Fiction by Patricia Canright Smith
Day One: We Gather Together For Dinner
She looks like someone who can—and must—set the schedule, phone five people, run a marathon, balance the budget, save endangered rainforest, effect world peace. And then pick up the dog from the vet. Uncharacteristically, she looks forlorn. Something is terribly wrong with her face.
This one looks thirsty, thirsty for love. Quick, watchful, responsive, jolly, she also looks sad.
Her eyes are half-closed. One of the Newbies, could be she drinks too much, but who can tell? No signal, nothing.
She looks easy, maybe lazy, but she’s not. Super-tidy hair and laser gaze, her signal is also under wraps. You always wonder if something might spring loose. You know, like her temper.
She looks like someone accustomed to being admired. Not conventionally pretty, she smiles a lot with her lashes lowered so you can admire her teeth and archaic lips. Another Newbie, she speaks rapidly: Oh, totally, totally, and then says something clever.
This one, Newbie number three, looks like the kind of woman who would, in an emergency, swoop in, gather you up, and nurse you. Seriously: breast-feed. You stare at her a beat too long as you try to decide whether her boundless solicitude would be about you or those breasts.
Your highly esteemed leader: magnetic, razor-sharp, armed, attentive, omniscient. Every interchange is a subtle dance in which she maintains the lead, but her triumphs may have become rote. She’s very funny, but not sunny.
This one looks avid, excited, enthusiastic, all in! All! Systems! Go! Also, no nonsense. Like an astronaut.
You, with your intent gaze and slight smile, are guarded, the observer. Yes, admit it, the judge. A lapsed psychotherapist—or maybe it’s because you’re a mother—you must keep track. You know, see how everybody’s doing. You try to be a player by making jokes and offering opinions, but for some reason, tonight it’s just awkward.
Day Two: Workshop
Come on out.
Must Effect World Peace is treating pre-cancerous lesions with chemo cream, which explains her scarlet, splotchy, puffed-up face. All day she presses her palms to her cheeks like a silent film actress, aghast. During critique she rallies enough to say Can I talk? and then delivers a stunning exposition of what her book is really about. You want to read that book.
Thirsty for Love drives her own car to the beach walk in case she needs to bail. She does not bail, but on the return, on the soft dunes near the parking lot, she pants, I’m going to die. The desperation in her voice makes you stop and inspect. Her face is wet and shiny, red as World Peace’s. My butt is exploding, she gasps. You say, Can I use that line?
It turns out Half-Closed Eyes has a head cold, but still she braves the beach walk—the two other Newbies skip it—and you think she must really want to be included. But then she walks backward with her hood up. During workshop, she hunches, she nods, she blanches, she nods off.
Easy-Lazy-Tidy-Haired-Laser-Gazed—let’s just call her Ms. Vigilant—goes stony when the Leader opens with her customary jibe about the smell of cigarettes. The critique is glowing, but Ms. Vigilant glowers: It was just to have something to turn in, she says, like she does not believe and will not accept one crumb of praise for that piece of crap. Only her abandoned cashmere sweater adorns the afternoon session. Is it because of the Leader’s cigarette crack? Or perhaps, as the most longstanding member, she can do what she wants. Oh, and she’s still not writing. Oh, and three Newbies. Ms. V never likes the Newbies.
You apologize to Admired One for your ill-considered remarks the night before—you were tired, you were in another zone—and she says in her melodious monotone, Oh nonononono.
You say . . . then she says . . . then you. She pauses, considers, and says, So, you’re saying you’re not a bitch?
Gather-and-Nurse comes to dinner one half hour late in shades-of-purple PrAna, trailed by Half-Closed Eyes. Her gaze flits the room like a foraging butterfly. Ha ha ha: they found the most amazing yoga class. She pours a globe of wine, swigs, and pours some more. Ha ha ha; so fun.
Esteemed Leader cold-shoulders the late-comers—how else will they learn?—as she dazzles the rest of you with tales of townies, colleagues—especially the Asshole—her dogs, foreign countries and The Poet. She sighs in the high little voice of a child, If I lived in Hawaii, I would be happy every day.
The noble Astronaut, in a game of Gestures, wiggles two fingers behind her head and then holds two fists against her chest and hops, so hilarious that you all fall over. But later, in your room, she struggles. Three years in The Workshop, fervent about its worth, but she is convinced the Leader doesn’t like her. Also, no one likes her work. Also, there are financial concerns.
Guarded One, the Observer: something seems to be triggering jabs of nostalgia and that creepy judginess. You don’t know why. Just Be Here Now. Love each and every one of these people. Come on.
Day Three: Workshop
Okay, everyone in the pool.
World Peace announces that today is the chemo cream turning point. Then she continues to press her hands to her cheeks; her chocolate lab continues to rifle the trash and eat off the coffee table; she continues to yell at him. Normally, she would remain calm; normally, she would be happily running the show. Her screaming face and lack of sleep must really be getting to her. You miss her a lot.
Thirsty for Love, dark-circled and dim, keeps her gaze on her laptop, murmuring, Gotcha, gotcha. Her flying fingers machine-gun those oddly muted laptop taps. Afterwards, she does not look up, nor does she speak. You want to take her home and feed her. Love, feed her love.
Half-Closed Eyes prattles into the ether about her boyfriend’s camper, only it’s really the camper of an old lady he knows but he gets to use it because he’s handy and he fixes things on it and sometimes they get to use it to go camping. She trails off. Even the Purple Nurse cannot save her. This has happened to you. You’re sorry.
Ms. Vigilant—but she’s sweet, sweet, you’re sharing a suite and have finally discovered just how sweet she is—hangs on to the poker face. When someone tells a story about a young writer getting an advance of $750,000, everyone starts chittering about how this money will ruin his writing, ruin his life, but Ms. V mutters It’s not enough and takes herself outside for a smoke.
Admired One’s writing is gushed over, amazing, just fabulous. In her high, possibly-ironic voice, she croons You guys are too nice and then she shrugs, But I can’t really do the short story thing, as though it were a point of pride. Esteemed Leader tells her, nicely, to Cowboy Up. Just don’t leave the room, she says, as though it were easy.
The Nurse weeps throughout critique—so it wasn’t a first draft?—Kleenex Kleenex Kleenex. When it’s her turn she sobs; I just heard that my clients lost their 16-week twins. I know as a grief counselor I should be able to handle these things, but it’s hard. You feel petty.
Esteemed Leader unveils an exquisite Valentine’s cake with two red hearts, delicate blue rosettes, and shavings of white chocolate on top, and then for a good thirty minutes the cake just sits there while the Leader picks off chocolate and laments the failings of her Perpetually-In-A-Deep-Hole Poet. How wearing these critiques must be, you think. Then The Poet calls. Then the Leader apologizes. I really do love him, she says. She cuts the cake and everyone eats.
The Astronaut lies crumpled on the cold slate floor in her fire-truck pajamas. She got up to go to the bathroom, fainted, and bashed her head. You and Ms. Vigilant keep shining the flashlight in her eyes. The Astronaut keeps saying I don’t know how this happened. For the rest of the night Ms. V wakes the Astronaut every hour. You can hear her out there, the primordial raspy voice of a saint.
O Guarded One, even before the Astronaut’s crash you were tired, on the verge of tears, your mind in ashes. Despite the perfect California day. Even after the perfect beach walk and highly stimulating writing talk. This is how it always is, day three: sick of it. And there’s something else. You don’t want to think about it.
Day Four: Workshop
Gotta get in those laps
World Peace has unbelievably forgotten her chocolate lab’s leash and his Chuck-It for the beach. She pushes her face into the stinging off-shore wind, onerous to everyone else, cooling to her. You think maybe today really is the turning point. It’s not: during session she’s so distracted—DOG, FACE, DOG, FACE—she might as well go to her room.
Thirsty for Love—maybe, probably not, Thirsty—skips the walk, is quiet during critique. Later, you come across her alone in the gracious living room in a late slanting sunbeam, strumming guitar and singing in a silvery voice. She is beautiful. Maybe you should just call her Love.
Half-Closed—by now her cold is better and her eyes are perfectly open—says directly to you, I hope I didn’t offend you. You panic: maybe you offended her, because you did think something snarky about her writing and maybe she read your mind—or maybe you said it out loud. But no, she’s talking about a thing in her novel that she thinks will be controversial. It’s difficult to follow her reasoning but you’re pretty sure it’s not the thing you think is controversial and you reassure her with supercharged sincerity—a dead giveaway.
Ms. Vigilant checks her phone incessantly, even during sessions. Inexplicably, she is not scolded. Over drinks, she tells you that she does day trading; expounds upon Google and Novo Nordisk, clarifies splits. You believe if anyone can beat the market, she can. But why she can’t finish her wonderful book?
Admired One heads to the city with Half-Closed and Nurse: The Newbies Go Shopping. They return with shiny bags. As Half-Closed is modeling a plum-colored bucket hat with a big chartreuse button, Ms. V pushes through the kitchen door and Admired One mutters, Ah, here comes ma-dahm. You think, oooo, those two? You missed it, but of course Admired One is sharp enough to scent a certain indifference, if not disdain, from Ms. V.
The Nurse, ever hopeful, says, Okay, you guys who have written a novel: Do you know when it’s done? She’s fifteen years and many hundreds of pages in, following her gut, she says, but she just wonders if she has too many story lines. Her question reminds you of the time a friend asked you and another friend, So did you know for sure whether you should get married? and the other friend said Yes and you said No simultaneously. The Nurse does not find this helpful.
Esteemed Leader comes back from an obligatory day trip subdued. Later, when Love shows a music video about the Leader’s dogs—all but one now gone—it makes the Leader cry, and everyone starts suggesting other, more long-lived, breeds she might try. The Leader says, Well, I like those a lot, but if I got one I would have to use the word labradoodle.
The Astronaut’s condition is diagnosed: There’s some bad shit happens because of menopause, the Leader declares, and she suggests acupuncture. But the Astronaut is a doctor: she has a concussion, nothing to be done. All day, she moves as though encased in jello. All day, you wish you could take her in your arms and make it better. You have no wish, of course, to nurse her.
Guarded One: you worry that the dog’s tail will capsize Admired One’s water glass, that the kitchen harbors infectious disease, that the downstairs bathroom shelters rats, that you have hurt someone’s, possibly everyone’s, feelings, that World Peace is actually losing her mind, that Esteemed Leader is seriously overtired—now she has a cold—that the Astronaut is more broken than she lets on, that you aren’t including the Newbies enough. But for the first time in three years you are not keeping track of who is helping in the kitchen and who is not. What does this mean?
Day Five: Workshop
And . . . it’s a wrap
World Peace announces that today is for sure the turning point. At breakfast she picks tiny tips of peeling skin off her face, which shower onto the table like dandruff. When you complain she says, You should see my bed, and laughs good-naturedly. Laughs! But she’s still not sleeping. You want to take her in your arms and make it better. No, nothing about nursing. Neither does the Nurse want to nurse anyone. That was just your creepy projection, a result of your fixation on her breasts.
Love, dark circles gone, brings her guitar to the beach and plops down in the dunes. When someone asks if she’s going on the walk she says Oh, HELL no. Later, you see on Facebook that she felt just like a happy hippie, playing guitar on the beach in California. She gets many, many Likes. Of course she does.
Half-Closed trails first this twosome, then that twosome, down the beach. You wait near the parking lot to ask how it’s going. She says, You know, everyone has their own little conversations going on. But it’s okay to walk by yourself. You understand that in her circle, that would be what was being asked, and hers would be the correct answer. She won’t be back.
Ms. Vigilant treats you all to her Airplane Story during the last supper after people plead. Then, no prodding, her Dog Poop story. Then—seriously, funnier than Tina Fey—the Grocery Store story, the Boom-Box story, and another Airplane story. She looks happy. The universal theme: Don’t fuck with me.
Admired One, still in her lavender chenille robe, is Skyping with the Officer, her pirate-hunting husband. She carries him, handsome, self-assured, and twenty years her senior, to the living room, where he charms even the Leader. Afterwards, Admired One says in her high, possibly ironic monotone, Now I’m embarrassed, talking about my husband so much. Blanche DuBois. She’s not embarrassed.
The Nurse has grown remote: quiet during sessions, absent during break. Anyone need anything? She’s walking into town to get a coke. I need a coke, she repeats decisively without making eye contact. You remember what that feels like. She probably won’t be back, either.
All week, the Leader is tireless in the service of truth and beauty. It makes you brave. When people suggest alternate endings for your story—they’re not sure about the dead goose—you say, Well, I just had this image of a dead white goose flying through the sky. No one speaks. Then the Leader says, Maybe you have to stick with your image. This is the Leader’s genius: she can see, and she trusts, the vision of the heart. Expansive, kind and generous. You love this woman.
The Astronaut scribbles furiously. Then she slaps shut her notebook, says Thank you, and announces that this will be her last time. She talks about how much the Workshop has meant to her; she starts to cry. The Astronaut in tears: yes, you want to take her in your arms. As does the Nurse, apparently—she too is weeping, copiously, helplessly. She says in her scratchy voice, You are breaking my heart. Oh god, I am such a fucking wuss. I’m a fucking wuss. The Astronaut is not a wuss but she cannot stop weeping, nor can she stop apologizing for weeping. She really does not want to quit.
Guarded One—you are full-up with a good nights’ sleep, with the Astronaut’s return to life, with another long beach walk, with how smart and earnest these women are. With art, with the clean, honest pursuit of art. But it’s not just the Astronaut. Even though: How can I quit? What if I stop writing? What if I keep writing but it’s drivel?—somewhere along the way a decision has been made. That’s one way to do the difficult thing: don’t watch.
After dinner you announce that this will be your last Workshop, and you cry.
You will miss it for a long time.