Story Time

“He was more comfortable alone than with others, and since writing was a mostly solitary act, it fit him well.” A short story where social anxiety and a public reading square off…

by: T.E. Cowell

It was Ben’s turn to read, and all of the nervousness he’d originally felt returned and even escalated as he clambered up onto the compact stage. He turned and faced the crowd, which, now that everyone was looking at him, seemed larger than it had a moment earlier. In the room there were only about twenty people — roughly the same size as in his creative writing class — but with such a large number of eyes on him, Ben found it difficult to focus.

Ben had social anxiety, which was part of the reason why he was drawn to writing. He was more comfortable alone than with others, and since writing was a mostly solitary act, it fit him well. As for whether his writing was any good or not, that was up for debate — at least in Ben’s mind. The editors of the college-run magazine that had published a story Ben had sent them a while back, the story that he was about to read, seemed to think that his writing was adequate. Not only did they publish his story, but they asked him if he wouldn’t mind reading his story alongside a select handful of other writers whose work was featured in the latest issue of the magazine. A few days before the reading, Ben had seen notices taped to the walls in the Humanities building at the college. “Story-Time,” the header read, and listed on the notice was Ben’s name among others, as well as the date, time, and location where the event was to be held. At first Ben hadn’t wanted to read his story and thought of emailing the editor back and saying “thanks but no thanks, I’m busy that day.” But Ben told his girlfriend about the request, and she’d become all excited and told him that he had to go, that it’d be fun, and that she’d go too to support him. There was no way Ben could get out of attending the event after that, unless he were to suddenly come down with an illness, which unfortunately for Ben never happened.

As Ben settled in behind the center stage podium, he struggled to locate his girlfriend due to the stage lighting blinding part of his vision. Timidly, Ben cleared his throat and made a conscious effort to take a deep breath. He told himself to relax, that this was nothing to get worked up over. He was reading a story to some college-goers like himself, that was all. He reminded himself that he’d done this before, in his creative writing class. Still, whenever he read something he’d written to others, Ben always turned it into a big deal in his head. Because of this, his voice would often shake and his heart would beat in his chest like someone was trapped in there, trying to get out. 

With a copy of the latest issue of the college-run magazine in his hands, Ben flipped to the page where his story began. The crowd was quiet, too quiet. Ben looked up from the magazine and said, lamely, “Hello everyone. So I guess I’m going to read my story now.” That was an example of what Ben did when he was nervous — stated the absurdly obvious. “Uh, I know some people like to say a few words about what they wrote before they get into it,” he went on, “but I don’t want to do that — I want the reader, or listener in this case, to not be affected by what I think the story’s about so that they can draw their own conclusions. I’m just the messenger.” Ben paused, hoping to garner a laugh or two, but he was met instead by more silence. Then someone sneezed, and Ben was thankful for the sneeze and for the sound it created — anything was better than silence. He looked again for his girlfriend but the light was still too bright in his eyes, even as he shifted a little to one side.

“Alright,” Ben said, staring down at the magazine in his hands. “Here goes.” He brought the magazine up closer to his face and said “Change of Plans,” and after a brief pause meant to make it clear to the audience that that was his story’s title, he started to read:

“Before my brother called it had been a normal no-surprises kind of day. With fresh paint marks on my paint-dotted jeans, my body had felt tired in the satisfying way it usually felt after work. And as usual after work, I’d been looking forward to what I imagined would soon be in store for me — a shower, a cold beer or two, dinner, and maybe, because it was Friday, a game or two of pool at the local bar…”

So far so good, Ben thought. Maybe talk a little louder and a little slower. Remember to enunciate. His girlfriend was always getting on his case for not enunciating. “Stop mumbling!” she’d tell him time and time again. Ben hardly ever realized he was mumbling.

“I had just sat down in my truck and started the engine when my brother called. At first, not knowing who it was, I glanced at my vibrating phone on the passenger seat as if it were an unwelcome guest at a party. After work I’m typically not in the mood to socialize, be it in person or through a phone, as I’m Just wanting to drive back to my apartment and get on with my day. So I thought about letting my phone keep vibrating and go on to voicemail, but just as I thought this the idea came to me that the call might be an emergency of sorts…”

Ben continued to read — the story was about two thousand words long. But as he continued to read, his mind started to wander. Then he had a kind of revelatory thought: the story he was reading, that he’d written, wasn’t his, and, not being his, he had no right to tell it, let alone write it. The first-person narrator painted houses for a living, lived in other words a scruffy, blue-collar existence that Ben, a college-goer fresh out of high school, had never had any real connection to. Who was he to write about people who painted houses, who got paint marks on their pants, and who went to bars on Friday nights to play pool? Who did he think he was, writing about such people? 

Ben continued to read, though with a noticeably lackluster delivery, a section where the narrator answers his phone realizing it’s his brother calling, drunk:

“I hadn’t until now known that my brother drank. It was a bit disconcerting to think of him as being drunk. As far as I knew, he wasn’t the sort of person to drink for the sake of having nothing better to do. My brother had, I had always believed, the potential to go places. He hadn’t spent his high school days in vain, skipping his homework in favor of partying and trying to hook up, as I and many of my friends were guilty of…”

Now that Ben was reading the story out loud in front of an audience, he saw it for what it really was: a farce. And now he knew why he hadn’t wanted to participate in the reading in the first place — because he had known all along, deep down, that it was a joke. The narrator wasn’t him, wasn’t anything like him, and neither was the brother. But it was all a joke, the entirety of the story. Ben didn’t care about the narrator or the narrator’s brother, or if he did, he didn’t care enough about them, he felt, to write about them. The problem, he now realized as he continued to read the joke of a story he’d written, was that he didn’t know what he cared about, what he really cared about, that is, enough to write about. Some people in his creative writing class knew what they cared about and wrote in line with such things, and Ben could see this just by looking at them as they read their stories aloud to the class. They had a passion in their voices and their voices never faltered, their pitch never wa ered. They were completely at ease with what they had written, with what they were sharing with others. They were, essentially, proud of what they were sharing. Ben, not proud, felt intimidated by such individuals, so intimidated that he had trouble holding eye contact with them. He was still lost as to what his subjects were, or his characters. He was too busy searching for things to write about all of the time instead of settling down and letting the things that he was meant to write about come to him of their own accord.

As he continued to read, having reached a deeper kind of understanding of himself, Ben was no longer so nervous. He had become completely detached from what he as reading, so much so that he no longer felt any pressure to pretend that the story was his, to defend, if necessary, his characters, and his ideas. Ben realized that he had made his opening comment about not divulging his stories details for the simple reason that he’d been afraid of sounding like a fool.

The inebriated brother in his story explains to the narrator that his girlfriend’s just broken up with him, and Ben reads on, still detached:

“This marked my brother’s first breakup. He was twenty-two, a late-bloomer to the joys and perils of relationships. Hearing him say this, I remembered my first breakup, long in my rear-view. But I could still recall that time with surprising clarity. How I’d felt my life was over. How I’d been certain I couldn’t go on living without her in my life. How I’d thought of committing suicide, and then, when one of my friends actually did, how I’d been spooked back to my senses…”

No, this certainly wasn’t Ben’s story to tell: he’d been through a breakup, sure, and it had been an emotional rollercoaster ride, but he’d never thought of killing himself and certainly never had any friends who had ended their lives over a breakup. Ben couldn’t recall where the idea to write about breakups and suicide had come from. He supposed the idea came to him more or less subconsciously, as the ideas for most of his stories did. How he ended up writing about a house painter and his younger brother though, Ben could only guess.

“I turned off the engine,” he read, “figuring I shouldn’t waste any unnecessary gas or try driving while on the phone, since it was illegal to and you never knew if a cop was going to—”

Ben  looked up from the magazine at the crowd sitting before him. Everyone was silent, watching him. What did they think? he wondered. Did any of them have any idea that what he was reading was an absolute lie, an absolute joke? Ben had been advised by his teachers to write about what he knew, and also about what he didn’t know, to mix the two together. But what if he didn’t know what he knew, what then? Well, then he would write whatever he could, aimlessly, frantically, and stupidly. He didn’t write from the heart, in other words, but instead wrote essentially empty words, words that meant nothing or very little to him. Mental masturbation — that was what Ben was doing. From that point on, he made a commitment to try and write about what he cared about, whatever that might be. He would try not to lie to himself anymore or to anyone else. He would try to be more self-aware, to think more deeply, and more critically.

“I’m sorry,” Ben said, “but I can’t read anymore of this. This is, this is all a lie. This is all a big joke.”

He closed the magazine and walked off the stage as a murmur came from the crowd. He felt surprisingly calm for a change. Ben looked for his girlfriend and saw her approaching. He ignored the puzzled look on her face and asked when she came closer if she was ready to go. 

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