Sunday, April 7, 2013

Where I never lie

I sat in an attractively weathered, wooden-framed, mahogany-leather-upholstered chair that lives in what I have always assumed is the computer lab inside the small "preparatory school" (the public-school student in me feels the need for quotation marks there, private schools seeming mostly to me like something out of Harry Potter) in Dupont Circle where my new writing workshop meets each Thursday evening, all of us with Xeroxed copies of my story on our laps, listening to K. venture a theory that might explain some of the psychological roots of my narrator's behavior. His hypothesis was so spot-on that I could only stammer out in astonishment, "Oh my god, you are absolutely right. Wow, impressive insight there." I peered over at him as if he were psychic or an omniscient God.

K. said it seemed as if the narrator was either a virgin or very inexperienced with sex because of how she was (he didn't use this word) obsessing over this (married) creative-writing professor of hers whom she hadn't slept with but with whom she had been exchanging "racy e-mails," and because of the emotional wallop it packed for her when he rejected the notion of any physical, in-the-flesh entanglement with the protagonist. K. was so right. Not just right -- so right. None of that backstory had been anywhere on the Xeroxed pages.  

I suppose it could have been a lucky guess, and might count as far less psychic considering that I'd given K. the link to my creative-writing site, where too many of the posted stories (not to brag, but a mere sliver of my accumulated writerly output over the years) are about a certain female protagonist who is either a virgin or hasn't had sex until she's nearly 30. Not that I'm going to assume he's read everything on there, but odds are good that if he or anyone else so much as skims the site's offerings, they will bump into a story like that. Sex, and the long-held belief that sex is sinful, and the concurrent feeling that one is somehow deficient for not having had it until such a relatively late age, and the powerful role that the anointed eventual cherry popper plays in the self-mythology of someone who has all of these hang-ups about sex and puts off having it until such a late age, are themes that are just there in the bedrock foundation of my psyche. So, you know, they're nearly always down there somewhere, even if concealed beneath layers of other stuff. 

The particular story I brought to the workshop on Thursday night is one of many of mine that I find myself describing as "factually fiction, but emotionally non-fiction." For example: I never dropped out of my life and drove to Appalachia to live with my grandparents (although I did try to accurately describe their hometown, Saltville, Virginia -- as seen through my yuppie eyes, of course). The professor in my real life wasn't married, but he did have a live-in girlfriend his age. The professor was never my professor, but was/is the dad of a guy I'd quasi-dated in the eighth and ninth grades. My dad's childhood best friend never flirted with grown-up me (that was kind of an egomaniacal bit to include there, now that I think about it) -- but for that story I needed someone to embody the idea that, for the protagonist, the notion of a romantic or sexual involvement with any other man besides the professor is not only an unappealing alternative, but an utterly disheartening one.

In other words I do just like all writers do -- I twist the facts to suit the story. However, the emotional truth of the story -- my longing for this unreachable dude, the stinging slap of rejection, the recurrent pangs of indignancy -- is immutable. I don't think I could edit it if I tried. It would seep through somehow; such is the power of the human subconscious. 

So in light of yesterday's post about how there are certain very personal -- and very life-relevant, worldview-relevant, state-of-mind-and-heart-relevant -- topics that I have sworn not to broach here, it's of great comfort to me knowing that in my creative writing -- especially in my fiction, where I can be safely cloaked in the guise of a not-me-exactly character -- I can never lie. I couldn't even if I wanted to. 

Here are a few places where I've been truthful. 

------------

Why am I here?
I'll tell you.
I'm here because I force myself to keep my eyes open when I accidentally flip to an operation on the medical channel.
I'm here because when I go walking at night, I dare myself to take the darkest, scariest route, the one through the woods, the one down that road with no houses or lights.
I'm here because I fell in love once, and when it ended I could no longer think about sex unless I made it impersonal, hard-edged, kinky, anonymous.


-From "On a bed of pine needles"  

Sometimes I have this hazy, appealing notion of Bart somehow destroying me through sex. It's as if I think that suffering will purge me of my sins. As if the lashes are punishment for being the kind of person who would be here with a married man, even if the punishment and the sin are the same thing. But do I really think that -- or do I just like that it sounds dramatic? Maybe I want what most women want: a strong man who desires me feverishly, who will take me, caveman-like. But what about the desire for him to be cruel to me? Deep down, do I want him to feel bad? Do I want him to see that he's hurt me, and to take me in his arms and love me? How darkly Bart would laugh at this.


-From "The Girl in Prague"  

Sometimes I wonder if I'm an emotional masochist. I find myself daydreaming about visiting you, now that we've broken up, and begging you to take me back. I think of giving you a blow job as hardcore porn is playing on a TV over my shoulder, feeling you grow hard while you're looking at the porn actress's body, and swallowing it all. I think of going to a strip club with you, buying you a lap dance, and forcing myself to watch unflinchingly. I even think of watching you make love to another girl, while I'm sitting naked and neglected off to the side. Why, why, why do I think of these things?

I think I know why. I think it's to heighten it so that, in the daydreams, you can't possibly not see how much you're hurting me, and then you have to take me into your arms and love me. I'll have earned your love because I'll have suffered for you. You were an altar boy, and you still have an ascetic streak, something in you that believes you must suffer before you get to be rewarded. I had an affair with you, and I knew you were married the whole time. I must be punished for that. I want you to pick me up, broken and sobbing, and tell me that now I deserve you.


-From "Cold front"  

The girl’s eyes looked down the street but she was thinking beyond that. She pointed. “Let’s go West.” This was something she said sometimes. She said it more when she was drunk. A couple of years ago she had driven to California to start a new life, and now she would not stop talking about it. The West was symbolic of a new start for her.

He knew this. He knew her well. “Why don’t we just stay here.” Here on this bench, in a bubble frozen in time.


-From "Mary"  

I lied to you. I told you, in my response to your last e-mail, that when our writing turned lascivious, I wasn't foolish enough to think it was "real." I let you think it was just playtime to me, that I could write heated stories about the two of us (well, about two characters based on us with different names, but who am I kidding?), and that I could then go on about my day, disconnecting from it like logging off from a computer. I know this is how you feel. But I never could keep my heart out of it. Instead of sending this, would it be corny to write the following two sentences on a postcard and send it to you?--because I'm considering it: It was never fiction to me. It was always love.


-From "Wish You Were Here"  

Her parents didn’t know she drank. It was against their religion, but not hers. She told them what was in the bottle was a diet shake. That she was trying to shed some weight, so she was on this special diet. She even made up a part about how the shake had wheatgrass juice in it, although she’d never had that before and only said it because it sounded right. They believed her.

Her sister bounced her baby in her lap. Her brother wrestled with his small fluffy dog in front of the fire. Her father asked her if she had pepper spray, because she liked to go walking at night and it wasn’t safe for a pretty young woman to be out there alone. She said, “I take care of myself just fine, don’t worry.” And drank from her bottle.


-From "The Andersons"  

She couldn’t go home; to her parents she was still the movie star. (Had the news about her and Rodney gotten to them?) So she just drove. She had a little money, she had her car. She went to bars in little towns and drank. The rough men and women seemed to like her better a little crude, a little bawdy, so she swore and cackled like a witch and made dirty jokes. She would crash in a nearby motel, then move on to another little town and do it all again. Often they knew who she was and bought her drinks, and she would try to show them she was no better than they were. At the end of the year she looked in the mirror and saw she had aged a good decade. This felt fair; it was time for the coin to come up tails. She would have kept going, on into her grave. She always told her parents things were going just fine.


-From "Sidra"  

Karma balances things out. I believe this. But it will also punish you for things you never asked for.
I never asked for this, any of it. I simply took the path of the least resistance. 


-From "Sidra considers lunch" 

Around the time that Britney and Lindsay were doing their stints in rehab, and that Amy Winehouse song came out about how "they tried to make me go to rehab, but I said no, no, no," I was longing for a place like that, but one that regular people could afford. In the photos, taken from surreptitious helicopters, of the posh rehab places that look more like resorts, the ones that celebrities go to, there are cabanas with clean white-canvas roofs and blooming hibiscus in bright sunshine. It's like going to a spa, and the people there treat you very delicately, or so I imagine. You have someone come and make your bed in the morning, someone to do your laundry. You eat meals prepared by a chef, maybe meditate in the afternoon, and write in a journal. Someone massages you out under that cabana. You stroll along the grounds and think about your life. No rush, no pressure, no cell phone or e-mail or BlackBerry. 


-From "Sam"  

I remembered the bride’s brother. He had drunk so much whiskey before the wedding, being nervous about giving his best man’s speech, that he remembered almost nothing of the day. He had stood before the eyes of all his loved ones, before his only sister and her groom waiting to be honored, and he had slurred – something, he could not remember what and no one had the heart to tell him afterward.

So I found him. I knew where he drank; he was a common confessor. He always went to a certain patch of woods near a park. There was a big fallen tree he used for a bench, and there he would sit and drink. I found him there that morning with the bottle nearly full. The sky was filling with colors so beautiful that everything seemed possible. I said, “Don’t drink that; you’ll regret it more than you can possibly know right now.”

But he drank it anyway. Sometimes people aren’t ready to hear what they already know to be true. Sometimes it’s both too early and too late. 


-From "Fallen trees"  

And I felt angry. I had gone down willingly, and was on my way to the sea. They buried me in dark motionless earth, and that is when I truly died. 


-From "Pearl"  

It was a job. I needed money to live on. I've never been political. I don't enjoy thinking about those things. I mostly think about my own life, or how I want it to be. I don't have any crazy ambitions. I just want a nice life.

-From "A picnic"

I saw my mother in heaven, strolling along the edge of a pale celestial sea. She had forgotten about me.

-From "Afterlife"   

She came close to calling him once. She had gone to a Tex-Mex-themed bar with some students who coaxed her to drink too many margaritas out of a glass shaped like a cactus. The students talked about how much Bush had fucked up Iraq. Mallory slipped off to the beer-sticky restroom. In a stall, the bassline from the popular techno version of "Cotton-Eyed Joe" pounding through the wall, Mallory cried. She took her cell phone out of her purse. She knew better than to call him. What time was it in the States, anyway? What if she woke him up, lying in bed next to his wife? No, wait; it's earlier there. What if she interrupted a rare dinner with his family?

She felt a homesickness she didn't think she could stand. Fuck propriety, she thought. Fuck calling when it's convenient for him.


It passed. She sat in the stall, eyelashes spiky with wet mascara, the cell phone in her hand.

 

-From "Amsterdam"  

Now he sleeps until late in the afternoon and wakes up a couple of hours before I get home. He kills time reading or playing blackjack with an imaginary dealer. At first I thought this was weird but then I got used to it. It's the latest thing his mania has seized on; before this, it was learning the Basque language, and it was wilderness-survival skills before that. He says he can count cards and memorize sequences of numbers that have something to do with playing blackjack. "I just won $30,000," he'll tell me, sitting on the living-room floor in his unwashed jeans and a T-shirt with some joke or comics character on it. He'll be watching a videotaped re-run of "Saturday Night Live" or something. The $30,000 is imaginary, of course. 

-From "Like Water" 

My mom was so afraid up here, when my parents moved north to the city before I was born, away from the mountains, that she stayed in the house and didn't get her driver's license. She peeked out the windows, from the side of the curtains, and ate Little Debbie snack cakes and fried Spam as her children played in the yard. She avoided the neighbors, who had a knack for making her feel crude and stupid. When the snotty neighbor ladies weren't out walking their bichon frise dogs and gossiping about who was behind on mowing their grass, my mom would kneel in the mulch, barefoot, and plant rows of pansies and potted geraniums and roses that climbed our fence.

At his job, people say my dad sounds like Forrest Gump. He's too nice and trusting so he gets pushed around, even though he's smarter than most of them are.


-From "The mountains in me"   

There’s more. The former love of your life just e-mailed you to say that he and his new wife are expecting a baby. So now you have this new thing, this new tic when you see a pregnant woman at the mall or pass the baby-clothes section in a department store or see a diaper commercial, when you had held your cousin's baby on your lap. That stuff was always irrelevant to you; you felt sorry for the friends your age who had children and weren't free to, say, go trek in Kyrgyzstan or dance till sunrise with mysterious strangers. Their lives were all planned out, and yours was open. Now it hits you, what it means to have a family and what it means to not have one. You don't want to be alone, but it's more than that. You sense that there's a kind of love you have always wanted that you're missing out on.

-From "Night sky"   

In my life here, I do things. I go to work. I read chapters of a good book during lunch. I go to a jazz club on a Thursday night with a guy from work and stay out late even though I have to be at work at 7 a.m. on Friday. I drive along the parkway by the river, and the moon is so enormous and clear that I pull over, I get out, I sit on a big rock, and I look up at it, trying not to pollute the moment with too much thought.
I go out after work with co-workers, I drink too much, I use a streetlamp as a stripper pole, I go home with my co-worker, I have sex with my co-worker.
I do things, and they feel so small.


-From "How it will go"  

She arrived early and set the cake in the office fridge. The cake had chilled overnight in its Tupperware dome. She waited until an hour before lunchtime, when the kitchen was empty. She led him back, told him to have a seat, and unveiled the cake. She was proud of the way the frosting had retained its scalloped sea-wave landscape.
"Oh Chris, this really is too much." He ate a piece to be polite.


-From "The latest in blood and guts"   

Columbo asks if he can “borrow” 20 bucks, and you’re drunk and bleeding-heart liberal and suburban and white and so you say, “Of course! Where’s an ATM?”

-From "Tourism"   

You eat dinner with your parents and sometimes your sister, who is in her seventh year of a two-year degree and living at home, too. (Your brother, the engineer, is the good kid, with a Christian wife and a condo and two cats.) Your parents bow their heads and close their eyes as someone says grace, and you do it, too, because you are living under their roof. You bow your head down low in supplication, in humility, in something that feels like defeat, mostly because you don't believe in what you are doing. You close your eyes. 

-From "Unemployment, third month"   

"Can I ask you something personal?"
"Anything."
"Have you ever cheated on your boyfriend?"
The answer left my mouth almost before Craig finished the question.
Then Craig directed the question at himself. "Am I married? Yes. Am I monogamous? No. I think it's unrealistic." He looked at his beer; the blood vessels in his face constricted, reddening his skin. "One minute you're leaving church thinking you're going to hell, the next minute you're trying to get laid. One minute you're in love with your wife, the next minute you're fantasizing about her younger sister, or her even younger sister."
That's when he said, "We're all fucked up."
I don't personally believe this, but it made me feel less alone.
He said, "Men are pigs."
I said, "Some women are, too."
He said, "That's what makes life so beautiful." I think it was supposed to be a joke. I think he was trying to convince himself.


-From "Wilderness"   

Bess flits through the house--straightening a wayward calla lily in a vase, scooping up a dab of guacamole with a tortilla chip to quiet her growling stomach--as Richard picks Alan up at the airport. Richard and Alan are due to arrive in fifteen minutes. She'd thought of buying Alan one of the candy graveyard scenes from the tourist store in town, as a funny gift, then decided against it. Bess stands at the sliding-glass door and looks at the sea, which is sparkling so brightly, blinding. She's wearing a black sundress. She's trying to remember which movie it was that she saw with Alan when they were both 14 years old. The central air conditioning hums, a subconscious drone.

Richard bustles in first, then Alan. Richard is carrying Alan's weekend bag; Alan is carrying his laptop. "Hi!" Bess exclaims, too breathy, too high. Alan nods; he had known she was going to be here. Bess understands--this is the game they're going to play. They're not going to acknowledge the strangeness, they're not going to laugh about it. They're going to pretend that it's normal.

Aliens 3, Bess remembers. The movie was Aliens 3. 


-From "Adults"   

She comes into the Starbucks every morning between 9 and 10. Never dressed for a job at an office or a restaurant or a store. (Today: a maroon denim miniskirt, a tattoo-print T-shirt although her skin is bare of ink, four-year-old Skechers sandals.) Not harried and checking the time on her cell phone like the other people on their way into work and dreading the traffic. Orders the same frozen blended coffee drink ("Same as always?" the cashier or barista says; "Yes, please"). Picks up the topmost copy of The New York Times from the newspaper rack. (Always the liberal mainstay The New York Times, never the more conservative and business-oriented Wall Street Journal, never even the hometown Washington Post, and definitely never the lowest-common-denominator and color-graphic-happy USA Today.)

Sits at a table alone and reads the paper somewhat systematically, all of the front page, first the local weather blurb in the upper-right corner, then the main photo and its caption, then the stories, left to right, top to bottom. Sometimes unfolds and pages ahead to the to-be-continued break on an inconvenient inner page, realizing this gesture propels her from the category of more casual news-skimmer to more serious news-processor. Skims the front of the Arts section for stray book reviews not being held for the more prestigious book-review newsprint magazine in the Sunday edition. Occasionally taps mini notes to herself on an iPod Touch encased in a protective red-jelly shell. 


-From "Eagle over the Alaska Highway"  

Sometimes I feel like an old onion, lifetimes wrapped around lifetimes.
I wonder whether anyone is really knowable, to anyone.

-From "Inventory"  

I remembered something I heard once about how kids are like snakes and can sense fear. I thought about all the times I've seen a baby being held in line at a grocery store, the parent facing forward and the baby facing me. I always try to make the baby smile, to make a silly face when no adults are looking. But it never works. The baby just peers at me in an obscurely pitying fashion. It's as if they can see into my soul, and they know -- I am worthless. 


-From "Just hug them and wave"  

Daniel had a crisis of conscience and ended the affair. Natalie spent the next five months sending him sad poetry through e-mail, drunk-dialing him late at night, and boasting to Daniel about all the reckless casual sex she was having. "What? You're 'over' me, right? So I can tell you about this stuff. I can talk to you about it, as a 'friend.'"
Of course Daniel saw right through it. 


-From "New blues song"  

A compromise is made.


I recognize it. I've made it, too.

There's a set of the jaw, a squaring of the shoulders, a toss of the hair meant to convey indifference. "This is life, and life is hard. I do what I have to do." 


-From "Adult movie"  

"I have to live my life right. So help me God. Starting today I live my life right."


-From "So help me God"  

I reach over with my right hand to feel the abalone-shell ring on my left hand. I wear it on that hand as a private joke, as if I’m married to myself, as if the only ring that will ever be on that finger is one that I bought for myself. I stroke the familiar iridescent panels, shards of shell laid in metal.


-From "The right notes"  

I don't remember the Adriatic Sea being that beautiful and blue. I don't remember feeling anything at all when you took the picture of me sitting on the windowsill with the sea behind me. I remember sleeping in separate beds, but that was nothing new. You later told me how much you had wished I would just hold your hand -- after a decade together, there you were hoping I'd hold your hand, like some junior-high kid with a crush. "I really wanted us to hold hands in Croatia," you said shyly, after the fact.  

-From "Gift" 

Soon the hot plates start to burn her, and the bacon makes her fat. The cramped couch will make her back hurt, and the notebook will stay empty. The brochures become scratch paper, and the sun will age her fast. 

-From "Matryoshka"   

I lived among these remnants for a while. None of it broke me. Then one day I found the velvet-lined box with the ring in it, a robin's-egg-blue stone because she was anti-diamond, that I gave her when I proposed. She left it here. No ceremony, no note. Just left it on a desk in the attic when she last went up there to get some other things. I opened the box hoping to find it empty. When it was not, I had to leave for a while.  

-From "Pioneers" 

I hated the glow. To me it was the epitome of all that was wrong with the world. Draping reality in layers of gauzy tulle so it's easier to take. Reducing the world to a village of Cotswold cottages, with cobblestone streets and old-timey streetlamps, a whitewashed church and a gathering of carolers, a milkman and a general store. It represented a selective way of viewing the world -- you never saw "the glow" gilding rows of office cubicles filled with people secretly on Facebook; you never saw it halo a river of gridlocked cars. The glow didn't reach places where there was war, or poop. 

-From "The Glow"    

My bedroom was shared with another girl; it was split down the middle with a quilt we hung as a curtain. After two weeks I started locking myself in the house's only bathroom, where I would lie on the floor, my cheek to the cold tile, and study the pipework beneath the sink. I would do this for hours, unable to rise. The others' voices and laughter ricocheted outside from far down the hall.

-From "Still"   

My mom went through a phase in which she collected porcelain dolls from QVC, the home-shopping channel. They filled our attic guest room – in glass-fronted display cabinets, on antique tables draped with doilies. Their unblinking glass eyes shone in the dark. As a child I would go up and name them and thought they had souls. As a teenager I cited them to my friends as the epitome of bad taste.

-From "In the rays of the dying sun"    

Zack had come to town for the small-press comics convention in your city. You had not seen him since two years ago, when you rejected him after a couple of dates. In those two years, you had become a symbol to him. Whenever he applied for but did not get a job, he thought of how you had rejected him. Whenever he e-mailed a girl from the speed-dating night and she only wanted to be his friend -- it was you all over again.  

But it had been good for him, or so he said -- you also have to do, in some nebulous or obvious way, with his recent drastic weight loss. Weight Watchers and long walks at night. A lot of yearning odes to pies and doughnuts on his blog.  

You like it, don't you? Like being a symbol? Like being the point up ahead that seems to steer someone's life, like the unwitting carved maiden on the prow of a ship? Like having that much power over someone?  

Yes. You do. Admit it. 

-From "Sleep like the angels"  

1 boxy, clunky 1980s TV. My ex spent many hours struggling with the "rabbit ears" antenna that we had because we couldn't afford cable, cursing at it, and we'd laugh when we'd be watching something and it'd go black-and-white or snowy if one of us coughed or shifted. After he moved out, I was no longer supporting both of us on one salary and could afford cable (I got rid of the diabolical antenna), but I never watched TV after he left. We used to put up the little plastic "Charlie Brown" Christmas tree next to the TV. The apartment seemed most like a home to me when he'd put the rainbow-colored Christmas lights on the tree and we'd turn off all the other lights. I threw the tree away when I moved out. 

-From "Ride"  

But often I slip. I say something foolish like, "Wouldn't this be a pretty place for us to live?" at a campsite that has a spectacular view of wild, jagged peaks. He grins and dodges the hint, reminding me that this is a trailer park, a campground. All of the houses have wheels. Your next-door neighbor could be someone new tomorrow. The view out the window by the fold-up kitchen table could be mountains one day, desert the next.


-From "Gambling" 

I'm lying to myself if I say it's getting better.

-From "Then you rise, and you're pure"  

They had painted her in bright diagonal stripes that peeled off in random patches and patterns. In the photos, especially the later ones they took down in the basement, she looked like an animal coming unskinned. She glared and snarled and taunted. It gave the pictures a rawness, having her filters down like that.

In some of the photos she stood in a white-tiled shower with the water off. By then the paint was gone and she was naked again. The alcohol had shrunk her self-consciousness down to nothing like a pupil in bright light.

She had forgotten most of what had happened in the basement, so when she saw the photos later, just for a moment, she thought of seeing pictures of a loved one who'd been kidnapped. 


-From "White light"  

That 1950s chrome-edged diner table you'd always loved from your grandparents' house -- she'd gotten down on her bad knees in the basement and polished it, taking a toothbrush to reach the tiniest nooks and crevices, so it would sparkle in your first apartment. You never asked her to. She just did it.   

-From "Grocery list"  

It's possible that I allowed them to see me struggling a bit with the mop and bucket, as if to say: "I am not accustomed to doing this. What a funny twist of fate." It's possible that I found it morbidly amusing, thinking of what the cafe patrons might have imagined my life to be like -- the stories they create to explain why a nice, young, smart-seeming and well-dressed girl like me is playing janitor.  

-From "Mop and bucket"  

So I left Calico. I left it, just like the original townsfolk did.

There is such a thing as wearing out your welcome.

When even the ghosts have left a place, you should, too.

-From "Calico" (a micro-fiction story in my collection "Life goes on"

In the morning she passed around knives. They would do it if she told them to, especially if she went first. Their pretty faces would be as ravaged and ugly as she was deep in her heart that had wished for this all along.    

-From "Cut Off Your Nose" (a micro-fiction story in my collection "Bad people")  

I felt safe, or maybe just blasé. I remembered reading about this nature documentary, predators chasing prey. Funny thing: the prey who gave up, who got tired and surrendered – the predators no longer cared about them. They only chased the ones who wanted to get away. So there I sat, feeling safe because I wasn't trying to get away. I welcomed whatever. 

-From "Fishnet grid"  

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