First off, congratulations to the first winner of my giveaway for an ebook version of Memoirs of a Starving Artist. I'm giving away one copy per week for three weeks randomly drawn from people who have signed up for my New Release and Giveaway Announcements email list. This week's winner, Dan Sweeney. I'll be giving away another copy next week, so if anyone wants to enter they can do so here:
And on to this week's Memoir Monday excerpt, a little bit of brokenhearted romance down under:
And on to this week's Memoir Monday excerpt, a little bit of brokenhearted romance down under:
A seemingly endless strip of sand stretched up and down the coast with not a soul in sight. Flocks of multi-colored lorikeets and parrots flitted amongst the trees along the shore. I sat on my surfboard in a crystal blue sea, taking in my surroundings. I should have been content, but as I paddled my board back to the beach, something was bothering me.
More than 10 years had passed since I’d set my sights on a career as a fiction writer. I was beginning to realize that my lack of success was having consequences beyond just the issue of paying my bills. Maybe I felt it more acutely here on this beach in Australia, so far from home, but I was lonely. I thought back to some of the missed opportunities I’d had in my life. I liked to say that I’d been in love with women, and women had been in love with me, but that I’d never been in love with a woman who was in love with me. I knew that much of the problem had to do with my choice of profession, and the lack of success I’d had with it so far. I simply wasn’t the breadwinner so many women were looking for. They wanted homes and families, and nice cars to drive to their children’s soccer games on the weekends. They were looking for someone who at the very least could be a partner in those aspirations. They didn’t want a starving artist who couldn’t contribute his fair share. I’d had a whole string of girls break my heart since I graduated from college, but in hindsight I can’t say that I blamed them too much. I was living a life outside the bounds of traditional society. That is a lonely place to be. I couldn’t expect anyone else to want to join me there. In fact, I wasn’t sure I even wanted them to. Not if I was going to be a financial liability. Until I finally made it as a writer, or found some alternative, it seemed that I was doomed to this life of loneliness.
The conflict between art and stability is one which put me in good company. Struggling artists throughout the ages have had to deal with the same dilemma. Many eventually give up and take regular jobs, get married and lead traditional lives, doing their best to keep their latent aspirations tamped down beneath the surface. Others go the opposite route, starting out with traditional lives until they can’t take it anymore and finally give up everything for their art. The French painter Paul Gauguin was in this second camp. He was 25 years old and working as a stock broker when he married his wife Mette-Sophie. Gauguin kept his well-paying job for eleven years and together the couple had five children. Eventually he gave in to his true desire. Painting was all he really wanted to do, so he quit his job and threw in his lot with his art.
Unfortunately, the life of a starving artist wasn’t what Mette-Sophie had signed up for. When her husband was no longer able to support the family, she left him and took the children from Paris back to her parents’ house in Copenhagen. Gauguin followed soon after, hoping to mend things between them somehow. He moved into his in-laws’ house with the rest of the family. He got a job as a tarpaulin salesman. After fighting with his mother-in-law, he moved his wife and kids into another apartment, but as a tarpaulin salesman Gauguin was a failure. Mette-Sophie supported the whole family by working as a French teacher, eventually deciding that she didn’t want her husband around anymore. She asked him to leave. Gauguin wrote to a friend that he’d considered hanging himself, but finally fled to French Polynesia where he spent the rest of his short life, dying at the age of 54 after an overdose of morphine.
To be clear, I’m not trying to compare myself as an artist to Gauguin but there are lessons to be learned here. I don’t want to be the guy who can’t support his wife and kids. Nor the guy who has to depend on his wife to support him either. At the same time, I can’t take on the bitterness of a job I can’t stand just for the tradeoff of a more traditional life. I’m not going to give up on my artistic aspirations. Perhaps, like Gauguin, I’m simply destined to be alone.
As I sat on that beach in Australia, looking up at the blue sky and the billowy white clouds high above, I wondered if all of my best chances at love were behind me. If another chance did come along again somehow, I vowed to myself to make the most of it despite my financial circumstances. With this thought I climbed to my feet, picked up my surfboard and walked to my car, an old Ford station wagon I’d bought to tour the country in. I drove to Noosa Heads on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast and checked into a hostel. The building was an old Victorian-style mansion, with French doors on the second floor opening onto a wide verandah. I found my room and chose a bunk, throwing my bag on top before heading into town to take a look around.
When I returned after dinner the hostel was quiet. I resigned myself to an early night, climbed the stairs and went to my room. Three of the other beds were taken now, but no roommates were in sight. I was sorting through my clothes when the door swung open. In walked a tall, thin girl with long, straight blonde hair. She wore short black swim trunks and a loose, white cotton top. “Hello,” she said with a soft-spoken Aussie accent.
“Hello!” I hoped I didn’t sound too eager.
“My name is Emily. I guess I’m your roommate.”
“I’m Kenneth,” I said, my heart picking up a beat.
Emily unzipped her bag and began going through her things. “I’ll try not to wake you when I come in tonight,” she said. “I might be back kind of late.” Emily explained that she was going to see a singer perform at a pub nearby. I asked who the singer was, and what kind of music she played, and where the pub was located exactly. Emily didn’t seem to get the hint.
“So you’re going alone?” I said finally, trying not to sound too desperate.
It was a terminal response. Not promising. I still wasn’t giving up. “Would you like some company?” I finally laid it on the line.
Emily’s face lit up with apparent surprise. “Yeah, that would be great if you want to come!”
I quickly changed my flip-flops for some shoes and off we went. After the dismal prospect of going to bed early I was energized. Suddenly things had turned around. When we arrived at the pub the crowd was sparse and the show had yet to start. We ordered a couple of drinks at the bar and then found a table in the back where we could sit and talk.
Emily and I hit it off from the start and the conversation flowed easily. She was 25 years old and lived a few hours south in Brisbane. After having taken some time off from her university studies, she was having a difficult time finishing up. She didn’t know what direction her life should take. With another semester about to start, and decisions to be made, she’d driven up the coast to Noosa to escape for the weekend and forget about the coming stresses she would soon be forced to endure.
Emily was quiet and reserved; so soft spoken that I often only heard a few words from each sentence and did my best to piece together what she was trying to say. It seemed as though she felt all of the pressures of the world resting squarely on her shoulders. Inside of her a creative, dynamic soul was struggling to get out and find its place. When Emily was happy she had a wide-eyed eagerness and a heart so big and full that it was impossible not to like her.
As the band began to play we moved closer to the stage. The crowd had filled in by this time and she pointed to two German guys sitting across the room. “Those are our other roommates,” she told me. “I met them back at the hostel earlier.”
“I hope they don’t snore,” I laughed.
After the band wrapped up its set, Emily and I wandered out with the crowd and strolled toward home. Back at the hostel we climbed the stairs and passed through our room to the deserted verandah. A small coffee table outside was surrounded by three chairs and a loveseat. Emily sat on the loveseat. It was a terrifying moment of truth. If I sat beside her on the loveseat it might be awkward. It might destroy the sense of trust and friendship we’d developed. Inside my brain the fear of rejection raged against the swirl of desire. In the end, desire won the battle. I took a seat directly beside her. Emily did not seem to object. Our bodies eased closer together as I told Emily of my own university days and of fraternity life. “We had a secret handshake,” I said, “and nobody outside the fraternity was ever allowed to know it.”
“Ah ha. Sounds pretty corny.”
“Yeah, I guess it was. Do you want to know the shake?”
“I thought that wasn’t allowed!”
“I think I can make an exception,” I said, “as long as you don’t tell anybody.” I held out my hand and Emily put her fingers in mine. I moved them into position.
“So that’s it, huh?” she said.
“No, this is one of the other houses’. I can’t tell you ours!” I laughed as she gave me a disbelieving look. I eased my hand back and she lightly squeezed my fingers. Just a few hours earlier I’d been sitting on the beach feeling sorry for myself. Now my heart was pounding in my chest. Was this that one last chance I’d been so desperate for? If so, I had to make the most of it. I took a deep breath, leaned forward and kissed her on the lips. Emily kissed me back.
I expected the Germans to return at any moment but they were nowhere to be seen. It was Emily who suggested that we make our way back into the room. I wasn’t sure what that meant. Was this the end, or just the beginning? We walked hand-in-hand through the two French doors. “So, your bed or mine?” she asked with a wry smile. This shy, quiet girl was more outgoing than I’d thought.
The following day Emily and I drove to a beach on the south side of town, just around the Noosa headlands. I gave her my big straw hat and another kiss before heading out into the surf. I paddled through the breaking waves and then sat up on my board. The water was clear and warm, with waves two feet overhead. Sea turtles swam past beneath me and a pod of dolphins frolicked just a little bit further outside. Best of all, the most stunning girl on the beach was sitting with my hat on, arms wrapped around her knees, watching and waiting for me. I had to pinch myself. Was it all real? I knew this might just be the pinnacle of my life. Would anything ever be better? I could hardly imagine.
When I got out of the water we walked along the sand and hiked around the rocks of the headland, laughing together as we climbed in the tropical trees and took each other’s photos hanging from the limbs. Back at the beach we swam and when the day grew short we made our way to dinner at a romantic beachside restaurant.
That night Emily and I checked into a regular hotel room of our own. We took a romantic dip, just the two of us in the hotel pool under a nearly full moon. At the time it seemed like the best two days of my life. Thinking back now, fourteen years later, it seems like it was the best two days of my life. Unfortunately it had to come to an end. The following morning Emily was headed back to Brisbane and her own reality. I was driving further north to dive on the Great Barrier Reef, but we would see each other again soon. I already had plans to spend time in Brisbane with some close friends.
All the way up the coast, Emily was on my mind. She’d hand drawn a map to show me how to get to her favorite swimming hole, down a long dirt road and far off the beaten path. I found the place and went for a swim, more to tell her that I had than anything. When I finally made it back down to Brisbane a week later Emily and I picked up right where we had left off, spending as much time together as we could. This was no longer simply a holiday fantasy, it was life. We went shopping together. She gave me a tour of her school. I drove her to a doctor’s appointment. It was comfortable. It was relaxed. It was nice.
Driving across Brisbane to meet up with her one night, it almost seemed like I lived there. I had to remind myself that I did not. I was visiting. This was all so very temporary. Wasn’t it? In less than two weeks I was due in the capital, Canberra, to take the Foreign Service exam. I tried not to think too much about it.
When I arrived at Emily’s place she wore a white cotton sun dress with summer sandals on her feet. It was her first night in a new apartment and she gave me a tour. Boxes were piled on the floor and a disassembled futon was pushed up against one wall. We sat on the mattress on the floor to talk for a while and then climbed to our feet and assembled the futon frame. We pulled the mattress on top, threw on some sheets, and then slid between them to fall asleep in each other’s arms.
The following morning was Saturday, the 14th of February. Valentine’s Day. I awoke with the morning light filtering through the curtains and the beautiful Emily beside me. It was the first time I had ever had the prospect of a romantic Valentine’s Day in my life.
For breakfast we went to an outdoor cafe on a mountain top with breathtaking views of the city. We spent the whole rest of the day together roaming around town, looking in antique shops and ending up at a matinee showing of the movie Starship Troopers, a shoot-em-up film about giant bugs from outer space. In the evening we had pizza out and then returned home with a bottle of Bailey’s Irish Cream. In the end we had spent the entire 24-hour period of Valentine’s Day together.
By Sunday I realized that I had come over on a Friday night expecting to stay for a few hours and had not left Emily in two days. In fact, I still had on the same set of clothes. I stood with Emily in her kitchen. The windows were open and a warm summer breeze blew quietly through the linen curtains. “It’s hard to believe that my truck is sitting back at home in Washington, covered with snow,” I said. Emily began to cry. I wrapped my arms around her. “What’s wrong?” I asked.
“It’s going to leave a huge hole in my life when you leave.”
Her reaction caught me off guard. I hadn’t expected this much sentiment from her. I didn’t think that she wanted me to stay, really. I’d had the sense all along that Emily saw this whole thing as a holiday romance extended for a few extra weeks. She had her life to figure out, and school to finish. If anything, it seemed to me that the temporary nature of our relationship was a big part of the appeal for her. My looming flight for home gave her an easy out. Was she having a change of heart? I didn’t think so. Our lives had come together for one fabulous month, but it was time for them to diverge again. Right?
A week later I left Brisbane and drove south. There were no tears as we said good-bye. Just hugs and best wishes, and then I was off, but I felt a lump in my throat and a heavy heart as I drove away down the street. When I got to Canberra I took the Foreign Service written exam at the U.S. embassy, along with a few other candidates. A few days afterwards I caught a flight for home.
As soon as I got back to Washington I talked to some of my colleagues at the engineering company and was quickly offered my old job back. With no other prospects, I took it. It wasn’t ideal, but I needed the money. As I sat in my cubicle under neon lights, my mind often wandered back to Emily, climbing trees on the headlands with a smile and a laugh. Emily lost in dreams as she slept with the morning sun on her face. I sent her long e-mails telling her everything that I was up to and asking about her life and her studies. Her replies were sporadic; sometimes just a short, apologetic burst explaining why she’d been unable to write sooner, and promising to do better in the future. Other times there were long, rambling messages that gave a firsthand look at the depression that she struggled with. Emily was in pain, that much was clear, and there seemed to be nothing I could do about it.
What I didn’t tell Emily was that I would have hopped on the next available flight back if she’d have had me. Did I love her? I still wasn’t sure about that, exactly, but I knew that I could if she’d let me. Only I never got the sense that she’d let me. Eventually her replies tapered off until weeks passed without a word. Finally they stopped altogether. Her indifference was painful yet the reality was clear. Even if she had wanted me to fly back down, how could I support a relationship when I could barely support myself? Especially in a foreign country, when I didn’t even have a work permit? Until I finally made a legitimate career of my writing, it seemed that loneliness was likely to be my only constant companion. My time with Emily would be a bittersweet memory and nothing more.