Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Humping Warren Beatty

I should be grading final projects, but instead I’m drinking espresso and reading Paul Theroux’s Hotel Honolulu. I stopped writing and picked up Paul’s book because I was broadsided with depression over the weekend after waking in the midst of a dream in which Ruth, my second wife, was marrying me again. We were back at the same Las Vegas chapel where we’d sealed the deal the first time.

Warren Beatty was the best man--at the real wedding, not in the dream--and a waitress, Lil, from the lounge of the Plaza Hotel served as maid of honor. I’d just met Warren as he sat across the aisle from me in first class on the flight out from La Guardia. He had my latest novel in his lap, and I couldn’t resist asking him what he thought. “My second time through,” he said. I asked to see it and when he handed it to me I began scribbling. He was annoyed until he read the inscription and realized I was the author, and then we had a lovely conversation during which he asked me astute questions that clearly showed he knew the book even better than I did. I rarely did more than one draft in those days. He thought the sloppiness was an intentional affectation of the narrator’s voice, and I must admit that it did fit the tone of the novel. Ruth, sitting next to me, was all moony because of Warren’s proximity and she whispered in my ear with her martini-and-peanut-breath to ask me if I’d be offended if she fantasized about him during our lovemaking on our wedding night, and I told her that it was fine by me. I’m humble enough to admit that my pear-shaped physique, natty hair and Walt Whitman beard offer no advantages over the suave actor. Ruth married me because she was a fan of my writing (bad idea) and because we laughed hysterically whenever we were together.

We met Warren for drinks the next day at the Flamingo, and that’s when he offered to attend the wedding. Lil was a buxom cocktail waitress at our hotel with whom I flirted, and Ruth asked her to attend so that I would have a fantasy object of my own in the chapel to balance out Mr. Beatty. Later that night, our hips entangled in the reverse missionary position, I cried out “Oh Lil, Lil, Lil,” while Ruth screamed, “Hump me Warren, you filthy bastard!” Later, after orgasms, we lay sweating on the sheets and laughed so hard that Ruth broke wind, which only redoubled our hysterics.

I’ve not seen Warren in years, but there he was in my dream, smelling of expensive soap, standing next to me at the Happy Hearts Chapel (now bulldozed to make room for a water slide and go-kart complex). Warren was clean, but also worn and haggard, and he was impatiently checking his pocket watch, a giant pewter monstrosity the size of a dinner plate. He reminded me of the rabbit from Alice in Wonderland. The Elvis impersonator performing the service instructed me to kiss the bride, but when I turned Ruth was gone. Standing in her place was Shirleen Tomasetti, and she was holding hands with my lesbian daughter, Ella. I ran from the chapel to find myself in the middle of the desert, a coyote staring at me from his perch on a rock, his shoulders hunched like an irreverent teenager with bad posture. He was panting from the heat, flies fighting for the moisture in the corner of his eyes. He blinked in annoyance and sauntered off. I sat, puzzled, the shadow of a turkey vulture passing over me.

That’s when I awoke. I was in a lousy mood and couldn’t find words or bear to grade papers even though Yu, my current best student, had turned in a lovely piece set in her rural Gansu Province home country. To keep myself distracted, I grabbed Paul’s Hotel Honolulu, which is timely as it tells the absurdly realistic story of a burned out writer who runs off to manage a hotel on the Big Island. Paul’s brilliant…I haven’t seen him since he moved to that godforsaken volcanic rock in the Pacific, but reading his books always make you want to travel because he has a way of cutting through the travel-mystique bullshit to show you the real grit and heart of a place. I’m almost through with the book, but I’ve just stumbled across a passage that is particularly apt that I will share with my students tomorrow. The writer-turned-hotel-manager character is in the hotel bar with a patron. The patron, who knows the manager used to write, speaks first:

“I want to write a book, what’s it like?”

“Awful when you’re doing it. Worse when you’re not.”

Absolutely on the mark. Paul, being a contemporary, has always impressed me by his prolificacy balanced with real talent. The sort of writer I could have been had I a little bit more of both. In any case, I’ve called Ruth and left a message on her machine, suggesting we meet in Vegas for a few days. Perhaps there’s a fourth marriage in the cards for old BT after all.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Fourth admonishment: 'show don't tell' is horse shit

"Show, don't tell" is certainly the most dangerous and misinterpreted advice given to young writers. It's well meaning, but nevertheless harmful. It is the enemy of "voice," and it altogether strips the role of the author from the finished prose. In essence, it turns Pommard 1er Cru into two-buck Chuck.

There are much better, albeit more complex, ways to encourage writers to focus on story movement, on pressing the narrative along, on cautioning them not to linger unnecessarily or stray off track. But ours is a culture programmed to love taglines, and "show, don't tell" has become a brand unto itself. It represents all of the bland, voiceless fiction that plugs the arteries of our literary world. I've never done a serious study, but it strikes me that the phrase has arisen out of the paranoia in the 50's and 60's that television and film would compete with reading and thus shrink the audience for fiction. The thinking is that readers are busy people, and they don't want anything to pop the "bubble of reality," this fantasy land created by the plot of a novel, lest they grow distracted and turn to the Great American Lobotomy Tube or to other, more spare writing that doesn't slow down their busy lives. If an author dares to bog readers down with subtle description, or to "tell" them the story in the inflated language of a narrator's voice rather than simply "show" them the bare bones of the action, then the readers will turn away.

This is bullshit. Readers read because they enjoy being "told" a story. Those who want to skip right to the movie will probably not purchase the novel in the first place. Some authors resonate with readers, and some don't, but stripping the prose down to action alone is rarely the right answer. People read specific writers over a long period of time because they've become attuned to the author's "voice," or in other words, the way the author "tells" the story.

Stories are told. Movies are shown. "Show, don't tell," I realize, is a rule. And it is a requirement of any serious writer to break every rule as soon as it's codified. But I still hear people I respect flogging this phrase, and I'm sure they don't realize the damage they're doing by encouraging incipient writers to turn away from their voices in favor of "showing" the naked skeleton of the plot. I understand that some tastes prefer such twiggy, undernourished storytelling, and that's fine. (Note, I don't put Carver or Hemingway in this category...what they were doing was lush and altogether different from "show don't tell") Taste in storytelling is subjective much in the same way that some men prefer women who look like that emaciated corpse Ann Coulter, while others...Trout included...require a little more. Some people...most in fact...prefer to be "told" a story. There is a reason my girls, when small, put away their video tapes and much preferred to hear Daddy Trout "tell" them a story, complete with my embellishments, exaggerations, asides, tangents, gestures and affectations. When you ask a young writer to "show and don't tell" you are asking her to strip out all of these things that make live storytelling so dynamic. Some say that's a good thing. I say not.

My good friend John Schultz has oft lamented the loss of the author's voice, and he's studied the issue more than I. Once, while antelope hunting in Outer Mongolia in the mid-70s, John and I weathered a three-day storm in our yurt, railing about the issue while the tent walls flapped in the wind. Incidentally, John founded one of the better writing programs in the country with a central platform being the flabbiness of the "show, don't tell" mantra. While I still find the notion of the MFA program dubious (namely because one such program has hired me), John's outfit is as good as it gets.

This diatribe is the result of an office visit this morning by Yu, a promising student. She's shown hints of a magnificent voice through spare, hesitant prose. I at first thought it was the fact of English being her second language that was restraining her, but in truth it was that she was struggling to adhere to all of the "show, don't tell" advice she's heard over the years from teachers, writers and those write-by-numbers rulebooks that one often finds in the do-it-yourself section of the bookstore. Still, the exuberance of her voice was unwilling to heed such restraint, busting through the seams of her skeletal plots. When I explained the nonsensical nature of that advice much in the same language used above, awareness crept into her big, honey-brown eyes. She smiled, covering her mouth with her hand. When I finished she leapt out of her chair and wrapped her arms around my neck, kissing me wetly on my cheek. I was surprised because her impulsive gesture of affection didn't fit my (probably racist) stereotype of demure Asian women, but that's another subject entirely.

In any case, I'm thrilled at her breakthrough and eagerly await Yu's next manuscript in which she promises to "tell" me a story. For the rest of you, I urge you to abandon that hollow-eyed, Ann Coulterish, meth-hound, bare-bones writing. I urge you to push your prose to the purple, stray from your skeletal plot on the most tangential and voluptuous of diversions just to see what the hell else is out there, feel free to flash back and then flash backwarder, interject your omniscient, God-like voices with impunity, pop that supposed "bubble of reality" and grab your reader by his ears, planting a big, wet storyteller's kiss on his forehead.

Monday, April 17, 2006

There and back again

Since we seem to be on the subject of marriage(s):

Making love to your second ex-wife after thirteen years of bitter separation is akin to reliving the happiest day from your childhood, fishing in your favorite trout hole with your favorite aunt, a worm and a bobber on the end of a cane pole, fresh strawberries from Knutesmeyer's farm along with a thermos of cream. The aunt is youngish--Mother's baby sister--and she dotes on you, her favorite nephew. You notice her long, wet legs (she's had to wade out to unsnag your hook) without really realizing why there's a warm feeling down below your belly. You carry home a creel of brookies wrapped in the big leaves of an old dogwood. Mother fries the fish in butter and your aunt tells stories of life at the far-away women’s college where she's studying art history with designs on being a sculptor but more likely teaching in art in an elementary school. She thrills you with a first-hand description of Michaelangelo's pieta, which she saw during a semester spent studying in Rome. You fall asleep on with your head on your youngish aunt's thighs while the family is gathered around a campfire in the back yard, your father picking out a claw-hammer tune on the banjo from deep within the blood from the sharecropper side of his family, his rich voice at the same time haunting and soothing, creeping into your dreams. "Her skirt smells like cedar smoke," is your last thought before you drift off for good.

I met Ruth Apfelstein, my ex, at a dinner arranged by my youngest daughter, Billie Holiday Trout, this past weekend in our nation's fine capitol. It was a combination Seder/Passover/Easter meal hosted in the back room of my favorite Tuscan restaurant outside of Castilina-in-Chianti. Francesco was out of town, but we were well cared for by Levon, his second. Levon, like many of the great chefs, has studied under the best and has had all of his education solely in the kitchen. He showed up on Francesco's doorstep one afternoon looking for work, his only credentials being that he "liked to cook." Francesco was skeptical, so he pointed to the walk-in cooler and said, "Show me something." Levon whipped up an imitation of his auntie's sweet potato pie and was hired on the spot. Six years later and he's nearing the top of his game. He recently spent six months in the kitchen of French genius Joel Rubichon.

How Levon managed a menu of kosher-Tuscan is beyond me. It was too elaborate to get into the details, but the twelve in our party were stunned and sated. He'd even located several bottles of kosher Sangiovese from a Jewish vintner with an estate near Montalpulciano. Ruth is not a strict observer of her faith, but she did go through a spiritual stage when our marriage began to deteriorate. The kosher menu was more seized upon as a challenge by Levon rather than designed to accommodate believers.

Ruth and I were intently conversing by the end of the meal, oblivious to the others. We raced as we talked, breathless, each eager to recount our exhaustive strings of unlucky relationships. I told of the end of my affair with Shirleen, and the final, unspoken marriage proposal. Ruth's latest lover had been a realtor from West Palm Beach who was much too proud of his deep sea fishing boat. "He didn't read and I found myself yawning whenever I was alone with him for more than two hours at a time. 'Why do you do that?' he kept asking, but I couldn't answer. Finally my jaw got stuck in mid-yawn one afternoon...you know my TMJ...and he took me to the hospital. I had my face in a towel to catch the drool. He dropped me off in emergency and left. He sent a cab to pick me up after they injected muscle-relaxants and unhooked my jawbone, but I never heard from him again."

She twirled her hair in one finger the way she used to do when we dated. When she finished the story I laughed so hard that I had to excuse myself to pee. When I came back she was still laughing. "Fuck BT, we're getting old, aren't we?" Then she left to pee.

When she returned we decided right then to see what else in our aging, decrepit, repetitively divorced bodies was--and was not--still working. We returned to her hotel in Columbia Heights to learn that, while some of our flexibility had atrophied, most other things were still in fine working order. In the morning sunlight I asked her to stand naked in front of the window. "I'm an old woman, BT," she said, but complied and I sat on the edge of the bed fighting tears. She was still as gorgeous as when we'd been married.

"What happened?" we both asked simultaneously. We left it open-ended, laughing some more at a corner café over a croissant and an espresso that made my heart skip.

Marriages (and the subsequent divorces) can rip your guts to bits more than any other experience outside the passing of a child, which is something I hope to never experience. When I stopped by Billie's to say goodbye and congratulate her on taking the Foreign Service Exam, she asked me how my night went. Ruth had been a good stepmother to the girls, and I know Billie thinks I'm no good alone, which is true. She had arranged this whole weekend to try and spark something lasting between Ruth and this old Professor. I told her that it was wonderful but that I had no idea what the future held. I’ve been writing well lately, so I don’t want to make any sudden changes. She frowned when I said that you can't swim in the same river twice, or so has said a wise old poet. I was a little disconcerted to see that Levon had spent the night at Billie's, and when she noticed my raised eyebrows when the big chef ambled into the kitchen in his PJs, she said, "Daddy, I'm twenty-four."

Now I'm back home and through with airplanes for the forseeable future. I'll try to finish out the semester by focusing on my students. The whole episode left me both healed and wounded anew. But such is life and such is marriage.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Disposable theses

It has always amazed me for how long some of my former students flog their Master Theses along. I keep in touch with many of them through email, and I'm stunned when they're still massaging the same material they submitted during their tenure in MFA programs from whence they've long since graduated.

I gave a reading a few weeks back in San Antonio, and a student I taught in a workshop back in 1995 cornered me afterward: "I'm excited about MY NOVEL...it's finished almost ready to send out," she said. I smiled and didn't have the heart to tell her that HER NOVEL wouldn't be greeted with the same level of enthusiasm by the world at large. A novel isn't a unique thing, and the world is a cold, indifferent place. YOUR NOVEL is not a child, and you've no obligation to see it through to its fruition. It's something we make, like a piece of furniture, and nothing more. What's more, it belongs to a specific time and place even before it's finished. In most cases, it doesn't age gracefully. Try writing a new novel instead of embarking on draft seventeen.

I now tell all my advisees up front that they should plan on disposing of their thesis as soon as they finish the program. It's merely the price of the diploma. There are exceptions, but such publishable (if barely) work among the endless stacks of MFA theses are as rare as they are brilliant. Throw your 'script away and start something new even before your diploma arrives in the mail. You aren't the same person you were when you started that novel ten years ago...every cell in our bodies is replaced every seven years. The world has changed. You're entire belief system has likely shifted. It's time to move on.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Yu, me and writer block

Yu is perhaps my most promising student this semester. I haven't been paying much attention to student work, wrapped up as I've been in my personal soap opera. I admit that I'm a lousy and careless teacher. Yu is Chinese, from the Gansu province, which I understand is as wild as it gets. She's married to a young computer science professor. Her prose is cautious and spare, obviously due to English being her second language, but this seems to complement her work. She's written a series of vignettes on the Cultural Revolution. There's no story in her work yet, but good fiction always starts with images. The procession is like this: Image > Story > Character > Prose > Plot, with Story ultimately being most important. For more commercial work, it seems to go Plot > Character > Prose, leaving off Image and Story altogether in many cases. I've no problem with commercial or genre work, though I can't teach it and know absolutely nothing about it. It's as alien to me as screenplays and writing for television.

In any case, yesterday during our "nature exercise" as I watched Yu wading through a clear stretch of Ballard Creek, I was enchanted. Redbud petals were drifting down around her in shafts of sunlight while she chewed on the eraser of her pencil and an expression of recognition bloomed on her face. She pulled out her notepad and began scribbling, nodding her head excitedly, the long braid of her dark hair bouncing. Evidently my silly impulse to relocate our class to the woods for the afternoon was having some sort of effect. I dreamt of this scene endlessly last night, and not only because Yu's an attractive young woman.

After our exercise we all walked back to campus. Yu came to me timidly and asked how I felt about "writer block." I told her that it doesn't exist. I said that what exists is an unwillingness to compromise. People don't get blocked, they just choose not to write garbage. You can always write garbage. Writing garbage takes discipline, though. If you write enough of it eventually you crawl out of the hole you're in. Sometimes the garbage gets published, and I know from experience that your career can suffer. Filing the garbage away and moving on also takes discipline.

She nodded, still chewing on her eraser. "Writer block is a choice, hmmm, I never think of it like this before," she said. Her speech is more hesitant that her prose, but grammar typically does sort itself out in the writing. I'll have to keep an eye on Yu this semester. Now that I haven't heard from Mr. Clayhouse, and lovely Shirleen has moved on, and Nawaz is getting married, I need to find a new reason to keep my head in this job or I'll be fired for sure.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Recipes for recovery

I suffered through the blackest of asses upon my return from La Paz. Your garden variety depression: what have I accomplished, who loves me, why do I exist? The intensity of the self-pity, however, reached un-troutlike level so I self-medicated. I fixed a humble peasant dish of cabbage, tripe and onions that I’d learned from an old woman in Brittany from whom I rented a seaside cottage while writing my third novel. I’d been drinking heavily at the time, and her overwhelming cuisine saved my liver. It was there that I was introduced to Alsatian and German wines that so perfectly complement peasant food and thus slowly weened myself from the dangers of calvados and brandy.

Stage two of my recovery included three young, farm-raised hens served with a three-olive sauce. The olives cost me fifty-seven dollars at the import shop, and when I fished around in my pockets and several bolivianos spilled onto the counter, I broke down and began weeping. The Turkish boy at the register stepped back, eyeing me warily.

A bottle of a light Spanish Monastrell with the meal gave me pleasant dreams for the first time in a month.

What really set me on the mend, however, was a conversation with my youngest daughter, Billie. She took the Foreign Service Exam this past Saturday. A bit of background is needed: when she was thirteen we spent six months in Marseille where I was a guest lecturer as part of a cultural exchange. Our closet friends were career diplomats at the consulate who thrilled Billie with tales of life at their African posts in the post-colonial era. It’s been her ambition ever since to work for USAID or the State Department, where she hopes to be a force for positive change. She took the exam in 2003, only a few days after the start of Mr. Bush’s subtle brilliance of the Shock and Awe(!) campaign. She was among the 6% of the applicants invited to take the orals, but she declined saying she wanted to attend graduate school, but in truth she was depressed over the neo-con foreign policy nincompoopery. But two years out she still has the desire so she’s starting the process all over again. My point is that her entire life’s ambitions are tied up with the results of a silly standardized test. She passed it once, but what if she failed this time? But rather than acting stressed or fatalistic, she was chipper with a c’est la vie indifference to her future when I talked to her on the phone. “I’ve got backup plans, Daddy, no big deal.” All this made me fell silly in my self-pity.

So she invited me to D.C. for a back-room feast with our friends at Etrusco to celebrate three months of waiting for the results of the test. “Most-Favorite Mommy Number Two will still be in town,” she said, referring to my second ex-wife, of whom she is quite fond. I sense an ulterior motive. I demurred but will likely go.

And so I am on the mend. I probably won’t be able to write for some weeks, but I’m now distracted by my MFA classes, which I’ve been neglecting. It’s a lovely day today, and I have a four-hour grad seminar on prose style this afternoon. I think we’ll have class outside in the state park where there is a babbling brook under a ceiling of glorious redbuds and dogwoods in full bloom. I’ll make up some exercise, perhaps the translation of visceral and tactile sensations into prose. We’ll go wading and I’ll ask them to immediately transcribe the sensation into their journals. It’s all nonsense, but MFA students love this sort of thing. In fact, this touchy-feely pseudo naturalism is a trait of bourgeois writers everywhere: that’s why so many conferences take place in idyllic settings that somehow recall England’s Lake District. I've been there and it's lovely, but it's no more wild than a golf course. As sophisticated as our urban writers are, they're often clueless when it comes to the natural world. A brilliant sociologist friend from Manhattan once visited me in the Midwest and remarked that it was the first time he'd "seen cows in the wild." That being said, there is something primal about rivers and streams, and it will do my students some good. My exercise today, of course, will mainly be an excuse for me to be outside, and also to sit on the bank and study the women in my class wearing shorts, watching them emerge from the brook with pink dogwood petals stuck to their glistening thighs. Perhaps I’ll fall in love again. Several times, if I’m lucky.

Next up will be my favorite French recovery dish, which despite the damage it does in cholesteral is the ideal restorative for a wounded heart. A Syrah or Shiraz with big fruit should pair nicely. And so the Trout mends.

Saturday, April 1, 2006

Prof. Trout contemplates fourth marriage in La Paz cafe

I sat in the back of the restaurant, waiting for her. Dirty tablecloth. Plastic flower in a collins glass with marbles in the bottom and greasy fingerprints around the edge.

I wore jeans and my tweed jacket and white shirt. I had a real flower pinned to my lapel, purchased from the woman in a bright wool sweater and bowler hat who stands outside my hotel silently proffering her sad blossoms. I buy a flower from her every morning and she never smiles. I'm never surprised, though nevertheless disappointed, when I find myself in a place where people are less friendly than the Midwest. Which is most everywhere. Exceptions include Italy when you're traveling with a baby, or the North African neighborhoods in Paris. Also Istanbul where shopkeepers invite you to tea ceremoniously before applying their low-pressure sales pitch. Midwesterners truly are affable, even when they are politicians stripping money from family planning clinics or killing school lunch programs. But then our states are no more red or less blue than the dream coasts when you consider the incredibly small percentage points on either side of the division, which is largely fictional to begin with. New York and California have Republican governors, don't they? I'm sorry for the digression. My thoughts are a mash.

But back to Bolivia, which is something else altogether. I haven't really been able to consider where I am. The implications of the Morales presidency, the left-swing of the Southern Cone, the newfound impotence of US influence in the region under Our Great Chimpanzee's administration, etc. None of this is evident on the street of another great and poor South American city. I'd love to learn what it's really all about, but then that's not why I'm here and I fly home tomorrow.

And so I sat in the restaurant, nervous, recently patched-up ticker all atwitter, recalling my first date in the Princess Cafe where I waited for Jeanne Blunkhorst before the homecoming dance, similar tweed coat borrowed from my musician father and similar sad flower pinned to the lapel. My hands, then and now, sweating profusely.

I sipped my Nescafe noisily.

There's a certain moment when you are surprising someone when you see, etched on their face, the effect of your ruse. You know immediately whether or not they appreciate the surprise from that subtle expression. And they always work to smother this expression immediately, so you have to be vigilant. I craned my neck waiting for Shirleen to arrive, desperate to see her before she spotted me so that I could read how she truly felt about my arrival.

It's a funny thing. I've found that by nonsensically stalking a woman half my age round the world, ironically, that I'm something of a realist. How did I expect it to end? Well, there was the cheep copper ring I'd bought at the mercado. Fifteen bolivianos. "Marry me," I imagined saying, "If your finger turns green it's a sign destiny." Do I really need a fourth marriage? Have I the audacity? I propositioned my third wife after knowing her only a few days, though she did take more than a week to answer. And that had been my longest marriage. I thought of my second wife and her request for a detente in D.C.

And then I saw her. She was wearing one of those fuzzy sweaters with horizontal stripes in primary colors that have become all the rage here, though it's mostly NGO people, aid workers and tourists. The colors mimic the traditional dress of the Quechua and Amayra. She craned her neck and looked through the crowd at the door, studying the tables. She looked down at a note in her hand. I'd left a message with her roommate saying that an old friend was in town to surprise her.

"Professor Trout!" she said when she saw me. I could read her lips across the room. I beamed and leaned back in my chair, spreading my arms in a gesture of welcome. Her expression was plain joy. Wide-eyed, genuine surprise. She was the child at Christmas receiving the unexpected gift who--despite not getting what she had wanted--is nevertheless pleased with the acquisition.

My unreliable ticker pulsed in perfect meter now as she threaded the tables. Her hair was longer than before, un-fluffed, flat and windblown. Her cheeks were likewise red and windburned and she had the healthy burnish of a backpacker on her post college tour. She looked ten years younger and five years wiser all at once.

We both ordered the lomo montado and lingered over a bottle of Chilean Malbec. Breaking convention, we finished with a couple of bottles of paceña, a beer that is surprisingly good. The steak lacked the hearty character of an Argentine cut or the flair of Brazilian grill, but it was nevertheless good and served as the ideal foundation to our commiseration.

"I'm delighted that you came," she said, earnestly. But the delight was clearly tempered by her absorption in her new life. I didn't admit that I'd come solely to see her. I lied and said that I'd been invited to speak at the Universidad Mayor de San Andrés. This wasn't far-fetched as I'd written two novels set in South America and Shirleen had read them both. I fingered the copper ring in my coat pocket. I enjoyed our conversation, not the least for her gushing over my advice.

"You were right, of course," she said. "I needed experience. I needed distance. I'm not sure I still want...or even need...to be a writer. I'm doing an article on spec for Mother Jones, though. I've written a short story, but I won't show it to anyone. But for the first time since the divorce I feel like I'm on track again."

After she said this she leaned over and kissed me full on the lips, lingering so that I could feel the breath from her nose on my cheek. It was at this point that I almost proposed. But I hesitated. I leaned back and offered a parental smile. Something felt wrong. I realized then that while I was enamored of Ms. Tomasetti, I also didn't feel it would be fair to weigh her down.

We finished the lunch. I didn't linger. I handed her the ring almost as an afterthought. "Here," I said, "I picked this up yesterday in the mercado. A souvenir."

We embraced at the door. "Thanks again," she said, beaming. She didn't inquire about my fake lecture or offer to meet again. We were friends, no longer lovers. Another of my delusions punctured, collapsing like that little balloon they dragged through my arteries.

The angle of sunlight is strange on this side of the equator. I stood in a splash of it on a busy sidewalk for the longest time. I figured this would be the last I'd see of Shirleen, though my regret was leavened a bit by the notion that, despite the strange circumstances, I'd served her successfully in my capacity as a teacher.

Tomorrow I return home.