In Retreat

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Booksie Classic

A slight anecdote about a true encounter with non-writers at a writers retreat.

In Retreat

H.E. Roulo

I entered the lounge, my bag heavy on my shoulder and paused. As expected, each table in the small lakeside bar had a laptop open. I sighed inside, disappointed that tables hadn’t opened up as it got later. I’d hoped to be able to find a spot now that it was dark outside.

Hating my own indecisiveness, I hesitated. Inside, I felt small, like a half-stepped on spider with legs coiled in to cover the bruised spots. I’d just gotten back from visiting my brother and his infant son. And his inoperable brain tumor. So if someone was going to reach out, it wasn’t me. I didn’t have the energy. I’d just gotten done writing; not my usual stuff but memories of my visit for my brother’s four month old son. Because I’d started asking myself what it meant to be a writer. If I couldn’t capture the truth about someone or hold onto a moment, what good were words?

Beside me, someone pushed out a chair. Relieved I wouldn’t have to return to my cabin, I plopped into the seat and put my bag between my feet. Too late, I realized that there were two men at the table, no laptop or retreat badges, and they smelled of beer.

“Are you with the group?” the one across the table asked, gesturing broadly. Bacon bits littered the table and a check stood between them in a padded black case.

“I guess I am.” I answered with a smile, wondering what I’d gotten myself into. “Aren’t you?”

“No.” They laughed like it was a funny idea, knees thudding against the tabletop.

My waitress from earlier appeared, all smiles. “How’re we doing here? These guys bothering you?” She laughed, the way you laugh when you’re paid not to give offense, but her eyes lingered on mine, noticing the way I perched on my chair with it not quite pulled up to the table. I suppose she knew that I hadn’t fully bought into their company. I didn’t want to give them ideas. I figured that if they cared they’d have seen my wedding band by now, but laid my hand on the table anyway. They weren’t aggressive, just more like one had gone in for a spontaneous hail-mary when they’d seen me standing in the doorway. Just checking out where things could go for no good reason but being loaded up with alcohol and free time. I found their enthusiasm refreshing, the loudness a welcome change from introspection.

“No, they’re okay. They were being friendly.”

“Where’s the check? It’s here, is it here? Well, why didn’t you tell me?” the first guy asked his companion, who laughed. Then they were both laughing and wavering back and forth in their seats.

A second waitress arrived, swooping around between the two men.

My waitress asked, “You got this? Because I’ve, uh, got table one.” But she went back to the bar, having turned my care over to her friend.

“Now, are you guys giving her a hard time?” the new waitress asked. She was younger than I was, but moved with certainty reserved for bouncers and waitresses who had seen it all. She put a hand on each of their chair backs. “How’re you boys doing? About done?” Her familiarity made me wonder if she knew them. Maybe they were local and she was fond of them?

The second guy still couldn’t get over how the bill had appeared without him noticing. I realized he was embarrassed, made worse when he couldn’t find his money. He cursed, finding his wallet empty, but his friend hushed him, which was sweet. Acting oblivious, I made myself busy pulling out pen and paper. I wasn’t about to set my laptop on the dirty table with the drunk men and their half-full glasses, but since they were paying their bill I figured they wouldn’t be around long and then I could have the table, which I really coveted. It was square and large enough to seat four people.

The waitress took the check with a last cluck.

I felt sympathy for the two guys in a room full of writers with their noses buried in screens, since our group had basically taken over the lounge area. But these guys looked like they’d still had plenty of fun.

The one beside me spoke. He was younger, his teeth straighter but his posture just as crooked and wavering as his companion. “Where’s your, you know, screen.”

I looked at the laptop case at my feet. “In there.”

“But you have a pad of paper out, not like these guys, so what’s your, you know, process.”

“Oh,” I tried to imagine what he wanted to know. “Well, I was just going to outline something.”

I read his face and tried again, “Before I start I’ll write out a plan. Everyone here is fiction writers.”

“We know that. We came in here, expecting no one, but here was everyone with their laptops. But not you.”

“I have my laptop. I just haven’t gotten it out yet. I will, once you’re gone, but I didn’t want to be rude. . .” I trailed off, smiling to show I wasn’t in a hurry for them to leave, though I was sort of eager to begin. Still, they were the friendliest of anyone I’d met so far, which I guess was obvious by how fast I’d sat down with them.

“Is everyone from around here?” the guy with crooked teeth asked.

“No, I don’t think so.” I peered around. Our locations were listed on our nametags beneath our names. “I met a guy from Canada, and there are several people from California.”

“Oh yes, we know that. That girl,” he gestured toward a blonde, his voice loud in the small room. White Christmas lights glittered beneath a mounted deer’s head. Plastic plants dotted the edges of the room and one wall of windows barely shone with light reflecting off the dark lake. “She’s from Colorado. Another--,” he frowned, trying to remember. I wondered how they knew where the blonde was from, and whether she deliberately ignored their attention now. I wouldn’t blame her.

He blinked, losing his place in the conversation.

I filled in the gap, pretending he’d finished what he meant to say. “If you know all that, then you’ve probably talked with more of them than I have,” I exclaimed with artificial delight overlaying bitterness. I’d found that the writers tended to know each other from previous years or other writers conferences. I had signed up following a convention and didn’t know anyone, but the Olympic Peninsula was within driving distance and the cost reasonable. Plus, I loved the rainforest location. Once my husband agreed to watch the kids for a few days, I’d felt lucky there were slots available for me to sign up.

I thought about how the waitress had acted. “Are you local?”

“No! We’re both from Seattle area. I’m from Burien and he’s from Renton. We’re going to go fishing tomorrow.”

I didn’t react, thinking that saying I was from Renton too might be too encouraging.

“We came here to BFE—you know what BFE is?”

“No.” It sounded like something my husband might have explained to me at one time, but I’d deliberately forgotten. The same way I tried to forget curse words so that if I ever became senile or developed Tourette’s I’d have fewer words to throw around and embarrass my future nurse.

“Well, I won’t tell you, then. But this is the city,” he encompassed an area of the table with his hands, “and this is BFE, where no one is. Out here. But we come here and there are all these people.” He gestured helplessly. I wondered if the other writers were listening to this and what they made of it.

“There are 36 of us,” I supplied. It was the kind of useless conversation you made with strangers. My new buddies didn’t notice or care.

The younger one leaned in again, “But I’m just, I just want to know. Here they are, following the process like everyone else. And here you are with paper. Doing your own thing.”

I smiled, not sure why that had made an impression but able to tell that it had.

The younger guy continued talking, eager to share. “It’s like me going to Wenatchee last weekend for motocross. It was me and three hundred other people in this little town, just descending on the town.”

I could tell he’d worked hard for a way to work motocross into the conversation, so I nodded approvingly at the word. The bill sat between them, paid, and I wondered if I needed to act less interested in order to make them leave. I really just wanted the table. They seemed nice enough, but I had a hard time following conversations even when the people weren’t drunk.

“Where are you from?”

“Seattle-area.” I supplied.

“Where abouts, in the Seattle area?” Crooked-teeth asked, as if suspicious.

I pointed to my nametag, since it would give away a lie. “Renton.”

“Renton!” Crooked-teeth turned to his friend as if surprised. “You hear that?”

“Me too,” younger guy held out his fist. I bumped it, marveling how much bigger his fist was than mine. He moved his hand back, opening it and making an exploding sound. “Renton!”

“Are we good?” Crooked teeth guy stood up, and the younger guy followed suit, collecting his change from the tray the waitress had left.

They said goodbye, but as they went around the table the young guy leaned down. His face close to mine, he tapped the table where my notepad lay. “Don’t walk in anyone’s footsteps. You know what I mean.” Nodding knowingly he followed his friend.

“Good luck with the –-,“ his friend motioned widely as he walked.

“Novel,” I supplied. “Good luck fishing tomorrow.”

From the bar, the waitress called, “All right you guys. Have a good night.”

The guys left, but I kept looking at the bar, seeing how the young waitress’s eyes hadn’t missed a thing. When she came over to clean the table she asked, “Were you really all right with those guys?”

I said, “Thanks for checking up on me. They were all right, just having fun.”

“Oh, they were having a lot of fun, too much fun I thought, honey. Lift that up and I’ll get all these bacon bits they were throwing around,” she muttered to herself. “Sorry I couldn’t have hung out with you longer.”

I smiled privately, finding it funny that the waitress, who was younger than I was, called me honey.

“You handled them well,” I said.

“We get used to it. You see a lot of guys come through here, with all the fisherman coming through here especially. Just wanted to make sure you were okay, honey.”

“Well, thank you.”

Happy I’d read that one right, I pulled out my laptop on the shiny surface. They’d been fine and what really mattered was, I had my table.

My hand hesitated, the screen flickering to life over its keys and illuminating the tabletop as I considered. Who talks with such significance except prophets and drunk fisherman?

“Don’t want in anyone’s footsteps,” I repeated. Now I just needed to make it mean something.

Submitted: March 30, 2012

© Copyright 2022 Heather Roulo. All rights reserved.

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