A novelist’s workbench: Viral Times work, exposed
The object of the writing over the next three weeks is to show how the work of revision challenges me as I finish the final draft of Viral Times. This log will show how I’ve tried to respond. I believe it’s a novel about important topics. Public health and alternatives to quell viral pandemics, a part of our lives for generations to come. Plus, how it feels when the worst happens in any medical crisis — the damage to a heart from losing a soulmate to untimely death, through any disease. And how you might repair that damage to your life.
But no matter how that work succeeds, there are lessons for me, and for my workshop writers, about how to break the ice of revisions.
So here goes: My work on Chapter 5, Love’s Hurts. The first four chapters’ story are available in the sidebar link, a revision that benefits from my editor Jill Dearman’s pen on a wooly 350 pages of a book. That entire earlier draft was in five first-person points of view. A real challenge, Jill said.
You gave yourself a very tricky challenge by putting all your protagonists in first person. Early on Jennifer’s voice and Dayton’s don’t sound so different. You could still change back to 3d person if you want. But if you are committed to all 1st person, your job is to make everyone’s voice as distinct as say Crawford’s or Zeke’s. Or their point of view as incredibly vivid and unmistakable as Angie’s. Dayton and Jennifer –because they both take themselves so seriously!—are sometimes hard to tell apart voice-wise.
I revised Love’s Hurts back into third person this morning — and I found myself crying while I slid back into the moments of Delta’s finale. I’ve never been at a bedside while someone I loved died, so this is all imagining my own loved one’s final days to come somewhere in the future, or the memory of tending to her after illness.
But the important thing is that I was crying, so it felt real enough to me. And maybe it might to someone else, too. I also did the revision after reading a chapter of Donna’s Johnson’s “Holy Ghost Girl” — so the prayer aspect of Delta’s healing rose up. I can see how Donna’s book is going to seep into this final version of mine.
Assateague Island, Spring 2021
She couldn’t recall a time she slept so much. When she opened her eyes, the mornings were already lit up. That dog — what a name, Sherlock — once he heard her stir in the deep-down comforter, he’d pad over from the doorway where he slept. He’d put his snout on the edge of the rough oaken sleigh bed and wag his tail. Angie knew dogs that barked at people in the morning. Sherlock was as quiet as Delta, who would bring Angie herbal teas and massage her meridians. Then she’d shuffle back to the kitchen, or hum to herself on the porch at her workbench, reclaiming whatever junk the surf threw up onto what she called her beach.
The sounds from her house felt different to Angie, noises distinct from Philly or the Hamptons, the places where the music never stopped and somebody was always wheedling or snorting or uncapping a moan in closed room. Angie was starting to think of those sounds as the soundtrack of a former life. In the mornings she drifted in and out of sleep while the sound of the waves boomed loudest, the hours when Delta said the sea was at high tide.
Delta was none of the things that Aurora or Tiffany or Alexandra had been on Angie’s sex video sets: no swagger or panache, no buffed skin or enhanced parts or perfect painted smiles. Delta had looks to drive away anyone but devoted nieces, parents or siblings. No one would ever start a family with a woman so coarse. But something made Angie drink in the sight of her caretaker.
She stared at the comforter wrapped around her knees and sat up in bed. The squares of brown, beige and canvas on the cover were common cloth, scrubbed cotton or maybe the Duralast sails Angie remembered from boats up in Sag Harbor. She pulled a palm across the comforter, feeling the differences in textures. Outside the window Angie could see Delta washing sand off a sail, the cloth strung over a hawser lashed between two beech trees.
Even though she’d been there for weeks, Angie still had to scan the room to remember where she was while she woke. She gathered the comforter over her shoulders and put her bare feet on the rough cedar of the floor. A rag rug of faded pastels lay in front of the doorway. Candles lined the shelves of the room, set beside some vases with gray sprigs of what looked like weeds, burnt at their tops. Then there were all those library books — or what must’ve been the kind of books people borrowed and returned from a library, books that Angie’s grandmother read to her.
She made her way outside with Sherlock at her heels, the dog bolting past her through the open screen door and down the steps, then coming back to escort her. The air lay heavy with water and spray, the smell of kelp off the beach, all borne on the nip of a brisk wind. Angie sat on the next-to-bottom step and watched Delta work, unobserved until Sherlock barked and wagged his tail.
Delta turned to look at them both. “He thinks you’ve come out to play.”
Angie stretched her legs out toward her. “Maybe I have.”
Delta grabbed a corner of the sail she was washing and shook it. The spray covered the dog. He shook himself from head to tail. “So, you feel better then.”
“I guess I do, a little. I just wanted to hear something more than the ocean.”
“Too quiet for you?”
“Quieter than I’ve ever heard.” She ran a hand through her hair to brush it off her forehead. “Or maybe not,” Angie added after a moment. “There was nap time in kindergarten. This feels as good. Then the family had to move away. No kindergarten in the next school, not for me.”
While she sat on the rough-cut steps watching Delta work the sail, she felt warm. The day’s weather was not, but inside her chest she felt a soft pulse grow, like a blot of orange ink spreading in a clear bowl of water. In kindergarten Mrs. Elgin would stand beside me, holding a brush with a mouse-ear of bristles and coax, “Go ahead. Dip in, and make something new.”
So Angie made a start at talking away the old. The baby, making it in high school with Phil without knowing it. Until her shame was swollen, then giving it away, the adoption when it was obvious they wouldn’t make it as a couple. She stayed with Phil afterward until she forgot why.
Delta listened to the stories drain out like a bad wound that month. She burned sage and hermabane, or used reflexology on Angie’s feet and calves. She brewed grip-grass tea and infused things like hedgeburrs to draw out toxins. After the weeks of both listening and the internal healing, Delta made a start at teaching the cures she was using, the work of what natural healing. “They’re a naturopath’s art and crafts,” she told Angie after a few weeks of casual lessons. “No one more able to carry on the craft than the cured, that’s you.” Since Angie had no plans beyond their beach life, she learned.
One evening after a lesson in healing with prana hand motions, Delta balanced herself on the rope swing, fitting the round wooden seat under her broad bottom. Angie watched the effort, figuring the woman to be too big for any swing. She shook her head and felt a smirk in her cheekbones while she looked away.
But Delta was strong. She had a sense of balance that didn’t fit a woman over 200 pounds. Angie hadn’t met women after she left her Italian neighborhood in New Trenton. The skin trade didn’t use many women like Delta, either. She wasn’t beautiful, comely or fair. Even plain would have been a flattering way to describe her.
Angie washed into Delta’s life dying from being too pretty. In the quiet of the beach days, she decided that beauty carried a sadness, somehow. While Angie studied the woman swinging, Delta looked happy. Here was a woman who’d crossed into her 40s built more like a linebacker than a mystic from a movie. She wore muscle where curves lived on the girls in the videos. Her nose was too large to overlook, and her knees had dimples below and above those fleshy joints. But under the mottled skin of her chest Angie imagined a heartbeat so beautiful that her own heart stung just thinking of it.
She didn’t spot the smirk while she pumped on that swing with verve Angies compared to acrobatics of a three-way harness fuck. Delta pushed off with thick toes in the sand, spreading it apart until the dark underside of the sand surfaced. The shore breeze blew back her mussed hair while she glanced at Angie. She slowed down when she became aware that her new student was watching her.
Angie walked to the swing and stood behind her, then gave her a push as she swung back. She let out a squeal, a sound as sharp as the gulls crying above the beach.
Angie pushed harder. Delta began to twist her legs together at the peak of each swing. On the downswing she spun toward Angie, who caught her. Delta pushed her hair from her face, and then Angie plucked away a few loose strands. She held Delta’s face in her hands.
She started to rise and walk past Angie, but she pulled at her arm. When Angie drew her close enough, she put a kiss on her lips with a lingering peck.
“Why’d you do that?”
Angie didn’t hear any distaste in the question. But she studied Angie like a sailor would eye a buoy in a channel.
“Well, I’ve been wanting to kiss you for a long time now. Ever since I got better.”
“Got your wellness back, you mean,” she replied, stepping closer. Her lips trembled. “I was expecting you to kiss me days ago. I just wanted to know what was special about now, this day.”
“Maybe it’s just a sign that I’m well. I don’t have to hold in all that hurt, maybe. I’m thinking about love again. Part of that Wellness from Weary you preach, you know?”
Angie wrapped her arms around her and kissed her mentor with enough verve to answer any other questions.
Weeks later, she shared secrets with Delta in pecks from her past. The stories were about dark yesterdays, slick with details of sweat-soaked sofa cushions in the gonzo sex films. No story or dialogue in them, just work that kept her in rent money from producers who filled her days with a bony ache of humiliation. After a year, they pretended to make real movies with bad dialogue to accompany the sex. Before those nights in the beach refuge, Angie never told the stories to anyone. She cleansed herself in the fireplace light, night after night.
Delta said she took in many people with scars on their souls, but the tales of the trade broke the water inside her heart. She healed as a calling, but no person she ever rescued had spilled out so much failed love.
“I can see it hurts you to tell me these stories. It even hurts me to listen.”
Angie tossed out a chuckle. “Yeah, they hurt even worse before they became stories. But I think I love having my past exposed. I love giving up the whorey truth to you.”
Delta folded her legs under thick thighs. “So good, that word you used. You are right in choosing hoary.” She was saying it differently than Angie did.
“Well, for every producer who was my boyfriend, I was a whore. I made my money, sure. Even earned all my awards, Best New Starlet of 2019, then Best Femme Performer. But I earned it all on my back, or my knees, or doing really bad dialogue.”
“Oh. Not hoary, then,” she said.
“Like there’s another way that it means?”
“Good question. Yes, that’s a kind of rough, scabby experience.”
“Oh, it was rough, plenty, especially in the gonzo vids. But here on our beach I see scabs can heal over. My scars will always be out there on the networks. I’m just another avatar girl for the boys to do in their SimSuits, to work over in action.” Angie threw her calves over the wingback chair’s arm and pointed her toes at her, stretching. “I believe in you—I mean, that healing you do. I want to learn it from you. I love how it feels.”
As their ocean refuge life crept out of the summer months, Angie worked to pick her way through lessons about healing. Her steps did not come easy. In the dim light before dawn she looked down while she whispered her feet around each sheaf of paper, piled in stacks that teetered upon each flat surface or bare spot of floor in the beach house. The study smelled of garlic, rosemary and anise — and that was only this week’s stew.
She crept quietly through the stacks, pages torn from magazines and newsletters all yellow with age, copies of charts already worn at their edges. The books that lay open near the windows gave off the smell of old cotton paper, toasted by the sun.
The writings had been passed on from the other healers Angie was learning to recognize: Stephen Coe’s work on prana and mystic movements of the hands, Madame Journeau on the heat in aromatherapies, Dr. Weistein on psychic surgery, and Dack Modray on crystal powers. The practices could sometimes be mixed, too. There was the direct remedy of making a gem elixir from the black tourmaline, malachite and amethyst. Endocrine repair, Delta said. But not the same as the immune system elixirs, or direct application of the crystals yellow jasper and fire agate.
It made Angie restless at nights, trying to sort it all out. They all had crystal in common, didn’t they? She couldn’t sleep, not deep anyway, feeling the fog from the night’s sea wrap around her as tight as any spandex the men peeled off her for those cameras. She felt unprepared for the healing of the day to come. The gemstones laid out on the wood floor between her bare legs all looked like beach pebbles, their colors a puzzle even after Delta explained their powers one at a time in a patient tone last night. Lapis lazuli, Angie remembered that one, used both for restoring immune function and restoration of endocrine systems. But there were both pink and black versions of the crystal. Which was which? It felt harder than memorizing those video scripts with the lines nobody would every speak in the real world.
She fingered the stones in the growing light of dawn. The pony master who’d staggered onto their porch yesterday was wheezing in the chamber next to the bedroom. They’d need to give the man called Willem an internal elixir, then bathe him in the ones which were more toxic. They would need all those therapies, Delta said, if they were to edge him away from death.
Angie couldn’t tell Delta how few of the mudra movements she could recall. The stones she might be able to manage, though. So in the growing light she painted and then polished her short fingernails. The nail colors were her crib notes for the 10 gems they’d use in the rescue attempt. Angie was to lead this one, and her shoulders were already tight.
Willem’s life lay across the transom of transition next door. He trained Assateague’s wild ponies for the wealthy seashore folk, but then rode bareback to Delta’s door fevered and bleeding from the corners of his eyes. Angie listened to him during the dawn, breathing with drawn effort. She looked for Delta’s book covered with purple leather, the one about, oh, what was it? Yamas, and niyamas. They would pray out these together to balance the two life forces, so Willem might rally his antibodies.
Angie squeezed into a nook between two of the stacks, clutching the purple book and crossing her legs. She read aloud, sounding out the foreign words like a six-year-old on the first day of school. The braided bookmark showed where Delta directed her to take a final look at the mysterious prayers. To save Willem, who worked his ponies and now gripped the horn of his life’s saddle, she would have to chant with Delta together, praying the ancient words for her first time over a patient.
She thought of herself as a keen student. But when Delta woke and found her cramming, she asked if learning the lessons felt like a calling. “Of course,” Angie said. “I’ll do anything I can to earn my keep here. I don’t want to have to leave a place this safe. I know I can learn this stuff.”
“Not so simple as stuff,” Delta said. “It’s a web of practices strong as any spider’s home. Complex, too.”
“I understand. I’ll catch on quick.”
“We will see. I hope you will do the best you can.”
“You can count on that much. I’d follow you anywhere.”
Delta looked at her for a minute or more, brows knitted and then relaxing. “I want you to follow a love of the learning. I think we both understand that following me is a different kind of love.”
Angie heard Delta’s reply sweep over her like a prayer. The prayers they recited together were mostly in the language that Delta called Sanskrit. They made a healing session feel like many of the past months, unfamiliar but also assuring. Angie had to believe she could bring the trainer to consciousness. She could feel her head swim in the minutes when she chanted together with Delta. They were not prayers like the ones in Latin she learned for First Communion at St. Stevens. But the language sounded just as mystic. She could only recite it as rote, as any line of some video script that she didn’t understand. But later, she could ask again what each word and phrase meant. Delta also called upon those powers of the crystals, which she’d mounted on copper wands, a part of the healing arts. At least art was Angie’s favorite subject in school.
Later that day, she felt like it was a week waiting for Willem to open his eyes. Delta cradled Angie’s shoulders, standing behind her and placing thick palms on her bare arms. Together they chanted the ni-yama mantra — maybe as much to help Angie, she thought, to wait out the awakening — as to heal the horseman.
But during such apprenticed afternoons and novice nights she felt held and accepted, even when she misunderstood. It was all new to her, this steady embrace of learning. Delta delivered a prayer that Angie held close to her breast. Delta said that her mistakes in those arts “were the necessary reminders of how careful and focused you must hold healing’s powerful flower.”
The next afternoon, they walked the July beach together and then fell onto that sleigh bed exhausted. The calico of the comforter waited to embrace them, tangling together in its folds. Angie had already brushed the sand from Delta’s forehead. She pretended to find more to brush off, an easy way to let her hands run over Delta’s body. While the healer’s eyes fluttered toward a nap, Angie brushed her shoulders, her back. Delta cuddled closer, like a cat toward a caress. Angie used her hands to stroke softly, crossing a line to settle her debt to her, so she could lift herself to an equal place in the relationship. She reached out to graduate, to teach Delta about the thing that Angie learned in front of video cameras. She could lift her toward the red-rocket glare of real sex. They slept in more than the night bathed in that loving light.
When Delta got sick, Angie faced the dreaded truth that she hadn’t learned enough healing arts to save her mentor. They studied the texts together over the too-few weeks, especially Langine’s classic healing crystals book. But each day Delta grew weaker, took back to the bed earlier. The circles crept downward away from her eyes and widened across her pock-marked cheeks, hollowed more with every week. Near the end Angie could see a glint of a hardened edge in those eyes.
“Don’t hate me,” Angie said on the last day.
“Not your fault. Not anybody’s.” Delta managed to get up on one elbow, a faint musk of sweat rising off her bedclothes. “You gave me the only thing I hadn’t learned about bodies. Gave it in love, too.”
“Not death. I didn’t give you death in the light of love.”
Up on that elbow, Delta started to shiver again. The shivering was the week’s new trial, uncontrollable shakes Angie would feel from Delta in the middle of the night while wrapped next to her. Angie would offer to leave the bed, to make Delta more comfortable by giving her more room. She’d always grab her wrist with a grip that surprised Angie. “It’s better when you’re here,” she’d say. “I can sleep through these when I can feel you against me.”
Angie couldn’t sleep, though. She felt no room to complain about it when Delta was dying. She wouldn’t use the drugs that had just surfaced with promise, not even when Angie begged.
“You’re killing yourself if you don’t!”
“Not true, and you know that.”
“But why then? Why?”
Delta closed her eyes and raised a hand to brush sweaty curls from her forehead. Angie thought for a moment she’d broken through with the question, maybe made a case for pharmaceutical salvation at last.
“Oh little love,” she said in a voice that wavered. “If I take those drugs, then what has my life been about, if I use that which most people cannot get? Did I make any mark, help anybody weak and poor who can’t afford to be saved by this drug-addled system? Why should I have even lived, if I follow their path of pharmacy — controlled by politics that can only serve health to the wealthy, or the indentured?”
“But you helped me, Delta. I wouldn’t have lived, washed up on that beach. Don’t I count enough to make your mark in life?”
“More than you know, especially now. By now you know what I’ve learned: the aromas, the crystals, the bodywork, the homeopathy, especially the prayer. But I know something else about my best student. You’ll keep learning. Even teach others, after awhile.”
Then she told Angie all about the afterward that would soon arrive, when her body would be spent and the Departadas would arrive to employ the ancient Hindu burial practices. Delta held Angie’s hand tight, but then sank back into the musky bedclothes from the effort of relating the details: Angie should welcome the women who would carry away her lifeless body. Delta’s body would depart in a shroud, spun with antiseptic fibers, heading to a furnace where healers and Hindus were offered up. Angie needed only to confirm Delta’s identity to the Departadas.
While Delta slept, Angie wrote her an apology.
There was something I asked of you. I wanted you to say yes, but I knew later on you should have said no, I can’t do that. I might have even known when I asked that it was wrong. No, not wrong altogether. Just wrong for me to want to be with you, even closer in that bed we had learned to share as friends, as student and mentor. In that bed in our house, we slept as lovers do after they’ve heard the cry of pleasure from each other. Not like those cries you must have heard from me behind a closed bathroom door, or out in the winds on a night walk, when I couldn’t sleep and sank onto the far side of a dune, awake and wanting you in that way.
Yes, you were too good to hold anything back from me. I told you that I loved you in that dark hour in that bed, when only the half-moon’s light gave me a glimpse of your thick untamed eyebrows, your long lashes that fluttered over your gray-green eyes. What I asked of you joined my past with a lonely future. What I gave to you cut you down, after you rose your body up on your elbows with those mighty hips lifted. I made you stretch into a pose you taught me in yoga, but one I never saw you practice on a bed.
But with our love I also planted that seed that brought sorrow into your healing body. And now into my life, too. I didn’t know how far we could go together that night and avoid the risk of not returning together. Now I wish you had said no, so you wouldn’t have to go, and leave me with that memory of the asking.
Angie pressed the bandages against Delta’s thigh, watching the flesh fade from gray to a dull white at the effort. The sores had opened up, the latest insult. Angie wrapped a hand tight around that thinning thigh, a too-easy grasp after weeks of bedridden days and nights.
The touch of gauze on her palm carried her back to that New Jersey dairy farm. The memory of that fourth-grade field trip made her shiver. When Angie slipped on the farm’s rocky path — Mr. Samuels had insisted, over the thunder, that the girls see the barns — Angie fell onto the rusty plow.
The gauze on the bed grew moist with a seep of warm fluid underneath it. Angie readied another bandage with a free hand, her gaze riveted on the gauze. Angie didn’t want to focus at what AIDS was doing to Delta’s thighs. The memory of those strong limbs on the swing still sparkled for her.
Back in that damp dairy barn Angie had looked away, too. Samuels was good in a crisis, it turned out. He located the gash quickly even in the driving rain, pressed down hard on it with his palm and then wrapped his scarf around her wound. With classmates in close formation behind him, he carried her to the barn, gentle as a mother cat toting kittens.
Now the stale bandage dripped the milky fluid, which smelled as strong as any cow’s dung. Ignoring what her nose told her, Angie smiled when Delta’s eyes fluttered open after a fevered nap.
Samuels’ voice on that day in the barn had seemed to calm the rain pounding off the roof. “You’ll be all right, Angie.” Angie remembered searching his look for any clue that it was untrue.
Now Angie swallowed hard while she knelt at the edge of Delta’s bed, pressing the fresh bandage on Delta’s decaying skin. “You’ll be–” She paused, only a moment. “You’ll be at peace, my love. Whatever I can do, I will for you.” She watched her break a weak grin, but Angie could only turn her face away in reply.
Delta’s face, still lined with the trails of her life of laughter, had become a map Angie read each day since the sickness, looking for a fresh path to hope. Delta wanted her to follow her road toward healing others. Her death was supposed to prod Angie to take steps into that future, alone.
Later, but not long enough for Angie, Delta’s body lay still in the sweat-soaked sheets, motionless as the stopped clock in the hall outside the bedroom. Angie was sure that she was gone now — no pulse, no breathing. The crystals she placed around Delta’s head reflected no colors back, not even when Angie held them over the solar plexus. She had held them close to Delta, as close as Delta held her hand upon that great, generous heart in its last minute of beating.
She had a gentle laugh escape at the very end. Angie thought of it as a laugh, not a grunt of pain. The pain had been constant over the last day. Her suffering had been a sensation Angie felt in every crack of every day, insistent and harrowing as a mouse burrowing inside a bedroom wall. Now the emptiness rolled onto her like a bulldozer crushing a screen door. What was she going to do next? Angie knew she would have to leave this woman she loved, give over the emaciated body for the Departadas to carry out of this house and her life.
Until those robed women arrived, though, Angie could roll in the scent of those sheets, a part of Delta that would remain a little while longer. Even though the fabric was probably teeming with disease, it didn’t daunt Angie. She now faced a life of surviving something harder than death, the road of being left behind.
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