The Salem Athenaeum

Submitted for Contest #46 in response to: Write a story that takes place in a writer's circle.... view prompt


Submitted on 06/19/2020

Categories: General


I stumbled into the Salem Athenaeum with my briefcase, coat, and backpack in hand. I set them down on the creaky wooden floor and looked at the beauty the building held inside. The rustic wallpaper of blue and gold images of farmland and workers painted the tall hallways. A sign at the front desk read, ‘Writing Group: Second Floor,”

I sighed and picked up my luggage, making my way towards the stairs. I had lived in Essex County in Massachusetts since I was little and had no plan to leave. Visiting the Athenaeum had become a regular trip ever since I had decided my next writing project would be about the psychology of divorce. The library had a few more books about the feeling of love and the brain than the public library did. I’d seen the flyer for the writing circle on my last visit the week before. I was still in the planning stage of ‘The Divorcee’ but so was my actual divorce.

I walked in a tiny room with miniature wooden ships scattered around it and saw a man in the corner. He was a few years younger than I was. His hair had started to bald at the top and he looked in his mid-fifties. He turned around.

“Ah, hello. Are you here for the writing circle?” he asked.

“Yeah, am I early?”

“Just a bit,” he motioned for me to sit down at a circular table. “Why don’t you sit?”

I listened and placed my bag down by a chair.

“What’s your name?” he asked. 

“I’m Jon Perkins,”

His eyes glazed over the clipboard he held in his hand.

“Ah yes, nice to meet you. I’m Hank Howsmen, professor at Salem State University,”

‘Nice to meet you, professor,”

We exchanged pleasantries when another woman walked in.

“Hello,” she sang in a singy voice. She was a large woman in her early sixties with big black eye makeup.

“Hi, and you are?” Hank asked.

“Bird Jovanitch present and ready to write,”

“Okay, Bird, why don’t you have a seat?”

“Will do,” she laughed as she plopped herself onto a chair next to mine.

“Who are you?” she asked, flirtatiously.


“Hi, Jon,”

I smiled awkwardly.

Another woman walked in and introduced herself as Fiona Gold. She sat herself down at the table, carefully. I had to guess she was in her seventies as she moved as if her bones were extra fragile. We sat in silence until another girl walked in. Emma Winters seemed to be no older than 13. She sat herself down in the corner and looked down at her notepad.

“Well we should be able to start soon, we’re just waiting for a Kim Lancer,”

My eyes widened and I began to get out of my seat to leave when she walked in. Her eyes caught mine and repeated my same motions.

“Kim?” Hank asked.

She nodded. Of course she was here, Salem was only so big and this was one of the main spots for writers to go. 

She proceeded to sit down in a chair, her eyes still fixated on me.

“Hey, Jon,” she finally said.


“Oh you two know each other?” Fiona smiled.

“Yeah, we’re um-”

“Divorced,” she said.

“Separated,” I corrected her.

“Oh, well that’s nice,” said Fiona, trying her best to not increase the intensity of the situation

We nodded.

Hank started speaking again about what the class would focus on and how it would help our writing careers.

“Jon, would you like to go first?” he asked.”Maybe tell us a little bit about yourself and what your book is about,”

“Oh. Uh, okay.” I scooted my chair closer to the table. “My name’s Jon, I’ve lived in Salem my whole life. I’m writing a book about the psychology behind divorce,”

The room was silent. 

“Nice,” said the professor.

I looked at Kim. She refused to meet my eyes as I longed for her to see me. I wondered what she was thinking.


I couldn't believe that he was writing about divorce. I wondered if he’d seen my notes for my new book, ‘7 Years’ . In that, I'd talk about husbands and wives who fell out of love. Jon had introduced me to so many things. Cheese, wine, boxing, cars, Robert Caro. I learned so much from him, we were together for 6 years before I realized that I enjoyed his hobbies more than he did. 

I fell out of love and got tired of seeing his mundane face everyday. He was aging fast too, he was twenty years older than I. the professor interrupted my train of thought.

“Fiona, how bout’ you?”

Fiona, an old woman cleared her throat. “I want to write a cookbook of all my family recipes, so that my children and grandchildren will have something to remember me by and so that they can cook my food long after I’m gone,”

I smiled. Now there was a woman who had a kind soul.

“That’s very nice,” I said.

She nodded.

“What about you, what’re you writing about?”

“Oh it’s stories about divorce,”

The room became quiet again. 

“That’s nice,” Fiona replied. “You?” she asked, motioning to Bird.

Bird looked up from her lap. Her voice boomed and was louder than the rest of us. 

“Animal Erotica and a little bit of fanfiction,”

“I’m sorry animal erotica?” I asked.

“Oh yes, there’s a huge market for it,”

‘Is there?” Jon said. She nodded. “How does that even-” 

“I’ve done a lot of research, I’m actually a pornography historian,” 

The little girl in the corner started to laugh into her hands as Bird furrowed her brow at her. 


What I didn’t understand is why this little girl was laughing at me. Animal Erotica had become very popular in my inner circle and I’d even lent my personal favorites to my two sons. 

“Is something funny?” I asked.

The little girl continued to laugh. “No, no, nothing. I’m sorry,”

“Well, I’ve already written most of it, so I plan on publishing it soon,” I shared to the group.

The girl continued to laugh. “If it’s so funny, why don’t you tell us what you write?

She cleared her throat. “Sci-fi,”

I smiled sarcastically and turned back to the leader of the group.

“Well now that we’ve shared our ideas, why don’t we hear about them individually?” Hank said.

Fiona started to talk about her cookbook and whatnot, but my mind wondered elsewhere. I was thinking about my campaign speech. I was running for Mayor and had many ideas on how to improve the town. I wanted to create a parade that people could do anything in. There was no theme, just people walking and driving. That was going to be my biggest job.

Another was to completely renovate one of the famous historical sites and turn it into a movie theater. I wouldn’t want to go to a boring museum, so why would anyone else? I planned on announcing my candidacy in a few days, so I needed to work on my speech. I thought I’d open on a quote from Harriet Tubman and how we were so alike. While it might be controversial to say that because I’m white, I didn’t think it’d make much of a difference.

“I’ve been looking into an agent that my friend recommended to me, his name is Horne Hebir. Have you heard of him?”

The professor went into a deep train of thought and tried to recollect any mention of a Horne Hebir.

“You said his name was Horne Hebir?” the little girl asked.

“Yeah, have you heard of him?”

“Are you close with this friend?”

“We’re kind of frenemies,” I laughed. “I remind myself of a main character,”

She began to laugh hysterically. “What the hell is so funny?” I yelled at her.

Through her chuckles, she said, “Ho-rny B-ird”


“Horny Bird,” she laughed. “Like your name is Bird and you’re horny cause you write animal erotica,”

I groaned. “Animal Erotica is a real and popular genre,” I said.

She nodded as she continued to laugh.


Oh my God, I was so glad I came to this. You have a couple that’s trying to get divorced, they’re both writers and they’re writing about each other. You have an absolutely bat-shit crazy woman who writes ANIMAL EROTICA! How lonely must she be to write that shit? Jesus Christ.

She kind of reminded me of my mom. Erica would bring home about four guys a week. Sometimes I’d see them again, sometimes I wouldn’t.  

I’d never say it to her face, but she was a junkie. She started shooting up when I was around seven. I’d never met my dad, but on more than one occasion, Erica had let me know that when she was pregnant with me, she didn’t have enough for an abortion, despite her intensive wish to have one. I was in eighth grade and failing almost all my classes. I’d been told by many teachers I had the potential to be a writer, but I barely had any time to do it because of all the homework I was given.

So I eventually just stopped doing it and began writing. I was winning contests and was receiving money, but I didn’t have enough to leave home. If I told anyone about my mom, they’d put me in foster care and I wouldn’t be able to write as much.

I was writing sci-fi and was almost done with my third novel. My plan was to go to high school, once I get enough money, buy a house on my own and try to go to community college for writing. I really wanted to be a famous writer and direct my own movie but I had a long way to go. These writing classes provided a lot of insight on how to become a better writer. Hank, the professor, seemed very professional and I thought I could learn from him. I hoped he’d take me under his wing and I could be his apprentice.


Emma was on the verge of making me burst out laughing. I couldn’t believe what Bird was saying. Hank decided to ignore that entire encounter and continue with the lesson, but I tuned him out. I was nervous but excited about writing. Being a retired schoolteacher, I now had a lot of time on my hands. After the passing of my recent husband, my son, Max, and my daughter, Carolyn, had decided it was too much of a burden to keep visiting my house and cleaning for me.

They had been subtly hinting that they were planning on me leaving. Last week I heard them talking in the other room about how they’d start to push me out of the house. They wanted me to go to a nursing home, but that was out of the question. My son was a lawyer and there was no doubt in my mind that he would try to use whatever legal power he had to try and force me out.

My plan was to write a cookbook of all my recipes and get it published so they could see that I could still function. That way, they could see that I could get around and it would be harder to push me out. I had nothing to do these days, and I even felt out of place in the group. What did I have in common with these 5 people? Absolutely nothing. 

Hank started talking again and I decided to listen.

“Fiona, what will make your book unique?” he asked.

“It’s all family recipes, so no one else will know them,”

He continued to go around the group and called on Jon.

“I’ll talk about the effects of falling out of love and how that can affect a person,”

Kim rolled her eyes.

“What?” he asked.


“No, tell me,”

“You wanna do this right now?” she asked.

He nodded. “Why not?,”

“Why don’t you two step into the hallway?” suggested Hank.

Both Jon and Kim got out of their chairs and made their way to the hallway.


There always seemed to be some type of drama in my writing circle, but Jesus was I getting tired of it. I was tired of trying to teach these amateur authors about the secrets of the biz, but in truth there were none. You just keep writing. Every single day and you don’t stop. 

I continued to talk to them about the marketing business and self branding, but to be honest my mind was elsewhere. The allegations. It was only a matter of time. I was a professor, but in my youth, I had mistakenly decided to sleep with four students. Lilah Monk, Sierra Hurley, Kathy Brennan and Laura Murphy. 

Some small part of me hoped that everything would be okay. It wasn’t like we had an serious relationship, it was just sex. But I knew that one day, one of them would come forward, and then the others would follow. It was just a matter of time. At the time of these relationships, my wife was in chemo. She couldn’t love me the way I was used to. Of course I regret it, but sometimes I miss it. It was so exciting and exhilarating, even though I knew it was wrong. 

It wasn’t so much as attraction as it was sex, but I felt powerful afterwards, and the power felt good. I didn’t have kids, so it wasn’t like anyone’s life was ruined except mine. My wife had already died, so it’s not like she cared. 

During the affair, it was great, but during the aftermath, the cons outweighed the pros. Everyday, I lived in fear. I hated surprises, I was careful not to brag to the wrong people, but sometimes even though I had a good run, I regretted it. I became depressed and I never traveled. I tried to forget what I had done, but I couldn’t do it. I was so scared of running into one of them on the streets, I barely walked places and only went into popular stores when necessary. I know I had peaked, hell, I barely had any life left living in me, but I carried on.

I decided to end the meeting early, as I could tell everyone in the circle was preoccupied. I gave them my card and left. I felt as if I was a ticking time bomb. And I didn’t want to get anyone else killed.


“What the hell is wrong with you?” I shouted at Jon.

“What’s wrong with me? What are you doing here?”

“We are both writers, Jon, I can write whatever the hell I want,”

“Yeah but why are we writing about the same thing, huh?”

“Why don’t you tell me?” I screamed at him. “I know you had access to the apartment before I completely moved out. I know you saw my outline!”

“You are so paranoid, I didn’t look at anything. Has it ever occurred to you that I’m just creative?”

“You, creative? please.” I rolled my eyes. “How did I ever love you?”

He stepped back, hurt. “I don’t know,” he yelled

“What do you know, Jon?”

He became quiet. 

“What?” I asked.

“Why did you love me?” he asked.

I groaned. “I can’t do this now,”

“Kim,” he pleaded. “You owe me an explanation, you can’t just stop loving a person one day. That’s not how it works,”

I sighed and looked away. “You taught me so much,” I said. “Books, wine, poetry, the arts,” He nodded. “You had nothing left to teach me, no more surprises, I couldn’t live that life,”

“So I don’t surprise you with knowledge, well what about love?” he asked.

“I want to learn things, Jon, and you can’t do that for me,”

“We could learn together,”


“Answer me this. How can someone fall out of love with another because she enjoys his hobbies too much? How does that make sense?” He grabbed me by the shoulders. “Kim, there’s more to me than my hobbies, didn’t you fall for me and not them?”

“Of course I did!” I cried. “But I want excitement, and I’ve learned everything I can from you!”

His eyes teared up. “There’s so much more that we could learn. I promise you. We’ll have adventures and we’ll try new things. Just please come home,”

I felt a tear roll down my face and into the crevice of my nose and cheek.

“We could do that?” I asked, hopeful.

“We could do all that and more. Kim, please just come back. I miss you,”

I nodded slowly. “Okay,” 

“Really?” he asked. I nodded again, harder. I cried and I embraced him in a long and familiar hug. If I was being completely honest, I’d never actually stopped loving him. I just wanted to love and discover more things. I felt that Jon was holding me back. What I didn’t know was that without him, I couldn’t learn them. I wouldn’t know where to start. People always say their partner makes them whole.

As cliche as it sounds, they were right.

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Alexi Delavigne
04:02 Jun 25, 2020

This was really enjoyable to read. I thought the format was really creative, and I loved how each of the characters had such distinct voices, it was great to get different perspectives. There was a lot going on but it never felt overwhelming. Hank's section in particular stood out to me, it was a heavy subject and I think you covered it in a unique and interesting way. Great work!


Lizzie Swanson
13:47 Jun 25, 2020

Thanks so much! I’m glad you liked it!


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Stephanie Gull
00:19 Jun 25, 2020

I really really enjoyed the way you approached this narrative! You definitely used the shifts in perspectives to allow us to understand the characters. In particular I liked Emma's section because her tone and the way she sees the world as different from the others was very clear in her thoughts. My favorite part of stories with shifts in perspective is trying to figure out why the author chose each character for each section, in your piece having Kim go twice to everyone else's single section stood out as a very unique choice. I'd love to h...


Lizzie Swanson
13:54 Jun 25, 2020

Thanks for your feedback, I’d be happy to share. I wanted the story to end with a change in one of their personal lives, and I wanted it to be her because she it’s revealed she never actually fell out of love. Out of all the characters in these types of stories you can often tell which characters are more of a main character. Kim was this to let’s say Fiona. (Bird is based on a woman that was once in a writers circle I went to lol thought I’d share)


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