This is the last chapter for my attempt at National Novel Writing Month. So glad that I achieved the writing goal of 50,000 words! Enjoy the end of my first go at novel writing!
It was Sunday evening, and Collin had just dropped off the rental car at the university. He was rolling his wheeled suitcase through the dirty melting snow in the alleyway between Raf’s house and his neighbor’s. Collin could have carried the bag, but he was weary from the traveling over the last five days. He had attended and presented at two conferences: one in St. Louis by himself and the other in St. Paul with Raf and Nigel. At this point, he was just looking forward to being home and catching up on his sleep.
Collin entered through the kitchen door and flipped on the light. No one was home. He set his bag down, grabbed a beer from the refrigerator, and took out his phone. Zoee had promised him dinner when he got back. She was going to try and make him chicken wings, his favorite meal.
“I’m home.” Collin texted.
Soon afterwards. “Great see you in 15. BTW rice didn’t turn out.”
“No prob.” Collin responded. “Will make rice here.”
“Great. Toodles.” Was her final message.
Collin took off his overcoat and then retrieved his rice cooker. He measured out four cups of rice from the container where he kept all his rice. Next, he went to the sink to polish the rice, to wash away the starch so that when it cooked the grains wouldn’t stick to each other. Lastly, he had to add the right amount of water to the rice.
Sometimes Collin got this process wrong and the rice was either too wet or too dry. Sometimes he got it right and the rice was Chinese restaurant quality. By the time Zoee arrived, Collin would see if he was off or on his game this evening.
– – – –
The first conference that Collin had to attend to present at was the Pop Culture Association in St. Louis, Missouri. He arranged coverage of his Wednesday and Thursday classes so that he could fly to from La Crosse, Wisconsin to St. Louis, Missouri. He parked his car at his mother’s place and took a taxi to the airport.
Before Collin left, though, he had to get the keys to the rental car for the conference in St. Paul on the weekend. His two co-presenters Raf and Nigel were saving their professional development funds for a writing conference in Toledo, Ohio at the beginning of the summer, so if Collin wanted to present with them, he had to absorb the cost of the university rental car. No matter. Traveling and attending conferences was one of the perks of his position that he liked, and now that he was separated from Lyla, he didn’t feel any guilt for indulging in this diversion.
“What am I going to present on?” Nigel asked Collin when he pitched the conference idea to. Nigel and Collin were office mates. In addition, Nigel had been Raf’s housemate for a short while following his divorce from his first wife.
“You, me, and Raf will be doing a panel presentation on writing.” Colin informed Nigel. “Do your presentation on the manifesto writing assignment.”
“Oh, that’s a good idea.” Nigel answered. Not only had Collin given Nigel the idea for his presentation topic, he had also given Nigel the idea for the paper assignment prior to the semester.
“So you are going to have a boys weekend and leave me all by myself?” Zoee said when Collin told him about the plan for the weekend. They were hanging out in Raf’s kitchen. “I won’t see you for five whole days!”
“I’m sorry.” Collin said, although he really wasn’t. Zoee could come with him if she wanted, but she had school and work. Plus, she was a broke college student.
“I’m just teasing.” Zoee said. “I have a lot of studying that I need to do for a Japanese test. Plus, I haven’t hung out with Renzo and his boyfriend for a while. You have fun in St. Louis and with your friends, and when you come back, I will do something special for you.”
“That’s if I survive my whirlwind trip.” Collin added.
“You will.” She then climbed over to Collin, straddled him, and started whispered into his ear, “I hope you’ll think about me when you’re in the hotel all by yourself.”
Collin picked her up and carried her upstairs to his room.
– – – –
Collin arrived in St. Louis without any problems. He checked into his hotel which was in walking distance to the hotel and conventional hall where the conference was being held. Once he oriented himself to the area, he decided that he would enjoy the temperate St. Louis weather. Back in Wanetta, it was still cold and wintery. The snow was melted and dirty and was wearing out its welcome. In St. Louis, it was sunny and warm, so Collin walked to the St. Louis Arch to sightsee.
He walked along the Mississippi River. The water level was high from the spring melt further upriver, and the parts of the river walk bordering the Mississippi were submerged under a lashing flow of water. He made his way to St. Louis Arch and took pictures with his 4-megapixel camera.
This was the camera that he and Lyla used to take pictures of their sons and on their family trips. When they separated, Lyla had asked Collin for the files of all the pictures that they had taken with the camera. They were stored on his computer. He almost told her to fuck off and wanted to withhold the pictures from her. However, he resisted this urge and burned a CD with all the files for her. He gave this CD to his sons to deliver to their mother. Nothing would be accomplished by such a spiteful undertaking, and at a later time, Lyla might escalate and exact her revenge.
So much time had passed since those early days of their initial separation, those dark days that flattened him under a severe emotional gravity, leaving him depleted and exhausted as soon as he awoke. Now Collin was down river from all of that, enjoying the novelty of a new city and conference with a diverse field of academics presenting on pop culture topics through the particular lens of their field. He should be more excited, more present in the moment. However, he wasn’t, his mind was unexpectedly awash with memories of the past, like the CD of images he burned for Lyla. Feelings that he had been frozen in him had suddenly thawed and were coursing through his mind.
Maybe he should call the boys, but it was too early—they would still be at school. Maybe he should call Zoee and see how she was doing. Collin called her.
Zoee answered. “Hey, how’s St. Louis?” There connection was bad.
“It’s good. Just visiting the St. Louis Arch. Thought I’d give you a call.” Collin reported to her.
“Ugh. The connection is really bad. You’re very quiet.” Zoee told him.
Collin loudly repeated himself, “I said that I just visited the St. Louis Arch. Thought I’d give you a call.”
“Sorry, I’m driving to work. Must be out of service. Will talk to you later. Toodles.” Zoee hung up.
That was frustrating but nobody’s fault. Sometimes there’s just a bad connection.
Collin decided to distract himself by exploring the downtown around the hotel. Maybe he would make some friends with other attendees at the conference. It would be nice to have a drink and talk shop with other academics.
– – – –
The rest of the conference was quite uneventful. He attended some interesting sessions that intersected pop culture with linguistics, math, and computer science; and his own presentation went well. Still, there was not much to do within walking distance of the hotel, and downtown St. Louis felt like a second-rate Chicago. Plus, attendees at conferences are always wary of the lone male conference attendee that no one can vouch for—the solitary academic can be a weird individual—and many times it’s best to avoid such characters because you never know the reasons for their isolation.
After two days, Collin was of the summative opinion that the only good thing about St. Louis was that it was the home of Nelly. Collin was ready to move on to the next leg of his conference tour, at least he would have his two friends with him.
The night before Collin was set to fly out, the city must have gotten wind of his low impression, so it decided to spur him further. At 2am, Collin was awoken by RnB music and two people going at it in the neighboring room. Collin had to be at 5am to grab the metro and fly out of St. Louis, and now the little sleep he was going to get was further abbreviated by the tryst next door.
Collin listened to the squeaking bed and the moans of a woman until 4am. Finally, it stopped, but there was no point in trying to sleep further, so he got up and made his preparations to depart St. Louis.
– – – –
Collin was unable to sleep on his flight, so he was quite sleep deprived when he arrived in La Crosse. He took a taxi to his mom’s place and tried to fit in a short nap, but the nap only made him realize how tired he really was. Nothing to do, but drive to Wanetta, pick up the rental car from the university, pick up Raf, and then pick up Nigel before driving up to the cities. Maybe Collin could nap while Raf drove the university vehicle.
It was Saturday, and the university offices were closed, so it was prudent that he picked up the keys before flying to St. Louis. He found the sedan that he reserved and loaded his bags into the vehicle. He then drove to Raf’s place, swapped out his dirty St. Louis clothes for clean St. Paul clothes, and waited for Raf to arrive shortly from dropping his kids off at their mom’s.
“How you doing man? How was the Lou?” Raf asked when he arrived home.
“I’ll tell you all about it when we’re in the car.” Collin responded.
Raf quickly packed, and they were on their way to pick up Nigel in a nearby town. Collin wasn’t able to sleep during this interval, and his weariness was compounding further.
– – – –
When they arrived at Nigel’s home, it was as if he had done everything but pack his clothes for the trip. He had burned a CD of Van Morrison’s Greatest Hits and had packed some cigars that he wanted to smoke with his two friends, but it hadn’t occurred to him that he might need clothes. Oh yeah, he needed his sleep apnea machine, better get that too. An hour later, they were all ready to make the 1 ½ hour drive to the cities. At least, Collin could sit in the back and sleep.
Still, Nigel wanted to listen to the Van Morrison CD that he burned, and Collin drifted into a half sleep while listening to the Northern Irish crooner. In his semi-conscious state, Collin became acquainted with “Tupelo Honey” as it made an appearance on the discography.
You can take all the tea in China… Put it in a big brown bag for me… Sail it right around all these seven oceans… Drop it smack dab in the middle of the deep blue sea
In Collin’s impaired state and with his defenses lowered, the song pierced whatever was still damaged in Collin’s heart, in his psyche. He couldn’t do nothing but listen to the song, and singer’s avowals of his lover’s virtues.
Because, she’s as sweet as Tupelo honey, yes she is… She’s an angel of the first degree… She’s as sweet as Tupelo honey… Just like honey, baby, from the bee…
What the song uncovered in Collin were secreted feelings that he had repressed and forgotten for a woman that a year ago he was trying to woo and win back her love. The woman that bore his children. The woman that would take the greyhound bus to see him at school. The woman that he stole away from a friend of his when they were on the rocks and he was at a summer camp.
Underneath concentric layers of anger and hurt, Collin still had deeper layers where Lyla was not simply a villain in his life. In these layers, she still hurt him, and he would hurt her back, but there was still a love that he harbored for her, that he would always harbor if he allowed himself to peer into these memories.
Raf had once said that he would always love his ex, Zoe, and Collin thought that was mighty Christian of him. However, the song seemed to go on forever, pushing aside the emotional brambles that Collin had allowed to overgrow within himself to hide away memories that he no longer wanted to acknowledge, to protect his truth: that he was the aggrieved party and the universe sided with him.
You know she’s alright, oh she’s alright with me… You know, you know, you know she’s alright, she alright with me
However, Collin was slowly seeing that there were two truths, and if he looked past his pain, he could see the pain that he inflicted on Lyla.
This deeply saddened Collin, and these feelings followed him into his sleep during the rest of the car ride.
– – – –
When Collin awoke, they had arrived at the hotel in St. Paul. The three presenters checked in and had a quick meal in the restaurant near the hotel. Collin was weary of dining out from the past three days, but Raf and Nigel happily supped. Then Nigel wanted to take a taxi to a cigar bar in Minneapolis about 30 minutes away from the hotel. He seemed like he was really looking forward to smoking the cigars that he brought along with his two friends, so Collin and Raf agreed with this plan. Turns out the cigar bar was actually the smoking area to a strip club—the smoking area was not even inside; it was outside surrounded by heating lamps.
In Collin’s fatigued state, he was happy to smoke a cigar and drink an overpriced Jack and Diet Coke. At least the drink was stiff. Dancers would occasionally come outside during their smoke breaks and chat with the three of them. However, Collin was inured to the parade. Nigel wanted to chat up all the ladies. However, despite being attractive in a lustful way, Collin his own young thing back home waiting for him. He didn’t need this to escape from the routine of his marital life. He was happy, or he had thought he was happy.
She’s as sweet as Tupelo honey… Just like honey, baby, from the bee…
Collin was starting to see that he had more of his recovery year left to complete in order to be fully healed.
– – – –
On the taxi ride back, Nigel sat in the front seat talking up the driver. She was an older woman with grandkids, and she was regaling Nigel with her taxicab stories.
Raf sat in the back with Collin, who was completely exhausted from his day of travel and intermittent sleep.
“Everything ok, man?” Raf asked. Collin had his head against the window and was watching the 1am lights of the city.
“Yeah, I’m just tired.” Collin answered.
“Is that it? I haven’t seen you this quiet in a while.” Raf persisted.
“Not really. Things have been going well for me this past semester. I’m in a relationship with a young woman who is crazy about me and lots of fun. I was just in St. Louis. I’m hanging out with you and Nigel. I should be happy.” Collin paused.
“But I’m not. I realized tonight that I still have a ways to go on my year of recovery. That the necessary healing doesn’t continue when you start seeing someone, it merely pauses. That process waits for you, until your alone again.”
“Zoee is going to go away at the end of summer at Japan. And, I want her to enjoy herself. I hope that we can end things on good terms. It’ll be hard, but I think that I need to be alone for a little longer to work on myself.”
Raf had nothing to add. Collin seemed to understand what he needed to do.
– – – –
The next day, despite getting five hours of sleep, Collin was the first one to get up. He shaved, showered, and was going to go downstairs to eat breakfast. Raf got up after Collin was out of the shower.
“Would you wake Nigel up after you’re done showering?” Collin asked. “I’ll wait for you guys downstairs.” Nigel was still in a deep sleep with his sleep apnea mask humming.
Collin sat in the hotel dining area reviewing his PowerPoint slides and presentation handouts. Raf came down shortly afterwards.
“Nigel is finally up.” Raf informed Collin. They waited for 30 minutes and needed to be leaving soon.
Collin got impatient and went upstairs. Nigel had just gotten out of the shower.
“Nigel, we need to get to the conference. We already missed two morning sessions.”
“Ok, I’m hurrying as fast as I can.” Nigel responded in a testy manner. Collin wasn’t too sure this was true.
He went downstairs to wait with Raf. 15 minutes later Nigel showed up. His hair was still wet, and it was sopping his suitcoat.
“Alright, let’s go.” Collin said impatiently.
“What?” Nigel exclaimed, “I don’t have time for breakfast.”
– – – –
After ignoring Nigel’s protests, Collin quickly drove to the location of the conference and the last leg of this journey. Raf deftly provided Collin with the directions that he had printed from Map Quest while Nigel made some last-minute additions to his PowerPoint slides in the back of the car.
The three of them made it to the St. Paul technical school where the conference was being held. They made it halfway into the session block that preceded theirs, and the coffee and breakfast snacks were still available, which appeased Nigel’s famished state.
Collin ushered them into the conference room where they were presenting and loaded Nigel’s last-minute changes onto a flash key. Collin then transferred the PowerPoint file to his computer while Nigel was enjoying the pastries that he had piled onto his paper plate.
The three of them presented, and it was well-received.
This elated Nigel who then wanted to celebrate at a cigar store he knew of on the other side of the city. Raf was in no hurry to get home, and Collin was calmer now that they had completed the presentation, so he was willing to indulge his friend a little longer.
– – – –
When Raf and Collin dropped off Nigel, he had a gift for them.
“Here, guys.” He said. “I made this for the two of you.”
Out of his laptop bag, he pulled two CD cases. They were copies of Van Morrison’s Greatest Hits.
One for Raf. One for Collin.
– – – –
By the time Zoee came over, the rice was done cooking. Collin peaked inside the rice cooker—Chinese restaurant quality!
Zoee entered the house from the kitchen door. She had a plastic bag with a Tupperware container inside. She put the bag down on the table, took off her coat, and then embraced Collin.
“Give me a good kiss.” She demanded. “I haven’t seen you in five days.”
Collin happily obliged. After they had kissed, she took out the Tupperware container to show him what she had prepared for him. Inside the container were fried chicken wings.
Collin smiled. “Those look delicious. It was really sweet of you to make these for me. You even dressed up for me too.”
“Anything for you.” Zoee replied. Collin was deeply touched, and even though he was happy to see her, a sadness also laid inside of him.
“Here, before you watch me eat. Will you do something for me?” Collin asked.
“Maybe.” Zoee said. “It depends on what you want.”
“Get your mind out of the gutter, young lady.” Collin teased back. Reaching into his laptop bag, he then took out the CD that Nigel had given him. He placed it in the kitchen stereo and cued up a song according to the track list that Nigel had printed.
You can take all the tea in China… Put it in a big brown bag for me…
“Dance with me.” Collin softly commanded.
The two of them then slow danced in the kitchen, relishing the embrace and movement of one another.