05 April 2012

Ghostwriting: Sample chapter for novel (Book proposal available upon request)

I haven’t dreamed for 9 months.  Not one little nocturnal image.  It’s disturbing.  I’ve always believed that dreams are a reflection of what’s going on in my life, a way to comb out the tangles, to gain an objective perspective.  But it’s been so long since the last dream, I’ve begun to believe something’s seriously wrong.  Something important is missing in my life.  I can’t imagine what.  I’m 38 years old, and I have it pretty good by anyone’s standards.  Still, I’m exceptionally depressed.  Sometimes, I think I’m completely losing it.  Which would almost be okay, if I could figure out what “it” is.  But I can’t see down the dark hole drilled through the center of my chest to my belly.  
When I’m alone, I get scared.  When I’m with people, I slip into a suitable mask.  I’m miserable, and I know this can’t go on much longer.  What do I have to do to shake off this inexplicable sadness?  What do I have to do to dream again?
I’ve got to stop dwelling in the dungeon, snap out of it, get over it, let it go.  I need to walk this off...
A sharp wind from the Pacific tears at my long auburn hair as I cross the soft dunes to the sea.  My tender soles challenged by the resistance of the deep sand to each step, I begin to run, seeking relief in the hard sand at the water’s edge.  Reaching the cool ocean comfort, I squat to snatch a small, flat, black rock, sculpted smooth by years of battering and caressing.  My father taught me to skip stones 33 years before on Lake Champlain, where I didn’t have to wait for a wave to abate.  There was always smooth skipping on a lake in a Northern Vermont summer; not so in the wintry seas of Southern California.  I patiently watch for the right moment, angle my hand, and let the stone fly.  One, two, three, four, FIVE skips! before the next wave washes over the minor miracle of physics.  The sight does my heart good, and I giggle as I run along the shoreline, alive and in love with the sensation of instant liberty.
I run for half a mile before slowing to watch the sun sink to sea level.  Stopping to face the rich magenta light, shielding my eyes, wriggling my toes in the wet sand, I bask in the glorious moment, wrapped in a smile of singular gratitude.  Letting go of the past, embracing the future, enjoying the moment that lies between the two – these are the simple and profound gifts that have been on my wish list for lifetimes.  And now, they are mine.
The fresh ecstasy makes me feel as though the ground is trembling underneath my feet.  A distinctive rumbling sensation tickles my bare soles.  I suddenly realize it isn’t my etheric joy, but the shifting of tectonic plates, that is making the earth move.  Fear shoots through my stomach like an ice-cold shiv as the shaking intensifies, nearly knocking me off my feet.  I spin away from the now-churning Pacific to run inland, get to my car, drive home, find my husband, call my dad, turn off the gas – my mind swings quickly into earthquake survival mode as I scramble up the dry sand dunes to safety.  But each step sinks me deeper into the liquefying sand, and I feel myself sucked slowly towards the center of the earth, no release from gravity.  The sand is a swirling quagmire, and I am its captive.  Now waist-deep in the lethal bog, I twist slightly, catching the sight of a mile-high wall of ebony water, gaining momentum and poised to crash…
“NO!”  I bolt upright as if the earthquake I just dreamed were real – it may as well have been, for the way it’s made my heart pound.  Great.  I haven’t dreamed forever, and this is what I get.  I can’t quite catch my breath as I feel around in the dark for the bedside lamp switch.
“What the hell…?” Nic growls groggily from his side of our king-size bed, clearly more concerned about his disturbed sleep than my distress.  I hate to wake him; he’s been working around the clock lately.
“Sorry, baby.  It was nothing.  Go back to sleep.”  I stroke Nic’s hair, reach for my journal, turn off the light and slip out of bed.  
Tiptoeing into the living room of the elegant modern condo Nic and I share, I snuggle on the couch and sigh, safely tucked under the 20-year-old violet afghan my grandmother crafted for my college dorm room.  Curling up in its warmth, I write the details of the nightmare.  “Hope it’s not a premonition,” I whisper as I write.  “We still haven’t anchored the new shelf unit to the wall.”
My bathroom mirror offers an unkind reflection as I brush my teeth.  Dark circles and deep lines from a sleepless night are so unflattering; where’s the concealer?  Better yet, a double shot of Botox.  Nic slides past me, reaching for the toothpaste, pinching my rear.  
“Hey, when’s the last time you went to the gym?”  Nic’s mouth spits toothpaste as I return his pinch with a smack on his sculpted butt.  I know that no matter how much time I spend on the glute machine, mine will never be made of steel.  I hate that.  Apparently, he does, too.
“Since I got very little sleep last night, I have no clever comeback for you this morning, Nicolas, so I must resort to physical abuse.  And thanks,” I add another dollop of sarcasm, “for your support last night.”  
“Uh, that’s what your therapist is for, isn’t it?”  Nic runs styling gel through his hair as I squeeze past him.  I decide not to pursue it; escalation will only make us late for work.
Libby Weinman, PhD, the silver-haired 60-something psychologist who has patiently listened to my disjointed angst for several months, leans back in her generous chocolate leather chair and absorbs my overnight adventure with closed eyes.  Her occasional “mmhm” punctuates my impassioned narration.  Then, as I describe the oncoming tsunami, Libby’s eyes ease open.  
“Amanda, can you see what your mind is telling you?  Your anxiety and fears are taking over your life, dear.”  Calmly, in well-modulated tones carefully cultivated to soothe, the doctor offers her interpretation.  “In your dream, you start out perfectly happy – even ecstatic.  But then, in creep your various fears, of success, commitment – fear of happiness itself.  We’ve discussed this before, haven’t we?  What are you afraid of, Amanda?  What are you running from?”
Driving back to my office, I consider the therapy session, which has left me decidedly discomforted.  I find myself talking more freely to the Toyota’s windshield, the steering wheel, the dashboard, than I do to the woman who charges me $125 an hour.  
“Listen,” I say to the odometer, “I’ve survived 38 years of childhood, school, various jobs and relationships.  My mom got killed, and I lived through that.  I’ve worked hard for everything I’ve got.  Why can’t Miss Ivy League Smarty Pants tell me what’s making me crazy?  Isn’t that her job?  I’m completely successful in my career, I’ve been happily married to the same man for 8 years, we have a great condo by the beach, great friends, a great life...”  I pull into the garage.  “I mean, I have a parking space with my name on it, for God’s sake!  What the hell’s wrong with me?”
Baines, Hardwick Ltd. has been my bastion of security for 7 years.  Company founder Coleman Baines, a close personal friend of my father’s, hired me at its inception.  “You’ll have to prove yourself, though, Mandy” – he was one of the few who could get away with using my childhood nickname – “but I know you’ll make your father proud.”  Coleman didn’t make it easy for me to work my way up to director.  I quickly became infected with his enthusiastic work ethic – some of my friends call it a workaholic ethic – and he’d promised me a payoff.  Now, just as I’ve been picturing the title of Vice President, Planning on my business card, my respected boss has sold his interest in the successful firm to Lucas Hardwick, the son of Coleman’s late partner.  
“Hey, Amy – how was your lunch at Chang’s?”  I force a cheery greeting.  The young receptionist, and all of my other fellow employees, are unnerved by the palpable vibration of a company in transition, and I want to project a positive attitude – whatever might help to mitigate the overriding apprehension.  Having been here from the beginning, I feel somehow responsible for their comfort.
Hardwick is an arrogant, shallow, 32-year-old Englishman, and has lost no time creating an uneasy environment for us.  Far from exhibiting a collegial spirit, he seems to thrive on keeping his minions off-balance.  I sense his acute scrutiny from his glass-walled office as I enter mine, a few doors down; I feel like a lizard is crawling up my spine and leaving a trail of slime.  I haven’t had more than a couple of minutes to shake it off and settle behind my desk when the intercom buzzes.  
“Amanda, may I see you in my office?”  Lucas’ clipped British accent grates on me – not quite as charming as Hugh Grant.  Something else to which I’ll have to adjust, I guess.  I’ve helped Lucas acclimate to the office; I have no doubt my knowledge and experience are of service to him.  But he has yet to acknowledge my value, and I’ve – generously, I think – chalked that up to a difference in style.  But it still annoys me.
“On my way, Lucas.”  I scoop up a pad containing a list of pending items for discussion and walk several yards down the hall to Lucas’ corner office.
Lucas brusquely waves me into his office; he’s the only person I know who can make a welcome seem like a dismissal.  I take a seat across from his desk and shift uneasily in the cold steel Bertoia chair as he finishes his phone call.  I have yet to experience a comfortable moment in this room since Coleman left.  Where Coleman offered plush seating and displayed photos of his family and his dogs, Lucas’ office accoutrements are a telephone – with headset – and a titanium laptop.
Lucas’ demeanor is cooler than usual, if possible; I don’t waste any time wondering why.  Later, I’ll realize that, if I had made a complete transition from therapy to the office, I might have sensed what was coming.  
“In the month since I took over this company, I have come to appreciate the contribution you have made to the organization,” Lucas says.  Ah...he’s finally giving me my due.  I envision my new VP letterhead and smile.  “I can certainly see why Coleman held you in such high esteem; however...”  What?  Why is there a “however” in that sentence?  My brow furrows as I prepare for the rest of his statement.  “I’m making some changes in company strategy, necessitating changes in company staff.  It’s a hard time and a tough decision, but lean-and-mean downsizing is the only way for this business to survive.  I’m trimming the staff by a third.”  Lucas unceremoniously hands me a blue folder.  “Thank you for your years of service, Amanda.  I believe you will agree your termination package is commensurate with length of service.  I think a day should be sufficient time for you to pack up your office.  And...” Lucas’ eyes level on mine, “I trust you’ll only take with you what is personally yours.”
In the middle of what is one of the more humiliating moments of my life, my brain scrambles for logic and finds none.  I consider standing my ground – but, as in my nightmare, I know I’m treading on quicksand.
I’m so furious I can barely breathe as I sort through the documents and detritus from my desk.  Seven years of professional history – a box of business cards, photos of various staff parties, the Mont Blanc fountain pen my father gave me as a graduation gift – packed into three cartons and two shopping bags.  I take my time clearing out, alternately seething and aching.  I wait until everyone – including Lucas – has left the office.  I don’t want anyone – especially Lucas – to see how he has damaged my spirit.  I know I don’t deserve this.
Jerry, a 60-ish gentle giant of a mailroom supervisor, brings a hand truck to help transport my belongings to my car.  “So, I guess this is the first of many,” Jerry’s somber tone threatens to trigger my tears.  “You think Mr. Baines knew this was gonna happen, Miss Bennett?”  I shake my head, hoping I’m right.  I give Jerry’s shoulders a quick hug and get into my Camry, suddenly aware of exactly how many months are left on the lease.   Only when I leave the parking structure and pull out onto Wilshire Boulevard do I cry, while dialing the cell number of my closest girlfriend.
“Kristin,” I can’t keep my voice from wavering, “you’re not going to believe this.”  Kris experienced her own sudden layoff the year before.  She’s stunned but philosophical, in a party girl sort of way.  
“Oh, sweetie, let’s go out and drink a vat of apple martinis.  Y’know, it only took me 5 months to find a new job – I predict you’ll do it in 2 weeks!”
“Thanks, Krissy, but let me take a rain check.  I really could use a squeeze from my guy right about now.”
Nic’s perfunctory embrace doesn’t exactly provide the consolation I’m looking for when I spill the events of the afternoon.  Another disappointment I don’t need.  “I’m sorry, babe.  I’ve got a deadline, here.  It totally sucks – but you hated that guy.  You know this is one of those blessings in disguise.  You’re totally better off outta there.”  
I drop the shopping bags in the guest bedroom and reach for the phone, dialing my father’s number.  Straight to voicemail.  Kicking off my heels, I change into sweats and sneakers.  Nic doesn’t look up from the computer screen as I snatch my keys from the counter.  Fine.  To hell with him.  I slam out of the condo.  
Jogging the half block to the beach, I dive into the process that customarily clears my head.  I have 30 minutes before the sun disappears into the sea.  The day’s events – the dream, Dr. Weinman’s assessment, the layoff, Nic’s cavalier attitude – bounce around my brain like a mad ping-pong ball.  I decide to dwell in the practical: my termination package is enough to take care of my end of the finances for a few months, but I know the job market in my field is especially tough right now.  Time off is not really an option.
As I run on the beach, I think of my mother, lost in a car accident with a drunk driver just as I turned 23.  I long to be in touch with my first best girlfriend – there was no injury Mama couldn’t heal.
At sunset, I stop to rest at a blue lifeguard shack, closed for the evening, and rest my chin on my hands.  In the distance, I see four generations of women walking in my direction along the shoreline.  The women are clearly related, all flaxen-haired and slender; Scandinavian, maybe.  Their warm laughter is a reflection of the intimacy they share.  The eldest, with pure white cotton hair, is supported by her 20-something granddaughter on one side and a pronged cane on the other.  A little girl, platinum corkscrew curls trailing in the breeze, runs to catch up to her grandmother, gleeful in her discovery of some mysterious sea creature.
The heartwarming image of continuity and familial support only serves to fuel my misery.  But I know what Mama would say, in her balmy Southern drawl: “Mandy mine, you keep on keepin’ on!”  Then she’d take her little girl for coffee and cake.
My favorite barista, Lorne, greets me as I walk through the door.  “Decaf venti latte?  Or are you feeling adventurous?”  
“The usual, Lorne.  Don’t think I could take one more adventure today, thanks.”
I plop myself at a corner table and peruse the want ads.  Not the most fun I’ve ever had in a Starbucks.  But I find reassurance in the atmospheric sounds: the hissing of the espresso machine, the grinding of frappuccino in blender, the barista singing along with Stevie Wonder: “Don’t you worry ‘bout a thiiiiing...!”  This is the soundtrack that allows me to focus on the job search.  I circle a few possibilities.
Nic is still glued to the computer screen when I return. “Where ya been, babe?”  
“Walking.  Starbucks.  You hungry?”  
“Nah,” Nic keeps clicking on the keyboard. “I called out for pizza.  There’s some left in the kitchen.”  I slide a slice onto a plate, grab a bottle of water from the fridge and join my journal in the bedroom.  Between bites, I vent.  
“I know he’s busy, but Nic and I aren’t connecting lately,” I write.  “He’s an emotional, mental, physical MIA, just when I need him the most.  I’m always there for him, I’m always happy to drop everything to support him and hear his worries – well, maybe not always happy – but he really wasn’t there for me today...”
The next day, at the same coffee house, surrounded by other laptop users, I sip my latte – with an added shot of espresso to chase my fatigue after a second sleepless night – and compose my resume.  I find it easy to outline my professional accomplishments, especially with a caffeinated brain.  But I’m distracted by the shifting dynamic between me and my husband. 
Nic’s insensitivity to my immediate needs is appalling to me.  It seems unlike him not to care about my situation; at the very least, my layoff has an impact on our financial status.  We’ve known each other 10 years, been married for 8, have seen each other through great fun, dozens of minor trials, and the major heartache of a miscarriage.  Every now and then, we talk about trying again, but we’re both such workaholics, expanding our family beyond the two of us hasn’t been a priority.  We have a tacit agreement that we’ll get around to it at some point.  
I’m suddenly hit with the thought that now is the perfect time.  Perhaps we’d feel more solidarity if we shared that experience.  The more I turn it over in my mind, the more sense it makes: Nic’s doing well, I can still interview for another job while we’re trying.  It would be an affirmation of our unquestionable love for each other.  An affirmation, yes.  And a positive distraction.
After I e-mail several resumes to the prospective employers I found on the UCLA Alumni job site, I pack up my laptop and bounce out of the coffee shop.  I crank up the sound system and sing along with Patrice Rushen’s funky “Forget-Me-Nots” at the top of my lungs, reliving freshman year in college, on my way to propose parenthood to the man I love.
When I bound through the door, Nic is standing at the living room window that overlooks the ocean.  I ease up behind him, wrap my arms around his waist, stretch up to kiss the back of his neck.  He awkwardly slips out of my embrace; it feels like a bee stung my heart.
“Nic – what is this?  Can’t I even give you a damn hug?”  
“I’m just working out a problem, is all.”  He turns to face me with what I notice is a pained, painted smile.  He cups my small hand in his and kisses my palm.  “You know how I am when I’m in the ‘the cave.’  I’ll be out in a while.  ‘K, babe?”  My intuition tells me this is not the right moment to broach the subject of baby bliss.  I take my hurt feelings to the bedroom and turn on the evening news.  Somebody else out there is bound to have it worse than I do.
I sit in a high-backed leather booth across from my handsome father, Charles, and nibble on a piece of warm buttered bread.  Papa’s one of those older men who gives silver hair and laugh lines a good name.  Although he has recently retired, Papa’s tall, slightly paunchy frame is still decked out in three pin-striped pieces, as befits a successful investment banker.  The waiters at his favorite downtown steak house, Engine Company 23, conscientiously wait on him as if they were still seeing him everyday for lunch.  
“So, darling, we’re both on the dole,” Papa laughs while slicing himself a bite of Porterhouse.  “What do you suppose we two derelicts ought to do with our time?”  He receives my weak smile; I tolerate my father’s sense of humor better when I’m employed.  “Papa, have you talked with Coleman?  Does he know how Lucas is screwing with his company?”  
“It’s not ‘his company’ anymore, Cookie.  And Cole’s been on a sailing junket to Puerto Vallarta for several days, so I’m quite sure he’s out of touch.”  Papa adds another pat of butter to his mashed potatoes.  “But I’m sure he’ll be eager to give you the highest recommendation wherever you interview.  What have you got lined up?  Have you checked in with Kirk McCallum like I suggested?  Paul Myers?  Maryanne Lassen?  These are the people you want to connect with, they’re at the top of the game, and you should be, too.”  He bites the tip from an asparagus spear.  “I’m afraid you underestimate yourself, Cookie.  If you didn’t, you might have been a V.P. when you got fired.”  Papa signals to the waiter for another beer.  That’s three.  But I hold my tongue.
“Yes, Papa, they’ve all got my resumes.  None of them are hiring, now, but...you know the drill.”  I try not to fidget as I listen to my father, but it takes great effort to be patient with his occasionally patronizing tone.  “And I wasn’t ‘fired’ – it’s a layoff.”  I love my dad; I was happy when he moved to Los Angeles after Mama’s death.  I appreciate his informed support, I know his knowledge and connections are valuable, and I truly believe he doesn’t mean to talk down to me.  But he sometimes seems to forget that his only child is an adult woman who actually knows what she’s doing.  I think.
While the waiter clears our plates and leaves a dessert menu, Papa expounds on his vision of my next logical move.  Bless his heart; the lunch that he meant as a strategy session only exacerbates my frustration.  My cell phone mercifully rings as Papa pays the check.  It’s a breathless Kris, talking at her usual mile a minute.
“Amanda, you know my theatre group, The Watermark Company?  They’re looking for volunteers to help with our next production, to raise money for the local chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.  And I was thinking, we need you, you could honor your mom, you know, and use your time off for a good cause...”
“’Time off?’”  Okay, I’ve had about enough of the people in my life not getting it.  “I have to find another job, Kris.  I don’t have time to play in your little theatre, for God’s sake!”  I realize my desperate edge isn’t lost on my friend or my father and take a step back from my anxiety.  “Okay, okay.  Sorry.  If it doesn’t cut into my job search, I’m in.”
And if you don’t have to get onstage,” Papa smiles, a reference to my lifelong fear of public speaking.  
“This would be behind the scenes, Papa,” I sigh.  “I know how to do that.”  
The old firehouse on Ashland Street was converted several years before into a 99-seat theatre with a large platform stage.  Nic and I had attended and enjoyed a few of Kris’ performances, but it never occurred to me to participate – it’s exotic, maybe glamorous, but it’s really not my world.  The first thing that hits me as I walk through the door of the windowless building is the musty odor of sweat and old makeup.  Yikes!  So much for the glamour.
Kris introduces me to a few of her fellow company members before we settle in the audience and get our assignments.  I take a seat in the back row.  This is too strange; everyone knows each other.  And they’re all, as Papa would say, somewhat derisively, “creative types.”  I am the proverbial fish-out-of-water.  What am I doing here?
“I want to thank everyone for showing up, this is a great two-act play by a new playwright...” The producer’s name is Oliver something, but I’m too distracted by my own thoughts to pay close attention to what he’s saying.  While he’s chattering away, I’m wondering exactly how long I’m going to be unemployed.  And that I should have called Nic to see how his meeting went with his new client.  And I really should get back to the gym, my thighs are spreading on this seat like cream cheese...okay, Amanda, the producer’s introducing someone, pay attention.  Uh, who’s this guy...?
“Hi, I’m Scott Winston, I’ll be your director for this flight of fancy.  We’ll be traveling at the speed of sound, at altitudes heretofore unrecorded in theatrical history...”  No, really, who is this guy?  Kind of cute, in an edgy, disheveled sort of way.  Quirky.  Uh, too quirky, some kind of artsy, 21st Century hippie-cyberpunk, with his camouflage pants, safari vest and black t-shirt.  Does this guy even know what he’s doing?  He’s nothing like my smooth, stylish, professional Nic.  Hmm...my Nic.  Maybe he and I can grab some pasta tonight at Il Fornaio, and I can bring up the baby idea...
“Amanda Bennett?  Is there an Amanda Bennett in the house?”  Damn.  The cyberpunk director is calling my name – a second or third time, apparently, given the giggles from the group.  I sheepishly raise my hand.
“Ah, there you are...Amanda, I’m hoping you’ll help out Jean, here.”  Scott had been wandering around the theatre while making assignments, and affectionately touches the head of a petite young Asian woman wearing Juicy Couture yoga pants and a tiny pink t-shirt that reads, “It’s ALL good.”  Jean makes notes in her script, completely ignoring Scott’s introduction.  “Jean’s our insanely ruthless set designer and prop master, and Kris tells me you’re relentlessly organized, so the two of you should hit it off.”  I slowly mouth the word, “relentless” at Kris; Kris responds with a wink.
“Jeez, I’m gonna be tasting garlic for three days,” Nic grunts as we wait for the light to change at Ocean Boulevard.  
“You asked for extra,” I laugh, “and I’m thinking there aren’t enough Altoids in L.A. to make me want to kiss that mouth, now!”  Nic grabs my hand as we run to avoid the oncoming traffic, past a couple walking their Golden Retriever.  “Hey, can we get a dog?”  I ask, feeling a little like an 8-year-old.  “A lab, maybe, or a Weimaraner, like Brian’s.”  
“Uh, we’ve had the dog talk, babe,” Nic reaches into his pocket for the bills to cover ferris wheel tickets.  “Neither one of us has the time to care for it, train it, walk it...it’s like having a kid.”  
“Looks like I have some time, now,” I settle back into the gondola.  “Besides, it’s good training...I mean, there is the ‘pets-before-babies’ theory.”  Our gondola inches up to the top of the wheel, stopping at intervals as others board the ride.  It’s an incremental rise, like my approach to the delicate subject of a trip to babyland.  “’Cause I’ve been thinking...”
“Uh oh,” Nic provides his usual smartass response to that phrase.  I am undeterred by his mockery.
“Yes, that’s right, Nicolas, I’ve been thinking.  About us.  About what ‘us’ means.  About what it could – should – mean, after all this time.”  We near the apex; I reach for Nic’s hand, entwining my fingers in his.  “And this is my proposal...”
“Yes?  What do you propose?”  I know he’s not dense, he’s just playing dense – isn’t he?  I try not to let my impatience with him infect my tone.  
“I’m proposing pregnancy, Nic.  As in, mine.  As in, we try to have a baby.”
Nic takes a long breath and looks past me, counting the lights that line the coast.  Oh, this isn’t good.  This is not the response of my dreams.  “Speak to me, Nic.  It’s a yes-or-no question.”  
“Your timing is incredible,” Nic starts.  As we make one revolution after another, he lets me in on the thoughts that have fed his recent distant behavior.  He says he’s been feeling the need to take a step back for a little while, regroup.  What with all the changes going on in his – in our – professional lives, he wants the space to sort them out.  Maybe some time apart would allow for a clearer picture of our relationship.  I can’t quite fathom what I’m hearing.
“I know I’ve been a little blue, Nic, but I didn’t know our relationship was looking fuzzy.  And we’re married, we’re partners – why can’t we do the sorting out together, the way we always have?”  Hot tears form in my eyes, threatening to spill as we walk back to the car.  I wait until we’re out of the crowd to ask the inevitable question: “Is there someone else?”  
“No, no, babe...I just need a little breathing room.  And I want you to have some, too.  Just for a little while.”  He says he’ll stay at Michael’s while Michael is in San Francisco.  He’ll be only a mile away, in Venice.  
We fall asleep in each other’s arms that night.  When I wake the next morning, Nic is gone.
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