The Subtext (or A Messy Draft)

I slide into the driver’s seat of my reliable Mini Cooper, a car that has never given me a bit of trouble, a moment of hesitation, always starting up as the day starts up—bright, hopeful.

Until today. For a second the engine catches then dies, sputters like a person unable to find their voice. Maybe the car will gain confidence once we get going, once it revs, like the mind slowly revs into consciousness each morning.

I encourage the car, speak to it, cajole. With a little coaxing, we make it to the first street corner then a full stop. Dead as dead. People behind me start to honk. A man in an Audi races by and flips me off. I throw my hands up in the universal “I am helpless here, asshole,” sign, a gesture slightly different than the less expressive, “I am helpless here.” Feeding off my spike of anger, the car’s engine catches again. We start to move.

Stop and go, catch and release, in a jerky motion we bump along. At every stoplight, I put the car in idle, and rev the motor, though nothing is idle inside of me, for this morning I’m heading toward a reunion with Joyce, a 91-year-old dear friend. She’s the main reason I’m in Monterey.

In my early 20s, when I lived in this town, Joyce was a teacher in an alternative classroom at an elementary school. I was a teacher’s aide in a very conventional classroom. While I was tasked with forcing children to stay inside the lines she was abandoning the straight-jacket curriculum for a freer, more lucid approach. I wanted to teach like she taught if I ever got the chance.

The car dies again, makes a grinding sound like it’s going to start up, then decides otherwise.

What now. If I make it to lunch at Joyce’s house I might be stuck there. At 91, maybe she has better things to do than help out an old friend, who, when she knew me, was always needing help. In those days my ex and I were happy, in love, and always broke; our rent overdue, our cars forever breaking down. We had eight cars in seven years, all clunkers we ran into the ground.

What will Joyce think? I want to show her, all these years later, how mature I am, how responsible, that now I’m a university professor and teach writing to students the way she once taught, nontraditionally. Free-ish! I want show her I’m debt free with a good working car!

A quick internet search on my phone locates a mechanic not far away. I head in that direction, starting and stopping like my students’ stories. Just yesterday, I’d given a lesson on subtext inspired by a clip from Wayne Wang’s “Smoke.” In one scene, Harvey Keitel, a smoke shop owner, shows his art project to William Hurt, a writer with writers’ block who recently lost his wife. Fresh death can bring on writers’ block the obvious subtext. Keitel explains to Hurt that every morning, at exactly the same time, he crosses the street and takes a photograph of his smoke shop, his corner, which he develops, dates and then places in a photobook. That’s his “project.”

‘At 91, maybe she has better things to do than help out an old friend.’

In the clip Hurt thumbs quickly through the photos, page after page, then shakes his head and says, “But they’re all the same,” to which Keitel replies, “You’ll never get it if you don’t slow down, my friend.”

He wants Hurt to pause and dive below the surface. If he lingers for a moment he might find something worthwhile. Which was the point of my lecture. I wanted the students to resist the urge to speed through their drafts, to resist the fast drive-by and dive into those moments where they get below the surface of the story to locate something deeper, down in that layer of subtext. There’s a payoff, I told them. Once they tap that deeper vein their words will fly across the page. Initially the stories might turn into messy drafts, but it’ll be worth it.

A messy draft. What this day is turning into.

When I reach the mechanic the car starts right up. He takes it for a spin and says he can’t find a problem. “Maybe something needed to be blown out of the gas pipe,” he says. Maybe something needs to be blown out of my life, I think. He doesn’t charge me a dime.

It’s close to noon. The morning’s gone. I text Joyce that I am waylaid, an unexpected car breakdown, can picture her response, sitting in her easy chair, receiving my text. “Nothing’s changed,” I can hear her say. She texts back that her grandson is coming over that afternoon and we’ll have to plan something in the future. The future. How does Joyce measure the future at 91? How do I measure my future, at 70, with an unreliable car, acting like an unreliable body?

Just yesterday, as my wife and I strolled by, a young couple, unprompted, said, “Good for you!”: The subtext: Isn’t it nice the old folks are still able to get around?

Besides missing Joyce, now I won’t have time once home to take that walk to the pier by the breakwater where cormorants make their nests during mating season; the boys flashing their turquoise necks in a proud courtship ritual as they signal to prospective mates. Or, as I imagined, signaling to me, shiny blue messages I hoped one day to learn how to decipher.

Before I begin the long drive back to San Francisco I head to a park by the sea to give the car a rest. To give me a rest. I feel betrayed by the car, by the day, but maybe not as betrayed as when my ex slept with one of our housemates after I told him I wanted to be a lesbian. Long story short, I am a lesbian. To dive into that memory? One messy, messy draft.

‘Just yesterday, as my wife and I strolled by, a young couple, unprompted, said, “Good for you!” ’

I park, grab my binoculars and spy a bench overlooking the water. A bench is always an invitation and I accept. The morning’s fog is burning off, the sky turns blue. In an atmospheric call and response, the sea blues up. “It’s never a mistake,” my wife always says, and I finish the sentence, “…to come down to the sea.”

A new thought. I’ll rescue the day and look for otters. Joyce’s husband was a marine biologist, a pioneer in the field of otter research. Once, when I was having dinner at their house, Joyce asked me to get something from their refrigerator. I opened the door and there was a dead otter on a refrigerator shelf. “Oh, don’t mind that,” she said, “Jud’s going to do an autopsy on that one.”

I pick up the binoculars and scan the kelp beds. No otters. So, I gaze out at the bay but can’t get out of my mind all the day’s disappointments. The missed visit with Joyce, the cormorant nests, those turquoise flashing necks—

Then, right there. A line of cormorants enters from the right margin of my visual field. I watch the line move, a line so straight and orderly, each cormorant equidistant from the one flying in front and in back. How do they do that? Which bird’s in charge of synchronicity?

Another line appears. Eight or nine cormorants flying just above the bay, maybe a foot or two. Then another line. Then another. Line after line after line of cormorants, all the same length, like lines of writing on light blue paper, each bird a word on that line, every word coming alive, every sentence on the page flying, flying! As if they’re writing a story, a letter, a book. They’re writing and writing and writing.

Watching them I can feel my heart slow, that time slows. The day un-revs.


Just below each bird, a shadow of that bird appears on the surface of the bay; the cormorants are forming a shadow line. No wait! It’s the subtext, the fucking subtext! There it is, clear, observable:

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

                  ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~


Just as suddenly a boatload of subtexts emerge, come into view:

Joyce’s subtext: She’s probably still broke, poor thing, with a crummy car and no job. Nothing’s changed.

My ex’s subtext: Funny thing. I always thought you might be gay.

My subtext: If I don’t slow down I’m never going to get it.

I look out at the cormorants flying across the sky to some unknown destination, like when the wind picks up a piece of paper on the sidewalk, sends it airborne to land who knows where. If I could direct its journey I’d want that page to fly to Joyce, sitting there in her easy chair, with this message: It’s that easy, isn’t it Joyce, to find what’s important, and I’d add a thank you, thank you for showing me the way, across time, from that past to this present to whatever future is left for any of us.

I lift my arms out to the side, hold them up like wings, like I’ve seen the cormorants do, to take this in, embrace the day, all of it, the botched plans, the good mechanic, the Audi driver, the submerged memories, cars loved and lost. The cormorants.

The day was going downhill, but it’s been salvaged. We’re going to go forward again. I’ve decoded the blue flashing messages, those subtexts, sent to me so long ago. I stand, walk down to the bay’s edge, take a big breath, and dive.

Toni Mirosevich’s most recent book of stories is called Spell Heaven: And Other Stories (Counterpoint, Spring 2022), about an overlooked community on a crumbling coastal town in the Bay Area. She is the author of six books of poetry and prose and lives with her wife in Pacifica, Calif.