Author Topic: New first five  (Read 279 times)

Offline Renton

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New first five
« on: May 18, 2022, 02:08:29 PM »
Decided to go back to this for the first five of my contemporary adult fiction novel to avoid starting with a flashback. What do you think?

Chapter 1
 
Los Angeles
 Molly isn’t coming home. It’s 2am now. She hasn’t responded to my last text to her. I keep reading it over and over, “What’s happening? This isn’t like you. Are you safe?”
The pain in my leg, where a cluster of jagged Indonesian coral sliced off a nickel-sized chunk of skin a few days ago, has gotten worse. The pain began shortly after taking off from Denpasar and only got worse after the six-hour layover in Hong Kong. It’s infected for sure, probably staph. Whitish pus bubbles out of the pointed edge of my kneecap where the bone sticks out.
I’m warm in bed. Must be 75 degrees outside. The window is open, but I close it when a sudden chill rips through my body. Feels like a fever.
Mental note: Go to the urgent care first thing in the morning.
Molly must be with another guy. It’s the only explanation. She barely drinks and never stays out late with friends.
She’s angry. It’s understandable. We’ve been dating for five years and living together for two, but I’ve never felt for her the way I did for my college girlfriend, Jasmine. Even though I haven’t seen Jasmine since we broke up once and for all over a decade ago, I still think about her and wonder what she’s doing. This is stupid because Jasmine never cared the way Molly does. Molly wants me, yearns for me in the way I always dreamed someone would. She looks at my face adoringly over coffee in the mornings. She rubs my neck and shoulders after work. She cooks an elaborate Italian meal for us on Sundays. She wants to be my wife and mother to our kids. We’ll have three bambinos, she says. She already knows their faces, names and personalities. They’ll each have her dark hair, rosy cheeks and my blue eyes. Our lives will smoothly unroll before us like a Persian rug spreading across an empty room…if I would just propose.
A tiny frown creases its way across her cheeks at the words “Molly, my girlfriend” when I introduce her to someone. “Girlfriend.” Not “fiancée.” Not “wife.”
I haven’t asked her to marry me because I’m 38 and don’t yet know who I am. The passing years have  made my identity fragile, lacking intention. I no longer have access to my hopes and desires. They drift in the breeze.
The anxiety attacks are starting again too, like they always do when I get stressed. The first bad one happens near the end of my first year in film school on a perfectly average Sunday afternoon. My mom is driving us  to a shopping mall. In a calm voice I tell her I’m having a heart attack and need to go to the ER.
I’m 25 at the time and nothing is wrong with me, physically that is.
The doctor asks if I had a history of anxiety, and sh** who doesn’t, but never this bad. This is another level of terror and quickly progresses to spend all day in bed agoraphobia. I forget how to breathe the minute I leave my apartment.  I’m trying to break into the most competitive and cutthroat industry in the world and have convinced myself I don’t have what it takes. The psychologist I subsequently see diagnoses me with suffering from the overwhelming pressure of high expectations and acute fear of failure.
And panic disorder, which just sounds so weak.
“When do you feel ok, Mark? What quiets the noise in your head?” She asks sympathetically while trying not to stare at my constantly twitching jaw.
“Well, I guess being drunk, going surfing or, to be honest, having sex,” I reply.
“Well, drinking will add to your anxiety but the other two are a healthy way to alleviate it.”
She’s right. Over the next decade, when I have a girlfriend or paddle around in the ocean, I feel better about trying to make it as a Hollywood screenwriter and getting nowhere.
 After earning an expensive and rather worthless MFA, I settle for a low paid copywriting gig at a fashion brand. It doesn’t pay much at first but helps get me out of my head.  I rise quickly through the ranks and, within a few years, get promoted to co-lead of the in-house creative department. It’s not the glamorous career I wanted, but it feels like a nice consolation prize. I’m able to travel and be creative without the pressure of being the sole person responsible for capturing the imagery we use to help sell the clothes.
Molly’s problem with me now is that I’m away producing photo shoots. This year alone I’ve jetted off to Hawaii, Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti and Indonesia while she’s been here, alone, in this tiny West LA condo. She toils in a cubicle at a dull 9/5 office job she doesn’t like and lays on the couch at night mindlessly watching reality shows when I’m away. She closes the window next to the couch when the marine layer rolls in and occasionally gets a text message ping on her phone once in while letting her know that I miss her. She’s a good person and I don’t appreciate her in the way that she deserves, but I can’t help it that I always want something more. Something beyond the status quo.
I always have.
But now I care too much about my career to fully indulge. I get the travel fix from the job, but not the casual sex that I secretly fantasize having. When I’m at work for the beachwear brand, either in the office or on the road, I’m scrupulous about being professional. Having a girlfriend like Molly makes it so much easier to avoid any awkward co-worker romances or the random drinks after work hook ups that are fodder for office gossip and Friday afternoon invitations to chat privately with the boss.
On trips I work hard, but also the places I’m sent to, long days in the sun, fancy hotels, group dinners and the expense account. The best part is the feeling of satisfaction that washes over my entire body like a hot shower when I board the plane home with a carry-on bag filled with external hard drives. My boss loves looking through these digital repositories chock full of glossy images of pretty people doing pretty things in pretty places. He’ll tell me I did a great job. He’ll send me on another adventure in a few weeks. Maybe he’ll even offer another ten percent raise when the new fiscal year starts in November like he did last year.
I love my job and everything about it. What I love less is my life here in LA with Molly. For the most part, it’s an unpleasant reminder of the stifling and repetitive days of my youth.  Two of us are crammed into my one-bedroom condo, which is about as spacious as a room at the Holiday Inn. On date nights, we don’t say much to each other while picking at our food in crowded restaurants. Everyone else around seems to be having more fun than we are. At parties, she tends to stand nearly behind me, clutching the palm of my hand and not making eye contact with my friends. What I dislike the most, though, are the weekends and holidays at her Italian grandparents’ cavernous barn style house on the far edge of the San Gabriel Valley an hour east of LA, where it’s almost always boiling hot, and where I forget the names of her innumerable cousins, aunts and uncles and screaming children, so many children, who are all living the harried family life out there that she wants more than anything, but terrifies me.
Her family judges me. “Look at him, he’s almost 40,” they say under their breaths when I look at my watch too many times during the baptisms and weddings we’re constantly attending. “He should already have kids by now.”
I feel ashamed that I’m of the age where I’m supposed to want a family, but I don’t. I dream of surfing the world, indulging in food and drink, having sex with more than just one woman for the rest of my life. In society’s eyes, in Molly’s eyes, I guess that makes me a bad person, but Jasmine never thought of me that way because she was different too. She didn’t love me like I loved her, but at least she let me be myself.
Maybe that’s why I can’t let go of her even though I’ll probably never see her again.
 To the outside world, I look like a normal member of society.  Nothing about my appearance is out of the ordinary.  I’m tall, clean cut and stay pretty fit. I should be a functional adult by now. I keep waiting for a switch inside of me to get flipped that makes me want marriage, children and a white picket fence.
But that never happens. Emotionally, I guess I’m stuck in the past, stuck on a person, stuck on a feeling.
I’m not excited to see Molly when I come home from work. My heart never beats to the rhythm of my steps the way it always did when I was on my way to meet Jasmine. Even at the end, the night Jasmine left me for the last time on the sidewalk of the Sunset Strip, I still loved her.
Especially at the end.
I wonder if Molly is miserable too. When we have sex, I think she can see the far-away look in my eye. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. She’s adorable, goes to gym every day and I notice guys checking out her fit, curvy body whenever we walk outside.   
But she’s not Jasmine. She doesn’t chase excitement. That’s not what she wants from life like I do.
It’s almost dawn. The sunlight glows under the curtains next to the bed. Molly is not coming home tonight and I don’t know if this is a cry for attention or a clean break. Neither of us are any good at confrontation. We are as quiet as the parishioners in her family’s church when we get uncomfortable or distressed.
The pain in my knee is getting worse. The infection has its own little pulse, each throb an electric jolt. I google “staph infection” on my phone, scan through bullet points of symptoms. My condition is a match for all of them.
Thoughts are getting jumbled in my head. Maybe I shouldn’t go the urgent care in the morning. I should go to the ER instead. Maybe now.
Somehow I fall asleep, but my fever dreams all involve various versions of walking in on Molly with another guy. Each dream ends with her looking up at me with sad eyes.
The sound of the key opening the front door and the whoosh of the rubber at its bottom wakes me from that nightmare.
I stumble out of bed and, f**k my knee really hurts now, and I’m taking chills, and I see Molly, and she’s standing there, high heels digging tiny indentations into the hardwood floor, a floppy overnight bag is across her shoulder, and she’s wearing a low-cut black dress that doesn’t quite cover her bra, and her makeup’s mess, and she’s already crying, and she says:
“I had no choice.”
And it’s true. Molly had no choice because I was cheating on her too, at least in my mind. Even at this moment, I can't stop thinking about Jasmine and replaying our relationship in my head. She put a hook in me I could never fish out.