Getting Warmer

I have a hard time quieting my mind. For the past few months, I’ve tried meditation, and have given up many times in frustration. I don’t have that yogi breath that is deep and loud and even. I hold my breath when I’m concentrating. I lick my lips when I’m nervous.

Where am I going with this? Well tonight, for the first time in quite a while, I wrote for myself. I didn’t write out of guilt or obligation. And the whole time I held my breath and licked my lips and picked the cuticles on my fingernails. One thing at a time, Ali. One habit at a time.

Joni Mitchell’s “Free Man in Paris” has been my earworm for a few days, and it’s a bit of an anthem. Unfettered and alive.

I’m almost done with this story, and will post the final soon. I’m starting to post fragments again until I finish. Still more ideas bubbling, and thinking my writing, after this, may move into some pretty rad and fantastical territory. Magical realism. Pah! Let’s get weird with it. For now, some standard fare…

***

My grandma lived in another time, but we did too. It was 1988, but the town was running to catch up with a decade that moved too fast. My big brother wanted technology that was straight out of an H.G. Wells novel while we were still battling with a 1956 Maytag refrigerator. When we got our secondhand Atari 2600, Grandma would squint skeptically at it, as her time with us shrank in favor of 8-bits and achy thumbs.

When my grandpa died the year before, she had digested the death within a week. She wore black for the funeral and never again. She stopped pulling her hair tight and let it cascade like spider silk down her back. She grew more flowers and said fewer words and kept reading the Bible before bed and in the cool blue hour before dawn. I was eight, and I thought she was the most beautiful thing in the world.

I remember every moment I spent with my Grandpa because there were so few of them. He preferred my tomboy sister to my lacy teddy bear tea parties. But I lied to Grandma and asked her questions about him, pretending to be interested in the answers. I brought a steno pad and pen and wore the serious face on an on-the-scene reporter. She responded to this line of questioning by brushing my hair until every knot was combed out and my scalp tingled. On the best days she would make a plump French braid down my back, secured with a neon pink pony barrette.

Easter was grandma’s favorite holiday, and we were in the middle of all the preparations in which she delighted – foil-wrapped eggs in baskets, bundles of white lilies that she arranged with pollen-stained hands. Sunrise service. Rolls that rose like Jesus. She gathered all of it in her arms – even the bunny that clucked like a chicken on the TV commercials.

Dad took her to a check-up on Fat Tuesday. The widower doctor flirted with her while listening to her heart, so that a good flutter could not be distinguished from a bad one. All her life she was surrounded by boys – she still called them that even when the hair sprung from their ears and they shot spittle from their mouths. The constant object of desire and forever somebody else’s wife. She was diagnosed with nothing but a bum knee that forced her to sit every hour or so, and the doctor gave her a prescription for when the pain was bad.

After receiving her clean bill of health, Dad took her to buy the Easter ham. She cradled it all the way home like a new grandchild wrapped in swaddling cheesecloth.

That year I decided that I was old enough to voice an opinion on the matter of holidays, and while she wiped down wine glasses from the China cabinet, I told her that I preferred Christmas because the presents were more to my liking and black jelly beans made me gag. She stuffed her cleaning rag into a wine glass and turned to me.

“Well, Jesus was the first zombie, so shouldn’t you kids like Easter even more than I do?”

I stared at her. It is my first memory of being able to raise my skeptical left eyebrow, a talent my siblings never learned. The undead were a part of my brother’s comic books and Saturday afternoon movies on Channel 3. My tenderhearted, jitterbugging grandma couldn’t know or understand.

“What’s the matter? You think I just sit at home all day looking at a wall? For goodness sakes sweetie, I do turn on the TV once in a while.”

She confided her penchant for the gruesome, and I didn’t cover my ears.

She watched reruns of Dark Shadows. She’d seen a Saturday matinee of Night of the Living Dead when she was 24 and Grandpa was out of town. Seen all of its terrible sequels. Had her own rental card for the video store, and on days when it was just her in the house, drove her Pinto and came back with old and new slasher flicks. The manager knew her by name. Never had a late fee. The decayed flesh of a zombie didn’t phase her. She bought Raisinettes and Coke while watching brains being spooned from their skulls.

When I asked her why she kept all this a secret, she told me that one day, when I was grown and maybe had a husband and little baby, that I might want something of my very own, that belonged only to me.

Two nights after I became acquainted with my grandma’s pastime, two nights before Easter Sunday, my dad came home with a fat envelope from which he pulled four tickets he had won in a radio call-in contest. They were for that evening’s Passion play, put on by a traveling theater company that specialized in religious spectacle. He explained to me that this play told the story of Jesus’ resurrection, and that he wanted me and my sister and brother to go with Grandma.

While I was still confused by exactly what I was about to witness, he smoothed my hair and pat my back.

“You promise to be a brave grown-up girl even if you see bad things happen to Jesus.”

My grandma went wild, kissing my dad on his cheeks and hugging him tight. She winked at me. I had what I would later recognize as the belly swirl of excitement that parents have when their children get a glimpse of presents under the tree on Christmas morning.

So much of childhood is made of up of things that terrify and fortify, and a Passion play fit snugly between both. There was the stiff and pale usher who grimly handed us programs with shaking hands, the dim light in the cedar-scented theater, the boom of Ten Commandments-level bass that convinced us that Charlton Heston would play the role of Jesus. Roman soldiers with gleaming swords. Abuse. Thorns. Blood. Toil.

Every few minutes Grandma would whisper clarifications or demonstrations in my ear.

“That is Pontius Pilate”

“This is where Judas is about to betray Christ”

“Don’t tear the program, I want to save it in the Memory Box.”

The crucifixion was graphic, and Christ’s body glistened with blood under the hot stage light. Each time a nail was hammered into his muscle and bone, the sound guy would set off a thud of bass that made my heart fall to the floor. Sniffles could be heard in the audience, and my sister gasped and wailed when Jesus died and every instrument in the pit let out a warped wail.

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Rusty Prose

Working it out…seeing where it goes….

My grandma digested my grandpa’s death within a week. A marriage like a long, satisfying meal that would remain a warm memory for her empty stomach. She wore black for the funeral and never again. She stopped pulling her hair tight and let it cascade like spider silk down her back. She grew more flowers and said fewer words and kept reading the Bible before bed and in the cool blue hour before dawn. I was eight, and I thought she was the most beautiful thing in the world.

I remember every moment I spent with my Grandpa because there were so few of them. He preferred my tomboy sister Emmy and looked helpless when I asked him if he’d like to join my stuffed bears for afternoon tea. But I lied to Grandma and asked her questions about him, pretending to be interested in the answers. She responded to this line of questioning by brushing my hair until every knot was combed out and my scalp tingled. On the best days she would use her nimble fingers to make a plump French braid down my back.

She lived in another time, but we did too. It was 1988, but the town was running to catch up with a decade that seemed to move faster than the others. My big brother wanted technology that was straight out an HG Wells novel while we were still battling with a 1956 Maytag refrigerator. When we got our first flea market Atari, Grandma would squint skeptically (jealously?) at it, as her story time shrank in favor of 8-bits and achy thumbs. Even I started to pull away, favoring Teen magazine and self-inflicted make-up demonstrations in the bathroom.

Dad took her to the clinic on Fat Tuesday. The widower doctor flirted with her while listening to her heart so that a good flutter could not be distinguished from a bad one. All her life she was surrounded by boys – she still called them that even when the hair sprung from their ears and they shot spittle from their mouths. She was diagnosed with nothing but a bum knee that forced her to sit every hour or so, and the boy doctor gave her a prescription for when the pain was bad.

To celebrate her clean bill of health, Dad took her to buy the Easter ham. She cradled it all the way home like a new grandchild wrapped in swaddling cheesecloth. Easter was grandma’s favorite holiday as far back as I remember.

I’m Still Here

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I haven’t put away my passport. I’ve been turning its pages and running my fingers over its stamps. At the airport in Baltimore, the customs agent pointed to a red stamp and a blue stamp and asked where they were from, since the ink was too light to read. “Oh, those are from Morocco,” I said, trying my best nonchalance, saying it all through one feigned sigh of impatience.

I chose baptism by fire. I planned a month of travel without ever having left the country. And I did it. I can say I did and no one can say I didn’t. Unless the laws of the universe reverse themselves, I will have always been there, and there, and there. I can tell a future child, or cat, or niece, or goldfish what it was like to walk Tangier’s Kasbah in the early evening, smelling fresh-baked rose water and pistachio cookies. My trip is a true and real thing.

Traveling for weeks at a time without the stress of daily life did do some weird things to my brain. I had lots of dreams about Jimmy Cat while abroad – in most he was alive and I was petting him, though his skin was still covered in the cancerous tumors that eventually killed him. I watched my life over the past two years like I was screening a movie with a flaky female lead. I’d think about events and people that hadn’t crossed my mind in years and years. Traveling also brought out my worst bouts of anxiety – having panic attacks and lashing out at my husband over things out of his control. Every train station and airport made my breath quicken and my body tense. Every attempt at ordering dinner in France was filled with worry and embarrassment. It took about two weeks before I just let the trip wash over me.

We made an agreement to travel light, given that we’d be hopping from city to city every 2-4 nights. While coordinating my wardrobe, I assumed I’d do much of my travel in airy dresses, imagining Indian summer weather in most places. After six days of walking in rain through Amsterdam and Paris, I decided that just about every dress (6!) could kiss my ass. Most of the trip was spent in a denim shirt, two cotton tees, one wool cardigan and two pairs of jeans. I lived in my black New Balance sneakers. Once you get into a rhythm of traveling, you just stop caring what you put on your body. There’s a reason why tourists wear what they wear, and it’s not because they actually want to look like total dorks. In fact, the condition of my body seemed less and less important along the way. My leg hair grew long because there was always something more exciting to do than take long showers. Dry shampoo became my best friend and hid the days of unwash and grease. My eyebrows looked like two black caterpillars on my forehead. Our sore feet traveled over 100 miles in the course of four weeks.

The question I keep getting asked is if I’m sad that it’s over. I’m not. I’ve taken little pieces of this journey and sprinkled them on top of my life in ways that seem permanent and good. Like the Paris jazz radio station I’ve been streaming while reading and writing. Like my impulse to cook tapas for everyone in my life, and watching their faces when they take their first bites of jamon de belota and aged manchego. Taking time for a slow lunch once in a while. Eating croissants on the weekends, waistline be damned. Continuing to hone my Spanish and French, while feeling proud that I learned a few words in Arabic. Realizing that the world is HUGE – so, so, so much larger than I ever imagined. Knowing that despite my tiny place in it, I need to continue giving back in big and small ways.

So now what to do? Well, I had no major revelation during the trip, other than I should do what I do, but better. Explore more. Read more. Give more. Share more. Love more. Take all the good things I hope to do in my life and put them on steroids. I’m ready to give all of myself with no expectation of return.

I didn’t diary during the trip, though I had hoped to have the time. Instead I stored moments in my head that felt particularly special, which seems like a more honest way of remembering. So, here are a few to close it all up:

Walking through Buckingham Palace’s paintings gallery and being shocked to see Vermeer’s “The Music Lesson” on the wall. While I knew what to expect in most museums we visited, this was a sweet surprise.

Strolling the Amsterdam canals at night, full of beer and bitterballen.

Biking through Amstel Park in a parka in the pouring rain and never wanting it to end.

Packing a full picnic for the Musee D’Orsay, only to be rained out. Instead finding shelter under the Pont des Arts and making ham and butter sandwiches while drinking a full bottle of Bordeaux until the storm let up.

Avoiding the crowds at the Mona Lisa so I could spend half an hour admiring the five other Da Vinci’s in the adjacent gallery, unbothered.

Witnessing a genuine French restaurant fight in Avignon between a waiter and a hostess that included screaming in the kitchen, angry exits, and a resigned return to refill our glasses of wine.

Drinking wine and smoking cigarettes on the patio of the Hotel Nord-Pinus in Arles and feeling its history in my bones.

Discovering L’isle-sur-la Sorgue, with its water mills and world’s happiest ducks.

Running into the La Mercè festival in Barcelona and being fascinated and creeped out by the “gegants.” Feeling like a lucky witness to something old and special.

Having the best meal of my life in Barcelona (white chocolate foie gras!), followed by some seriously potent chupitos.

Picnic lunch at Retiro Park, where I swore I saw the moment where summer became fall in Madrid.

Seeing two of my favorite paintings, Goya’s “Saturn Devouring His Son” and “The Third of May.”

Driving down Tangier’s beautiful, empty, unspoiled coastline.

Watching late-night dancers in El Morocco Club – the uncovered women we never saw on the streets of the city.

Successfully negotiating the price of a Moroccan rug.

More stories in the hopper! Now back to my regularly scheduled short fiction programming. Stay tuned…

Gone Fishin’

“When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it is over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.”

-Mary Oliver

It’s time for the rare personal post. I don’t usually do this – I over-shared to an embarrassing degree on Live Journal years and years ago, and it’s soured me. But I’ve got a lot on my mind, and some shitty Pinot Grigio swirling in my belly…

On November 1, 2014, I made a decision. My head was still buzzing from Halloween the night before, where I had sat in a movie theater and watched creepy video art and music that made my organs vibrate. I walked home with my husband in the pouring rain dressed as Alice and the White Rabbit.  I woke up the next morning with this optimism that comes over me in warm waves every few months or so, when I have faith that the world won’t flatten itself.

So I booked a trip to Europe. A big one. A month-long one.

I am very, very lucky. I have so much in my life to be grateful for. I know I sound like some Eat, Pray, Love asshole. But I don’t care. I want to taste the oysters in every lovely and ugly place, and I know that my chickenshit tendencies are the only obstacle to these things. Well, that and not having stacks of money. But I’ve heard it all works out in the end (even if the end means being dead and penniless), so I’ll take my chances on that. I also know that this may very well be the last chance I have to do this kind of trip. Life happens, and plans falls through. Priorities shift. It all gets sick and old before you know it.

So here I am with my brain ticking its little countdown to September 9. Feeling scared and exhilarated. Picking country-appropriate outfits in my head. Imagining all the different cheeses I’ll eat and the people I’ll meet. Creeping out of my comfort zone. Preparing to be berated for my poor French, but perhaps complimented for my decent Spanish. Feeling like a much smaller and much bigger person in this world. Let us go…

Apologies

So the last time I posted to this blog, my friend Dominique said that I apologize for something in nearly every post I publish. Looking back on those posts, she’s right. I say I’m sorry for not enough time, not enough effort, not enough heart. I’m like a walking Amy Schumer skit. It was embarrassing.

But why should I be sorry? I’m spending what little time I have doing something I love. There’s not room for apology there, only room for doing and making. I am sorry for a lot of things in life, as most are, but I’m not sorry for writing.

I’m getting that mid-summer Wanderlust that is usually satiated by a trip up the coast to some little town with good sandwiches and overpriced antiques. Instead the urge is quenched by practicing Spanish and French daily, driving my husband nuts with questions about the imperfect and subjunctive tenses, reading “Travels with Charley” by John Steinbeck, working like a dog at my day job while planning a month of travel in Europe, and YES, writing. So here’s an unapologetic taste, kiddos

On the occasion of Lisa’s death, I’ve been thinking about the peculiar folk – the friends who chose to join me on some stretch of life. I think it is because I was so poor at making friends as a child that I value my friendships more than most. Let’s see. I have a raised garden in the tiny patch of land behind my house where I tend tomato vines, mostly. I’m not always successful in beating away the crows when they come to peck the fruit at its first juicy blush, but the ones I do save are given my utmost care. I have found myself spending hours outside on warm Sundays pulling weeds and letting a slow trickle from the watering can spread across the mulched bed. I polish tomato skins with a thumbpad and examine each one for worms and lacerations. Well see, that’s how I approach friendship.

A friend means that someone has deigned to begin a conversation with me and endured my uncomfortable pauses and shifty eyes. They loosen me up, shake the words out of me, then can’t plug the dike. I save my words for a long time before I spend them.

Lisa was the friend I had the longest and saw the least. We grew up four houses down from each other in one of those developments where backyards weren’t separated by walls and kids could do the 100-yard dash or play flag football and no one would say a word unless they got too loud or tore up a flower bed. Her mother had died during childbirth, and her father had gone from hopeless to self-assured by the time we moved to the neighborhood. My mom would try to give him advice on packed lunches and sleepovers, but he was one step ahead and would end up telling her about a new health food store with farm-fresh eggs or the latest kid-friendly Elvis-at-the-beach movie at the theater. It irked my mom for a few months until she started to treat him like one of her female friends and they amicably traded recipes and Oak Street gossip.

She’s Not There

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Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Room

Well, here we are, folks. A story. A story that I’ve toyed with for weeks… um… make that months. I’m still not satisfied, and I think my patience has gotten the best of me again, because I have a feeling this story could be longer. But here it is. Probably some lingering grammatical stuff. Stuff that doesn’t line up. But it’s here.

I was reading a lot of Pynchon when I wrote this, which should be obvious. But I think it’s fun to experiment with voice, to write “in the style of.” Because ultimately it helps you settle into your own voice.

I wish I had more time. I truly do. I’m proud of my job, and the way I choose to spend my time (except when I glaze over on my iPhone for hours), but it seems like there’s so little time to write. But I’ll continue to carve it out, bit by bit.

Hope this one goes over well…

She’s Not There

The night Piper left, Mike had a dream. He was walking the rooms of a rough stone castle that was filled with red-flamed candelabras and black lilies, as if Old Scratch had read Architectural Digest and just gone to town on the place. He knew that he owned the castle, and that he wasn’t alone there. It smelled like the holy incense of Catholic Mass. The children’s chorus from “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” played at increasing volume until he woke.

Mike didn’t dream at all really, and when he did it was the warped edge of an action movie where he kept trying to reload his gun but the bullets were made of fruit snacks or various root vegetables. He poured a bowl of Cocoa Puffs and, defying a rule of Saturday morning cereal etiquette, ate them in front of a black television screen. He was convinced that this new dream had something to do with her.

He met Piper through a co-worker at the magazine. He needed a roommate who would be comfortable living on a futon for at least a year while he saved up for this self-indulgent journalistic odyssey to Mongolia that he never ended up taking. She was, to this day, the only girl he found beautiful but had no desire to fuck. Her hair was down to her lower back, the kind that you would twist up and pull during some tantric patchouli-laced session. Every piece of clothing she owned was silky or flowy or billowy or any adjective that implied that a light breeze might blow her sideways. She was an equal-opportunity space cadet – vegan, power crystals, karma, astrology, Native American mysticism that spanned several tribes. She never had steady work but paid rent on time. He never heard her turn on the shower, but she always smelled clean.

Mike’s next door neighbor was a 70-year-old woman named Stephanie. She was tolerant of loud parties and barking dogs but today, as he walked past her in the hallway, she didn’t say a word and he felt the heat of her look as he headed towards the stairs. Piper had once given her a chunk of rosy healing quartz and a tea that was meant to treat sciatica. She had probably heard Piper move out the night before and assumed he’d done her wrong.

The park was a good place for him to sit and think about this brief and vaguely ominous dream, but he needed to get there early before the first wave of strollers landed on the playground. He took the dream and pulled it apart for analysis. Details were already fading, and he used a pocket notebook to scribble everything he remembered. Reporter habit. The dream could have been at any castle estate in any Eastern European Dracula nest, but there was a recalled detail – it housed a massive collection of vinyl.

Glancing up from his notebook, Mike saw a handful of mothers and nannies throwing him looks. He resembled a “suspicious character,” some junkie time traveler with an unkempt mustache, growing bald spot, and eyes that looked like they were put on this earth to stare in cold judgment. He couldn’t sit on a bench more than five minutes before whisper campaigns began and cops asked him to move along. He wanted to tell them that something like 95% of child abductions are perpetrated by a family member, but today his breath smelled like shit and he had bigger fish to fry.

Mike never visited bookstores, much less the ones that were off the beaten path and lacked a coffee bar. But he remembered this one on Grand that she took him to once because it had a whole aisle dedicated to assorted quackery – the occult, magic, faeries, dreams. She danced through the aisles and read aloud brief passages of at least a dozen books before she was silenced by a 600-page whopper called “Love in the Age of Aquarius,” which recalled the sexual history of twenty men and women between 1965 and 1979. She left it when she moved out and he had noticed it on top of the refrigerator that doubled as her private bookshelf.

The place looked exactly the same except for the person behind the register. It used to be an old man who looked like he was ready to pull a book of spells out from under the counter. But now it was a guy in his early 20s with wire spectacles who told Mike that books on his desired subject were moved to an aisle that did not get direct sunlight from the store window, to protect their crusty pages. Under “Dreams and Slumber,” there were a few books about how to get a better night’s sleep, what happens to your brain during slumber, and how to use math-magic to calculate a proper night’s rest. The title “Your Dreams A-Z” jumped out at him as straightforward, so he flipped through it. Under “House” he found a number of listings, including “House – unknown to dreamer. Represents loss, or being lost.” and “House, large. Represents wandering, searching, foreboding. A puzzle or maze.”

At the register Mike reached into his back pocket for his wallet and felt the skin of his fingertips snag on the denim. They were raw with tiny cuts, and a few nails were split like he’d been clawing at something.

“What? She just left!? Why?”

“Maybe she had these really deep feelings for me that she’d been hiding for two years and she just couldn’t handle the pain anymore.”

“Well obviously that’s not it.”

Mike decided to grab lunch with Lewis because he knew for a fact that he’d hooked up with Piper a few times, and thought maybe she’d had some revealing pillow talk.

“She called me yesterday morning so she could return a few of the movies she borrowed. I met her for like 10 seconds at First Crack and I asked her if she wanted to get coffee while she was there and she, you know, floated away how she does.”

“What movies did she borrow?”

“Uh, Breathless, The Last Picture Show, and – HA! Jesus – Rosemary’s Baby and The Witches of Eastwick.”

“Sounds about right.”

“I don’t know man, she was looking very Stevie Nicks yesterday. Out to lunch and kind of skipping down the street. Seemed happy though.”

Mike should have written Piper off as just another post-grad drifter who needed cheap rent. He’d had a few like her come in and out of his life through the years – the self-righteous who would publicly shame you for eating meat, but fell to pieces in bedroom shadows if you criticized their hemp sandals or found a glaring fallacy in their soapbox speeches. Fragile and indignant and fiery balls of sweet earth.

No, he wouldn’t have been so worried about her now if he hadn’t come home about half a dozen times in the past six months and found her sitting completely still at the kitchen table with her fists clenched. Her eyes were furious and focused on something he couldn’t see. Her nose ran, but she didn’t wipe it and it formed a quarter-size pool of snot on the placemat. After about an hour of this she’d spout off something so coherent and succinct about the state of society that he thought she’d swapped bodies with someone lucid. She quoted books he’d never even seen in her collection. She explained difficult concepts the way his best college professors had. After a few hours her face would mellow and she’d make them pancakes and coffee and talk about her impending trip to the farmers market like nothing had happened. There was something more to her, lurking behind mini bonsais and yards of rough linen.

There was that conversation they’d had, during one of her fits of clarity.

“Do you ever feel like you have so much ambition, but you don’t know what for? Like, you’re waiting for this great thing that’ll blow your mind and make you get off your ass and get to work? I feel like that’s waiting for me, you know?”

“I think you’d be really lucky to find something like that. I mean, I’ve been in journalism for ten years, and it’s my passion and I live and breathe it, but it doesn’t make a me a fucking dime and every day I think about all the other things I could be doing that are fulfilling, just because they mean I can grab a drink on Fridays and not have to count out pennies to buy it.”

“I’m close, Mike. I’m close to finding it.”

He couldn’t remember how the fight had started, sort of the way dreams never have beginnings. She’d known for weeks that he’d been assigned to go to New Mexico to interview a potential presidential candidate, but now she harassed him. Something about “selling out” to something or someone. He told her that her candles smelled like a funeral home, and she told him that he shouldn’t throw stones in his glass…CASTLE. She had said castle instead of house, and he’d mocked her right before she started packing. The seed of his dream.

He wished people still had address books. Emergency contacts written in longhand on scraps of paper and taped to walls. Every time he lost his phone he had the embarrassing task of asking for the numbers of his closest friends since he never kept back-ups. Which is to say that he had zero clue how to reach Piper. She didn’t use Facebook or Twitter or anything else, as far as he knew. Her cell phone was now disconnected. He struggled to remember the names of her friends who showed up in 30 minute shifts to smoke joints and rap about their guru du jour. He came up with Cymbeline because he remembered complimenting her name and recalled a gummy smile and frizzy auburn hair pulled into thick braided pigtails.

It didn’t take long to find the three Cymbelines who lived in the city and narrow it down to the girl who had a profile picture of Bjork cradling an oversized butterfly to her bare breast. He drafted a private message.

“Hey Cymbeline, its Mike, Piper’s roommate. She moved out the other night, but didn’t tell me where she was going. Do you know where she’s staying? Just want to make sure she’s OK. Thanks. Mike.”

The reply came 15 minutes later.

“Hi Mike. I haven’t seen Piper in months – she stopped coming to my book club. Last I heard she was planning some retreat. If you do get in touch with her, tell her she owes me my copy of The Devil’s Detail.”

Mike made a mental note to look up the book later, and had started to type his response when he felt the sting of his fingertips splitting and the skin oozing from assorted tiny cuts. He had a brief vision of his polyester-stuffed effigy being sliced and diced by a smiling, jubilant Piper. His phone rang.

“Hey what time are you going to the airport tomorrow? Thought we could split a cab.”

Camille was the high-strung photographer for his New Mexico assignment. Mike had, for approximately three hours, forgotten that he had to go to Taos to interview and potentially expose a man who was fast becoming one of the unlikleist and most dangerous candidates for President of the United States. A small potatoes city councilman named Reggie Ramble who, through pure charisma (and some said the conjuring of some long-forgotten desert God), had charmed the anti-government set in the Southwestern United States and had his eyes set on other hospitable neighbors. His editor had chosen Mike for the interview because he looked like he was a sermon away from becoming a glazed-over sycophant. For once, Mike’s appearance worked in his favor.

“We gotta nail this guy, remember? We gotta go through the questions and set up my shot list and, oh my God there’s still so much to do, where the hell have you been lately? I feel like we’re not even close to prepared, but you know what I’m not the boss so maybe we just plan on watching his speech tonight, yeah?”

“Huh?”

“He’s doing one of his weekly addresses, but this time FOX News is going to carry it live. What rock are you crawling out from today?”

“Sorry Camille, it’s been a weird day.”

It was getting late, and he had to finish the packing he’d started the night before. He picked up a stew of dirty and clean clothes from the floor and made half-hearted attempts at folding and rolling pieces into the suitcase. The bathroom echoed as he pulled travel soaps from under the sink – it was all close to empty without Piper’s cleansers, oils, and….creams. He took a long look at his cracked hands. The day she moved in, he gave her the “mi casa es su casa” spiel which was really just an excuse to eat his roommate’s food without consequence. And since that first day, each time he dried off after a shower, he rubbed his hands with a hearty portion of her unscented Corn Silk body lotion, of which there seemed an endless supply. He laughed at himself for thinking his symptoms were anything but a lanolin deficiency. Then he pulled the bathroom cabinet out by its hinges and slapped the tile with his palms. There were things he would miss about her.

He screwed the cabinet back into place, rolled the suitcase to the door, and sank into his couch to watch Ramble ramble. The jolly candidate was standing at a podium, his mad scientist hair combed back. The bottom of the screen read “Breaking: Ramble Announcement,” and Mike sort of hoped he’d stay in the race for a while, if only for those headlines. The camera panned out to reveal Ramble’s newly-assembled campaign posse, and Mike’s heart fell to his stomach.

There, to his left, was Piper. Her long hair was glossy and, dare he say, bouncy? She wore a well-tailored olive suit with a conservative cream silk blouse underneath. The only marking of the true Piper was a pair of jade Buddha earrings that danced whenever she nodded her head in agreement.

“…and now I’d like to introduce Piper Hermann, who has just accepted the position of Campaign Manager. I have full confidence that her brilliant mind will help carry us to victory.”

Piper was beaming, not just a smile, but a sunbeam that cast a healthy glow on everyone around her. She was poised, and confident, beautiful, and now to Mike, certifiably insane.

Mike began a rapid overview of the past two years of his life. His mind began calling up files that had been sitting beneath an inch of dust. Under the influence of weed, or alcohol, or his own self-absorption, he’d never seen the goldenrod words “Suffolk Law” stamped in script on envelopes and letterhead that had been thrown in the trash. The incessant calls from nameless alumni associations that she’d complained about and tried in vain to cease. That period in which she was surrounded by heavy books and flashcards that he’d never bothered to ask about. An unopened letter from the Massachusetts State Bar.

No voodoo, no ritual sacrifice, no Freudian dream analysis. She was a lawyer. She was gone. Not to the Dark Side, exactly, but to a place parallel to the path usually chosen. She has the crooked tracks of an unknown animal on a straight trail. She’d found the sweet spot where ambition and instability intersect and become dance partners. He’d see her again.

Rough rough rough

Still working through draft 1 of my latest short… getting there. No inspo quote today, just being accountable and posting some progress. Onward!

***

The night Piper left, Mike had a dream that was out of character. He was standing in a room of a castle he presumably owned, rough stone walls and all. The place has at least half a dozen bedrooms that he was eager to forget about, because he’d heard that the very wealthy find everything disposable. He gets the warm tickle on the neck feeling when someone is hiding and waiting to scare him. The whole place glows red. The children’s chorus from “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” plays with greater volume until he wakes.

Mike didn’t dream at all really, and when he did it was the warped edge of an action movie where he kept trying to reload his gun but the bullets are made of fruit snacks or various root vegetables. He poured a bowl of Cocoa Puffs and, defying a rule of Saturday morning cereal etiquette, ate them without joy. He was convinced that this new dream has something to do with her.

He met Piper through a co-worker at the magazine who had gone to private school with her. He needed a roommate who would be comfortable living on a sofabed for at least a year while he saved up for this self-indulgent journalistic odyssey to Mongolia that he never ended up taking. She was, to this day, the only girl he found beautiful but had no desire to fuck. Her hair was down to her lower back, the kind that you would twist up and pull during some tantric patchouli-laced session. Every piece of clothing she owned was silky or flowy or billowy or any adjective that implies that a light breeze might blow her sideways. She did all the shit you’d expect – vegan, power crystals, karma, astrology, Native American mysticism that spanned several tribes. She never had steady work but paid rent on time. He never heard her turn the shower, but she always smelled clean.

Mike’s next door neighbor was a 70-year-old woman named Stephanie. Names like Ethel, Gertrude, and Opal were now reserved for kids younger than 5 – the inevitable generational reversal of what was considered edgy. Stephanie was tolerant of loud parties and barking dogs, but today, as he walked past her in the hallway, she didn’t say a word and he can feel the heat of her look as he headed towards the stairs. Piper had once given her a chunk of rosy “healing quartz” and a tea that was supposed to treat sciatica. She had probably heard her move out the night before and blamed him for it.

The park was a good place for him to sit and think about this dream, but he needed to get there early before the first wave of strollers landed on the playground. He took the dream and pulled it apart for analysis. Details were already fading from memory, and he used a pocket notebook to scribble everything he remembered. Old reporter habit. The dream could have been at any castle estate in any Eastern European Dracula nest, but there was a recalled detail – he was in the kitchen of the dream house, and a burner on the stove was lit.

Glancing up Mike saw a handful of mothers and nannies throwing him looks. He resembled a “suspicious character,” some junkie time traveler with an unkempt mustache, growing bald spot, and eyes that he’d been told looked like they’re only made for fucking or judging. He couldn’t sit on a bench five minutes before whisper campaigns begin and cops asked him to move along. He wanted to tell them that something like 95% of child abductions are perpetrated by a family member, but his breath smelled like shit and he had bigger fish to fry. He left before anyone has a chance to spread paranoia.

Mike never visited bookstores, much less the ones that were off the beaten path and lack a coffee bar. But he remembered this one on Grand that she took him to once because it had a whole aisle dedicated to assorted quackery – the occult, magic, faeries, dreams. She danced through the aisles and read aloud brief passages of at least a dozen books before she was silenced by a 600-page whopper called “Love in the Age of Aquarius,” which recalled the sexual history of twenty men and women between 1965 and 1979. She left it when she moved out and he had noticed it on top of the refrigerator that doubled as her private bookshelf.

The place looked exactly the same except for the person behind the register. It used to be an old man who looked like he was ready to pull a book of spells out from under the counter. But now it was a guy in his early 20s with coke bottle glasses who told Mike that books on his desired subject were moved to an aisle that did not get direct sunlight from the store window, to protect their crusty pages. Under “Dreams and Slumber,” there were a few books about how to get a better night’s sleep, what happens to your brain while you sleep, and how well-rested people are the best lovers. The title “Your Dreams A-Z” jumped out at him as straightforward, so he flipped through it. Under “House” he found a number of listings, including “House – unknown to dreamer. Represents loss, or being lost.” and “House, large. Represents wandering, searching, foreboding. A puzzle or maze.”

At the register Mike reached into his back pocket for his wallet and felt the skin of his fingertips snag on the denim. They were raw with tiny cuts, and a few nails were split like he’d been clawing at something.

***

“What? She just left!? Why?”

“Maybe she had these really deep feelings for me that she’d been hiding for two years and she just couldn’t handle the pain of love anymore.”

“Well obviously that’s not it.”

Mike decided to grab lunch with Lewis because he knew for a fact that he’d hooked up with Piper a few times at his house parties, and thought maybe she’d had some revealing pillow talk.

“She called me yesterday morning so she could return a few of the movies she borrowed. I saw her for like 10 seconds at First Crack and I asked her if she wanted to get coffee while she was there and she, you know, floated away how she does.”

“What movies did she borrow?”

“Uh, Dead Poets Society, Shakespeare in Love, and – HA! Jesus – Rosemary’s Baby and The Witches of Eastwick.”

“That sounds about right.”

“I don’t know man, she was looking very Stevie Nicks yesterday. Out to lunch and kind of skipping down the street. Seemed happy though. Hey, what’s up with your fingers? They look like they got chewed up in an In-Sink-Erator.”

Mike should have written Piper off as just another post-grad drifter who needed cheap rent and had low expectations. He’d had a few like her come in and out of his life through the years – the self-righteous who would publicly shame you for eating meat, but fell to pieces in bedroom shadows if you criticized their Birkenstocks. Fragile and indignant and fiery balls of sweet earth. He wouldn’t have been so curious about her now if he hadn’t come home about a half dozen times before and found her looking furious but sitting completely still at the kitchen table with her fists clenched. Her eyes were focused, but on something he couldn’t see. Her nose would run, but she didn’t wipe it and it formed a quarter-size pool of snot on the placemat. After about an hour of this she’d spout off something so coherent and succinct about the state of society that he thought she’d swapped bodies with a Philosophy major. She quoted books he’d never even seen in her collection. Then her face would mellow and she’d make them pancakes and coffee and talk about her impending trip to the farmers market like nothing had happened. There was something more to her, and all the mini bonsais and Hopi totems in the world couldn’t hide it.

He couldn’t remember how the fight had started last night, sort of the way dreams never have beginnings. She’d known for weeks that he’d been assigned as a freelancer to go to New Mexico for a few weeks, but she few off the handle when he mentioned the subject her was going there to cover. There had been some back and forth about how she wasn’t his wife, how she wouldn’t date him if her reincarnated soul depended on it, and devolved into him stating that her rose-scented purity candles made the place smell like a funeral home, and she telling him that he shouldn’t throw stones in his glass…CASTLE. She had said castle instead of house, and he’d mocked her about it right before she started packing. They were equally shocked at the force of their anger.

He wished people still had address books. Emergency contacts written longhand on scraps of paper and taped to walls. Forwarding addresses. Each year he had the embarrassing task of asking for the addresses of his closest friends since he never saved them or deleted the text. Which is to say that he had zero clue how to reach Piper. She didn’t use Facebook or Twitter or anything else, as far as he knew. He struggled to remember the names of the strange friends who showed up at their place 30 minutes at a time to smoke a joint and rap about their sensei dujour. He came up with Cymbeline because he remembered complimenting her name. A flash of frizzy auburn hair pulled into thick braided pigtails.

It didn’t take long to find the three Cymbelines that lived in the area and narrow it down to the girl who had a profile picture of Bjork cradling an oversized butterfly to her bare breast. He drafted a private message.

“Hey Cymbeline, its Mike, Piper’s roommate. She moved out the other night, but didn’t tell me where she was going. Do you know where she’s going? Just want to make sure she’s OK. Thanks. Mike.”

The reply came 15 minutes later.

“Hi Mike. I haven’t seen Piper in months – she stopped coming to my book club. Last I heard she was planning some retreat…I think maybe in the Southwest. If you do get in touch with her, tell her she owes me my copy of The Devil’s Detail.”

Good Vibrations

“We travel, some of us forever, to seek other states, other lives, other souls” – Anais Nin

I’m going to begin an exercise in which I pretend there has not been a significant gap in blog posts. In which I have been posting one story a week to acclaim. In which I did not become overwhelmed with work and life and had all the time in the world to write. Let’s pretend.

I am finally realizing, after over a year, just what kind of commitment I will need to make if I want to be the writer I hope to be. I now know that because I am not a full-time writer, there will always be limitations. I will continue to battle for balance – read the book, watch the film, write the story, clean the house, heal the wounds, do the good work at that brings home the bacon. Fight, fight, fight.

Where I am today – dutifully reading books that assist in outlining a novel (not the aborted one I began last year, half-cocked). In between, I’m working on short pieces to keep things fresh. Below is the beginning of one of these small tales.

What I will not be – one of these – https://twitter.com/WrknOnMyNovel.

I am traveling to NYC in early May for work. Let’s see what trouble I’ll get into. Maybe I’ll be the lucky 1,000,000,000th customer to be inspired by the city.

Stay tuned….

You Never Write, You Never Call

The first night you were gone I had a dream that was out of character. I’m standing in a room of a house I own. It’s enormous and has the rough stone walls of a castle. I have at least half a dozen bedrooms that I’m eager to forget about, because I’ve heard that the very wealthy find everything disposable – they shrug off misplaced Rolexes or leave money-clipped cash in public restrooms. I have the feeling kids get when they know someone is hiding and waiting to scare them. The whole place glows red. The children’s chorus from “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” plays with greater volume until I wake up not in a cold sweat, but confused and annoyed.

I don’t dream at all really, and when I do it’s the warped edge of an action movie where I keep trying to reload my gun but the bullets are made of fruit snacks or various root vegetables. I am convinced that this new dream has something to do with her. I pour a bowl of Cocoa Puffs and, defying all rules related to Saturday morning cereal etiquette, eat them angrily.

The park is a good place for me to sit and think about this dream, but I need to get there early before the first wave of strollers land on the playground. I take the dream and pull it apart for analysis. Details are already fading from memory, and I use a pocket notebook to scribble everything I know. Old reporter habit. A recalled detail – I was in the kitchen of the dream house, and a burner on the stove was lit.

Glancing up from my notebook I see a handful of mothers and nannies throwing me looks. I admittedly resemble a porn star from the 70s – blonde Jew afro, unkempt mustache, and eyes that I’ve been told look like they’re only made for fucking or judging. I can’t sit on a bench five minutes before whisper campaigns begin and cops ask me to move along. I want to tell them that something like 95% of child abductions are perpetrated by a family member, but my breath smells like shit and frankly I have bigger fish to fry, so I leave before anyone has a chance to spread paranoia.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Wee Experiment

Salvador-Dali-Geopoliticus-Child-Watching-the-Birth-of-the-New-Man

Salvador Dali, “Birth of Man”

To live in this world, you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.” -Mary Oliver

For this new story I’ve written, I wanted to describe an experience that I’ve never had. One that I write about by relying on pure intuition as a woman. I’ve told a few people what I’m writing about, and they’ve offered to let me know if I’m even close to being right. But this is not a birth story – it’s something more than that (I hope and think!) We’ll see how off the mark I am and if I am in fact laughed out of the room by knowing mothers.

At this point I’m just happy to being putting out new work, even if my pace has slowed.

Feels good, bro. Enjoy!

Necessary Measure

Anna thought she’d made a mistake. She should have named him Harry, like Harry Houdini, because he keeps pulling a disappearing act. She sleeps hard but not long, and in between she turns her heavy head to where he should be in his hospital bassinet and he is not there. Nurses wheel him in and out and it seems to her that quite a bit must be done to determine that this is a healthy male infant. His feet are blackened and stamped. He is weighed and measured. He was jaundiced and needed extra care under phototherapy light. He’s so new that he could disappear forever and she wouldn’t miss him. She’s dreamt before of giving birth, then of allowing the baby to roll off the changing table or drop from her arms like a burdensome bag of groceries.

Yesterday the temp agency had assigned her to a project at a company 20 miles away. She’d never heard of St. Joseph’s Hospital before she went into labor and was forced to deliver there. The room is not blindingly sterile, but there is also little comfort. Anything not white is made from maple that is a sick, unisex yellow under hospital light. The TV mounted on the wall is too small and the screen too fuzzy. A single brass-framed print on the wall in front of her bed features newborns wearing felt petals in tiny flower pots.

“Can you please remove that picture?” she asks.

The nurse looks at her strangely and says that it’s bolted to the wall and can’t be removed. When she leaves Anna staggers across the room and drapes a blanket over it.

The doctor and nurses thought she was brave and kind. Then the painkillers made her petulant. She remembered reading a book about a woman who ripped open someone’s hand with bare teeth during labor.

The first and only time she holds him she feels a hard kick that overrides all the other unfamiliar pains in her body. It’s a steel-toed boot to the pit of her stomach as she counts his fingers and toes and comes up one short.

It must be a mistake, she thinks. Her drug-addled mind lost count.

She counts again, and again comes up with ten fingers and nine toes. The boot kicks, then grinds its heel as she counts one last time, and finds a pinky toe hiding behind its brother, twisted back but healthy and plump. The nail is no bigger than an apple seed. His body looks primitive, all sprawled limbs and skin the color of volcanic plumes beneath the sea. The color of man’s beginning.

She has been fascinated by her evolution. Where most expectant mothers might spend hours searching for baby monitors and strollers, she spent the time reading about pregnancy in old medical journals, where every mood swing and backache was documented. She comes across early experiments in psychiatry where mothers are given electric shock to cure the Baby Blues. The mothering techniques of isolated Indonesian tribes interest her. She scrolls through newspaper clippings about babies drowned in bathtubs and shaken and smacked. She watches countless birth videos, but fast forwards though the miracle. Viewing the exhausted, numb women in the hours after, she swears she can see the bodies shift, organs reassemble, hormones rush like waves and seize their minds so that they sob and feel little for the life they created. She watches and writes notes. Prints the most interesting studies. Makes wagers with herself about whether she’ll become one of those sobbing women. The change is thrilling and she is her own guinea pig.

She never thought of her body as something that gives. It is hers and hers alone and she has had a hard time with the most basic of intimacies. But she gave this boy life – something he didn’t ask for, and didn’t know he wanted.

There are no flowers next to her bed. She wishes now that she had tried to make friends at the temp agency, so that at least she had a bouquet of daisies and a group-signed card. But she was too proud and found the situation beneath her. Instead she went from job to job, belly swelling with each new gig, most not asking about the pregnancy or asking the basic questions that she was sick of answering. When they asked for a name she created elaborate, multi-hyphenated monstrosities that made them stop talking.

The nurse glares and rocks and coos as she bottle feeds him.

“Sweetie, don’t you want to at least try once?”

“No, I’m fine. I’m really fine. But thank you.”

“I think you’ll regret it later.”

“I don’t think so.”

She spends the time eating vanilla ice cream and lime Jell-O and all the hospital food that people are supposed to hate. But she thinks it’s delicious compared to most meals eaten alone. While flipping through soap operas she used to watch with her mom she is surprised to find the same plots unwinding fifteen years later. The chair next to the bed is where her mom should be sitting, if she knew. It’s warm from noon sun and scratchy and uncomfortable and she’d just have to live with it. It would be nice if she knew, but Anna couldn’t think of one reason to tell her.

He was warm and understanding and had the bred pragmatism of an accountant. They met at one of her first assignments doing backlog filing at a company that made unidentifiable metal parts for machines no one ever saw. He took the pregnancy in stride, ready to embrace a new reality. She refused to believe that he was willing to give up his life for someone he barely knew.

He would have scoffed at her research and swapped the New England Journal of Medicine for What to Expect When You’re Expecting. He would have made her create a registry and buy loose, lacy things that made her look like Lucile Ball in her third trimester. She would have to eat the right food and buy the right things and be the right mother. It was better this way.

When Anna wakes up again the room feels different, like eyes are watching through the walls and waiting for her to stir. The sun in the window means it’s late afternoon, and insurance will only cover a few more hours. As if on cue they walk in, nervous and excited and worried. They look like twins more than husband and wife, and in their many meetings with her they occasionally wore matching track suits. They think she’ll look at that chubby face and shock of red hair and suddenly want to keep him. But she and the baby have a mutual understanding, and he knows it’s all business. They came to an agreement the day she told the one night stand that she had miscarried two days prior.

The bassinet is back. Looking in his eyes she will swear later that he nodded as if to say “It’s time.” The parents talk to her in soft voices and caress her arm and stroke her hair. The nurse who bottle feeds him continues to glare.

She admits to herself that she might enjoy dancing with him in her arms across the living room while listening to Elvis. She’s never been squeamish about changing a diaper or cleaning vomit out of clothing. He’s also very warm and soft, so that might bring her small joys. But she adds it up, subtracts and multiplies, tries to divide her life by two and never gets the right answer. So he’s going to go away to the family that never had a tough equation in the first place – just simple solutions. She is logical to a fault.

The tears are one-way, streaming down the adoptive mother’s eyes with such volume and force that they shoot across Anna’s hospital gown. While they talk she nods and does not speak, smiles when needed, looks concerned then relieved. Then as swiftly as he came into her world he is gone again, capped and bundled and off to a place where his every sound and movement will be treasured. Where his toes will be bitten and kissed. Where someone will relish the smell of his head and hair. Where she’ll be a soft-glow memory without a name.

Scraps

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Helen Lundeberg, Double Portrait of the Artist in Time

Hello. It has been a while since I posted, but of course there are reasons why. Work is insane. My beloved cat died. My mind has been elsewhere. It’s all been too much. But I don’t let this document turn to digital dust, and I certainly won’t stop writing, even if it’s a dash of words a day.

I have these scraps of stories I write and don’t finish. They just never take off and I leave them as drafts in a fat folder. Today I revisited one and wondered how it would work as a very quick, abrupt piece of flash fiction. And while I work on a longer piece, I’m posting this scrappy experiment.

We.

We’ve been meeting for lunch for four years. We never call each other best friends, but you’d assume so if you pulled up a third chair and joined us. We sometimes talk over each other, yes, but we are also very good at listening. In high school you were known for being a particularly good listener. You wouldn’t just nod and furrow your brow and try to turn the conversation back to yourself – you were generous and attentive and made everyone feel like their opinions were important. At least, that’s what I heard from all your old friends. We didn’t meet that way. We met during the spring of our sophomore year, when we’d already worn a groove of routine and thought we’d made the all the friends we would need until graduation. We just happened to have three classes together on that sprawling campus. It wasn’t romance, not the experimental love of drunk sorority sisters. It was a mutual attraction that went beyond our bodies, though you were so beautiful and I was as pretty as I’d ever get. There was no discussion or question or adjustment. Our lives joined the same stream – two salmon traveling from river to ocean.

At our monthly lunch I made you order all the things I was too squeamish to try. All my life I’ve been the devil on my friends’ shoulders – goading them into doing things I was too shy or chicken shit to do. I’m a picky eater who has dreams of street carts in Thailand where crickets are fried and served kebab-style. In those dreams I eat many of them and crave more, but settle for licking the greasy paper they were wrapped in. So you agreed to foie gras on the condition that I order more wine.

I used the last of this week’s waitress wages to treat you to lunch, but it was worth it to see you and hear you talk about your boss and the newspaper and how print was dead but you hadn’t received the memo. We drank the house Chardonnay until we were sick, and then you told me you were moving away.