Still all jazzed from the San Francisco Writing Conference, I thought it might be fun to post a sample chapter of my novel that I’m currently seeking an agent for, “Out in the Neon night” here. To give you the quick lowdown:
The novel is set in California, Japan and Hong Kong during a fifteen year period from the late 80s through the early 2000s and tells the story of Carl, a young man who descends into a life of romantic and sexual obsession in his teens and twenties, and then has a painful spiritual emergence from it in his thirties. It’s made up of five story arcs that take place at discrete points during the fifteen year period, and interweave with each other as they unfold. It’s also surprisingly funny in places despite the subject matter, and informed throughout by the rock music of the era.
This is the first chapter, in which Carl is just starting out on the downward spiral…
1. Shot Right Through With a Bolt of Blue
Coming to the Welcome Dance was a mistake.
Carl felt sure of that even before the guy knocked over the table behind him and hit him in the back.
To begin with, wasn’t it a mistake to come out at all? Out into the night where the air waited like a hungry ghost to suck out his breath and suspend it in an icy cloud before him. A cloud that pointed out into the bright and hollow sky, under which he searched, yearned, churned, for…
What? Carl didn’t know. When had the search ever worked for him? What made him think it would work tonight? What explosion would finally happen at the end of the fuse lit by this night if it didn’t fizzle out?
He ran a hand through his long blonde hair, pulled it together behind his head, and surveyed the dance. Nothing but a fizzle seemed likely here in this big box of a room. What could happen among the guys with short haircuts in sweats and shirts bearing names of sports teams, and lean and blonde girls likely straight out of Southern California? He stood there among them in a torn punk-rock t-shirt, baggy pants, and black leather shoes with buckles and shiny steel tips.
This was just as bad as the minimum-security prison masquerading as a high school that he came from. My God, the room even looked like a gym converted into the site of a high school dance! Berkeley should not be like this. Here in the land of the Free Speech Movement, People’s Park and the Third World Strike there should be freedom from the syndicate of jocks, politburo of the popular and oligarchy of rich kids who bought all the right clothes.
Carl shifted his weight from foot to foot. He found it hard to stand up straight so long with no support. But maybe he didn’t look manly enough with his hip out to one side. He shifted, back and forth, back and forth. Should he try to talk to people? Ask someone to dance despite the awful boom-boom-boom of the vapid dance music? All ew baby baby without a single real feeling in any of the songs. Without a person in the whole room who loved the rainyday music of English moors and pale windswept Northumberland towns. Or at least knew the words to a few Depeche Mode songs. Come on already!
If only there were people here he could relate to, then he could move out into the room. Instead he backed away from the crowd and further into the stricture inside his chest. His thoughts twisted tighter and tighter, wrapping him away from the world. A wallflower indeed and he would actually be up against the wall in a moment, with just another step or two backwards—
Which is when the small square brown table tumbled over and hit his back with a glancing blow.
“Fuck this shit!”
As shock staggered Carl forward, the guy who’d knocked over the table continued to curse and wave his arms around in inarticulate rage.
It was hard to see in the dim light, but the guy didn’t look that big. It was a lean frame that poked through his sweatshirt. He was intimidating nonetheless, as he shook his head and seethed disapproval of something. Carl stood rooted to the spot. Maybe he should get out of there; the guy could still be dangerous. Two friends tried to drag the irate table-tosser back, but he jerked his shoulders around and threw them off.
One friend stood in front of him and talked softly with a hand on his chest. Seeing the whole group was black, the thought flashed through Carl’s mind— did the guy throw the table at him because he was white? The group succeeded at last in calming their friend down enough that they could lead him away toward the glow of the exit sign.
Carl stood there for some time afterward. An image of himself flashed through his mind— long hair, dressed funny, and standing with his hip out to one side. Did the guy think he was gay because of the long hair? His bruised back throbbed in time to the music. Boom-boom-boom. Why did this shit always happen to him? Same old high school bully crap— he tried to be okay around people and what did he get for it? Whacked in the back with a table. Fuck this shit indeed.
He wandered back out into the main body of the dance, away from the table-flipping corner of danger. Some movement in the corner of his field of vision caught his eye. A girl.
Not just any girl.
She dressed differently now. A thin white blouse highlighted with green, yellow and orange flowers. A shiny black short skirt. Combat boots. A ghostly gossamer scarf around her neck. Her hair in a bob, buzzed short in the back and long in front, angled downwards to a point on each side of her face. But the round cherubic face framed by her rich dark hair was the same.
Gina Onizuka. Gina, who Carl had a crush on since freshman year of high school. Gina, who, resplendent in long braided pigtails and thick horn-rimmed glasses, sat in the seat in front of him for the duration of the English honor students’ bus trip to the Ashland Shakespeare festival. Fueled by the Vivarin he took in high school to be able speak to people without freezing up, he talked with her non-stop for 17 hours on the way to Oregon. Gina had— that’s right, she had! — come to Berkeley for college. And she was here now, a few feet away. It was perfect, because—
Crap! No, it was not perfect. At least he didn’t think Keisha, the girlfriend mired in junior year of high school back in his hometown at this very moment, would think it was perfect. Keisha, dumbshit, remember? The one he wrote the eighteen-page letter to earlier today? The one he was going to call tomorrow, as soon as the phone was hooked up. Probably before he even called his parents. No, definitely before he called his parents.
Yes, he remembered.
But. But the letter to Keisha was comfortable homesickness. Keisha herself represented pent up pages of love built up over years of never having a girl like him as more than a friend. It had to go to somebody, anybody, and Keisha was the anybody who finally said yes. His feelings for her had grown, by and by, into the hearts and flowers of wholesome first love and awkward innocent sex.
Gina, though, was last year’s Homecoming Dance. He went to every high school dance, just in case the thing that was supposed to happen finally happened that night. She went for reasons unknown to him, perhaps simply because freshman in college are supposed to go back to their high school Homecoming Dance.
Carl remembered the shock when she asked him to dance. This college woman, a whole year older than him, asked him to dance. She, the angel all dressed in black, the very essence of antidote to the obvious unattainable cheerful blondes he didn’t even dare to yearn for. She was not a sweet training-wheel girlfriend like Keisha. No, she was the real thing.
At the end of their dance he grabbed her hand, her perfectly soft hand, impelled by what, he didn’t even know, and squeezed it.
As the throb in his back returned him to the current dance, he could almost feel the warmth of her hand from a year ago. He glanced around the room and saw Gina headed for the exit. Dwarfed against the aircraft hanger ceilings, she was a tiny figure, almost at the door and moving fast. Too fast for him to take time with thoughts of Keisha, shyness or pain from recent airborne table injury. Too fast for anything but the electric impulse that launched him across the room after her.
He dodged near collisions with legions of bright young revelers on the way to the door and out into the dark, cold clarity of night. He found her leaning on the metal railing and staring out in the direction of the elephantine marble pillars of Sproul Hall. With a stealth borne of years of escaping the notice of bullies, he stood beside her without her even realizing.
“Excuse me, miss?”
She turned, her face set with a hard plastic ‘Who is this jerk?’ preparation for dismissal. Then her demeanor shifted and her girlish cheeks dimpled into a smile. She threw herself on him for a hug. As they parted, the softness of her nicely rounded body and the flower-sweet yet sweat-sharp tang of her scent clung to him in cottony ribbons.
“Carl! Hey! You’re at Berkeley now too?”
“I am! I’m glad I ran into you. I heard you were going here.”
“Yeah! Were you at the dance just now?”
“Yeah. Pretty lame music, huh?”
“Yeah.” Her nose wrinkled up and her full coral lips narrowed. He’d seen the same face once on a cat that had eaten a moth.
“So what are you up to?” He stared at her as he asked. Even the breath that shimmered into cold white clouds in front of her seemed beautiful.
“Oh, I don’t know. Hanging out, waiting for classes to start. Going to a lot of shows. Hey, have you been to Gilman Street?”
“Uh, no, I don’t think so.” What the hell was Gilman Street?
“It’s this club; all these local punk bands play there. I’ve gone a lot this summer.”
“Oh cool. Hey, do you still read comics?” That should bring him onto firmer ground. Their common love of comics had animated the discussion on the Oregon bus trip, after all.
“Yeah I do, but not so much Marvel stuff anymore. I tried to keep reading New Mutants, but it sucks dick now. I’m really into Love and Rockets. How about you?”
Man, Love and Rockets. That was one of those alternative, underground comics, wasn’t it? He felt off-balance, even more so because it was the first time he had ever heard a girl use the phrase “sucks dick”. On top of that, here he still read the X-Men and Spider-man. Kids stuff. It took him a second to compose his answer, and he thought it still sounded far too lame.
“Oh, you know, different things, I read different things.”
From inside the dance, an orchestral flourish followed by a regular mechanical computer simulation of an empty tin can beat signaled the start of New Order’s Bizarre Love Triangle.
“They’re finally playing something decent!”
“Yeah. Hey, want to dance?” He flashed back to high school as she looked at him for his answer, and then nodded.
Back through the double doors they found a space in the midst of the dance floor. Which wasn’t too hard, the music had sent much of the crowd off to the sidelines. This was no song for bland perfect people. This was a song that Top 40 radio would never play. This was their song.
Every time I think of you
I feel shot right through with a bolt of blue
Shot he was. He let the sway into his body, unsure of how to catch the dit-de-duh-dit-duh-duh-dit of the beat. Utterly unlike Gina, a perfection of motion to the music, with none of the sweet young shallow sexuality that Keisha wore like an old pair of leggings. Gina’s curved hips and small round breasts, snug in her floral print blouse, rolled and flowed like water. This shocked first awareness of sinuous womanhood that seemed to course with the very power of the Universe stuck in Carl’s mind for years to come.
The lights of the dance swirled across her face. It seemed set and impassive now, a formal beauty made even more insistent and present by its distance. The stillness in her face seemed to hint at a whole world of feeling underneath, a direct electric connection to the tragedy of life. His tragedy, and she knew it too. She must know it too. But he felt a faint tickle of unease.
I’m not sure what this could mean
I don’t think you’re what you seem
I do admit to myself
That if I hurt someone else
Then I’ll never see just what we’re meant to be
Carl mouthed the words, but missed the point entirely.
As the Buddhists that he had just begun to read said, by your thoughts you make the world. That night he forged the first link in a chain of co-dependent origination. The wheel of dharma began to spin.
All he knew is that this was surely it, the moment he had waited for through years of being unloved, unlovable. All to be recouped in one fell stroke by Gina, who was punk rock, cool comics, a dangerous roll and tumble of curves. She could inhabit the space inside, the empty space that had been there for as long as he knew. She could fill it.
As the song reached its crescendo through the peaks and troughs of synthesizer waves, he wondered, doubted, felt sure:
She was the reason he came out into the night.