For the third time I will be participating in an NYC Midnight writing challenge. It’s the Short Story challenge, and the first round starts tomorrow at midnight.
The way it works is this: For the first round, writers are assigned a genre, subject, and character. We have 8 days to write an original story no longer than 2,500 words. The judges choose a top 5 in each group to advance to the 2nd Round, in which we receive new assignments, only this time we have 3 days to write a 2,000 word story.
Judges will choose finalists from the 2nd Round to advance to the 3rd and final round, in which we must write a 1,500 word (maximum) story in just 24 hours (April 24-25, 2015).
This means, if I make it to the third round, I will be writing a short story on the day of my wedding… Luckily (?) I have never made it to the third round.
Uh oh. When will I write my short story?
It’s a really fun contest, even though I’ve never won. It gets you writing — and often writing things you wouldn’t write normally. From doing the contest twice, I’ve produced four short stories, one of which I submitted to a literary magazine and got published! Also, the judges give you thorough feedback on each story, which, to me, is worth the money you pay to enter.
Since I need time to work on my novel and pound out a short story, I thought that this week and next I might share some of the pieces I’ve written for NYC Midnight challenges in the past, as well as the feedback I received from the judges.
Here’s the first one, which won 4th place in the 1st round of the Short Story Challenge 2013 and got me advanced to Round 2. If I remember correctly, the genre was romance, the subject was steak, and the character was an architect.
All I know is that his name is Rich and he’s an architect.
As I park my car on a side street in downtown New Orleans, the thought shoots through me that Rich might not exist. He’s probably a robot. I’ve heard about robots in the online dating systems, tricking lonely men into thinking beautiful Russians with poor grammar are in love with them. I’ve never heard of male robots, but a tall, handsome architect named Rich isn’t likely to be a real person. I should just go home.
And yet I’m here, and I’m hungry. If he doesn’t show up, I’ll treat myself to a baked potato. I step out of the car into the balmy, spring night and smooth my skirt over my butt. I’m wearing something my mother picked out for me: a flimsy, flowered skirt and a low-cut top. It’s not at all like the clothes I normally wear, but tonight I’m not trying to be me.
* * *
A few weeks ago, just after my thirtieth birthday, my mother created a dating profile for me and started messaging men on my behalf. The profile says a lot of things that are untrue – that I’m an office manager and I enjoy playing volleyball, for example – but the men of the Internet seem to like the fake me.
Most people would have been annoyed if their mothers did this, but I’ve decided to give it a try. I’ve done a very bad job of meeting men on my own. It might be worth acting like someone else, to have a person to snuggle with at night. We spend a third of our lives asleep, and in those hours does it really matter who you are?
* * *
I step inside the ritzy steakhouse and look around. The restaurant is dim, except for the bar, where tiny lights illuminate liquor bottles on mirrored shelves.
A man approaches me, and it’s Rich. He has dark hair and blue eyes, just like his picture, and yet there’s something awkward about him in person. His height is gangly instead of dapper; his shoulders and elbows make sharp corners in his clothes. And when he smiles I see that his bottom teeth are crammed and crooked. I’m glad. His imperfections make me feel more relaxed.
“I hope this restaurant is okay,” he says as the waitress leads us to a small table.
“It’s great,” I tell him. “I love steak.” This isn’t true at all. I’m a vegetarian. But my mother told me that men like it when skinny women eat big, meaty meals.
We sit down, and I rack my brains for something to say.
“So you’re an office manager?” Rich asks.
“How do you like it?”
“I love it.” I smile widely. “I love every minute of it.” My mother told me to be positive. She said my normal attitude is too dark and strange for most people’s tastes.
Rich tilts his head to one side, considering me. “There must be some things you don’t love.”
I’m sure there would be many things I wouldn’t love about managing an office, like answering the phone and making spreadsheets and sending memos, but I don’t want to sound negative.
“Well,” I say finally, “I wish I had more time to work on my art.” This, at least, is true. No matter what job I’m doing, whether it’s pet-sitting, (which is what I do now), or face-painting at City Park (I got fired because some parents complained I made their children’s faces too “scary”), I’m always thinking about my unfinished paintings back home. They’re like my children. Or my pets, at least. I feel guilty when I don’t spend enough time with them.
“You’re an artist?” Rich asks. “You didn’t tell me that.”
I shrug. “I’m not a real artist. I don’t sell my paintings or anything.” In fact, I don’t even show them to anyone except my mother, and that’s only out of necessity, because I store the finished ones in her basement.
“I think if you make art, you’re an artist,” Rich says, and that’s very sweet of him. But he doesn’t understand. He has a real job (an architect!) and a real life (he rock climbs!) Sometimes I’m not even sure that I exist.
The waiter comes, and I order a glass of wine. Rich orders a beer.
When the waiter is gone, Rich asks me about volleyball.
“It’s fun,” I say. “I like to jump.”
“Me, too,” Rich tells me. “I’m thinking about buying a trampoline.” As soon as he says this, he seems to wish he hadn’t. “Tell me more about your hobbies,” he adds quickly. “What else do you do besides volleyball?”
His eyes are large, and in the dimness of the restaurant they swim from blue to brown, like Lake Pontchartrain at dusk. I want to paint his eyes, each one the size of a watermelon, on a huge canvas, with tiny sailboats heading towards the pupils, and flying fish leaping from the irises.
“Kate?” Rich asks. “What else do you do in your free time?”
I’m having a hard time seeing his face as a whole. It’s broken up into different geographical locations: two lakes for his eyes, the mountain range of his nose, the vast cavern of his mouth. “What do you do?” I manage to say.
“Fair enough.” Rich smiles, and his teeth are rocks to scramble over. “Uh, I play golf. And…What else did I say on my profile?”
“You rock climb, don’t you?” I ask, still looking at his teeth.
“Oh, yes. I rock climb all the time.”
“And what about your job as an architect? What do you design?”
“You know, normal stuff. Office buildings mostly.”
“Anything in New Orleans?”
“A few places.”
Our drinks arrive, and we both sip from them eagerly.
“Are you ready to order?” the waiter asks.
“Sure.” I scan the menu. “I’ll have the house salad and this.” I point at one of the entrées at random.
“Excellent choice,” the waiter says. “How would you like your steak?”
I stare at him, my mind suddenly blank.
“Well-done, medium, rare?” the waiter prompts.
“Rare,” I say, because I like the sound of it. Rare means uncommon, maybe even excellent. She was a rare sort of girl. Maybe that’s what Rich will say about me tomorrow when his friends ask him about the date. “Extremely rare,” I add.
Rich orders a steak, medium, and he asks for extra sour cream on his baked potato.
We talk for a while, haltingly. Rich asks me about the interests listed on my profile, and I try to talk about these things I know nothing and care nothing about. When he asks me more about painting, I’m excited, but I try to talk about it in a normal way. I say things like, “it’s fun,” and “I don’t take it too seriously.” I don’t say, “it’s the only thing that makes me feel real.” And yet, some of my own thoughts seep out through the cracks in my façade.
“I like thinking about size,” I tell him. “Because, really, what does it mean to say something is big?”
I could have gone on to say that “big” and “small” are only important when compared to other things. And distance really screws with size. Something huge can seem tiny when you are far enough away. I always feel so far away. This is one of the reasons why I have trouble with reality sometimes. Everything is relative.
But I don’t say any of this because my mother’s voice is in my head, warning me not to sound weird.
Rich surprises me by nodding and telling me he’s interested in size, too. “I was always fascinated by models as a kid,” he says. “And I have a collection of miniature toilets.” Then he laughs strangely and says he’s just kidding about the toilets.
After a while, I excuse myself to the bathroom and stand in the stall, mopping the sweat from my underarms with a wad of toilet paper.
When I get back to the table, our food has arrived, and I’m horrified to see that the hunk of meat on my plate sits in a pool of oily blood. I push the plate away from me discreetly and concentrate on the salad, which is covered in shaved carrot and has two radish roses at the edge of the bowl.
“You know what’s strange to think about,” Rich says, as he cuts a piece of his steak and puts it to his mouth. “This meat that I’m eating came from a cow. And that cow ate nothing but grass and hay, and that grass and hay grew from nothing but sunlight and water and soil. I’m just a part of the cycle.”
I look up at him. These are the sorts of thoughts I have sometimes. That’s when I remember that “rich” doesn’t only mean wealthy. It can mean deep and strong.
“I’m sorry,” Rich waves his fork in front of his face as if to erase what he said. “That was a weird thing for me to say. I know people don’t like being reminded of where their food comes from.” He glances at my untouched steak.
“That’s OK,” I tell him. “It’s interesting to think about. I always think about how nothing is created and nothing is destroyed. It just changes form. So maybe an atom from that cow you’re eating, and an atom from your own body used to be atoms together in a dinosaur, or a rock, or a…a…”
“Or a star?” Rich says.
“Yeah. Or a star.” I smile at him. I love stars. They look like innocent pin-pricks to us humans, but up close they’re fiery giants. In fact, some of the stars we see in the sky don’t even exist anymore. They are ghosts. They are cosmic memories in light. This is what my latest series of paintings is trying to illustrate.
“Kate, can I ask you something?” Rich says.
“You seem different from your profile.”
“That’s not a question,” I say faintly, staring down at my hunk of meat.
“I think we should both stop pretending.”
I look up. His eyes are big and bright. “I’m not pretending,” I say unconvincingly.
Rich sighs. “Are you going to eat that steak?”
“Do you want to see something I designed?”
I tell him I do. I’m not sure what he thinks of me right now, but I’m glad for the date to continue. Maybe I can try to act normal and get things back on track.
“OK,” he says. “Let’s get a doggie bag for that steak. We’re going to need it.”
* * *
Fifteen minutes later, we’re driving up Saint Charles Avenue in Rich’s car with the steak in a tinfoil swan on my lap.
Rich parks on a side street near Audubon Park. “Bring that meat with you,” he instructs as we get out of the car. We walk down the sidewalk, past giant homes with Roman columns and stone mansions with castle-like turrets.
“Is it one of these houses?”
“Sort of,” Rich whispers. I suddenly wonder if we’re going to steal something, or kill someone.
We move silently down the softly-lit street, boughs of massive oak trees above our heads. We reach a particularly opulent home with lights studded in the manicured yard, illuminating flowering bushes and neatly pruned trees. Rich stops in front of the house.
“It’s beautiful,” I say.
“I didn’t design it.”
“No.” Rich turns to me. “I’m not an architect. Not really.”
What is he then? A robot? “What are you?” I ask.
“I make dog houses.”
“You make dog houses?” I repeat.
“Luxury dog homes, really,” he says. “Plus a few kitty condos. And once I designed a ferret playground for a woman in Florida.”
“Wow,” I say. That’s a lot more interesting than designing office buildings.
Rich shrugs his bony shoulders. “I know it’s weird, but I love to take something large and make it small.”
Funny. I like to take something small and paint it large.
“The one I made for these people,” Rich says, “is the one I’m most proud of. Want to go see it?”
We creep through the lighted yard. The grass is like a sponge. “They have a Mastiff,” he whispers as we approach a tall, wooden gate. “But I think we can distract him with the steak.”
I hand Rich the tinfoil swan, and he unwraps it. He opens the gate slowly and waves the meat back and forth. “Here boy,” he calls softly. “Look what I’ve got for you.”
A giant, wrinkle-faced dog comes trotting curiously towards us. Rich tosses the steak into the corner of the backyard, and the dog bounds after it. A moment later, he’s settled in the dark grass, gnawing happily.
“That should keep him busy for a while.” Rich reaches out, grabs my hand, and leads me through the gate. His fingers are damp, probably from meat juice, but I don’t care. It’s nice to be connected to another person.
In the middle of the yard, I see a small, circular structure. It’s gleaming white and looks like a miniature observatory, complete with a domed roof and a protruding telescope.
“You want to go in?” Rich asks, and I nod. We duck our heads and stand stooped inside the dog house. The dome has skylights, and I can see a flush of stars through the glass. There is a dog bed in one corner, and the telescope comes down through the ceiling, ending in front of a bowl filled with water.
Rich sits down cross-legged, and I sit down, too, feeling cozy in our round den. I stare up through the skylight. “Do you think the dog looks at the stars?” I ask.
“Maybe. What do you think he thinks they are?”
“Maybe he doesn’t think they’re anything,” I say. “They’re too small for him to notice.”
We are still holding hands. Rich squeezes my fingers.
“This is a beautiful dog house,” I say. “You really designed it?”
“And built it, too.” Rich looks at me, and I feel like we are inside his right eye, looking out through his pupil at the night sky.
“It’s beautiful,” I say again, not really talking about the dog house anymore, but talking about many things, both big and small.
“I really do have a miniature toilet collection,” Rich says after a moment.
“I’m not really an office manager.” I say.
“I’d love to see your paintings some time.” His breath is warm and damp against my ear.
“I’ll show them to you next time.”
Rich puts his lips to mine, and it’s a rare sort of kiss. One that is only interrupted when the dog comes snuffling in, his breath smelling of meat.
Rich squeezes my hand, and together we leave the observatory, venturing out into the real, human world.
FEEDBACK FROM JUDGES:
WHAT THE JUDGE(S) LIKED ABOUT YOUR SCRIPT:
Kate’s voice and perspective are fun to follow (i.e. when she thinks her blind date is going to be a robot because all she knows about him is his name and that he’s an architect). The descriptions of the observatory are beautiful. The moment where these characters put away their facades is meaningful. ……………………This story has such a sweet and unique sense of romance to it. It’s almost sad and hopeful all at the same time, and very enjoyable……………….
WHAT THE JUDGES FEEL NEEDS WORK:
Rich’s voice isn’t as refined as Kate’s — the writer could work on developing the word choices and syntax to make this character three-dimensional. The romance unfolds rather quickly and doesn’t seem realistic — maybe adding more of Kate’s insights would make it easier to swallow. ……………………The only critique I have is to have more back story on Kate. What are some small scenes from her past that make her feel like she needs to be someone else to meet someone?……………