I started writing a novel near the end of 2014. Part of me has always wanted to write a book and share with other people, and part of me is terrified to expose my thoughts and voice to the open criticism of the world. I’m still discovering who I am as an author but writing the story in my heart helps me grow with each page, challenging myself to develop decent dialogue, paint a brighter picture in a clearer way, and become a better narrator.
In total, my working draft is around 90,000 words and perhaps 1/4 complete (there will be a severe editing process when all the words make it out of my brain and onto paper). The story and characters are complete in my mind, but capturing the tale on paper and telling it correctly takes a lot of time. I try to write a bit or two in my book every week–sometimes it’s a lot more, often it’s less–and someday when it’s all done, I hope I’m still brave enough to send it to a publisher. The most daunting task is yet to come: accepting that other people will read my story, and accepting that not everyone will like it. Hell, at that point, I’m not even sure I’ll like it.
It’s a coming-of-age New Adult fiction novel about a girl named Lee who grows up in the same neighborhood as Simon. Lee and Simon are best friends in childhood and middle school, and by the time they reach high school their lives are so intricately woven together that it’s suddenly clear to both of them that they are in love. After a few years of dating and discovering each other in new ways, they break things off before college and set out to discover who they are as individuals, separated for the first time. Throughout college they do their best to put their past feelings aside and attempt to be friends again, but Lee finds every interaction with Simon to be a battleground filled with undercutting cynicism, awkward sexual tension, and sharp memories that pierce the wounds she’s worked so hard to heal. When Lee meets Graham, she’s caught in an emotional struggle between the only world she knows and the vastness of an unknown future.
I often found myself lying on the floor of our new apartment, surrounded by unpacked boxes and the remnants of our college life we’d brought with us here to Chicago, paralyzed by the weight of my own existence. Graham always worked late so I spent the evenings by myself, listening to “The Boxer” by Simon and Garfunkel on repeat.
Everyone knows Paul Simon was the genius in that duo. It’s irrefutable. He’s the storyteller weaving a tale of ancestral agony and Garfunkel is just along for the ride. I’d listen to him sing the poor boy’s story, thinking about my trail of Irish relatives who suffered through their immigrant lives in America only so I could go to college and promptly lay myself down on the hardwood floors of a building likely built around the time they arrived, feeling just as heartbroken and defeated as they must’ve felt when they stepped off the boat.
It wasn’t depression; it was the weight of the world’s expedition. There are so many imperative and intricate things I couldn’t understand, and this lack of understanding hurts me in ways more profound than I’d ever imagined. Like the way my immune system fights off a cold, or how my blood cells clot on the surface of my skin when I bleed. Like the constant onslaught of births around the world pushing our global population towards eight billion people, growing at a rate of 200,000 people each day. Like the overwhelming and all-encompassing amount of information living on the internet, and how inaccessible it feels when I’m trying to think of something to Google when in reality it’s all just sitting there, waiting for my fingers to find the keys, longing to be discovered. But I just can’t do it, because Paul Simon is telling me a story I want to hear over and over and with each new listen my heart is breaking and I am crying so much, just another emotional refugee in a world of grace and confidence.
“What are you doing today after school?” He wasn’t making eye-contact with me, and I didn’t dare look at him either. Just hearing his voice this close to me made the hair stand up on the back of my neck.
“I need to see you. Now.”
“Today? But why today?” After all these years, I knew this tone of voice. He wanted to be touched, and he wanted me in his arms. He had moments like this, and they came in so fleeting and randomly that sometimes I couldn’t identify them, but this was absolutely one of them. I couldn’t comprehend it, but I recognized it immediately. I kept my head down as we kept walking through the noisy hallway, feeling even less inclined to look at him.
“I don’t know why, Lee. I just need to.” His voice was filled with tension. My thoughts were reeling, and I felt more off-balance than I had the last four months.
“Well, I was going to go hang out with Dave…”
“Tell him you have to do something else. I don’t care what you say. I just need, like, an hour.” Still no eye contact.
“Why would I do that? Why should I–”
He cut me off, touching my shoulder gently but with enough force to stop me. Our eyes locked, and in a moment all my walls fell down. The look in his eyes was one I knew too well, and I was waiting for him to say something, something like “I love you,” but I knew he wouldn’t. Lifeless, vacuous people diverged from where we stood in the middle of the hallway looking at one another, Simon’s hand on my right shoulder, the two of us saying so much without speaking a word. It hurt to know that I still didn’t have the strength or willpower to refuse him anything he’d ever ask of me. Sometimes I hate being reminded that I’m so weak in his presence, but I also have to be honest with myself and recognize it to be true. He let go of my shoulder and grabbed my hand, and we turned against the crowd and walked swiftly towards the parking lot, ignoring the two-minute warning bell signifying our next class was about to start.
“It’s the light pollution,” I heard Nolan say somewhere to my right. “The sky refracts the particles of city light in the atmosphere and it emits that weird glow.”
I looked over towards where his voice was coming from, and in the ominous orange light I saw him sitting on a cinderblock near the closed garage door, using his leg as a table for rolling up his cigarette. His thin, bony fingers worked deftly, tucking in the tobacco and making minute changes as he rolled the paper into a pudgy cylinder.
“It’s…weird,” I said, glancing up at the sky again. “I’m sad I can’t see the stars, but this is kind of interesting, too.”
“I know what you mean,” he said, licking the paper and closing off the cigarette. “I feel like I’m on another planet. It’s not a bad thing.”
I heard his lighter and saw the little flame sprout to life in the darkness as his lit the cigarette. It was quiet outside tonight, and I was getting sleepy. Even so, I was willing to test the waters with Nolan to see if he also contemplated things late at night.
“Nolan,” I started, still looking up at the sky, “why do you smoke? You know that shit kills you, right?”
“I know, it’s an awful habit,” he said, blowing the smoke out the side of his mouth after holding it in his chest for a moment. “I’ve been smoking since I was fourteen, though. It’s practically a part of me. I can’t imagine how hard it would be to quit.”
“You were fourteen when you started smoking?” I turned towards him, eyes wide. “Dude, that’s crazy. I don’t think I’m still doing anything now that I was doing when I was fourteen.” I paused for a moment, thinking. “What made you want to start smoking?”
He took another drag, thinking.
“It’s stupid,” was the only answer he offered.
“It can’t be that stupid if you’re still doing it,” I retorted curiously. He was silent for a few moments, but then I heard him sigh.
“Smoking feels like breathing fire. I love that.” He didn’t look at me, and we didn’t say another word the rest of the time he smoked. After a few minutes he dropped the butt end of the cigarette, snuffed it out with his foot, and we both walked back into the garage. It was a strange turning point in our friendship, but it was pivotal nonetheless.
He let me go but reached out for my hand again, easing me up onto the tracks. I balanced on the right rail, he on the left, as we continued our trek north. He told me about how much he loves the train tracks, and that spending time on them here in Ann Arbor reminds him of playing on them as a kid in New York, but “not in a ghetto kind of way, or a ‘Stand By Me’ kind of way,” he clarified. “I just love the idea of being able to hop a train and ride it somewhere, not knowing where it’s heading. It’s different than flying, where everything is so regulated and structured; you can’t sneak on a plane and get away with it. Trains are for people who just want to escape and don’t care where they’re going. It’s wild, uncharted, and a beautiful thing.”
The tracks wound onto a bridge over the four-lane road that led on and off the highway. We stopped on the bridge, both quiet, and watched the cars for a few minutes. Our bodies revealed themselves in the waning and waxing of headlights coming down the hill, and evaporated into the darkness as the cars rushed under us towards the highway. I felt Graham’s presence next to me, his longing to stay on these tracks forever, to find a train moving west and sleep in a boxcar until his heart told him to get off. I gave him this moment, let him own it for himself, and didn’t try to interfere or pull it out of him. Soon enough, he took my hand and we traversed further east.
“Almost there,” he said softly, clearing his throat and smiling over at me apologetically, asking forgiveness for this vulnerable moment where I could see straight through him to his deepest desires and fears, even if they weren’t fully formed or recognizable to me this early in our relationship. I smiled back, uncertain how to excuse myself for glimpsing into his soul when what I wanted was to see more of him, exploring all the caverns of his mind no matter how dark.
On the other side of the bridge, shrubs and trees sprouted up alongside the edge of the tracks. After another hundred yards the trees were gone too and we were on another bridge with no guard rails or foliage on either side of the tracks.
“Ok, so, this definitely seems unsafe,” I said, popping down from the rail I was balancing on and centering myself in the middle of the track, intent on getting as far from the edges of the bridge as possible. “Oh, and let’s not forget that a train could come rolling down these tracks at any moment and flatten us.”
“There aren’t any trains running at this time of night. Trust me, I’ve been out here countless times and can attest to that,” he reassured me, joining me in the middle of the tracks and continuing to lead the way until we were in the center of the bridge. I heard the sound of running water, and cautiously peered over the edge of the tracks.
“Where are we?” I asked, genuinely curious and bewildered. How had I missed this spot after so much time in Ann Arbor?
“This is Argo Park, though technically we aren’t allowed to access it quite this way.” He paused and look north over the water. I looked south and saw the silhouette of a dam-like structure a hundred or so feet away from where we stood on the bridge. I stood next to him and we looked north over the still water bouncing back little beads of moonlight as the current moved slowly towards the dam.
“Here,” he said, sitting down on the bridge and dangling his feet over the edge, reaching his hands up towards me. “It’s safe, I promise.” I gave him my hands and he coaxed me down next to him on the bridge, our feet swaying back and forth next to each other in the darkness.
“It’s…wow,” I heard myself say. “I didn’t know this was here.”
“It’s amazing how few students wander outside the perimeters of campus. I’m not saying you’re one of them,” he quickly added, “I just mean in general. You live a bit off campus, so you know what I’m saying.”
“Yeah, I understand,” I reassured him. “I’ve spent a lot of time east of campus, past The Arb and such, but not much time north.”
“There’s little gems of wonder everywhere,” he said, looking at me. I glanced up to meet his eyes, their blueness softer now, like a cloudless, infinite sky. “You just have to know where to look.”