Through six years of courtship, betrothal, marriage and parenthood, Daniel wrote. Short stories, snippets of memoir, several abortive novels. The fiction ranged eclectically: modern western, medieval fantasy, hardboiled crime, science fiction, slice-of-life vignettes. None of them were very good. The prose was flat, with thin plots pressed onto two-dimensional characters like cutout dresses for paper dolls. Resolutions were either telegraphed as far in advance as the title (a particular weakness), or delivered through such improbable twists as to defy belief.
She praised where she could. She made gentle editing suggestions, graciously received. She helped him sift through the two-inch-thick Writer’s Market for likely publishers. He was earnest and diligent, and surprisingly resilient to the inevitable silences or terse rejection forms his submissions generated.
She always encouraged him to put more of himself in his writing, to slide something honest and true between the six-foot-tall Viking queens and the novice boy sorcerers. She loved his memoir pieces the most. When he wrote about real experience, or even mixed the real with his ancient blood curses and science experiments gone awry, his words could move her.
He wrote about the most awkward date he’d ever had, and about the year an awkward young Dan was torn by his father from a stack of library books to suffer ineptly through a season of Little League. He detailed the twenty panicked minutes before their wedding, when he’d realized he didn’t know how to tie a real bowtie. He wrote about the birth of their daughter and the first quiet moment after the blood and the screams as Julia dozed exhausted under the stiff hospital blanket while Madelyn slept in his arms.
Only in these short pieces were his sentences crisp, his allusions deft, his insight funny or heartbreaking. Those stories moved her because they revealed her husband’s soul. Every month, as soon as the calendar page had turned, he’d give her a folder containing a printout of everything he’d managed in the preceding four weeks. Sometimes a single story, sometimes several vignettes, and once or twice the detailed outline of a never-to-be-written novel. She would read everything in the order it lay in the folder, dutifully making little blue-ink notes in the margins of bland short stories and aimless slices of half-plotted novellas, but looked forward to the memoirs.
It was the ninth of March and nearly midnight when she got to the last story in the February stack. Madelyn, now two, had been sobbing and wheezing through a ten-day bout of whooping cough, and Julia had been further distracted—secretly—with morning nausea and recalculating the lateness of her period. Home pregnancy kits, used furtively and wrapped in multiple disguises before going into the garbage cans, were no more consistent than Dan’s story logic. She’d kind of enjoyed a campy story about an alien warrior princess, cringed at a Dashiell Hammett pastiche, and thought a few scenes in the latest chapter of his sci-fi coming-of-age novel showed an inventive energy. She was slightly disappointed when the last story turned out not to be an essay—none of his more personal pieces had appeared this month or last.
“Backdrafted” was a short story, the first sentence introducing a man named Gerry who is selling insurance three years after an injury forced his retirement as a firefighter. While Dan was typing something new in the spare bedroom that was his study, Julia sat up in bed, reading the double-spaced printout of the fifteen-page vignette and laying each completed page on her still-flat belly.
Gerry has a good and unremarkable life, despite a nagging sense of emptiness that he attributes to the injury that cost him his true calling. He goes for drinks with the guys from his old station house less and less often, and that’s just as well; he has a wife who is pregnant to bursting with their first child. It’s after a long weekend of babyproofing his home that he meets a lovely new coworker, and his quiet life explodes. She is pretty, and free, with a gift for wry flirtation. Tight jeans on casual Friday, blonde hair in a sloppy twist. A backdraft, like the one that injured Gerry, is the fireball caused when fresh air floods into an area starved of oxygen. That’s what this woman, Cynthia, is—a burst of oxygen in Gerry’s suffocating marriage, his airless workaday life.
They kiss in the elevator, after lingering over lunch together. A quick drink after work leads to a foregone conclusion, one hesitant half-step toward her apartment at a time. Gerry catches his train to suburbia two hours later. Though he is crushed with remorse and tainted forever, though he loves his wife and the child they have yet to name, he knows that he will be with Cynthia again, that no guilt or bond can obliterate the memory of her soft skin, or the sound of her voice gasping at the edge of climax, or his aching and tender desire for her.
Dan was often florid in his handling of romantic interplay, but here the prose was spare and more precise. The character’s awkward descent into infidelity had been ably sketched, his conflicting emotions surprisingly complex. As she turned the last page onto her stomach, the room was silent but for the whisper of Dan’s fingers on the keyboard two rooms away. Julia closed her eyes and began to cry. It was, by far, the best thing he’d ever written.
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