Imposter (Pt 4): I’ll Take One Muse Please

Volvo in remission--sighted at J. Alexander's in Bellmeade, 2007
Volvo in remission--sighted at J. Alexander's in Bellmeade, 2007

I’d found the key to my success.  For years I had read books there,  graded papers there, even people –watched, hoping to meet Mr. Right there. Many a weekend when my children were with their dad, I had treated myself for an hour or two at Starbucks, sinking into a deep purple velvet chair and sipping on a White Chocolate Mocha.   I’d peruse (ok, cruise) men who were deep in thought, clicking away on their laptops, wondering if one of them could be a cool, intelligent author at work.  Yet ironically, I had never written there!

Come to think of it, once in Starbucks I thought I’d been given a definite sign that my first book would be published.  I had given the book proposal to the VP of a major publishing house.  He was going to look it over and pass it on to one of his chief editors.   Imagine my delight when I looked up from grading papers to see Jonathan the VP smiling at me.   He introduced me to the man with him, one of the very editors who would critique my book!  They were there to discuss a book deal with a writer—a single mom with a sense of humor—kind of like me.  Jonathan had given me a copy of her first book, and I had liked it.

As one who constantly jumps the gun at figuring out when and how God answers my prayers and as one who has taught literature for much too long, I see signs—foreshadowing– everywhere.  Surely seeing this woman who had signed with “my” publisher was a sign.  Surely this meant my book would be published as well. My selective memory forgot all the “signs” I had already misread.  How many times had I announced to friends I was sure I’d found “The One” only to have them ask, “Again?”

One of “The Ones” was my doctor at Vanderbilt.  Before the days of Travis Stork of The Bachelor fame, I hoped my GP would give me a rose.  Handsome, smart, and most of all, caring, I actually looked forward to seeing him, regardless of whatever physical affliction brought me to his office.  He would always take my hands in his, look at me through dark brown eyes, and ask me how I was really doing.  Aware of my constant depression and angst, he always gave me hope—not only of my being “cured” of my melancholy personality one day but also of his being the cure himself.  I even had a sign confirming he would eventually ask me out.  I saw him in the very place (actually one of many places) I think I may find my prince—the bookstore.  While Davis Kidd—the bookstore of Green Hills steeped in tradition and associated with old money—was another of my favorite haunts in those days, seeing him in our Book World, a Barnes and Noble clone not far from my home in Donelson, seemed to be too good to be true.  He was big city Barnes and Noble material—hipper and more egalitarian than Davis Kidd—and he was smiling at me. While the conversation lasted all of five minutes, I took it as a sure sign of our future union.  This delusion continued through a tetanus shot, poison ivy, and strep throat caught from my kids, until the visit where he walked in wearing… a wedding ring.  I left his office and took five flights of steps rather than the elevator so no one would see me crying.

I realized after seeing the writer with her/my publisher and editor in Starbucks but later seeing no book contract of my own, that I must have misread yet another sign. Maybe all roads didn’t lead to Starbucks, but then again…maybe it wasn’t about the plot I saw unfolding that day—a writer discussing a contract—that mattered.  Maybe it was the setting that made the difference.  At Starbucks, something special must be in the air.  The joke has always been that fertility is linked to something in the water. Wouldn’t it then follow that if books are brain-children of their authors, maybe there’s something special in Starbucks’ not-so-average-joe?

Having lived in Nashville the past twenty years, one thing was for sure.  Any book of mine would have to be conceived and born in either the Green Hills or Bell Meade stores. I don’t mean to be a snob or to act ugly.  But for the whole thing to work, it can’t be just any Starbucks.  It must be the real deal—certainly not the only one at that time close to my home in Hermitage.   (I didn’t have the heart to tell my students that I was not impressed when they brought Starbucks cups to class.  I knew they most likely got their Machiatto by way of the drive-through, a red flag that our local store was a sham.   The whole purpose of a real Starbucks is to enjoy the inside ambiance—the big- city- feel one is really paying for.  If all one wants is the name brand coffee, he can get that at Target.  But even for those who ordered inside that first Starbucks in Hermitage, the vibe wasn’t cool.  What could one expect?  That Starbucks was book ended by Andrew Jackson’s birthplace and Hooters– two shrines to good ole boys—the boys I would gladly drive across town to escape.)

To write on the cool side of town I’d need a laptop, an appropriate car, and an alibi.  And just recently, I had cleared the first two hurdles.  I had a laptop, even if I got it in an unconventional way. Still unable to afford one (the first thing I had planned to buy with my first book’s advance), our Tech Guy loaned me a Dell Pentium.  While his condition was that I take it to a school-related conference and then return it to him promptly, I decided to kidnap it for the summer.  Possession is 9/10s of the law as they say, so if he wanted it back before school started, he’d have to come and get it.    I told myself that as a Chuck Norris fan, he’d enjoy the challenge, and as an old friend with a big sense of humor, Mike would forgive me in the end.  That cleared my conscience.  I would not write this book as I had my first—deprived of summer sun and banished to my desktop in the basement. (It’s a wonder I hadn’t developed scurvy from Vitamin C deprivation.)   I felt like Prometheus UnBound—no longer fettered thanks to my wireless router—unleashed to follow my dream at Starbucks.  But I wouldn’t have to make a run for it. God had also provided new wheels.

Although my Volvo station wagon was really the perfect vehicle for venturing across town and across the tracks, my children had never been impressed.  They had been brainwashed into thinking the Suburbans, Yukons and Escalades on our school parking lot were the true status symbols.  When I tried to explain the superiority of old money to new money and that while we had no money, Volvos are the car of choice in Green Hills and Bell Meade, the fact that our car was a 1990 model even began to bother me despite my calling it “vintage” and “classic.”  It became a moot point anyway when we received the sad diagnosis that the Volvo had a fatal illness and had to be confined to the garage. Thankfully a friend offered her 1990 Honda until I could afford another car.  I was grateful for the loan, but because the car’s paint job had worn off down to the primer, I worried that I looked too much like a dealer to wheel up and order a latte.  So for six months I had taken a total hiatus from Starbucks. But the Summer of 2006 was going to be different.  While I still couldn’t afford a BMW, a Lexus, or a newer Volvo, I had bought a Nissan Xterra at auction.  Though I wasn’t crazy about the word “Xterra” on each side and it was an older model, it was affordable, sporty, and had been named the “Car of the Year.”  It wasn’t new, but it was new to me.

Clearly I now had the tools of the trade.  I had a laptop and a SUV—both making me Green Hills ready.  But there was still the biggest roadblock of all barring me from setting up shop in a better zip code.  Could I really just go sashaying around Starbucks leaving the kids HOME ALONE?  I’d seen the movie and abandoning them to write seemed selfish…and dangerous considering my son, Cole McCain, and Macaulay Culkin have much more in common than alliterative names.  And to be honest, before I could justify leaving home to write, I had to deal with my Mom Guilt over writing during the summer at all.

I had always considered summer sacred—a time to make up for being a working mom. Being home with my kids in the summer allowed me more time to show–not just tell— them they are my top priority.  As a teacher’s kids, they see me give the first fruits of my patience and energy everyday to my students ten months a year, leaving me dragging by the time my second shift started with them after school.

In the summer my kids and I could catch up on movies—not just the Blockbusters in theaters like Pirates of the Caribbean, but the classics at home.   My daughter and I popped Raisinettes and munched popcorn while watching Fried Green Tomatoes and The Breakfast Club.  My son and I watched Jaws I, II, III, and IV very time they were on, as well as King Kong and Godzilla. While we never felt all that sorry for the giant fish or lizard, we were always outraged and sad when Our Boy Kong had to defend himself against the National Guard from the top of the Empire State Building.  It must be a mammal thing.

Quality and quantity time with the kids in the summer paid off in more than knowing The Best of Will Ferrell and every episode of King of the Hill by heart.  Cole and I could play Nintendo, and Taylor and I could take off for the mall in broad daylight.  We could all eat at Cheesecake Factory on a weekday afternoon when there wasn’t a wait.

But in those days summer seemed to be the only time to launch a writing career—Lord knows there was no time during the school year—what with so many papers to grade; a prom and 20s/Victorian/ Career Days to plan,; ACT workshops to teach, not to mention my own kids’ activities which had included band, drama, chorus, football, cheerleading, wrestling, and soccer.  The first time a fresh crop of students turned in essays and expected them back the next day graded, I set them straight fast: “Sorry, my Super Teacher cape is at the cleaners.  No can do.”   During the school year, I do good to dig out the pets from beneath the debris of books, backpacks, field trip permission forms, sports gear, and dirty clothes.

So in an effort to appease my Mom Guilt, I decided to write my second book at home. The Starbucks thing would just have to wait—at least until the kids were away at college.  I became the reclusive Johnny Depp character from Secret Window who, in an effort to write his book, stayed in his house day and night in his pajamas and a robe.  While this seclusion saved on the wardrobe budget,  I just wish Stephen King had warned viewers not to try this at home. Then again, I guess he kind of did when the character went insane from all the solitude. My problem was I almost went mad for lack of it.

Granted, I now had a laptop and wouldn’t have to compete with MySpace for “my space.” But in a moment of Déjà vu, I recalled measures taken the first time around to insure the kids slept as long as possible.   I would do anything to postpone Taylor’s blaring James Blunt from her iTunes and Cole’s cranking up cartoons from the kitchen bar.  My day started with paranoia as I tiptoed through the house, hating even to flush the toilet.  I cringed at the clinking of my coffee spoon or the clanking of my garbage can lid, terrified I would wake them. A crisis situation arose on any day I discovered Cole had taken a portable phone to bed with him the night before.  I had to retrieve it fast– before telemarketers called and set into motion my maternal duties.  This maneuver took the agility of cowboys in old Westerns who had to avoid stepping on dry twigs that would alert the Indians.  To approach his bed head on, I had to brave land mines of Legos, video games, DVDs, and Nintendo magazines which covered my son’s floor.  Sometimes I chose instead a back door approach.  With the sophisticated stealth of Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible, I entered his room from the kitchen door and climbed up the back of his bed to the top bunk.   That way I could hang upside down and slip the phone from his hand.

The neighborhood kids had also upped their game.  Writing at the dining room table meant I could meet them at the front door before they had a chance to knock.  So on mornings I forgot to silence the phones, they resorted to prank calling.  Sometimes the anonymous voice that asked for cookies sounded like  Saturday Night Live’s Land Shark; others it sounded like South Park’s Kenny.  Once they rescued their comrade from behind enemy lines, Cindy the Writer was body-snatched by Cindy the Mom.

It’s funny how teens revert to the feeding schedule of infants.  Every two or three hours they expected to be fed.  But unlike babies, teens don’t nap—at least my two didn’t at 13 and 16. Keeping them full and busy was not easy.  Just about the time I’d write two or three paragraphs, the voice of the little girl in Poltergeist would say in my head:  “They’re B-A-C-K.”  My son, already bored, would want to move the troops inside. Explaining I couldn’t deal with the noise, I’d send him with his friends to the garage, telling them they should fix it up into a cool clubhouse.  When that soon became old, they’d sneak into the basement and play Nintendo, watch Comedy Central, or check out Taylor’s MySpace.  Then she’d scream and they’d laugh.  Whether moving out or in, in or out, they always left the door open behind them.  When I had enough of killing flies and steering them away from The Chappelle Show, I’d send them to Cole’s PlayStation, hooked up under our second story deck by a web of extension cords.  Or I’d tell them to go ride their bikes. When really frustrated with all the interruptions, I’d want to tell them all to go climb a tree, but I never did—mostly because the previous summer my son climbed a tree, fell, and spent six weeks in a cast.

But even if I got my chief ducks, the kids, in a row– even if my son wasn’t trying to be funny (like when I’d ask what he was doing and he’d call back, “Jumping on the trampoline with carrots up my nose”)–or even if my daughter wasn’t trying to be social (like when she’d ask to go swimming with friends and borrow the car),  my other ducks would break rank and begin taking flight.  It’s a little known fact that golden retrievers hack up hairballs just like cats do.  With a golden and a Persian, I was often interrupted with janitorial tasks—not to mention the times my dog would sneak meat from the neighbor’s garbage despite the fact it makes her sick… every time.

After fighting the good fight to stay home and write, I heard again the Sirens’ call of Starbucks.   Surely Starbucks was the answer.  Although Taylor could drive, she didn’t have a car yet. My kids and pets couldn’t find me there.   But memories of disasters that had happened while I was home with the kids became pop-ups on my mental screen.  The time as a two-year-old my son went seeking toilet paper after he pooped and found it– my white living room curtains.  Or the time as a three-year-old my daughter walked across freshly painted kitchen cabinet doors that had been laid flat to dry in the sun.  Ok, so they were no longer toddlers and Taylor could keep an eye on Cole.  But who would keep an eye on her?  Though normally quite level -headed, she had covered that same head with Clairol’s Midnight Black #36, leaving her hair the color and texture of a Halloween witch’s wig.  I loved The Addams Family as a kid, but I didn’t want my daughter passing for Morticia.  Not really into the Goth thing, she was as upset as I was.    Maybe, on second thought, I was right in thinking I couldn’t spend the summer in Starbucks.

But then again, couldn’t there be a compromise? Maybe Starbucks could act as my muse—my inspiration.  If I could write there just one day a week, I could get a shot of creativity strong enough to keep me going for the next seven days…

(to be continued in Part 5: The Great Escape)

Cole's waterproof cast
Cole's waterproof cast

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