The ugly little plastic gargoyle perched on my computer screen has bright blue eyes now. They used to be beady little black eyes, but I found a bottle of glittery nail polish (don't ask) and fixed them. Much better. Now it'll remind me of what happened yesterday.
I should explain. The gargoyle is part of a nameplate like you'd find on somebody's desk. The nameplate says "Show Me," and it's stuck to the top of my computer monitor with that double-sided sticky foam tape that never comes all the way off when you pull it apart. My ex-boyfriend gave it to me and put it up there to "help me" with my writing. That was before he was my ex, of course. It was also before he decided he was gay and started sleeping with Bryan (I think). But that's another story. I just wanted to make it clear that I wasn't the one who put the stupid thing there. I don't want to take it down because it would leave those ugly little fragments of sticky foam tape. Besides, I guess it was kind of thoughtful of him.
"Show Me." It's the old writer's maxim, you know. Don't "tell" them anything; use words to paint a picture. Simple. I thought I understood it. But then, yesterday, Jonas Lloyd taught me what it really means. Yes, THE Jonas Lloyd. He was HERE on campus yesterday, doing a reading. He was the one who wrote the stories that made me want to be a writer, Period. His work changed my life when I was twelve, and I've never looked back. I've beaten my head against the wall in frustration, I've deleted and torn up hundreds, maybe thousands of pages in the last ten years, I've had panic attacks and self-doubt and I was almost diagnosed with clinical depression once. I told myself I was a fraud and a cheat and that I didn't have any talent. But deep down in my bones, I just didn't believe there was anything else I could be.
So yesterday, I was nervous as hell, and I'd hardly slept at all. I know, he's just a man, like anybody else. He came here in a crowded airplane and probably went to bed tired. He stayed at the Holiday Inn on River Road. He's Normal. He's Human. I knew this in the front of my head, but the back of my head couldn't shake the sense that I was going to be visited by the Great Faerie King, soaring in on a carpet of clouds.
The first glance of him almost dispelled that silly fantasy. He was wearing a beaten-up embroidered blue shirt that was probably as old as I am. His wild gray hair had a slightly yellowish tint, and it had receded past his temples. He had a visible potbelly, too, the way men get when they get old. He was wearing faded jeans and an old hand-tooled leather belt with a big silver buckle set with turquoise. Just another old guy. Breathes the same air as I do. What a relief. Then he looked up at me and the other students, and I saw his eyes.
The Grand Faerie King was back. My body froze, right in mid-sit. You know those geode quartz rocks that they polish mirror-smooth and sell in the nature stores? Jonas Lloyd's blue blue eyes puts those bright, brilliant, intricate crystal formations to shame. His sparkling irises jumped out of his face and grabbed me right where I was. That's probably the only reason I didn't fall on my ass.
After Jerry introduced him, Mr. Lloyd started with a few funny little stories to put everybody at ease. He's been doing this kind of thing for years and years, just touring around and publishing once in a while in the New Yorker or Playboy or something. He's probably told those stories a hundred times over, but he's a storyteller, and he can still make them work. He's like a Santa that hears the same wishes again and again but can still give every single kid a smile that makes them feel special and loved. He talked about his last book, and gave us a reading from a portion of his next one, and then there was a question-and-answer session.
Somebody asked him about Julia in "Abandon Me Not," and he talked for a while about her, then there was a question about his writing process. He says he has to write in the morning for three or four hours, then he has the rest of the day free, but he wished he could do it at night because he likes to sleep in. Somebody else asked where he gets his ideas, and he said he probably didn't have any more ideas than anyone else, he just made a habit of working them out on paper. Ben asked how it feels to have written "Adam's Junkyard," and he said it was funny, because he didn't actually like that particular story too much. He said there were others that he really liked and had high hopes for, but which never went anywhere and weren't accepted by his readers. He said he could never tell what would take off and what wouldn't.
I saw my hand raise itself. He'd been wonderful, and he was very pleasant and good and entertaining, but I could sort of tell that he hadn't said anything he hadn't said lots of times before. He looked right at me, pinning me to the spot, and he said "Yes, Miss?"
"Alison." I heard my voice as though I was at the end of a long tube.
"Alison. What would you like to know?"
"I know this might sound stupid. I don't know how to ask it right."
"I don't know how to answer it until you give me a hint, Alison."
"Okay. I want to know how you do it. What is it that you do? What's your secret? Why are your books and stories so, so Jonas Lloyd-like, and other things just… aren't? I mean, I try and try, some of what I've written is okay, I guess, but… um. How do you make your work so GOOD? I mean, how do you work your Magic?"
He just looked at me and blinked. Twice.
"I'm sorry, I don't know what I'm asking. Forget it. Go on to someone else. I'm sorry."
"I'm sorry? I didn't mean it. Go on."
"No. You asked the right question. It was in there. Maybe one person in a hundred asks me that one way or another. To tell you the truth, it's one of the reasons I still do seminars like this. I always look forward to hearing it. I've got an answer for you. It's a simple thing. One little trick. Anybody can do it." He sighed and looked at the floor. He shook his head once, and when he looked up, his eyes were shut behind his wire-rimmed glasses. He was wearing glasses? I didn't notice them before. His eyes just totally overpowered them.
"I don't want to just say it. You won't get it that way. It's something you have to learn to do, not just something you hear. Here's a question for you, instead. What makes Kurt Vonnegut a Great Writer? Not good, but Great. Do you know? It's not his subject matter. What kind of a name is 'Killgore Trout,' anyway? Or 'Mary Kathleen O'Looney'? He illustrated 'Breakfast of Champions' with childish doodles of people's assholes, for crying out loud. Take 'Slaughterhouse Five.' Just that one. It's a silly book. Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time. He makes rude jokes about optometrists. He gets abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore and put in their zoo with a porn star. Why on earth is 'Slaughterhouse Five' one of the greatest works of American twentieth century fiction? Anyone?
"It's because he hurts at you. He shows you his scars. That book gives you a painful, embarrassing, awkward look at who he is. He's playful. He's funny. He's obscene. He's ridiculous. And, he gets hurt, and he SHOWS US WHERE it hurts. Of all the people on earth, only he could have written that book, because only he's ever felt precisely that way. And, he's very skilled in communicating those feelings. All good writers are, at the very bottom of it at, exhibitionists. Plain and simple. They reveal themselves to strangers.
"When I write, Alison, I have one rule. Keep it sincere. It doesn't matter what it's about. It could be how I felt when I was seven and a bully pushed me to the ground and I wanted to scream and murder him with my bare hands, while all I could do was lay there and weep. It could be about the look in my wife's eyes the first time I made love to her, the one that made my insides feel like they were lined with fur. It could be about the funny little disapproving way my daughter holds her arms when I tell fart jokes in public around her. But no matter what, I try to squeeze out as much of the awful, ugly, beautiful, wondrous truth as I can, and I don't stop until I start crying. Sometimes it works. Most of the time it doesn't, but I keep trying. Every time I do it, it's hard. It hurts. It takes a lot of courage. Exposing yourself that way is the same thing as standing naked in a room full of strangers, showing off every ugly old sag and wrinkle, and bearing it with pride, dignity, and joy.
"Does that answer your question, Alison?"
"Show Me." My voice, speaking on its own. "That's what it really means, doesn't it?"
"Exactly. Very good. Show yourself. Reveal yourself to your readers. You'll establish a special intimacy with them. But actually doing it is the hard part. You have to be in very close touch with yourself, and you cannot afford to be shy, at all. It's not for everyone."
"It's for me." I stood up. God, what the hell was I doing? If I stopped to think about it… no, I couldn't. No stopping now. I slipped out of my jacket and reached for my buttons. The air felt thick and heavy around me, my fingers were clumsy as sausages, and my vision was starting to blur. All I could hear was the roar of my own blood rushing around in my ears. Six buttons and my shirt was open. There was a tug. Somebody was tugging on me?
"…to do this. Aren't you listening? It's a metaphor. You don't have to do this." It was Pete. Nice guy. Dark hair, funny sideburns, always whining about his ex-girlfriend. He writes love stories and doesn't understand women at all.
"Stop tugging on me, Pete." Off with the shirt. I didn't wear a good bra. It was one of my older ones; serviceable, but maybe a little dingy. Belt buckle next. Belt and zipper. Pete started tugging again. He was talking, but I couldn't hear him. I looked around the room, quickly. Huuuuuuge mistake. Everybody was staring at me. Some of them had left their mouths hanging open. Nobody but Pete had moved or even breathed. Except Jonas Lloyd. He was watching me with a little smile and a gleam in his eye.
"Leave her alone, son. Alison knows what she's doing. Don't you?"
"No," I admitted. "But I think I have to do this. If I don't go through with it, then none of it means anything." Pants open, tugged down. Everybody saw my little white panties. I stepped on the heel of my left shoe with my right foot and kicked it off. Kicking off my right shoe was harder without the other one on, and I almost tripped because my jeans were around my knees. I wriggled my calves out of the wrinkled legs of the jeans and felt stupid, there in my socks and underwear. I was cold. My thighs looked fat. But Jonas Lloyd was looking at me appraisingly, and he was still smiling.
I wasn't done. Naked is naked. I bent over to pick off my socks, and shoved my ass into Pete's face in the process. I didn't really mean to, but he was sitting back there, slack-jawed like the rest of them, right where my ass was pointed. I slid my panties past my hips, then stood up and stepped out of them. I was still actually pretty well covered. During the summers, I shave my bikini area for my bathing suit, but it's all grown out now, and my bush peeks out from under my panties anyway. Nothing left but the bra, so I unhooked it and tossed it onto the pile of my clothes in the chair behind me. I took a step out into the middle of the circle of chairs and fought the urge to try to cover myself with my arms.
A whole year of my life passed, with everyone just sitting there, looking at naked me. Well, okay, it wasn't actually a whole year, I'm sure it was only a couple of seconds, but it felt like for-fucking-EVER. It would have been easier if they were strangers. But there was Pete, and Steve, and Carol. There was that guy who's Dave's buddy. There was Lisa. On and on like that, there were something like thirty-five people there, and I knew most of them from classes and groups and things. I'd even dated Chuck, and he'd gotten pretty much exactly this far with me. But still, nobody said a word.
Jonas Lloyd finally broke the silence.
"How do you feel, Alison?"
"Stupid. Naked. Foolish."
"Good. Now, reveal yourself. Show us."
"Okay." Deep breath. "I don't know what to do." Another one. "This is what I look like naked." Nobody was speaking. Everybody was just staring, like they were waiting for something. "I guess you all probably think I'm crazy. I belong in the psycho ward, taking off all my clothes for no reason. I mean, what's wrong with this girl? If she's really pretty, or if she's a slut, maybe she just wants to show off. Maybe she gets a thrill out of it. But that's not me. You guys know me. I'm nothing special. I have mousy hair and my thighs are fat. My breasts are okay, I guess. I don't really get why guys are so fascinated by breasts. They're just there. They feel good, sure, but so does any other part of me.
"Bryan used to suck on my fingers. I really liked that. I don't know why. I guess it's because I have a lot of nerve endings there, and they all got stimulated at once by his wet mouth and his tongue and his teeth. And he'd kiss the open palm of my hand. That drove me crazy. I could close my eyes and it was like the rest of my body didn't even exist, I could just feel his face in my hand. That was marvelous. But when a guy goes right for my tits and starts making snuffling noises, that's kind of a turn-off. It's not like I've got the best tits in the world, either. They're just B cups. Sometimes a C is more comfortable, though, it depends on what I'm wearing. I think of them as B-plus. I've never said that out loud before. B-plus. They grew out all at once, when I was thirteen, and if you pull on them like this, here, you can still see where there were stretch marks. They've mostly faded, but they used to be really red and ugly, like big scars. I hated them when I got them. I wanted to be flat again, like a boy. I wanted my breasts to go away like they'd never happened. I didn't know I'd get stretch marks. Even now, I'm sensitive about it and I usually get naked with a guy only if the lights are dim. It makes me not want to have a baby, if I'm going to get stretch marks on my belly.
"I think my belly looks fat sometimes. Not all the time. It curves out a little, and if I'm wearing tight jeans that pinch, sometimes it makes me go to the bathroom more often than I usually do. When I open up the jeans to go pee, my belly sags out a little and it feels sooooo good. I hate to pack it back in there. But sometimes I feel like a belly is supposed to look like this, and I'm happy with it. I was thinking of getting my belly button pierced, but I'm scared to. I mean, I can deal with it hurting, 'cause I got my ears pierced, but I know this girl Laura, and her navel piercing got all infected and red and gross. There was pus. I mean, no. I'm not gonna do anything that might make pus.
"I have a scar on my belly, too. This is where I got my appendix out when I was fifteen. It's still pretty clear. You can't usually see it even when I wear a bathing suit because it's down pretty low under my waistline. I didn't know my appendix would be that low down. It hurt a lot, and I was sore for weeks. I was really scared to get the operation. They got me naked and on a cold steel table, I was wearing this paper gown and all, but I knew that when they got me all unconscious on the drugs that they'd take the gown away so they could cut me open. I felt like a piece of meat in somebody's kitchen.
I have other scars. This one on my shin is where I fell off my bike when I was ten. I cried but my mom gave me juice as she cleaned it off and bandaged me up and it wasn't so bad after all. I have one here on my heel, from when I stepped on a piece of glass on the beach. And here, I broke a bone in my other foot once when I dropped a cinder block on it. It hurt like a bitch, worse than anything. It didn't leave much of a scar, but sometimes it feels kind of funny when there's a thunderstorm coming. I learned the name of the bones in your foot from that. They're called "metatarsals." I'd never have known that if I hadn't broken one of them. But breaking it wasn't the worst part. The worst part was that I didn't get to run and play much that summer. I didn't even get to swim. I had to take baths with a trash bag wrapped around my foot. That was almost the worst part. I needed to run around and play in the sun. That's why I still do, whenever I can. I love the sun.
Once one of my girlfriends asked me how I can go around in a little bikini all the time, and don't I get embarrassed? Well, yeah, I do. Sometimes I don't feel pretty, I feel fat and stupid, and naked, but that's not important. I just have to suck it up and try to forget about it, the same way I suck in my belly, because I love the sun and I don't ever want to sit inside like I've got a broken foot. But sometimes it's still hard. I mean, I feel like everyone's looking at me, and the girls hate me and the boys are thinking rude things about what they'd want to do with me. I mean, they're not THAT skimpy, they're sometimes string bikinis, but I won't wear a thong. A thong would make my ass look too big. I don't want everybody staring at my ass. Besides, sometimes I don't shave right and some of my, um."
I guess I'd stopped. This was getting a lot more personal than I'd planned. But, shit, that's the point, isn't it? Time to draw a breath and keep going. This was REAL. I had to keep my eyes closed, though.
"My pubic hair. Sorry. If I don't shave right, it sticks out from under my bikini. I got one of those wax jobs done once, but it hurt like a bitch, and it was expensive, and it made me all puffy and sensitive and red. So I don't do that anymore. But shaving is a real pain, because I have to do it every day or it gets all stubbly and itchy, and sometimes it irritates my skin and I'm afraid of cutting myself. So I only do it in the summertime and now I'm all hairy. Sorry if you think that's gross. I like having my hair because it's more comfortable and it, um."
Oh, god. Don't think about it, Alison, just say it. Right?
"You know, my little lips dangle down. See? My hair helps cover them up. I've seen the pictures of girls in those magazines, and I think I'm weird that my little lips hang down that far. Most girls' vulvas contain themselves pretty well, and they just look like little slits when they're closed. Like a little front-bottom. But I look like I've left my tongue sticking out just a little. I hate it. My gynecologist says it's perfectly normal, and I guess he would know, but still, I don't like it. But I mean, I don't really think that the girls in the magazines are good standards for women to hold themselves up to anyway. Their bodies aren't normal, so why should I feel any different about comparing my vagina to theirs? But I do. That's another reason I get naked with the lights out. The guys wouldn't think it's weird if all they can do is feel it, because then it's supposed to be all… out. Right?
"Um. Do you guys think I'm fat?"
I don't remember when I'd started crying, but my face was all wet. When I stopped talking, my breath caught up to me and it turned into sobs that made my body jerk up and down. I could feel my breasts wobbling as I cried and I knew I must look like a freak. God, what had I done? They're going to lock me up for this, for indecent exposure, for creating a disturbance, for being a crazy naked insecure bitch that doesn't deserve to run around loose. When I opened my eyes again, nobody had said anything. They were just watching me cry, like it was part of what I was saying to them. Maybe it was. But I was tired of being alone in front of them.
"Somebody touch me, please. Hold me."
That guy Pete stood up and put his arms around me. He kissed the top of my head, they way you'd kiss a child. He didn't let go. He was hugging me high, around my shoulders, and he kept his hands balled up into little fists, like he was afraid of touching my skin. He didn't try to cop a feel or anything.