We were freshening up before going out to eat and catching up on the day at the same time.

“I got the sales tax report done and also put your letter in the mailbox for pickup,” I said, running a comb through my hair.

“My what?”

“Your letter. You know, the yellow envelope you left for me to put out in the mail.”

“Ah, that was my stool sample.”

“Oh. My. Gosh.” I slammed my comb down on the marble … because I like drama. “I cannot be-lieve I held that and carried it out to the mailbox.” I put my hands on my hips and looked at him in the face and then in his face in the mirror we were standing in front of. It was a test kit for colon cancer screening on its way to a lab. “What were you thinking? You didn’t even need to bother with that. You just had a colonoscopy, for cryin’ out loud.”

“It was free.”

“Free? You did it because it was free?”

“Yeah, I do it every year. It’s a service my insurance provides. We could do you, if you want. They send a little brush — ”

“Never mind! But you’re gonna have to start walking your own samples to the mailbox.”

A half hour later we were sitting in Amerigo’s in Cool Springs eating Cheese Fritters — the recipe is in Bon Appetit, and then I had Goat Cheese Pasta and he had Veal Saltimbocca.

It wasn’t so tonight, but usually I’m very distractible when I’m eating out in a restaurant, surrounded by tables filled with happy folks, all engaged in conversation. One ear gets pulled to the table behind me, while the other goes toward the table across the aisle. I also try to snatch a sampling from two tables away. I just can’t help but listen. I stare at the couple seated at Table B and keep an eye on the family at Table C, meanwhile causing gaps in conversation with my own table partner, thus having to say, “Huh? What’d you say?”

It reminds me of a writing exercise in The Pocket Muse, guaranteed to provide interesting plot and dialogue:

“Go to a restaurant with somebody patient. Pretend to be listening to him while you eat. Meanwhile, grab a swatch of conversation from Table A and another swatch from Table B. Combine and enjoy.”

This makes me glad that the stool sample dialogue took place in the privacy of my home, because I’d hate to think that some poor writer in need of news or muse or stimulation was catching a swatch of that.

Road Less Traveled

Someone has left a note on a car windshield.

This came as a writing prompt in The Pocket Muse. I read it and my stomach lurched.

There’s only one thing I can write about here, and it will color your opinion of me forever, for I once did something inexcusable, something that speaks not so positively about my character, something I’ve long regretted. I’ve never told anybody.

It happened my sophomore year in college, and it had to do with a boy I’ll call James. James was as cute as they come, and short–not any taller than I. When he called out of the blue and asked me for a date at the beginning of fall semester, he had just quit his fraternity because they were a bunch of rowdy drunks, and his girlfriend, a cute, perky, blond cheerleader had broken up with him. I had just ended a relationship, too, but I’d also begun rekindling a summer camp friendship from when I was fourteen and met a boy from Texas.

That first date, James and I hit it off, but then he didn’t call back for two months. Meanwhile, this other thing with the guy from Texas developed. We wrote a lot of letters, but only saw each other once a month at best.

So when James finally got around to calling, I told him I understood we were both fresh out of relationships, we both had “others” on our minds still, and I had a “friend” who would most likely be coming to visit occasionally, but yeah, I’d love to go out with him. I figured we were both of the understanding that this was just for fun–nothing serious. I found out later I should have clarified “friend.”

A long string of dates followed. James and I went to the movies, to the county fair, to the drive-in, horseback riding, on long rides in the country in his Mustang listening to Bobby Goldsboro on eight-track. We even played and rolled around in a trailer full of freshly picked cotton! He was fun, I was at ease with him, I could talk to him about anything. Heck, I was crazy about the guy, and now as I look back, those were the best days of my youth. There were some long kissing sessions on country backroads, but still, I believed us to be in a casual relationship. (Well, everybody needs to kiss, and I could kiss and keep it casual!) Then there was that one night, when we were alone and he tried to tell me something. Something serious. I sensed what it would be, and I got desperately silly and steered the conversation away from it and kept on steering until the date was over. I couldn’t hear that he loved me. I couldn’t let him say it. My “friend” from Texas was arriving for a visit the next day, and I’d already come to a peace about him. I knew in my heart I’d marry him one day when he got around to asking. I’d chosen the other way, the road less traveled.

No matter what I say here and now, it appears that I was stringing one along, while waiting for another. I was selfish, a user, a tease. In reality, I’d had so much fun with James that the relationship naturally went deeper and grew stronger, and I’d worked myself in so far, I suddenly realized there was no good way out.

A day later I got engaged, and James’ best friend learned about it at Sunday School the following day and went straight to James. Monday after World Lit I returned to my car and found a note on my windshield. “Meet me at 2:00 in front of the Union. You owe me at least that.”

Oh God, that went deep. In the bliss of an engagement I felt was aligned with the stars, there was this. This wound. This hurt. This gaping hole in something that was once so sweet and innocent. This young man I loved, but not in that way. And I had been less than honest, less than the woman I wanted to be.

I met him at two. We stood face to face, aching, in tears, feelings erupting as silent air escaping from a balloon. “Why?” he breathed. And all I could do was say, “I’m sorry.” It wasn’t enough. It has never been enough. There’ve even been times over the course of years when I’ve wondered if I took the right road.

Things I Want To Know

I found something that works! I’ve never been much into how-to’s and inspirational things, but I bought a book a few years ago, not necessarily for its contents, but because I liked the way it looked. Published by Writer’s Digest Books, The Pocket Muse by Monica Wood, a lovely, compact book, dark sage green with a black binding, has on its cover a snapshot of a man (from behind) holding up a sign that reads “ideas & inspiration for writing.” Inside, there are hundreds of prompts, exercises, and illustrations on shiny pages. The only colors used are white, gray, black, and sage green. Ah, appealing!

I was having trouble with a scene in Chapter 8 of the Great American Southern Novel. Instead of a nudge, this chapter needed to shove the plot along. I was in desperate need of details that would take me deeper into the story. Alas, too many distractions…writer’s block…couldn’t get it going…needed some mojo.

I opened the pocket muse book to a white page with a black strip down the left margin. A gray notebook with sheets folded back sits open to a writing exercise. Make two lists: is printed at the top of two columns, a black line drawn down the middle. The left column says, Everything you know about your subject and the right column says, Everything you want to know about your subject.

Hmm. Interesting. I figured I could substitute the word Scene or Character for Subject. So I gave it the old college try, figuring I would only have a few things to write down, which held true for the left column–a total of 4. But lo and behold, I filled the page on the right side. Ideas, details, important stuff flowed from head to page–it surprised the heck out of me.

It’s the things I WANT TO KNOW that tell the story. And this was an effective exercise for calling them forth.