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March 9, 2009

The Gift and the Disappointment

The eight-year-old daughter that I don’t have rushes into my office, leaps onto my lap, and asks me to help her with her homework. We spend a few minutes doing basic math and practicing her spelling. She’s got her d’s and b’s switched around. She’s bright and precocious and she’s missing an upper tooth. She’s got curly brown hair, like me, and when she zips out of the room she turns her head and her corkscrew curls bounce wildly and she says, “Thank you, Daddy.” My dog, Edgar, who is real, runs after her.

I look down at my computer monitor and there’s a line about a man who is fighting his friend, trying to stop him from killing someone. I fiddle with the line. I add to it. It becomes two sentences, then a paragraph. Then a page.

I head downstairs. My father, who’s been dead for 35 years, is standing on my patio with a spatula in hand, occasionally flipping burgers on the grill. He looks the same as he did when he died at 46. I’m nearly as old as he is now. I have more gray in my hair than he does. I sit at the picnic table and start reading the paper and we talk about…something. I don’t know what. I can’t really hear him. I don’t remember the sound of his voice. I remember his smile though. He’s smiling now.

My mother, whose been gone 7 years, is in the kitchen making salad. She calls out to my father and asks him what kind of dressing he’d like. He doesn’t respond because he’s feeding Edgar one of the hotdogs he’s overcooked. My daughter is beside me. She’s laughing and her laughter fires through my chest and fills me so much joy that I feel like my heart will explode.

I look down at my computer monitor and there’s a line about a woman turning over in bed and asking someone to kill her husband.

Edgar lies down at my feet and nestles his chin on top of my foot. I glance out the window at the back yard. The grill is cold. The patio furniture has been put away in the shed.

My daughter stands in the doorway crying. She bumped her knee. I hold her, shushing her, until she quiets. She goes to sleep in my arms. I press my nose to her hair and breathe in her scent deeply.

I’m chewing on a pen. My hands are a blur on the keypad. The next page is about a Hollywood agent trying to rip off a client.

This is how my workday goes.

Writers slip in and out of identities. We can be cops or gunmen or high-paid assassins. We can be heroes or badasses. That’s where the work takes us, into our own fantasies, into romanticized notions of ourselves. And then drops us back into our real selves.

And at least one element of that fantasy is comprised of daydreams-the common and average daydreams that fill out my common and average life. The people I miss are returned to me. The ones who were never born are there for me to cuddle and protect. It’s what happens when my mind wanders. I drift. I dive into the page. I call back to memory. I get swept away. Sometimes it goes so far that when I’m snapped back into myself it’s something of a shock and I feel like someone’s thrown cold water in my face. I suck air through my teeth like I’ve been holding my breath for minutes. Maybe I have. That’s the power, the pain, the gift and the disappointment of trying on someone else’s skin. Even if that someone else looks exactly like me.

My daughter asks if I’m busy. I tell her no. She giggles and asks me to read her a story.

My hands flash. I shut my eyes and the writing continues.

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