Sunday, May 27, 2007

The Washington Post Short Story Contest

The Washington Post sponsored a short fiction contest. They printed a picture in the Sunday magazine and asked you write 1,500 words about the picture. It will be published next year in the Valentine's issue, so the story must somehow be about love. Winners will be announced in July.

Several in my writing group were inspired enough to send in entries, including me. My entry follows, and the picture is below.

From There to Here

I’m sitting in a chair, quiet, trying not to move, not to breathe too loudly, and I’m thinking about dominos. Falling, crashing, cascading dominos.

I remember one of those old Saturday morning kids’s shows where a team of domino tippers, or whatever they were called, set up a huge track in the studio. There was a lot of build-up, showing sections, places where dominos would jump great distances, turn on lights, release helium filled balloons, make designs, that sort of thing. Someone taps that first domino and off they go.

ClickClickClickClickClick went the dominos. Like little gunfire—actually more like the Star Wars trading cards in the spokes of my ten speed way back when—or Gene Kelly tapping his way up and down some grand staircase.

And then, a few minutes later, none of the dominos are standing anymore—the tricks have all been done, and amazement, awe, and admiration slowly turn to a sense of anticlimax. You realize how hard it was to set those up, how many days it had taken. And it was all over in less than five minutes. Was it worth it?

I guess you have the memory of the dominos climbing the stairs, tumbling into the tiny bucket, gravity pulling it down to trip more dominos; the memory of the dominos turning on the model train that traverses a short amount of track and trips still more dominos. But really, was it worth all that work? The images have stayed with me for thirty years, but still. It took a lot of time, energy, and emotion to plan, to set up—I’m not certain it was well spent.

Gene Kelly? Saturday morning television three decades old? Star Wars trading cards? How did my mind get here? And for that matter, how did I physically get here? In this hotel room. With her. Look at her over there, under the covers, back to me, phone to her ear.


Is she crying? No, I don’t think so.

Hurry up and finish the call. I can’t wait to touch you. Again.

I think she is crying. Hmm, hushed whispers. Never a good sign for one of these calls. Okay, this call isn’t ending anytime soon.

How did we get here?

The lunch.

Weeks of casual flirting in the office led to a lunch. Not a deli or pizza place where all our coworkers go. No, someplace with…ambiance. Just in case. I mean, I’ll never follow through. And she’ll never follow through. But, you never know. Lunch at the Tabard.

Delicious food, good conversation, innuendo, a sexy joke, a dare. A touch, hand on hand on a white linen tablecloth. And we’re a little tipsy with the knowledge there are hotel rooms above us. The first domino is tipped.

Then the emails start. And the instant messages. And the text messages. Each one like another domino, building us up, the anticipation, the excitement, until three years later we are…here. No dominos miss. Not one out of place. None intercepted by someone else. Someone…my wife…her husband.

She is crying. What’s going on? What is he saying to her? Should I go to her? That might annoy her, make whatever is happening worse. I’ll stay put.

This is going to be some Christmas-Chanukah gift exchange. Why does he have to make her cry at Christmas? It’s so important to her. I mean, it doesn’t matter a lick to me, but I know it’s important to her. So, by extension, it’s important to me. Why is that such a hard concept for that jerk of a husband?

One time, well into our domino course, Christmas almost ended the run. We were imagining what our lives would be like together—no more sneaking around, being able to publicly love each other. Silly, really. Neither of us would ever leave home. It was just fun to think about sometimes. Perverse pillow talk.

The talk turned to integrating our families. She mentions it: Christmas. Had the conversation been more than mere fantasy, had it been a possibility in the real world, I would have reacted differently, softer. But it wasn’t, so I didn’t. Don’t be silly dear, before we get married you’ll have to convert. There will be no more Christmas for you. So, problem solved. Come on, give us a kiss.
Wrong answer.

Voices were raised, tears flowed, feelings hurt…dominos climb the stairs, the top one falls into a bucket and the tiny pulley spins. The bucket starts to fall, swaying slightly. There are more dominos below, but will the bucket hit them? Did the bucket get knocked off course? Promises are made…hold your breath…wait for it…wait for it…BANG! Click…gentle laughter…Click….Click…soft kisses…Click..Click..Click..forgiveness…ClickClickClickClick: back on track.
Or are you? Has the course changed? The clicks still come, but are they slower? The rhythm is off. The track is doomed.

Two years later we’re here in this hotel, exchanging gifts because we won’t see each other over the holidays. She’ll be hosting her family in town, I’ll be away with mine. It will be lonely for both of us—surrounded by family but away from each other—but we don’t dare break the radio silence we maintain over these family holidays.

It’s one of the rules we’ve established; crafted to keep us happy—safe in the knowledge that the other person wants to talk to you—it’s just that a rule prohibits it at the moment. The rules help keep our lives intact, our public worlds undisturbed.

At one point or another, we’ve broken every one of our rules. And it’s always pulled up just short of disaster—each time confirming that we were not so stupid when we made these rules, just too stupid to listen to ourselves.

So as I sit here thinking about breaking a rule—namely, going to her, putting a hand on her while she is talking with her husband—I wonder who has broken more rules?

I tend to break the ones that could get us caught: a touch, a lingering look, even a kiss in public. Risky behavior. Rules to protect us from the outside. She breaks rules designed to protect us from within. From ourselves. She’s made us fall in love with each other. She turned the lust to love.

I look over at her lying in this hotel feather bed—itself a giant soft white domino that we know so well. She is beautiful. Far better than I deserve. It was circumstance that drove her to me. I was in the right place at the right time. Well, morally arguable.

She shifts under the covers. Her right foot is sticking out from under the blankets. Perfectly scrubbed and exfoliated, her foot begs to be touched. Rubbed. Softly kissed. Her toe nails are perfectly painted. For me? No, for her. But she does that to make herself feel beautiful, sexy, attractive. And that, she partially does for me. He doesn’t notice or appreciate such things. Do I notice them in my wife? Surely I do. Do I let her know? I do. Don’t I?

I don’t hear anything anymore. I don’t think she’s talking. But she still holds the receiver under the covers. Is she listening? I lean forward in my seat and it creaks.

The noise is her cue to flip over. She stares at the ceiling, clutching the receiver to her chest. She has been crying. Dark streaks around her eyes, her expensive make-up running down her cheeks and staining the pillow and sheets.

I jump up, put myself in her line of sight. This is bad. He easily makes her angry, but this is not anger. This is…something different. Her tear-logged eyes find me and my look tells her…I love her.

“That’s it. He’s leaving me. He’s in love with someone else.”

And with that, something goes wrong with the dominos. Horribly wrong. They may continue to fall, but now they are out of place, out of order. The tricks won’t work right, the designs won’t show up. The specific order we established, the track we predicted, is falling into chaos. It never happened on those Saturday mornings, but it’s happening now.

We don’t have a rule for this. We’ll see the course—what’s left of it—through to the end—until every last domino that can be tipped over is. But knowing we’ve lost control of this thing we’ve worked so hard to control will make it…unsatisfying. Even hollow from here on out. When the clicking finally stops we will examine this and wonder if it was all worth it.

Dominos fall. They are destined to fall—each one is set up specifically to fall over into the next one—to carry you from there to here. They will transport you, but they are designed to fall. There is no other outcome possible. But I guess, getting from that first domino to the last, that’s the point, isn’t it? That’s why you set them up. To watch them fall.