Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Strand: Complete First Draft

Forgive the formating; this is exported from Word.

The Strand

“No, screw it, or I’ll miss the train.”
The tea was pushed back at her, a kiss planted on her forehead hastily but not unkindly. Haylee watched the teabag, swollen with water, bob up and down precariously as the flat door closed carefully and quietly. The lock slid into place. She picked up the bowl with a sigh, noted the remaining Weetabix coloring the milk, and counted Sheldon’s apple core’s seeds - unable here to perform their reproductive duty. She sighed, already tired with the day. Unconsciously, she smoothed the already smooth tablecloth. The tea, not drunk, went down the sink. She made sure to close the pop-top on the wash-up liquid when done.

Today, Tuesday, two days before the much anticipated Thursday, was only market day.

They were on the brink. She could feel it, as she walked down Strand under the dower English sky, Charles purposely closer than necessary at her side. They were talking, of all things, about Tomas More’s Utopia.
“A walk doesn’t equal love,” Haylee reminded herself. “I fall in love a dozen times a day but always with this man. This not-my-husband man.”
Charles was holding forth on the Utopian alphabet of the 1515 first edition, thinking, “I must impress her,” over and over again in his mind. Wishing to talk of nothing but a trip back up The Strand to his office at the College. In Charles’ mind, he was laying Haylee down in his mind, unbuttoning her beige cardigan, reciting John Donne. He had always wanted to make love reciting John Donne’s Unholy Sonnets, had waited his whole life for a woman with whom he felt he could do that. And into that fantasy Haylee stepped, mind ablaze with Mallory and Tennyson, more specifically to him, mind ablaze with romance.
Parallel, Haylee walked filled with thought. She felt a sudden urge to shake Charles, so seemingly involved with More, to say, “This is our moment. Don’t you see?” so as to confirm the pivotal nature of the current instant. Instead, Charles stopped. Haylee looked distracted and disinterested. He felt his middle go hollow in realization; she, a married woman, would never care for him.
“Haylee, are you all right? You seem to have gone a bit pale,” Charles said, attempting to gain equanimity.
“Quite. It’s just the chill of early spring, I guess.”
They were lying to each other, living the romances of which they were so fond.
“I have to run,” Charles said suddenly, turning toward the curb, the recent realization of Haylee’s unavailability leading him to crave solitude.
The moment fractured, as Haylee followed, making herself act out of the feeling of necessity that this time with Charles had created in her. She took his hand lightly.
“Please,” she said, suddenly breathless, “I don’t want you to go.”
They did not go back to Charles’ office. Instead, he suggested, they ought to take in the Royal Gardens. He moved her words over and over again in his mind, “I don’t want you to go.” Her soft words, quiet, a breathing out of sound, not a promise, not anything he reminded himself. After all, he was not a young man, and she was a young woman barely into her mid-twenties, twenty-three at the most, married young. And he, he was just an associate professor on the brink of aging, a bit of a belly starting to show through, he noted running his hand down his beige trench which faded into the surrounding landscape. Around him Prince Albert’s statue stood firm and life ignited. The flowers were coming forth from their hunkered-down winter state.
Charles saw her, her head lightly bent, mahogany strands stirring in the breeze, trying to escape the binds in which she had placed them. She was always instilling order.

Haylee had walked into their Early Victorian British Literature class with a shy grace and naiveté, an innocence that was intoxicating, demanding of attention. Her head bent slightly downward but her eyes cast up searching for a place to fit in. She sat, all of her intent on him. Looking at her undid him; he was rapt by her greedy taking in of life. This attentive young woman… she was a reader, Charles thought, looking at her in her charming button-up sweater vest and button-down shirt.
“My God, she’s a reader.”

Haylee wrapped her coated arms around her, taking in the Royal Gardens, looking everywhere but at Charles. They had spoken little since her breathless statement on the curb. She felt his eyes on her; he was regarding her, she realized – she burned. Here she was walking side by side with Charles, living this fantasy that had been percolating in her. His gaze on her an intoxication. He was viewing her, letting her know herself through him, accessing her potential. Her skin pricked to life in realization, in happiness, in a discomforted semi-fear.

She always took extra care when attending class. Her opal earrings must match her natural wool sweater. She must read carefully, must prepare to have something to say about the perennially tragic Eustacia or the fallacious seeming epilogue by Hardy. (Had his editor really insisted?) It was imperative that she create in Charles a view of herself that was in all aspects ideal. A view of her as she wanted to be.
However, if asked Haylee would say she had come to fancy Charles for his intelligence, for his ability to talk with such certainty to the class about the Brontë sisters, about the early French influence on British literature, about the public relations of Queen Elizabeth and Shakespeare. She would quietly slide into class, stomach tightening at the sight of him and,hating herself for it, loving herself for it, loving him for it. Sitting their quietly waiting for Charles to begin – it was the most difficult waiting in the world. She could wait all those other days, even Wednesday. The other six days he wasn’t real except in her contemplations. But in those moments in class before his voice began to wrap her up in learning, when there was only Charles to think of, the waiting became excruciating. It pained her with its clarity: she was waiting for Charles.

But it was more than that. She loved Charles; if love was the correct word she did not yet know, for his knowledge of life, for his ability to say to her, “You will be something. You will be fine.” She loved him because he had lived the life that stretched before her, so massive, causing her such anxiety, as she whittled away days, a housewife. In his insistence of her success was his creation of her superlative self.
The other case, Sheldon, she loved; yes, here love was certainly the right word, for his ability to say, “I am here.” Sheldon came home every night happy to see her, imagining no woman better than the one that was his wife. She was perfect as she was, he always told her, their legs tangled in the stark bleached white flannel sheets.
Contrarily, Charles helped her see beyond herself when she could not.

Haylee had lingered after class this Thursday. This time knowing that it was Charles and uncertainty that she was waiting for. And, because she was shy, she had only asked Charles to walk with her and let him talk on and on about Utopia when really she wanted to take his face between her two hands.
The moment of urgency that they had both felt on the curb of Strand was fading somewhat now that they were in motion. Walks always calmed Charles, who deeply breathed in the changing air and tried to think of what to say next to the enigma beside him. Haylee looked small and cold as she tried to wrap her slightly oversized coat tighter around her. He must protect her, he saw; she was in need. He was the knight, she the damsel, their lives a version of Chrétien de Troyes’ The Knight in the Cart. He was duty bound by courtly love and knightly codes.
“You’re cold. Let me take you back to my office. I have tea.”
She consented for lack of a better thing to do, for fear of the mundane, for the hope that here, with Charles life - complicated, dirty life - could begin. Charles would know how to handle it.

He kissed her, back against the grainy wood of his office door. They breathed heavily, tried to gain equanimity, spoke simultaneously, laughed nervously, and wished they had not done so. Both wished to kiss again, so Charles opened his office door with an unfortunate bang, taking Haylee’s hand and pulling her inside with the delicacy that kissing another man’s wife warranted. He thought of her in those terms – another man’s wife. Again they kissed. “Two,” Haylee counted inside herself, feeling the hair on his chin rub against her and reminding herself that this was not the careful Sheldon who would never, never be anything but cleanly shaven. She inhaled his smell strongly, musk and a nervous sweat that was not unappealing, everything new. She felt from the bottom of her to the very top alive. Yes, so alive! This intersection of her being and life intoxicated her, made her dizzy, still, complacent to Charles’ carefully sitting her down into the extra chair in his office, quietly reciting, “If thou must love me, let it be for nought / Except for love's sake only,” sending an ecstatic shiver up and down her – so unlike what she knew!
“The student chair,” Charles thought. The act of sitting her down as such had separated her from him, made her the other. Or perhaps, he more carefully ruminated, made himself the other in her eyes. In the accompanying silence he tried not to fidget as he felt more and more bodily uncomfortable, the act of trying to be silent awakening in him the need for extensive movement and noise: scratching, coughing. It shook him when Haylee got up with a start, with a squeak of the old metal chair, wheels long since rusted out of use, and stated, “I don’t want to be late.” She still had her coat on, her hand was already on the door – she was a guest never planning on more than a hurried visit. She departed, leaving him breathless and shuttering, not sure of what had happened, a tempest uncontrolled inside of his mid-regions.

As Charles collected himself with lukewarm water from the drinking fountain, Haylee walked at a pace designed to be brisk enough to occupy all conscious thought and to return her home before Sheldon’s impending arrival.

She prepared herself to feel immense guilt but instead felt nothing out of the ordinary. Sheldon sat in his oversized armchair, did the crossword, talked platitudes with her about the day. Haylee answered in mono-syllables too tired to do anything else.
She gathered the clothing to be pressed in the quiet of the kitchen. She overfilled the iron which left big circles of water on the sleeves of Sheldon’s favorite white button down. Her tears slid into the blotches left by the iron rendering her confusion into nothing.
And when Sheldon came into bed that evening, taking Haylee in his arms she was glad, as nothing had changed outside of herself. And when Sheldon shuttered into her as he had all those times before with such promise of life she felt an intense love for his unconditional kindness hoping that now she could make it all that she needed.

It was Tuesday. The grocery list was already jotted down. Haylee yanked on her olive Wellingtons, rubber squeaking against bare skin and resisting the downward pull of trouser cuffs. The contents of her purse checked, she grabbed her umbrella and headed for the door.
Haylee ducked her head, darted water droplets, hunkered down into her coat to fight the chill the rain had brought with it. Pulled pork. Tomatoes. Apples. A box of Smarties for Sheldon, happily turning out numbers at the local CPA firm. The listed circled through her brain blotting out intrusive thoughts.
“At least,” she thought, “I’m trying.”

She was unprepared for the hot, damp humanness of the market. It was uncharacteristically crowded. A bulbous looking woman bumped Haylee into a row of tomatoes, one splitting open into a gaping hole of seed-filled fertility. The sharp and acidic smell of the tomato made her dizzy and a little nauseous. Haylee slid through the crowded market quickly and anxiously. She had to finish the shopping, had to get outside to the fresh smell of wet ground, had to clear her head.

On the walk home she decided to stop for some mint tea to settle her. The disorganized feeling from the market had made her queasy. She chose the shop two and a half blocks from the flat, a small and unpopular establishment filled with the smell of burned tea leaf and kitsch décor – teapots of a pumpkin or a couple dancing, a singing frog creamer, mismatched and unironed table cloths in bright geometrics under glass, pies with crumbled crusts, and a seemingly anachronistic jukebox. The place was virtually empty upon her arrival, affording her a pleasant window seat from which she could watch a small girl holding her mother’s hand and stomping puddles along the street. The mother looked down at her offspring with joy bordering on awe as if recalling her own youthful joy at something as simple as rain. Thus preoccupied, Haylee did not notice him until he had moved right next to her.
“Hello, Haylee.”
Truth be told, Charles had not anticipated seeing Haylee either, had briefly contemplated fleeing the tea shop upon seeing the delicate curve of her back above a cup, her face melting into the rising heated fog. There was nothing to say.
That was a lie, Charles realized. There were many things to say, most of them apologetic, which is why he did not want to go over to her – how could he begin to be sorry for what he was not sure about? It was a mistake of course but a mistake he had wanted so badly. A mistake he wanted to make again, not because it was the best kiss he had ever had but because of the fact that this made him interesting. He was a man who attracted this younger woman. She gave him pride, shook him from routine, saw him as more than he was. If Haylee fancied Charles for seeing the potential of what she could be, Charles fancied Haylee for seeing how he could be different from how he had been.
Haylee escaping from her future and Charles escaping from his past intersecting in combustion, shrapnel ricocheting throughout their previously peaceful lives.

“My, God!” Haylee thought, Charles standing above her, “And it isn’t Thursday yet.”
She had not taken the kind of care that she ought to have, not anticipating seeing him here on a not Thursday. He was out of place, an intruder in this moment of her life. It was as if he had been transported from that classroom. Today he had the look of a man who read too much and didn’t go out enough. He looked down at her from his standing position, clearly anticipating being offered a seat.
“I have to go,” she said, standing, leaving her tea cup, still warm, radiating a ring of frosty-looking steam onto the glass.

Outside, she was sick. She dry-heaved holding the damp fence in front of Saint Clement Danes church. Rain water ran cold down her coat sleeves, this time her skin pricked in certain unhappiness. She tried to breathe deeply and not shiver.
“Here,” he wrapped his coat around her. She had not counted on him following her out of the café. His coat smelled of his musk. Ironically, it began to settle her down.
“I think we ought to talk,” he said carefully, trying not to seem alarmed.
The flat was only a block away, but she did not offer. Instead, he led her in the direction of the Aldwych Station, paid for their tokens for the Underground, and seated her with great care in the poorly ventilated train. When they lurched forward with a squeal she felt for sure she would be sick again with the stale air. However, the presence of his hand on her back calmed her as much as his presence in the café had unnerved her before. Of course he would be kind.
“Charles,” she said his name experimentally, but he hushed her.
“I am taking you to my office. We’ll talk there.”
So all she could do was sit, wrapped in his coat smelling of his musk and not think about her husband.

Things did not go as planned. Haylee had an eloquent speech in her mind about how this could not continue. Then his office door closed, and he was kissing her.
Had his stubble not grated against her face, had he not pushed her back into the doorknob with a bit too much force, had the smell of his musk not suddenly made her nauseous and the office not suddenly felt claustrophobic, she wouldn’t have blurted it out without thought.
If he had been more gentle and clean shaven she would have let him kiss her one last time in hopes that he would repeat the line of Browning from before: “If thou must love me, let it be for nought / Except for love's sake only.” If he had said it, she would have been able to leave easier, knowing that Charles was only an opposite – a man with glasses, an office in King’s College, and all that meant.
As it was, she turned her head away from him and pushed at the bulk of his chest.
“I can’t. I’m having a baby.”
Haylee did not look back to see his face – the beauty that would cross it as a result of awe, anger, confusion, and sadness as he turned into himself. She raced for the door, feeling as though, if she didn’t get out of the College, she would die with emotion. She let the door close with a crack, leaving the world of Charles with it.


Seth said...

Hey ...

I've read this before...

And it's still as good now as it was when I did proofreading on it! You're such a great writer, and your story really reflects your ability to not only create something, but also to work with it and craft it. It's no wonder that you got into that Juniper Summer Writing thingy, and it's no wonder that the creative writing class speaks so highly of your work. It's not for nothing - you deserve it!

...Even if the subject matter seems suspicious to me sometimes...


Kim said...

It's been interesting to see how this has progressed over the semester.

Who were some of your -- aside from the mentioned -- influences while you were writing this? Any particular piece of work, music, socio-cultural observation?

Good luck in critiques!

Madison said...

Clearly, from my blog, I have problems with stories about love, but I will try not to let that cloud my judgment.

You're a writer capable of progression, and that's something to be said these days when people think they shit gold on the first try without constant workshopping and revising and editing. You handle things, you evoke imagery and you let us linger in a moment.

I think the most impressive part about this story is the small amount of space and time it takes place in, and how observant we, as readers, are allowed to be in those moments. There's nothing worse than being shoved through a story by the back of your neck.

Good work.

Leslie said...

These previous comments have confirmed my suspicions that you are double-dipping with your homework assignments!

Seriously though, I don't have any rules or opinions regarding posting work from other places, provided that there's a purpose for posting it on your blog (aside from fulfilling your word count). Did you tell anyone outside the class that you'd be posting creative writing? Were you hoping to get some feedback from people outside your workshop? I think these would be great reasons to post drafts of projects on blogs.

So, why'd you post it here?

Burdamania said...

Dammit, is this all?

This was so eloquently written, but to be nit-picky, I was a little disappointed this was set in modern times: maybe something like 19th-century England would be more preferable considering the tone and intelligence of both parties seems so rare in college these days (then again, it's not like Umass is all that presitigious).

Also, I'm a sucker for romantic love scenes :nudge nudge: