Tell her I wasn’t scared. That was the line, clear as day, that he woke up seeing. What it was tied to—dream, vision, nightmare—he had no clue. He wasn’t shaken. Heart rate? Non elevatio. No beads of sweat on his brow. It was quite the opposite actually as he felt, well, the word is placid, that brand of calm you feel when you wake rested and think Okay, here we go again. Yet when he opened his eyes that morning, he didn’t think Okay, here we go again, he thought Tell her I wasn’t scared. He didn’t have much time to dwell on it as he had to get the recycling bin out to the curb as the crew always picked up at 7am, like clockwork. To miss them was to subject himself to two more weeks of cautious jumping in the bin, smashing down the recyclables with his bodyweight. He never rinsed anything before throwing it in the bin—a little caper juice in the glass bottle, a bit of potato salad in the plastic container, so what, no problem. But his wife would chide him for such negligence, assuring him he/they would be guaranteed of bugs or mice in the bin, plus it was inconsiderate to the crew on the other end who actually processed the recycling. Maybe she was right about the mice. Still, he never rinsed.
Just days ago he’d reread an article by an author he admired. At a writer’s conference he’d heard her read aloud from her most recent fiction work then field the Q&A following. He was impressed, not with the conference, but with her. She was a woman of faith, a woman of faith who was an artist, and a woman of faith who was an artist who wrote unblinkingly about sex and desire (at least in her most recent work). He found what she said interesting whereas he found most of the rest of the conference content rather uninteresting. He considered leaving such words in the evaluation papers each conference attendee was urged to complete, but then he thought screw it. Maybe his dissatisfaction was simply where he was in his head at the time. Yeah, that was probably it. The article he’d reread stressed the importance of remembering that when it comes to fiction or poetry or even writing in general, that not everything a writer writes is autobiographical, that oftentimes a writer writes of things she has never done or said or might even never consider doing or saying. The writer writes imaginatively, and if done so in such a convincing way that the reader thinks oh, he must have obviously done this or said this, then that’s actually high praise for the writer. The writer’s got the chops, so to speak. The writer he admired from the conference had quoted Ann Patchett’s mother: “None of it happened and all of it’s true.”
He’d purchased her book after the conference session, found her moments later and asked her to sign his copy. She fumbled and said, Ugh. Do you have a pen? He did, and she signed the book “with gratitude” and then remarked What a lovely pen! He noticed she was surrounded by a tight circle of women who seemed to eye him suspiciously, as if he had crossed a line. Maybe a circle? He then realized he was the only man in their immediate vicinity, that the cluster of people he clustered in was decidedly female. He thanked her for the signing, and added Thank you for what you said in your session. She thanked him for saying such a thing, handed back his lovely pen, and that was that. As he unclustered himself he couldn’t shake a feeling as he walked away, like he was being watched. The word that came to mind was what he’d of written in the conference evaluation paperwork if he hadn’t thought screw it, a word that described much of the conference feel for him: suspicion.
As the recycling crew emptied his bin’s contents he saw again his waking thought: Tell her I wasn’t scared. What in the world could that mean?