I wore my shoes to bed last night, not sure what came over me, but I knew just like before that I would wake again in what I wore to bed. That night, I woke up in the forest, just like I had for the past three months. Only, my dreams changed just like it was outside. Summer faded, the foreign stars shifted overhead, and during my walks back from Johnson's Shoes each and every night, I saw Orion rise. October now, and I'm certain that it's changing here too. I say here, not that I brought a journal to bed: but because it is easier to think, to remember, as if it were happening now.
You see, it was that night that everything changed, not just the weather, not just that I wore my hiking boots, or brought a compass, but because I met someone else. She was unlike anything, anyone that I'd met before, but, I'm getting ahead of myself.
I woke up, lying down in the mossy undergrowth of the forest, dew still clinging to my face as the sun rose. The trees were still gray in the rising light, their ancient boughs reluctant to share its warmth with me, lying on the ground. I rose from my rest, refreshed by the morning air, better than anything I'd tasted in the Olympians or the Cascades, and much better than the stale smoke-filled gas they breathed on the city streets, what I sucked in to make the climb to Capitol Hill last night.
But before I went home, I stopped by Kevin's, well it's not his, it's called The Idiot, a better title than the previous name for a bar, Wine and Punishment. The owner had complained about that one, but Kevin had a thing for Russian authors. Anyway, as I walked through the door, at that five-way intersection, it was dark, with curtains and picture frames hung between the shelves that were filled to the brim, tastefully, with books, and bottles with fancy labels.
Kevin always liked fancy things; perhaps that's why he went into the business. I sat down at the bar, smelling the faint potpourri of pine needles and juniper and cinnamon, that he had spaced throughout its limited two-story space. The bar was old, polished by the elbows and sliding coupes of Kir Royals and rusty patrons, back from class or work, hoping to forget just for a second the world outside. Sometimes I wonder if that feeling is what drew me to dream of the forest, of its sweet escape, and bracing air.
"You're a regular, that's for sure," Kevin admonished as I swiveled in my seat.
I gave him the look, the one that I meant to say, 'that's only natural' or 'same as always' and tapped my fingers on the oak. "Think of anything new?" I asked, looking at the only other person at the bar, a student, it looked like, messenger bag loaded with books, and Ulysses propped open on the bar.
Kevin often offered his opinion of books and things to his students, telling them that Dedalus was sorry, and that his bitterness was something that the young could share throughout the ages. That's what he said on one question then, so I said, "The only bitterness I like to receive is what's in my drink," and I pointed to the Peychaud's Angostura on the shelf.
"Not for what I'm making you," Kevin replied, looking to me with his shining smile and dark tan. He tilted his head and rolled his shoulders, and took out his shaker and filled it with a scoop of ice from the bucket. He tossed in an orange rind, half a shot of vermouth, a shot of Amaretto, and two shots of Templeton, and because I was watching, three dashes of Peychaud's, before he gave it a professional shake, and poured its dark amber liquid into an ice-rimmed cocktail glass and slid it before my hands. "This is the bittersweet freedom of Stephen Dedalus, at least that's how I felt after I read Portrait," he said, scanning my face as I took the first sip.
It was good, bittersweet, just like he said, with the right hint of orange. "What's this based off of?" I asked.
"That? It's a new take on the Manhattan." He shrugged.
I laughed. "But it's got nothing in common," I said, turning to his protégé, "has he made you try this?"
"I tried it yesterday," the student replied, looking up from his book with an annoyed look in his eyes. He had dark eyes, and curly hair, almost like he came out of one of those Joyce books. I'd tried to read them, but after Dubliners and Portrait, it got more and more opaque, and I lost interest. Kevin complained and talked it up, but I figured it was better to stay up to date, reading the contemporaries like Rowling and Clancy.
Of course, that might've been where I went wrong. They had long since finished writing their best stuff. The new series Rowling wrote with Severus was just a repeat of her previous inspiration, hardly better than what I wrote, but still better, because my last novel had been refused at ten different companies in the same week.
"So, what do you think?" Kevin asked in words, not face.
I smiled, because with him, it was genuine, far better than the farce I had to put up with telling thirty-something women that wearing 'these' sandals in the fall would make them look 'hip' or lying about the stock in the back. "It's certainly a good drink, but still evolving. It has good heat with the rye, slightly sweet because of the amaretto, but you might want to use dry vermouth." I said.
Kevin closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "I did, there must be something missing. Maybe I'll use less amaretto, and just muddle an orange slice next time."
"Hey, Kevin, you don't need to make it fit my taste perfectly, it just has to be good." I said, hoping to reassure him. He'd always been insecure about his recipes, and they were the best in Seattle, but don't tell anyone, I like it quiet.
The student looked up with a smirk, so I glanced over. "What, is this more interesting than your assignments?"
He chuckled, in a low tone, probably a smoker, but I couldn't smell it on him. "This is just to pass the time," he said.
I shook my head, reading that just to pass the time? What was wrong with him? I'd rather read Les Mis' at least that would give some historical instruction. Of course, last time I argued that point Kevin wrote a twelve-page essay on the historical significance of Joyce's works and made me read it. I decided to change the subject. "So Kevin, you still up in Lake City?" I asked, spinning my glass, watching its contents rotate and swirl in varying patterns with the conical depth.
"Same old flat, same old bus," he replied, leaning on his elbows, black apron smudged from the glasses he'd cleaned and the spills he'd hidden. The 522 was a decent bus, they started running it a number of years ago so the machines were much cleaner than the regular graffiti-covered wrecks they used in China Town or Fremont. Still don't know why he never got that Yamaha up and running, he bought out all the whatever for dummies books possible to repair it, but mechanics had never been his strong suit; but then, it'd never been mine either.
"I still don't see why you don't take the light rail," I observed.
Kevin ran a hand through his cropped hair and smiled. "I tried it once, do you remember? I'll never ride the rail again I tell you, not after that happened," he said with an ironic laugh. I let the matter drop, I didn't really care about the conversation anyway, it was just a better way to pass the time.
That night we talked about the usual stuff, how we could never become what we already are, or that everything we say does something, and that everything we write has an Austinian effect on the reader. After the Dedalus I ordered a Negroni just for the change in taste, and lingered over a well-loved copy of The Little Prince, and I'm not ashamed to say, it made me cry, but I think I hid it well, and no one seemed to care.
"Philip," Kevin began, pulling down a bottle from the shelf, "here, have a shot of Fernet." He poured three glasses, only a finger high, and passed them out to the two of us, and we shared a light toastless cheer with the student. "I looked over your latest book," he said, setting down his empty glass.
"Well?" I asked, and slid mine over to his.
He grimaced. "It's terrible, just awful," he said and then he laughed, and put the empty glasses below the bar.
"You saw how much work I put into that!" I complained, and ordered an Old Fashioned as imperiously as I could.
"You spent four months locked away and came up with the same story as Twilight." He chuckled, and stirred my next drink.
"There's nothing about vampires or whatevers in my book," I said, slightly slurring my 'v's and 's's.
"It's the plot; still, I suppose Avatar would be a better comparison." He went on.
"How are those similar?" I asked, bewildered, as he passed me my tumbler, swirling its contents around the block of ice.
"The native spirit falls for the alien explorer?" Kevin raised one eyebrow. "And the characters, they had no heart, I couldn't understand why they liked each other, much less why they decided to take the castle for their own."
The student covered a laugh.
"What?" I asked, shooting him a hurt look.
He saved his place with the cardboard coaster. "I just don't think you'll get published like that."
"Well, have you ever been published? I've written five books…"
"But… you haven't been published…." The student interjected. "And that's why, you don't have a story. Why don't you try contemporary fiction?"
I smiled. "What am I supposed to write, jokes about the insane traffic on I-90 or the $5 toll for 520, the trouble with women and shoes, or the rise of obesity?" I asked sardonically, and wondered whether that'd make a good premise.
He adjusted his blue canvas jacket and ran a hand through his hair. "That's the problem, you're only thinking of setting, or of the idea. What you need is a character driven story, something that will resonate whether it is set in the 18th century or the 32nd."
Kevin looked at me with a sad shake of his head. "He's right. You can't expect to get away with something that has already been done," he said, tapping his fingers on the bar, "Do you think someone could write Cheers nowadays? Even if it hadn't been written yet, if it was written now, no one would like it. You need to write something that will be real to today's audience."
"All this writing advice from non-writers, what use is it to me? I don't even get feedback from the editors, and even my agent stopped answering my calls," I said, taking a larger sip than I intended, and choked on my Old Fashioned.
They watched me sputter in silence, sharing looks at my expense, and then the student said with a serious glint in his eyes, "I haven't read your work, but even if you can craft the best sentences in the world, that doesn't make you a writer. Even if you know what a gerund is, and how to use it, that won't make you a writer; a writer is someone who makes you see something, feel something, and come to understand something even if they don't know what they are telling you."
Kevin applauded, and as there were no other patrons in the bar, no one minded except the student, who coughed and covered his embarrassment. "Well said my young padawan," he said hands on his hips.
The student sighed and rested his chin on his hands. "All I'm saying is, without something that affects you as the writer, it cannot affect the reader. Eloquence and Effectiveness, they say, but you need Affect just as much. Think of your next story, then the characters, and then let them change it when they become more real than you."
I shuddered. It couldn't be that he was right, could it? It felt right, but you never know, it is those times when you can be impressed, or influenced by people, when their words… do something to you. Austin. I thought of Austin. I thought of J. L. Austin. No, writing shouldn't be mere nonsense; it had to be real, even as real as the hell of the day to day.
I walked home warm in spite of the wind off the Puget Sound, thinking of that, of that terrible book I'd been forced to read by my creative writing professor, the one who told me I'd never make it as a writer until I knew what it meant. How did it all come down to action? Writing was supposed to be an escape, but not for me, no, I didn't have that natural talent, that genius that infected all those famous people, who wrote complete bullshit and yet were still believed. Fuck, I'd tried, so many drafts, so many revisions, and thrown out chapters. Two-hundred and thirty-eight, two-hundred and thirty-eight reasons to throw everything thing I'd ever tried to be into the shredder. My last letter came from Tor; they said that if I could polish my story into something more original with more relatable characters, they might accept another manuscript.
It had taken everything my agent had to offer, and yet I still blew it. I slunk through my door to my shabby apartment, and fell on my couch, head reeling from the drink, and from the thoughts that swirled around my brain like scotch around ice. How, how? I wondered. How could they come up with stories, with characters more real than the pedestrians walking down University Way like so many extras in a film? I fell asleep on top of my covers in all my clothes with my phone in my pocket and my shoes on my feet, and that is how I woke up once more in the Wandering Forest. Though now I wonder if Wandering Wood would be a better name… perhaps that's the reason I'm a failure, I can't name, and I can't imagine a real person.
So there I was, still drunk in the wood, wondering if I ought to write about my mindless dreams, when something inexplicable happened. I looked over to my right, and just between the trees I caught sight of a cloud of mist, looking like it was just about to coalesce into human form, when it dissipated and the figure vanished back into the smoke, just as the sunlight broke through the branches. I stumbled on my feet, thankful I'd forgotten to take off my boots, and fished around my pockets for my lighter and cigarette case.
Sure, they said smoking was bad for you, but that was what writers did, right? I fished out one of my American Spirits and puffed over the flame, and sucked in the putrid fumes that gave me peace. I French-inhaled and blew out the remaining smoke with a sigh. What did they know anyway? They only read books and argued philosophy, but even still, their words stuck with me as I wandered through the forest.
An hour or so later I saw a clearing in the trees. It looked like a space had been made by an ancient burn pile, and in the center I saw a figure standing with a hooded cloak, and just the hint of red hair from the back, where it strayed beyond the cloth. I stepped on a twig, and the figure turned, and stared at me, with a fresh cigarette in my mouth, and my buzz fading, and my pathetic attempt at a mustache, staring back at her.
She had a pensive, cold look, and a face that should have been pretty, with dark eyebrows and bright blue eyes, and full lips, except she looked startled and afraid, and somehow like nothing could make her smile.
I subconsciously adjusted my coat and tossed the cigarette out of view, and gave an awkward wave. "I didn't mean to startle you." I said, stepping into the clearing. "I didn't know there'd be anyone else here."
She turned around, cloak floating back in the ethereal breeze, revealing a floral dress, well, more of a nightgown really, paired with knee high leather boots. She tossed back her hood and looked at me inquisitively, not saying a word.
I laughed, and pointed at her shoes. "Well, it seems I'm not the only one to wear shoes to sleep."
She looked down, and noticed her boots, and inspected them with her intense eyes. "Well then, I forgot to take them off," she said in a lilting voice, with a thick Irish accent.
"Oh, I thought you were an American," I said, stuffing my hands in my pockets.
She tilted her head. "Well, I knew you weren't Irish," she said.
I shrugged. "Philip, um, who are you?" That was why I'd never been able to talk comfortably with girls, and why my most successful relationship had only lasted two weeks.
She nodded. "And what are you doing Philip?"
I blinked. Just what could she mean? "I'm sorry?"
"This is my dream, Philip, what are you doing here?"
"What are you talking about? It's my dream, why are you here?" I returned.
At this she gave a smile, only with her mouth. "I see, so we're both here then."
"I don't know what you're on about," I said, stepping closer, careful to avoid crushing the untouched grass, "for the past three months I've slept in peace.
She shook her head. "You've not been sleeping Philip."
Something about what she said made me twitch, it made me itch, but it felt true. "So, where are we then?"
"Kathy," she said, brushing her forelocks out of her face. She had slightly curly hair like that annoying student from the night before, "and, I haven't the foggiest."
I smiled. "Well, that makes two of us."
And that is how we met, and started to search the forest together. We didn't find anything at first, no, just trees and moss, and more vanishing figures in the mist, but in a few weeks we left the forest, and what we saw, I'll never forget.
Author's Note: I would like to thank Lynn K. Hollander for the kind review, I have taken your editing advice into consideration as I went over this chapter again. This may be a side project of mine for now, but I hope my readers will enjoy this story as it unfolds, but be warned, the narrator is not supposed to be entirely reliable, and the flow of memory to present scene is supposed to be slightly obscure, so please bear with my writing experiment.