Work-in-Progress Wednesday: Paradise
You can feel free to chastise me some more if you want, because yet another week has gone by without me making much progress on Anika takes the long way home up soul mountain. But I *did* make a lot of progress — as in, I am almost done with — a novelette.
“What the heck is a novelette?” you ask.
Well, my friends, according to the sources I’ve found online, a novel is a piece of fiction that’s at least 40,000 words (most of my own books clock in at about 90,000 words, or 300 pages). A novella is generally between about 17,000 words and 40,000 words, which means, I would guess, less than 100 pages. A NOVELETTE, which is what I’m writing, is longer than a short story but shorter than a novella. So it’s typically between 7,500 to 17,000 words.
Eve wants to know Lilith. Biblically.
The “what”: My novelette is a queer retelling of the Book of Genesis. Yes, as in THE Book of Genesis. In my version, the serpent (Lilith) has really just been misunderstood throughout history. Thanks, homophobia. And Eve… well, she’s a questioning housewife who’s not satisfied with her lot but a little afraid to take the first step.
The “why” behind my novelette is complicated and somewhat personal, so pardon me for not sharing it with you. But I do want to give you the beta version of the first couple thousand words. (BETA ALERT! This text may not be included in the final version!)
O you who fly in the darkened rooms,
Be off with you this instant, this instant, Lilith.
Thief, breaker of bones.
– Found on an ancient Syrian tablet
Adam presses the wedge of lime into the neck of his Corona slowly, lime juice wetting the tip of his thumb as it makes its gradual descent through the clear glass. When his thumb gets to the wet circle that is the bottle’s opening, he presses in just a little further, watching the lime scoot further down into the beer. In his twenties, he might’ve sealed the bottle opening with his broad thumb and turned the whole beer upside down once to get the lime all the way inside, but he’s too old for that now; this isn’t some college town dive but a relatively upscale place, and he’s no frat boy anymore, but a responsible working professional. The days of turning his Corona upside-down to get the lime into the bottom, regardless of the spray of white foam that might bubble up through the neck and onto his hand, are long gone.
The whole process reminds him of sex for a moment — the lime wedge, the bottle’s neck, the wet, circular opening of the beer. The foam that would come up and spray onto his hand if he recklessly turned it upside down. The way he would lick the foam off his palm, off his fingers, before taking his first long pull.
He sighs. It’s a long sigh, a heavy sigh. The kind of sigh men make when they drink in bars by themselves after work hours, done with the office and yet loath to go home.
He wonders where Eve is, wonders if she’s drinking somewhere by herself, too. Wonders if a wedge of lime pushed into a neck of a Corona might make her think, briefly, about sex. Wonders if she thinks about sex at all anymore. Or, more specifically, Adam wonders if she ever thinks about sex with him.
The series of questions makes him sigh again, and he takes his first drink from the beer. It’s not a long, head-tilted-back kind of drink, not the beer sprint kind of drink he’d take with the boys back in his frat days; it’s a respectable drink, longer than a sip and shorter than a chug. He sets the beer down only a moment before a hand drops onto his shoulder, clapping his back once, twice.
His friend Michael swings into view. “Hey there, buddy. You been sitting here all by your lonesome for long?”
“Hey, Mike,” Adam says. “No, only got here five minutes ago. If that.”
“Mind if I join?”
Adam waves his hand at the open chair across from him, and Michael slides into it, putting his own sweaty beer brown beer bottle on a cardboard coaster sitting on the circular table. It’s a tall table, poised on the edge of inside and outside, in this bar whose front facade opens up like a garage door, making the boundary between inside seating and patio seating vague. Michael glances to his left, squints at the setting sun, at the people on the patio, as if he’s only now realizing how close he is to leaving the bar entirely.
“Weather’s getting cooler,” he observes. “Might have to break out a jacket soon.”
Adam shrugs, as if he can’t muster the energy for a verbal response.
“So what’s up, my man?” Michael continues. “How’s Eve? What’s up with the boys? What are they — about ten and eight now?”
Adam decides to focus on his sons, avoid the topic of Eve. “Abel’s nine, almost nine and a half now. Cain turns eight this spring.”
Michael blows out a breath between the gap in his front teeth, shakes his head. “They grow up quick, don’t they?”
“And Eve? How’s she doing?”
“She’s…” he starts, before realizing he doesn’t know what to say. He’s been friends with Michael for years, but it’s not as if they’re close. Adam doesn’t want to get into his marital problems with Mike. Not now. Maybe not ever. “She’s good,” he says at last. “She’s been trying to decide if she wants to go back to school or go back to work, or what. Now that the boys are older, I think she’s… getting restless being at home all day.”
It’s a, Why don’t you elaborate? kind of “yeah,” but Adam doesn’t plan to elaborate.
“Yeah,” he says.
The truth is — and it sounds terrible to say, really terrible, and he knows it makes him a bad person, but — Adam doesn’t want Eve to go back to school. Or to work. He likes things the way they are. He likes knowing that she’s at home most of the day. Or at the gym, or out shopping, or out gossiping with her girlfriends. He likes that she’s going to leave every afternoon to sit through the car pool line at the elementary school and pick up their sons. He likes that dinner is usually ready or almost ready when he gets home. He knows she feels trapped. But he doesn’t know what she’ll do if she feels free.
Fly away from him, maybe. The girl he always called an angel might just fly away.
He turns away from his own dark thoughts, back to Michael. Puts on his old, charming frat boy’s smile. “So how are you? How’s your dad’s health?”
The morning after Adam and Michael catch up over beers at the bar close to the office, Eve drops off the boys at school and parks in a visitor’s space, then begins the one-mile walk to the city park. She’s been skipping the gym lately, parking at the elementary school and walking to the park instead, calling it her “exercise” for the day. She knows it’s probably not the same as spin class and free weights, and she feels guilty for not having talked to her gym friends in almost two weeks, but she figures the mile to the park and the mile back must count for something. Must be enough to keep off the extra chocolate and the red wine she’s become so fond of.
Each morning’s walk to the park is filled with giddy excitement now, the kind of coltish, schoolgirl’s crush energy she hasn’t felt since at least her twenties. Maybe since her teens.
Butterflies in her stomach. Sweating palms. Uncontrollable smiling, no matter how much she folds her lips in and tries to bite it back. She’s in the middle of one of those uncontrollable smiles, eyes focused down on the concrete sidewalk passing beneath her sandaled feet, when the incoming ding of a text message makes her jump.
You’re at the park again
writes her friend Sami.
Eve replies, a little defensively. Then, feeling guilty, she adds,
Sami doesn’t answer again after that, and Eve just knows that somewhere at the gym, Sami is climbing onto a spin class bike, shaking her head disdainfully at Eve, putting her phone into silent in preparation for the class that’s about to start.
Yes, Eve misses spin class. Yes, she misses her friends at the gym — especially Sami, who’s one of her closer friends. But she if she went to the gym, she would miss her new friend. And that would be much worse.
Eve chooses a bench under a shade tree — a real tree, she thinks, not one of those palm trees that Adam is so fond of — and waits to see if her new friend will appear.
Sometimes her friend comes. Sometimes she doesn’t. Which will it be today?
Eve pulls out her phone and tries to busy herself answering email, but there’s nothing new, not really, other than ads and a goofy forward from one of her cousins.
Finally she hears it — the sliding sound of smooth scales on bark, the rustle of leaves, followed by a, “Hello, down there.”
Eve tries to bite away the smile, fails, looks up anyway, beaming up into the branches. “Hello,” she says to her new friend, Lilith.
Most of Lilith’s pale yellow-and-white body stays wrapped around the tree branch above Eve’s head, but she lowers her face down now, flicks out a long tongue in Eve’s direction. A gesture Eve takes for a friendly smile.
“Do you mind if I come down?” Lilith asks, and Eve nearly closes her eyes at the sound of her new friend’s voice, the same way one closes the eyes while savoring a particularly delicate flavor. It’s a mellow voice, a little on the low side, warm and soft, strong and commanding at the same time.
“Please do,” Eve says quickly. Maybe too quickly, she thinks. Maybe too eagerly? Too readily? She spins the wedding ring around her finger with her thumb — once, twice. Then drops both hands into her lap, fidgeting with nothing. She scoots over on the bench before realizing how silly it is, how Lilith doesn’t take up much room, not once she’s coiled herself into her serpent’s pile.
Moments later, Lilith appears, winding up the green legs of the bench, settling into her usual coil in the space beside Eve. She holds an apple in her mouth, and she drops it on Eve’s lap, even though Eve always refuses the fruit.
She lifts her head so that her face is level with Eve’s, flicks out her long tongue again, her friendly smile, and peers at Eve with bright red eyes. The eyes were unnerving to Eve at first — the way they never blinked, their crimson color. It’s because Lilith is an albino, she knows now, and it doesn’t bother her anymore. It would be rude to feel uncomfortable under the red gaze of an albino.
“The apples are really starting to get sweet,” Lilith says, dipping her gaze just enough to indicate the shiny globe she’s dropped onto Eve’s skirt.
“Thanks, but I’m not hungry,” Eve says.
“Take it home with you,” Lilith suggests. “Save it for later. Or give it to Adam.”
Eve shakes her head. “Adam doesn’t like apples. Or any fruit, for that matter.”
“Hmm,” Lilith says, a noise which is little more than a vibration in the back of her long, long neck.
Eve loves that long neck. She wants to reach out and touch it, wants to cross the scant twelve or fourteen inches between them that feels much too far, and feel the cool smoothness of the white and yellow scales.
But she doesn’t. She wonders if she ever will, and somehow that thought brings despair.
“Too bad,” Lilith says after a moment. “Fruit’s good for you. Antioxidants. Vitamins.”
Eve titters out a high-pitched giggle, the product of her nerves. “Says the carnivore.”
“Hey,” Lilith says, voice full of mock offense. “I tried being a vegetarian for a long time. For over ten years. But in the end, I had to accept that it just doesn’t work for my body.”
“I’m only teasing you,” Eve says. And then, changing the subject, trying to sound casual and light as she does it, Eve says, “I haven’t seen you here in a few days. I was beginning to wonder if I’d scared you off.”
The snake lets out a long, hissing sigh, the tip of her tongue flitting out, wavering, disappearing in again. Less of a smile than an expression of… What, exactly? Eve can’t tell. She’s still in the infancy of reading all the nuances of her new friend’s expressions.
“I know, sorry about that,” Lilith says. “For leaving without telling you, I mean. I had something come up unexpectedly and had to go home for a few days. Had to sort some things out.”
“Back to the zoo?” Eve says, surprised. “Aren’t you afraid they’ll catch you again? Put you back in captivity?”
“Nah,” says Lilith, full of that easy confidence that makes Eve’s skin tingle, that makes her stir in places she thought she’d forgotten how to stir. “I always arrive at night, after the tourists are gone and all the zookeepers have gone home. Usually hang out in a tree until the coast is clear, then scoot down and into the same hole I originally left through.”
Lilith talks to Eve about visiting her aging mother in the Reptile House, who’s developing dementia, and, once she’d put to rest the rumors that the cobra in the pen next to her mother was causing problems, she managed to meet up with her friend Gilgamesh, a camel, and have coffee.
“It’s a pain getting anywhere at the zoo once all the humans have gone home,” Lilith says when she mentions how hard it was to make it over to the camel pen. Eve isn’t sure, but she thinks she sees the red eyes roll.
“Oh yeah?” Eve asks. “Why’s that?”
“Well, because once the humans leave, the monkeys are in charge of the zoo,” Lilith explains. She complains for a while about the monkeys, which leads to a conversation about language barriers, which leads into how Lilith’s mother is from Myanmar (“Though they still call her Burmese,” she says, rolling her snake’s eyes), which gets her talking about how, growing up, Lilith hated her status as an albino and longed for her mother’s luscious, dark brown scales. “I never fit in at the Reptile House,” Lilith concludes. “It’s why I left home as soon as I could.”
Eve shares her own issues with being a person of color, how she’s always been what she likes to call “ambiguously brown,” leading to many ethnic minorities assuming that she’s one of their own, while people of her own background often don’t even recognize her as one of them. Sometimes it makes her laugh, she says, sometimes it’s frustrating, occasionally it makes her cry. Lilith flicks her tongue out empathetically at that, which makes Eve’s heart flutter.
Their discussion on race leads to a conversation about Abel and Cain, who are lighter-skinned than Eve, due to Adam’s genetics, and talking about Adam leads to a conversation about Lilith’s ex — a lioness by the name of Jenelle who sounds like she didn’t treat Lilith very well. Hearing about the mistreatment makes Eve’s blood boil right away, and she has to work hard to keep her expression neutral. She doesn’t say anything, of course, because it’s abundantly clear that a part of Lilith — a small part, maybe, but still a part — isn’t quite over Jenelle.
They get off the topic of exes before too long and move onto politics, then religion (Eve’s Catholic; Lilith is an atheist), then philosophy (Eve is impressed by Lilith’s fluid movement from Kant to artificial intelligence and the nature of consciousness), and then psychology (Jung, mostly).
Their conversation is so easy, so rich and seamless, that one hour, then two hours, then two and a half fly by before Eve even remembers to check the time. When she does, she lets out a small yelp of surprise.
“I can’t believe it’s eleven o’clock already!” she says. “I’m really sorry, but I have to go. I’ve got a lunch date with a friend of mine, then I have a few other things I need to do before I pick the boys up from school.”
“No worries, no worries,” Lilith says, shaking her head in a way that makes her look more like a cobra than a python. She hesitates, then asks, “Will you be here tomorrow?”
“I hope to be. You?”
“As long as there’s no more drama with my mom, I should be here.”
Eve frowns. “How will I know that you’re back at the zoo if you’re not here? I have to admit, was kind of worried about you when you weren’t around the last couple days.”
Lilith’s tongue flicks out, wavers, disappears. A pensive expression, Eve decides.
“Could I get your number?” Lilith asks after a moment’s thought. “That way, if anything changes, I could just text you. Let you know. So that you don’t worry about me. I mean — well, I mean I wasn’t implying that you were worrying about me just because I wasn’t here, per se, what I meant was — or what I was trying to say… Ugh, this so isn’t coming out right.”
Eve smiles. Did the snake’s pale cheeks just redden a bit? Or was it just the red eyes reflecting off her scales?
“I would love to give you my number,” Eve says, and she’s doing a good job of hiding the fact that her heart is racing, she thinks. She wonders if snakes have the kinds of senses that pick up on thinks like an increase in heart rate. They probably do. The thought only makes her more nervous. It is some small comfort that it’s obvious that Lilith is obviously nervous, too.
Lilith produces a phone from somewhere within her serpentine coil, types in Eve’s contact information with the tip of her tail — a tail which, Eve realizes for the first time, is surprisingly supple and deft — and then reads it back to Eve to make sure she’s gotten it right.