I WAS SEATED with two other panelists and our moderator at the Sunshine Writers’ Conference, discussing the complexities of fiction, when I first saw Helen Baptist coming in late through a door near the back (though I didn’t know her name yet): a shimmering image in and out-of-the glare of the sun, wearing a light-blue dress and white sandals, long dark hair. She took a seat midway at the side, opened a green folder on her lap, and began to take notes.
Held at Sunshine Manor in San Diego—the estate of a dead unknown wealthy poet who’d gone crazy—the conference lasted a weekend, and we were on day one of the second panel, mid-morning. My fellow panelists were arguing about the necessity of plot. Charlotte Gray (pro-plot), a sixty-something obscenely wealthy novelist with paternal and marital roots in the movie industry, known for her Depression-era fiction riddled with starving Steinbeck-imitative characters and storylines, was insolent and peevish, but managed to come across as an intellectual. She paid supplementary publicists tens of thousands of dollars each book, I knew, to augment her thriving reputation as a prose master for the impoverished. Earlier I’d watched her give away her complimentary conference mug—diamond ring flashing—because it wouldn’t “match” her earthenware collection. Steven Curve (anti-plot), a white man in his late forties who only wrote about blacks (with exaggerated colloquial-infused prose and titles such as I’m’s Mama’s Sonny and You’s Gots To Gets Through to See Through), had been twice married and divorced, resulting in three teenage mixed-race sons, which, I suppose, is why he wrote what he did, though black writers thought him an opportunistic fraud and disliked the attention and sales he garnered, one of them calling him “a poor to mediocre writer Elvis whose work makes liberals feel good and self-righteous.”
And me? Mid-thirties, perpetually single, a loner, once hospitalized and rehabbed for alcoholism and depression, critically acclaimed for my “masculine prose” about working class Fathers and Sons, compared to the likes of Raymond Carver and Ernest Hemingway, I had (and still do) serious issues with my mother. It was only a few years past that I was able to liberate myself from her financial grip and domicile.
Up to this point, I’d been holding my own on the panel. It wasn’t my first. Sometimes I hate to hear myself talking at these things. I sound like such an asshole. Especially when I’m feeling confident. I sound like I know what I’m talking about and it’s disgusting.
But when our moderator, a well-intentioned white-haired and ruddy-complexioned librarian, tried to swing the debate in my direction, I went blank.
Looking back, I blame Helen Baptist, as if just by my glimpse of her, she put a lovesick spell on me.
Hoping to prompt me with an easy question, our moderator asked who my favorite authors were. I locked eyes with her gray ones, squinted and glassed behind her spectacles. I couldn’t come up with a name. Not one. I felt my soul banging around inside me, hard and glassy like a marble inside a tin can.
A nervous tittering went through the room. I stared at Helen—a serious, concerned expression on her face. Come on, her eyes pleaded. You can do it.
I looked away, my skin pulsing with heat.
Pulling the microphone closer, I opened my mouth, and a gaggly-gurgly noise rose from my throat.
By the time I’d remembered some names, Charlotte Gray and Steven Curve were in full-blown disagreement about characterization, and I couldn’t have gotten a word in, even if I’d wanted to.
I spent the next few hours in my room in bed—full fetal—hugging a stiff pillow between my knees, trying to reclaim an iota of dignity, hoping I hadn’t forfeited further conference invitations. Authors are encouraged to attend as many events as possible, so I mustered some courage and went back, thinking it might help.
I saw Helen at a reading, sitting to the side with her green notebook, curled inward and taking concentrated notes, not appearing to listen. I didn’t know the author, well-tanned and very confident with a booming voice, reading a passage from his novel, set in a generic post-apocalyptic Los Angeles where people and dogs lived in fear and ate shrubbery and wore bright-colored scarves on their heads and as collars to identify their tribes.
Steven Curve sat near me, and I watched him watching Helen. As he ogled her, his tongue—I swear it—came like a snake from his mouth to moisten his lips. (My friend Bubby once told me that writing conferences are like literary-minded brothels. Most people don’t want to be writers, he said. Sure, they’re outcasts, and outcasts make great writers. But they don’t want to exert the energy and endure the humiliation. Who can blame them? At conferences, for a nominal fee, they can pretend to be writers, get drunk, overeat, take some drugs, feel smart, and hook up with published authors. Authors, on the other hand, get to feel—if just for a little bit, and if they don’t fuck it up with their neurotic writer-heads as I tend to do—like rock stars, and maybe get laid.)
Helen did not look up from her notes, but she seemed to feel Steve Curve’s lecherous stare, because she stood abruptly—as if someone had pressed a pin against her rear end—and, looking startled, she gathered her notebook, sweater, and pen. Then she left.
But not before turning and staring at me while setting a piece of paper on her chair.
For me? I indicated, pressing my index finger mid-chest and tilting my head in question.
She blinked twice.
After she left, I discreetly hunched my way through a row of chairs and knees to get to the aisle—whispering, “Excuse me, excuse me, I’m so sorry, please excuse me”—making my way, finally, to her waiting text.
I sat in her evacuated chair and read:
Dear Gabriel Mason,
The problem with us: we’re like glue. We’ll stick together, impossible to unstick. Your lonely and my lonely will attach, making us lonelier. Your sad and my sad will double our sadness. Stay away. I’m no good for you. I will love you from afar. Always.
The next morning at breakfast at the coveted authors’ table, where a few chosen participants sat and gravely listened, as if the Published Authors’ brilliance and good fortune might rub off, I seated myself next to Charlotte Gray, hopeful that I might glean information about Helen, since I’d found—posted on the community billboard—that Helen was in Charlotte’s workshop group.
I searched but didn’t find Helen at any of the tables. Had her message not been addressed to me, I wouldn’t have believed that I was its intended recipient. Why me? How did Helen know me? Did she know me? Had she read my work? Was it simply my obvious and immediate connection to her? Had she felt it too? (While I believe in love at first sight, in my experience, it’s never mutual.)
I’d tossed and turned all-night—giddy and feverish—and had woken with a wobbly spirit and troubled, vocal bowels, my hands trembling.
For a good ten minutes, after she’d told me about her home in Cape Cod, Charlotte Gray—dressed in cashmere and wearing diamonds—gave a detailed, humorless summation of her novel in progress, something about migrant farmers.
She paused to load her mouth with cereal. In the chewing, silverware clanking, and chattering hum, I struggled with how to subtly steer our conversation.
Instead, rolling a cold greenish-tinged sausage back and forth on my plate with the tines of my fork, I blurted: “Tell me about Helen Baptist. She’s in your group.”
A shrewd look crossed Charlotte’s face. She stared at me for what seemed like a minute before speaking.
“How could I forget,” she said, rummaging through her plush leather satchel, “the real perks of conferences? The measly stipend, the attention, the ghastly mug, all of it pales. I suppose,” she added, handing me a copy of Helen’s paper-clipped manuscript, “this will help.”
She paused, assessing me. Her face cringed from whatever she saw in mine.
Ensuring no one else could hear, she pulled close and said: “Oh, for god’s sake, Gabriel, lighten up. Don’t look like that. Which is it? Are you horrified or delighted? It looks like you can’t decide! Take it! Read it! It’ll help you with your little love affair. She’s not bad. Self-taught, raw talent, great with details, terrific sense of humor. We work-shopped her yesterday. She gave me two copies, so I have an extra. Sweet thing, shy and quiet. From a dinky town somewhere in the Midwest. Wounded, obviously, but who the hell isn’t? I’m guessing sexual abuse, bad mother, absentee father, the usual.”
She paused in thought, fidgeting with the diamond on her ring. Then, in a faraway voice, as if musing over one of her characters, she said: “A beautiful woman, desired by men. Confounding. She’s not sure who she is or what she wants or how to be. Poor pretty thing. Her beauty hinders her. She can’t handle it. Being desired like that. Sad, desperate, hiding.”
She paused again, her eyes shining. “An unloved little girl,” she said, her voice weighted with emotion. “I see her as a child: hand me down clothes, her head buried in books from the library, wanting to be left alone, away from all those stares, afraid of men’s eyes.”
She heaved a sigh and then went quiet. She looked tragic, head down, nose near her cereal.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“Well!” she exclaimed unexpectedly, looking up and around and slapping both palms against the table, startling the other diners, “who’s had an affair so far at this shitfest! Anyone? Anyone? Do tell!”
I understand how Charlotte Gray made her valuation of Helen from the chosen paper-clipped twenty-five page-sample of a chapter within Helen’s novel (corn flakes, cherry Kool-Aid, a red bike, a pan-scorched and chipped Formica table, a white patent fake leather purse and matching shoes) working title It Could be Worse. An author’s writing can be a telescope deep inside its author’s soul, which is why interviews and/or meeting an author is redundant and disappointing, lacking in depth, and should be avoided. Beginning writers aren’t excluded, especially when they have talent, as Helen does.
I won’t transcribe her prose (time and privacy are essential for its advancement and maturity, even more so in our instantaneous narcissistic and self-divulging world). But I did find at the back of page twelve, angled across the paper in Helen’s unmistakable skeletal cursive, a random spontaneous musing, which I can share guilt-free:
I feel afraid & alive & emotional & timid & vibrant. I hear something on the radio or read something & I have to choke back a sob, even if it’s something innocuous or overly sentimental & there’s this part of me that just wants to shut myself off, catch a break—take a breather—but really, I recognize it as a longing for death—it’s not so innocent. It’s this crazy impulsive death streak. So I fight it off, make myself get out of bed, try to think about other people & see the beauty in life & let myself feel & want to show up. I have to pray all the time & it feels like I’m reaching around in the dark. But it works. I pray & I’m usually okay again.
I didn’t see Helen for the rest of the day, but that night for the Movable Feast-themed dinner, I wore my gabardine pants and suede jacket, intuiting that I would find her, and I did.
Leaned forward at the buffet table, she was procuring more black olives for her salad, wearing a sixties-type peasant dress and her white sandals, a sweater caping her shoulders.
When her eyes found mine, her face flushed and she smiled and looked down. She crossed by my table behind me—a smell of citrus and jasmine—and let the fingertips of her free hand brush against the back of my neck. It was electric.
Then I watched her set her plate of greens at a table of her peers and keep walking, until she disappeared out the back door.
I followed but she’d vanished. The full moon, high in the sky near a shredded cloud, looked like an empty plate.
After the conference ended, I searched for Helen. She’s unlisted and nowhere on the Internet. Her address and phone number—recorded for conference attendees—are fakes.
I go about the business of life, trying to ignore my idealized love for her. Perhaps she toys with men for sport. Or maybe I imagined her: a solipsized creation of my own melancholic making.
I could consult Charlotte Gray—make sure our conversation really happened—but I don’t want to listen to her talk about her Depression-era novel again.
I have Helen’s note and manuscript as proof.
It’s been over six months. I’ve produced good work. My relation to Helen, dependent on her removal and absence, has fired my imagination.
Her fingers along my neck, a figure of my fantasy, she commands me to write.