Submissions Welcome. If you’d like a fresh look at your opening chapter or prologue, please email your submission to me re the directions at the bottom of this post.
The Flogometer challenge: can you craft a first page that compels me to turn to the next page? Caveat: Please keep in mind that this is entirely subjective.
Note: all the Flogometer posts are here.
What's a first page in publishingland? In a properly formatted novel manuscript (double-spaced, 1-inch margins, 12-point type, etc.) there should be about 16 or 17 lines on the first page (first pages of chapters/prologues start about 1/3 of the way down the page). Directions for submissions are below—they include a request to post the rest of the chapter, but that’s optional.
A word about the line-editing in these posts: it’s “one-pass” editing, and I don’t try to address everything, which is why I appreciate the comments from the FtQ tribe. In a paid edit, I go through each manuscript three times.
Before you rip into today’s submission, consider this checklist of first-page ingredients from my book, Mastering the Craft of Compelling Storytelling. While it's not a requirement that all of these elements must be on the first page, they can be, and I think you have the best chance of hooking a reader if they are.
Download a free PDF copy here.
Were I you, I'd examine my first page in the light of this list before submitting to the Flogometer. I use it on my own work.
A First-page Checklist
- It begins engaging the reader with the character
- Something is happening. On a first page, this does NOT include a character musing about whatever.
- The character desires something.
- The character does something.
- There’s enough of a setting to orient the reader as to where things are happening.
- It happens in the NOW of the story.
- Backstory? What backstory? We’re in the NOW of the story.
- Set-up? What set-up? We’re in the NOW of the story.
- What happens raises a story question.
Caveat: a strong first-person voice with the right content can raise powerful story questions and create page turns without doing all of the above. A recent submission worked wonderfully well and didn't deal with five of the things in the checklist.
Also, if you think about it, the same checklist should apply to the page where you introduce an antagonist.
Georgia sends the first chapter of Sex, Love, Knife, Spoons
Please vote and comment. It helps the writer.
I’m trying a new poll approach. It occurred to me that asking if a narrative is “compelling” is a bit abstract. A sterner test is to ask if you would pay good money for to turn the page. With 50 chapters in a book that costs $15, each chapter would be “worth” 30 cents.
So that’s the question: would you pay that much to read the rest of the chapter? I won’t charge you, of course, but that’s the hurdle. Don't let genre/content affect your vote, decide on the basis of storytelling strength.
Please tell me in comments if you like/don't like this approach. Now for the first page:
Valerie saw herself as one of the fun moms, and it was a lot of pressure. On school mornings, she served up caterpillar ice cream sundaes with gummy worm antennae. She ordered improbable toys from midnight infomercials. She kept a bubblegum machine decorated like a Christmas tree in the living room. When summer vacation came, she and the only object for her endless self-reflection, Anna, slathered themselves in baby oil and sat on beach chairs in the front yard, drinking chilled Slim Fast.
“You never know when love might come along,” she told her daughter, smiling at the meter inspector as he disappeared around the side of the house. Anna put aside Farmer Budd's Seed and Flower Catalogue and watched her mom transform into someone magnetic and interesting, though she had her doubts about the meter man. She reached over and adjusted her mom's hat so it sat at a perky angle.
When Anna grew up and came home with not a first-mistake boyfriend (preferably a young man with a penchant for Wranglers, cowboy boots, and honky-tonks on the turnpike), but a child-sized excellence award from her woodworking class, Valerie tried to recall actually giving birth to her daughter and remembered nothing but cherry popsicles and no-skid socks.
For years she examined Anna, searching for signs she belonged to someone much (snip)
If you could, would you pay 30 cents to read the rest of this chapter?
The voice is likeable and the writing clean, always good to see here at FtQ. But I had issues. The point of view was confusing—we seem to be in Valerie’s pov at first, but then it shifts to Anna’s (she watches her mom) and then back to Valerie. A bit of head-hopping on the first page isn’t a strong invitation to proceed. Beyond that, though, there’s not much in the way of story questions here, nor a sign of a story. It serves as setup wrought with some charm, but that’s about it. Anna later goes off to France to attend a cooking school, and I’m guessing that’s where the story is. But it doesn’t seem to be on the first page. Think about it, Georgia, and start your story where something happens to Anna that forces her to react and take some kind of risk to set things right.
For what it’s worth.
Submitting to the Flogometer:
Email the following in an attachment (.doc, .docx, or .rtf preferred, no PDFs):
- your title
- your complete 1st chapter or prologue plus 1st chapter
- Please include in your email permission to post it on FtQ.
Note: I’m adding a copyright notice for the writer at the end of the post. I’ll use just the first name unless I’m told I can use the full name.
- Also, please tell me if it’s okay to post the rest of the chapter so people can turn the page.
- And, optionally, include your permission to use it as an example in a book on writing craft if that's okay.
- If you’re in a hurry, I’ve done “private floggings,” $50 for a first chapter.
- If you rewrite while you wait for your turn, it’s okay with me to update the submission.
Were I you, I'd examine my first page in the light of the first-page checklist before submitting to the Flogometer.
Flogging the Quill © 2015 Ray Rhamey, story © 2015 Georgia
. . . more mundane than herself. “I'm probably living a television mini-series in the making,” she whispered to a friend one night as they watched Anna fix the kitchen sink, reeking of marijuana. “I mean, they could have given me the wrong one. Lord knows I never would have noticed.”
“I love you, too, Mom,” Anna called from under the sink.
“Thank you, beloved. I mean it in the best way possible.”
When Anna turned twenty and took a part-time job at a furniture upholstery shop run by two lesbians and their overweight pit bull, Valerie all but gave up.
“Without so much as a sneeze in a higher educational direction,” Valerie said to the beauty parlor at large, surrounded by soothing sights and sounds. She spent most of her days either in the beauty parlor or ruminating on her next trip. “Now, I know God only gives us challenges we're equal to. But sometimes when I think of that girl I worry what His plan is exactly.”
Betty, Anna's best friend, nodded sympathetically, holding her hands still as planks on the manicure table. “I'm sure she's not as happy as she seems to be.”
“Single people are never happy. Trust me.” Valerie sighed. In spite of life's challenges, she knew she was blessed. Not everybody had her knack for shouldering the weight of the world.
While her mom and Betty fretted, Anna was sitting on an antique daybed in her garage, staring at a practically demolished nineteenth century ottoman. An older gentleman with a friendly handshake had brought it into the furniture repair shop the previous week, and Anna had taken it on as a pity case. A few electric fans whined in near harmony, blowing humid air over her half-finished whiskey sour. She wiped her face with her sleeve and aimed her power drill at the ottoman, pressing the trigger encouragingly.
“We'll get you fixed up in no time,” she reassured the ottoman. “Just you wait and see.”
Her phone rang. She set down the drill.
“Is this Anna Reynolds?” a British-sounding voice asked.
Anna straightened. British people always seemed so much more official than American ones. “This is she.”
“This is Juliette Gardner. I'm sorry to call out of the blue like this, but I've got some terribly sad news.” The woman took a deep breath. It gave Anna just enough time to be entirely gripped by dread. “Your uncle, Benjamin Reynolds, has passed away.”
“What?” Anna stared into space, concentrating with all her attention on the voice at the other end of the line.
“Six months ago.”
“Six months ago?” Anna picked up her drink, went inside and wedged herself into her couch pillows. She pulled a cushion to her chest. The living room was heavy with the smell of the microwaved bacon she had eaten for lunch.
“In a plane crash. In Kenya. Well, somewhere south of Kenya. East of Burundi, at least. Definitely west of Zanzibar.”
There was a pause. Anna didn't know what to say.
The woman called Juliette spoke. “I'm very sorry.”
“It's alright,” Anna said, feeling shocked and vaguely guilty. She downed her whiskey sour and spoke through the ice cubes. “I haven't seen him in years.”
“In any case,” Juliette continued, “I was going back through his files when I found something for you.” She cleared her throat. “You know your uncle was a fine chef.”
“Mm,” Anna said. All she knew about her Uncle Benji was from his postcards, which usually featured pictures of inappropriately clad Europeans. Her mom kept them taped to the inside of the liquor cabinet door for when she needed a good laugh.
“And he also taught classes at Hubert de Challes.” There was a pregnant pause. Juliette seemed to be waiting for some kind of response, so Anna obliged.
“Aha,” she said.
“Do you know about Hubert de Challes?”
Anna was one-hundred-percent positive she'd never met anyone by that name. “Maybe?”
Juliette sniffed. “Not to worry, dear. It's just the most famous cooking school in the world.”
Anna eyed the box of toaster pastries in the kitchen. All this chef-talk was making her hungry.
You're supposed to feel sad, she told herself. Not hungry.
“Your uncle wanted to give you this at your high school graduation.” Anna heard Juliette flip a page. “It's terrible he didn't live long enough.”
“At my graduation?”
“Just one minute, dear.” Anna heard further flipping of pages. “It was supposed to be some sort of gap year present.”
“I graduated from high school two years ago.” Anna got up and considered not making a second whiskey sour. She always tried to at least consider it, for the sake of her liver's mental well-being.
“Goodness. Two years ago. Righty-o then.” Juliette cleared her throat. “Your uncle has left you a fully paid tuition to Hubert de Challes. The cooking school you've never heard of. And a small allowance. For nine months of cuisine training.”
“And it's in France.”
“In France?” As in France, the country? It had been at least a decade since Anna had thought about France. The last time it had crossed her mind she'd been in tenth grade, listening to Mr. Thomas rant about the price of respectable cheese. Mr. Thomas wore pleated khaki pants and always stood with one leg propped on a chair, his pants-bulge looming in some unfortunate student's face. Anna had taken a silent oath to despise anything Mr. Thomas showed even a fleeting interest in. France had been one of those things.
Juliette sounded amused. “It's not a prison sentence, dear. It's an exclusive education. Sought after by thousands, dreamt of by, well, tens of thousands. At least that many. You'll study classic French cuisine with some of the world's finest living chefs.”
Even though Anna was young, she knew that just because something was sought after by tens of thousands didn't make the thing worth having. After all, tens of thousands sought after things like face tattoos and blonde hair. “Would I have to go right away?”
“Yes, dear. Tuition has been paid in full for the fall semester, which starts in a month. Next year it goes up another five thousand, so unless you'd like to pay the difference I suggest you get your American bottom across the pond. I'll give you some time to think about it. Talk to you in a week.”
When Anna hung up the phone, she unhooked her overall strap and yanked absentmindedly. Cooking school? France? The land of respectable cheese? It was the type of thing people did when they got divorced. Or fired. Or had a midnight yearning of the soul.
Anna wasn't experiencing any of those things. Not even close.
“Uncle Benji died,” she told her toaster. “And he thinks I should go to cooking school.” She gave in and made a second whiskey sour and shuffled to her bedroom. After a moment sprawled on the bed, she phoned her best friend Betty for emergency daiquiris at Saint Michael's, the smoky pub down the street. They were installed at their favorite duct-tape table within half an hour.
“You can't just move to France,” Betty said, adjusting her skirt. Anna could smell Betty's hairspray from across the table. “You'd move and never come back to start college.”
“It's okay,” Anna said, sipping her strawberry daiquiri, her head pounding to the beat of scream-core. Sunday night at Saint Michael's was always a bit of an event. “I don't really care about getting a degree.”
“Yes you do. I promise.”
“Betty, you know why I've avoided college. It's not my fault.”
Betty sighed. “I know you think you're just a cog in the scholastic machine, Annie, but you're not. You should go to college because you love entrepreneurship and want to study business models and move to New York.”
Anna smiled and patted Betty's hand. “That's what they want me to think.”
Betty rolled her eyes. “Not everything is a capitalist plot, Annie.”
A woman wearing a nose ring stomped past. Anna stared absentmindedly at the woman's neck tattoo, which featured a can of something called WHOOP ASS. There she goes, Anna thought. Another one of the tens of thousands. “Maybe I should go to cooking school.”
“Annie, you're not miserable enough to go abroad,” Betty said in an exasperated voice. “You broke up with Tony nine months ago. And stopped thinking about him eight months ago. You have a perfectly nice job at the furniture shop. You're going to get your degree. Someday. For your mother's sake if not your own.”
“And people who drop everything to go off and find themselves are desperate, Annie! They're not normal, friendly people who are perfectly comfortable with themselves!”
“Good point.” Anna ordered another round of daiquiris, and Betty tried not to look too pleased with her own logic.
After an epic journey home, during which Anna and Betty wrapped their blistered feet in five dollar bills peed in the university fountain while singing Patsy Cline's Sweet Dreams of You, Anna woke up to a handful of days that ticked past like a stack of cards being shuffled. Summer settled over Atlanta. The pavement went soft and even the love bugs looked thirsty.
A few mornings after drinks with Betty, Anna fixed herself two packets of toaster pastries and a cup of hazelnut coffee. On the way to meet her mom at the beauty parlor she hummed along to the Weekly Top 40, congratulating herself on having made the adult decision.
“If it ain't broke, don't move to France,” she muttered to herself, patiently waving a group of Jehovah's witnesses across the intersection. They looked very hot in their black suits.
Once inside the beauty parlor, Anna stopped breathing. At least, she tried. She avoided her mom's plastic-wrapped head as she swooped in.
“Watch my nails, beloved,” Valerie said, holding out her arms and bumping her chest against Anna's stomach.
“I can't believe Uncle Benji's dead,” Anna said, hugging her mom. They sat on a laminated couch and Valerie placed her hands very gently against her thighs. The fumes of hair bleach and nail polish remover swooped through the air, and Anna found herself wondering if a lifelong exposure to beauty parlors meant her offspring would come out with three arms and fifteen toes.
“Of course he's dead. He's been on his ninth life for fifteen years, Annie. And then he goes dabbling in tribal hallucinogens. And decides he can fly a plane. Please.”
Valerie harrumphed. “Poor thing, gallivanting off to France. Poor thing, becoming a top chef. Poor thing, leaving all his money to charity.” She said it as though leaving money to charity was the same as leaving money to a black magic cult.
The stylist waved Valerie off to the wash sink. Anna considered whether or not to tell her mom about Juliette's offer.
Nah, she thought. Don't want her to feel left out.
She picked up a magazine from the stack spread over the table. She flipped past “Handy Tips for a Helluvah Hand-job” and “Mini Cupcakes in a Hot Minute!” to an article titled “How to be French.”
“What serendipity,” Anna muttered. She looked at the laughably long list of books a French girl was supposed to have read while splitting her time between searching for the perfect doorknob (Never too old, never too new) or learning to drink wine and remain articulate (hardly one of Anna's strong points).
A real French girl remembers to always be fuckable, even at the grocery store. You never know who might be watching!
“Good god.” It sounded like a smutty version of her mother. With mixed feelings, Anna turned the page.
A real French girl always embraces her faults. If she abhors the sight of her naked derrière, she simply walks sideways into the room. A real French girl relishes her differences! Vive la difference!
Feeling confused, Anna flipped to the front of the magazine. It all seemed earnest enough. She turned back to the article.
A French girl's boyfriend, who's never too muscular but always holding a heavy book, is a bad boy. Remember, forgiveness is a woman's best quality, no matter her nationality!
Anna shuddered. She looked at the photo of the French girl (who looked both incredibly hungry and perfectly smug). She scanned the rest of the article, her distaste growing.
“Dodged that bullet,” she said firmly, closing the magazine with a sniff and shoving it as far underneath the flurry of magazines as she could.
Her mom dropped into the chair next to her, thrumming with the delight of the newly transformed. She struck a pose. “What do you think? It's called Magenta Madness.”
“That kind of off-purple looks great on you, Mom.”
“Thank you, sweetheart. Goes with my nails, too. Isn't that nice?” Valerie held out her hands, then yanked a magazine from the pile and squinted at a photo of older stars in bathing suits. She held out the spread and pointed at a pair of suspiciously perky breasts. “Small is the new gazumba, Annie. I'm giving serious thought to following the crowd.”
After the terrifying article about French people, Anna was even happier with her decision. She spent the rest of the afternoon reupholstering the antique ottoman with the television on for company. She'd almost lost track of time itself when she heard shouting.
“You bloody idiot!” came from the television. “You call that a rump roast? I call that a $!§&@ of a bloody &$*!!”
Anna glanced up just in time to see a chef throw an entire suckling pig at one of his employees. It missed the man's head and bashed a hole in the kitchen wall.
“Good lord,” she said, changing the channel. “Poor little pig.”
On the screen, a woman in a sparkling clean pair of jeans crouched next to a sparkling clean chicken coop. Anna immediately forgot all about the upholstery project. “In order to discourage fox infiltration, a chicken coop must be securely screened. We suggest following the Meyers-Higgenson method of encapsulation...”
The following Sunday, Anna sat at her kitchen table with a chilled whiskey sour, looking over courses for the following semester. She was just deliberating which course sounded most unappealing (AMH2000: Genius, God, or Jackass? and FM2029: Self-Analysis in Short Shorts) when the phone rang.
“Hi, Anna. Juliette here, how are you?”
“I'm doing great, and yourself?”
“On deadline. So. When are you coming to Paris?”
Anna circled AMH2000. It was definitely the most obnoxious-sounding. There was nothing like a course register to make you never want to go to college. “I've thought about the offer, and decided that I can't move to France.”
“Hm.” Juliette sniffed. “Anna, you're the last item on my list before I clear this executor business off my plate. In that light, you and I are going to do an exercise. I want you to close your eyes. Now, imagine yourself in fifty years. Concentrate. What do you see?”
Anna closed her eyes and tried to think about her life from an objective, far-seeing perspective. “The same thing,” she said, “but with wrinkles?”
“Well, I see a woman who wasn't afraid to tempt fate.”
“You do?” Anna took a sip of her drink and let that idea settle in. She'd never really thought of herself as having a fate, much less as being the kind of person to tempt one.
“Alright, I might be seeing a vision of myself, but either way one thing is true, Anna.”
“Nobody in the history of mankind has regretted going to Paris.”
Anna hoisted herself onto the kitchen counter. She put her feet in the sink. She could think of many people who probably regretted going to Paris (illegal immigrants, people with severe allergies to pollution, nineteenth-century aristocrats.) For a few long seconds, she mulled over her general aversion to moving to France, trying to give form to specific reasons why this was so. She settled on one rather inexorable point. “I can't cook.”
“What better way to learn than by going to cooking school?”
Anna reached into the cabinet and pulled out a cigar box. She unleashed another excellent point. “I don't speak French.”
“You're American, my dear. Nobody expects you to.”
Although Anna wasn't much for speed, one thing she could do very quickly and very well was roll a nice joint. She licked the seam and sparked her lighter. She took a deep breath, held it, and turned on the kitchen faucet, letting the water run until her feet were covered.
“Are you taking a bath?” Juliette asked.
Anna exhaled, her voice smoky and slightly asphyxiated. “I'm thinking.”
“Don't think. Just say yes. I'm looking at your ticket for the Other Woman. Nestled beside my manuscript. In an air-mail envelope, ready to be posted.”
Anna took another delicious puff, her head swimming pleasantly. In spite of herself, she liked talking to this Juliette person. She had such an efficient aura. “What's the Other Woman?”
Juliette gave a sigh that sounded almost reminiscent. “The Other Woman, my dear, is a cargo ship. A ship that crosses the Atlantic Ocean. Your uncle wanted you to have an adventure.”
Anna turned off the faucet. She wriggled her toes. She took a long, thoughtful drag. Never in her life had she encountered someone with such a bewitching voice. And cooking school was one thing, but a cargo ship? Full of sailors and boxes of mysterious objects bound for mysterious destinations? She exhaled, the smoke drizzling through her lips.
“I can hear the 'yes' forming in your mouth,” Juliette said. “Just let it free. Say you'll come. I'll pick you up at the train station in my converted milk truck.”
Juliette's seductive British voice made Anna completely forget all of her good reasons for not moving to France, and the terrifying article about real French girls, and the horrible cooking show with the poor little pig. She smiled and considered her joint in all its beauty. It was really one of her finest talents. “Okay.”
“Is that a yes?”
Anna took a deep drag and held it. “It's a yes.”
When she hung up, her leg muscles twitched as though she'd gone for a long jog.
“Did I just do that?” she asked the room at large. “I think I just did.” She laid the roach to one side and clambered out of the sink, feet still wet and slippery. She went to the garage, stood in front of the ottoman that would never be finished, sat down on the spilling stuffing, and about died laughing.
The idea that she could (easy as a snap!) pack her bags and catch a cargo ship bound for cooking school in France—it was hysterically funny. It seemed like something that would happen on television. Or like something that might happen if she woke up as a completely different person. Someone who knew how to cook, for example.
After forming new abdominal muscles from all the laughter, Anna suddenly felt far too sober. She went inside and climbed back into the sink. She lit the roach between a pair of tweezers and inhaled, looking for the buzz that had been killed. But the longer she sat on the counter, staring into space, the more she felt the pressure of inanimate presences that would have to be dealt with. She waved at her toaster, sensing its judgment. It was about the only cooking utensil she knew how to use. “Don't worry,” she said. “I'm not leaving you behind.”
The toaster looked at her pointedly.
She picked up the phone.
“But she bribed me,” she told Betty, running more cool water into the sink. “I am a victim here. Cooking school in France I can resist—but a trip across the Atlantic on a cargo ship?”
“You are so weird.”
Betty paused, considering. “No, you're not. Not really. But you're also not tortured, Annie, and that's my point. You don't need to go off to foreign parts. Sure, your uncle died, but it might as well have been my uncle.”
“Hey, I loved Uncle Benji.”
“What's his middle name?”
Anna wriggled her toes.
“What's his favorite animal?”
Anna stared accusingly at her broken window unit and waved air across her sticky face. “People don't have favorite animals, Betty. Not unless they're five.”
“My favorite animal—”
“Is a double-breasted cormorant, I know. My point exactly.” Anna sat up straight. “Betty, I'm going to cross the Atlantic on a cargo ship. Full of cargo. It's going to be absolutely amazing.”
Betty sighed. “Alright. Fine. You win. But I'm going to the store. To buy you a jumbo pack of Dramamine. You'll thank me later when you're puking your guts up for ten weeks.”
“This isn't 1785,” Anna said. “It doesn't take ten weeks to cross the Atlantic, it takes ten days. I'm also not going to die of Lyme disease or get wooed by a captain with one leg.”
“Annie, you've never crossed the state line. What do you know about crossing oceans?”
It was a valid point.
At her mom's house, the sun was setting across the azalea bushes, tinting the fuzzy leaves with gold. The heat pressed on the house, promising rain. The dishes from Sunday dinner waited in the sink, forgotten.
“You're leaving.” Her mom held up a roll of rose-scented trash bags. “That's what you want these for?”
Valerie shoved the bags back under the sink. “I told you something was wrong. You've been acting like a prisoner at her last meal all night long.”
Anna sighed. “It's only nine months.”
“I've got to think this over. Give myself some time to digest. I want you to have some fun, but cargo ships? Sailors? France?”
“It sounds pretty fun, doesn't it?”
“Beloved, it's your decision. My opinion is just my opinion.”
This was categorically untrue, and Anna knew it well. She tried to block the burgeoning lecture with compliments.
“You're the best, Mom. And your hair looks just as good as it did in the parlor.” Anna retrieved the trash bags and put them in her purse.
Valerie froze in the middle of the kitchen, her house slippers bright pink against the linoleum. “Annie, why would you want to move someplace where they don't speak English? Is that what I brought you up for? To be surrounded by people who have no idea what you're talking about?”
As usual, Anna responded to her mom's rapid-fire guilt trip by exiting the room. She went to the back porch and sat on the wicker couch she'd reupholstered when she was sixteen. The crickets competed with the frogs to see who could make the most racket. She slapped a mosquito that had landed on her face and thought about her dad. Much like Uncle Benji, he was more of a photo on a bedroom table than an actual person who had once been alive. She wondered what he would think about the whole thing.
“I've got a bad feeling about this,” her mom said, settling into her rocking chair. “In my stomach. Feels like a big rock.”
“Mom, you're going to be fine.”
Her mom nodded in the dark. “It's probably just ulcerative colitis.”
“Goodbye, toaster,” Anna said, plunking her toaster into a cardboard box, pretending she hadn't once promised she'd take it with her to France. “Goodbye, spoon.” She tossed her sole wooden cooking spoon next to her toaster.
“Well.” She looked for something else to pack and realized she had finished.
Around her feet, the contents of her life waited like various breeds of dog headed for a kennel. She could feel the resentment.
“Alright, guys,” she said, sitting on a cardboard box half-full of clothes. It collapsed. She sat, bottom entrenched, and stared at her kitchen. “I'm going to miss you,” she told the room at large. “I really am. But you'll survive without me.”
Her mom knocked on the door. Anna glanced at the clock. It was very unlike her mom to be on time. Anna hoped the early arrival wasn't a bad omen.
Valerie waited at the door, wearing a suspiciously large pair of sunglasses. “You're driving,” she told Anna. “I am in no shape to be behind the wheel.”
All the way to the airport, Anna played 'Teach Your Children' on repeat. Her mom didn't notice. At the McDonald's drive-through, Anna rolled down her window and didn't roll it back up, hoping the noise of the highway might drown out anything her mom might regret saying.
Valerie munched on her nuggets. “You know I love a good meal as much as the next person, Annie. But cooking school is a lot of money to spend on something you could just do at home. All I'm saying is, did you really need to sell your car? And quit your job?”
Anna didn't reply. Her mom had suddenly started treating Anna's job as thought it was not a dead-end black hole of pointlessness (as she usually did) but some golden parachute that Anna had just proceeded to stab a bunch of holes in.
“You know I'm a very positive person,” her mom said, “but let's face it. You just auctioned away your life and now you're jumping off a cliff.”
“Mom, you're going to be fine.” Anna thought about the five beautifully rolled joints taped to the inside of her underwear. She really should have left one un-taped for emergencies.
“Easy for you to say. You're the one who's leaving.”
Most of the time, Anna felt like talking to her mom was like talking to the opposite of a shrink. Instead of each feeling under discussion being turned into a space for investigation, with her mom there were no questions or feelings, only life according to Valerie. It was, on occasion, endearing. Anna leaned over and kissed her mom on the temple.
“Watch the road, watch the road,” her mom said, grabbing the steering wheel.
In the airport parking lot, Anna's mom dug a pair of high heels from her purse and put them in her lap. “Call me as soon as you get to New Orleans. Before you get on an oil rig full of,” she put a fluttering hand over her heart and took a steadying breath, “sailors.”
“The Other Woman,” Anna corrected. “A cargo ship. Full of oranges.”
Valerie waved her hand distractedly, eyes closed behind the sunglasses. “Should I cry now or wait until later?”
Anna got out of the car, walked around, and opened the passenger door. She crouched down and hugged her mom. While pretending not to cry, Valerie gulped air and changed her shoes.
“I don't like you driving home like this,” Anna told her. She patted her mom on the head.
“Well, I don't like you moving to France.” Valerie kissed her on the cheek and burped. “Damn hiccups.”
While her mom trailed behind, torn between admiration for the airport's shopping center and utter misery, Anna decided that airports were really strange. She passed a line of high leather chairs where white men reading newspapers got their shoes polished by black men. Flight attendants, traveling in flocks, wore masks of enameled lipstick and waterproof eyeliner. Their high heels clicked like a baseball card caught in a bicycle spoke. Being in an airport was like being magically transported to the 1960s. Anna looked forward to her very first liftoff.
“Maybe you'll meet that someone special,” her mom said as Anna checked in her luggage. This was the same thing she had said to persuade Anna to go to college, because in Valerie's world the only point in opening a book was if it lead to matrimony. “Maybe he'll be French.” Her tone implied that this would be similar to meeting and falling in love with a surprisingly friendly prison guard with four teeth and no middle name, but that beggars couldn't be choosers.
“Maybe,” Anna said absently.
“That's what happens, you know,” her mom said, her voice a warning laced with envy. “I've been reading up on it. When you go to a foreign country, you fall straight in love with some adulterer on a scooter.” She pulled out a packet of band-aids and indicated a bench just before security. “Mind if we pull over? These shoes are ripping my heels to shreds.”
They sat. Valerie set the world record for longest band-aid application. Anna rested her head on her mom's shoulder, her muddled emotions quietly being overtaken by excitement. Finally, Valerie let loose the waterworks.
“I don't think you should go,” she said, blowing her nose and dabbing under her sunglasses. “I think this is a really bad idea.”
“I know you do.” Anna snorted and wiped her face on her sleeve.
“Manners, Annie,” her mom said, holding out her used handkerchief.
Anna blew her nose properly and handed back the hankie. “I love you, Mom.”
This was when Valerie lost the ability to speak entirely. She spent the next twenty minutes waving and mouthing silent advice as she watched Anna disappear past security.
Within an hour Anna was buckled into seat 23A, which hovered above the state of Georgia by the pure force of mystery. She ordered tomato juice and accidentally received a Bloody Mary that was so good she decided to order another one, without even a second's hesitation. When they landed in New Orleans, she was ready for anything.
The docks were hot, flat, and smelled like fish that had been left out on a windowsill. Up close, the cargo ship looked like a city block stacked with box houses. The dark grey hull seemed to stretch past the sunset.
“Holy mackerel,” she said, looking up into the distance. “That's a lot of boat.”
A nice young man from Indonesia met her on the dock and directed her to a small cabin, which was lined in pale wood. She dropped her bag, checked out the bathroom (which had a full-size tub), and headed out to explore.
Inside the belly of the ship, men in colorful jumpsuits cleaned floors and scrubbed equipment. As Anna passed they nodded at her shoes, looking slightly hostile and very underwhelmed. One of them directed her to the captain's deck, which was up a flight of spiral stairs.
It was there, looking over the Gulf of Mexico, standing next to the control area (which had been entirely laminated with soft pornography), thinking about the enormity of the Atlantic Ocean, that she met him.
His name was Francisco. He was short, tan, smelled like chili powder and spoke five languages. In the ten days aboard the Other Woman, they shared a lifetime's worth of feelings. Maybe it was being on a ship on an endless ocean, with the sun and the salt and the enormous, mysterious tubes running through the galleys like intestines, but everything carried a tone of fleeting sensuality, of the here, of the now, of the this-won't-last-so-get-it-while-it's-hot.
Maybe it was simply that Francisco was a chain-smoking sailor. Or Peruvian. Or a total babe. Whatever it was, Anna crossed the ocean in a dreamy daze and left the ship brimming with goodwill for the world, for the French, for the future.
They landed in a port town called Le Havre, which was located across the Channel from England and a few hours northwest of Paris. Anna approached the city armed with a hotel reservation, a newly replenished stash of joints, and Juliette's British evaluation of the city itself.
“Most of the French love to hate Le Havre,” she'd told Anna. “It was bombed during the war, rebuilt by a man whose architectural slogan was 'concrete is beautiful', and named a UNESCO world heritage site for their cultural center that looks like a dirty white volcano. It's full of sailors, French tourists, and reasonably priced rum. It's possibly my favorite town in France, outside of Paris.”
After a car ride from the docks to a hotel named Voltaire where everything was yellow, Anna checked in and headed for the beach. She passed a church that looked like the Empire State building, found a boardwalk full of half-naked French people in expensive sandals, and decided to stop at one of the collapsible summer-only restaurants for her first cold beer in France. (“Beer,” Juliette had advised her, “is the same in most languages.”)
With her feet propped up on the sidewalk, sitting in a wooden lounge chair, under the hazy sun with a frosty beverage in hand, Anna thought about her voyage across the Atlantic. She watched the cargo ships burrow into the Le Havre harbor. She ordered a plate of french fries.
During her boat ride, she hadn't had much time to think about cooking school, or to wonder if kitchens would be as life-threatening as they were on reality TV. She had been much too busy getting her groove on. Of course, she wasn't the type of person to dwell on imminent doom and gloom while sitting in the sunshine, drinking a beer, so she decided not to think about whether her life was in mortal danger and let herself be distracted by the fat old men in speedos opposite the boardwalk who were playing a game that involved heavy metal balls and a magnet on a string.
The afternoon passed, and by the time deep shadows drew across the water and the clouds turned a vibrant golden pink, Anna was fully awake and ready for action. She went for a stroll and wound up in a tiki bar, where a Brazilian merchant marine who'd been aboard the Other Woman recognized her and decided to be madly in love with her for one night only. So Anna put on the proffered clown wig and danced all night to 1970s French disco, which was even worse than American disco (if such a thing were possible.) Shots of rum half-filled with cane sugar arrived at regular intervals on bamboo trays, bought by Anna didn't care who. The bar closed their front entrance and opened the back.
Just before sunrise, the Brazilian had vowed to marry her should she ever find herself in São Paulo and Anna decided that it was high time she catch her train to Paris. She grabbed her suitcase, checked out, and fell asleep while zooming through the Normandy countryside (full of cows.)