Thursday, June 15, 2006

How to Write a Love Story, Part IV

4. Remember Freytag’s triangle.

He sat down at the computer. A point… a point. What did he want to say about love? Or relationships? Or communication between the genders? What did he know about any of those topics? Surely it would be better to give this up and write a nice space-invader story.
But he’d told Sarah about Jack and Rita. He was committed now.

Reveal yourself,” Madame Markley hissed in his ear. “Think about your emotions.”

So Bill thought about all the times he’d been in love, or said he was. The first was probably Janie Bannerman in the ninth grade: She wore Baby Soft and red lipstick, and every male in the freshman class wanted to explore the contrast. When she picked him for Homecoming, he felt so nervous he could barely put his arms around her at the dance, and both of them were constantly aware of her shimmering sexual beauty -- so much so that it was a blessing when she moved on to a junior with a car. His friend Kathy, who he’d known since he was six, told him she loved him the spring they were to graduate. The moment had been difficult. He didn’t feel like that toward her, he was going to say, couldn’t they just keep being friends?; then he looked at her and knew first that they couldn’t and second that it was going to hurt both of them if he said no. But would it hurt more to lie? She thought she heard his answer in the silence and turned away, but that action pained him so much he drew her back; and they dated all summer long, though Bill lived with the uneasy awareness that he only palely reflected her love for him. He met Rachel Pulaski in a psychology class at the U two years later, and whether it was the class or perhaps, for the first time, love, he felt they understood one another perfectly. They studied together in the mornings; he picked her up after work at the campus bookstore; at night she curled against him, and the days passed so quickly that their senior spring was a shock. Bill remembered how serious everyone had become when they realized they were about to be cast out into the world, how they all clung together like lost children. Most of his friends who were couples moved to Chicago, where they stayed together long enough to meet other people -- not necessarily new lovers, but people interesting and different enough that those who had been comforting now choked. It happened to him and Rachel in Springfield, too. She'd gotten married a few years ago. And since then he’d only dated a few women with any regularity: no great passions, no undying romance.

What did all these affairs have in common? What he remembered most were beginnings and endings, when the love and the pain and the awkwardness were all at their worst. He either didn’t know the woman and what to say to catch her interest, or they had run out of things to talk about and reasons to be together. The middles faded into a kind of hazy contentment. Bill tried to pull something specific out of the haze and remembered this:

A party in his friend Philip’s second-story apartment. Loud, raucous, wild, drunken – Rachel hadn’t wanted to come. They stood on opposite sides of the room all evening, conscientiously ignoring one another: The one who made the first move lost. Most of the drunk people left or fell asleep. Someone put on an Aretha Franklin album. And at the first notes of “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man,” he looked at her and saw her looking at him. The song had always been one of their favorites, and the look softened as they remembered that fact; it warmed as he crossed the room to her, and then her forehead was warm against his neck and his hands met at the hard dent of her spine. Voices clattered in the kitchen, bottles clinked and Aretha wailed, but they swayed together in the darkness till the song ended, and left without saying a word.

Thirteen years later, that silence filled him with awe. It was silence he feared now more than anything else; it signalled his failure to speak, an inability to communicate. But then words hadn’t been missing: they hadn’t been necessary. It was worth the other silence to have that, he thought.

And Jack and Rita didn’t know that. Rita had actually been married once, to a real jerk who yelled and pushed her around until she forgot what understanding and peace were. This was the ninth date Jack’s sister had set up for him in two months: The first eight had been overtalkative idiots – White Sox fans, even – and he didn’t expect much out of this one. To build a relationship out of such characters and circumstances… There was perhaps one way in the universe it could work.

Bill knew what it was. He placed his fingers on the keys and wrote the first line: “Jack didn’t want to do it.” The line that had to follow explained what and why, but not until he introduced Rita in the next section would his reader – Sarah – know who. The language flowed. Sometimes he stopped long enough to rephrase a sentence or find a more specific word, but otherwise it was like falling in love: an intense awareness of only one thing in the world, a total commitment to whatever might happen next. The sunlight slanting through the blinds turned from white to gold.


  1. 4. Remember Freytag's triangle

    haha -- only you, Cheryl, only you...

  2. Freytag would be a good name for a cat.