The Writer’s Daughter
She got me the same way I like to think Lauren Bacall got Humphrey Bogart.
“Hey mister, you got a light?”
It was the mister that made my head turn. The way it was stressed ever more slightly than the other words, with a soft lilt that suggested some sort of inside joke. When I saw her face, the first thing I noticed was the smile—her small lips turned upward at the corner, in a knowing-but-not-telling smirk.
She had dark blue eyes, light auburn hair, and a faint blush to her cheeks that never once, in the time I knew her, disappeared. Her face was soft, as though it could change at any second—she was a woman of many faces, I could tell that instantly, and I knew I wasn’t seeing her real face, but one that she’d practiced before going out.
“I’m sorry,” I said, feeling the words clunk against the back of my teeth. “I don’t smoke.”
“I didn’t ask if you smoked. I asked if you got a light.”
I shook my head, thinking of a dozen things to say, all of them wrong.
“Oh well.” A lighter appeared in her hand. She raised a cigarette to her lips and inhaled. In the two seconds the flame was before her face, I thought I saw the fire dancing in her eyes. Before I could tell if my imagination was running away from me again, her wrist snapped, and the fire vanished.
She studied me for a moment. I could have turned around and walked away; that’s what I normally would’ve done. It’s not that I’m awkward around women, though I suppose I am. I usually just don’t care. Only a handful have ever really interested me. Most seem the same—a homogenous species walking around, talking and drinking, laughing occasionally and crying often. I know that it is morally and logically incorrect, but I can never shake the belief that, when I talk to a woman I supposedly have just met, I am really talking to the same women I spoke with a week, a year, before.
She was different. I felt compelled to stay, as though if I were to walk away I would miss the climactic moment. And when I say she studied me, I mean it. Her eyes traveled down to my jeans, up to my t-shirt, over my features. She probably even judged the color of my shoes. I watched her face the entire time. I still cannot remember what she wore. All I saw was her face, her expressions. Of her overall impression, she gave no sign. Not even a muscle tic. When her eyes finally lit on mine again, I saw nothing in them but my own curiosity. And perhaps a sense of amusement, though not necessarily directed at me.
“Well,” she said. “You’re a writer.”
I smiled. Hesitantly. “I try.”
She shook her head. “No. You write. You just don’t make a living at it.”
“You know who I am?”
The smirk widened. “I don’t know a thing about you, except that you’re a writer.”
I sensed that she was lying. She knew a lot more about me than that. Not my name, perhaps, but with people like myself, names aren’t always important.
“How can you tell?”
I expected her to give some sort of haughty answer, to show off how she had outsmarted me. Instead, she glanced around the beer garden. It wasn’t crowded, but the country music piping through the speakers a few feet away was loud. She nodded to a table on the other side. “Let’s sit down.”
We did so. “My father was a writer,” she told me. Then she said his name.
I didn’t overreact. Instead, I said, “I was sorry to hear about his death. He inspired a lot of young writers.”
“Yourself, you mean.”
I nodded. “Yes. I own all of his books.”
“Even Shades of Tomorrow?”
“Okay, most of his books.”
That was all she said about him that night. We mostly talked about myself. That night, and that night only. Every other night after that, it was about her. Even when we were discussing myself, we were really talking about her. Which was okay. Which was fine. I wanted to learn everything I could, every secret, every alibi, everything. She was full of them. I can’t say I learned them all—no man ever could—but I learned more than I would’ve thought possible, that night in the beer garden, where I bought her a drink and learned that she likes her beer with ice, and that even the daughters of respectable authors enjoy Taco Bell at one in the morning.
I do write. Often and a lot. I have been published several times, in small print journals and online. I have never been nominated for an award and never expect to be. I have written a novel, but it resides in the shadows of my hard drive, waiting to be pecked at again. I have earned praise from editors and former professors, and random individuals who take advantage of the comments sections of websites. This praise usually goes to my head, as it should, but then it fades away, and I succumb to that burning inferiority that I suspect most artists feel at some point: the knowledge that we will never be good enough.
She never read any of my work; or, if she did, she never said anything. I never asked her to read anything, either; I knew that, if she wanted to, she would get around to it. And this didn’t bother me. I didn’t see her so that she could offer her professional opinion; her father had been the writer, not her. She was a clerk at a gas station, a waitress at Steak ‘n Shake, and occasionally a student at the local university. I was a recent alumnus of that university, and when I wasn’t writing, I was helping old women on the other side of the country understand their health insurance policies. We were both many things, but whereas I had a limit, I believe her depths were infinite. She was one thing one moment, another the next, and always would be.
That first night, I told her of my background, which was about as uneventful as could be: only child, born in the hospital five miles away, never left, didn’t see myself leaving anytime soon. I tried spicing things up—emphasizing that I’d been on the soccer team in high school—but she saw through my story. She knew how bland I was, but she listened anyways.
On our second night—I wouldn’t call it a date; I wouldn’t call any of them dates—she mentioned her father again. He was two years gone, and from the way she spoke of him, he might as well have lived in another century. “He wanted me to be home schooled,” she said. “My mother had to fight him on that. She wasn’t smart like him; she didn’t understand his mind.”
She always smoked. When we went to a restaurant, she would excuse herself at least twice during the evening. At my apartment, she cracked open a window and stood by it, watching me from the shadows, no lights on except for the flickering screen of the television. She liked old movies. She loved Lucille Ball. She said she liked my décor, or lack thereof; of all the things she told me, this is the one thing I’m sure is true. She was a complex person, but she preferred her surroundings to be simple. The bare walls of my apartment, my off-brand furniture, my beige carpets and drapes, appealed to her. We spent a lot of time in my apartment. I think she felt more comfortable there than I did.
At one point, about two weeks after we met, she mentioned That Time. She smiled when she first said it, emphasizing that she capitalized the “t’s.” “Like my father would’ve done,” she said.
I didn’t ask for further explanation. I just waited.
She was standing by the window. Our most important conversations took place that way: us on opposite sides of the room, the television muted, darkness between us. I couldn’t make out any details of her face. The burning end of her cigarette dipped up and down, glowing momentarily brighter when she inhaled.
“It started six years ago,” she said. “I was nineteen and I knew better, so I did it anyway. He’d done drugs as a kid, of course. I think all geniuses have. They have to; they have to find something to stifle their intellect, or they end up going insane. For him it was pot and LSD; he came from that generation. For me it was…” The cigarette butt waved dismissively in the dark. “Everything.”
I had smoked pot in college. Not often, not regularly, but I’d done it and enjoyed it. I drank, too, more as I got older. I drank the most during the time I knew her. She always wanted to drink—everything we did was at night, and involved alcohol. I think she knew I wouldn’t try anything harder. She could drink, too. We never spent time with anyone else, we were always alone, so it was hard to compare her habits with those of others. I know that she drank more than me, and never even seemed to get half as drunk.
“If it had a name, I did it,” she said. “Once I took something that didn’t have a name. That was when I was twenty-two. That night was the last night of That Time. Whatever that shit was…I was a different person. I don’t mean that I acted differently. I don’t mean that I behaved differently. I mean I was a different person.” She laughed, a bitter sound. “That Time began because I hated my life. What nineteen-year-old doesn’t? I hated being the daughter of a genius, of a man others idolized. Because he idolized himself, and he expected me to as well. And I didn’t. I couldn’t. I saw him for what he really was—a man. But he never wanted to admit that, and so he treated me like I was something special, too. And I’m not. I’m a human being. That’s what started That Time. And you know what? When I took that stuff, the stuff that didn’t have a name, when I finally became another person…that did it. It’s like that’s what I’d been wanting the entire time. All the stuff I put in my body, none of it gave me what I really needed: a new identity. And then I got it, and I don’t know if I liked it or not, but it satisfied me. And I put away the drugs, just like that.” And she crushed the end of her cigarette in the ashtray I’d bought especially for her.
Two months after meeting her, I realized we hadn’t had sex. She frequently spent the night in my bed, but I couldn’t remember going further than a good night kiss—and even that had been formal, a drunken courtesy she occasionally granted me. Because I was in love with her, and she knew it even before I did.
It may not come as a surprise to you, my feelings for her. But it was a revelation to me. I realized it one morning, waking up in bed, turning groggily and seeing her there. Morning sunlight lit half her face as brightly as any light could; the other half remained in shadow. I stared at her for so long that I began to believe that she was awake and knew I was watching her. I didn’t stop. I’m sure she was asleep. She’d been correct, after all: she was only human. All her complexities aside, she was a woman, and women sleep.
I got up from bed and made coffee. Standing in the kitchen, bare feet cooling off on the tile floor, I stared into my fridge, examining its contents. Not much. I was a bachelor, with a steady but minimal income. I ate a lot of frozen food, stuff you bought in bulk. Occasionally I cooked something from scratch—or, rather, mixed ingredients together in a skillet—but I bought what I needed when I needed it. My refrigerator was as empty as I felt.
And that’s when it hit me. I didn’t feel empty; at least, not as empty. I was in love. That tired, clichéd flaw in human existence—an affliction I’d suffered in the past, of course, but not recently, and never so unexpectedly.
I knew she wasn’t in love with me. I never had any doubts about that. Oh, there was a fondness there, of course; she needed me for something, I never knew what, but I occupied some space that had to be filled. Love, though? No, it wasn’t love, not on her part. She would give in occasionally—we did end up having sex, two occasions mostly concealed by an alcoholic haze—but it was as though she were doing me a kindness, returning the favor. I don’t think she took much joy in those actions, though who’s to say? She could enjoy life; she just rarely chose to.
Newly enlightened as to my feelings for her, I went back to the bedroom and leaned against the doorway. She was still asleep. She had a soft snore, almost like a lullaby. I listened to it, closed my eyes and drifted along. It was a comforting sound, like the creak of an old rocking chair. One of the few things about her that wasn’t, in some way, intimidating. When she slept, she had no control over herself; she was at the mercy of her own body, and her flesh lacked the steely resolve of her mind.
I have never figured out what I was to her. More than a friend, of that I’m certain; she had her friends, and she spoke of them to me, but I have the feeling she rarely, if ever, spoke of me to them. Like I was another of her secrets, a lover hidden away in the attic. Except I wasn’t a lover—or, if truth be told, I was a one-sided lover, the Hopeless Romantic, the Unreciprocated, as her father would have put it.
I watched her for at least twenty minutes. Still half an hour before the alarm was scheduled to go off. I grabbed my laptop from my desk and took it into the front room. I brought to mind the image of her face, half in light and half in dark, and her silhouette as she smoked near the window. These images at the forefront of my consciousness, I began writing the beginnings of this story. Her story.
“He wrote a story about me once,” she said one night. An autumn breeze came in from the window behind her, rustling her hair.
“Just one. When I was seven our dog died.” She waited for some reaction, but I gave her none. “It broke me. I was already breaking; life with him was never easy. There wasn’t enough room in the house for us, him, and his ego. I had friends, but they weren’t the friends he wanted me to have. I guess he was right about that, and my mother was wrong: I should not have gone to public school. My father maybe wasn’t a household name, but people knew who he was. People respected him. He won a Pulitzer, for Christ’s sake. My family was rich, and I was rich, and the other kids hated me for it. So my friends weren’t really my friends—they were clinging to me, taking the scraps I gave them.”
She lit a second cigarette, something she rarely did. “He wanted me to be friends with his friends’ children. I was forced to hang with them occasionally, but they frustrated me. They took after their parents, felt like they were important. They knew the rest of their lives would be easy. I did too, of course, but that doesn’t mean I liked it the way they did. They embraced who they were, and even at a young age, I hated it.”
She paused for so long, I thought the story would finish half-told. She did that sometimes; I never bothered her for the conclusion, because it came eventually, but I would sometimes lay awake, trying to piece together the other half of her memories.
This respite was only temporary, however. She said, “So my dog was my best friend. You see? The dog didn’t have a sense of privilege. He was just a loyal companion. I was the one who fed him and walked him of an evening, so he took after me the most. My father mostly ignored him, but that dog still loved him of course. Dogs love anyone. I don’t know if that makes them better than us or not. Can they see through our faults and love us anyways? Or are they just mindless animals?”
“What was his name?”
Even in the darkness, I could tell my question took her by surprise. She stopped, either trying to remember the dog’s name, or offended that I’d asked.
After a moment, she said, “Clifford. Like the one in the books. He was an Irish setter.”
“How long did you have him?”
I sensed a wistful, if condescending, smile behind the cigarette. “My mother was a sentimentalist. Clifford was born the same week I was. My mother brought him home the week after.”
A car pulled into the parking lot outside. Headlights momentarily swept across her slim profile, turning her even blacker, into a shade.
“It’s a cliché,” she said, “like something from one of his books that you writers like to turn into a polished turd. A kid’s dog is her best friend. But it was true. I treated that dog as I would’ve a brother or sister. It probably wasn’t healthy, but then, nothing in that household, when you come down to it, was healthy. He was driving all of us insane.
“I walked Clifford every evening, except for the coldest ones in winter. This was a spring evening. Just around the neighborhood, nothing unusual. I was always within screaming distance of our house, and there were neighborhood patrols of course. It wasn’t a gated community, but it might as well have been. There wasn’t even much in the way of vermin; Clifford’s dog life was unfortunately lacking of that one luxury. I guess that’s why, when he saw the rabbit, he reacted like he did.”
She put the cigarette out. I watched her think about lighting another, but she didn’t.
“He was a big dog. I shouldn’t have been walking him. Normally he was well behaved, but he’d probably seen a rabbit only a couple of times before. When he saw this one, he bolted. Pulled me down on my face, almost broke my nose. The leash ripped out of my hands, and Clifford took off. Of course the rabbit was across the street, and of course there was a car right there. That’s how these things go, isn’t it?
“The driver was one of our neighbors. He took me and Clifford back home. The dog was dead. Killed instantly. There were tears, mostly my own, also some from my mother and the neighbor. My father didn’t even come out of his study. I guess my mother must’ve told him the details later. He knew everything, because he put all of it in the story. Except you know him, or you know his writing. Everything was exaggerated. I was turned into a blubbering fool. Clifford into a symbol freedom. The story became an allegory, a political piece. I was the fool, who let a good thing slip through my hands. And that wasn’t even the worst part.”
She came back and sat down beside me. When she looked at me, I saw something sharp and dangerous in her eyes. “He never published it. I made sure of that. I broke his computer. That’s how mad I got. My mother wasn’t far behind me. I think that’s the one time my father ever backed down from me. That’s the one time I ever won against him. He never published that story, and to the best of my knowledge, he never wrote about me again. I’ve read everything he’s written, even the stuff left on his computer after he died. I’m in none of it. There’s not one character who takes after me in any way that isn’t coincidental. That’s my one victory. That, and he died first, I suppose.”
She leaned away from me, taking most of the tension with her. She smiled, and it wasn’t cynical or mean. I can’t say it was genuine, but she put it on for my benefit.
I smiled back, and we resumed watching the movie. After twenty minutes, I turned to her and asked, “What was the worst part about the story?”
She didn’t look at me, but she also didn’t hesitate in answering, as though she’d been waiting for the question.
“He turned it into a comedy,” she said. “And it was hilarious.”
Shortly after I started seeing her—or listening to her—I began rereading her father’s books. I’d gone through half of his cannon by the time she told me of her dog, and I knew what she said was true: she wasn’t in any of them. I found an older female figure who came up often, that was most likely her mother; and other figures, minor characters usually, who cropped up under one name or another. I suppose all writers do this; our imaginations, no matter how expansive, are still limited. We take people from our own lives and stick them in these imaginary worlds, then pull the strings and start the show.
My opinion of his writing didn’t change; his prose was still brilliant, his themes timeless, his characters realistic. No matter what she told me of him—his drinking, which was pubic knowledge; his insomnia, which wasn’t—my former opinions held. I listened closely to her stories, and though I acted as though I were interested in her father, I was really learning about her. I think she knew this, too. Maybe a part of her understood; she’d lived with a writer for nineteen years, after all, suffering all the insecurities and aggrandizing that comes with such a life.
“I must be crazy, taking up with a writer again,” she said one night, in bed.
This was after the first time we had sex, and my concentration was still elsewhere. I turned my head slowly toward her and, too light-headed to think clearly, said, “They say all girls grow up to marry their fathers…”
The look she gave me was full of loathing. It was the first time she’d directed that particular emotion at me.
“So do you want to marry your mother?”
I shook my head. “No. It’s just a saying.”
She forced herself back under control. “Yeah, it is. A stupid saying. And I don’t want to marry you. I didn’t want to marry the others, either. But they were writers, just like him. Nowhere near as brilliant, of course, and not just because they were young. Maybe that’s what I’m doing—sleeping with inferior writers in an attempt to soil his memory.” She smiled. “No offense.”
I was too confused to be offended. Of course I wasn’t the first guy she’d opened up to. And yes, surely she’d been attracted to me—or however I was supposed to describe it—because I was a writer; what else about me was unique, or different from the hundred or so other guys who’d been at the bar that night? I’d known that all along, hadn’t I?
“We aren’t all the same,” I told her. “My style isn’t anything like his. And I’ll never be as famous or as respected. And I don’t think I’m full of myself.”
“No. But just the same, you’ll end up writing about me. You always do.”
I put a hand on hers, then pulled back. Despite the intimacy of just a few minutes ago, the gesture seemed improper.
“That doesn’t mean I…or anyone…would do what he did,” I said. “That was cruel. I don’t know what compelled him to do it, but his motivations couldn’t have been good.”
“It’s not about motivations,” she said. “It’s about truth. He wrote the truth that he saw; he genuinely believed in what he wrote, every word, every story or novel. Most artists would say that such motivation is pure. That’s what you’re thinking, isn’t it? That if he wrote the truth as he saw it, then he was justified in doing so.”
“I…no. That’s not—”
“If it weren’t me, if I was telling you a story about someone else—you’d defend him, wouldn’t you?”
I sighed and admitted it. “That’s an artist’s job, to capture the truth. And how can we see it any way but our own?”
“But your way isn’t necessarily right. His truth was completely different from anyone else’s connected to the incident. He didn’t see a little girl whose best friend was brutally killed before her eyes. That truth, the one the rest of the world would admit to in an instant, was completely invisible to him.”
She did something she hadn’t done before: she reached toward the nightstand, grabbed a cigarette, and lit up.
“I know,” she said, and the laugh she gave may have been genuine. “This cliché is atrocious, even by my standards.”
I laughed too, I think.
“Just because he saw things the only way he could didn’t make him right. It didn’t give him the right to trample over the truth that was right there in front of his face. Artists do that. You think what you’re doing is justified, because it gives a new perspective to situations. But really, what you do is ignore the truth. Not all of the time, maybe. But sometimes, at some crucial moment, you’ll see things the way you want to see them, not the way they actually are.”
“What about thinking outside the box?”
“What gives you the right to define the box? Shouldn’t that be a general consensus? We’re talking about perception—one person’s versus everyone else. Writers, artists, perceive the world the way they want to. Sometimes this coincides with the truth. Sometimes…” She waved the cigarette above her face. “Sometimes your insight is really ignorance.”
At the other end of the bedroom, a small fan hummed. I listened to the white noise; after a while, I could detect its back-and-forth motion through the subtle changes in the sound of the oscillation.
“He couldn’t capture the truth of that moment,” she said. “That’s what I realized, when I read the story. He could never capture the truth about any of my moments. Because he wasn’t me. My moments are true only in the sense that they are true to me. How can an outsider, someone who isn’t in my skin and doesn’t have my mind, ever begin to understand my truths? He could never taste a peanut butter and jelly sandwich like I do, or feel the wind on my face like I do, or the burn in my legs after a long run. He could never know, because the truth wasn’t his, it was mine. And he couldn’t see that. He was incapable of seeing it that.” She sat up. “Because he was a writer, and that’s how writers are.”
As she stood, the sheets slipped away from her body. There was only a small nightlight in the room; her skin was mostly shadow, but in a couple spots I could detect the sheen of sweat.
“Stop staring,” she said. “I’m going to put the cigarette out then go back to my place.”
“I don’t regret it, and you don’t, either.” She turned and smiled. “Maybe it’ll happen again. But I have to get up early, and in another ten minutes, you’re going to get frisky again. I need to sleep.”
She was right. As soon as she was dressed and gone, I was ready, and I lay awake half the night trying to think about something else. I failed, and in my dreams, a little girl cried over the death of her giant cartoon dog, while a figure at a typewriter cackled in a voice that sounded eerily like my own.
Last month, I came home one night to find that she’d broken into my apartment. That wasn’t hard to do—I’d shown her how flimsy my lock was, and she knew that I rarely used the deadbolt. She was sitting on the futon in the main room, her legs crossed, my laptop nestled atop them. She glanced up, as though to make sure it was me, then returned her attention to the screen.
I shut the door softly. It was winter; I took off my jacket it and hung it on the coatrack and kicked off my boots. I didn’t sit down. Instead, I stood by the door, watching her face in the glow of the screen. It seemed as though I could see her features more clearly than I ever had before, and what I saw now, I didn’t like.
Eventually, she closed the laptop and put it on the coffee table. I’m not sure how much time passed. She stared at the computer, perhaps expecting it to jump up and bite her. I almost expected the same. I took a deep breath, and in my nervousness, it caught in my throat, and I coughed. She turned to me again, and though her face was once again in darkness, I could sense the emotion there. I just couldn’t tell what it was. Anger? Hurt? Disappointment?
She stood. I took a step away from the door, to give her room. She didn’t say anything. I knew she wouldn’t, but I needed her to. Even to curse me out, to say how she’d misjudged me.
But no. That wasn’t what I wanted her to say. Or what I needed her to say.
“It’s the truth,” I said. “Surely you can see that. Surely you can see that I didn’t stretch anything, or twist anything, or mock anything. You can’t disagree with one word I’ve written.”
She brushed past me. I could hardly see the doorknob, but she found it immediately.
“Maybe some hyperbole,” I said. “But nothing harmful. I love you.” It was the first time I’d said it, though she already knew it. “I wouldn’t do what he did. You know that.”
The door opened. Light from the hall blew into my apartment, but by now her face was turned from me.
“Maybe you’re the one with the problem,” I said. “Maybe you’re the one denying the truth. You resent what he did so much that you assume that no one can capture it, when in fact most artists can, most people can, because some truths are simple.”
She paused on that last word. She was already out the door, but she stopped. I thought she would turn back. She started to. I could see her jaw starting to open, to offer an agreement or rebuttal. But then she turned away and vanished around the corner.
I didn’t go after her. I simply closed the door and leaned against it for a while, then threw the deadbolt and took a shower.
Afterwards, I opened the laptop. I read everything, first word to last, and couldn’t see anything that I regretted. Some literary tropes that were a bit pretentious, but nothing outwardly offensive. How could she not see that? What was in here that had caused her to leave?
I read it a second time, and a third. A fourth and fifth. I wrote two more drafts of it; I’m currently finishing up the third and final draft. And I still don’t see it. Some truths are simple, I’d told her, and here’s the proof, as simple as can be: a simple man loved a complex woman. That’s it, beginning and middle and end of story. It’s all here, everything that matters, not one word of it different from the way it happened. I’ve included all the pertinent details, all the important plotlines, and if the ending is somewhat ambiguous, it’s because she made it that way. I haven’t left out one single element.
Wait. Maybe there is one thing.
Her name was Laura.
Daniel Davis is the Nonfiction Editor for the Prompt Literary Magazine. His own work has appeared in various online and print journals. You can find him on Facebook or at www.dumpsterchickenmusic.blogspot.com.
Mansoor Hosseini, a Swedish avant-garde composer of Persian origin, studied composition at Music Conservatories in Paris, Brussels and Gothenburg. He also studied film music at Gothenburg University and script writing at Gothenburg film University.
Hosseini’s creations within theatrical music are inspired by martial arts, contemporary dance and theater. His research and studies with composers such as Georges Aperghis inspired him to follow this composing style. In 2007 he founded Themus Ensemble, for whom he composed several pieces, with the joy of spreading his concept of theatrical music.
Hosseini was awarded several prizes, from Gothenburg City Culture prize, Swedish Art Council, the West Region Culture Prize, Swedish Arts Grants and more.
For more information, please visit: http://www.musicalmo.com/start.php
The Flexible Persona was founded in 2013. We are an independent home for emerging and established writers and poets.