by Dan Kopcow, author of Worst. Date. Ever
Worst. Date. Ever. is a fiction short story collection about romantic dates gone horribly wrong. As I sifted through my short stories to see which ones fit into this collection, it occurred to me that the narrator or main character in some of these stories was not always the one going through their worst date ever. It reminded me that, as a writer, it’s good to let the reader figure out whom to empathize with.
We immediately think of ourselves experiencing the worst date ever. But keep in mind that there were times when we went on a date and caused someone else to have the worst date ever. There were times in our life when we thought the date went fine but the other person never saw us again. Perhaps, and unbeknownst to us, they may have had the worst date ever. And we might have been the cause!
Many years ago, I was dating this woman and we decided to go on vacation together. It was a tremendous test of our relationship. For the first time, we would be spending every minute together, observing how we behaved in new situations, bathroom habits, the whole caboodle. We traveled to Montana and were having a wonderful time. Then, we went to Jewel Cave National Monument.
I don’t know if you’ve been but the trip involves driving for hours through prairies, with the mountains glaring down and judging you. You arrive at a National Park office where you take an elevator about a mile straight down into the earth. When the elevator doors open, the temperature has dropped and you are immediately aware of humidity and the fact that you are in another world. A tour guide takes you through a roped-off path through some truly spectacular and colorful caves.
When my date and I arrived back up to the surface, her coldness toward me matched the Jewel Cave temperature. For the rest of the trip, she couldn’t wait to go home. I never heard from her again. And I couldn’t figure out what went wrong.
At the time of our trip, we were both in our thirties and she had been very clear that she was interested in having children. In hindsight, after sifting through details, I pinned down the moment when things fell apart. It happened a mile below the surface. While on our family tour in Jewel Cave, we came to the end of our path, marked by some Do Not Enter signs. Our tour guide told us this was as far as we could go. We’d have to turn around and walk back the way we came. The tour guide went on to explain that on the other side of the Do Not Enter signs was The Miseries. The Miseries are a series of extremely narrow cave openings that only the most dedicated and experienced cave explorers dare to enter. The openings are twelve to sixteen inches wide by two to three feet long. You stuff yourself into this opening and slowly, painfully, shimmy your way through, sometimes a few inches an hour. This goes on for some time while you get bruised and scraped in complete darkness. For fun, The Miseries alters its claustrophobic openings from a vertical to a horizontal orientation. It takes about half a day to get through The Miseries. When you finally arrive through the other side, bloody and exhausted, you witness an enormous and glorious cave. You camp out there overnight, aided by the camping equipment you have been dragging in a bag which has been tied to your ankle the entire time. The next morning, you do the whole thing in reverse.
When the tour guide completed The Miseries description, I joked out loud, “Why don’t we send the children through there with cameras so they can show us what it looks like?” The families held their kids close to them as if I were a serial killer. My girlfriend, realizing I might not be ideal father material, was suddenly having the Worst. Date. Ever.
I think about that story as a writer and how, depending on whose perspective you’re following, your empathy shifts and the story’s tone changes from comedy to horror. My hope is that these stories entertain but also remind us to be more empathetic. And to keep your mouth shut when you’re trapped a mile underground with strangers.
Dan’s stories have appeared in dozens of literary magazines nationally and internationally. His short story, “Brain Takes a Sick Day,” was selected for inclusion in the Satirica anthology. His short story, “The Cobbler Cherry,” was included in the anthology, Thank You, Death Robot, which won an Independent Publishing Award for Best Science-Fiction and Fantasy and was named a Top Ten Fiction Novel by the Chicago Tribune. He is currently at work on three novels.