allow him to put the fins on her feet, the questions sound innocent, as if he only wishes to demonstrate his point more concretely. Christine laughs and puts on the goggles, which are so scratched that keeping her eyes open is useless. She feels her neighbor’s hands push her towards chair, take off her shoes, and slip the fins on her feet, above her nylons. They hear a frantic knock at the door. Christine takes off her goggles and sees Paul entering, his face flushed. Paul grabs her by the arm and pushes her towards the door, but the neighbor says “Lady, wait, I’d like my fins back!” Christine stops, starts taking them off and puts on her shoes.
Paul doesn’t slacken the grip on her arm until they reach their home. Then, he turns towards her and says “Have you lost your mind?” His anger annoys Christine. He now reminds her of a small dog her parents gave her for her birthday when she was little. It would bark uncontrollably and, when she couldn’t stand the sound, she locked it inside a tiny room to the side of the garage, where her father kept his tools. Slamming the door, she rushes to another room and continues her story. One evening, Rita looks up a list of popular poisons on the Internet. Of course, she doesn’t intend to poison anyone. With all the advances in forensic science, poisoning doesn’t allow any anonymity. But, she finds reading about poisons interesting. For example, Bella Donna or Deadly Nightshade is a plant used as a beauty product during the Renaissance. When applied to the eyes, it dilated the pupils, which was considered beautiful. PufferFish Venom was used as a delicacy in Japan. Rita wonders if they could try it during their upcoming trip to Asia.
When Christine finishes her research for the story, something pulls her towards the window. She sees the neighbor walking a guest towards her car. On his way back, he turns her head towards her window and waves, as if knowing she’d be there. What startles her is that, although she finds him slightly repulsive, she feels compelled to walk outside and meet him. But, she goes to bed instead, where Paul apologizes for his outburst. Christine stares at the ceiling and doesn’t pay attention to his words. She wishes he’d stop speaking.
“I love that part when Rita ends up on the chair with the goggles and fins on,” someone says in class the next day.
Christine listens attentively, but takes nothing to heart. It’s the beginning of the class discussion. Everyone praises the story in the beginning; the critiques come at the very end. A few minutes later, when they start badmouthing her story, Christine tells herself not to pay attention to anyone except the professor.
The older woman in the back shouts “There is nothing happening in the story. I look up poisons all the time. I haven’t poisoned anyone, have I? Not that I’d tell you anyhow.”
The class is silent, but the older woman doesn’t mind and laughs alone.
“What we have here,” the professor finally says, “It’s a beginning writer’s typical error–avoidance of action. Rita needs to act on her fantasies to kill Leon. Agreed?”
“Agreed,” says the class in unison.
“I suspect she’ll try something in Asia,” says one of the students.
“That’s a great idea. Let’s kill Leon in Asia. Now, let’s move on the next story,” says the professor and looks at Christine who jots down notes.
Ledia Xhoga is now completing a mystery novel that takes place in NYC and Albania. She lives in Brooklyn.