Every writer remembers the first time they get their work published. It happened to me at the end of grammar school, when Nick Popovic [note: all names have been changed] and I were chosen to write a segment in our eighth grade memory book called “Where will they be in twenty years?,” predicting the future of each of the forty-two members of our graduating class.
Since this was Chicago, our names were no sooner announced than people began clamoring to cut deals with us. Swag started pouring in—Cubs tickets from the wealthier kids, Boones Farm pegged from the local liquor store from the delinquents, Algebra test answers from the smart kids. But no matter what they were offering, everyone had the same request: write a prediction that would make them sound cool.
At first I was in awe of my newfound power, and later, drunk on it. But Nick, a smooth-talking blond boy who favored black turtlenecks and spoke in softly accented English (his parents were Yugoslavian) was no stranger to popularity, and he accepted the attention with the entitled ennui of a crowned prince. This was a boy who’d once self-induced vomiting to get out of solving an equation at the board, who’d been falsely accused of stealing a chalk holder only to receive a public apology—from a teacher—after she found it in the backseat of her Toyota.
Growing up in a largely Irish neighborhood, Nick might have been embarrassed about his exotic middle name—Blaze—but instead, when it came time to choose our patron saints at Confirmation, Nick picked St. Blaze of Armenia, so that, after he received the sacrament, his full Christened name was Nikola Blaze Blaze Popovic.
He was not the kind of kid to be bought out by cheap bribes.
In the end, Nick and I made the noble decision to ignore all requests, choosing instead to use our forum as a means to seek personal revenge on those who had wronged us. Of Gina Gagliardo, who had heartlessly dumped Nick in art class, we foretold that she would grow up to be the owner of a failed meatball stand. Class jock Peter Dooley had shattered Nick’s glasses with a perfectly aimed rubber ball during a fourth grade dodgeball game; we wrote that he would play the role of Sloth in Goonies: The Sequel. Of Juliet Perry, an abrasive know-it-all who had usurped my place in the eighth grade mathematics championship, we penned, “Juliet will enjoy a long career of playing the spoons under the el tracks.” It was June, and our teachers, exhausted and overworked, didn’t even bother to proofread our work.
Of course, the best part of this deal was the fact that Nick and I got to write our own predictions. With trademark self- assurance, Nick proclaimed in his neat, straight handwriting, “In twenty years, Nikola Blaze Blaze Popovic will become a hair model and foreign diplomat to the stars.”
But when it came down to foretelling my own future, I found myself at a loss. At first I wanted to write that I’d become the first female billionaire in the United States, but that didn’t seem original enough. Then, I thought I might become a vet, but I fainted at the sight of blood and was terrified of cats and birds, so it didn’t seem plausible. So finally, with the deadline looming, I wrote, “In twenty years, Jessie Morrison will be a writer.” When I showed it to Nick, he shook his head with disappointment, his yellow hair immobilized by gel. “That’s dumb,” he said, “and besides, you already are a writer.” He held up our loose-leaf paper manuscript. “Duh-uh.”
Now that I’m pursuing my MFA in fiction writing, I often wonder about that prediction. Has it come true or not? What defines us as writers? Is it the first time you get paid for your words, or the first time you see your own name on the spine of a book? Or should I believe Nick’s definition—that the very moment you sit in a quiet place, imagine unlikely futures, and move your pen, a writer has been born?
The last time I saw Nick Popovic was in high school. We ran into each other at a Shell station. He was pumping gas into a black Cadillac roughly the length and width of a pontoon boat. He said his parents had moved back to Eastern Europe, and he was thinking of following them. I never saw him again, but I always think of him fondly, because he was the first person to tell me that I was a writer. And every time a Just for Men hair commercial comes on TV, I still look for him, hoping.
When and where was your very first publication?