The First Time Once

By Rachel Linn

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The living room is a dangerous place when you are married to the author. The further into the night we descend, the more danger looms.  

After my infant son falls asleep I nuzzle into the far side of the couch. Within my lamp-lit kingdom, I wrestle a tower of books on trauma studies that circles around the vortex of loss, but never seems to lose any of its own girth. The companion mound of finished reads never seems to grow. I fall into the sonic rhythm of the mechanical keyboard’s click as my husband– the author– works in a feverish trance across the room. Gaming headphones pipe nondescript medieval music through his brain. The almost-music coupled with the dim light lulls me to false complacency, and I forget the quiet battle he’s fought every evening for three months at his keyboard.          

The danger only becomes apparent to me when all goes silent. He throws furtive glances at me on the cusp of my peripheral vision. I’ll turn and almost catch him in the act; his gaze snaps back to the pages he pretends to scroll. Only someone who knows the author well would see his tense jaw and white knuckles for what they are: signs of wavering self-control. He flips through the pages with a more aggressive edge and swallows the words leaning off his tongue. The effort is valiant. But in the end he will crumble like the stack of Oreos I’m destroying cradled in my kingdom.  I hear a loud huff.

I ignore it.       

“It’s just one scene.”  

“No.” I don’t look up from my book, my highlighter does not waiver.

“But if it doesn’t work now when we get to the end I’ll have to–”

“Not happening.”

Being married to an author is a complicated thing, but being married to the author is theoretical physics when you are also his wife, the dramaturg.

“Babe, please.  Just this one little section. It’s maybe three pages. That’s it. If this character isn’t necessary then I need to know now, or I’m just wasting time. Babe?”


In an act of pure desperation, he goes for my weakest points. He knows what will drive his dramaturg to the edge.

“I’m just really concerned. I think this scene steals my female characters’ agency.”

I bite my lip.   

“Don’t you want me to write strong women?”

Oh, I do. The author knows I do. But I also want a draft: a good, solid, coherent draft. I want to feel its crisp pages sliding through my fingers one after the next with all its secrets revealed in their own time. We’re not there yet.

 “I trust you to write good women, men, and whatever else you’re doing over there.  If you think something needs to be cut… well, knowing you it probably does.  So you have two options: cut it now, or leave it in for me to cut later.”

The computer’s glow silhouettes the melancholy sight of an author resigned to his fate: he is trapped in a living room with a tyrannical dramaturg. The dramaturg will give no quarter to his darlings, his clever but ultimately unnecessary lines, and his irrational need for a sword fight every twenty pages.  Her day of literary carnage is fast approaching, but for now, he must wade through the mire of his own writing alone and in dread, because his dramaturg knows when to wait.

My mentor’s voice reverberates through my mind like a cinema sensei.  You can only read something the first time once.  The surprising turns, gasps, laughs, and stomach-dropping horror can only be read to its fullest one single time.  I guard the first read jealously. I leave the author stranded on a roiling sea of his own making, tossed from crest to nauseating crest.  Instinct compels me to stand with him through every turn of phrase and plot twist.   But once I do, I cannot go back.  I cannot un-know.  Instead, I am forced to tend the lighthouse and wait and wait and wait.

“I’m not sure this reads.” The author takes off his glasses to rub his eyes.  

Being married to the dramaturg is a complicated thing.  The author must trust me as I take the delicate world he is building in my hands and shred it to tattered pieces and still fall asleep next to me at night.  When the time to read finally arrives he will impulse-buy a pipe to test if nicotine will improve his writing.  He will sit with it on the back porch for a week puffing away (even though he’s allergic to smoke) while I occupy his place at the keyboard and slowly rip his heart out.  I will give him fifteen pages of handwritten notes.  His eyes will mist a little, and I’ll make him some tea.  Maybe I’ll even get him a milkshake.  

 “Babe? Can I read you this line?”

Dramaturgs live to read, so the desire to give in and edit one small line is a longed-for taste on my tongue.  I refuse to give in to temptation now, so close to the end.   He’s worried that he’s lost it– that the work has run away from him, carrying his dreams out to sea with it, but I know better.  That first read will thrill me, and I’ll fall in love with the author’s voice all over again.  When I think about that first read adrenaline surges, reminding me of the first story he pitched me when he was just a guy I dated.  That night ten years ago, a writer’s keen imagination shot through the cracks of his genial façade, and I felt the Pangaea of my single self-fracture.  Traitorous pieces drifted toward him across his sea of words.  After all, you only fall in love the first time once.

Rachel Linn