I arrive in LA at noon their time, at three my regular time. This after being up since three that morning (my time) with only gummy bears and Clif Bars in my backpack. The Clif Bars are from work; the gummy bears were overpaid for in a Denver airport that I stopped in for an hour. Not that I'm particularly nasty to anyone. Really, I'm my usual quiet, hungry self. That is, if someone asks me for something, I'm ready to tell them "Me no speakie English," because people look at me and believe it.
Already late for my ride, I almost panic. There's no sign. The sign, according to my only phone call with my ride, is supposed to say LAMBDA WRITERS perhaps in bold Sharpie letters. I think about callling a taxi but by then my phone buzzes with a California number, it's unknown but can only be one person.
"Do you see a Silver Mercedes?" the other line yells.
"A silver Mercedes?" I yell back.
"Yes, a silver Mercedes," she yells. I'm thinking that our signals are bad and we're not looking like idiots yelling into the phone. People do this all the time.
"Is that you?" she says, suddenly.
I turn around and look at the car that stopped in the middle of the road, a van behind it honking it's horn. We pause for a second and wave carefully to make sure the voice on the phone is the person we're waving to. Our voices are delayed. It's wave and then a "Hello?" in the ear instead of both at the same time. We smile and she waves me in with her hand and tells me we're all running late. It's past 12:30, and we're all running late. "Hop up front" she tells me from the window, and I rush to the back and drop in my suitcase into the trunk. The van behind us honks its horn some more and I rush up front and put on my seat belt. The van beind us drives around and she barely notices it as she looks at her handwritten list of people to pick up, phone numbers to call, and airliner pick-up spots that we're late to. "Have you been waiting long?"
"No," I say. I don't say that I was kinda lost.
"Next," she says,hand ing me the LAMBDA WRITERS sign, "We need Delta." She creeps out of the terminal and we drive off in her own curious fashion.
She drives a few meters at a time, stopping every now and then to make sure she's at the right place. The way she drives tells you she's careful and hasn't been in this part of town a lot. She stops completely to change lanes and to make phone calls as she asks me how do I pronounce my name and that it's different from how her students pronounce it. Their "New-jen" versus my "When."
The driver yells into the phone, asking the other end if they're out yet. "Are you outside yet," she says.
Yes is the answer and we drive doing the same routine. I hold up a sign as she yells back that she's in a silver Mercedes,that I'm holding a sign out the passenger window. She doesn't mention me smiling as we past by strangers. It's a weird, crooked smile. It's me telling them I don't know where I am and I feel almost embarassed that this is my first time out and about on my own--across the country out of all places.
When we're done picking up the other two writers for the retreat--one a fiction writer, another a poet--we talk very little--the way strangers do--as we take in the city and listen to our driver's anecdotes (because she has many) and drives between lanes. "Those signs are new. And I thought this was the right way."
After I check in, we sit around a table and talk about where we're from. We're from everywhere. There's people who live near here. There's people from New York. There's people from near where I live. I get compliments from people about my work because that's all we know about each other right now: our work. I know one person, because You-wrote-that-fantasy-story-based-in-Japan. Another person is You-wrote-that-story-about-traveling-into-the-future. Another is that person who wrote-that-story-that-takes-place-in-Chicago. There's no names, yet. Just descriptions, and not even of ourselves, just our works. But then there are other people. Of course, Tony Valenzula, E.D. of Lambda, who sits next to me and I ask him lots of questions. We talk activism and literature. I hope I don't come off awkward. Also, Eddie Sarfaty whose book (Mental: Funny in the Head) I read during my flight, even though I don't tell him that I bought it because I also bought Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and there was an offer in that store for Buy One Get One 50% Off and he was the 50% off book (I'm thinking he shouldn't be here; there should be a rule that says if Edmund White and Michael Cunningham gave you a blurb, you are no longer "emerging."). My roommate is Mark Hardy, which is cool; he wrote Nothing Pink, a gay teen novel. And of course, Nicola Griffith, the fiction teacher, who I meet later during the day at the meet and greet. She's British and she cusses and she's fun and serious at the same time. Also, she never understood Americans and donuts...
The meet and greet is at seven o'clock California time, ten o'clock Maryland time. I am dead and say things I don't mean to say because all I want is to cry and say that I am soooo sleepy. For instance, the question is: Why are you here? Everyone gives good answers--serious and heartfelt answers. There are both laughter and tears. I can tell this is a good place to be. But my answer is: writing is very lonely, very, very lonely. It's true, but it doesn't need that many "verys." But also I do feel lonely here: I'm the odd-ball short story writer. You wrote this 80,000 word novel and you're here to get it workshopped. I have a ten page story and that's probably the longest thing I've written. Later we split up into our group and name books we like. I talk Amy Hempel and I feel bad saying that one of my favorite story is the two-page "In a Tub," while Nicola talks about Lord of the Rings and Patrick O'Brian and others point to Wally Lamb or David Mitchell.
But I'm here to write just like everyone else.
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