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Exercise Wednesday: Tan Lines

April 18, 2012

Depending on your viewpoint, a tan line on the third finger of the left hand could be one of the saddest things in the world, or a daily reminder of celebrations required when bad things go away. Either way, a narrow tan line on a ring finger can be a powerful emotional talisman for what’s going on in your character’s life–a simple symbol of what was once good (or bad) and no longer is.

Given our location in Florida–and the dominant permatan for people who live here–the wedding ring tan line can happen at any time of the year and for a number of reasons.

  • The end of a marriage.
  • The loss of your wedding ring.
  • The fact that you lost weight and your wedding ring doesn’t fit any more (which is the reason I don’t wear my ring).
  • The death of a spouse.
  • The final, long-awaited approval of the divorce you’ve wanted for so long.
  • A separation in which your spouse insists (or you insist) that you live as if you were divorced.
  • A drunken, angry foray into the bar scene, where you take your ring off in an ill-advised attempt to show your anger by throwing down with a complete stranger of the opposite sex.
  • A behind-the-scenes same-sex relationship covered for respectability with a fake marriage.

Or you can make up one of your own. The exercise this week is to write about something involving your character and a tan line on the ring finger of their left hand.

Time limit: 30 minutes

  1. Chris Hamilton permalink
    April 18, 2012 6:00 am

    There’s a scene in Van Halen’s Right Now video titled Right now someone is walking onto a nude beach for the first time. It shows a pair of legs from the knees down. The knees are pressed together, and presumably if you pan up, you’ll see hands and arms trying in vain to cover various body parts.

    I’ve never been to a nude beach–I love my fellow human beings too much to subject them to that horror. But I think I get the idea–the complete lack of comfort as you bare everything in a place that exists outside your comfort zone. The smallest blemish become enormous, and what other people would never notice becomes your own defining characteristic.

    Nine months, two weeks, and three days after my wife’s death, I went out for the evening. No big deal. But I left my wedding ring home.

    As a resident of Florida, if I moved to the darkest portions of Alaska, I would have a tan until sixteen years after my down death. Even the dust in my casket would be tan. So nine months, two weeks, and three days after my wife died, the stripe on my left ring finger where the ring used to me would throw enough light to read a book by.

    “I’d like a margarita,” I said.

    The bartender, a guy maybe half my age with impossibly perfect hair and a smile brighter than my ring line, nodded and got me my drink. I hated him. Mostly for the hair, but also for the perfect teeth. And the fact that he was so young, the son of a bitch. I should have asked for a double.

    Dennis, from my workout group showed up a margarita and a half late.

    “Where have you been?”

    “Getting ready, chief.” He glanced up and down me. “That’s what you wore?”

    I shrugged. Hawaiian shirt–one of my nicer ones, jeans, sneakers. New sneakers. It had been since the first Bush administration since I’d “gone out.” In fact, the last time I’d done that, they still called it “going out.” Now they called it “clubbing.”

    Dennis wore khakis with a crisp crease and a loose-fitting white button up. He smelled faintly of cologne of some sort, and his work outs showed through his clothes.

    “You should dress like me. We’re here to meet people.”

    “I’m here because baseball season is over and I want to do something other than sit at home tonight.”

    He smiled and chuckled. “Yeah, to meet people.”

    “Dennis, I’m a year and change from being fifty. I’m not sure a bar is the best place–”


    I shrugged and took a draw on my margarita. Catherine had told me I needed to branch out, try new things. I figured why not drink something other than beer? Problem with margaritas is they’re expensive and you can’t sit there and draw down on them for long. With the ice, they go away faster than I like.

    Dennis nudged me. “Look over there.”

    I followed his finger. “Where?”

    “Those girls, Jim. Look at those girls.”

    Two girls were sitting at a tall table across the bar from us. I used the term girls not to be sexist, but because I’m more than fifteen years older than Dennis. “They could be my daughters, Dennis.”

    He smiled. “And they would just love to meet a former celebrity.”

    That was the other problem with me going to a meet market–as a former public figure, this wasn’t the best idea. I’d managed to wipe away most of the scandals that happened about the time my wife died. The last thing I needed was to be confirmed as picking up women half my age at a bar known for guys picking up women.

    I shook my head. “Go for it, Dennis.”

    “There’s two of them.”

    I smiled and slapped his shoulder. “You keep telling me you’re man enough for two. I think now’s your chance.”

    “What are you gonna do?”

    “I’ll be your designated driver.”

    His smiled deepened and his chest puffed out. “How do you know I’m not going home with them?”

    “More power to you, then. You want me to stay around, just in case?”

    “You bailing?”

    I nodded. “I appreciate the invite, but this isn’t me.”

    Half an hour later, I wound up at Starbucks. Typically, I’m not a fan of their coffee, but there might be someone to talk to there. The only people to talk to at home came twelve ounces at a time in a cardboard basket. I was sitting outside, watching the traffic pass when my phone vibrated.

    Where R U? Catherine knows I hate the shorthand people use to text, so she uses it all the time.

    I refuse to play, so I picked up the phone and called her. “I’m at Starbucks on Dale Mabry. I thought you had a date.”

    “He’s a creep. One look at his tan line–still sharp and everything, and I knew. So I asked him, straight up…you married? You know what he says? Not only does he say yes, but he says his wife doesn’t know where he is tonight. What a schmuck.”

    “Want to have a beer together?”

    “I’d go for coffee.”

    She was there twenty minutes later. I got a decaf refill, which she paid for. “You’re such a gentleman.”

    She ran her tongue across her lower lip and closed her eyes a little. “I’m all woman, baby.” The barista snorted.

    “Yeah, I read that on the men’s room wall.”

    She flipped me off.

    “What are you going to do?” I asked while we sat outside. It was pleasant out. The weather hadn’t turned yet and we had maybe three more weeks until it would.

    She shook her head. “Severance runs out pretty soon, so I have to figure out something.”

    “You gonna move?”

    She shrugged. “Nothing’s keeping me here.”

    It was a statement of fact. And a dare. And a plea, maybe. Her eyes lingered on mine, then glanced down at my hand.

    “You aren’t wearing your ring,” she said.

    “Dennis told me to take it off.”

    “You were crusin for chicks?”

    I took a sip of my coffee and shook my head. “How pathetic is that?”

    “How long did you last?”

    “Two margaritas. Dennis’s shooting for a two-fer tonight.”

    She smiled. It was her evil smile, which I liked. “His right hand, then his left hand.”

    I laughed, then glanced at my ring finger. In her note, Wendy had said that I needed to go on with my life, find someone to make me happy, even if it was Catherine. She knew. Catherine knew. I was apparently the only one who didn’t know. Nothing would ever happen as long as Wendy was healthy. But if she was gone, she knew Catherine might be the next person.

    “You want to get married?”

    She choked on her coffee. “What did you just say?”

    I shrugged.

    “Jesus, Jim. You won’t go out with me and then you want to marry me? You’ll give me whiplash.”

    I said nothing. She leaned over and took my hands in hers and squeezed. “You know I was married once for a year and a half. We rushed into it. Trip to the JP after dating for three months. You and I haven’t been out on a date together.”

    “Cath, I know you better than anyone else in the world. You’re my best friend. I know everything I have to know.”

    “Jim your wife died more than a year ago.”

    I said nothing and held her gaze.

    She took a deep breath and let it out. “I have been hinting around about needing a reason to stay.” She traced the tan line on my finger. “But I’m not ready for this. I would like to date you, though.”

    I smiled. “Can we start now?”

    She smiled and nodded. When we walked to the cars half an hour later we stopped and nothing happened. Then she stuck her hand out.

    “It’s a date, right?”

    She nodded and I stepped into her, putting my hands on either side of her head. She leaned in and we kissed. The coffee she drank tasted good.

  2. April 18, 2012 11:24 am

    Great exercise. I was just talking about my protagonist’s state of widow-dom (is that a word?). Thanks for the inspiration Chris. Love your 30 minutes.

  3. April 19, 2012 12:02 pm

    Alright, thought you might like to see what you’ve inspired. Thanks again.

    Delgado walked into the station house ten minutes before his shift started. It wasn’t even 7 p.m. and the station house was filled with low-rent criminals and prostitutes. The smell of the streets, cheap perfume and a sour, stale odor hung in the air. He nodded to Mark Smith, the bullpen cop who’d been sitting there as long as Delgado had been with the Atlanta PD, five days from his nineteenth year with the force. “The electric bill not get paid Smithy?”

    “Electrician’s already on it, Delgado. Only happens in August, right?”

    “Is there a convention in town?” Delgado said as he looked around the station.

    “Yeah…barbers shop convention.”

    Delgado could tell Smithy was irritated. The heat was getting to him.

    “You forget to go Delgado?”

    Delgado’s left hand went to his face and winced as his hand passed over the two-day stubble. He passed his hand over the thick brown, unruly curls on his head, and then looked at his left hand where his wedding ring used to be. There was an indentation and a faint tan line. He’d just taken the ring off today. “Rumor has it, chicks dig this look, Smithy.”

    “I wouldn’t know. I’ve had a ball and chain around my leg since you were in diapers,” said the older cop. He mumbled the last part. Then he buried his head in the logbook at his desk, embarrassed for mentioning his own long-standing marriage. He’d known that Delgado’s marriage was good, but short-lived. His heart ached for the guy, knowing that his wife of ten years died a year ago, something about cancer. It always gets the good ones, he thought, then he said, “You need to get out more often, Delgado.”

    But Delgado was already walking through the mesh covered door and up the stairs. He didn’t want to think about Judy. Today was the day she died from breast cancer. He didn’t want to remember the details or that he’d promised her he’d find someone else to share his life with. “I’m married alright, Judy,” he said aloud to himself, “married to the force.” His words echoed off the walls and stairs.

    At the second floor, he pulled open the door and saw his partner, Jim Johnson, of ten years walking towards him down the corridor carrying two cups of coffee. He handed one to
    Delgado, “Rough night?” said Johnson.

    Delgado ignored the slam, took the coffee and walked to their shared office. “It’s gonna be a long night. What’ve we got?”

    • Chris Hamilton permalink
      April 19, 2012 5:05 pm

      Very cool. Thanks for sharing. I like how you give the general theme of shabbiness at the beginning of the pieces, as a mirror to Delgado’s frame of mind. I also like how his words echoed, lingering a little bit. Almost like he’s being quoted back to himself, and what the emotional effect of that would be.

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