She wasn’t sure about these people, clutching copies of their latest writings, ready to be pilloried by perfect strangers around a public library conference room table.
“Are you new?” asked an overly friendly librarian.
“I’m new,” she decided. It still wasn’t too late to turn around and leave as the stench of uncomfortably conspicuous introverts permeated the room. I’m on the island of misfit toys, she thought. Why did I ever think this would be a good idea?
“Please have a seat. We will get started shortly,” the librarian beamed, happy for anyone to take full advantage of the public library’s many underutilized community services.
She made her way to the nearest seat and began to sit down next to an older man who wore a faded cardigan sweater and smelled like stale coffee.
“Oh, don’t sit there. That is for the Literary Circle Leader of the Month,” the librarian lightly chastened her. She blushed red and apologized profusely, slinking off into the far corner of the table with her own pathetic attempts at writing in hand. The session hadn’t even begun and she felt as if she had already failed.
“Hi everyone!” chirped a woman, dressed far too young for her age, swooping into the conference room, holding plates covered in tinfoil. “I brought treats!”
“Oh, Jen!” cooed one younger girl. “Thank you so much.”
“Jen, you are too good to us,” said the old cardigan man.
“We were patiently awaiting our Leader of the Month,” smiled the librarian, with obvious relief. “Thank you, Jen, for bringing another delicious culinary creation.”
“These are called slutty brownies. Isn’t that awful?” Jen scanned the room with a comical leer. “There are layers of brownies, chocolate chip cookies and — Oreos,” she ended with a dramatic flourish, removing the tinfoil covering to the oohs and aahs of the would-be writers. They congregated around the sweets like thirsty animals at an oasis in the Serengeti.
From her seat in the back of the room, she inspected this Jen, purveyor of slutty brownies and literary knowledge at Ye Olde Library, and quickly sized her up. Jen appeared to be the same age as she, but a little more fit (Pilates?) and a little shorter (Vitamin D deficiency?). Jen made up for this shortfall by wearing the latest platform heels, shoes few in this room could have afforded. She was already biased against Jen as women who wore heels with jeans were always suspect. The diamond(s!) ring she wore on her left hand announced to the world that she was taken off the market, her future safely secured by a man who had taste as gaudy as his prettily pampered wife.
She looked at her own hands, short stubby nails and a thin tan line (or was that a permanent indentation?) on her left ring finger. She folded her hands in her lap and waited expectantly.
“Welcome to Literary Circle. I am Jen, your Leader for the Month. And I see a few new faces,” Jen said, offering little twinkly waves at the newbies. “Who would like to start tonight with their Thousand Word Flash Fiction piece about transportation?”
Hearing Jen command the group, she shrunk in her chair as several people did a fair version of the frantic middle-school-whole-arm-wave.
“Harris, why don’t you start us off?” Jen bestowed a glorious if not imperious smile to the earnest Harris, who stood and mechanically read what was essentially an ode to his 1984 Pontiac Fiero.
“Who would like to comment on Harris’s work?” Jen asked.
Watching Jen attempt to get struggling writers to effectively critique Harris’s work, she uncomfortably twisted in her seat and wondered if this was normal at Literary Circle. Is that how this works? You spill your guts, rip open your chest, reveal the darkest thoughts of your frenzied mind to a roomful of strangers who are all most likely in the throes of a midlife crisis, and all you get back is blank stares? She didn’t come down to the public library to meet the void. She now lived with it, an emptiness that threatened to wholly consume her. She started writing again to stave off the inevitable, the irrelevancy, the pointlessness of it all. But she felt the very words that she put down on paper comprised all the knowledge no one needs.
“Come on, team,” Jen prodded. “We all write better when we write together, am I right?”
She wasn’t entirely sure that Jen’s aphorism was correct, but she pasted on a smile and nodded along with the group.
“Well,” began a surprisingly world-weary 20-year-old, “I thought it was interesting when Harris wrote about the Fiero being the first 4-cylinder Indy 500 pace car.”
“And then he used pace in the symbolic sense, his pace in life, and how other cars have passed him on the proverbial highway of life,” someone else explained philosophically. Others chimed in with as much gusto as a college freshman philosophy class examining Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.
As the group lauded Harris’s nascent literary talent, she watched Harris gaze at the others with soulful eyes. They were discussing his work as if it mattered. She crossed her arms and tucked her feet under her cold folding chair, wondering when was an acceptable time to leave without being rude.
“Let’s hear from someone else. Someone new—” Jen said, pretending to scan the room. This was a complete charade since she knew Jen was gunning for her. Alpha females can recognize each other from across the room, even wounded ones. “How about one of our new people in the back?” Jen pointed directly at her.
“I—I—” the stuttering did nothing for her confidence. “I’m just observing tonight.”
“This is a safe space where we speak our truth,” Jen carefully explained. “Everyone is at a different point in their writing journey. Please share your work with us.” Many pairs of expectant eyes blinked at her as they sat collectively around the table.
She looked at Jen, trying to calculate the ratio of Jen’s sincere to patronizing comments and finally conceded. Pausing far too long, she began: “While unpacking recently I came across a poem I loved in college. Tennyson wrote about an older Ulysses wanting one more adventure after his child was grown and gone. He’s finding life as king dull and relatively boring, compared to the adventures of his youth. I guess I wanted to write about how being alive and living are two different things,” she reticently looked up from her paper to a receptive audience.
“Go on,” encouraged Jen.
“So my Thousand Word Flash Fiction essay is about a sailing ship,” she offered a small sheepish grin. The warmth of the returned smiles enabled her to read the words she had labored over in a home that was far too quiet. When she was done reading, the room was expectedly silent.
“Who would like to make a comment?” asked Jen, cheerfully.
“Anyone?” Jen tried again.
“Um, I liked the part about how the ship is an older vessel, but there is plenty of wind left in her sails,” remarked Harris. This sparked a small but lively debate. It didn’t last very long, but she found it immensely satisfying to hear.
“Any more comments or questions?”
“I have a question,” she replied, as the newest aspiring writer at the Literary Circle.
“Yes?” asked Jen.
“Are there any more slutty brownies left?”
And as the plate was passed around once again, the strangers around the table in the public library’s conference room became less so.