Monday, September 26, 2016

The Butterflies Were Kung-Fu Fighting . . .

Everything’s fine until I walk in the door at Koto, the Japanese grill in Salem where we’re doing our author reading.
I chose what I’m going to read a couple of weeks ago. I’ve been practicing since then, reading it aloud almost every night—sometimes twice, just because it’s fun—even though I’m pretty sure I have it down cold. I tell myself I’m just trying to make sure the piece falls within my allotted time, even though I know it does. Hell, it only takes half the time. I’m sure of this: the clock in my phone has a well-used stopwatch function. I’ve been looking forward to this since I signed on for it. I like reading to people!
But now I’ve walked through the door and, well, there are people here. For the moment there are just a couple of customers, a couple of staff, a couple of writers who have come out to support the event, and three of the other writers who’ll be reading, so it’s not, like, you know, a crowd, but . . . people. This isn’t like speaking the words alone in my room, or even when I used to do storytime with my son. I know I’ve practiced, but what if I flub a line in front of watching eyes? And Christ, there’s a microphone up there, set in a tall stand. I talk with my hands a lot—what if I knock the damn thing over? What if I . . . this is just me thinking here, so no need to put a fine point to it: what if I suck?
It’ll be okay, I tell myself. It’s just a few people, and I know half of them . . . though I’m not sure if that makes it better or worse. I look around. Pretty empty in here so far. Maybe it’ll stay this way?
Look, it’s not like I want the event to fail or anything. I don’t. But for all the times I’ve written something to the effect that one of my character’s bowels “turned to water,” as a couple more customers come in and take seats back here by the stage, I start to feel just a little bit . . . liquid.
I get directions to the restrooms and have some success dehydrating myself. My insides still feel a bit cool and sloshy. I try to go again—better to be safe than sorry—with minimal success. The third try is a complete failure—there’s nothing in the tank—and I’ve already read everything written on the walls four times in an effort to distract myself; I now know more than I ever wanted to about a girl named Alana, and my advice to Rashid, should that little bit scribbled in the corner be true, would be to go see a doctor. Fast.
Okay, I can’t put it off any longer, I have to go back out there. Besides, it’d look really weird if I went into the bathroom and just never came out—though there are a few people out there right now who would turn that into a story, so I’d really be doing them a favor if I . . . no, no, I have to go back. So I exit the restroom, walk to the other end of the hall, open the door leading back into the restaurant proper, and holy shit where did all those people come from?
I’m not even kidding, the place has started to fill up. I tell myself I’ll be fine. I wanted to do this, remember? I volunteered, I helped promote the event, I practiced, and I have it down cold, right? No worries. I’ll just make my way to my seat—
My seat has been taken by a spectator. It’s getting that full.
Deep breaths.
I wind up over at the bar when the readings begin, nursing a Cola so as not to require another trip to the bathroom. I’m scheduled to read fourth in the list of six, so I have a little time for the butterflies to quit kung-fu fighting in my colon. Then, midway through the second reading, the staff sets up an extra banquet table right in front of the stage to accomodate the growing crowd.
Perhaps I could slip off to the restroom again?
I stick to my guns at the bar—actually, I’m afraid that if I walk too far that liquid feeling will get the best of me, and I’ll have to change my pants—and watch the readings on stage. One after the other these authors get up there, they all look so damn comfortable, and their readings are terrific. Part of me hates them, but most of me is merely really aware that it’s my turn.
The emcee introduces me, and I step up behind the mic, Kindle in hand. I look out at the crowd and my sphincter quickly goes so tight I’m pretty sure the people at that table right up front can hear it squeak. So, I think, this is what it’s like to have fifty, maybe sixty people all staring at you in anticipation. I stare down at my Kindle, and I can’t make out the words. I didn’t think it was possible, but my sphincter actually tightens more. I thought I’d set the text to be large enough to read easily on stage. What did I do, make it smaller?
Oh, no. My hands are just trembling so much the text is all a blur. I take a breath, will them to be still, and I begin.
Less than a page into my reading, it happens.
My voice steadies. My hands may be still be shaking, but it’s hard to tell because they’re darting about as I gesture. I begin to smile. To scowl. To feel. I know the story cold—in part because I wrote it—but this doesn’t feel like I’m just repeating what I wrote; I’m almost part of the audience, along for the ride, because this isn’t me telling a story anymore: this is the characters telling their story, and they tell it like they were there. Because to them they were. When we wrote their story I was their pen, and now that we’re telling it I’m their mouthpiece, and as I let go, and they take over, telling their story through me, the reading becomes what I signed up for. It becomes what I was looking forward to.
This is fun.
When the event is all over I have to say I feel pretty good about it. Better than pretty good: fantastic. I don’t understand why I always get so nervous before I perform a reading when I usually wind feeling great about them afterward. Maybe it’ll be different at the next one I do, which is . . . oh, that’s right. I have another reading in a week.
Oh, damn. I have to go home and read over the story I chose for that event. Maybe I’ll practice twice—even three times—just because it’s fun. Right? I mean, after all, I have a week to get it down cold, don’t I?
Aw, crap. Here we go again . . .

Talk to you later!

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