The First 50 Pages
To all the abandoned characters.
Arthur opens the document to the first fifty pages of his novel and squints in the computer’s white glow. Brent wakes up right away – she hasn’t seen Arthur in over a week, maybe the longest of his hiatuses.
Wake up Patrick! she says.
Arthur drops his hand over the mouse and taps his finger.
He looks dedicated today! Patrick says, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes. I have a good feeling.
But then Arthur leans back in his chair and begins rereading what he’s already written.
I’m scared I’m going to lose my mind, Brent says.
That won’t happen, Patrick says. You can’t do anything he hasn’t written for you to do.
So I can’t leave you?
No, he says. Well, at least not yet.
What do you mean not yet?
I don’t know! You were the one talking about leaving me.
As Arthur reads, Brent doesn’t see any of that light in his eyes that had been there when he was first starting their story.
He’s bored of us, she says.
How can you know that?
Arthur x-es out of the document.
He’ll be back! Patrick says. In the meantime, let’s do something fun!
I’m sick of everything.
Why don’t we go on our second date again? he says. Those pierogis…
That’s what you remember?
Yes. I was on my second one when I realized I loved you.
Brent smiles, but wonders how Patrick could know that. In the novel, it isn’t until a month later that he tells her that he loves her, as they sit under the stars by the East River, an empty bottle of wine between them.
You know what would be a tragedy? Patrick says. He wipes the grease off his lips with a napkin as they sit at Veselka.
If Arthur never lets us have Indian food.
Brent feels sad thinking about how much more interesting their actual second-date conversation had been. As Patrick told stories about growing up in the Midwest, he had done these hilarious impersonations of the people from his past.
It could happen, Brent says. Many novels without naan have found publishers.
The next day, Arthur opens the document at 11:07 a.m.
Brent and Patrick are at the brunch place where he asks her if she’d like to move in with him. She says she doesn’t know, and they get into a huge fight and don’t speak for two weeks. But the waffles are so good.
Let’s get out of here, Brent says.
But I’m just getting started!
How can you eat with him here?
He hasn’t written a new word in months, Patrick says. What’s ten more minutes?
You’re giving up on him!
No, I’m –
Brent walks out of the restaurant before Patrick can finish his sentence.
Arthur looks especially pathetic that day. He keeps rereading the novel’s first line, while squeezing up fistfuls of his curly black hair. The doorbell rings.
“Fuck!” Arthur shouts.
He gets up, leaving the document open.
“Why haven’t you answered my calls or texts?” Sabrina asks.
“I have nothing to say,” Arthur says.
Tell us about it, Patrick says, sitting down next to Brent.
“What do you mean you have nothing to say?” Sabrina asks. “Are you O.K.? Never mind, I don’t care if you’re O.K. Are we going anywhere?”
“I don’t know if I’m going anywhere, Sabrina,” Arthur says. “This novel is ruining my life.”
Ouchhhhh, Patrick says, slamming his hand over his heart.
“Have you gotten past fifty yet?” Sabrina asks.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Arthur says. “Can we just make love?”
“Does that mean you love me?”
Thank god he doesn’t do it in his office, Patrick says. Imagine if we had to watch him?
I wouldn’t mind.
Really? You’d want to see him?
Arthur had written that Patrick was quick to get jealous but too shy to ever show it.
I mean, he’s seen us do it.
Do you think when he wrote those scenes, he wasn’t picturing them?
There’s a look of disgust on Patrick’s face.
“I’m useless!” Arthur yells. “Totally useless.”
“Have you been masturbating too much again?” Sabrina asks.
Oh no, Patrick says, cupping his hands over his ears.
“Actually no,” he says. “I’ve been too depressed. This novel…”
“You’re blaming your limp dick on your novel?”
“Sabrina, I need some kindness right now,” he says. “Like, more than I’ve ever needed it.”
“I’m sorry,” she says. “I’m just horny.”
“I can’t even move a comma,” Arthur says. “I’m paralyzed.”
“What are you afraid of?” Sabrina asks.
Is he done talking about his penis? Patrick asks.
“All this not knowing,” Arthur says. “I don’t understand it. In the beginning, I was so excited. I couldn’t write fast enough. I actually thought, ‘This one is going to be easy.’”
“Well, you’re good at easy,” Sabrina says.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You were excited about me at first too.”
There’s a long silence.
“Why do you think beginnings are easier?” he asks.
“Because it’s when you can believe that this will be the thing that changes your life.”
“I still believe that.”
“Can I ask you a question?” she asks.
“Do you see yourself getting married?”
“I think that’s really what Brent is trying to figure out.”
“Oh god Arthur!” Sabrina says. “I’m done talking in abstractions. I’m going to be forty next month. Do you want to marry me?”
Is that true? Patrick asks.
That you’re still trying to figure out if you see yourself getting married?
Why do you sound mad?
I know I want to marry you, he says. I’ve always known that.
Brent wonders if there’s any reason to be honest with Patrick. Sometimes she doubts if he’s the one. But she can feel him holding his breath and it’s unbearable.
No, she says. I know I do.
“Yes, I want to get married,” Arthur says. “I just need to start writing again…”
“You will!” Sabrina says, her voice suddenly upbeat. “I promise.”
I want children too, Brent says.
But Arthur wrote that you weren’t sure?
He’s wrong. Or…I’ve changed. I don’t know.
The spaces between the wooden blinds in Arthur’s office window darken. Eventually, his computer dies.
For dinner, Brent and Patrick repeat the scene where he comes over to her apartment and they quickly eat leftover pizza and then rush to bed. Tonight, the cold cheese makes Brent nauseous and she tells him that she’s not in the mood for sex.
Are you asleep? Brent asks Patrick.
It’s 2:32 a.m.
You never said if you wanted children before.
The room is silent.
Yes, yes. I do.
I hear doubt in your voice
There’s no doubt.
The next day, Arthur opens the novel at 1:04 p.m. Instead of one of his usual beat-up T-shirts, he’s wearing a white linen button-down. He cracks his knuckles and makes a weird grunt.
He’s trying some new things! Patrick says.
But then he begins rereading.
I’m going to kill myself, Brent says.
Please don’t say that.
Why? I can’t do it.
It still scares me.
The doorbell rings. This time Arthur doesn’t look surprised.
I should have known he didn’t dress up for us, Brent says.
“He’s alive!” Lizzy says. “I know a rumor when I hear one.”
“Who said I was dead?” Arthur says.
“There are many ways to be dead,” Lizzy says. “All artists know that.”
“Coffee? Tea? Vodka?” he asks.
“Can you frame the vodka in a way that makes me feel less like an alcoholic?”
“My bad, I’ve given up pretending,” Arthur says. “Screwdriver? Martini?”
“I’ll take a martini.”
Brent can hear Arthur and Lizzy in the living room, picking up their drinks, putting them down and picking them back up again.
“Tell me what it’s been like,” Lizzy says. “And don’t sugarcoat.”
“O.K,” Arthur says. “Sometimes I wake up with this little belief that today will be different, but it never is. I haven’t added anything in three months.”
I told you this wasn’t normal, Brent says.
“I’m scared it’s going to go on forever,” he says.
“What happens when you get in front of the page?” Lizzy asks.
She’s speaking like a doctor, Patrick says. Maybe she’ll figure out what the problem is.
“All I can do is reread the fifty pages I’ve already written,” Arthur says. “And so I do that and then more or less drink until I fall asleep.”
“Should you go back to A.A.?” Lizzy says.
“Probably, but I won’t,” he says. “The only area in my life where I care about progress is with this novel.”
“So why no progress?”
“My body is just stuck.”
“Sometimes our bodies are ahead of our brains.”
“Are you a fortune-teller or my agent?”
“Arthur, I reread the fifty pages,” Lizzy says. “I’m not convinced they’re worth all this pain.”
“I thought you believed in it!”
“Because you believed in it!”
“That’s the only reason?” he says. “I need more vodka.”
Don’t worry, Patrick says. He won’t listen to her.
“There’s something I need to tell you – I haven’t told anyone this yet,” Arthur says. “One night, around two weeks ago, I couldn’t sleep. I was just lying there, feeling some of the worst feelings I’ve ever felt. It was a sort of loneliness, but more painful, stranger. I felt like I was choking. I was desperate to make it stop. I got up and started writing.”
I don’t remember him writing in the middle of the night, Brent says.
“A new novel just started spilling out of me,” he says. “I couldn’t write fast enough.”
“Let’s see it!” Lizzy says.
“It’s in a notebook,” Arthur says. “When I’m ready, I’ll type it up.”
“Why aren’t you ready now?”
“Brent and Patrick,” he says. “I can’t let go of them.”
“I don’t know who Patrick is yet,” he says. “And Brent, I love her. She wants so much out of life.”
“We never really know what it is though,” Lizzy says.
“I can’t get it into words.”
I wish these fifty pages were enough, Brent says.
Maybe they can be.
I’ll always want more.
“I have to leave soon,” Lizzy says. “Will you send me the new pages?”
“Yes,” Arthur says. “I could always return to them one day, right?”
“Arthur, you’re not going to like what I say next, but I can promise you that it’s the truth,” she says. “Those fifty pages took you down a dead end. You won’t be able to turn around until you delete them.”
“How can you know that?”
“I’ve been doing this for forty years,” she says. “Trust me. I’ve seen writers die on some roads. Delete or die. Will you be able to?”
“Yes,” he says.
Brent hears the door open.
“Lizzy?” he says.
“What if I get stuck again?”
“Then you’ll have to turn around again,” she says. “The trick is to keep moving.”
The next morning before the sun has fully risen, Brent shakes Patrick.
Wake up! she says. Let’s start the day!
He opens his eyes.
What do you want to do?
As much as we can!
They sit facing each other on Brent’s fuzzy blue blanket in Central Park. They’re circled by trees and glimmering buildings.
Your eyes were so filled with the things you weren’t saying, Brent says.
We had just met, he says. I didn’t want to scare you away.
Say something you were too afraid to say.
You’re going to change my life.
She unwraps the wheel of brie. Patrick pulls two bottles of wine out of his backpack.
You asked me if I wanted to start with the red or the white, she says. I told you to pick, and you opened the white, but I wanted the red.
He opens the red. They both take swigs from the bottle, not bothering with the plastic cups.
I was scared I wouldn’t be enough for you, Patrick says.
I was too.
Were you still worried about that?
Do you think we would have worked it out?
I don’t know.
Brent lays down on the blanket and looks up at the sky slowly filling with stars.
This cheese is delicious, Patrick says. I was too nervous to notice.
Back at Veselka, Brent looks around at the other diners for the first time. There’s a mother moving her toddler son’s hand up and down. His eyes are glued to his mother’s face.
I wanted a child, Brent says.
Why do you think Arthur wrote that you weren’t sure?
Maybe because I wasn’t, she says. But I still wanted one.
You’d have been a wonderful mother.
Brent holds back tears, but then she remembers that it’ll all be over soon and she lets them run down her face.
Don’t comfort me, she says.
She looks back at the mother and child. They’ve turned away from each other.
You can tell me the truth now, she says. Did you really want to be a father?
No, he says. I didn’t.
Why did you lie?
I was scared of hurting you.
I do feel hurt, she says. Even now. Isn’t that funny?
The waiter puts down their plates. He’s older than Brent remembers. The fluorescent lights fill the wrinkles on his face.
Do you think you could’ve changed your mind? she asks.
I don’t know.
At the East River, Brent and Patrick sit on the bench holding hands.
What do you think happens to us after we’re deleted? Patrick asks.
Brent stares into the dark water.
We’ll be gone.
I love you, he says.
What took you so long to say it?
I was scared you didn’t feel it too, he says. When did you first feel it?
When you said it.
They eat the cold pizza fast again like the first time, and then rip off their clothes. When they’re done, Brent holds Patrick tighter than she ever has.
Arthur opens the document. His eyes are bloodshot and he’s breathing heavily. He highlights all the text. Then he begins rereading.
Brents shoots up.
I think we have time for waffles!
Annie Nova is a journalist for national publications and co-founder of Your Life In a Book, in which she and her sister interview older people about their lives and turn their stories into a keepsake book for them to enjoy and pass on to family. This is her first fiction short story to be published. She’s currently working on several others.