Things I Accomplish on My Day Off in Order to Avoid Writing an Essay on Marriage

I lay in my daughter’s bed, where I’ve slept, for a long time awake with my eyes closed, thinking of all the essays I would rather write. I have drafts I want to work on, about birds and sharks and theme parks. I would rather write about foot fungus than write earnestly about marriage. I would rather write about anything but marriage. Which is how I know I’d better write about it.

Instead, I begin complaining about the unseasonable heat. I text my husband about it when he’s at work in a tone which suggests he might be at fault.

I regret the irascible text message. I wonder about conveying “tone” via text in general. I try to find, among the bizarre extant emojis, one that conveys contrition, so I don’t actually have to apologize for being snarky.

Party Down South

Party Down South

I watch an episode of the reality show Party Down South, now in its fourth season, which gives viewers a look into the lives of nine white southerners who spend summers debauching and tempting early-onset cirrhosis. Or death. (Like, I’m pretty sure the character they call “Daddy,” who takes his beer bong around with him everywhere, is not going to see a season five.) In the episode I watch, the cast member called Boudreaux proposes to his girlfriend. He unwraps an engagement ring from a wad of duct tape, takes a knee and holds it forth. He says of the moment: “I felt like I was kneeling on the brake pedal of the earth.” I think sullenly about how Boudreaux might be better than me at poetry. For some writers, metaphors arrive unbidden, while others must labor. I think about drinking bourbon.

I get depressed from thinking about all the books I won’t have time to read before I’m dead.

I lay on the floor for a little while.

I take my kids to Disneyland for a couple of hours (the Matterhorn looms just 15 minutes north on the I-5). I go on a few rides. I grip my girls, one in each sweaty palm and urge them down Main Street. The false world streams around us. They fatigue quickly and complain about being at Disneyland and I realize that my children, at the ages of six and four, may be reaching early-onset theme park saturation. I drive us home. In the car, they fall asleep and the chub of their cheeks presses into their shoulders. Their tufty hair—their father’s blonde—floats around them in the freeway breeze.

I peruse 501 Italian Verb Conjugations. I think to myself, “It’s important to stay fresh.”

I do Internet research about diseases and affirmatively diagnose myself with a terminal illness. I call my sisters to break the news about my condition, leaving a morose message for one, then having my fear assuaged  by the other—a person with both enviable knowledge of human viscera and “common sense.”

I consider my mental map of coffee sellers in a 20-mile radius.

I drive to the coffee seller that pours a chain of hearts into your latte foam. I’m addressed by the amiable, blouse-wearing gentleman at the counter by my first name. I ponder whether there is a coffee shop nearby whose employees don’t know my name. (If I come in early, they always say, “Hi, Mary, one or two today?” If we’re not fighting, I get my husband one, too. I bring it home before he is awake. I place it by his car keys.)

Ornamental frogs

Ornamental frogs

I get high on caffeine and go to a discount retailer. I wander around looking at things no one needs. I contemplate buying a lawn ornament. Specifically, a frog playing a violin. He’s a foot tall and wears a silly smirk. In thinking about the vast blankness of my yard—my husband and I cannot agree on what tree, what bush, how much one ought to water in the new climate—I consider the possibility that I might need two frogs or even a quartet, if I’m going to get serious. I think about how consumption of this kind is likely the opposite of creation, which leads to me shaming myself out of the store.

I acknowledge that if I actually wanted to be a better person I would spend my days off volunteering somewhere, since obviously I’m not going to write a lick.

I listen to the thirty or so voicemail messages that I usually allow to accumulate before I check them. I learn that a month ago my father left a long message about swimming in a race around an ocean pier. I imagine him, a month hence, pulling a rhythmic freestyle in the green, shadow-water near the pilings. I see him swim under the pier and emerge back out into the light of the other side. I think about calling him back. Recently he said that for the holidays this year he’d like to retain an attorney to prepare a will for my husband and me. He said, “You’re not children anymore.”

I think about dyeing my hair. I have never done it, not to cover up the gray. Once, when I was drunk for a while—a period of months after my parents split up—I dyed it bright red, but that’s distant past. I’m 34 and my temples are thoroughly threaded with white. I will be gray-headed by the time I’m 40. (I went to a wedding last weekend with my husband, even though we’re in a fight, and I wore a black dress and swept one side of my hair up with a cluster of silk barrettes made to look like roses. My heart did a heavy clunk when, in the mirror, I saw all the silver streaking back. Right when I was trying, inexplicably, to look pretty for my husband.) All the upkeep of dye seems like a slippery slope. When do you start that? When do you stop? One day you’re going gray and the next day you’re a brunette again. Instead I allow myself to hope that the gray just makes me look prematurely smart.

I acknowledge that I should probably have a will in place.

I contribute GIFs to a longstanding group text I’m involved in. I pat myself on the back for learning how to embed a GIF in a text. I still don’t know what a “GIF” is (acronym? body noise?) and flatter myself that it’s artsy to be willfully daft about pop culture. Then I realize that not speaking whatever language “GIF” belongs to might just be a function of my advanced years.

I think about getting another coffee. I get back on the Internet to review articles about the benefits of coffee in preventing neurodegenerative brain disorders.

I take a dance class at the gym.

I return home and choreograph an original dance routine. For about an hour, I enjoy an outsized notion of my own dancing abilities. I wonder about switching careers to be a professional dancer. (One who leaves to go on tours, so that eventually their home life becomes a foreign place.) I spend a few minutes researching how to become a backup dancer for Beyonce.

I text with friends about how much I dislike football. Ironically, I harangue my husband about his participation in fantasy sports because I think that allegiance to a fantasy roster eclipses love of the game. I fixate on the “right way” to love.

I vacuum my house with extreme care. The high corners of ceilings, the secret crease in the easy chair, the grout of the bathroom tiles. I like the stripes the vacuum leaves on the carpet, but I hate the carpet itself, which my husband thinks is fine—he sees no reason to get rid of a functional thing.

I go to the library and check out books I don’t have time to read.

I eavesdrop on my new next-door neighbors, a young couple with two sons who moved in with their elderly relative. The faceless boys across the fence argue loudly and their little dogs sometimes bark. The bickering happens at our house, too, but our dog barks more than theirs. Ours is a yellow lab mix and he’s getting old and losing his senses. He’s disoriented and scared. When my husband was traveling a lot for work, our dog was younger and his judicious barking made me feel secure (from robbers, ghosts, loneliness). But these days, when my dog hears the clank of the mail dumping through the slot, for example, he runs to the door and barks like a fiend—rearing up and tearing at the wood like a crazed thing, his lips pulled so far back that he shows a terrifying mask of teeth. He’s very difficult to calm. I think about the dog and me going gray together. The dog and me disoriented, snarling.

I let fear of death grip me for a few minutes.

I reflect on how the next-door couple speak so civilly to one another, how kindness is my new foreign language.

I sit at the kitchen table with three laptops in front of me (two for work, one for “writing”) and because I can’t type a word, I shut my eyes. I see an aerial map of my day, traced like one of those apps that shows you where and how far you’ve run. The map is a chaos of flight from here to there, in the house, out of the house, into the city. A scribble of avoidance.

I try and lose it, but the hard essay is everywhere, writing itself. The thing about a bird, a shark, a theme park, is that even when writing about those subjects, the challenge of loving comes at me obliquely. It tracks me, stolid as a hawk, waiting for me to quit running.

Where the River Ends

one.

after claire dies, i see her
standing in my bedroom.

when i look up from my book, she’s standing there, staring at me. her hair and clothes
are wet and dripping, forming a puddle on the floor at the foot of my bed. her feet are
bare. her blue nail polish is chipping. it matches the color of her lips.

i want to get her a towel
or make room for her
in my bed. i want her
to wind her wet limbs
around me so i can feel her
skin and bones and hear the water
in her lungs while she breathes
herself to sleep.

but we just look at each other, and she drips onto the floor, and she holds one elbow
with the other hand and shifts her weight and keeps looking at me. and while i look at
her, at her wet clothes and her blue lips and her white skin, i feel cold. i know she’s

there. but i know she isn’t, either.

two.

the day they found claire’s body, i turned eighteen.

my mother set a bagel with a candle stuck in the cream cheese down beside me at the
breakfast table. she stepped back and clasped her hands together, proud.

i blew out the candle
and my mother kissed my head
and the phone rang
and beth from up the street
was calling to tell mom
that claire had been found
six miles up the river

and while my mother gasped into the receiver, i plucked the candle from my bagel and
took a bite.

three.

i kissed claire for the first time while we sat on her bed after school one day when we
were sixteen.

her mouth was open
just a little

and her lips tasted like sweet tea

and i didn’t know what to do with my hands besides to let them move over her sides and
grasp at the thin material of her shirt

a drowning person

grasping for a rope

four.

the news calls her local girl.
tells us all that Local Girl was found
six miles up the river in beauford
early this morning.

and while they say it,
i’m thinking of mornings
and claire
and the time we stayed up all night
to see a meteor shower
and while we sat on her roof
wrapped in a blanket together
we realized the clouds were too thick
and we were going to miss
everything.

five.

even after she’s dead, our mothers don’t know about us.

even when we were all gathered at the police station, her parents across from me while i
waited to be brought in for questioning, we all stared at each other, and only one of us
knew anything close to the truth.

“meredith, just tell them everything you know,” her mother was whimpering, tissues
crumpled in her hand.

here is what i knew:
kissing claire felt like being asleep—safe and unaware. weightless and surreal.
claire, no matter how much i tried to fix her, was broken. a burned out lightbulb,
delicate glass shell still in tact, but insides rattling and rusted.
she had a tiny constellation of freckles on her shoulder where i would place my lips
whenever i tried to console her, to hold her pieces together whenever they began to
come unglued. she was heavy weight on a thin rope. she was a valley of sharp rocks
waiting under a dive into shallow water.
a week ago, while we were lying in her bed, she took a pen from the bedside table. she
turned over my wrists and on the pale skin there, wrote, help me.
the next day, i told her i would.

a detective brought me hot chocolate and set it on the table between us. while i pressed
my palms against the warm sides of the cup, he asked, in his best you-can-trust-me
voice, “you and claire are close, huh?”

close like what? close like florida is close to georgia? or close like the ocean to the shore,
where the waves hit the sand and it’s almost impossible to tell where one really ends and
the other begins?

“yes.”

“so, she must confide in you.”

“i guess so.”

“did she mention anything about running away? or wanting to?”

we used to wake each other up early in the mornings and run before school sometimes.
claire would tie her hair back in this messy ponytail that swung between her shoulder
blades while she jogged. the only reason i could even keep up was because i wanted to
stay near her. something about the darkness that still hung in the morning like a fog
over the wet pavement we ran on made me uneasy.

i would follow her through the subdivision and then down the bike trails to the creek,
our heavy breathing and footsteps the only sound.

“meredith?”

the cup of hot chocolate between my hands no longer felt warm. i pushed it away and
pulled my hands into my lap.

“i don’t know where claire is.”

my mother used to tell me
that every lie i told would stay inside my mouth
a little bug of a lie
and it would grow bigger
every time i lied
until it was so big
i wouldn’t even be able to speak

six.

when i sleep—
++++claire stands on the shore line
++++the ocean pulling at her heels
++++arms stretched out to her sides
++++like she’s worshiping some long-forgotten,
++++make-believe sea goddess

++++claire eats ripe peaches
++++and her mouth tastes sweet

++++claire wakes me before light
++++wraps her fingers around my wrists
++++tugs me from bed
++++and pulls me into an ocean

++++claire braids my hair
++++kisses my shoulders
++++shares my clothes

++++claire paints her nails purple
++++dyes sections of her blonde hair blue
++++and writes poems about dying

++++claire is the current
++++claire is the stillness in the mornings
++++claire is warm blood on my fingertips
++++++++and a whisper of, “please, you said you would help me.”
when i’m awake—

++++claire’s yearbook photo from last year is on the news again. they run the story like
there’s nothing else to talk about, like there aren’t piles of bodies stacking higher
somewhere in the world, or someone who got shot, or a store that got robbed, or some
other kind of injustice besides another dead teenager.
++++my mother brews coffee and watches the broadcast on the tiny television in the
kitchen. while she stirs milk and sugar into her mug, she shakes her head slowly.
++++“it’s such a shame,” she sighs. “such a shame.”

++++claire stands at the end of my bed, stealing my sleep, drinking it in slow swallows
and giggling when i close my eyes to block her out.

seven.

here’s what i know:
++++when describing herself, claire used words like empty and numb
++++when describing claire, i preferred words like endless and new
++++even while we kissed, claire would whisper to me about leaving
++++even while i was tucked between her and the living room couch, she would sigh
into my neck and ask in her softest voice if i would love her even if she were dead
++++before claire, i’d only known the hungry mouths of boys with names like jake and
brad and james and derrick
++++before me, claire knew the tongue and limbs and long, pretty hair of a girl named
abigail, who sat beside me in freshman algebra, and drew out claire’s name over and
over in her notebook
++++when someone told the whole school that abigail loved claire, abigail pulled her
mother’s crafting knife over her wrists and spent the rest of the school year in what her
mother was calling rehab but everyone knew it was really the psych ward.
++++even once claire had shown me the difference between kissing a boy and kissing a
girl, she still hummed out little sighs at the mention of abigail, and told me while she
braided my hair that she had dreams about abigail bleeding, but the dreams were
beautiful instead of sad
++++i often had dreams about claire—
++++in them, she wore pretty dresses that fell above her knees and her hair was a
thousand different colors and she was always painting a picture, but i could never see
what it was.

eight.

claire has been dead for a week and she won’t leave my bedroom.
she sits in the corner, most days, hugging her knees and crying, and her tears are dirty
river water that run down her legs and stain my carpet.

“you can’t stay here,” i tell her, when i wake up and find her still curled in the corner.
“you have to go.”

but when she tries to answer me, she coughs up black water and begins to cry again, her
wet clothes dripping into the puddle she sits in.

nine.

“i don’t know what happened to claire.”

it’s the third time i’ve had to tell detective what’s-his-name what i know about claire.
he’s sitting across the table again, and i’ve got my hands in my lap, and this time, he
actually starts to look frustrated.

“she never told you anything about where she was going that night?”

“what night?”

“the night she disappeared.”

“no, she didn’t tell me anything.”

“but weren’t you close?”

he’s using the past tense, this time. this time, claire isn’t missing. this time, claire is in a
refrigerated drawer somewhere with her name on a toe tag. this time, they know where
she is.

“yeah, we were close. doesn’t mean she told me everything, all the time.”

at least that wasn’t a lie. there were plenty of things claire didn’t tell me. she didn’t tell
me if she ever stopped having dreams about abigail. she didn’t tell me why her dad was
never home. she didn’t tell me why she cried the first time she took her clothes off in
front of me.

“did claire have any enemies? maybe people at school she was unfriendly with for any
reason?”

i think of abigail and her open wrists. the thick, white scars that decorated her skin when
she came back to school. the looks she threw at claire from across the hallway or
lunchroom. like claire had been the one holding the blade. like claire had held that blade
to abigail’s throat and yelled, “fall in love with me! confuse yourself and hide from your
family and love me until you bleed!”

i sometimes dreamt of her doing that to me. for claire to beg me to love her would have
been like a shore begging for the waves to crash against it—pointless, since it would
happen anyway. mechanically. automatically. involuntarily.

“no.” i shake my head. “everyone loved claire.”

ten.

when you live in a town this close to the ocean, every piece of water seems
inconsequential in comparison. the river that washed claire onto its shores leads into the
sea, eventually. the bank where they found her lies deep in the backyards of a high-end
subdivision. i imagined someone finding her, shoving their way through the underbrush
towards the water, searching for a lost tennis ball or frisbee. seeing a set of pale
fingertips reaching out from the mud—
++++a boatless anchor
++++left behind while its vessel
++++moved out to sea

eleven.

here’s how i fell in love with claire:
++++she moved in four houses up the summer before freshman year
++++while the movers brought in the boxes, she wandered barefoot down the sidewalk
to my house, where i was in the yard, laid out across a yellow blanket
++++she asked if she could sit with me
++++and she did
++++and i gave her one of my earbuds
++++and we laid there for hours, just listening
++++and her hair smelled like coconut
++++and her nails were painted blue
++++and even though a boy named jake had just told me he liked me
++++i suddenly didn’t care.

twelve.

i loved claire like the sun loves the horizon: so much that it cannot sleep without kissing
it goodnight.

thirteen.

“you promised you’d help me.”

she waded into the water. the hem of her dress brushed the surface, took on weight and
began to sink and cling to her body the further she waded in.

the gray sun veiled claire’s body, her skin glowing pale in its light. she dragged her
fingers in the water, her blonde hair stringy and tangled against her bare shoulders.

“meredith.”

the soft current pulled her dress.
i stepped both barefeet off the bank, sinking up to my waist in the cold water.

fourteen.

claire’s casket is painted a pale gold. her mother and father sit crumpled in the first row
of folding chairs set up beside her gravesite. i hear her mother’s whimpers as i watch her
shoulders shake. a reverend is talking about jesus, and eternity, and rest.

i am writing poems with my eyes on the gold paint of claire’s new bed:
++++you were january eyes and icicles
++++it burned to hold you

++++i’ll keep you like the river
++++i’ll keep you like calendars keep days

++++i’ll keep you like your lungs kept water

+++++++++like broken jewelry
+++++++++like empty frames

fifteen.

“you have to hold onto me.”

claire lifted her hands and circled my neck with them, dragging her wet fingers down my
collarbone. “hold me under.”

she didn’t move right away. instead, she kept her hands on me, and as she stared at me, i
could see her start to smile.

cheshire cat. rabbit hole. rabbitholerabbithole.

sixteen.

no signs of foul play.
she just fell in and drowned.
she was just swimming and drowned.
she was by herself, and she drowned.
Local Girl drowned.
tragedy, tragedy.

seventeen.

a day or two after claire’s funeral, the news stops talking about her. some dead kid is
found in the field behind the vacant k-mart, and she’s seven so she matters more. her
two front teeth are missing in the smiling school photo they show on the evening news.

while i sit in the living room downstairs and watch, i hear claire stomping around
upstairs in my bedroom. i stare up at the ceiling and watch the hanging light shudder.

eighteen.

i only did what she told me to do.

she was the glue that held my bones in place.
she was the wick. i was the wax.

before she went under, she kissed me. she held my face in her cold, wet hands and
pulled my lips to hers and gave me the kind of kiss that felt less like a goodbye and more
of a thank-you. it felt like burned out stars. it felt like endings.

she didn’t take a big breath in before she went under. she just let go of my face, touched
one more kiss to my chin, and sank under the surface.

she didn’t struggle against my hands.
she held them against her shoulders
until she let go.

nineteen.

my mother wants to know if i need to talk. she leans on the kitchen counter and holds
her mug of coffee with both hands. she looks like a made-for-tv movie. she looks like a
non-attorney spokesperson in a car insurance commercial. she cares, but not for the
reasons she should.

i shrug my shoulders. “i don’t think so, no.”

++++i’m tired.
++++claire kept me up last night.
++++she paced the floor in front of my bed
++++and left dirty, wet footprints on the carpet.
++++i begged her to go to sleep. she pulled on her hair
++++and it came out in wet handfuls.
“well, if you ever do need to talk to someone,” my mother offers, and then hesitates. “i
can find you a nice therapist.”

i pick up a pen and scribble absently on the corners of the newspaper on the table.
“sure.”

please

go

to

sleep

 

twenty.

two weeks after she dies, claire finally leaves.

i wake up and the corner of my room is empty.

all that’s left is a dark stain in the carpet
++++and a few words
++++scratched into the baseboard

+++++++++you

+++++++++did

+++++++++this

Sara WaltersSara Walters knows 384 things about Leonardo DiCaprio (on her last count). She has a little red dog named Weasley and drinks ridiculously overpriced coffee. She writes things that feel and sound rather than only say. Her work has appeared in Bridge EightSo to SpeakGone LawnSugared Water, and Barely South Review, among others.

(the danger of becoming small)

[flash fiction]

After an argument that night in the grocery store over the merits of grass-fed cow’s milk, your lug-headed boyfriend told you to keep quiet, to take up less space, to become less noticeable. So you sucked your breath inward, purpling your skin from lack of oxygen and subtracting your sound from the universe. Then you folded yourself limb upon limb, in halves, then halves again infinitesimally, until you compressed yourself into the space of an atom, then you went even further, causing nuclear fission and an explosion more powerful than the heat of a million suns, thus collapsing the space-time continuum. It is in this way you were reborn, upending all of creation, casting your boyfriend and the grocery store into the great void.

G.G. SilvermanG.G. Silverman lives north of Seattle with a very compassionate husband and a very cute dog, whose markings resemble a tuxedo. G.G. has won awards for her short fiction and is currently at work on a short story collection as well as the follow-up to her first novel. When not writing, she can often be found hiking, downward-dogging, and training on her compound bow. She is fairly certain that coffee is what keeps her alive. For more info, please visit www.ggsilverman.com.

Summercamp Sirens, Days Like This, Rattlesnake

Summercamp Sirens

When cities are burning
and children sleep in your bed
you can’t measure suffering
like sugar, one tablespoon
at a time. Mornings are full
of orange juice and hope
and getting out the door
to camp and watering flowers
walking as if you forgot
that there’s a war on
and that hairstyles
and nailpolish
can get territorial,
and games like Catan
are played on the ground.
We find insects smashed
between pages of books
we read to stop remembering
and find acorns on windowsills
thimbles too big to protect
even thumbs. You snap
pictures, nails, tempers.
You have cornstarch dreams
tinted with food color.
Your lips move as you read
headlines and you spell
everything: hate, bodies,
soldiers, rockets, fear.
But you can’t spell sirens
language is heavy as feathers
and you wonder why the birds
don’t burst.

 

 

Days Like This

When you hear that a rocket fell
make black coffee, dark and sweet.
When you hear that a soldier died
bake cookies, then eat them all.
When you look outside your window
watch for birds, they know everything.
When you lose power and it’s dark
make love, even to yourself.
If you love a fruit
you cut it open.
Sometimes snakes
eat their own tails.
And forests grow
in the strangest places:
over graves and under tunnels.
Children ask what these words mean:
Hamas: I tell them anger
Siren: I tell them song
Tunnel: I tell them water
Soldier: I tell them dream
This is how we learn to forgive.

 

Rattlesnake

mid-July but it feels
like August when the rains
don’t come and the air
is filled with the smell
of animal death and sand
when iced drinks melt
faster than you can drink
them and everything sweats
bullets, dread, fear
everyone gets a chance
at forgiveness but not
in this heat, it leaves
no room for change
for different maps
everyone knows everyone
and yet
we fight
and spit
and cry
and break hearts
nightly.
Our children learn
to fire shotguns
and wring chicken necks
like hands just to put
an end to suffering
still
I love this place
beautiful and cracked
where every leaf reminds
us, and neighbors’ fights
take the shape of rockets
falling, I could be any
where, staring at the sky
and driving down the endless
asphalt, listening to malls
and indifference, but I’m still
in love, and the grass reminds
me, parched and dry, that
wildflowers make the sound
of a thousand tiny stars

 

Rena_Rossner_optRena Rossner is a graduate of the Writing Seminars program at The Johns Hopkins University. She also holds degrees from Trinity College Dublin and McGill University. She currently works as a literary and foreign rights agent at The Deborah Harris Agency in Jerusalem, Israel. Her poetry and short fiction has been published or is forthcoming from Carve Magazine, Midwest Quarterly, The Mayo Review, Rattle, Chicago Literati, Arc 23, JewishFiction.net and more. Her cookbook, Eating the Bible, has been translated into 5 languages and is published by Skyhorse Press. Her first novel is out on submission.

 

 

 

 

Slowing Down #4 – Getting Rid of Clutter

Black mold

I try to write about rage, and old muck gets in the way.

I’m obsessed with injuries past, dormant for a while, that are suddenly screaming for attention. I can’t get a damn thing done. I assume there’s a reason why they’re clamoring, so I may as well start digging.

Our oven blew up about a week ago. I was cooking a chicken, and I heard a big bang from the kitchen. All the lights went out. Google said that happens a lot with that particular range. Home Depot came a couple of days later with a brand new much-more-fabulous stove and carted off the old one, so I should by rights be done with it. But I am spinning.

Here’s the deal: For nine years, my husband and I have lived in a one-hundred-year-old office building, adapted for residential lofts. Three years ago, a few months after my dad died, I noticed a rotten spot on the baseboard behind our toilet. The place is solid—all concrete, marble, tile—but these baseboards were made of cheap fiberboard—like thick cardboard. Over time, it got wet—I assumed it was water from the shower. It puffed up, fanned out like mille-feuilles pastry. Poking through the softness of the layers, I saw the original black and white Greek-key ceramic tile under the hideous beige twelve-by-twelve, fifty-cents-a-square-foot tile the developer had slapped on top of it.

tile

Marty was on his way to Detroit to visit his mom for five days. Plenty of time, I thought, to pull up the floor, take out the pre-fab tub, the cheap vanity sink, and replace them with vintage fixtures.

A bathroom guru named Joaquin had made magic for a friend. He  found him a vintage clawfoot tub, pedestal sink, put in sparkling tile up to the ceiling. That was what I wanted.

As soon as Marty left, Joaquin moved in. He pulled up the offending floor and started to pry the cheap four-by-four white tiles off the walls near the shower. He shouted for me to come look. The drywall was coming down in great chunks with the tiles, soft and crumbling. It was soaked with water through and through. As the opening grew, we could see the plumbing within: copper pipes streaked black, turquoise and white, water dripping down, pooling at the bottom of the wall. The excavation was lined with black mold, teeming with the two-inch water bugs whose ranks had been plaguing us for years.

pipe-conduit

The source of the leak was at the point where an electric conduit had been placed directly over the hot water main. Electric current, Joaquin explained, corrodes copper, creates pinhole leaks. Water from the main had been slowly dripping behind our walls for years.

I called the building manager, told her we had unearthed black mold. Dangerous stuff. It was an emergency.

It took her more than a week to get the building engineer to our place to inspect the bathroom. By that time, Marty had gotten home and I’d wound up in the emergency room with a fierce bronchitis, as a result of the mold.

Once the engineer finally arrived, he looked directly at the streaming pipes and said the problem was we hadn’t sealed the grout in the shower, and that’s what he told the Board.

I called a plumber, who filed a document telling them it was clearly a construction defect. I have his visit on tape. But by that time, my trust in the Board and the building management and staff had evaporated entirely.

Ultimately, after five weeks of hell, we wound up with a terrific new bathroom, and I filed all the documents and video from the whole mess in a folder labeled “Bathroom Catastrophe” on a hard drive, locked my rage in a box, and full-speed torpedoed ahead.

Until the oven blew up last week and the whole cluster-fuck woke up from where it had been resting, lurking—never sleeping—in my old-brain hippocampus.

*     *     *

The hippocampus is part of the limbic system. It is responsible for sensation, emotion, and memory. When something happens—when the brain receives a stimulus—it’s the job of the hippocampus to figure out if it’s important or memorable. If it is important, a record of the stimulus gets sent to the left hemispheric cortex (new brain, grey matter) where it gets stored as a story, our understanding of what happened. Understanding or meaning is what transforms what happened into story, so it can take its place in the brain as something that is over, something that happened in the past.

Traumatic experience and things we experience as senseless—like sudden loss of security/home, loss of a loved one, abuse—over-stimulate the hippocampus. When over-stimulated, it [the hippocampus] does not have the capacity to make meaning. It cannot make story. So the data stays in the old right-brain hippocampus as if it is happening in present time. There is no past tense.

And so the bathroom catastrophe was therefore ever-present, lifting weights, getting stronger, bonding with all its brother and sister traumas—abandonment by boyfriends, deaths of loved ones, countless betrayals—in that stubborn ancient-brain hippocampus.

*     *     *

This Slowing Down series is about writing, clearing the way for writing. And this post is about how stuff comes up that may seem to get in the way, but turns out to maybe be the way.

Last week, when I was in my office writing while cooking that chicken, and the oven blew up and shorted the entire unit, and I called the building manager and she was of no use, the whole mess with the bathroom came back to me as if it were happening again, now. Because all that stuff—that narrative—had been packed away in a mental box for three years, unexplored and un-investigated. Tucked away like that, it got more and more powerful and spirit-sucking, and all it took was an oven blowing up to bring it back to the light of day.

 

Bad stuff happens. We humans are made, in great respect, by stuff that has happened. I am made in such a way that bad stuff sticks.

*     *     *

Clutter is the new gluten. Ha ha. But for some people, like my friend Betsy, getting rid of gluten is not a trend. For her, gluten is poison. A whiff of wheat puts her out of commission for weeks. And for some people, like me, the clutter of unresolved calamity will, once I am triggered, do exactly the same. Until I figure out what the fuck it wants from me.

Marty and I are fixing to declutter. We bought a lightning-quick scanner a year ago, did all our financials, all our receipts, and shredded and tossed many boxes.

What comes next are my dad’s boxes, which include diaries where he analyzed what was going on with my mom, how he was feeling about her being sick, and difficult, and moving towards her end.

There are people who fear that opening boxes can be dangerous because it can potentially re-spark trauma. And it can.

But if our intention is to move through, we do not simply recount. We seek meaning by naming what happened.

*     *     *

I write about generational violence, and I am stuck. I want to explore what draws us into intractable conflict, personally, and in the realm of nations. But the previously tucked-away agony of the bathroom fiasco—triggered by the blowing up of the oven—screaming from my over-packed hippocampus is an obstacle to my ability to write. I am trying to transform it into story.

Which is what we often do when we write.

So I wonder, what meaning might dwell in the matter of the loo? What is the story?

It could be rampant greed and cutting corners; it could be the financial collapse striking fear and trembling into the Board in tight times; it could be reconciliation in times of dire need: a member of the Board responded to my cry of distress and finished cooking the chicken in his oven.

Or it might be that underlying rot and vermin, sealed into walls (or boxes), will always seep through to the surface.

It’s all there. It just depends on how you look at it.

 

IMG_6882

Bathroom Beautification copy

Renaming the file

Rivka

[flash fiction]

Rivka Borek had plans to become the youngest ever five-time champion on Jeopardy! She told me this our third day at science camp, by which point I was completely in love with her. Rivka had thick curly hair, kind brown eyes, and fuchsia glasses that perfectly matched the brackets on her teeth, but I think it was her insatiable curiosity that attracted me the most—the sense that through Rivka’s eyes, nothing could be irrelevant.

Lacking the courage to put any of these feelings into words, I offered to help her study after dinner. Rivka’s dorm room shared the same scuffed tile and generic wood furniture as my room one floor below, yet for me the space gleamed with the intoxicating mystery of girlhood. Bracelets and necklaces looped through a small metal tree on the desk. The open closet revealed snatches of colorful sleeves. A brush lay on the dresser, bristles densely packed with Rivka’s brown hair.

We sat cross-legged on either end of her bedspread. I held up one side of the flashcard for her to see. Tonight the topic was World Geography, so the card might read “Myanmar” or “Bahrain,” and she would have to come up with the capital city. Or it could say the name of a city or a town, and Rivka would name the country to which it belonged. This was practice she could have easily carried out on her own, and I flattered myself, imagining she had accepted my offer because she wanted to be with me.

I was not the only boy to have developed a love interest that first week. The New York State STEM Advancement Program, colloquially known as “science camp,” catered to the promising scientific minds of middle and high school students around the state. Among the older set especially, the prospect of finding mates was far more exciting than the prospect of expanding their scientific know-how. At eleven, my comprehension of sex was akin to my comprehension of photosynthesis: biological processes whose steps I could list out on command, but which seemed to have little bearing on my daily life. I had the idea that I would like to hold Rivka’s hand, to share a coke out of the same tall straw, yet even these modest goals seemed as unreachable as the moon. Always there were the facts between us.

Did I know the average white shark lost 30,000 teeth in a lifetime?
Did I know the ancient Egyptians believed the world was rectangular?
Did I know Venus was actually the hottest planet in our solar system?

Later, I’d understand that sharing these inane pieces of trivia was Rivka’s way of showing compassion, her attempt to include me in the factual world where she felt so alive. But at the time I only despaired that this avalanche of information was killing the romantic mood.

[blockquote align=left]At eleven, my comprehension of sex was akin to my comprehension of photosynthesis: biological processes whose steps I could list out on command, but which seemed to have little bearing on my daily life.

In desperation, I consulted my roommate, a thirteen-year-old named Stacey Chang, who had a girlfriend back home in Schenectady. I knew because he had decorated his side of the room with a hundred photos of the two of them together, a chubby redheaded girl with her arms thrown around Stacey’s narrow shoulders.

“Let me tell you something about women,” said Stacey. It was 11:30 p.m., well past curfew, but everyone was sprawled in the hallway studying for a physics exam the next morning. “Women are skittish creatures. They must be treated gently. Have you ever had to get a mouse out from behind a piece of furniture?”

I confessed I had not.

“Well,” said Stacey, “you can imagine. You go at it with a broom, it runs to the other end of the sofa. You try to move the sofa, and the mouse moves, too. It requires great patience. Finesse. You’re not gonna get it right your first try.”

After Stacey had disappeared on a vending machine run, another boy, who had been eavesdropping, scrambled across the hall to my side. He was small, wiry, with a crop of whiteheads on his chin. Though he must have been in my physics class, I don’t recall ever seeing him outside this single interaction, and I never learned his name.

“Dude,” he whispered solemnly. “Forget all that. You just gotta go for it.”

And this is what I did. Against all probabilities, utterly flouting my nature as the cautious boy with the color-coded wardrobe and the self-imposed code of foods eaten in a certain order off the plate, the words just flung themselves from my lips: “Rivka, will you go out with me?”

We were walking back from biology lab. The August afternoon was still, the colors brighter than usual. Rivka’s hair had gone crazy in the humidity, fanning out around her like a cirrostratus cloud. She cocked her head. “Go where?”

“Nowhere,” I said, baffled. “Just, you know, out. Will you be my girlfriend?”

She thought about this, raising her eyes skyward exactly as I’d seen her do when pondering the capital of Fiji. We had halted in the middle of the sidewalk. The crowd of students parted and surged around us like water rushing past two boulders. Then it was just Rivka and me, alone beneath a ceiling of low, purple clouds that heralded rain, and suddenly I knew just from the length of the silence what her answer would be.

I don’t remember the exact terminology of her rejection, only that as I was turning away, tearful and humiliated, she reached out with sudden tenderness to touch my arm: Did I know that when two people who were in love gazed into one another’s eyes for three minutes, their heart rates synchronized?

Many years later, after college, I would utter these very words to my then-girlfriend, Sarah. We were fighting—we were always fighting—and in an effort to deflate the tension, I felt myself reaching for that odd fact with its perfect balance of science and sentimentality.

Sarah was not impressed. “Are you kidding me?” she fumed. “Are you actually kidding me with this shit?”

She grabbed her bag and swept out of the room. A moment later, the front door slammed. I fell back in bed and stared at the ceiling fan. At that time I was living in a nice two-bedroom outside Boston. I worked as a software engineer at a cybersecurity company. I had done well for myself. Every so often I turned on NBC to watch Jeopardy! It had been a while, but I was certain I would recognize her face.

Tessa YangTessa Yang is a first-year MFA candidate in fiction writing at Indiana University. Raised in Rochester, New York, she received her BA from St. Lawrence University in 2015. Her work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in r.kv.r.y quarterly literary journal and Fine Linen Magazine. When not reading and writing, Tessa enjoys watching baseball, playing Ultimate Frisbee, and yo-yoing.

What Goes Around

“What is this place?” my father asked.

“It’s Seattle, Dad,” I said. “From up high.”

Lunch for two at the Space Needle’s revolving restaurant had seemed like a good idea when I’d wrested him away from his wife, Donna, that clear summer day. I’d hoped he’d be able to point out the marina where he’d docked his boat for years and lived aboard long ago, the places where he’d worked. We looked down at the tiny buildings and bug-sized cars. A ferry pulled out of the dock at Elliott Bay, container ships motored toward the port; sights we’d both seen many times albeit from a different angle. He tried, but the view meant nothing to him. His city, his waters, spread out before him, all just out of his mental reach.

Dad had been a sailor, out on Puget Sound from spring to fall each year. My summer birthday, my milestones, and then my children’s, all celebrated without him. Once he and Donna were back at home for the winter with the boat moored, they went back to their professions—he was a carpenter, she was a schoolteacher. I saw them at Christmas. We spoke on the phone. Donna was a constant presence, finishing his sentences and answering questions I’d intended for him. Seldom were he and I out together, just the two of us.

Before we left his house that morning, Donna handed me a tote bag with an extra pair of slacks inside. “See you in a few hours,” she said.

I’d been working on accepting my father’s frailty—his memory loss and shuffling gait— but extra slacks? The times I’d watched him at his house, he’d always made it to the bathroom. Donna was being overly cautious, but I knew better. I shoved the bag into the back of the car and left it there.

On the drive downtown, I tried to get Dad talking. I asked about his day and he struggled to answer. His memory seemed to have gotten worse in the two weeks since I’d seen him last. He couldn’t remember where we were going, but I hoped as soon as we got to the Seattle Center and he saw the Needle, all would come back to him. He’d remember the year he finished the work on the revolving restaurant; the long-ago day before the elevator was installed when he climbed the stairs to the top.

We pulled into valet parking and I jumped out and ran around to Dad’s side to make sure he had his cane.

“The Space Needle, Dad,” I said. “Remember?”

“Oh?” he said. “I don’t think so.”

Maybe the Center had changed since he saw it last. Surely once we were inside and things looked the same as before, his memory would return. We rode the elevator up and were seated next to the window.

“What do you want to eat, Dad?” I asked him.

“Whatever you’re having,” he said.

He hadn’t even looked at the menu. Was that because he could no longer decipher the words? My stomach twisted. My dad—the prolific reader. The self-taught man, who recited poetry and brought home stacks of books from the library. I took a deep breath and launched into a hopefully foolproof subject. I pointed to the wall moldings. “Dad, you were the carpenter who installed the woodwork in this restaurant back in the sixties,” I said.

He looked up. “Oh?” he said. “Nice.”

I told him how my husband, Gary, used to treat our daughters to lunch at the Needle on their birthdays when they were growing up. How, as each girl’s birthday approached, a dress was chosen, shoes shined, hair bows set out. On the appointed day, I stood on the porch and waved goodbye as they skipped to the car and drove off with their dad. Later, after their trip to town, they bounced in the door clutching the requisite plastic Space Needle—in which a special drink had arrived at the table spouting dry ice vapor—and chirping about the elevator ride, the observation deck. About Daddy.

When night came, I’d tuck that day’s birthday girl into bed, her little body squirming with happiness, and listen to the details of her over-the-top day. I’d listen and be transported to my own childhood with a dad who routinely missed my summer birthday. A dad who—like the bumper sticker says—would rather be sailing.

In the sixties, the court determined the slice of my childhood I was to spend with my father: every other weekend and a week in the summer. But the court hadn’t got the memo: Dad reserved weekends for solo sailing trips. Our visits dwindled to a few hours a month, and no overnights. Once he married Donna, our contact lessened even more.

If he’d been grim or ill-tempered, I’d have been grateful not to see him. But those hours when we were together, when he joked and sang and held my hand, only made me ache for more. I’d spent some years trying to find a replacement dad—a fatherly teacher, an elderly neighbor man—never quite right but sometimes good enough. Now I was with the real guy. He might not be his old self, but he was here.

I didn’t tell him that day how hard I’d worked to bury my resentment. Instead, I chattered at him about the weather. Small talk was my strong suit; I could go on all day about nothing. It was the important things that stuck in my throat.

I demolished my fish and chips. Dad picked at his. He was happy enough. He smiled and told me how much he appreciated our lunch, but he might as well have been at McDonalds. The waiter took away our plates and brought dessert.

“Look, ice cream!” I said. His favorite.

Dad reached for his cane and turned in his seat, trying to get up.

“Where are you going, Dad?” I said.

“I gotta pee,” he said.

I looked for the restroom sign and found it nearby. We’d have to climb a long narrow stairway to reach the men’s. Not only that, we were sitting on the outer rim of a restaurant that was revolving 360 degrees per hour. Our table would soon be in a different place, nowhere near our current landmarks. The chances that Dad could find his way back alone were nil.

“I’ll come with you,” I said, adding, “I have to go, too.”

I followed him. I couldn’t help but hover. I took his elbow and put my hand on his back to guide him. The stairs loomed in front of us. People bustled up and down. The men’s room was off to the right of the steps about halfway up to the women’s room and the entrance to the observation deck. I followed close as he climbed the stairs. I’d have to let him go in by himself, and for the time it took him to finish, I wouldn’t be there to help if he needed something.

What had I done, bringing him to this place without backup? As if I knew what I was doing, thinking I could handle anything that came up. I hadn’t once let myself consider what Dad’s decline meant in real life. This was supposed to be fun, an elevator ride into the sky to look down at his city. But for my dad, the day had been disorienting, meaningless. He’d have been happier at a park. Why had I gotten it so wrong?

The minutes ticked by with no sign of him. Heaven only knew what was happening in there. He could’ve fallen, or worse. I watched the faces of the men leaving the washroom for signs they’d witnessed a disaster. Finally, I stopped a middle-aged man and asked if he’d seen my dad in there.

“Yeah,” he said, “he’s doing okay.” I breathed a little easier.

Soon Dad came out the men’s room door and started back down the steps. As he came closer, I noticed a wet stain on the front of his slacks. Not just a tiny little drip, but a splash that went from his front zipper down his left pant leg. It could’ve been water but… no. For a moment, I wanted to run away. Let someone else take care of this old man who so often couldn’t be bothered with me. But one look at him—confused, weary, and wearing wet pants, I pushed that thought away. I pictured the bag with the extra slacks inside 500 feet below us in the back seat of my car, wherever the valet had parked. Dammit. I didn’t know what made me feel worse, that I’d left behind Dad’s extra pants or that Donna knew him so much better than I did, or ever could.

Just then it struck me, the reason I’d been determined to make this day happen. Why hadn’t I seen it earlier? I’d told myself this lunch was a treat for Dad, a chance for him to enjoy the view. But my mind had played a trick on me. True, I didn’t have a party dress or dry ice or a plastic souvenir. I’d have had to wait until he didn’t have much choice in coming here. But I’d made it happen at last, my own special Space Needle date with Daddy.

I stepped forward to hold my father’s arm, and help him navigate the last few stairs. He brushed the wet spot with his hand as if to make it blend in somehow. I kissed his cheek. Gave him as big a smile as I could muster, and looked around to place myself in the ever-turning dining room. With luck, he’d forget about his soggy slacks by the time we reached our seats. Assuming I could find our table.

Joyce TomlinsonJoyce Tomlinson graduated from Antioch Seattle in Arts & Literature and received her MFA from Pacific University in Oregon. Her work has been published in Gold Man Review, Full Grown People, Crab Creek Review and We Came Back to Say, an anthology of women’s memoir. She is currently at work on a book about her relationship with her father.

On Learning to Fail

In fourth grade, my best friend Kimberly walked me—or rather, dragged me, my hunched body straggling two steps behind her—to Chamber Singer auditions. I’d started singing at six years old, and I idolized the girls and boys who traveled to Nashville and Atlanta and performed outside the Publix grocery store on Old Cutler. Our elementary school’s music teacher, Mr. Simon, directed the group. He’d grown up with my dad and during class asked after my family. He taught me “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” on the piano. But that afternoon, minutes after the final bell, Kimberly pushing my shoulders through the doorway, my connection to Mr. Simon didn’t matter. I was nervous and untrained. Kimberly reassured me I was a shoe in.

I wasn’t. As it turns out, training matters. I didn’t match a single note—in fact, I hit notes so wrong, once he played a middle C and I sang a low D. Kimberly laughed at my audition. Mr. Simon, gentler than a ten-year-old, suggested I review my scales with my dad and maybe audition again later. I didn’t. I felt embarrassed and hurt; I kept mum about my audition on the car ride home. For the next five years, I opted for the far less embarrassing private concerts in my bedroom and, now as an adult, in rush hour traffic on the 405.

I’m a quitter. I quit when I’m criticized, as soon as someone suggests I need improvement.

In the summer of 2012, I moved to New Jersey to participate in New York University’s Writers in New York program. I dreamed of becoming one of those writers whispered about in the White Horse Tavern, my novel in display windows along Fifth Avenue.

In reality, up to that point I’d written only two pages, entirely expository, of a short story and a few journal-style entries for a Tumblr blog I lazily titled “This is a Story.” I survived on grilled cheese sandwiches and granola bars and overpriced whiskey from restaurants in the Meatpacking District. Luckily, my instructor at NYU, Chuck Wachtel, was kind. During a private conference, he said I wrote like Mary Gaitskill. In workshop, he praised my short story: the title was clever, the characters authentic. Back in New Jersey, I revised the piece based on his few notes and promptly sent it to literary journals (and my closest relatives and friends).

What followed?

Dear Lyndsay,

Thank you for taking the time to submit to [journal]. Unfortunately, after careful review, we have decided this submission is not a good fit for us.

We wish you the best of luck placing your work elsewhere.

Sincerely,

The Editors

Times ten. And not only from well-established print journals, those at which the big names published. Online journals rejected the story, too. Editors hated it—or did they hate me? In a Nova Scotia airport after a family vacation, I decided to quit writing.

A few weeks later, I moved into my dad’s guest room in Florida and read Hemingway and ignored the short story collecting digital dust in my Documents folder.

*     *     *

In Mindy Kaling’s book, Why Not Me?, she recalls a panel during which a young woman asked her where she gets her confidence. Kaling says at the time she offered a “shitty, unhelpful response,” about having supportive parents. Sure, that’s useful, but it’s not enough. My parents supported my desires, but support didn’t make me confident, let alone committed to anything.

In the essay, Kaling offers a less shitty, more helpful response. In her first few weeks as a writer at The Office, she says, “Whenever [the producer] Greg Daniels came into the room to talk to our small group of writers, I was so nervous that I would raise and lower my chair involuntarily, like a tic.” Years later she realized how she felt in that writing room—that instinctual insecurity—was correct. Why? She didn’t deserve her confidence yet. She’d done nothing to earn it.

When we first start out, whether as a singer or novelist or Hollywood sitcom star, we probably haven’t accomplished much. In New Jersey that summer, I’d done nothing but receive an acceptance letter; I hadn’t completed a short story, submitted work to a journal, received criticism, or even visited the historic literary White Horse Tavern. I arrived at the Lillian Vernon’s Writers House daunted and insecure, my thumbs wrestling on my lap. When writing became hard, confirmed my insecurities, I quit. I didn’t put in the work.

To explain how she finally earned her confidence, Kaling quotes Kevin Hart’s Twitter bio, which I will quote now, also, as it’s the most apt advice I can offer:

My name is Kevin Hart and I WORK HARD!!! That pretty much sums me up!!! Everybody Wants To Be Famous But Nobody Wants To Do The Work!

*     *     *

Six months after I quit writing, I tried again. I decided I wanted it more than I was afraid of it.

In the summer, I submitted the short story I’d written at NYU to a workshop led by Ted Thompson, author of The Land of Steady Habits. He intimidated me because he’d gone to Iowa and he was undeniably attractive—thick framed glasses, boyish grin. Somehow those qualities made him seem like the most talented person in any room he entered, and for me that translated into respect.

In the workshop, the writers annihilated the story. Thompson said it had no scenes, and how trite was the title? He assigned me exercises—I was the only one in class assigned exercises—and requested we meet outside of class for a private conference. Was my work so poor, I required special attention? At the end of  the workshop, the woman across from me announced that an online journal that had rejected my story a year before had accepted the piece she’d workshopped earlier in the session. She thanked us, genuinely, for our thorough critique.

*     *     *

A stack of drafts, revisions, and suggested edits of a single 11-page short story.

A stack of drafts, revisions, and suggested edits of a single 11-page short story.

In February, The Stranger published an essay by Ryan Boudinot about what he learned while teaching at an MFA writing program. The piece drew backlash. How dare he so outrageously suggest writers are born with talent, that you won’t make it as a writer if you don’t decide in your teenage years to pursue the art? How could a man—a white man, no less—advise students without time to write to just drop out?

I cherished this essay. I kept the essay opened in my phone’s Internet browser for months. I felt a sudden gut punch every time I saw the title: “Things I Learned About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One.” And this wasn’t because I believed I was born with talent, or I’d decided by thirteen to be a writer—I hadn’t made that decision until only a few years ago. I loved the essay because it was brutal. For a brief moment, I wanted to quit writing. Again. And then, I got to work.

At that time, I wrote under the mentorship of my toughest instructor to date. In his first letter to me, regarding a personal essay, he wrote, “The essay suffers often from glibness, from what comes across, anyway, as a desire to be stylishly urbane, a defensive cleverness that sabotages clarity, intimacy, and true emotional depth.” In the line edits, he called my writing “insecure.” He was right. I’d written sentences that sounded unnatural and literary, the result of leaning on a thesaurus and trying—and miserably failing—to mimic the style of Leslie Jamison. My mentor erased paragraphs, asked in the margins, “Do you not see the pretentious straining here?”

When I say toughest mentor, I mean best mentor. My parents held my hand, flattered my so-called talents, paid for that thesaurus. They’re good parents. But my mentor last February, and Boudinot’s essay, were the force that pushed me into the desk chair to work.

Last month, I read to a co-worker the notes my new mentor gave on my novel-in-progress. The notes were complimentary, encouraging, and I felt like maybe I was onto something with this chapter. The next day, standing in front of that same co-worker, I received an email notifying me that an anthology rejected an essay I submitted six months earlier. “We wish you luck placing your work elsewhere.” But I can’t place this elsewhere. I wrote this just for you, I wanted to scream. Appreciate that!

I wish I could end with a success story about receiving a hefty advance from a publisher, or at long last placing the piece I wrote while at NYU. But I can’t. That happens sometimes; there’s no guarantee. Most of following dreams is simply persevering.

Instead, I’m going to leave you with more wisdom from my girl Mindy Kaling, again from Why Not Me?:

“If you believe in yourself and work hard, your dreams will come true. Well… I guess the people who work hard whose dreams don’t come true don’t get to write books about it, so we never really find out what happens to them. So… if you believe in yourself and work hard, you have a fighting shot at having your dreams come true.”

Dragonfall

I lost my virginity while the dragon fell. When the enormous canvas beast faltered, people flocked beneath it. Maybe they hoped their attention would encourage it to stay aloft in the dead air, like zealots of a dying god refusing to believe its power could ever wane.

During the commotion, Deanna pulled me behind a trailer, unzipped my fly and hiked up her skirt. I shoved my pelvis forward, scrambling on by instinct. She pushed on my stomach to make room, pulled her panties to the side, and then guided me into her.

I tried to focus, to appreciate this carnal victory, but the collective crying out of the festivalgoers interrupted my rhythm. I closed my eyes, Deanna’s breath in my ear, and I imagined the dragon diving to earth as the crowd’s wails reached a crescendo. Despite the mental distraction, our morning-long build-up and the rush of this new sensation brought on a speedy orgasm. A bolt of electricity shook my body when I came, and the people yelled out a final, disappointed cry.

We hadn’t planned on coming to the kite festival. We’d been cruising south with no destination. Hands on each other as much as driving allowed. Then we spotted the flecks of color peppering the sky. I turned to investigate, same as several other drivers, only to find the access road to Green Hill Park gridlocked. We parked on the outskirts of a grass field, and joined the dozens of people sliding in between the nearer vehicles, all heads tilted to the sky. Her hand tightened in mine. I turned to find her face creased with tension.

“It’s all right,” I told her. “We’re twenty minutes from home. No one will know us.”

“I’m not worried about me,” she said.

At the time, I didn’t understand what she meant. Grinding into my best friend’s girlfriend, her back against a food truck selling chili cheese fries, was not how I envisioned it happening. I never considered my virginity sacred, like some girls did, but I at least figured I’d lose it in a bed or the backseat of my car.

I started going soft instantly. Guilt, non-existent seconds before, enveloped me. It sapped all my energy and any desire to stay there. In hindsight, the guilt had started the moment our flirtation grew physical, but my desire had dulled it. Like a headache only apparent once the euphoria of a roller coaster ends. Before that morning, we were just talking; I’d never so much as hugged her.

I had given her no thought, really, until Seth and I went camping at Hot Springs, smoking cigarettes he’d lifted from his mom’s purse.

“Y’know Deanna?” he said, French inhaling. He leaned back against a log the size of a barrel, pale skin almost bright against the woody backdrop.

“Yeah.”

He took another drag and blew a smoke ring. My impatience bubbled up, but I kept quiet.

“We did it, man.” He cocked his chin up into the air and looked at me threw eyelids drooped as if fatigued.

“You fucked her?” I asked, the aftertaste of the off-brand cigarette making my mouth feel polluted.

He nodded. “Three times already. I was gonna tell you sooner, but I figured it was no big deal.” He stared off into the woods, pulling another deep drag, telegraphing the penchant of a lifelong smoker.

We had talked about our respective sexless status so many times that it had grown stale. Such conversations were the domain of best friends alone. Nothing I could talk to my other friends about without risking ridicule.

“What was it like?” I asked.

Seth smiled, like he’d been waiting for that question ever since it happened. He spoke for the next hour about how it had gone down. He spared no details. Though I’d never thought of Deanna in a sexual way before then, I couldn’t help but form mental scenarios that would find us having sex instead.

She’d come into Seth’s bathroom without knocking and find me peeing, and I’d say it was only fair that she showed me hers since I’d shown her mine.

Seth would get jumped by some upperclassmen at a football game, and I’d scare ‘em off, leaving just the two of us and her indebted to me. We’d take Seth home and put him to bed, and then I’d walk her home and she’d thank me for my bravery and kindness.

*    *    *

Behind the trailer, my calf muscles spasmed from pushing me up and into her. My abs followed suit, heightening the queasiness in my stomach. I pulled back, tucking my penis inside my cargo shorts so fast that she never saw my privates. I hadn’t seen hers. She wiped her mouth, so I copied her, removing the saliva clinging to my upper lip. I had to march in place to keep my calves from seizing.

She just stared at me for a few seconds, smiling. “Well?” she said, finally.

“You’re not gonna tell Seth are you?” I said.

Her smile vanished and she looked at the ground. “No. I don’t guess he’d like that much.” She huffed a humorless laugh and shook her head.

Neither of us mentioned what Seth would do if he found out. Maybe we both knew the answer: not much.

Seth’s reputation began its inexorable descent when he had to have eyeglasses. His skin reacted to the metal frames, so he only wore the large, plastic frames, which seemingly only came in brown or gray. Like many others, he could only afford the fashion necessities – jean jacket, pump shoes – well after trends had moved on, or only once they had trickled down to off-brands.

Perhaps what sealed it was when he broke his arms. Casts could be cool. When the captain of the wrestling team snapped his forearm in a match, he wore the fiberglass cast with pride, the outer layer our school colors.

Seth could claim no such pride. I was the next court over, the volleyball coed game so crowded as to be meaningless. I saw it happen; Seth jumped to spike a lobbed volley on the other team, but he couldn’t get high enough. He missed the ball, but managed to get his other hand caught in the net. When gravity took over, his momentum swung his legs out from under him. When his hand untangled, he fell to the wooden floor, pulling his hands behind him just in time to break his fall.

Both arms broke. Clean breaks, but requiring casts and a volunteer from each class to write down his assignments. His accident garnered no sympathy from the popular kids. Once Walt Duncan dubbed Seth “Clubby” for the awkward casts covering both his arms, Seth’s status solidified.

If I’d been caught moving in on the quarterback’s girl, it would be one thing. I’d expect corporal punishment, and no one would object. Having sex with Clubby’s girlfriend was another. Such an offense was more apt to solicit ribbing than disapproval. Hurt or not, betrayed or not, Seth would obey the social order. If he attacked me, our peers would rush to my defense, not his. Cooler guys won fights against supposed dorks, even if that meant they needed a little help.

Maybe that was why I had felt comfortable looking up Deanna’s number in the school directory. Why I’d spoken to her on the phone for hours over the last week, every day of spring break. Now I had nothing to say.

We shared a full minute of silence, neither of us raising our eyes above ground level. Then she took my hand, and we rounded the food trailer. On the ground, the dragon kite seemed even more massive. The people surrounded it, as if – airborne – they could never know its wonder. To be appreciated, it had to fall.

“What’s the big deal?” she asked. She slid the hair out of her face, revealing the spray of freckles on her cheeks and the light acne on her forehead. “It’s just a kite.” I had stared at that face for hours in my yearbook, wrestling with whether to call her, trying to guess whether she would tell Seth.

The dragon flailed on the ground, still trying to take flight again. Its huge frame converted even the slight breeze into lift, but it wasn’t enough. The sky was a white blanket, as void of sun as wind. The last of the crowds gravitated to where the giant writhed in the cropped grass, even the food vendors leaned out of their vehicles to stare. Children watched from atop their dads’ shoulders, others ran around it, trailing miniature box kites kept aloft by their momentum alone.

“So lame,” Deanna said. For an eternal second, I thought she meant me — us. The peak of our secret courtship a two-minute tryst scented by deep fryers and the vinegar stench of ketchup. But she was looking at the dragon and the crowd forming a border around it.

Maybe they were lame, but at that moment, I envied them. Their only worry was whether the kites would fly again. No matter what, they would leave and still enjoy a day full of possibilities. The festival would remain a sour note, perhaps, but one to joke about and let quickly fade from memory.

But for me, what could follow but bad things? At least, I hadn’t gotten Deanna pregnant. My sixteen-year-old brain knew for a fact that gravity made pregnancy impossible if you were standing up. Surely I didn’t get a disease. She had only slept with two other guys. One was my best friend, also a virgin before Deanna. The other she had told me a little about on the phone.

But there was no stopping the end of our affair. No phone conversation where I could convince myself that I loved the voice in the darkness, as I had over Spring Break. Our week of excitement would end in no more meaningful an act than jerking off to my brother’s skin mags in the bathroom.

“I know how you feel,” she said, still looking ahead. But she’d meant the comment for me, not the dragon.

“You do?”

“I felt the same way my first time. When my cousin took me into the woods and we did it. We were having a cookout. He kept touching my leg under the bench. After we ate, he tore the tab off a soda can and held it out to me. I sorta knew what it meant. That I owed him sex. And I liked all the flirting, so I took it. Then half an hour later he was on top of me out in the woods behind the trailer park, and there goes my cherry.” She laughed, but it faded quickly.

“It happened so damn fast. I came back to the cookout and my momma looked at me. She shook her head, but she was grinning. Probably figured I’d been out there kissing him. All but gave me the shame-shame finger. I wanted to be that girl she smiled at — the one who’d gone and done something silly with a boy, even my cousin. But instead I was just a whore.”

I squeezed her hand. “I don’t think you’re a whore.”

She looked at me. “Sure you do. I know how you and Seth are. You tell each other everything. I bet he talks more about our sex life to you than he does to me. Why else would you call a girl like me?”

I understood what she meant. Anyone in school would have, even if adults couldn’t wrap their heads around it. To my mom, there was no difference between Seth and me. If I dated Deanna, she would have thought no more or less of it than if Deanna were the most popular girl in school. But the sexual forays that made popular girls like Deidre Gentry the envy of her friends made Deanna a slut. While the girls giggled over Deidre’s exploits, the guys waged careful conversations about what they would do with Deidre if given the same chance. But really there was no difference between Deanna and Deidre but the location of their houses. The size of their parents’ bank accounts.

“I’m not that popular either,” I said, shrugging.

“You’re popular enough to stay away from girls like me. We’ve been talking all break, but I’ll bet you haven’t told any of your other friends about me.”

“I haven’t, but I didn’t want it getting back to Seth,” I said, unable to keep from whining.

“Like your other friends would talk to Seth. They’re too good for him and they’re too good for me.”

“I never said that.”

She sighed. “It doesn’t matter. We won’t be able to hide this from him, but it won’t hurt your rep any,” she said.

“I don’t care about that. But you said you wouldn’t tell him.” My breath caught, and my chest tightened. Seth had been my best friend since kindergarten. Even when we began hanging out with different crowds, we stayed close. I endured perpetual teasing for being friends with him, but he was the one thing I was unwilling to give up for further popularity. And I’d ruined that over two minutes behind a food truck. It was more than I could process. The moment had become something out of fantasy.

“I won’t tell him, but he’ll find out. You won’t be able to keep it from him.”

Our progress was slow, but we eventually meshed into the outer rim of spectators — the dragon just feet away. A swarm of men and women in dark blue shirts emerged from the crowd and set themselves around the massive kite. A guy with socks pulled up to his knees fed slack to the thick line attached to the dragon’s throat. The people in blue — event workers, I guessed — held the kite at waist level, spacing themselves around it evenly. They stepped back and the canvas tightened. The crowd pulled back around them.

“There’s no wind. What can they do with it?” she asked.

“We said we loved each other on the phone,” I mumbled, as much to the air as to her.

“I meant it,” she said. “It’s okay that you didn’t. I knew you didn’t.”

“Is this what you wanted? Is it what you planned on?”

She sighed. “I didn’t think this far ahead.”

Just then a breeze kicked up. The sky was darkening in the north, the wind preceding a storm. A vendor’s tent nearby selling pinwheels suddenly looked like the turning fractals of a giant kaleidoscope. Another seller hawking wooden whirligigs drew stares when his tent began thrumming with the clicks and clacks of his wares. A lumberjack formerly static now pulled a whipsaw across a fallen log with feverish intensity. A duck whose webbed feet caught the wind ran in place like the Roadrunner building up for a burst of speed.

Workers yelled at the crowd to back up. The sock guy was calling out directions I couldn’t understand, already made unintelligible by the sound of the air rolling past. He made hand signals at the workers. They angled the dragon up, lifted the canvas above their heads, letting the wind flow beneath.

The sock guy let out more line, and the dragon roared to life. The sound was something like the warble of flexing sheet metal as the wind popped the tendrils of the dragon’s tail. It hovered in the air for several seconds and then gained altitude. The sock guy was catching a fish in reverse: applying drag for lift and slack for distance. The crowd stayed quiet until the beast was clear of the ground — till the great length of its body was suspended and rippling in the new wind. Then a cheer went up, followed by applause. The sky filled with the smaller kites of vendors and patrons, as if choreographed. The building wind pulled kites no bigger than pieces of paper as high as their fliers dared, though none flew so high as the dragon.

I hadn’t noticed Deanna letting go of my hand. I went to squeeze her fingers and found them missing. I looked over and saw her crying. The straight locks of her hair slapped her face in the wind, soaking up the tears on her cheeks before they fell. Her eyes reflected the milky light.

“I’m sorry,” I told her.

She looked at me and wiped her eyes, smearing her thick make-up. “I did it. It’s my fault. I can tell him if you want. He’ll still be your friend.”

My stomach sank at the idea of losing Seth. She hadn’t meant it that way; she had meant to reassure me, but the effect was the same. Over long seconds, I imagined sharing with my other friends all that I could share with Seth. I imagined the consequences of acting as goofy as Seth and I would act, of falling into fits of laughter so deep and long that I thought I’d suffocate.

The others came up short, and a lump caught in my throat. I could only shake my head. “Let’s go before the rain comes,” I said.

She looked up at the sky of kites, the crowd frenzied with energy, the wind carrying laughs and hollers. “It won’t fall again,” she said. “It’s up there for good now.”

Darren ToddDarren Todd is a freelance editor for Evolved Publishing. His short stories have appeared in the horror anthology Growing Concerns, and in the journals Darkfuse, Fuck Fiction, and Liquid Imagination. He holds a Masters in English from Arizona State.

Writing: The Toolbox VIII

We write in order to be read. We compose our thoughts, create our scenarios, spin our tales to reach and touch our audience and to be understood. And when we do, we hope our writing has what Hollywood calls “legs.” Something that endures over time, that will keep on going, keep on running. In order for writing to last it needs content that reaches into timelessness, out of the confines of its temporal context.

Where is the fine line lie between ordinary and great? How can you elevate your material to reach for something greater than good? How can your work transcend the topical to achieve a universal quality? How can you write characters and situations that not only entertain a contemporary audience, but endure through time?

I continue my series writing about the collected tools of the craft, based on my long-standing experience of writing screenplays and books.

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22. The Character Declaration

Strong characters are key to the success of any narrative, as the reader identifies with their plight, their desires, their joys, hopes, and suffering. The more developed, complex, and deep a character is, the more the reader becomes invested in that character’s life and the outcome of the story. As writers we are the pusher man for the reader, we control supply and demand. We get the reader hooked, and once hooked we tease with a controlled giving and taking, dealing in identification and fantasy, creating want and tension, and doling out relief and reward.

One of the ways to invite the reader into the character’s mind and experience quickly is what I call the “character declaration.” I make sure that my characters frequently take the time to express who they are, what they want, why what they want is important to them, and what terrible things might happen if they don’t get it. The needs and wants and stakes of a character are the hooks that pull the reader on the character’s journey. We see examples in various modes of writing.

In the television series House of Cards, Francis Underwood lays out the foundation of his character and the entire television series through his character declaration in the opening scene, as he appeals directly to the viewer:

“As for me—I’m the House Majority Whip. In other words—I get things done. When it comes to legislation I make the magic happen. I transform the impossible into the probable. But it’s time to move up a rung. I’ve paid my dues. I’ve backed the right man. And now that he’s won I’ll get my just reward. Give and take, give and take, and so the world spins.”

When he is snubbed for his rightful place in his rise up the ladder, we already know what it means to him and understand how a quest for revenge is now set into motion—a quest that will span the entire series.

In Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Mrs. Bennett declares her own desires and sets up the drive and purpose of the entire book.

“If I can but see one of my daughters happily settled at Netherfield,” said Mrs. Bennet to her husband, “and all the others equally well married, I shall have nothing to wish for.”

Mrs. Bennett declares her entire life would be complete, with nothing left for her to wish for, if her daughters are settled and married off. The story that follows revolves around all of the characters’ quests for matrimony.

The “All I ever wanted…” speech is another form of this kind of direct characterization. In screenplays there’s often at least one of these speeches. Even in real life we find this kind of character declaration that gives meaning to the totality of the character speaking.

Edward Hopper said, “Maybe I am slightly inhuman … All I ever wanted to do was to paint sunlight on the side of a house.”

My own writing often requires direct characterization, since screenplays are driven by dialogue. I make sure my characters declare themselves often to elicit empathy in the reader, and to service themes and storylines.

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23. The Philosophical Statement

When characters step outside the servicing of plot and take a moment to reflect on life in general and the character’s life specifically, I call it making the “philosophical statement.” Philosophical statements by your characters elevate the material from a pragmatic and dramatic narrative to something that holds greater value and endures through time. While it also serves as characterization, it satisfies the reader with recognition of self in the greater context of what it means to be human. When I write screenplays, I make sure to weave in a philosophical statement in nearly every scene, where it is appropriate, and it is almost always appropriate.

In the first season of the series True Detective, Rustin Cohle is being questioned about his potentially corrupt handling of a criminal case. In his interview he takes frequent moments to reflect on life and himself, and make “philosophical statements.” In one of the more often quoted lines from the series, Rust says, “The hubris it must take to yank a soul out of non existence, into this, meat. And to force a life into this, thresher. Yeah, so my daughter, she uh, she spared me the sin of being a father.”

In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Lord Henry’s constant philosophical statements not only reflect on life, but also serve the plot as his relentless influence speeds the inevitable corruption of Dorian Gray.

When characterized by Basil as having a bad influence on everyone, Dorian asks, “Have you really a very bad influence, Lord Henry? As bad as Basil says?”

Lord Henry replies, “There is no such thing as a good influence, Mr. Gray. All influence is immoral—immoral from the scientific point of view.”

He goes on to reflect, “The aim of life is self-development. To realize one’s nature perfectly—that is what each of us is here for. People are afraid of themselves, nowadays. They have forgotten the highest of all duties, the duty that one owes to one’s self. Of course, they are charitable. They feed the hungry and clothe the beggar. But their own souls starve, and are naked. Courage has gone out of our race. Perhaps we never really had it. The terror of society, which is the basis of morals, the terror of God, which is the secret of religion—these are the two things that govern us. And yet—I believe that if one man were to live out his life fully and completely, were to give form to every feeling, expression to every thought, reality to every dream—I believe that the world would gain such a fresh impulse of joy that we would forget all the maladies of mediaevalism, and return to the Hellenic ideal—to something finer, richer than the Hellenic ideal, it may be.”

This speech by Lord Henry is, of course, the basis of Dorian’s slow unwinding. Lord Henry argues for a life without morality, a life that serves the self, which is the foundation of Dorian Gray’s undoing and the tragic consequences that ensue.

 

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  1. The Snag

I’ve seen it hundreds of times when writing and editing myself. There will be a word in dialogue, in description, which I “snag” on when I read back over what I’ve written, like catching a nail’s edge on a piece of fabric. I snag, but then move on. Sometimes I stop a moment and ask myself, “Should I take out this word?” But the snag feels so harmless, that I end up leaving it. I’ll snag again, but leave it. Maybe even a third time. But I’ll figure, “Let me get some feedback. If no one has a problem with this word, then it must be fine.” Yes, it’s the lazy way. And I’ve seen it so often, that very word will be found and snagged on by a fellow reader, and I will finally take the word out, slapping myself for having not trusted my gut instinct in the first place.

If you find yourself wondering, “should I take this out or not,” I believe the answer is always yes. If you’re asking yourself, there’s usually a good reason.

Previous posts:

https://lunchticket.org/writing-toolbox/
https://lunchticket.org/writing-toolbox-ii/
https://lunchticket.org/writing-the-toolbox-iii/
https://lunchticket.org/writing-the-toolbox-iv/
https://lunchticket.org/writing-the-toolbox-v/
https://lunchticket.org/writing-the-toolbox-vi/

All images courtesy of Bettina Gilois

Poetry For Prose

“Everywhere I go I find a poet has been there before me.” – Sigmund Freud

I find myself drawn to the writing of poets-turned-novelists, or poets-turned-memoirists. Michael Ondaatje, long before he wrote The English Patient or any of his other novels, was a poet, as one might glean from his prose. Who but a poet would write, as Ondaatje does in In The Skin of A Lion, “Everyone has to scratch on walls somewhere or they go crazy”? The poet donning the hat of a prose writer never loses the lessons of poetry when he switches genres. The poet-mind, once inhabited, may never be shed. It compels the writer to notice the world more vividly, to seek out the power in the moment, and to inhabit the visceral.

*    *    *

Hear, O Israel, my disembodied home,
my surrogate hovel, my dusty cavern:
I never slipped inside your insidious
borders, bobbed to your techno beat,
slithered into your dead lukewarm waters.

*    *    *

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Photo by Alex Simand

To a writer of personal essays, the leap to poetry is a small one— perhaps more of a hop across a small puddle, a gleeful romp in the rain than a leap—because the subject of poems and personal essays is the same: me. Implicit in both forms is the overarching I, or should I say eye, of the narrative. Here is the wide-eyed narrator, allowing the reader a glimpse into the recesses of his mind. There are minute details—the seemingly innocuous lilt of a lover’s voice, the ominous rustle of a fig tree in August—that are given witness. Above all, the poetic form gives the memoirist license to approach his memories in whatever manner he wishes.

*    *    *

My father’s tassels snipped off
before he was born so I had nothing
to cling to on the long journey west,
my hands buzzed like gnats
at his sides but The Lord never
granted me fingers for grasping.

*    *    *

Poets, through practice and reading, learn techniques that help us snag a reader’s attention. We learn about the aesthetic power of words. We learn to use language boldly and economically. We learn that a narrative is not panacea. Above all, we learn to ground our writing in the concrete. We revel in the power of the image. The best poems are those that give readers something to bite into, those that appeal to the senses. We learn to be intentional with our word choices. And perhaps counter-intuitively, we learn how freeing it is to work within a structural framework, and how structures might engender specific feelings or themes. Anyone who’s ever written a sestina understands its inherent meditative, almost obsessive qualities. Or the beautiful, dense, natural rhythm of the haiku. Working within form often acts as a distraction from the subject of the writing, which, paradoxically, helps it along.

*    *    *

I forgot the commandments:
they sank into cool, clear lakes far away
from Israel, the cold does not bear
the arid adjectives of The Chosen.
The Lord changed his mind about me.

*    *    *

If asked at a party, provided that I am sufficiently inebriated, I’ll admit I am a poet. Maybe I’ll recite some T.S. Eliot. Or I would if I could ever commit his words to memory. Yes, I am a poet: beret-clad, scarf-wrapped, eyes half-closed poet. I swim in metaphor. I gobble up alliteration. Enjambment arouses me sexually. I have even convinced my local coffee shop, which accepts coffee orders via text message, to accept my orders in limerick:

*    *    *

Hear, O Israel, my faded dream,
my slippery landscape, the burning bush
that scorched my brows, my lashes.
I am exposed before you to pointed fingers,
on my knees before the Wailing Wall,
my confessions, breathed, slipped
like smuggled diamonds into its cracks.

*    *    *

Granted, the I in the poem is a vastly different I from the personal essay. The poetic I is a persona, a mask donned for the purpose of inhabiting a particular perspective or living a particular emotion. The I of the personal essay is expected to be true. The narrator is expected to be reliable. And though the bounds of truth in nonfiction are hotly debated, most writers would agree that, in memoir, the reader has certain expectations of the narrator: that they will, to the best of their ability, describe events as they were. This is not always the case in fiction or poetry.

*    *    *

You see—I’ve whored, I’ve been whoring,
my atonement crumbles like an old mural,
the throats of San Francisco denizens
calling you fascist while I nod my head,
these words that squeeze my heart
when I walk by the wayside,
go by the wayside, too tentative
to extoll your hollowed name.

*    *    *

Writing poetry is an exercise in shedding constraints. It is a Houdini act. You pick the padlocks of form, loose the shackles of narrative, and tear away the straitjacket of the sentence. When you burst from the fraught waters of prose, you are naked and free to daydream. You are no longer worried about what it all means. You simply allow your subconscious to speak. You allow yourself to play with words and hold sounds in your mouth like oversized jawbreakers. Non-sequitur? No problem. Mismatched adjective? Unlikely verb? Please do! Feel like giving silence a persona, to give him a seat at the table beside your mother and father? Sounds great!

*    *    *

Hear, O Israel: I have nothing to teach
my unborn children except how to lose
ones way, how to lie down in the street
and let the mind grow gray. They will
never wear frontlets under their caps,
stoop and sway and subjugate themselves.
Their doorposts will read Bay Alarm.
They will not need rain:
we have the technology to overcome
Your droughts, reservoirs on Mount Sinai
so they will never have to carry water,
their lips never chapped, never uttering
Your Name, Your Love, Your Spite.

*    *    *

bugThe poem gives the personal essayist license to hold an event—or a person, or a place—in her hand, to find its form, to feel the beat of its heart. She can dig it up from the depths of memory and place it in a jar with tiny air holes stabbed into the lid. A firefly perched upon the windowsill. She might gaze upon it or feel its heat when she places her hands around it. Often, a writer’s intent when beginning a personal essay isn’t known to her. It’s only after months of writing, of many tortuous edits and rewrites, that she discovers a fertile seed from which the true essence of the essay will spring. The human psyche is dark and complex, and it will not often give its gifts willfully. The poem is a shortcut of sorts to this delicious morsel. It is a truffle pig whose nose thrusts dutifully into the peat of your secrets.

*    *    *

Hear, O Israel, you dark-skinned beauty,
your bare shoulders your round breasts
haunting the lust in my heart.
They say about your women,
they are fiery, the heat between their legs
angry, inviting, always looking to barter.

*    *    *

I recently caught up with a classmate. We met at the side of a lake in Oakland and watched as runners sped by, their dogs in tow. My classmate is a poet turned prose writer. When I switched to poetry, they switched to nonfiction. We met in the middle and compared notes. A year earlier, we had encouraged each other to make the switch. As we sat by the lake, and I pulled out a book, Nick Flynn’s The Reenactments, they said to me, “Oh man. I knew he was a poet before he ever admitted to it.” The Reenactments is ostensibly Nick Flynn’s account of the making of a movie, Being Flynn, based on his previous memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. Really, it is an emotional reliving of trauma as he watches it unfold in movie form. It is a meandering meditation on the movies we play in our heads. It is a dense collection of poetic truth. Nick Flynn had created his own form. I nodded my head in agreement to what my friend had said. “Totally a poet,” I said.

*    *    *

O Israel, grant me access to your brothel,
let me drink your salty waters,
let me taste the green-eyed goddess
who walks your shores, the tidal surge,
the emerald of their eyes piercing
like Moses’ booming voice, choking
the weak protest from my trachea.

*    *    *

I believe all prose writers, fiction, nonfiction, or miscellaneous, can benefit from the practice of writing poetry. Every morning when I wake up I jot a few words into my dream journal—I don’t dream lucidly: I only call it my dream journal so that it might jump-start my subconscious. In those moments, scribbling words in a state of half-sleep, I feel connected to myself in a way my waking self is not. When I sit on my bed, notebook teetering from my fingertips, what I produce feels simultaneously foreign and profoundly personal. This is precisely the mind state in which a poet means to dwell when he writes, and the very same litheness from which I benefit as a prose writer.

*    *    *

Hear, O Israel, my birthright reneged,
my disappointed peer going tsk tsk tsk
at the ink that surges through my veins.

You will bury me one Sabbath morning
and I will walk the dusty path to your gates
scrawled with hieroglyphs, with barcodes,
with torches and pitchforks and blood-
stained broadswords, the Maccabees hiding
in the mountain pass beyond your borders.
You will not begrudge me your entry
for the Lord’s anger was kindled but, I hope,
my father forgot to stoke the flame. 
 

*    *    *

Poetry in this blog post has been extracted from Hear, O Israel, which originally appeared in Drunk Monkeys.