The Novelty Of Reality: a short story

ROTEM LITINSKI
Expressions Editor

(Minneapolis Star-Tribune 2006)

“Now open them.”

Leo opened his eyes to reveal the New York skyline. From the roof of the skyscraper, the thousands of cars below seemed like they weren’t real. He stood in awe, his last night before leaving for the war and his first time seeing the city he grew up in from so high up.

“It’s… amazing.” he said, looking Maya in the eyes. “This is amazing and we are amazing and… I just don’t want to leave you quite yet… ” But I knew very well that even if he wouldn’t depart tomorrow, she would be gone by the time he woke up.

After looking out at the view for what seemed to be hours, they returned to the hotel room only so Leo could wake up later to Maya getting dressed. She was too quiet, plaguing the hotel room with a sudden sadness.

“I’m sorry,” said Maya quietly, touching his face for but a moment. “I have to go back to my husband,” she said, and with that, she closed the door behind her.

Leo sat up in the bed, momentarily paralyzed. He turned the TV on and flipped through the channels. After cycling through all 114 of them twice, he shut it off. It became quiet again. Leo got out of bed, walked to the balcony and opened the sliding door. He took a couple more steps, and without looking he jumped eight floors down.

“What was that!? What the hell was that!? What are you thinking? You write for two years then you kill off the protagonist in half a page?” Mr. Bronte got up from his chair and threw the pages into Ralphie’s lap.

“I didn’t kill him off in half a page, it flows naturally from the story.” Ralphie organized his pages and tucked them back into his fading leather satchel. Bronte glared at Ralphie through his expensive glasses. He knew every writer had excuses, but he still didn’t like being opposed. That’s not how you made a profit. Ralphie noticed the look on Bronte’s face but continued, “The entire story leads up to that one point, and yes, the conflict is resolved rather quickly, but the part of the story that matters is the journey Leo is on.” Bronte rolled his eyes and this made Ralphie sputter angrily like a dirt bike engine, “This isn’t a toaster you’re selling, it’s a story. It’s what I’ve been trying to express for two years now. It’s my art, and you’re judging it like a product.”  

“Ralphie, when I look at art I look at how much it’s worth, how famous it is, and why I haven’t bought it yet. I have one word for you: sequels. Let’s say by some off chance your book actually sells, this suicide means the end of the line. If you kill off the main character there’s no way you will be able to continue writing about this. What’s the girl gonna do? Kill herself too? Everything until page 232 is bearable but then you kill all hope. Rewrite the last ten pages so he survives. Give him hope. And give me hope that we can make a buck or two.”

Ralphie finished his third coffee of the day, slammed the cup down, and left.

***

“Now open them.”

Leo opened his eyes to reveal a small record store around him. Eyre gave a hand motion to the cashier, who put on “Wild Horses.” She brought herself close to him. Ignoring the couple of customers going through record bins, they swayed to the music. It was going to be one last time before he left. She grabbed a 45 record that she had put aside earlier. The A side was the same song that was playing.

“I want you to remember me when you play this song, I want to always be there for you Leo.” She pressed the record into his chest, and closed his hand around it.

“Goodbye Maya.”

Leo kissed her for the last time, touched her face quickly and left the store, closing the door behind him. All too unwillingly, he marked his way to the induction center to go to the war. 

“See? Isn’t it much more satisfying now? Leo  survives and goes to fight in the war. Give’em hope! If this takes off I’ll have you write the next book about how he comes back and tries to find her. They kiss, they make up. Hope!” Ralphie tried not to roll his eyes. Bronte wasn’t watching him anyways. “I’ll run it through the editors and within the next two months we should have it out in the bookstores.” Mr. Bronte put his hand down on the table affirmatively. “Good job, Ralphie.”

His office was cold and covered with carved wooden shelves and cold iron statues–but he was even colder. As was Ralphie after every mutilation of his pieces. Sure, he was not one for clichés and hackneyed vows of the world’s obstinate love but he knew all too well-heartthrob, drama, sex….they sell.  

***

“Please welcome New York Times Bestseller…. Mr. Ralphie Pait!” The booms of claps and cheers led him toward the center of platform as the stage dressed him with the basking iridescence of the lights.  The book had caught on. That caveman, Bronte, didn’t know Ondaatje, but he knew customers. This was going to be Ralphie’s first talk in a national book promotion tour. He was going to visit 30 cities over the next 90 days, speaking and then signing autographs. People wanted to meet the “great” writer. He stepped up to the stage to give his first talk after over six years of writing with no success.

It was attention he wasn’t used to—not to say that he was prepared to deny it, though. An hour, two hours, three… he couldn’t feel his fingers and the artificial politeness fittingly complimented the inauthentic smiles at every fan. A gravitational fixation caught his eye though-to the corner of the room; she had a striking resemblance to Arianna from the book, the way he envisioned her: tall and slender, hair parted to the side, and modest, with a constant expression on her face as if she always knew something you didn’t. After the talk, he was glad to see her standing in line to get the book autographed.   

“Hi there, I’m Jane.” She shook his hand, smiling politely. There was something inviting about her, exciting and intriguing. A cup of coffee would find it out…

After talking to her for an hour, Ralphie was in a stupor. She seemed so familiar and there was something about her air that made it seem as if he knew her all too well.

***

Ralphie  was intrigued at her take on the character and she seemed to be changing the script all the others had followed from the book. An offhand remark here, an interest she talks about there. Small things, but unique to her. She reminded him of his original version of the book. Except in that version she was married. He looked down at her hands to see if there was a wedding ring. Was that a faint tan line on her finger? No, he was imagining it.

Catatonic, he followed her, unbeknownst to the direction of his steps-just focusing on her.  

“Stop looking at me… look around Ralphie.”

The curtains lifted to reveal the vivid portrayal of the Boston skyline.

“It’s… amazing.” He said, looking Jane in the eyes.

He looked at her for a long time. She was pretty.

He touched her face. Their lips met.

“How did you know?”

“What?” She asked, confused.

“What made you think Eyre would take Leo here?” As the situation became clearer to Bradley, he realized how shocked he was. How did this woman know?

“I read your story and thought that if I had written it, this is where Eyre would take him. This is natural. It’s organic. It’s what made sense. Not some cheesy record store bullshit. Oh, I’m sorry!”

Ralphie laughed. “Don’t worry about it, it was cheesy. Wasn’t my idea either, but I’m selling a lot of books because of it. People want cheesy.” She looked relieved. She laughed too, and he loved her laughter.

“It’s money, not art.” He said. “What you did tonight, that was art.”

They looked out at the view again.

“What happens in the story now?”

“Something organic,” he smiled, but he knew that it really was true. For the first time, the story was going the way it was supposed

He kissed her again, softly. After staring at the view for what seemed to be hours, they went down the elevator and across the street, to a hotel.

Ralphie woke up. He wanted to say something but when he looked around he saw Jane getting dressed. She was too quiet. He understood immediately. The hotel room seemed very sad suddenly. His heart began to sink.

“I’m sorry,” said Jane, quietly. She touched his face for a second. “I have to go back to my husband. You do write great though…” She left and closed the door behind her.

Bradley sat up in the bed and sat there for a while. He turned the TV on and flipped through the channels. After cycling through all 68 of them, he shut it off. He could hear people opening and shutting doors in the hallway. It became quiet again. Bradley got out of bed, walked to the balcony and opened the sliding door. He took a couple more steps, and without looking he jumped twelve floors down, the way it was supposed to go.

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