Write what you know. That’s the key to everything, isn’t it—the quintessential missing piece of the puzzle, the ingredient needed to turn an ordinary stew into a masterpiece of culinary inspiration. It’s all there: your truth, your vision, your blood, sweat and tears, your insides turned out, your soul laid bare, ancient frustrations and prescient observations, your unique history comingled with time everlasting, your future at the tip of your fingers. Just let it out. Go with the flow.
Problem is, she thought as she stared at the lined white paper tilted perhaps fifteen degrees to the right, I don’t know shit.
She glanced at the untouched cigarette, the single malt Scotch standing sentry to the right of the ashtray. The afternoon sun, low in the sky, was filtered weakly through slatted shades. “Kind of Blue” played softly in the background, the cheap iPod speakers giving the recording a mushy sound, rather than the scratchy clarity of an old 78 like the ones her dad used to play. She was dressed in a tailored shirt tucked into high-waisted trousers cinched with a wide belt, her auburn hair tumbling in waves around her shoulders. Certainly, she was as mise en scene as she was going to get, set up with every writers’ cliche she could think of, the very model of a gender-bending Hemingway.
Write what you know, she urged herself. Write something, anything.
At times like these, she wondered what had become of her life. How had she managed to get to the point where she had to ask herself if she’d done anything, seen anything, thought anything original, anything worth shaping into a coherent tale? The paper taunted her with its pristine emptiness. Was there nothing to write about? Was she to write about nothing?
Existential despair. Was that what she was feeling? She suppressed the desire to laugh out loud. How trite could she get? No, she was not going to vent artfully. Instead she was going to mine her life, her real life, for material. Even if she had to sit at her desk all day, she would locate that unique event, that singular moment on which she could hang a tale.
There was an incident, its contours just beyond her reach, something that actually happened to her, something that might easily underpin a great novel or a series of compelling stories. Make yourself remember, she commanded.
Suddenly she could see it, a lavishly furnished room, murmured voices speaking a foreign tongue, the hint of an entire unfamiliar world outside a window bathed in late afternoon light. A package figured into the story. It now sat on a small table. Earlier, this had been pressed into her hands by a shadowy figure—man or woman, she couldn’t say. What was it? Who’d sent it? What part had she played in this mystery? Surely she hadn’t been chosen by happenstance. She’d had a role, been more than an observant bystander.
Espionage, she thought, stretching the word across the blank landscape of her brain. Es-pi-o-nage. Yes, she was a spy. Her mission was . . . what? She clutched the pen in her hand, but the story stayed offstage. The scene stubbornly refused to coalesce. She needed another approach.
A suitcase suddenly materialized, like an intruder, flung across the bed. Her eyes widened in surprise. That’s something, she thought. That’s significant. Suitcase meant travel, mobility. And there was a bed, too. She was in lodgings of some sort.
Wait a minute. She’d been on holiday, not on assignment; a glamorous out-of-the-ordinary vacation, and had inadvertently been drawn into an illicit enterprise whose outlines remained vague. She wasn’t there — wherever there was — as a spy; she was no le Carre character. Instead, something had happened on one of her trips.
She compelled herself to recall the hotel, to paint a mental picture. Shabby chic, old but respectable, the kind of place recommended by enthused guidebook writers in the days before the Internet passed judgment on every nook and cranny anywhere in the world, no matter how remote or desolate. Comfortable bed, though, surprisingly good-quality linens, soft and sweet-smelling. Sheer curtains moved almost imperceptibly in the breeze; the filtered sunlight played over intricate wooden moldings and carved furniture. One wall was decorated with an ornate tapestry. The air was heavy, perfumed and dusty. She was in Morocco, or Libya. No, Algeria. North Africa, at any rate, definitely.
The suitcase had been retrieved from the carousel and taken out of the small airport without any problem. In those pre-9/11 days, no uniformed personnel checked luggage tags. Now it lay open on the bed. A Samsonite—she could picture it—serviceable, practical, a graduation gift. Her clothes—sundresses, tops, khaki pants—were spilled gaily across the damask bedspread. She went to the window, looked out over a busy market, then went back to the suitcase.
It was about the suitcase. Something not right, something missing, or perhaps something added. The package was a misdirect, a red herring. Had her clothes been rearranged? She was about to check when she noticed a note slipped under the door. Okay, never mind the suitcase. Focus on the note. What did it say? Who was it from?
Pleased, she bent over the desk. This was going well. Maybe she’d get a chapter done today.
* * *
The young nurse peered into the room through the door’s small window, taking in the bare white walls, the bed, the armchair, the small gray work desk at which the woman sat, facing a beat-up laptop with a blank screen and a blinking cursor. She found herself, as usual, drawn to the woman’s absolute stillness.
“Anything?” asked her replacement, coming to stand beside her.
The young nurse shook her head. “She’s exactly where I placed her after lunch. Dr. Abrams came by around three, checked the charts.” She pulled her gaze away from the solitary figure.
“So, no change,” said the older woman, scribbling in a notebook. “No surprise there. Okay, I’ll feed her dinner, and then we’ll lay her down in the bed again.”
The nurse turned back to the opening. “Something’s gotta be going on in there, doesn’t it? I mean, deep inside. Something we can’t see. Okay, she doesn’t touch the drink or the candy cigarette her sister brought, she doesn’t type, she doesn’t read; hell, she doesn’t even move her head. She just sits there, day after day. Still, she must be living in there, somehow.”
Her replacement looked at the door reflectively.
“You’d think so. But nothing ever changes. She’s been like this for years, since before I started here. No point in letting yourself get attached, let alone hope for any change.”
“I guess not.” The young nurse shook her head. “It’s just that sometimes when I look in on her, you know, just to see if she, well, needs anything . . . ,” she stopped, embarrassed.
“I think maybe I see her blink or hear her sigh.”
The older nurse smiled sympathetically at the younger.
“I understand, really I do. But I’m afraid it’s all in your mind.”
A Plainsboro resident, Nikki Stern is the author of two works of non-fiction — “Because I Say So: Moral Authority’s Dangerous Appeal” and “Hope in Small Doses.” More can be found at www.nikkistern.com.