On his first night at a writing group, Jaime gets an unpleasant surprise.
|Summary: Written for the prompt: This is your first night at a writing group. It’s at someone’s house you don’t know. With some apprehension, you knock on the door.
The house was in Woodstock, near Route 212.
My ride honked once from behind me and drove off with a wave into the night. Max wasn’t a close friend, but he’d been nice enough to drive me to my first night at the monthly Hudson Valley Writer’s group since my car was in the shop. He said he’d kill time hanging out at the Bearsville Theater till it was time to take me home.
That left me with three hours in a house full of strangers whom I only knew as pictures and posts on the Meet Us! website, where the group was based.
Three hours. . . . I thought, my anxiety sludgily mounting as I clutched the required seven copies of my story to my side. I’d taken half a Klonopin before leaving and it’d kicked in just enough that I wasn’t having a panic attack as I stood at the first door, hand poised to knock.
Before I could put knuckles to wood, however, the door opened, revealing a tall, slim, middle-aged woman with huge glasses; waist-length, honey-blonde hair, straight as a pin; and wide, round blue eyes. She was wearing a long linen sheath dress in a rainbow of pastel designs.
“Hello!” she exclaimed brightly, stepping aside and waving me in. “You must be Jaime!”
She pronounced it: HIGH-may, the way my father used to.
“I, uh, must be,” I mumbled, hesitantly stepping past her into the dimly-lit foyer of the house. It smelled like chili and fresh-baked bread. “And you’re Freda Marchand, the moderator of the group, right?”
“That’s-a me!” she enthused, closing the door behind us. We made our way down the brief hallway, toward what I assumed would be the living room. Freda chattered at me all the way, not even pausing for breath:
“—really good to have a new voice in the group! Mostly it’s just been the same seven, dedicated members for the past few months. So it’ll be refreshing to have someone with new ideas and a fresh style of writing. And from what I’ve read on your blog and your posts on the Meet Us! site, you’re quite a deft and precise writer.”
“Uh, thanks.” I blushed, looking around the large living room from the arched entryway where I’d paused. There were already five other people there, standing around talking, and eating snacks. The living room itself was big enough to hold two beige couches facing each other from opposite light-grey walls; a pinkish loveseat sat across from a big flatscreen television on a stand in front of a brick fireplace; and a few other comfortable-looking armchairs and straight-backed chairs all surrounded a ginormous, baroque coffee table. On that coffee table were a four laptops, what I presume were printed-out copies of stories, and the aforementioned snacks.
“Everyone!” Freda called, garnering everybody’s attention. Then that attention was on me. “Everyone, this is our newest fellow scribbler, Jaime Soto. Jaime, this is the group. Well, most of the group. That’s Angie, with the beautiful red curls.” Angie nodded at me almost warily. “And that dapper gentlemen in tweed is Clinton.” Clinton smiled and inclined his head respectfully, if a bit wryly. “Over there, on the loveseat, reading over what’s surely a lovely example of his work, is Bobby and over there, near the window, is Sabrina, our resident poet.”
Bobby raised his print-out in greeting, and Sabrina gave me a big, friendly smile and waved.
“And, sitting on the loveseat, clacking away on his laptop, that’s Luka.”
Luka didn’t even look up, let alone raise a hand or smile.
“Last, but certainly not least, hoovering up all the pastrami, is my brother, Decker.”
Decker flapped a slice of pastrami at me, while saying a garbled hi! around a mouthful of the same.
“And Jaime, this is everyone!” Freda concluded, grinning at me. I swallowed and tried to return it, then made brief eye-contact with everyone in the room.
“Um. Hi, guys.” I said, then belatedly raised my hand, waving limply. Sabrina waved again, but everyone else merely stared at me for what felt like eternity, but was probably only a few seconds.
Then Freda was clapping her hands together briskly. “Okay! Everyone continue mingling and make Jaime feel welcome! I’m going to check on the chili, and we’ll get started as soon as Jet gets here.”
Then Freda was off, hurrying down the hall, presumably toward the kitchen. So I turned to the group, who were all still watching me as if waiting for me to do something. So I smiled—nervously—and waved again. As usual, I didn’t know what to say. Apparently neither did anyone else. The only sound in the room was Decker’s rather obnoxious chewing.
It’s going to be a long night, I thought, wishing I could just back out of it before it even really started, the way I did with most social situations.
Then Sabrina laughed and approached me, hand held out for shaking. She was a small, round black woman, who looked to be about my age, with a smile that could rival Freda’s for bigness and brightness. She was wearing a tie-dyed blouse and hipster jeans, with combat boots. Her hair was a jumble and tumble of wild, kinky curls.
“Welcome to the group, Jaime,” she said as I took her hand and pumped it exactly three times before letting go. My counselor would be proud.
“Thanks, I’m, uh, glad to be here,” I claimed, uncertain whether or not that was true, but feeling the need to fill the expectant silence. Sabrina nodded like she believed me, then took my arm and dragged me toward the loveseat where Luka was still typing. There was a tall Stewart’s travel coffee mug on the floor near his Converse-clad feet.
“Uh,” I said, trying to dredge up another smile and greeting as Sabrina sat us down in the limited space left on the loveseat, sandwiching me between herself and Luka. It was only when we were all wedged in together that Luka finally looked up at us. He was a tall drink of water, probably with at least half a foot on my five foot, seven inch frame. Grown-out, messy, chin-length dark hair framed a face that was all square jaw and sharp, wide-planed cheekbones. Dark brown eyes regarded me curiously from behind quirky glasses and within the first suggestion of dark hollows.
He looked like a man who didn’t sleep much and smelled like cigarettes and strong coffee.
“Oh,” he said softly, his voice low, pleasant, and lightly-accented. When he smiled, his teeth were slightly crooked, but very white, despite his obvious habits of leaf and bean. “Hello. You must be Jaime.”
My eyebrows rose halfway to my hairline. “I must be,” I said again, wondering how he could’ve missed Freda’s strident introduction of me.
“Pleased to meet you, Jaime. I’m Luka Petrovic, and I’ve been reading some of your published work in back issues of Periscope and Chronos. I must say, you’re a singular writer. I especially enjoyed the use of language and metaphor in your piece, Haven,” he said approvingly, and I blushed, smiling. (Nothing loosened me up like a compliment on a specific piece I’d written. And it didn’t hurt that Luka was kind of cute, in a strong-featured, Slavic way.)
“Thanks. It was a, uh, rewarding piece to write.” Which was Jaime-speak for it was like pulling teeth. But those pieces could be, I’d found, the best kinds of pieces to write.
Luka nodded, his smile widening. He was decidedly cute. I wanted to ask him if we’d perhaps met before—his name had seemed somewhat familiar to me, though not his face—but was afraid it’d sound like a come-on. Then Luka was speaking again.
“Of course there’re some passages that could do with a bit of paring-down, and editing for content and clarity,” he went on, and I blinked, my smile slipping, the familiarity of his name forgotten. “For example,” he further stated, “the character of Lacey is entirely superfluous and adds nothing to the story. And may, in fact, detract from it.”
“What?” I blinked again as the word fell from my suddenly numb lips and the blood drained from my face. “I mean, excuse me?”
Luka blinked, too, and started to repeat himself. “Lacey Boyens, the annoying younger sister—the story would get along perfectly fine without her. She adds nothing to the piece and is rather grating, in light of what Cameron is going through with Tina. Lacey just dilutes the scenes you’ve clearly put in just to give her something to do and say. Oh, and—”
“You’ll have to excuse Luka,” Sabrina suddenly said, taking my arm again and shooting Luka a look. “Usually he’s not this quick to pick apart the work of others. Not till they’ve been here for at least five minutes.”
I looked back at Luka, who didn’t look a bit sheepish or apologetic. He looked, in fact, like a man battening down for a capital-D Discussion. My eyes narrowing, I bit my tongue for a moment before speaking.
“Well. Thank you for your input, Mr. Petrovic. I’d certainly like to return the favor, but I haven’t read any of your work, yet. What journals have you been published in?” I asked with poisoned sweetness. But the poison-part seemed to go right over Luka’s mussed head.
“A bunch,” he said dismissively, waving his hand. “Few of them of any real note. Some of them aren’t even in existence, anymore. But what with work, I don’t have as much time to write as I used to. It’s just read, read, read.”
“What a shame,” I deadpanned, and Sabrina laughed, just a tad too loud, squeezing my arm. But I ignored her. “And what is it you do for a living, Mr. Petrovic?”
“It’s Luka,” he said, still as friendly as if he hadn’t just casually cut my work apart. As if I hadn’t tried to do the same. “Mr. Petrovic is my grandfather. And I’m an editor.”
My mouth dropped open and the blood drained from my face again.
“Yeah,” Sabrina said offhandedly. “Luka, here, is the editor-at-large for Tertius Magazine.”
My jaw couldn’t fall any farther, because I suddenly knew why Luka’s name seemed half-familiar.
“You’re the editor of Tertius?” I demanded breathlessly, and Luka nodded once more, frowning just a bit.
“That’s me.” He laughed a little uncomfortably, probably from the stricken look on my face. “Why? Are you familiar with the magazine?”
“No.” I said stonily. “I’m not.”
Though that was mostly a lie. He may not have remembered me—and why would he remember the name of a writer whose work he’d consistently rejected almost five years ago?—but I remembered him, alright. Mostly because his rejections hadn’t been form rejections, but very, very tailored to my short stories.
They’d also been condescending, high-handed, and always ended with a ubiquitous and somehow mocking: But please keep us in mind for your future endeavors.
I’d nearly given up writing because of those rejections from a literary magazine I’d loved and an editor whose work (writing and editing) I’d admired obsessively. I’d almost put my pen down and never picked it up again. I’d certainly done my best to forget Tertius Magazine, and its talented and picky editor.
Luka Petrovic and Tertius had been my first professional rejections. And they’d stung. They’d burned. They’d helped send me on a downward spiral that’d ended with a bout of clinical depression so severe, I’d spent a month at Four Winds. . . .
I’d been nineteen.
Shaking my head to free it of the past, I stood up, clutching the copies of my piece in my sweaty, shaking hands. If I walked fast enough, I could catch up with Max at the Bearsville Theater, and hang-out with him till he was ready to go home. Coming to this writing group had been a nice theory, but in practice. . . ?
“Are you okay, Jaime?” Sabrina asked worriedly, standing, too. Luka, meanwhile, merely sat and watched me with a look of confusion on his face.
“I have to go,” I said, and that, at least, was the full truth.