The story I want to write is based on a woman I knew when I was 17 (and 20 and 23) years old named Sheri Martinelli and the guy she was living with, a Chinese named Gilbert Lee. Sheri was a red-headed woman of Irish descent (as she never let you forget), maybe about 40 years old, though she claimed to be more like 32.
She was one of the first two adult women I had ever known on equal terms, as opposed to teachers and friends of my parents where there was a clear difference in status between me as an adolescent and them as an adult and was a serious artist and was not only the first person I ever knew who was identifiably an alcoholic (although the other woman I knew at the same time -- named Nora -- was, in retrospect, also one, just a little less extreme) but talked about having formerly been addicted to heroin. She seemed part of a whole different world than the one I'd grown up in, one that I'd previously known only from books.
[ More about Sheri and Nora at the end of this page. ]
When I think about the story I want to write, right away I think about Neil Simon. But I also think about Truman Capote's Holly Golightly and Christopher Isherwood's Sally Bowles (dramatized in ``Cabaret'' and, in the 1950's movie, ``I Am a Camera'').
In my story, I'm going to call the woman Virginia and the boy friend Al, although I may change my mind about his name later. The kid, the me-character, might be a high school student like I was when I first met Sheri, or might be a freshman or sophomore in college.
I don't know whether in today's world it makes any sense to write a story about a guy twenty years old, say, who is still a virgin. But I think I'm not going to worry about how plausible that is, or at least I'll say that he has very little sexual experience.
In any case, there's obviously a big sexual theme to the story (or why would I be interested?) But there's also the theme of a young guy who has grown up in a very respectable, suburban environment (and is now going to a rather good college, I think, maybe is a pre-med) who is coming into contact with a very different sort of world which is very exciting for him, but which he also realizes is rather dangerous and which he doesn't really know how to deal with.
Since I've promised to turn the workshop story in by the end of March, though, and haven't yet started writing, I'd better not be too ambitious. Keep it well under 10,000 words.
The times I remember most with Sheri were in her apartment, which was above the Chinese restaurant that Gilbert's parents owned. I remember in particular one day, probably a Saturday, when I brought over a piece of my writing and she had me read it aloud to her and some friends, which really made me realize how amateurish it was.
I also remember the screaming drunken fights she and Gilbert used to have. And I remember a few times talking to Gilbert over a pay phone, and I would say to him, ``Sheri wants to tell you that she loves you a whole lot,'' and Sheri would grab the phone and say, ``You goddamn bastard, you're a goddamn creep and your Chinese prick is a joke and I hope you die. You'll never fuck me again as long as you live.''
But then I have to explain how I met Sheri in the first place, which was because she was among the visitors at St. Elizabeth's Mental Hospital where I used to go to visit someone. And then I guess I have to explain how I ever came to be visiting this person in the first place. And maybe this could be a novel but it sure ain't no short story.
So I've been trying to figure out a structure that will work for a story. And it doesn't have to be that much like my real experience with Sheri at all, after all. I started thinking about the crazy broad Gail I wrote you about, who I met twice, at the Buena Vista and at Coffee Rons, who was affectionate and cuddly but a total space cadet.
I also thought about an experience in Chicago, on North Clark St, Chicago's Skid Row. I had decided that I was going to hock my typewriter and this drunk said he'd help me do that (I guess I was nineteen at the time; god, that was a long year, when I was 19) and I finally realized that he was just leading me all over the place and would never help me, so I took off while his back was turned taking a piss in a men's room.
And I remember other experiences, being over my head with adults who seemed exciting but who had none of the sense of responsibility that I had grown up with.
And I guess I can also think of the couple Helen and Dale that I went to the North Shore here on Oahu with and spent a night with the very first day I met them.
So what I finally seem to have settled on is that this young guy (still nameless so far) is in a coffee house, writing a letter to his girl friend. His girl friend and he have been having a lot of problems and he doesn't know how to deal with her.
So Al and Virginia come in. Virginia is dressed somewhat strangely, flamboyantly, whereas Al looks and talks fairly plebian. Virginia is talking somewhat bizarrely and Al keeps telling her to shut up and calling her stupid.
Then when Al's attention is otherwise occupied, Virginia totally surprises my young protagonist by saying something like, ``When I go back to the bathroom, follow me.'' Then Al finishes buying whatever he was buying and tells Virginia that it's time to go and she say, ``Excuse me, I have to take a piss. Am I allowed to take a piss, is that okay? Or do I have to just wet myself and walk around in wet underpants the rest of the day?''
So she goes back to the bathroom and our young protagonist doesn't know what to do. He just sits where he is, indecisive, for quite a while. And Virginia keeps not coming back from the bathroom and finally Al goes back and starts knocking on the bathroom door. And our protagonist just gets up and leaves.
Outside, Virginia is waiting for him and asks why the hell he didn't do what she'd told him to. She says, ``Look, you've got to help me. I've got to get away from the guy back there. He beats me up. Last week I had to go to the Emergency Room after he hit me. I'll show you the bruises later. He gets really mad when I won't have sex with his friends. So sometimes I do, because I can't stand being beat up any more. But now I've decided I won't do that any more, even if he kills me, which probably he will. But what am I supposed to be, a whore? Don't answer that.
``Anyway,'' she continues, ``I have some friends who will help me but I need you to help me find them. I don't have hardly any money, but I'll pay you back. Just give me your address and I'll mail it to you.''
``I don't have much money either,'' our protagonist says.
``How much do you have. $25? That's enough. We don't need to go to Amsterdam, we just might need a cab. And if this takes a while, I might need something to eat because that bastard never feeds me.''
Our protagonist explains that he really doesn't have time for her, he's got an exam to study for.
``Oh fine, just go ahead and abandon me then. I definitely wouldn't want to interfere with your studies. What's my life in comparison, after all? You just go back to your dormitory or the library or wherever you need to be and I'll just run out into the street here in front of one of these trucks. Might as well get it over with right away, why prolong the agony?''
Okay, so now I've reached the point where I can almost ``write this stuff by the yard,'' as Lynne Sharon Schwartz described it in the workshop I took a year ago. At this point I could go on for pages, until I finally realize that it all doesn't seem to be going anywhere.
So I need to do a very uncharacteristic thing and think about where it should be going and how it is going to end.
Virginia makes him all sorts of promises. I said that my protagonist is a pre-med student, but he's also a writer. And Virginia says that she knows all sorts of writers. She can drop names, she says that she can introduce him to people. She says that he should go to New York with her. She could introduce him to agents, editors, writers, people who could teach him how to become successful quickly. Forget pre-med, within a year he could have a novel finished that everybody would be talking about.
But after a while, he realizes that she's just leading him in circles. They're going to bars, people's apartments, but they're not finding the people Virginia says can help her and they're not meeting anybody even close to being famous.
Our protagonist keeps wanting to split and Virginia keeps finding ways to hook him in. Finally, at the climax, there is a moment of real danger. One of two possibilities. Either she takes something that seems dangerously close to a drug overdose. Or else they do something dangerously illegal and almost get caught. Shoplifting would be good for one of the minor complications, but this is much worse. Maybe some sort of drug deal, maybe even armed robbery.
And then, finally, at the end of the story, they encounter Al again. Al is not angry at the protagonist. On the contrary, he is understanding and thanks the protag. for having taken good care of Virginia and gives him some general advice on life.
What is the overall impact I want this story to have? The ``single effect'' that Poe talked about?
I think I'm back to Neil Simon now. At the end of the story, my young protagonist has had a glimpse into a world very different from his own. He realizes that this other world is very exciting and at the same time he realizes that he has been in real danger. He knows that he would be over his head in that other world, and yet he's going to have a really hard time returning to his own tame, respectable world.
At the beginning of the story, he was writing a letter to his girl friend, trying to figure out how to resolve the problems between them (which I probably need to be specific about).
Now, at the end of the story, it's going be hard for him to take all that seriously again. So maybe in the final paragraph he just tears that letter up and throws it away. Some nice poetic, cinematic ending. Letting the little scraps of letter fall one by one off a bridge into the river below.
I did actually write that story. It was an extremely frustrating process. Having an outline in advance didn't help at all. I just couldn't figure out how to get the damned thing to work, and finally my only objective was to get something that I could label finished.
The story turned out to be totally different from my outline. The woman, Virginia, turned out to be nothing like Sheri. More like some bored upper-middle-class housewife.
I tried to make the boy like I was myself at age 20. And the people in my writing class reacted to him about the way most people had reacted to me at that age. ``What a total dork!'' they said.
For want of a better title, I called the story, Let's Do Lunch.
February 28, 1995
Just now, I have come across an article about Broyard in the New Yorker (June 17, 1996) which informs me that not only Broyard but also William Gaddis were in love with Sheri ``around 1947 or '48.'' According to this article (by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.) ``they were rivals, almost at each others throats.''
Oddly enough, last summer I also came across news of the other woman, Nora, who was such a powerful influence in my life in my late teens. I was looking through a Mendocino County (California) publication on the arts and came across an article which was essentially an obituary for her. According to this article, Nora had become a fairly well known eccentric, mildly crazy woman in Provincetown, MA, beloved by many.
I have to honestly say that I'm glad that she's dead. The news brings a sort of closure to that old part of my life, and I now no longer have to worry about the risk that will some someday run into Nora again.
As to Sheri, the last time I saw her was in San Francisco or Pacifica in 1964 or 1965. She was still living with Gilbert (married to him, in fact) and still capable of being a really frightful drunk, but wasn't drinking as often as she once had. She was having a small amount of success with her painting.
I think I received one or two letters from her a few years after that,
during the time when I was in graduate school.
Once in a while I think of her, and wonder what happened to her.
I assume that she's dead by now,
but it would be nice to think of her still alive.
[1998: I now know that Sheri died in 1996.]
It's amazing to me that I decided to write a story based vaguely on Sheri last fall (1995), and then stumbled across Anatole Broyard's book this spring, and then quite by accident found an obiturary of Nora in an obscure paper this summer, and then had Sheri's name leap out at me from the pages of the New Yorker last night. If I were the sort of person to see mystical significance in coincidences, I would say that the Universe is trying to tell me that it's time for me to finally take that very momentous period of my life out of the closet.
It's would not be an easy thing to do. Thinking back to that time brings up a lot of sadness about paths not taken.
And maybe that is the story I really need to write!