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What happens next?

in a Bulgarian hotel

in a Bulgarian hotel

My traveling companion pretended to be asleep. I stared out the train window and ran over all the things I should say when he bothered to look at me and how I ought to say them. Perhaps he pretended long enough to really fall asleep, but he kept his eyes closed for two hours. Not that I turned to see him. If he once looked at me through half-closed lids, I missed it.

When the train pulled into our station, it was close to 10 pm. We didn’t mention the night before. He talked to me as if I were a casual acquaintance he happened to be traveling with. Months we’d been friends. I thought that if I were sophisticated, I wouldn’t feel phased.

This city was not our final destination, but we needed a place to stay. Another volunteer lived in this city, but we had no address and no phone number. J. wasn’t expecting us.

“You’ve been here before,” my traveling companion said. “Do you remember the way?”

I adjusted my backpack. “I was here once,” I said. “And now it’s dark.”

We decided we’d walk. We’d either find J.’s apartment in this city of 160,000 or spend the night walking. After a short while, the buildings thinned out to countryside. We turned around.

A while later we decided to rest and take a bus. The people were happy to see Americans and they welcomed us, gave us food, and sang. My traveling companion grinned, laughed, and shook hands. I tried to relax. I asked if anyone there knew the American teacher in their town. They’d heard of one, and argued over the name of his street.

We stayed on the bus until it was almost empty, and around 11:30 pm the driver dropped us off in a quiet neighborhood. “Here,” the driver said and shut the door.

“Which way?” he asked. I didn’t know.

“This way,” I said, and he followed me. We came to a broad busy street. It looked familiar and it didn’t. I turned left and wondered what we would say to each other if we walked all night long. But I’d gone the right way. A ten minute walk and there was J.’s apartment block. “I did it! I found it!” I laughed and my traveling companion laughed. “I knew you could,” he said. “I can always count on you.”

I tried not to read too much into that.

The lights didn’t work in the building’s stairwell. We had to feel our way up the stairs, our hands on the walls, tripping over steps. I couldn’t remember which floor J. lived on. I guessed the third and knocked.

The man who opened the door wasn’t J., but he got a flashlight and showed us to the second stairwell. J. was startled to see us, but happily let us in.

On the sofa, I couldn’t sleep. I listened to my traveling companion turning over on the floor. I should say something now, I thought, while it is dark and he can’t see my face. But then again, there was nothing to say.

When I finish a story, I think of a thousand excuses, reasons why this doesn’t work or that doesn’t work, what I’m sure needs changing and what is probably missing. But eventually, as I measure the sound of my voice and the desperation that it might give away, I bite my tongue. What needs to be said? The reader will like it or he won’t.

When I get to the end of the story, I’m so thrilled, and then I worry what happens next. How important is what happens next to you? If you are never published, how will you feel? What if the person you share your work with doesn’t like it? Do you think you pin too many hopes on a story that doesn’t work?

5 thoughts on “What happens next?

  1. You write these stories so well.

    I don’t think I worry too much at first whether a story works or not. I try to make it the best I can, and then sometimes I share it. If it’s with friends, I don’t worry too much. None of my friends are going to say something that hurts me so much. But when I hand it to someone at a conference to get a face-to-face critique, then I’m sweating bullets. And the criticism hurts. But I also feel like I’ve had an honest critique too, so I know exactly where I stand.

  2. Thank you, Shelli. I can barely imagine giving my work to someone at a conference. You are brave!

    Okay Stella-D’Arcy, maybe he did, but if I’d known that at the time, it would’ve just prolonged the agony of the end.

  3. Hmm, well, I’m a generous reader of other people’s work — and (to my discredit) a generous reader of my own work, too. I’m simultaneously worried that Reader X won’t like it and then surprised that s/he found anything at all wrong with it.

    (Sheesh, the embarrassing admissions you coax out of people here…)

    Was reading about Annie Dillard recently. Somebody — I don’t think it was AD herself — said that it took her 10 years to write her most recent book. She went through it over and over in revision, looking not just for excessive words but for excessive syllables. It reinforced for me, like, Y’know, John, maybe you’ve been going about this writing thing all wrong…

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