A few weeks ago I entered a contest on NPR's website. I had to write a story, 600 words or less, inspired by this photo. I didn't win. Of course. But I had fun doing it. Upon re-reading the story, I found a ton of echoes and sloppy construction (as always happens when I write and submit something in the same day). I've cleaned it up a little. Here it is:
The ad, halfway through the second column, said, “DWPM. Tall. Playful soul looking to alchemize with another playful soul.” Annie sat back in the metal chair. She blinked and read the words again. Then she simply stood, taking her paper cup of tea and leaving the newspaper open on the table.
It wasn’t a real newspaper anyway, just one of those tabloid-sized local rags that was more entertainment and less shootings, politics, and tsunamis.
She wandered up the street, disgusted. Alchemize? Playful soul? Who thought up that new age crap? Much less printed it for all the actively dating city to see. Where were the guys in suits and ties with good jobs? The ones who spent their Sunday mornings at church or mowing the lawn rather than hiking with their dogs or lazily feeding their girlfriends scrambled eggs? She wanted men with 401(k)s and pegboards full of tools in their garages. There had to be a few who hadn’t already found spouses.
A cold wind hurtled between the brick buildings, filling her blouse and pulling a wet gasp from her throat. She tugged her coat more tightly around her waist and, with a free hand, clinched the lapels over her collarbone.
Her Earl Grey had finally cooled enough to drink. She wished she’d thought to throw away the soggy, floating teabag before leaving the coffee shop.
Cars and buses passed her, headlights already flipped on. It was getting dark so early now.
Annie tried to picture herself with a man who meditated in traffic and traveled the inner roads of his being, just as she always, however briefly, imagined being with the men who proclaimed love for their motorcycles and boasted having more than ten tattoos.
Her little fugue exercises could go on for hours, an entire afternoon if she had time, and they filled her with a disturbed sort of pleasure. She spun out of them shivering, grinning, prepared to feel some relief as her brain leveled and she remembered her real life.
The consolation, however, rarely came.
She turned a corner and roamed up 57th Street. Shops were closing. Couples entered restaurants, at ease with themselves as twosomes. The windows were warmly lit, gold leaf lettering across the glass and, beyond, flickering votives and the smells of braised lamb, lasagna, chocolate espresso cake.
Her lack of direction was, all at once, surprising and familiar. Her slow shuffling up dark streets, while not something she often did, was comforting in its way. Her hours were her own. No one expected her.
By the time she clomped up the steps to her third floor apartment, the evening was frigid and satiny dark. The door, she noted with annoyance, was unlocked. The smell of baked chicken clung to every white wall, had burrowed into the ugly, beige carpet.
Annie shed her coat and moved toward the second bedroom--the studio, they called it. And there he was, oblivious to her, paintbrush in hand, canvas streaked clumsily with color.
“You’ve been at it all day again,” she said to her husband and shook her head, wishing she’d stayed longer at the café.