Kalymnos

What do you call a writer who doesn’t write?

Whatever the answer, that was me for a while now. Although, to be fair, I’ve been kinda writing. The mind doesn’t stop and I’m always coming up with stories, or starts of stories, or ideas for stories.

But I’ve been bad at the actual writing part. I’d write a bit. For a while. I’d write 10,000-plus words, then realize my story was going off track completely or else going nowhere in particular.

I’ve been working hard at developing some of these stories, and I do feel like I’m in a place to actually get them written. But these are big daunting projects and so I wanted to get some easy wins under my belt first. Short stuff.

Among some original ideas for short stories/novellas I’ve been dabbling in as warm ups before I attempt a novel, I thought of the NYC Midnight writing contests which I took part in years ago and actually did pretty well with. So I signed up for the next one to start. Turned out that was their Flash Fiction contest, which was turned out to be perfect.

Here’s the gist: You get put in a group with a bunch of other writers and are assigned a genre, a location, and an object. Then you have 48 hours to write a short story. For the first round, which took place in June, my genre was Romance, my location was a deli, and the object was a sponge.

Here’s the story I came up with:

Kalymnos

Doreen squinted as she stepped from the bright sun into the dimness of the delicatessen. Her shirt stuck to her sweat-kissed back which already pricked from sunburn, and her sore feet were inflamed from all the walking. She felt dejected as she ordered a mermizeli salad and flopped into a vacant seat. The air was heavy with chatter and aromas of cured meats, olives, fish, and other Greek delicacies. While she waited silently for her food, her fingers inevitably found the piece of sponge in her purse and she turned it over as she suppressed melancholy tears. She chastised herself for coming here — what had she been thinking?

She’d bought the sponge the day she met Sebastian, some thirty-odd years ago. It had accompanied her to college, to her marital home with Richard… and whenever she bathed with it she drifted back to Seb and the magical whirlwind summer romance they’d once had here on Kalymnos.

Seb was a strong, lean, tanned young man when she had known him. He was a sponge diver and they met in his family’s sponge shop, which she’d entered quite by chance one afternoon early in her trip. Immediately they were taken with each other — not just the fabled “love at first sight,” but as though there were incredible cosmic powers drawing them together. Although she’d long since rejected the concept after 25 years of being tethered to Richard, she realized now what she and Seb had been: soulmates.

They’d been young, it was true, but their love had been pure. It was the most real love she had ever known. For two blissful weeks, her life was perfect. Her mornings were spent sunbathing on the stretch of beach between his shop and the harbor, while he was out diving. On countless occasions in the intervening years, she’d closed her eyes and vividly recalled it: the feel of the cool breeze on her skin, the red flares of sunlight dancing across her shut eyelids, the rhythmic sound of waves crashing on rocks. Seb and his father’s boat usually returned by late morning, and he’d come find her and sit and chat and admire her alluring figure. Then, during mesimeri, he’d sneak her up to his room and they’d make the most incredible love she’d ever experienced while everyone else napped. In the afternoon, she’d loiter around his shop while he worked. Each evening, when he was finally free, they’d run off to some new place on the island and gorge themselves on plates of xtapodi and lashings of ouzo. Then they’d dance until it was so late that sleep demanded it not be put off a moment longer. But it was okay, because they knew exactly what the next day had in store, and the next day, and the day after that… Until it was time for her to return home, and for him to stay here.

For a while, they persisted; writing letters to each other as though the thousands of miles between them was nothing. But it was. Life happened to both of them. Somewhere along the way, Richard entered the picture and when he proposed, Doreen accepted. They bought a house, had kids, the whole caboodle; the busyness of life distracting her from how unfulfilled she felt. By the time their children flew the nest, she and Richard were strangers to one another. Doreen fell into a depression, Richard fell into his secretary’s open legs, and so they divorced at 50. And all she had left of Seb was this fragment of sponge and dreams of what might have been.

It had taken a while for her to talk herself into returning to Kalymnos — after all, who was to say that Seb would even remember her? But surely he would, she told herself. She refused to believe that he’d forget what had once existed between them. What they’d had was real.

But Seb’s family shop was no longer there. Although the island had changed considerably over the past three decades, its landmarks were seared in her mental geography. Around every corner lurked some memory of their youthful romance. But Seb’s shop was gone. She’d spent two days traipsing all over the island, desperately visiting every shop that sold sponges that she could find, hope diminishing with each one, until she was exhausted. There was no trace of him. She clutched her sponge tight, then released it into the depths of her purse and composed herself, her insides raging against the unfairness of it all.

“Doreen.”

She looked up at the voice calling her order: a greying man in the kitchen window holding a dish piled high with tomatoes, feta and onions. Time stopped as their eyes met once more. Recognition flashed between them, but she couldn’t quite allow herself to believe it. She felt the air sucked out of her as she floated towards him. It didn’t seem real.

“Dor,” he asked with trembling, disbelieving excitement, “is it really you?”

“Seb? What are you doing here?”

His face cracked into a broad grin — a smile she remembered only too well — and she felt hers mirror him: a giant, stupid, natural smile. A smile of satisfied relief. A smile she hadn’t smiled in years.

“This is my place. I gave up sponges — climate change,” he explained. “I inherit this from my wife when she passed. Work keeps me busy. Keeps me fit. It’s good to see you. I must cook, but sit, enjoy. Later we go out for xtapodi and ouzo?”

“I’d love that.”

“Fantastikós!”

She sat and ate and watched him work and saw him watch her too. He was a strong, lean, tanned old man. Still the Seb she remembered and had built up in her mind.

Once he was done working for the day, they went out together and ate and drank and danced; both buzzing with cheer. Young again. When it was time to go to bed they went together. And she never left Kalymnos again.

* * *

It is what it is, right? I’m not a romance writer, but I figured I came up with something pretty decent. Unfortunately, I found out today that I didn’t rank in the top 15 of my group, but the good news is I get another shot in Round 2 which kicks off tonight. (The 5 top-scoring writers cumulatively advance to Round 3, so I gotta score really good if I’m to have a hope.)

I did get some decent feedback though (the contest seems to have really improved on that side since I last competed years ago). Here’s what the judges had to say:

WHAT THE JUDGES LIKED ABOUT YOUR STORY

The descriptions of life on the island – the scenery, the ways they passed the time, the food – were so vivid and lovely. I especially loved the food descriptions, and that you used the Greek names for all of the dishes without translation into English – it made reading the story feel immersive in that world.

I really enjoyed the unique setting of the piece. The Greek styling of the world gave a rich layer to the sights and smells and overall ambiance of the story.

“The red flares of sunlight dancing across her shut eyelids” – beautiful sensory detail.

“Doreen fell into a depression, Richard fell into his secretary’s open legs, and so they divorced at 50” – love the bluntness here. Even though the voice is third person, I feel like this characterizes Doreen’s POV.

Writer paints a vivid image for the imagination. Even though most of the story is summarizing the past, we still immerse in the full history of Doreen’s romantic life.

WHAT THE JUDGES FEEL NEEDS WORK

I liked the backstory about the sponge shop and Seb’s work as a sponge diver, but I didn’t quite believe that Doreen would take the sponge around with her as a kind of romantic memento – sponges, especially after they’re used, don’t seem particularly romantic, and I was imagining how dirty it would get from sitting in her purse. And while I liked the happy ending, it felt a little too perfect. So many years had passed, and he hadn’t made any effort to look her up, it seems unlikely that they would reconnect so easily.

The majority of the story did feel a bit overly focused on exposition and backstory. Doreen and Seb’s romance felt primarily conveyed through telling instead of showing, leaving the ending act feel thinner by comparison.

I wish more of this was in scene or action, even some of the flash backs. Instead of recounting their entire romance, perhaps a flashback scene showing the density of their love and ending on the bittersweet note of their departure would help immerse readers in the story instead of the wall telling creates.

I think all of this feedback is absolutely fair — and it’ll help me going into this next round.

Interestingly, the top scoring stories in my group had very out-of-the-box conceits, which is something I remember from competing in years past: the more out of left field your idea was, the better you tended to do.

I’ll post my Round 2 story here at some point. Probably not next week because I’d like to wait until I get that feedback too, so I can post it with the story. But at some point.

I am intending to start publishing *something* on this blog every Friday, though. It’s an easy outlet to write something for the sake of it, but I also have a lot to say about my journey as a writer, what I’m working on, and, of course, about the books I’m reading and the films and TV shows I’m watching. So it’ll be a mixed bag.

Thank you for reading 🙂