“Write for the world to read and see your exact pictures of it…Telling the true story of the world in internal monologue.” – Jack Kerouac
There was a tiny window at the end of Mel and Kat’s attic, tucked between the sloping inclines of the gabled ceiling. The three of us huddled by it as we passed around Mel’s new glass pipe. Outside, the winter sun struck the foot-high mounds of snow, turning our view of the neighborhood a blinding, spectacular white.
We were gonna smoke two bowls, but we screwed up the second one by making Mel laugh while she was trying to light it. Little sprigs of grass sprayed across the attic. “Motherfucker,” she cursed under her breath. Kat and I cracked up, so hard I had to sit down on a box of old Halloween decorations. The wire edge of a cloth pumpkin scraped the skin of my back.
“We just wasted a whole fuckin’ bowl,” Mel said, looking up at us with amused incredulity. There was amusement mixed in with every emotion Mel ever expressed. She shook her head. “I gotta go get the odor neutralizer.” She made her way through the attic, sidestepping stacked wooden chairs and almost tripping over a couch with stuffing pouring from the ripped seams like an open wound. At last she landed on clear ground and bolted down the stairs.
Kat began clearing out the pipe and packing the ash and the lighter into a wooden box carved with ivy vines and coiled roses. I tip-toed around the room, squinting my eyes for clumps of weed, picking them up with my fingers, and flicking them into a plastic bag. They looked like tiny pieces of broccoli. “Good lord, she got it all over the place.” I brought my index finger and thumb to my nose and inhaled. “Shit. I need to wash my hands.”
Mel came back up the stairs and rejoined us. She spritzed my sleeve with the odor neutralizer.
“This stuff smells awful, by the way.”
I sniffed the now damp crook of my elbow and gagged. “What is in that?”
Mel shrugged. “I’unno. You reek now, though.”
“Excuse me,” I retorted.
She smirked. “Alright, come on, we gotta go downstairs before Dad gets home.”
I felt my way down the steps to the second floor. Their house, the second level especially, was old and eccentric. The bathroom had cracked black and white tiles and an abnormally high threshold that was easy to trip over (I did). The door didn’t lock and Mel barged in while I was washing my hands.
“Yo, kiddo, wanna hurry up?” Mel asked. “You got here an hour ago and we haven’t started the movie yet.”
Kat followed her in. “What are you watching?”
Kat grimaced. “I didn’t really like it.”
“Really? I would have thought you did.” I lathered more soap onto my hands.
“I don’t know,” she said, grabbing the hand towel off the white-painted towel rod and absently threading it through her fingers, “I just didn’t like how much they changed. Like the –“
“Excuse me, I haven’t seen it yet,” Mel cut in, “don’t ruin it – oh my God, are you still washing your hands?”
I stopped rubbing my soapy palms together. “Oh. Oops.”
Their laughter bubbled up around me. “I was about to say, are you preparing for surgery or something?”
“Shut up,” I whined.
Mel grinned. “I have to give you your going-away present.” It was the fifth time she had said that in the last hour.
“You said you wanted to show me that book too,” I reminded her.
“Right, right.” I followed her into her bedroom, while Kat wandered off into her own.
I sat on Mel’s bed while she rummaged around in the closet. Her walls were plastered with paintings and photographs and posters. There was a fluorescent pink Woodstock poster on the wall opposite the window. Little white bird resting on a guitar, “No one attending will ever be the same” written in stocky black font across the bottom. I had the same one in my dorm room. We had done a project on psychedelic rock in history class - that’s how we became friends. She called me Jim Morrison and bought me a print of his New Haven mug shot. That was in my dorm room too, hanging under the Woodstock print.
“Let’s take a picture,” I said suddenly. “We don’t have any pictures together.”
Mel emerged from her closet empty handed. She had forgotten about the going-away present again. “Alright.” Normally she would say that she hated pictures, and that she never took pictures with anyone, but this time she opened her dresser drawer and pulled out a Polaroid camera. “Kat, get in here and take a picture of us!” she called into the hall.
Kat shuffled into the room. She took the camera from her sister and snapped off a picture of Mel and me, sitting on the bed and peering at the camera. I picked it up after it took a few minutes to develop. I was shooting a sheepish, almost apologetic smile at the camera, while Mel flashed a mixture of a grimace and a grin with her eyes squeezed shut. “Good God, we are awkward as hell.” I held the photo carefully in my right hand, not wanting to smudge the glossy finish.
“We need to watch that movie, Robin,” Mel groaned out of nowhere. “Oh – shit – I have to give you that book.” She turned around, scanned the cluttered top of her dresser, pushed aside concert ticket stubs and school papers with nicks and tears in the edges, and grabbed the book. “Here.”
It was a book she’d gotten for Christmas, the words “And The Hippos Were Boiled In Their Tanks, A Novel, Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs” printed off-center and in Courier font, so it looked like they’d been stamped onto the cover by the flailing limbs of a typewriter. She used her nail to carve a bit of crusted dirt off the binding. “It’s great. Quick read.”
We loved the Beat Generation. We’d learned about them in history class too. That was the foundation of our friendship, the Doors and the Beats. All these fucked up, weirdly brilliant kids who had somehow made American history. You’re Allen Ginsberg and I’m Jack Kerouac, she had said in a text to me on Christmas Eve. I didn’t know how true that was, but I wasn’t exactly the incarnate of Jim Morrison either. It was more about hoping to be significant the way they were, wondering if one day someone would look at our pictures the way we looked at theirs. Some kid in fifty years with tension and ideas and energy pushing at every seam of their body, agitating them, keeping them from breathing, just itching to do something that would matter.
“Alright.” Mel stood behind me now, in front of her open closet. “Okay, so I gave you the book,” she said, thinking out loud, “and I found the present in my closet, but I still have to wrap it and shit, so you have to go downstairs or it’ll wreck the surprise.”
“Affirmative.” I made my way down the crooked, dusty staircase and sat on the couch. The Kerouac and Burroughs book was still clasped in my hand. I let it fall open, the Polaroid slipping onto my lap. Mel’s scratchy handwriting was scrawled across the title page. She had written me a note.
“Robin,” it read, “This book is perfect for you because it’s honest, raw, and alive. Enjoy it dude. Mel. PS – I’m Kerouac (the alcoholic) and you’re Burroughs (the heroin fiend).”
I lay my head back against the couch and closed my eyes, the book still held open between my thumb and pinky. I loved the way the Beats wrote about their friends. True stories, bled onto the page, with just the names and certain details changed. Especially Kerouac. His stories weren’t remarkable. Nothing specific happened in On The Road. The entire manuscript consisted of small moments and mad people, all strung together into a ten-year odyssey of self-discovery. It was a collection of memories. He kept his memories with books, the way most people kept them with cameras.
I wanted to do that. Nothing remarkable ever happened to me, but I’d had plenty of nights and days when the fullness of existence cascaded into my soul and nearly burst it open. Nights like the ones I spent back at school with my friends, laughing and yelling in the streets under the canopy of a frigid, navy midnight. Days like today. Moments that were burned into my memory. I wanted to burn them onto a page.
Footsteps pounded on the stairs. I opened my eyes in time to see Mel run into the living room and triumphantly throw a package wrapped in brown paper onto my lap.
“There you go. Your going away present. Finally.”
I could tell it was another book, but I couldn’t think of any other titles she had recently recommended to me. I tore through the paper and slowly the cover came into view. It was blank. Throwing the rest of the wrapping aside, I saw that the pages were blank as well. It was a notebook.
“I still can’t believe you don’t keep a journal, I figured it was time to change that.”
I ran my fingers over the smooth, clean pages. “This is awesome.”
Mel waved her hand like it was no big deal, but I could tell she was pleased with my reaction.
“Thanks, man.” I grinned at her. “I love it.”
“Welcome.” Never one to let things get too sentimental, she picked up the DVD remote and pressed play. “Alright. Let’s watch the damn movie.”
We sat in silence for a half hour. Mel’s eyes were trained on the screen. I had already seen the movie twice, so I was only half-focused on it. In my lap, my hands ran over the cover of the journal and thumbed through the pages. I was thinking about Kerouac again.
“Mel?” I said suddenly. On the screen, Nick Carraway scribbled away in a notebook, the words splashing across the screen as he spoke them in voice-over.
“What’s up?” Mel kept watching the movie for a second, then redirected her gaze at me.
“Do you ever show anyone your writing?”
She shook her head. “Nope. Never.”
I ran the edge of my nail along the binding of the journal. “How come?”
A bray of jazz music from the movie filled her silence while she considered my question. Finally, she said, “Because the only writing I ever really do is in my journal, and it’s too honest to show anyone.”
“Yeah. It’s like, my journal is my mind, thrown directly onto the page. Raw thought. No filtering. There are things in there that I’d never be able to tell someone in real life.”
“Because you’d be embarrassed? Or because it might offend them?”
She shook her head. “Not even that. There’s not necessarily anything bad in there. It’s just too transparent. It’d be like letting someone inside my head. The idea of that scares me. It’s too much.”
There was another pause. This time I was the one deep in thought. Mel looked back at the screen, watching as Gatsby introduced himself to Nick, raising a glass and smiling that iconic Gatsby smile.
“You know what?”
Mel turned back to me. “What?”
“I think I have the opposite problem.”
She looked confused. “What do you mean?”
My tone was uncertain. “I don’t think I’ve ever written anything without the intention of showing it to someone. It’s always for an assignment, or a poetry reading, or a magazine submission. Or I put it on my writing blog. I’ve never written something without the knowledge that somebody else’s eyes would see it. And I don’t think I’ve ever been completely honest in my writing, because of that.”
Mel shook her head. “I’ve read your writing, Robin, it’s real. It’s truthful.”
“Well, sure, none of it is a lie,” I said. “It’s edited honesty. I take the truth and cut it down to try to make it fit some line of logic; I force it all to make sense, even if, in reality, it doesn’t. And I keep things out that I’m not ready to share with people. It’s the truth, but it’s polished and groomed and trimmed neatly into shape. None of it is raw.”
The movie’s theme song broke the heavy silence of the living room. It felt like a dam had burst inside my chest.
We both pretended to watch the screen for a second, before Mel broke the silence. “That’s why you need to journal.”
I nodded. “I know.”
“You need to just experiment with writing for yourself. Don’t think about anybody else. Do it, just for you. And after a while you’ll be able to write raw honesty, no matter whose eyes are going to see it.”
“And you’ll be able to write about whatever you want to write about. Nothing will stand in your way.”
Images of frigid, navy midnights and kids yelling in the street ran through my mind. “Exactly.”
Mel nodded towards the journal in my lap. “Go for it. Practice. Write something right now. Here.” She grabbed the remote and pressed pause on the movie.
I picked up the journal and opened it to the first page, creasing the edge closest to the binding so it would stay open. I reached into my tote bag and felt around until my fingers fell on a pen. My thumb pushed down on the button and the inky tip emerged with a click. The blinding white light of a snowy yard viewed from a tiny attic window flickered behind my eyes. I began to write.