Short Stories

The Red and the Black

Only the two of us met at the Time Cafe that spring afternoon. Sure, I’d considered that the other women in her memoir-writing group would be jealous! But I wasn’t a kid kissing up to the teacher. As far as I was concerned, my request to meet only with Moira was about taking responsibility for myself. I was looking for a serious writer who wanted to exchange work. I didn’t need her clever writing exercises to get my juices going; I’d been working a long time on an impressionistic memoir about my Mother’s death and I wanted a reaction.

Moira and I were on the same wavelength. She’d been trying to gather a collection of short stories for months and needed a fresh ear and eye. We were both published writers and she was pleased that I reached out to her. All concerns about exiting the class vanished; I had found what I needed and so had Moira.

“There’s something else,” Moira added. “Would you give me a couple of lessons on music improvisation? I play the flute and you said you teach music….”

“Sure. This can be an exchange for the two writing workshops of yours I attended,” I chirped up, relieved that we’d be even-steven. We shook hands and made a date to meet again.

We met in each other’s apartments several times, reading our life stories aloud and giving feedback. To have someone look fixedly at you as you bare your soul is a thrilling, if not a disarming experience. It’s almost like foreplay to making love. And if only two of you are in the room…a candle burning nearby for centering…the noises of the street fading….

You can see why playing music together after these intense sharings was a relief and a reward. I felt a giddy lightness in my heart as we improvised simple melodies over set chord progressions.

Slowly, our process took on a unique shape. We two, weathered, wizened-up women, were two halves of a living, breathing organism, where speaking and listening were as connected as breathing in and breathing out. Yet, within this synchronicity there were tears.

One time, when Moira came to my apartment for a session, she left her leather jacket. I felt this act showed a trust in our connection–she was too much in charge of herself to simply be forgetful. I know that objects left behind always hold secret messages.

So when another time she left a black pen, not an expensive one, but one that felt good to hold with its soft rubber grip, I began to create a sub-text to our meetings. Vision Exact by Uniball fed my fantasy: our connection would be palpably deep. Though I returned her coat, I did not mention the pen. I needed to keep it with me for a while and use it. I was remembering other deep loves of mine, writers lost to me who cherished their pens. In writing with Moira’s black pen, I would be communing with my writer family. Though I fantasized she left it for me, even if unconsciously, I reminded myself to return it when the time was right.

Did I mention the book I leant her, which she said she would return but did not? Or the disturbed looks she would send me if in my enthusiasm I blew her a kiss? Awkwardness was invading our delight. She was a married woman after all and I was an unattached lesbian. So, it became clear to me: Moira and I would keep a lid on our newly found sharing, even if we did have a subliminal thing going. I needed to parcel out what I could share with her, but get my intimate needs fulfilled elsewhere!

After several meetings she asked if I would like to incorporate music in a reading-performance her memoire-writing group was giving in the fall at a cafe in the village. She would introduce the work and be one of the readers as well. I eagerly agreed to create musical enhancements for each woman’s work, using guitar, keyboard and drums, the instruments I play. “Also, I would like to play my flute with the music you create,” she added quickly. “Doing music with you has been so much fun!”

I first composed alone, developing musical ideas by listening to a taped recording of the work to be presented. Then one rehearsal with Moira and her flute was followed by a second rehearsal with the entire group of twelve readers. Moira was very pleased with my musical additions: “They give texture, fullness and drama to the readings,” she enthused.

When some of the women were hesitant, not wanting their poignant and ponderous passages messed with, Moira drew me aside: “The skeptics have bugs up their asses to stop the shit from coming out,” she whispered. Moira sure was feisty! Cleverly I managed to win the reluctant ones over by absorbing their musical ideas with mine. By the time our group rehearsal was done, everyone was happy.

The presentation was a success! An exuberant audience, the glowing faces of the readers, the huge bouquets filling Moira’s and my arms, all gave evidence of good chemistry. Moira’s and my future as collaborators seemed promising. When she said, “I owe you big time,” I blurted out, “Would you read my novel about artists becoming activists?” “Yes,” she said and I beamed.

Then suddenly her health problems entered our connection. Moira had strange things happening with her olfactory nerves, probably caused by the city’s polluted environment. She and her husband decided to return to Santa Cruz for the winter months where clean air, a beautiful home and grown offspring awaited them. “Oh, don’t worry,” she assured me. “We’ll be back in March to continue our work together.” I remembered watching her pass out flyers at our village performance, announcing her spring memoire-writing workshops: Moira is one smart businesswoman! I thought.

It is April. Moira and her husband will not be returning to New York City this spring, not even to get their things. She tried to comfort me in her phone call: “But we’ll be back within the year to pack up our stored belongings and you can visit us in California.” Not a word about missing our writing exchange, future reading musicales, or me. As far as the manuscript I worked on for nine years, which I gave her to read? Nothing! I tried to forget her but a pervasive sadness remained.

Now it is June and Moira has not called or written. Perhaps if I return the black Vision Exact Uniball pen she will be moved to read my manuscript and offer effusive apologies for taking so long. It cost thirty dollars to copy the double-sided 343 pages.

I saw her again the next November, nineteen months after the first time we met alone, at the Time Cafe–yes, the same place where we’d first agreed to share our writing. She called unexpectedly: “I’m in town just for a short visit. Would you like to meet?”

As she was exhausted, I took her some purple irises to cheer her up. We sat in a booth and talked about the richness of our past connection: there was a good balance between us, we said. Before her return again in the spring, she promised to definitely read my book and send writing to me; and then, our work together would begin anew! She told me more about her olfactory problems: how her adverse reactions to a variety of everyday substances around the house were very disturbing. She would have CAT scans taken of her brain by her Santa Cruz doctor.

I talked to her about my thyroid nodule of the type that could become cancerous. How every doctor I went to said, “Take it out now,” by which they meant my whole thyroid gland. “Even with constant biopsies to monitor it, I wouldn’t be safe from the big C,” they said. “But I like to sing, Moira, and there is the danger my vocal cords can be cut in such an operation.”

Moira had to go soon to finish packing and mail off holiday presents. We paid our check and edged through the crowd of waiting, hungry customers. Out on the street, I felt assaulted by foul odors, screeching cars and aggressive passersby. For a moment I longed to be leaving with her. But something else was pressing on me as well.

“Wait, Moira, I forgot something.” What it was, I did not know. Instinct pulled me back into the Time Cafe with Moira following on my heels.

There on our table near where she had sat, was a pen, the red version to the black Vision Exact, Uniball, which I see right now on my desk as I type this. Moira plucked it up and put it in her purse before I could examine it more closely.

“That’s my pen!” Moira exclaimed with disbelief and angst. “I hate losing a pen.”

Out on the noisy street, I put my arm about her shoulder in a show of camaraderie and sadness that she was leaving again for the winter. Moira put her arm on my shoulder as well, which marked the only time we joined like this. As I’ve mentioned, our connection was quite reserved emotionally. (Why had Moira asked me over the phone, just after she’d asked to meet me this time, if she had ever been inappropriate with me in any way? Was some feeling gnawing at her? Like sadness? Or Longing?)

“I don’t know how I did that,” I said to Moira, laughing as we stood on the street corner of Broadway and 85th street, both waiting for the light to change and teetering on that fragile seesaw called departure. I remember feeling right then how uncertain just about everything in life was except maybe instinct, even an instinct with boundary confusion, or should I say boundary complexity?

“Is that your empathic stuff?” Moira asked, hurrying us across the street before a line of nasty looking cars could bear down on us. “You tuning into something I left behind?”

“Maybe. But, I really thought I had forgotten something.”

I wonder today, four months later, as I reflect on Moira: was there a reason that twice when she said she would drop off manuscripts–a short story I was to read before our weekly reading session and her group’s writings that I would set to music–she failed to do so. Both times she called a day or two later and explained she’d gotten tied up with such and such, was sorry and would leave it with the doorman at another given time, which she did. The second time this happened, I asked her if there could be an emotional reason for this. Was she really reluctant to be meeting with me, for example? She insisted strongly, there was no reason other than she was under pressure to do something else. I believed her. I didn’t always construct a fantasy to mask her truth.

If Moira does not write to me, does not call, and does not read my novel, which took me nine years to write, I will be very upset. I will even cry. I could I suppose move her to respond to me in a way befitting comrades who have worked well together, by sending her the black pen, twin to her red one. I don’t want her to feel guilty for having returned to her home in Santa Cruz to do what she needs to do for her health and her family. However, I don’t want my manuscript gathering dust in an ambiguous situation. And I don’t want her to ever forget that unique shape we carved out when we read to each other and bared our souls.


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