“The world is not like the playgrounds you’re used to. Nothing falls into place like a puzzle and not all riddles can be solved. In this class, I am going to teach you how to see. You may think you’ve seen everything in your whole life, but you haven’t. Think of your clearest memory, most people only have one or two they truly remember. How they felt, how it smelled, what senses arose, the patterns spawned from light and the sharpness of edges. Those are the only real memories you have. Everything else is worthless. The only way you’ll be a good writer is if you notice everything overlooked and only find interest in the seemingly mundane. The most intriguing intricacies are camouflaged by our collective desire to fit in.”
So far the only notes I’ve taken down in this creative writing class are direct quotes from my maniacal, oddball teacher who, as you can expect, perfectly fits the stereotype of a suitably-crazy writer. He wears a different bizarrely patterned tie everyday and doesn’t tie it, just lets it hang. He is constantly picking it up and adjusting it, like it’s purpose is to be a utility for fidgeting. He is bald, and you can tell he is his own hairdresser with little care for his appearance from anything other than his own perspective from the strips of hair wisping down the back of his neck. The rest of his clothes are baggy and, wherever possible, suede. His eyes are inquisitive. I can’t look at him directly for more than 3 seconds or I’ll involuntarily spill out all of my secrets. And I don’t even have any to spill.
This class seems to be a bust. Mr Henshaw is brilliant, but he’s a writer, not a teacher. He belongs in a cabin by a lake, a Mont Saint Victoire to his Paul Cézanne. I admired him for it, though he thought I was at best mediocre. I agreed with him. My last piece was called ‘The Bride’s Eyes’ and it was about this movie I saw where the bride went blind during the ceremony and so her not-yet-husband made a run for it. Totally worth plagiarising, right? Although in my spin on it, the husband gets hit by a truck after running out of the Church. It’s a perfect ending really, full of karma, irony and tragedy. My three favourite things.
These NYC winters will be the death of me. Not only am I facing the fashion shame of wearing three scarves at once, I am facing the shame on my life of wearing leggings under a dress. Oh, please forgive me, Fashion Gods. I know we have had a rough relationship since my 2008 scene phase, but I’m progressing, I promise. My walking search for writing inspiration needs a pitstop as I realise I cannot feel my feet. Next thing I know I’m in this strange but interesting indie coffee shop in Brooklyn and trying to tackle my next writing assignment, which is to write about my ‘biggest fear.’ I should really be studying for my actual university exams next week instead of my part-time writing classes that don’t really have any practical value. Biochem is fascinating, but with words I get to take credit for the resultant fascination.
I was writing a haiku in my head about how glorious this cinnamon hot chocolate is when my smile fades. I hear it, the snarky, egotistical words of the most pretentious, vulturous person I’ve ever met. I jump when I suddenly feel a hand on my shoulder and he smirks.
“Oh hey, Amy, this is my friend Scarlett. She’s the best writer in my class. Have I ever mentioned how terrible everyone in my writing class is?”
“Nice to see you too, as always, Zach. The feeling is mutual. Amy, you’ve snatched a real charmer.”
She twirls her blonde hair and fake-laughs in an endless cycle. I don’t get the appeal of girls like this. Is it to boost their ego? Their intelligence? To create the delusion that males are always smarter than females to satisfy bigots like Zach? Zach is probably the only person in my class I’ve ever had a memorable conversation with. He grew up in NYC and has had the most seemingly-priviledged life. He’s basically a character from Gossip Girl, only with not as much depth.
“I see you’re writing our assignment. Let me guess, it’s on failure. Wait, wait, no, it’s on how you don’t know who you are and it’s just so hard trying to figure it out in this sexist society.”
Sarcasm is usually the way to my heart, but…
“No, although I wish I had thought of those. I guess you’ll have to wait and see. Now let me guess, yours is about your fear of realising how unextraordinarily normal you are? Or even better and more fatal, losing access to your trust fund?”
I’m not even being sarcastic, but I had to act this way, I’m not that terrible of a person. At least from other people’s perspectives. I expect to see a look of anger on his face when I say it, but when I look up at him, he smiles. I can’t help but smile back. I’ve never noticed how angular his face is. He could be beautiful if he wasn’t, well, my arch enemy. Our writing class is full of people who have only read The Hunger Games and tumblr posts of E.E. Cummings poetry. If anyone is a semi-good writer, it’s Zach. I came to terms with this a long time ago. He may be a narcissist but his writing…was a whole other story. The worst part about our witty but contempt-filled relationship - he lives in the apartment next to mine. Perfect. It’s like the universe is trying to push me towards someone I feel only annoyed by - further proof of my belief that destiny does not exist.
“Scarlett Goodrich…read your piece aloud. Now.” Mr Henshaw proclaims, as he runs a comb along his bald head, as if he has forgotten that, well, he doesn’t have anything to comb. I walk up awkwardly to the front of class, tripping on other people’s bags on my way. When I reach the front, I glance at my audience, seeing what I have to work with. The girls are all filing their nails, or texting, with the evolved few doing both; whilst the guys all look half-asleep, as usual. But as always, there is one exception. Zach was looking me right in the eye in anticipation, like a predator waiting to pounce. He wears his trademark smirk of confidence and mischief on full display, making even me more nervous.
I try to appear more confident than I feel, although my habit of scraping my bangs out of my face creeps back to haunt me. When I finish, I am afraid to look up. Remember what happened last time I looked up at Zach? I saw him in a new way, something that unsettled me. It was alien and I needed no further disorientation of my emotive compass. I look up at Mr Henshaw and, to my surprise, he looks shocked, but impressed. He pats me on the back, knights me with one of his ties and exclaims, “I hereby declare you my first student to ever surprise me! It’s all I’ve ever wanted. You’re good, Scarlett, you are.” When I finally build up the courage to glance at the rest of the class I see a few have returned from the undead and seemed almost, vaguely interested. There is a shriek from the audience.
“Well done, Scar, that was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard!” As expected, Tamara is not the most well-read.
I look over at Zach and he is scribbling into his notebook. Weird. And frustrating. I have this inexplicable desire to know what he thinks. I don’t particularly care, I think to myself, but I’m curious. If he is anything, he is interesting.
Tonight I am sitting in my shoebox apartment, watching Clueless for the millionth time to take my mind off my homesickness. England is a long, expensive flight away and it’s not as if I have any real friends here to keep me company. Any I do have are always busy with university and relationships. Am I the only one who prioritises being creative and watching old movies? Even though, back home it wasn’t much different, but at least it was home. One thing I do love about being here is my apartment. It’s tiny, but in a nice building. It may as well be a palace in this city. I’ve decorated it with old christmas tree lights and drawings and stuck pages of all kinds of writing on the walls, it really felt like me; my own place.
I’m boiling noodles and in a Bon Iver trance, Holocene playing on my record player, when I hear a knock on my door. A knock? I don’t know anyone who could possibly be at my door at this time of night. My only conclusion: it’s a serial killer. My time has come. I’ve had a nice life. I’ll grab my biggest kitchen knife but if I fail (which is more likely than not) I can take it. And if I almost fail and just end up with some wounds and a traumatic experience, I will have hit the writing-inspiration goldmine. I take a deep breath, clutch the knife in my hand so tightly that I wonder if I accidentally grabbed the sharp end.
“Woah, woah, woah Richgood! I know we’ve never exactly been friends but we’ve also never been, physically, violent.”
A sigh of relief. It’s only him. Him.
Although, unlike a serial killer, I am unaware of his motives. I can’t help but be a little amused, even if we were enemies, it was only because we realised our…connection. We weren’t indifferent to one another. We seem to think in such similar ways. Anytime Mr H asks a question in class we both raise our hands for the same ones, and lower them after the other has answered. We’ve been neighbours but never friends. And this was suspiciously friend-like.
He glides past me into my apartment and starts reading the walls. That sounds weird but you know what I mean. He focuses in on one page in particular that reads: 'But the roof above her was never really there / neither were the parents scaffolding it / neither was the love she thought they shared / and neither was the belief that she alone / could hold it. Late one night she asked herself / "is this my fate too?" / fate laughed and snarled, "darling, I have only as much power as you."
“Bon Iver, huh? And you think I’m the pretentious one?” He flashes me his usual smirk.
“Oh, sorry, you must be used to the generic pop music Amy is into, how inconsiderate of me! Let me see if I have any Bruno Mars or Katy Perry…oh wait, shockingly, I don’t.” Something in his smile this time, I can’t help but feel some kind of stir within me. Maybe there was more to our relationship than being verbal sparring partners.
“I don’t mean to sound rude, even to you, but why are you here?” I ask.
“I’ve been waiting to have some free time to satisfy my curiosity about what the inside of your apartment looks like. It’s just as artsy and movie-like as I imagined. I guess writing isn’t the only thing that sets you apart.”
I try to conceal a smile.
“One thing that doesn’t is your apparent taste in movies…” he points to the television, “Clueless? Really?”
“Are you joking? Even you could lower your shield of pretention enough to admit that this movie is a classic!” I say, more passionately than necessary. “And it’s always been my favourite, it reminds me of movie nights I used to have with my sister back home.”
“Ah yes, I sometimes forget you’re not a native. If anything in the piece you read aloud today is non-fiction, I really am sorry about your family issues, Scarlett. No one deserves that. I know I may not be your first choice but I am always on the other side of the wall if you want to talk.” I felt myself start to blush. “Although, I can’t guarantee I’ll listen. You have a tendency to ramble.” I laughed, he smiled, and just like that my comfort was restored.
Again, he gazes at the walls, “You know, you really are a good writer,” he looks at me, and I catch a glimpse of sincerity I’ve rarely seen in his dark eyes. I decide against a sarcastic response, just this once.
“Thanks. Some may say you are too.”
He suddenly looks concerned, “Your noodles are burning!” “What? Is that some kind of weird metaphor?” He dashes over to the stove and switches it off, I notice the puddles of boiling water around my cooker. Oh God. Real smooth, Scar. I guess my brain puts everything else on hold when I talk to him.
“You know I kind of just saved your life.” He grins.
“Oh yeah, I definitely wouldn’t have survived that nanosecond it would have taken me to realise after you did.” I can’t help but laugh as I look at us both sitting on my kitchen floor attempting to mop up boiling water with dollar-store toilet paper without scalding ourselves, noodles scattered everywhere.
“I’ve never seen you laugh before,” he says, quietly.
“Yeah, well, I guess I find it easier to write assignments about tragedies than fantasies. They’re far more interesting, and easier to find.”
‘Beth/Rest’ start to play on the record player and it fills my surroundings as I see the beginnings of a smile on his face.
“…I might disagree,” he says.
I agreed, and suddenly saw a future ahead of me in this city I hadn’t just seconds ago.