When I am working – really working – on a novel, I only pretend to be human. Though I may act relatively normal, in actuality I have transformed into an enormous, squishy head attached to a floaty, immaterial body, useful only because it transports my head around. Everything I come into contact with gets absorbed in the spongy matter and either ferments or turns into something else.
Today, for example, I am at a Verizon store unraveling the mysteries of my new Blackberry. A hip young sales associate named Dawn has been dispatched to teach me how to download ring tones and other “apps.” Part of my brain is paying attention (as much attention as is possible for me ever in these situations, which is to say not much), but mostly I am focused on other things. What brought this girl to this particular Verizon store in a strip mall on Route 3 in Clifton, New Jersey? Is she really passionate about electronics? Was it a bond she shared with, say, her gay older brother or alcoholic ex-boyfriend? What does her tattoo of a purple rose signify? How does she manage to keep her fingernails so long and yet manipulate the tiny keypad so well?
(There’s a character in my novel, a 17-year-old juvenile delinquent named Michelle ….)
Dawn’s fruity breath mint clicks against her teeth, and as she leans closer to show me how to click and drag, I smell her jasmine-scented shampoo. All of this sensory and physical detail seeps into the sponge in my head, where it quickly becomes absorbed. And meanwhile I try to act normal – though it’s pretty clear that by the way Dawn is treating me that I’m not fooling her at all.