The difficulty came in compliance. It was like instructing Jackson Pollock to “stay within the lines.”
The theme to this month’s issue of Pen & Paper, an open-submission literature magazine, was “Identity”, something so simple it was maddening. (But isn’t that how it always goes, he thought. To be given an easy task and feel the need to produce an elaborate stage show. To find a way of making a mountain out of the molehill.)
Arjay leaned back into his desk chair and tapped his pen against the small stack of loose-leaf paper in front of him. The traditional way of writing, he found, made for an easier start to a project. It was hell to pay when it came to edits, but he made do with space in the margins.
For a while now, though, there were no edits to be made because the pages had remained blank. There was nothing.
In place of the empty white of the paper, Arjay saw a tap which wouldn’t run. It hadn’t gone dry, necessarily, because he still felt the ideas there: characters restless to speak their first words, agitated worlds anxious to be forged. The flow of it all was simply interrupted, but with pressure building up behind the blockage. It was foreboding. Arjay feared that when it came out, his efforts would have been for naught because none of it would be any good, or at least not up to his standards. To think what was stopping up the flow was one almost-insignificant thing: a theme.
Identity. Identity. Identity.
That was it. It was all he had to write about in less than three thousand words, twelve-point Times New Roman font. The prompt had intentionally been selected for its vague nature. It assured submissions would form a tasteful array of interpretations. And seeing as his former Creative Fiction professor had deemed Arjay’s work as “ambitious”, this shouldn’t have been as difficult as it was.
“Who are you if you can’t finish a simple story,” Arjay pondered.
But he knew that wasn’t the issue. He could finish a story; it simply took time. The problem was the restriction—or, rather, the feeling of being restricted. The challenge was a thematic one, which meant he was free to create anything as original (i.e. contrived) as he wanted, but the final product would have to fit snugly within the confines that were the submission requirements.
The margins Arjay had come across in the past were different. They had been classroom rules, both figuratively and literally. No deus ex machina. No gratuitous killing. No monologue revelations (see: Villains of 007). It didn’t mean the end result had to be cut and dried, but “at least attempt to keep the sand in the box.” It’s what his professor had said the first day of class, to which someone at the back of the room had responded with, “That’s not always easy to do. What if some of it falls out of the box?”
The professor, a woman who bore a striking resemblance of Minerva McGonagall in the way she was stern but fair, had cast a steady look somewhere over Arjay’s shoulder and said, “Then you’re just making a mess.”
Before class had ended, she added, “When I’m having a difficult time with a piece, I find it best to write what I know and honestly. Nothing from the far distance. Nothing out of left field. Just myself with my feet on the ground.”
Arjay rubbed his eyes. There arose another challenge: who was he exactly?
For a minute, Arjay tossed the question around in his head and let the answers come to him.
Something that had long impressed Arjay, when not on the receiving end of it, was how Andrea, a coworker, had the ability to pick the worst possible moment to spring loaded questions upon unsuspecting victims. She meant well, though, a fact Arjay could readily recognize because she was some twenty years senior to the average twentysomething they worked with at the restaurant. “I could be your mother,” she would proudly say and certainly, often times, played the part with a dose of tough love. She was a mother bear keeping tabs on her young.
In the months leading up to graduation, for example, Andrea had bombarded Arjay with questions about what he would do after. Most centered around continuing his studies into graduate school. When Arjay mentioned he’d be taking a year off, she had tried (and failed at) hiding her lack of enthusiasm. “Well,” she said, tight-lipped, “as long as you go back after, I don’t see anything wrong with that.” However, when a year slipped into two, she became less amused and more persistent. She constantly brought up the topic of returning to school at random points with the subtlety equivalent to dropping a bucket of ice water on someone. For example, today she had chosen the middle of the dinner rush as Arjay carried a tray loaded edge-to-edge with bowls of soup.
“You graduated from college almost a year ago,” Andrea berated him, blocking his path. “Why are you still working as a waiter?”
“Shit,” Arjay said. The sudden stop had tipped some of the bowls over, spilling their contents onto the tray and making a mess. “Not now, Andrea.” He turned and walked back into the kitchen, towards the dishwasher. A few soups were salvageable, but he’d have to replace most of them. The tray would need to be put to wash as well, which meant he’d have to start over.
Fuck, Arjay thought to himself. The night had already been problematic without having to add this on. He’d been late for his shift after getting caught behind a funeral procession, and before he could call ahead that he’d be late, his phone died. When he finally arrived, Arjay was able to talk himself out of a write-up, but his name had been moved on the floor chart. What would have been a good section (a line of booths at the bar, meaning quick turnaround times equating more tables throughout the night) had instead been swapped out for a less favorable area near the restrooms. His first table had stiffed on tipping because their food had to be remade three times, and his second table added a new person whenever Arjay came out of the kitchen. There was a young barman fresh from training who still relied on the recipe book and, as a result, took ten minutes to make a “Jack and Coke”. Between taking a new order each time he went out to his table and waiting for their drinks to be ready, Arjay hadn’t noticed he’d been sat another table until his manager had come up to him with their drink order, luckily all fountain drinks. As he handed them out for his newest table, Arjay nearly dropped a glass as a man from his second table yelled, “Whenever you’re ready to take our order, sir. We’re not hungry or anything.” Arjay excused himself from his third table, who fortunately needed more time to decide what they wanted (or so they said, averting eye-contact) and moved to take the order from his second table.
As Arjay emptied what was left in the old bowls into new ones and set the dirty ones aside to wash, he considered scraping soup off the tray and mixing it in with the rest of it.
Andrea came up to him then. “If we’re not going to talk about this now, then when?” she continued. “After another year has gone by? Two? What happened to going into publishing? Becoming a writer?”
Without looking at her, Arjay raised his voice and said, “Not now, Andrea!”
He heard her breathe deeply which only annoyed him more because he knew the discussion was far from finished. “Look,” she began, “I just don’t want you to get used to this, okay? You have a degree. You have life’s golden ticket to—“
Arjay snapped, throwing the bowl in his hands back on the tray. “Enough,” he said. “I get enough of this at home from my family and about how my older brothers fucked up their opportunities to go to school and make something out of themselves. I do not need this at work, too. I didn’t sign up to be anybody’s fucking golden goose, so I need you to stop talking right now.”
There was an empty beat as they stood in silence, motionless. Arjay didn’t expect Andrea to drop it so easily, not when this had been going on for months. But to his relief, she surprised him with a small nod of understanding and walked away.
For a moment, Arjay let himself feel guilty. He knew Andrea had a point, and as he looked around the kitchen—people running to-and-fro, someone in the corner looking downcast as they counted dollar bills—he realized this wasn’t who he wanted to be. He didn’t want a night like this to become the rest of his life. There were only so many times he could say, “This is only temporary,” before he no longer believed it.
So, he said it, just once more. And it felt different this time.
“Your mom has to know you’re gay,” Santiago, a coworker-turned-close friend, joked. “I mean, everyone at work knows. Not like it wasn’t obvious from the start. You’ve never really tried to hide it, but that’s beside the point.” Santiago paused as if thinking something over, then said, “No, wait, that is the point!”
Arjay just watched Santiago laugh with a bored stare, flicking his thumb on the prongs of a plastic fork until one snapped off. “Subtlety isn’t really something you’re familiar with, is it?” Arjay asked.
“Says the would-be writer who can’t find the right words to tell his mom ‘I’m gay.’ Subtlety should be the least of your worries.” Santiago wiped a nonexistent tear from his eye. “Oh, come on,” he continued, teasing, “how can she not know? She’s your mom. They have a sixth sense for shit like this.”
Arjay sighed. “I don’t know.” He leaned back into the booth they were in, looking around. It had been Santiago’s idea to go out to eat after work, but Arjay had progressively lost his appetite as the night went on. Between dealing with Andrea’s badgering about going back to school and having people accost him for their food being late, all Arjay wanted to do now was go to bed.
“Sometimes,” Arjay said, “I feel like she does know. You have a point. I mean, she’s had twenty years to catch on to it. Something. Anything. But don’t you think that if she did know, she would have brought it up by now?”
Across the table, Santiago just shrugged. “Maybe she’s waiting on you to make the first move. You know, to see if it’s okay to talk about it. When I came out to my dad, he told me he’d known since I was in grade school, but he didn’t want to ask because he was scared I’d shut him out. He wanted me to do it on my own terms, whenever, if ever I wanted to. Thinking back, he never really asked me if I was dating someone or if I was crushing on anyone. And now, I think he’s just relieved that I don’t have to hold it in anymore.” Santiago shrugged again. “Well, that, and I’m pretty sure he’s relieved I’m not going to accidentally give him a grandkid anytime soon.”
Arjay rubbed his eyes until he saw stars behind his eyelids. “You don’t know my mom, Santiago,” he said. “You only know what I’ve told you about her, but you don’t really know her, not the way I do. She’s not like your dad. This is the same woman who said men were going to try to marry dogs next after the Supreme Court made same-sex marriage legal.” Arjay shook his head in disbelief. “You should have heard her. She was so…disgusted. She sounded like she actually believed it was going to happen.”
Santiago leaned forward, clasping his hands together on the table. “Yes, but this is your mom. The woman gave birth to you, for Christ’s sake.”
“And what about all the moms you hear about on Facebook that kick their kids out of the house for coming out?” Arjay asked, feeling his eyes start to burn. “And parents who hire people to kidnap their kids in the middle of the night and take them to ‘pray the gay away’ camps? What about those? Didn’t they give birth to their kids? I’m not saying that’s going to happen because I’m not twelve anymore, but if she’s stopped talking to her other kids for less—and for months, mind you—can you imagine what would happen over this? Over coming out? I feel like she’d go to her grave and not say a word to me. Remember how she reacted my cousin came out?”
“She rolled her eyes because she thought it was just a phase,” Arjay continued. “He’s my age, Santi. She won’t even ask about him anymore whenever she talks to my aunt, and she used to dote on him. And I have another cousin, older still, who didn’t come out until she was in her thirties, and my mom was so disgusted by it, she went off on a rant at Target about how ‘all of a sudden everyone just wants to be gay because it’s becoming popular.’”
Santiago sat back. He wanted to say something, Arjay could see it in his face. Ultimately, Santiago kept quiet, eyes down.
“There was a time,” Arjay said, “when I thought she was laying off being a total ax-wound about politics, but I feel like it’s just been getting worse with this homophobic, racist, orange asshole in office.”
Santiago remained silent for another second. “You forgot ‘bankrupt’.”
It made Arjay laugh softly.
After another beat had gone by, Santiago moved to stand and surprised Arjay by sitting next to him. He hugged Arjay. “If you think she doesn’t deserve to know,” Santiago said, “then she doesn’t deserve to know. It’ll be her loss, but that’s on her, not you.”
Arjay hugged him a little tighter. “Thank you.”
“I got a letter from the IRS yesterday,” Arjay told Frida, his closest friend since high school, as he followed her into her kitchen and sat at the breakfast bar. “I didn’t even know twenty-year-olds could get letters from the IRS.”
Frida whipped her head around in surprise as she reached to open a cabinet. “And what did it say?”
“Apparently,” Arjay replied, “I owe ten thousand dollars in unpaid taxes from when I was eight years old.”
“Oh my god,” Frida said, disbelieving. “Someone stole your identity. What are you going to do?”
“I already called the IRS. They said I had to fill out some paperwork and send it in.” At this, Arjay slumped forward to rest his head on the counter. “It’ll take anywhere from six months to a year to clear up.”
“I’m sorry, love,” Frida said sympathetically.
“It’s okay,” Arjay said. “I mean, it’s getting fixed, but it just sucks that this is how I started my twenties.” He heaved a heavy sigh. “I’m so not ready to be an adult.”
“Well,” Frida began slowly, “tough luck. Because it’s already here.” She poked her tongue out at him teasingly and said, “Are we doing coffee or tea today?”
“Tea,” Arjay responded. “Chamomile, if you have it. I need something to settle the nerves.”
As she set about prepping the tea, Arjay heaved another heavy sigh, dragging his palms down his face. “Tell me something to lighten my spirits, Fri,” Arjay said. “I’ve rarely seen you since graduation. How are the wedding plans coming along? When do we start shopping for the dress and trying out caterers?”
Frida laughed. “I’m not getting married for another two years.”
“I know,” Arjay said, “but it doesn’t hurt to get ahead of everything. And since we’re not doing the bland “chicken or fish” thing for the reception, you kind of do need to start looking before everything’s booked. Not to mention, if the both of you still want me to write your vows, it’ll take me about a year each to get the essence just right.”
Frida raised a brow. “The ‘essence’?”
“Don’t mock me, Frida,” Arjay said sternly. “Fuck the ‘kiss the bride’ part. The vows are the centerpiece of any wedding ceremony. You have no idea how much pressure I felt when you asked me to write them for you, and it only intensified when the husband-to-be asked me to do the same! I swear, the nerves felt like spiders crawling under my skin. If I mess this up, everyone will know it was my fault, and the whole thing will be ruined!”
Frida shook her head. “I just love how you’re talking about this like you’re the one getting married.”
“I’m simply preparing myself for when the day comes,” Arjay said. “And if something should go wrong on your wedding day, at least I’ll know what to avoid.”
“Thank you, asshole,” she said. “Well, if it should come sooner than expected, let me know. We’ll make it a double-wedding.”
Arjay smiled at her, but felt it was tinged with sadness. It had been a while since they’d had a back-and-forth, and as much as he tried with his coworkers, someone was always easily offended or didn’t quite get the joke as easily as Frida did. “Why don’t we hang out anymore?”
It was Frida’s turn to sigh as the kettle began to whistle. “Life.” She poured out the tea and handed a cup to Arjay, who couldn’t help but notice the small clinking sound of an engagement ring against ceramic. “Busy schedules, work, family.”
Arjay nodded his head absently. It was amazing the comparison he noticed sitting on opposite ends of the breakfast bar. They had both graduated at the same time, but where one had continued on, one had fallen behind. Already, two years had made a significant difference in their lives, the least of which was an engagement. It’s not that he didn’t wish her well. Going on a decade of knowing each other, putting up with each other, fighting and reconciling, she was practically blood. To an extent, he did envy her, but not maliciously, never like that. He’d never wish her anything but the best. It was more of an adoration, something to strive towards and feeling disappointed in himself that he wasn’t already there. Simply, hers was the life Arjay wished he was living.
Frida snapped her fingers inches from Arjay’s face. “Hey,” she said, “come back.”
Arjay shook the fog away. “What?”
“Stop,” she replied. “I know where you go.”
“It’s just—“ Arjay began.
“Look,” Frida said, “the more you focus on the things you haven’t done yet, the shittier you’re going to feel, trust me. Just because you’re not in school right now doesn’t mean you’re a failure. So you took some time off, that’s okay. A lot of people do, and then they go back, and maybe they’re better at it than the people who went straight into it because they took time to really think about things, things they really want.” She reached over and put her hand on top of Arjay’s, giving it a gentle squeeze. “You’re gonna be okay. I know you’re going to do it. You’re just finding your own way.”
Arjay bit his lip as he felt his eyes start to water, but laughed it away. “I hate you for always knowing what to say.”
Frida shrugged her shoulders nonchalantly. “I know you,” she said. “If I didn’t after almost ten years, I’d be a really bad friend.”
She offered him a smile, and Arjay smiled back.
With a deep breath, Arjay stood to walk the space of his room, a whirlwind of thoughts loose in his mind. Pacing back and forth, his professor’s words echoed at the back of his head.
Write what you know.
And Arjay thought, What do I know?
He knew how to balance a full tray with one hand while refilling drinks for a table of six in the midst of a dinner rush. He knew some things were better left unsaid to those who would choose to rather not hear them. He knew what it was like to feel like you were drowning and to have someone pull you out of the deep.
He knew what it was like to feel pressure and determination. Fear and pride. Guilt and acceptance.
Arjay returned to his desk. His hand felt heavy as he picked up his pen and began to write.
Abraham Abundez enjoys writing stories about everyday life as much as he does reading them. He has been an avid writer since second grade when he wrote a short story about a malfunctioning robot. He dreams of one day living in his own personal Barnes & Noble, but for now, resides in South Texas.