The End of an Erica
by Kevin Ahearn
“They say life is a dream, a precious poor dream at times — but I can’t stand another that won’t fit. It’s madness. And where did the dream come from?” — H.G. Wells, The Time Machine
“I’m a writer and I’m full of BS,” I tell people all the time.
Because it’s true. I like to think I’m a writer, that I think like a writer, always looking for a story. Not somebody who will tell me one I can cut-and-paste together, but a once-in-a-lifetime tale only I can tell.
“Know what your story is about,” I’d told so many other writers questing to be published. “And write yourself out of it.”
Therein lies the rub: it’s all in the writer’s head. From wherever and whenever, something registers, fact or fantasy, for whatever reason, and the creative wheels start turning.
Little did I suspect that a story was going to hit me, and there would be no way out of it until I discovered what she was about.
Buying the Sunday New York Times had long been a family tradition, lately at the little coffee stop in the center of the little town a mile and a half down the road.
The week before a stunning blonde was behind the counter. Her friendly country smile and lovely body were still dancing in my head seven days later as I drove in for this Sunday’s edition.
The blonde was gone; a new woman had taken her place, tall and slim with long brown hair, pretty, in a mannequin sort of way as if life as I like to think I know it was lacking.
“I’m having the time of my life and I’m sure you are too,” I said when she asked and that almost got a smile. As I walked to my car, I found myself trying to remember last week’s blonde.
That didn’t happen. On the short drive home, the blonde vanished forever, but instead of seeing the new woman, I got something else, something weird. Was it her long hair and lithe frame or the lifelessness in her eyes that projected a completely unexpected image... from a 50-year old comic book story, “The Perils of Ulysses”? I was seeing her as one of Homer’s alluring sirens, but in that spin of the classic tale, she wasn’t a woman, but... an android.
A sci-fi siren? Whoa! What’s going on here? Man sees Woman, his id flares up, his ego chimes in activating his sex drive — standard operating procedure. But she hadn’t just turned me on; she’d lit me up. Who is this woman?
Back at home I had work to do. With one more short story, my anthology would be complete, and I’d be published; I’d be a real writer!
Mostly I write fantasy and science fiction — religion, race, technology, the future, a ‘coming of age’ story would really be cool, whatever; it begins with an idea. Inspiration can come from anywhere. And when it hit...
I’d started “A Werewolf in the White House” with a gruesome killing on the grounds leading back to a Presidential trip to Romania and the death of a rabid wolf. Who in the party did it bite?
But I couldn’t make the thing sing. It wasn’t about anything.
C’mon, writer! One more damn story!
Soon it was Sunday again and I couldn’t help seeing her comic book image as I drove into town. I’m hardly Odysseus, but as a lifelong fanboy, I’ve always had a soft spot for android sirens.
After I paid for my Times, I had to ask her, “Where do you want to go from here?”
I’ve asked that question often: bank tellers, retail clerks, folks at the library, guys doing community service at the landfill. Too often, people didn’t know where they wanted to go or had already gotten there, their lives at an end where they were.
“I’m going to be a mental health professional,” she said and in an instant the android became a person, a woman on a quest with life in her eyes!
On the way home, from my art school days, a new image flashed up: Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. Though the painter’s Renaissance goddess had a more Victorian shape, it was her flowing hair and the spirit in her eyes that enchanted me.
From comic book siren to mythical masterpiece! Who is this woman?
A ‘mental health professional’ — maybe I needed one myself. Years before, as a social worker, I had worked in a day program with a full caseload and started a newsletter which evolved into a 32-page monthly magazine: The Inner Circular, named by the clients with the tagline, “About us, by us.”
My name wasn’t on it. The clients did all the writing. I edited their entries, then added graphics xeroxed from books and magazines as ‘ads’ for various programs.
The Inner Circular was a quirky success which contributed to my firing.
“We are here to help and serve the mentally ill,” I was told. “But you... you want these clients to... do stuff!”
Mental Health quickly did away with me, but I had saved some copies somewhere. I found four issues, hopped in my car, and drove back into town.
“Uh-oh,” she said when I returned as if part of the Times was missing.
I showed her The Inner Circular and she seemed interested. Her name was Erica and she had a degree in Psychology. She thanked me for them and back home I went.
“Identical Boys” would be the last story in my anthology. Born at the same time in parallel universes, they were far from twins and “an eruption in the time-space continuum” would have them exchange places with comical and disastrous results.
Except I couldn’t make it go anywhere. I had a concept, characters, but where was the conflict? What did the story mean?
Not that I wasn’t having visions. Of Erica — the android siren and the Renaissance goddess kept flashing on and off.
“God, I wanna do her!” My raging id would cry out.
What’s new about that? I’d been alone since my marriage ended two years before. Lonely and horny... or was there something else happening? One image had led to another. “It is what it is,” is not writer thinking. Where is this going? What was Erica about?
“Life in a Little Room... Without the Possibility of Parole” was about a man who kills his wife over a dog. Convicted of murder and confined in an “experimental” prison of the future, he escapes only to discover that to save money and space, his body had been shrunken to less than an inch tall. He is then stalked and killed by a cat.
Lame, lame, lame! Moving on...
“Vampire Rehab: Twelve Steps to a Bloodfree Relationship”?
I’ve been smokin’ way too much weed!
Nothing was working. Most of the time I could only think about Erica.
Was I in love with this woman? I didn’t even know her. But I did love dreaming about her. When I became a real writer, when I was finally somebody. Local author makes it big, bangs pretty babe. That was it? As obvious and as clichéd as the stories I couldn’t bother to finish?
Where was this going?
During the week, I stopped in at the local Rite-Aid. Suddenly Erica was there. She came up and talked to me about The Inner Circular, about how angry some of my clients had been.
I barely heard Erica speak. Winter was blowing in and she was wearing a heavy coat with a green scarf. Standing in front of a display of holiday decorations, an aura shimmered around her, making her glow like a Christmas tree!
On came a parade of images, flashing like photographs — full-page color high-end fashion spreads from The New Yorker.
“God, I wanna do her!”
I drove home in a daze, fantasizing, loving her without pause until I died in her arms. What a letdown heaven would be!
“The Baby-Doomers.” What if the latest retiring generation all live into their eighties and nineties? Half of America taking care of the other half. We’d go fiscally and morally bankrupt. Grown children pushing their aged parents out into the street. “Muscle” wheelchairs the rage. AARP would put a bounty on my head.
Wait a minute, wannabe, I caught myself. A man’s worth can be equated to how he values a woman. Sleeping with Erica, even if we ignited a string of supernovae across the Milky Way, would be anti-climatic. Had to be.
Loosely translated, “living the fantasy” can mean “been here before and going through the motions.” Beyond sexual nirvana, I was looking for a moment, the beginning of a story I couldn’t begin to imagine.
Waking up with Erica would transport me to a new and different universe. My past would die and my future would start from the moment I opened my eyes and saw her lying next to me.
“’Cause it’s one, two, three Clones you’re out in the New Ball Game.” In the far distant future, long after all sports have completely faded away and the world has grown fat and lazy with inactivity, The Powers That Be resurrect baseball by cloning two full teams of Hall of Famers including Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson and broadcast the game globally.
Who would win? For what? Who cares?
Erica, who I imagined Erica to be, was taking me over. But I never “violated” her, never had her do or say anything on my whim. Innocently I’d talk to her all over the world, my dialogue noble and chaste.
Who was this woman? Love and lust, romance and fantasy, I’d been through them all and beyond. A sequence of images was supposed to lead to metaphor, meaning. Just by being herself, what was Erica saying?
Pul-lease! Just one more freaking story.
Erica worked on Tuesday mornings and I went in for a cup of coffee. Right off, I knew something was amiss. I know enough about women to understand that there is little a man can know. And in our short times together not once did I get a glance or a word she held any kind of personal interest in me. That’s tough to take, but hope springs eternal.
This morning I understood that Erica was a woman who drew a line around herself and could tell a man when he had stepped over it without saying a word.
As I drank my coffee, she retreated to the rear of the shop and reflected yet another image: that of a bird on an airport tarmac, anxious and frustrated, but unable to take flight. Pretty plumage, and in full flight, I bet she’d be breathtaking.
Downhearted I left. I would never see her again. The shop closed for the winter and opened in the spring under new management. I didn’t know her last name, never asked for her telephone number. For all I knew, she was married with a couple of kids.
Hopefully, she’d taken wing for her own special sky.
I could have found out and pursued her, but the last thing I wanted to do was interfere with her life. Not with the one I was living.
Optimists say love is the strongest emotion. Pessimists counter that hate is much stronger. But it’s fear that rules the roost. If Erica and I had one thing in common, I’d like to believe it was an uncompromising set of core values not for sale at any price.
In my heart of hearts I knew, had we been together for a month, a week, a night, an afternoon or an hour, that I would have given away all that I am in the hope of waking up with her.
Erica scared me? Blame her, or was this about something else, obvious and long overdue, that I lacked the guts to man up to?
Months have passed and I still think of her often, especially as the writer I claim to be. Erica had affected me deeply at a time in my life...
During the Civil Rights Movement, I had been a VISTA Volunteer in “the heart o’ Dixie” and organized a team of young blacks to play in an all-white baseball league. Against all odds, the West End Bluehawks won the championship. What a wondrous and meaningful adventure! If only I had met Erica then, when we would have been the same age. The fun we would have had!
Just yesterday was forty years ago.
Since then my life has been a series of quests, from tours in the Peace Corps and cross-country bicycle trips to trips through the prison system and education and publishing, a long marriage, a son too much like me and that novel I finally finished. As my experiences accumulated I’d come to see myself as, more and more, a complete individual.
And so full of BS!
“It is not about the agony of the quest,” wrote the myth-master Joseph Campbell, “but the rapture of the revelation.”
Erica was the revelation. I didn’t think I’d live long enough to meet a woman who would make me wish I were younger. She saw me as who I am, not who I used to be or who I believed I had become.
And the rapture?
My anthology is done. Once in a lifetime you get a “coming of old age” story.
Might as well tell it.
Copyright © 2009 by Kevin Ahearn