Gloves Off: Round XXI
What to say...
Today we’ll take a longer look at Erased by Emoji by Elliott Daphne.
To read the story as originally published, please click here.
Erased by Emoji
What to say…
It’s not for a few paragraphs that I really drop into all of this. It’s all accurate. Even the dosage levels. When I wrote it, I still hadn’t fully grasped what had happened. Only the names have been changed. In real life Leah is named Naomi. Nick is named Matt. Jeff is named Chris. Bobby is named Tommy. Josie is named Jamie.
My Comments: Very great. Normally I hate using names, but here it works because you overuse them in that dense, repeating series. It establishes the “horse” of things not being what we’re told. Another horse is betrayal. If would be interesting if you could repeat just one of these toward the end. I’ve noted where repeating a small part of the pattern might work.
So, here’s the skinny. Here you are, sitting alone on a park bench, gloveless, smearing your fingers across your phone’s screen, throwing Poke balls to catch imaginary creatures that aren’t worth anything at all. You keep playing after she dumps you, even though she’s the one who got you into this dumbass game in the first place.
My Comments: Consider that this could be a cycle story. We see the narrator cycle through two alliances, and from that we can extrapolate the narrator’s entire life. Thom Jones did a great version of that in the story Unbreak My Heart, wherein the narrator has a passionate affair with a deep-sea diver. And when he dies, she moves on to date a military jet pilot. To make such a cycle story here, we’d have to see some hint of how the narrator met Leah/Naomi.
Note: I’ve struck out some bits of the original. See below. Where I’ve added new copy, I’ve put it in parentheses to indicate it’s new.
Leah left a seven-hundred-dollar Breville Espresso Machine at your place. You still use it. So does Josie, but she doesn’t know it’s not yours. And she left a Monty Python DVD box set given to her as a birthday present by her father, who still lives in Cypress after being nailed by the FBI in the center of a global money laundering scheme.
My Comments: All good. I tripped on the names, but now I see what you’re doing.
The largest bust in Belgian history. At first you thought she was bullshitting you, but after months of poking her, everything still added up. Her last name isn’t one you’ve heard before. Leah pulled up his Wikipedia page. He has an entire chapter of a book written about him, but it’s not in a language you can read.
And she left a stack of hard-drives full of Belgian TV shows and pirated movies on your coffee table. She said her dad sent them to her. You still haven’t looked to see what’s on them. In some ways it kinda creeps you out.
Why she would leave all of this at your place in the weeks leading up to this, you have no idea.
Leah’s no idiot. In high school she scored the highest in all of Cypress on the standardized test for English. You were smoking in her basement when she brought out her memory box and unfolded the newspaper article. She had no accent. She could fluently speak Flemish, Greek, French, English, and Dutch. Her and her sister used to have a chauffeur drive them to private school every morning.
My Comments: Don’t work too hard to make your narrator innocent and likeable. Some mild chauvinism can help. For instance, adding the line or two-sentence paragraph, “At least she told me it was Flemish. Nobody speaks Flemish.”
Leah told you she loved you. But she didn’t say it first. Big mistake. And maybe, the first time she stayed over, she was right when she asked if things really could be this good or if it was just the acid.
My Comments: “But she didn’t say it first” is brilliant.
Natural Born Killers has a baby with True Romance. That was us.
You told her about a dream you had. At that point the two of you had probably eaten at least half a blotter sheet together. She was faceless and weaving through a crowd. You tried to keep up with her. She kept moving. Strangers would come up to you — whispering in your ear that she doesn’t really love you. That she does this with every guy. That Leah fucks with your emotions and then bounces as soon as she has you hooked.
My Comments: Normally I’d say “no dreams” but I’m going to let this slide. Dreams always seem like a cheat for how to foreshadow and fast-track to the pay-off. But you present your dream in very physical terms so I’ll go along.
You say, “Shut up.” You yell that they’re lying. And that’s when she stops running. She stands there with all these nameless people passing us by. This time her face looks like someone else. And tears roll down her cheeks and her head sinks. You rub your hand over her back, but she starts laughing. Her face grins ear-to-ear with this fucked up smile.
My Comments: I was confused for a moment, thinking the dream had ended with the action of rubbing her back. Reiterate that it’s a dream, as below.
(In the dream)
And then, she says it’s true, “I don’t love you.” She laughs some more, turns her back to you, and runs away, vanishing into the ocean of people.
That night, after you told Leah about her vanishing
that dream, she said she’d never leave you for anything in the world. She played I’ll Never Do You Wrong by Joe Tex. She said we were ride or die.
My Comments: Be careful about switching from second-person “you” to first-person “we” in the same paragraph.
What a stupid thing to tell her about.
We hit the road in September. On the first day, at Johnson Shut-in’s, you took five tabs and she took eight. All the pools of blue spring water and rippling falls and smooth quartz and flint stones melted together in a dazzling spectacle, rolling into one ball of energy as we laid out on the sandbar. Just like Adam and Eve, falling in love with the purple highways and billboards.
My Comments: Can you particularize the acid? Window pane? Blotter? Orange Crush? That could be the narrator’s body of knowledge.
The next day we drove to Branson. Again, taking more tabs, we stopped at a five and dime. Underneath a sign that says THIS IS AN EXPENSE CONTROL BUSINESS sits a row of exotic soda. Ranch Dressing Soda. Buffalo Wing Soda. Enchilada Soda. We couldn’t find Cigarette Soda. But there were balloon-powered wooden boats and screaming rubber chickens and clown masks and motorized bubble blowing guns.
My Comments: You’ve very deft at mixing present and past tense. Readers take note.
Leah liked to make her own jewelry. You watched her thumb through trinkets and crystals at a little corner shop. When you asked her what stones she liked she pushed a bead tray shut, gazed through her bangs, and said, “Nothing shiny. Anything but a diamond. I’ll never wear a diamond again.”
We saw fire fountains. We saw magicians. We saw the Ozark Mountains. We saw our future together.
My Comments: You’re doing a nice job putting four items in series, used several places.
On our last night at the resort she had her first fart in front of you. You were sneaking into the hot tub after hours and she was trying to hold in her laughter. The staff closing up definitely heard it.
It wasn’t long after that that you’d downloaded Pokemon Go. Each day we’d go back and forth in the app, exchanging free gifts and trading to increase our Friendship Level. Leah said once we reached “Best Friend” status the XP boost would be huge. We played it to pass time at her friend Nick’s wedding. She said Nick used to be her work husband. And she kept saying how horrible the girl he was marrying was.
The wedding weekend was the last time you saw her. That night, after the ceremony, we came home and changed into couch clothes. And Leah had you take some standardized online test for childhood trauma. You scored a four out of ten. She told you her score was nine out of ten. She said she thinks that’s why she likes working at the children’s mental hospital. It just gives her so much adrenaline.
My Comments: “Couch clothes” nailed it. Again, be careful of mixing first and second person in the same paragraph, but it worked better in this case.
When you brought up moving in she smiled and said, “But you don’t even know me,” and rolled her eyes and looked back at you, flicked the ash from her cigarette and said, “I can be a crazy bitch.”
When Leah broke things off, her text said she thought she was over Jeff. But that she got jealous when he got a girlfriend and that it wasn’t fair to you that she’s still hung up on him. She said she needed time to sort out her emotions and that it could be a while.
She said she wouldn’t’ve kept texting him if she knew she still had feelings. She said she never intended for this to happen.
What a load of shit.
This is what getting wrecked feels like. But at least she did it before her birthday, so you didn’t waste your surprise Kevin Hart tickets on her.
My Comments: If you’re going to use names, be careful to use them so often that we can track them with subsequent pronouns. Here we’ve got several paragraphs using only “she” so I lost track once the dating app came into the story.
That girl said she’d marry you if you wanted. She finalized her divorce papers with Bobby Staubach for you. It so happened that Bobby was the only person you’d ever full-blown punched in middle school. In a city of half a million people, where she moved here from Belgium for him, what are the odds? Her friends kept saying it meant it was kismet. You’d met her work people. In fact, she said you’d met more of her friends and colleagues than Bobby ever had.
My Comments: To echo the earlier line, “This is what getting wrecked feels like,” I’d love to see you add a line here like, “It feels like Bobby Staubach finally punched you back,” or, “…got in one last good shot.”
Looking back, it was like she was really pushing this shit. Sort of overselling you on how serious she was. We’d introduced the dogs and all of that junk too.
Now I’ve jumped back onto dating apps. Swiping right to Like, swiping left for Nope. Swiping left a lot more. I’d tell you what the stereotype is for a left swipe, but then, to some of you, I’d just seem like an asshole.
My Comments: Was this how the narrator met Leah?
Kill me. Don’t get me wrong, I bet guy profile stereotypes are just as bad. But that’s the thing about Leah though. She liked weird cult movies. We had the same sense of humor. We agreed on politics. We liked a lot of the same bands. Each conversation was its own little mystery box. For the first time in forever you’d found someone with an interior that wasn’t painted in neutral Benjamin Moore.
My Comments: Geez, your language is good.
“You really dodged a bullet.” That’s the first thing everyone tells you. Some of your friends say she wants a guy who treats her like shit. If that’s true, then maybe you can’t be with her. But maybe that’s not true. Maybe she’s fully capable of love. And, maybe, you’re just scrambling to slap a bandaid over a fresh cut.
Maybe she wasn’t the one.
We follow each other on Spotify. What if she saw me listen to Just a Friend by Biz Markie. Fuck.
Josie stayed the night last week. You two actually have great chemistry. And you’d wanted to ask her out since college. She’s funny and likes UFOs and paranormal stuff — just like you do. And you already know she’s not as crazy as Gary Busey in a woman’s body. So, that’s nice.
My Comments: Can we get a beat of intro about Josie? Revisit the swiping; maybe, “Jamie was a right swipe. Josie, I should’ve said.” The line about Gary Busey is solid gold.
And now you’ve finally lost all the weight and quit the booze and aren’t a chain-smoking, slobbering, total alcoholic. And you’ve got a good career and a house and everything like that. And Josie’s as hot as a microwave oven.
And she drove over an hour each way to see you even though you’d already let her know that Kevin Hart had been canceled. She had an excuse. She didn’t have to come.
My Comments: Just to hit that “blank is blank” note a third time, consider something about the band/artist names, like “Kevin Hart is really Elvis Costello”.
And today at the store you bought Wild Cherry Pepsi instead of Cherry Coke. Because — fuck you Leah.
My Comments: Again, to make the narrator more raw, you might add a line such as, “Josie doesn’t speak any languages.” Just tack it on after, “Fuck you, Leah.” You mean that Josie only speaks English, but by burning the statement you make the narrator seem more bitter and stressed.
And you don’t care anymore, you swear.
My Comments: Can you revisit the acid with Josie? Whether or not you take it. When you take acid now, does Josie seem like Leah?
Less than a week after she ended it, Leah sent you a Pokémon gift. You scratched your head over what it meant. She hadn’t sent any texts. She’d know when you opened it, so you didn’t touch it until hump day.
My Comments: You do an excellent job of using physical verbs to depict cognitive functions: scratched your head… drop into all this…
But you sure as hell weren’t quitting something you liked because of her. You kept playing. She’d see you’re active. But, finally, you cave. And when you open the box — BAM! Now we’re “Ultra Friend” status! And this message pops across your screen that says Thirty Thousand XP.
And when you’re laying there with Josie’s head on your chest, every joke you make seems like the funniest thing in the world to her. But all that laughter scares the hell out of you. Because you don’t know if any day now you won’t be her favorite comedian anymore.
Right before the family Thanksgiving trip to Nashville, the same trip Leah was supposed to go on, you came across her re-activated Tinder profile. You pinched your fingers and zoomed in on her photo. Her smiling face, snug next to yours, but yours erased by emoji.
And, here alone on the freezing park bench, scrolling down your Pokémon friends list, you can’t help but see she’s been offline for 2+ days.
My Comments: Wow, just wow. The story has such authority, first by introducing all the elements in the opening paragraph. Like a thumbnail of the whole. Then, by using such a breezy tone—very much like Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. That light tone disguises some very smart pacing. The light tone makes the story sound as if it’s told by a non-writer, but the way you soft-pedal repeating patterns is very sophisticated.
Now the Tom Spanbauer lecture. Tom always asked us, “In the Taoist world of ten thousand things, how will this stand out?” Tom meant for us to push our work for a bigger effect. Take a look at the Thom Jones story; that might not be the route you want to take—a cycle story—but it’s a possibility. Also look at the Dorothy Parker story The Standard of Living and see how it demonstrates a glimpse of insight—the two characters are almost disillusioned—but they fall quickly back into increased illusion. The reader gets smart while the characters fall back into inauthentic fantasy. That’s another direction you might take.
Again, the tone and the voice of the story are great. The shift between first- and second-person works. I’d just like to see a bigger implication at the end. Pregnancy is an option. Also, maybe there’s something in the left-behind objects? Overall, very well done.
And thank you for being our guinea pig!
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Hey Chuck. Wow what an awesome surprise! It’s my birthday, so unbeknownst to you, you gave me a great birthday present! Thanks for all the feedback. I did struggle with using first person, second person, and third person in this one and can now see where I need to make some tweaks. I have a couple of questions here.
1. There were things I left out due to trying to meet the word limit. With what you’ve mentioned, there will for sure be a few cuts and changes, but I can only see it getting longer. Are you saying it’s ok to get a little long on this one to give it more depth/background as long as it works and is relevant?
2. It’s funny you ask how I met Naomi (Leah). We met on a dating app. Both of us had been ghosted by someone who we were supposed to meet that night (later it ended up she broke up with me over that same guy — who she made it sound like she wasn’t at all interested as they were “friends with benefits” — even though he had merely gotten a new girlfriend and that made her jealous — who knows if that was even the truth). On our first date I traded mushrooms for acid with Naomi, but I explained I’d never done acid before. Which led to our second date where we tripped at my house together and she ended up staying over. It’s funny you ask to particularize the acid, because I had no knowledge of acid and still don’t know a lot beyond using it, but maybe I can tie this in more. The blotter tabs were Super Mario, so maybe I can use that?
3. I’m still seeing Jamie (Josie). She actually wants to try acid. I know a lot of people who can get things, but Naomi is the only one who can get acid. It’s hard to find. I’d been no contact with Naomi and told Jamie that I’d have to talk to her to get her some — and she’s fine with that. Definitely no intentions of reconciling with Naomi. But the text conversations after months of no contact, then me asking for acid (after returning Naomi’s stuff — details below) have been … interesting. (Naomi: “If there’s no hard feelings, then why did you unfriend me on facebook. It seems like you just want an acid hookup.”) Re: “left behind objects” After months of no contact, I ended up leaving Naomi’s stuff and the hard drives on her doorstep without seeing her after she refused to make a decision on how she wanted me to return them. It’s gotten weird. After asking her for acid, she wanted me to re-add her on Facebook.
4. Are there any sections you think I should consider cutting entirely? I cut out a few parts later after initially posting it as they seemed to not be working.
It seems like some of what I’ve mentioned above may fit well into the story. Let me know whatever your thoughts might be. By the way — I have read Thom Jones’ Unchain My Heart. I’ll for sure go back and re-read that one! And I’ll check out the Dorothy Parker story as well.
Loved reading this story and the edits. I struggle with tense sometimes and the deftness between past/present in that one paragraph, damn. Well done, Elliott!