Fiction: Nighthawks

Nighthawks by Edward Hopper view into night time diner for Nighthawks post by Malin James

Nighthawks by Edward Hopper. 1942

I wrote this story awhile ago. I’ve always loved the painting that inspired it. In fact, I love most of Hopper’s work. As a very good friend of mine once said that his subjects appear to be lost in their own world. Their faces and postures have an interiority that invites interpretation. I couldn’t help but write this. It’s a very short story, with a serial point of view. In other words, the narrator spends a brief amount of time in each of the  characters’ heads. This drives some readers crazy, (my apologies if you’re one), but I think the convention works for this image. There was no other way to do it, in my book.

Nighthawks

Rose looked at her reflection in the polished mahogany counter. She didn’t look good. The day had caught up to her, stripped her of color and sharpened her face. She dabbed at her lipstick with a napkin. Too red. It looked funny. Rose put the napkin down. She used to like that red. So had Eddie. Eddie had liked that color.

Red, red lips for my red, red, Rose….

Rose’s hand plucked at her earring, her coffee, her locket, before inching over to rest on Rob’s sleeve. She liked the feel of his woolen jacket under her quick, nervous fingers. Nice and warm. Solid. Rob. She shivered. It had been a long day. It was time to go home. She wanted to say that. It’s been a long day. It’s time to go home. But his downcast eyes trapped the words in her mouth. He wasn’t ready yet. She could wait.

Widow at thirty. What a laugh. She smiled at her reflection. She looked bitter and old—not pretty anymore. Her eyes slid to the floor. She didn’t really care. Everyone was dead. Eddie was dead. The baby was dead. Her father—hers and Rob’s—was dead, but that was nothing to cry about. Their father had always been lucky. He was a lucky son-of-a-bitch.

Rose glanced at her brother and cut off the thought, as if Rob could read her mind. He couldn’t. She knew it. Just like she couldn’t read his, but sometimes they got close…sometimes.

It’s been a long day. It’s time to go home.

She looked at his profile, his hawkish face, and quietly looked away.

Rose knew the dead were lucky, but Rob didn’t need to hear it. He’d done enough already. More than she wanted him to. He’d visited her in the hospital and tied pink ribbons around her wrists. He came by or called every day. He worried, she knew. She made him worry.

You worry, honey. You worry too much.

She was tired. It was time to go home.

Rose sighed, a small, shallow breath. Everything was done. This time he’d have nothing to find. Rob…. She was glad they’d spent the whole day. Rose fingered her locket. The gold was warm. It felt soft when she pressed it. There was a picture of Eddie and the baby inside.

She glanced at her brother through her sweep of red hair. Red, red hair. Red, red Rose. Poor Rob. His face looked dark, like a shuttered house. No lights. Locked doors. She could wait. They would sit together in this anonymous place, coffee cold in their cups. When he was ready, he would take her home. She loved him. She could wait.

###

Robert knew Rose was going to try it again. He could read it like newsprint in the lines around her mouth. He missed her smile, her real smile, her cracking, half-cocked grin. He hadn’t seen it in months. Instead he got what she gave him now…pale lips under too much red. Her hand was cold on his arm.

She’d gotten dressed up for their day together, special occasion dressed up—Hayworth hair, her favorite pink dress, she’d even worn perfume. But her bones were sharp beneath her collar. Her wrists were thin and hard. He wished she’d worn a sweater. It was turning cold, too cold for a thin, silk dress.

Why don’t you bring a sweater, Rosy?

No, I’ll be okay.

The second she’d said that, he’d known. That dress, her hair, her too bright face…he’d known exactly what was coming. He didn’t want to know.

He lit a cigarette and let it burn. Tiny column of ash. Then he lit another. Beside him Rose shifted, patient, silent. She wanted to go home.

See you tomorrow, Rose

I love you, Rob.

Robert sipped his coffee. He should say something. He should stop her. But, Jesus, she looked spent…. Rob glanced at his sister, though the sweep of her strawberry hair, but he couldn’t see her face. He wasn’t sure he wanted to. Robert signaled for the check. It was time to take her home.

“More coffee?”

Robert paused.

The waiter poured.

One more cup. He wasn’t ready yet.

###

Wish that kid would quit staring and do his job. Goddamn coffee’s cold.

Across the diner, Charlie hunched over the counter, like a bulldog over a bone. He eyed the yellow-haired waiter, who was eyeing the redheaded girl. Like staring was going help. A gal like that never left her man, not if he beat her into the ground. After thirty years he knew.

Charlie rubbed his bum knee. He wished he could sleep. He hadn’t slept since he’d retired. Not a full eight hours. Not in a month. Way to go Charlie. Retirement—you lucky son-of-a-bitch….

Yeah. Real lucky.

Charlie leaned back into the diner chair, and thought about what he’d retired to. He hated fishing, hated crosswords. His buddies were still on the force. Doris was remarried and Katie was busy, making a life of her own. She’d even gotten a job—secretary at some firm. Smart girl. Katie had always been smart. Maybe not pretty, but smart. He could hear Doris telling her to dress up nice for work. Christ, he wished Doris would shut-up.

Charlie shot the waiter a look and softly clacked his cup. The kid strolled over, refilled it from the urn and handed it back to him. Up close, Charlie realized, the kid wasn’t much of a kid. Mid-twenties maybe. Charlie grunted. At twenty-six, he’d been on the force for five years. Guy should get a real job.

Charlie looked out the diner’s plate-glass window at the dark, disinterested street. Good pension. Big thanks. What did you do when you got cut loose? What the hell did you do? Kid’s got his whole life and he wastes it, like it’s something to toss away. Charlie shifted on the narrow seat. He was starting to hate that kid….

He should probably head home. It was a long walk back to his place. Maybe that would wear him out. He reached for his wallet, straining the seams of his suit. Cheap suit. Work suit. He took out his Luckies instead. One cigarette. One more cup. Then he’d toss a buck on the counter and take the long walk home. Back to his apartment. He hated that apartment. He hated the way it looked—half empty, full of nothing, like old newsprint. He hadn’t seen it that way before. He hadn’t had time—he’d barely ever been home. Now he saw every night. Charlie sipped his coffee, sucking it slowly between his teeth.

Christ, he wished he could sleep.

###

That lady looks sick. Joe glanced up from a tray of half-empty saltshakers. What’s she doing out so late with that guy, anyway? She looks like she should be in a hospital or something….

Joe shook his head and refilled the shakers without taking his eyes off the lady in the dark pink dress. He was good at working and watching. He never spilled.

Look at how she’s holding his arm, he thought. Like she’s gonna drown and he’s the only thing keeping her afloat.

Joe stopped pouring and wiped off his hands. That was good. He had to write that down.

He loved working the late shift. Nothing like it for writer’s block. Nothing like it for inspiration. The lady and her fella were great. He had to use them somewhere…maybe he’d put her in a sanitarium and make the guy her lover. And the guy… a private eye with a shady past? Maybe he broke her out and now they’re on the run. However Joe wrote it, it was gonna be tragic. That lady was tragic all over.

Joe glanced across the counter at the old guy with the coffee habit, sitting on his own. He wasn’t as compelling but he’d find his way in too. Maybe a crime boss or a has-been reporter. Joe studied the man nursing his twelve-hundredth cup. Thickset. Stubborn face. Angry mug. No. He was the woman’s father. Iron fist with heart of gold.

The old guy shot Joe a belligerent look.

Skip the heart of gold.

Joe shrugged. Even after he’d sold the novel, he’d still work the graveyard shift. He loved the diner at night. Nothing like it for writer’s block. Nothing like it for inspiration.

Joe pulled out a pen. Down the counter, the man paid the tab and helped the lady up. She stumbled. He caught her. Joe bent over his notes. He barely looked up as they left.

THE END

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Little Demons

Medieval woodcut. Image courtesy www.cvltnation.com

I don’t have big demons. I don’t have monsters, or addictions, or obsessions, or compulsions. I like to drink, but not to excess. I love pleasure, but not to my own detriment. I have patience, (hard won), and a certain amount fallible perspective, (also hard won). I am stable and strong, (extremely hard won)…

What I have instead are little demons. Little demons aren’t the demons that make you hit rock bottom. They’ve never pushed me to the edge. I’ve never woken up in places without knowing how I got there, (though I have woken up in places that I didn’t expect), and though I have quite a lot of regrets, I wouldn’t take even one of them back. Little demons don’t care about big things like that. They’re different. They’re quieter. Silkier. They are, by definition, small. But there are often quite a lot of them, and they all sound like the voice of reason in your head.

Let me unpack that a bit. Most people have a little voice of reason – the one that says, isn’t two donuts enough, you moron? and seriously, babe, DON’T sleep with your best friend. Sometimes we listen and sometimes we don’t. Sometimes the voice is wrong, but more often than not, it’s dead right. Whether or not you listen to your gut, your conscience, you instinct, or whatever else you want to call it, is up to you, but you can trust that voice, almost implicitly, if you listen carefully enough.

Little demons mimic that voice. They tell you to be careful when you should take the risk. They tell you toss the dice when you should call it a night. Little demons tell you, with the conviction of god (if you believe in that sort of thing), that you should do the opposite of what is wise at any given time.

They convince you that you know it all when you know nothing, or that you know nothing when you’ve got it dialed in just right. They tell you that you’re brilliant and then undermine your worth. Little demons offer input and whisper “truths”, but the perspective they have is skewed. They shadow the lens of your perception and make it hard to see.

I’ve been thinking about my little demons a fair bit of late. My little demons like to keep me safe. In fact, that’s the only program they run, because that’s what little demons really are – inculturated values, programs that we literally absorb as we grow up. Did your mother have issues with body image? Odds are there’s a little demon pushing that button in you. Did your grandparents overcome hardship? Did your father succeed, but at a heavy cost?

The experiences of those we love inform who we become. They color the house we grew up in and the lessons we subconsciously learned. That’s what I mean by “programming” and “inculturated values”. That said, they, and the effect they have, aren’t inherently negative. They just are. It’s the amount of influence we allow them to have that matters.

The trick is to figure out which of those values are inherited and which are native to you, the finite individual. Once you know that, you can listen to your gut more closely. You can tell the difference between your own instincts, and the little demons that would keep you safe, or push you to the brink.

I’d like to say that I’ve developed an ear for my own little demons, and to a certain degree, I have, but it’s far from 100%. I still get tripped up. I suspect I always will, just as I know that my daughter will carry some of the results of my experiences with her, regardless of how hard I try to control their influence. I can’t immunize her any more than my parents could immunize me. The little demons, the programs, the inherited values, are as much a part of the human experience as breathing or death.

My goal then, ultimately, is to make choices on my own terms – to listen to my reason, rather than the programs I learned. My hope is that, in doing so, I’ll give my daughter the tools she’ll need to do the same for herself.

The Devil’s in the Details (and The Deep Blue Sea)

Rachel Weisz as Hester Collyer for The Devil's in the Deep Blue Sea post by Malin James

Rachel Weisz as Hester Collyer

I watched a film awhile ago – Terrence Davies’ adaptation of Terrence Rattigan’s play, The Deep Blue Sea. It’s a beautiful, melancholy play, and a beautiful melancholy film about a woman named Hester Collyer, who escapes a stifling marriage to have an affair with a damaged RAF pilot named Freddie Page.

Set in the years following WWII, the film, (and the play), examines a particular slice of cultural history through Hester’s emotional decent. She’s a beautiful woman with two choices – remain wedded to stifling traditions or deviate from accepted social norms. Neither is particularly promising as they are born out in the choice between a dry, unsatisfying marriage to a  kind, older judge, or wildly sexual but emotionally fraught affair with a younger man.

There are a lot of things I like about this film. Visually, it’s a beautiful thing, full of saturated color and all the  soft edges of an old Hollywood film. The acting is also first rate – Rachel Weisz is heart-breaking as Hester and Tom Hiddleston turns in a edgy, nuanced performance as Freddie Page. But, as they say, the devil’s in the details, and that’s true for this film.

Take a look at this short trailer, and keep your ear open to one of Freddie’s lines. It starts about 19 seconds in.

That line – “I really think you’re the most attractive girl I’ve ever met” – is the detail that stands out most to me in this film. That one line, and Hester’s silent response to it, tells viewers everything they need to know about what’s going to happen. Here’s what I mean.

Arguably, Hester’s defining characteristic is that she needs. She is driven by unfulfilled need, and her needs – for love, and respect, and fulfillment, and romance, and desire, and safety, and belonging, and etc. etc. etc. – run incredibly deep. Freddie, on the other hand, skates the surface of need. He cannot tolerate entanglements for reasons of his own.

So, while he can offer Hester, “I really think you’re the most attractive girl I’ve ever met”, what Hesters needs is “You are the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen. I love you. Stay with me.” That need of hers is naked on her face, and as soon as you see her cling to the bon-bon Freddie’s offered, you know it’s going to go badly for them.  There is too much distance between what Hester needs, and what Freddie can give.

And that’s why I love this film, even though it makes my stomach hurt. No one is at fault. They are just, fundamentally, not right for each other. Love and attraction are not enough. What breaks my heart is that nothing will ever be enough for Hester. Her needs went ignored for so long that there is a hole inside of her that cannot be filled. That’s why this film is a tragedy, and that’s why it’s so good.

Border Patrol

Big Ben through barbed wire c. 1945

This began as a post about Russia and what’s happening in Crimea, but I’m a little embarrassed to admit that it rapidly became a bit of a self-centered musing about myself. What’s happening in the Crimean Peninsula right now is legitimately interesting, as is the West’s response, (or lack thereof). Apparently, however, it’s not as interesting to me as myself. For this, I apologize. And yet, I forge on….

Recently, I’ve been thinking about boundaries, specifically my own, and how they are both uncompromising and quite flexible – though not universally so.

I’ve always been aware that I have some pretty serious boundaries, which I tend to defend with equal seriousness . In fact, someone very close to me refers to this tendency as my “border patrol”, calling to mind barbed wire fences and armed guards patrolling with guns and large dogs. And as much as I’d like for this to not be the case, it really is true. I have a border patrol and they are always on guard. The black and white bottom line is that some people naturally skirt the barbed wire fence and find themselves inside, while others don’t and are relegated to some portion of the perimeter… some quite close, other’s very far away.

The mechanism by which a person gets past my border patrol used to be a bit of a mystery to me. Most of the time, it happens quite quickly, though not very often – which is why I have a lovely handful of extremely close friends, (most of whom slipped through immediately), and a nice, healthy number of good, friendly acquaintances with whom I enjoy varying degrees of emotional intimacy.

So, there are the people who slip right through the perimeter, and the people with access cards who come and go fairly freely. Call is chemistry or affinity or sympathy or connection, but something between that person and I subconsciously sorts out where they end up in relation to my boundaries. The only thing I know for certain is that the people who sense my perimeters and respect them, are the people who tend to slip through.

Now, the people who really fascinate me are the ones who occupy a strange middle ground. While they don’t kick me into full alert, they inspire a serious, immovable guardedness in me – a sort of instinctive distrust that often translates to dislike.

When full alert happens, I don’t tend to care why. I generally run on the instinct that the person is a psychopath or some sort of son-of-a-bitch and keep them at arms length. Sure, it’s reactionary, but better safe than sorry. The grey area people are different though. It’s not psychopathy or son-of-a-bitchness that I’m cuing to with them. It’s an inherent lack of respect – for my boundaries, in general, and, therefore, for me.

Awhile back, I wrote a post on dominance, or rather, on women and submission. I think that, buried beneath my rabid hierarchical awareness, is the issue of boundaries and respect. I respect other people’s boundaries, and I have an absolute antipathy for people who try to test mine.

This very well may mean that I can’t take a joke, or that I take myself too seriously, but it’s always been the case. At this point in my life, it’s a fundamental part of my personality. So, I suppose that my border patrol is, more than anything, a response – one that can be supple and flexible or cold and hard – and that response, while being an accurate reflection of me, is also a reflection of how I perceive others. While it’s not a perfect lens, it’s the only one I’ve got. The least I can do is understand how it works. I want to be sure that I’m the one paying the guards.

A Question: On Women and Homoeroticism

This is really more of a question than a proper post, but I’ve had an idea for an article and I want to solicit some opinions before I write it.

A friend posted a video of two men kissing the other day and the response from women was, shall we say, heated… as in, every single woman who responded thought it was hot. Granted, there was some selection bias, but it was enough to get me thinking. So I did some shallow digging and uncovered a comparatively large cache of media, mostly written, though there’s plenty of visual too, (cheeky little gifs), that cater to women who love watching homoerotic situations and / or gay sex. The fact that M/M erotica and porn do very well with the female demographic, (and not just in the gay community), tells me there’s something there. What I’d love to do is figure out what that something might be.

From a personal angle, I can absolutely see the appeal of watching / reading about two men, (just as many men find the idea of two women to be a fine thing) but I’d like to go beyond “yeah, that’s hot” to figure out why. So, I’m soliciting opinions and thoughts on the subject.

A few guidelines first though:

1. If the thought of two men engaging in sexual contact isn’t your thing, that’s absolutely fine. I know that there are plenty of men and women who would prefer to take a pass. That said, please don’t blast the notion in your comments, because the reality is that there are many people who would take seconds on that dish. Please respect the fact that it’s a personal preference and do not treat the question as an attack on your own predilections.

2. As I mentioned above, I’m keeping the inquiry pretty restricted to women viewing / reading about two (or more) men. If, however, there’s an angle that involves the converse appeal for many men in watching two women, please feel free to mention it.

3. Be respectful. This question involves sex, homoeroticism and certain aspects of voyeurism. As such, some folks may find it uncomfortable. Again, that’s ok. Just be sensitive to the tastes of others. In short, see #1.

Thanks! I appreciate the time anyone takes to weigh in!

Edited 1/28/14: I would just like to thank everyone who has taken the time to weigh in on this subject. I’m leaving the comments open, so if anyone has anything to add, please feel free!

On Monogamy

William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles in The Thin Man, by Dashiell Hammett

William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles in The Thin Man, by Dashiell Hammett

This is a picture of Nick and Nora Charles, a fictional couple who, for me, defines the ultimate in healthy, committed relationships. I realize that, because they are not real, this statement could easily be questioned – after all, it’s not hard to make an ideal out of people who aren’t real. However, the fact that the fictional relationship of a fictional couple popularized in the 1930’s, (a period of time in our culture when the boundaries of marriage remained highly uncontested), still resonates eighty years later lends weight to the excellence of their example.

For those unfamiliar with Nick and Nora Charles, they are the married protagonists of Dashiell Hammett’s 1934 novel, The Thin Man. The book was later made into a wildly popular film series with William Powell and Myrna Loy. Nick is older and Nora younger, and both appear to be happy in their, presumably, monogamous relationship. In this, they are quite conventional. And yet, this apparently conventional relationship allows for the fact that women find Nick quite attractive. In fact, women love Nick, and Nick, it is implied, has loved quite a few in return. As for Nora, men tend to adore her the moment she opens her mouth, and she, for her part, openly appreciates beautiful men.

And yet, the sexual attraction they both engender in, and display towards, members of the opposite sex in no way threatens their superficially conventional relationship. They treat each other, and their marriage with equal parts respect and irreverence, and they make their relationship work in a way unique to them.

Why do I bring this up? Because the dynamic Nick and Nora share is, in my experience, somewhat rare. Their relationship represents an ideal, one that transcends the monogamy vs. non-monogamy debate currently gaining steam in the United States’ liberal / conservative culture war.

Contrary to the rhetoric on both sides of this particular divide, monogamy is neither “natural,” as staunch proponents suggest, nor is it particularly “unnatural,” (though research into our evolution and biology may suggest that humans were, originally, a harem species like many in nature from lions to gorillas).  Monogamy also isn’t “supernatural” as blogger Matt Walsh suggested in a post defending monogamy’s righteous rightness. What monogamy is, is a choice – a personal choice that is made, either implicitly or explicitly, by individual couples.

Nick Nora Tommy

For some couples, monogamy is critical to the health of their relationship. If both partners honor their mutual choice to remain monogamous, then that is inarguably the best choice for them. Whether they make that choice based on religious faith or personal preference doesn’t matter so long as both partners agree.

For other couples, monogamy could, quite possibly, lead to dissatisfaction in what might otherwise be a very happy relationship. As a result, couples that understand this about themselves and their relationship make a responsible choice in choosing non-monogamy, polyamory, or any other form of open relationship. So long as both partners agree to a set of parameters regarding the open nature of their relationship, this is an equally salutary choice. The critical component is that both partners honor the parameters they’ve set.

Nora finds Nick comforting a girl.

Nora finds Nick comforting a girl.

There is no single answer to the question of what makes for a healthy relationship. There are too many variables involved because people are variable. Arguably, the most universal quality shared by members of our species is that we are all individually different. If we were the same, perhaps monogamy, (or non-monogamy), would be the silver bullet. We would have one religion, (or secularism), and there would be little to no conflict over ideology, faith or lifestyle. Very peaceful I’m sure, but also kind of horrible in a culturally dystopic sort of way.

Regarding those who propose that monogamy is the only natural way to love or conduct a relationship, I can only say that the hubris of this viewpoint is astounding. Likewise, anyone who claims that couples engaged in monogamy are either lying to themselves or each other is committing the same error. Non-monogamy doesn’t threaten monogamous relationships any more than monogamous relationships threaten non-monogamy, practically speaking. There is, however, one thing that damages both forms of commitment, and that is dishonesty.

Ironically, what monogamy and non-monogamy have in common is a deep reliance on trust, honesty and respect. Cheating occurs when one partner fails to adhere to the parameters of the relationship they are in. This means that if a man has sex with someone outside of his marriage and fails to tell his wife, that man has cheated, even if the marriage is open. Sex is only a symptom. The dishonesty employed to facilitate sex beyond the relationship’s parameters is the real betrayal, just as it is in instances of so-called monogamous cheating. That dishonesty signals a lack of respect for the relationship and the lied-to partner, and that lack of respect is a killer.

This is why I think Nick and Nora are such a tremendous example of a healthy committed Nick Nora Astarelationship. It wouldn’t matter if their marriage were open, any more than it matters than it is, apparently, closed, (thought there are implications in Hammett’s book, if not in the film, that this may not entirely be the case). What matters is the respect with which they treat each other and their relationship.

Respect breeds trust and implicit honesty, which in turn fosters a dynamic in which jealousy and dishonesty have no place. The fictional relationship of Nick and Nora Charles is an ideal that transcends straw-house arguments and personal ideology. It transcends monogamy and non-monogamy. Theirs is a grown-up relationship, and I believe that, eighty years later, it’s time for the rest of us to grow up.