••• The International Writers Magazine: On Writing
Creative Writing and Claire
Like most people in my Northern California retirement community, I scan the obituaries (now called “life tributes”) in our Sunday newspaper. I rarely see anyone I know; most of those I worked or played tennis with have already passed on. On this particular Sunday, however, I saw a face that looked familiar and sure enough, it was Alan Bitterman, my creative writing class teacher, dead at 75, a few years younger than myself.
When I started the class, at our local community college, I was, strangely enough, already a writer. This was because, through a friend of my wife Sally’s, I’d been put in touch with the editor of an “alternative” weekly, The Sacramento Tribune, and had begun writing stories for it on a regular basis. I’d then found out that our local paper, the Sacramento Bee, took free-lance stories in its Neighbors section and so had begun writing for them also. My thinking was that, as I was already a writer, I might as well try my hand at doing some short stories.
Needless to say, after reading Alan Bitterman’s obituary, a lot of memories of the creative writing class came rushing back and for the rest of that day I kept having flashbacks, like movie scenes, unroll in front of my eyes. The first scene was of my first day in the classroom, which was pretty well filled up. It had been years since I’d been in a classroom and it felt strange. I noticed that everyone in the room, including the teacher, looked younger than me. I also noticed one especially attractive woman sitting in the front row; this turned out to be Claire.
Mr. Bitterman introduced himself and told us a little about his background. Apparently, he was from Southern California and had done some television writing. He’d be in charge of the college’s literary magazine. What had brought him north to Sacramento he didn’t say. I was to learn more about Mr. Bitterman because after the term was over as I did a story on him for Neighbors. I thought he was a good teacher; he wanted good plain sentences, not the pretentious writing beginners were prone to. He was also encouraging to us beginners. When I met with him later in the term he told me the short stories I’d given him to read showed promise but had one flaw, the endings were weak and I should work on this.
Getting back to Claire I managed to talk to her a few times. She was, I’d guess, about forty and lived close to the college. She worked, something to do with computers, but seemed to have flexible hours. She didn’t mention having a husband or children and I didn’t press her. I’d become a pretty good interviewer by then and I’d learned that people liked to talk about themselves and that sooner or later they’d tell you what you wanted to know.
The class started with writing poetry, then short stories, then Mr. Bitterman wanted us to write a play. I wrote one I called “One Last Drink.” In it, the protagonist, Danny, meets his girl friend Ingrid at a neighborhood bar they’d taken to going to; the bartender, Jim, the other character in the play, had become their friend. They are having their last drink because the girl’s father, back in Minnesota, has had a heart attack, and she was going back to take care of him. For the play’s purposes, I’d made her a nurse. Danny and Ingrid had had a big fight the night before because, naturally, he didn’t want her to go and he’d gone so far to say he was willing to consider getting married if she’d stay. While they were having their usual drinks in the bar, they continued the argument. The dialogue, I must admit, consisted mostly of short sentences and owed a lot to Hemingway.
Anyway, the reason I go into all this is that Mr. Bitterman selected my little play to be acted in front of the class. I was Danny and, to my delight, Claire was Ingrid. Another student was Jim the bartender. The three of us took chairs in front of the room. Mr. Bitterman had made copies for us to read. We read our lines and of course I was totally into my role. I didn’t want Claire to leave me. I knew that once she left she wouldn’t come back. Toward the end of the play Claire, that is, Ingrid, stood up and prepared to leave, having rejected Danny’s offer to drive her to the airport. Claire stood up and I impulsively stood up and held her closely, asking her not to go. I’m not sure how tightly I held her but Claire was, I think, started, and I immediately let her go. We finished the play. After Claire goes out the door, Jim says, “Guess she’s not coming back?” I said, “No, guess not. Better give me another drink.” And that was the end.
I’d like to say that the class gave us a standing ovation; they didn’t but I think they liked the play well enough.
As soon as the class ended, I went over to Claire and told her I was sorry I’d grabbed her like that. She said it was okay; I’d gotten carried away by my part. I asked if I could buy her a cup of coffee in the college’s cafeteria. She looked dubious and glanced at her watch but then said okay. What did I think I was doing, you might ask, I was about twenty years older than this woman and what about my wife Sally? My truthful answer would have been that I didn’t know, maybe I was playing out some college fantasy that I’d never had as I’d gone to an all-male school.
Over coffee, I found out that, as I’d half expected, Claire was divorced. She had no children but had an idea she might someday try to write children’s books. Her sister had three children and she saw them often. We finished our coffee and then went to her nearby apartment … er no, we just finished coffee and went our separate ways. The term went on and when it ended I asked Claire if she’d sign up for the next creative writing class. She said she probably would, but next fall when that class started I didn’t see her. I guess that’s the end of this story, an ending I’m sure Mr. Bitterman wouldn’t approve of, but that’s the way life goes. That coffee with Claire was my one last drink.
© Martin Green April 2018
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