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This May Surprise You photo

My friend, she wants to win a man over with a story. “He loves to read,” she says, “and I want to impress him. Could you write me something?”

“Sure,” I say. I sit up a little straighter. “Well, maybe. What’s he like?” We’re sitting at the sleek marble countertop of a fancy LA brasserie, a place that is trying to make us forget about the drone of traffic outside. In fact, it’s trying to make us think we’re in France.

“I need details,” I tell my friend, “I’ll write something better if I know what he’s like.”  

Her eyes go soft. “He’s tall,” she says, “but with terrible posture.”

 I picture his body like the letter “S,” or a stiff, tapered candle beginning to melt. “How well do you know him?” I ask.

She goes through a list of details. She says, “I know he takes baths instead of showers, that he’s been engaged twice before but never married, that he plays hockey in a rec league but isn’t that good, and the only other country he’s set foot in is Cabo.”

That’s not a country, I tell her, and she says, “It might as well be.”

I jot these down. She remembers the first time they met in line at the cafeteria. He had the Salisbury steak, reluctantly. They are both Certified Public Accountants, though my friend was once a drinker. She used to tell filthy stories about her sex life over gin gimlets. Now, she orders Iced Tea on the rocks like a joke. We know each other from college, sorority sisters, and before that, high school, and before that even, when we used to climb trees and cut ourselves and press the pads of our bloody fingers together, in the contract of girlhood. We once French kissed, too, if it matters. Now my friend is divorced.

Lately, when I’m with her, I’ll feel the passage of time so acutely I get a little sick to my stomach with the speed of it, and I’ll have to press my palms against something solid, like a table, or my own thighs, which are not nearly as firm as they once were.

“What should the story say?” I ask her.

“I don’t know,” she says, “you’re the writer.” This is a loaded accusation. I am, in fact, unemployed, or maybe unemployable—both. I used to write for an online newspaper, but I don’t any longer. I was in charge of the section titled This May Surprise You. When I asked to write something else, my boss refused. This did not surprise me. I started writing whatever came to mind. “These aren’t surprising events happening in the Greater Los Angeles area,” my employer said. “These stories are obviously only happening in your mind.”

 “This may surprise you,” I said, “but I quit.”

“Write something to make him fall in love,” my friend says now. She pushes a pen and a soft moleskin notebook in front of me. I flip through the empty pages, as white as eyeballs. It is dangerous to make someone fall in love with a story. It is more dangerous than it is romantic.

I too am divorced, so I should know. There is a fine line between story and seduction, between the truth and a lie. My husband was a writer/liar too. He told lots of half-truths, and also bald faced lies.  As for me, I still drink, if it matters.

When I was married, I used to come home from my job at the online newspaper and tell my husband about things that had gone on in the Greater Los Angeles area, things that might surprise you. He, in turn, would tell me about where he’d been all day. He’d talk about the way the sunlight looked filtering through a canopy of treetops while he was walking through the park. Or, he’d tell me a story about the child who yelled at his mother “That’ll do, Miss!” in the aisle of the grocery story. He would exclude the times he’d been with other women—in their one bedroom apartments, or in the Radisson by the airport, where you can hear the planes pass overhead. I was very in Love then, in way that felt capitalized. Our love was a proper noun. It needed a name, and a parking spot in front of our apartment.

“Why don’t I just write you something true,” I say, “something honest. Something about you.”

“Oh God,” she says, “like a biography?” I am quiet for a little while, listening to my friend suck the dregs of her iced tea through a straw.

A few seats down at the bar, another woman is talking on the phone while she flips through a catalogue. She’s saying, “Geez, I’m sorry. That sounds hard.” She turns another page and scans —what looks like from here—living room décor. “Mmhm,” she says, “that sounds incredibly difficult.” She sounds sincere. Her voice belies her distraction. I think that if I were on the other end of the phone call, I would think that I had her full attention. I would feel understood.

I realize now that my own friend is tapping me on the shoulder. “I just want you to write something that sounds true, but isn’t, necessarily.” I nod. I know what she wants. She wants me to fill the margin between how she acts and how she feels—she wants me to describe the indescribable.

When we were in college, this friend and I once showered together, because we had both drank too much and had I vomited on myself, and a little on her. We stood in opposite ends of the shower, which was large—the handicap stall. I think we stood with our backs toward each other, though I was drunk, and can’t remember exactly. If I were to rewrite that story now, I’d say that she had taken care of me, that she’d done something tender to help me in my time of need—washed the sick out of my hair with the tips of her fingers, then gently towel-dried my body while tears streamed down my face. Maybe it is not that different from the woman near us on the phone, now saying, “Wow, that seems hard,” with her voice soft and sodden with emotion, while she picks her teeth with her fingernail and circles lamps with a pen. Maybe she means what she says. Maybe she is just good at multitasking. On another drunken night, my friend would have showered me and towel-dried my hair and held me like a baby, no question.

I decide just then that I’ll write the story of her washing a man in the shower like a baby. When she hands him the story, she could say, “This may surprise you,” which would make for a good opening line. This feels like it might win him over. In fact, it feels just like the truth.

image: Carabella Sands