Doing a Karenina

   Red wine goes wonderfully with steak, but Mimi is vegan now. This is her newest thing. Linda drinks the Cabernet in the kitchen, alone, facing the wallpaper she regrets getting now. It is tapestry-like, black and white threaded workers in rice-fields wearing round conical hats. What did she hear someone call it the other day? Coolie hats? She’s sure that’s not the right name. It was probably her husband. He sometimes comes up with racist shit that reminds her that he is, after all, the man who hid a coke habit from her for years, sinking them both into debt.
    Mimi doesn’t help. Her newest thing, gluten-free veganism, means that Linda and Greg are both starving all the time. They sneak out to get pizza in the middle of the night sometimes, giggling and pulling on jeans and baggy sweatshirts, like they’re having an affair.
    The phone’s ring is a pathetic approximation of Fur Elise. Linda’s shoulders tense. She hates the sound so much. Tinny and obnoxious, calls mean work or bad news, almost inevitably. No one calls the landline anymore anyway, except for some of the older people at the PR company she works at and Mimi’s therapists and psychiatrist.
    “It’s Allison!” Greg yells from the other room. Linda looks at the rice-field workers, at the waving bamboo patterns, at whatever nonsense it is on her wall that’s meant to look comfortingly exotic to her Western sensibilities. She picks up the portable out of its cradle and takes another sip of wine before screwing the top back and putting in the fridge. The phone is between her shoulder and her ear, the same spot it’s nestled since she was a teenager. Since she first met Allison.
    “Hey, Greg, you can hang up now.”
    “Okay. Bye, Alli!”
    “Bye! Hi Linda. You sound tired.”
    “I am. It’s been a day.”
    “Want to talk about it?”
    “No. Tell me how Noel is doing.”
    Linda regrets this immediately. As Allison begins telling her about her daughter, a senior in college who’s just returned from an academically rigorous year abroad and is doing great, wonderful, fantastic, all Linda can see is the image of Mimi lying on the subway tracks that time she jumped and survived.
    When your own kid has tried to commit suicide half a dozen times, Linda thinks, you don’t find 4.0 GPAs all that interesting anymore. She knows that if she told Alli that she’d rather not hear about her kids – Alli has two, and the other, the boy, is doing equally well, with a long-term girlfriend who lives with him and makes more money than him – if Linda told Alli she’d rather not hear about any of these fantastic things, Alli’d understand. That’s what friends are for, right? She’s asked before, and Alli’s accepted, keeping quiet about her kids until Linda asks.
            She always does, in the end. She wants to know. She wants to hear about college classes, about PhD programs, about how the daughter is getting published here and joining a singing group there, about how the son has finished his qualifying exams to get into his PhD program and how he’s house sitting for two cats. She needs to know these things. Otherwise she has no images to superimpose Mimi’s face into. And if she doesn’t try to cut-and-paste her daughter’s face into situations other than the thirty-and-home one she’s in, Linda will continue to see her lying in between the subway tracks, or inside her bed in the ward where she’s basically got a bed named after her by this point, or sitting behind the desk of Greg’s office, the only place she’s managed to hold down a job in years. Then again, Greg also employs his no-good, asshole brother, so Linda never knows how much work Mimi actually does there, despite the praise Greg lavishes on her.
    Linda listens, her right ear pressed to the phone, her left ear straining for sounds of an emergency. The worst part of her conversations with Alli is the resentment. Allison’s children had their moments, their years of therapy and fucked-upedness, but then they got over it. They got better. Mimi doesn’t get better. Mimi jumps from veganism to Buddhism to exercising everyday to playing the viola and deciding to join the circus as a trapezoid artist. Mimi stays a constant, unchanging. Allison’s kids get to change. Linda hears the change in Alli’s voice, too, and she knows that she, Linda, will have to remain a forever too. It’s almost worth the train having succeeded in its mission that day.
    Almost.

Sugar-Coated

I was helpless. I couldn’t fight it anymore. I had tried, and I had failed. “Fine!” I yelled at last, opening my mouth wide and screwing my eyes tightly shut.

“Yes!” Paige giggled and placed half her chocolate bar in my mouth. I opened my eyes and grinned, biting into the bar. Paige’s face was a sight – she seemed to have dunked her whole lower jaw into a bath of chocolate rather than had a few squares. But it was mid-July and the stuff was melting in our fingers as we held it, sprawled on the grass in the public park.

I had vowed to stop eating junk-food at the beginning of the summer, but I had broken the resolve more than I cared to admit. It was almost always with Paige. She had such a motherly instinct, always wanting to feed her dolls. When they got boring, because they couldn’t actually eat, she tried to feed me. She would stretch out her pudgy little hand with such an air of generosity and real happiness in the act of sharing that I couldn’t turn her down.

“Fi, Fi, let’s go swing! Swing swing swing swing!” She was already off, shoving her last square of chocolate in her mouth as she ran, the repetition of the word echoing behind her as she ran to fulfill her immediate desire. I got up from the little blanket I’d spread out for us and followed her to the run-down little playground.

It was a beautiful day. I was happier than ever that I’d been offered the job of babysitting Paige. When I look back at that day, it seems like a dream, too good to be true. If I’d known that three months later I would be trudging through the ghostly streets of a ruined town with Paige clutching my hand and a rumbling belly, I wouldn’t have fought so hard against eating the chocolate.

In-Class Writing Exercise Result

The writing class I took last year didn’t include writing exercises, which was fine with me. The writing class I’m taking this year, however, includes a few minutes of free writing every class, with three objects as our prompts. We sometimes read the results aloud, sometimes not, but it’s a nice way to keep our creative juices flowing, as they say. This is the paragraph that resulted from the seven-minute exercise on September 12:

“I need another coffee mug,” she said as she looked out the window, clutching the single one she already had. It was full of tea, not coffee, but she still called it a coffee mug. It had a corny photograph of NYC plastered over it and there was a chipped edge which she was always careful to hold on the other side, away from, ever since that time when she scratched her lip.
It had bled then, and she remembered the coppery taste of her own blood. “How weird, she said, “to remember blood while I’m drinking tea in my kitchen.”
There was no one there to hear her. She did this often – speaking to herself, that is – and she liked it. She’d been living alone for seven years (and wondered if that meant that good luck was coming her way) and she liked the way her voice reverberated in the empty apartment.
The wind blew outside and the tree that had its leaves mashed against the kitchen window swayed and creaked. It was a lonely tree, a tree that made moaning noises on cold nights.
The kitchen was her favorite room in the small apartment. It was the best place to congregate with friends (there were chairs for everyone there, good and drink as well) as well as a cozy place to sit with a coffee mug full of tea and think.
She wondered if it was time to get a cat. After all, living alone for seven years, the apartment still hadn’t seen the footprint of a man who was a lover. When she did have sex, it was always at their places. Would it be okay to leave a cat alone in the apartment overnight? Yes, of course, cats were independent, their own people with needs and wants.
“But am I read to be a crazy cat lady yet?” she thought aloud again. The words crazy and cat sounded nice together and she said them a few more times, walking in a circle around the table over and over again.

This is not my finest piece of writing, but I’m sharing it anyway, because I don’t usually post things that I haven’t read over and edited a couple times in the course of one sitting. This was entirely free-written, that is without taking the pen away from the page, without pausing to fix grammar or make things clear. It’s a good exercise that forces you not to over-think what you’re writing, which is something many of us tend to do.

Gertrude’s Conscience

“Gertrude?” the clerk at the DMV smirked involuntarily when he read the name. He stifled his sneer as best he could, but she’d already seen and noticed it, as she always did.

“Yes, um, so can I please renew my license?” she asked quickly. She wanted to get the whole thing over with. The clerk asked her to wait a moment and went to a back room to do whatever it is they did at the DMV that took so damn long.

Gertrude sat, unmoving, on the uncomfortable plastic chair and fumed quietly. She cursed her parents for the umpteenth time for giving her such an old-fashioned name. She’d learned to like it in her teens because she felt it gave her an air of fragile antiquity and maybe some sort of old-fashioned elegance. But now, in her mid-twenties, she was learning to hate it again. Her boyfriend always told her he loved it, but they’d been together for so long that she never took his compliments seriously anymore.

She looked up at the large clock and sighed. She’d been waiting in line for what felt like forever, and now the sneering clerk with his comb-over and his ugly, crooked teeth was chatting, quite audibly, with one of his coworkers while he waited for something to come out of the printer. Gertrude stared at him sullenly, but looked away quickly when she realized that he might look back and see her watching him.

Instead, she put her head down and examined her nails. They were too long again, and she was much too lazy to paint them. It just didn’t seem important anymore, this having nice nails business. She just wanted them short enough so as not to be in her way and damn appearances. But even as she thought that, Gertrude scoffed inwardly at herself. She still cared about her looks, much more than she ought to. She felt the nape of her neck tingle right now, in fact, and was sure that one of the fussy, mean old ladies who were in line was watching her and frowning at the tattoo that was clearly visible on that area.

Gertrude felt that everyone disapproved of her, no matter where she went. Whether she was buying books that were technically considered teen-novels or walking into a designer-clothing store, she felt as if people stared and watched her, thinking that she was strange and odd and altogether not quite right.

Being not quite right didn’t bother her when she was alone. In fact, within her circle of family and friends she enjoyed being the odd one out. She liked having unique tastes and being considered a bit of a strange bird. In fact, she took offense when she was told that she was too normal. She felt that being normal was boring, wrong even. Especially as she wanted to be a teacher. Teachers needed to be odd, special, or plain nuts in order to have an effect on their pupils. Gertrude was convinced of this because the only teachers she’d ever had who had any impact on her were the weird ones that people laughed at but listened to.

It was only when she was out and about on her own that Gertrude felt uncomfortable. She kept her head down as often as possible so as to hide the large birth-mark that covered half her cheek with a purple tinge. In those moments of honesty to herself, she knew that she was hiding herself more than the birth-mark and that it only gave her an excuse to do so.

“Excuse me, Miss?” the clerk was back and had apparently decided that he couldn’t say her name without laughing. His formal address to her was almost more insulting than her name said with a snicker.

“Yes?” she answered, raising her eyes and looking at him politely. Like most clerks, he didn’t meet her eyes. She always tried to meet everyone’s eyes when she spoke to them, almost defiantly, as if to prove something.

“I’m sorry but you didn’t fill out the proper forms online, so we can’t renew your license yet,” the clerk said without sympathy. He was already looking behind her, his hand hovering over the button that would make the screen flash and the next number called.

“I did fill them out,” Gertrude said quickly, before he could dismiss her. “Can you check again, please? If you don’t have them then I’ll fill them out right now,” she offered eagerly.

The clerk emitted a little noise of distaste and impatience and without a word got up and went back to the computers that for some inexplicable reason weren’t set on the clerks’ desks.

Gertrude hated him for a few moments before reminding herself not to be a mean, selfish and judgmental idiot. She looked down again and tried her best to imagine the clerk as a good person who had a family and friends and belonged to another life that didn’t consist of the DMV. It was hard to imagine, but she nevertheless tried, in order to stop feeling bad about herself for hating someone so fiercely that it hurt.

 

The Faeries Are Back

The faeries are back again. They say they’ve never been gone, but I’m sure that I haven’t seen them for more than five years. On my tenth birthday, I wished that they’d stop pestering me. I closed my eyes as hard as I could and blew out the candles in one go, thinking as hard as I could about my wish. It came true – the first and last of my birthday wishes to come true.

But I guess birthday wishes don’t hold forever. The faeries say I wasn’t specific enough. I didn’t say how long I wanted them to go away for. So they decided amongst themselves that five years is a good amount of time, and the went to bother someone else for a while. Well, like I said, they claim to have been here, but they just didn’t let me see them. They watched me while I slept, they say. How creepy is that?

Anyway, they’re back now, and they’re making my life even more complicated than it used to be. When I was really little, it was okay – everyone assumed that I was playing with my imaginary friends when I ran across the yard shrieking and batting my hands in the air. But when I grew up a little bit my mum started telling me to stop pretending. She’d tell me to stop pretending that I couldn’t get dressed because there were faeries in my shoes. She’d tell me to stop pretending that I couldn’t take a bath because the faeries were playing in it. She thought I was making it all up. My dad didn’t believe me either, I could tell, but he didn’t get mad at me. He just got this tired look on his face and sighed a lot when I talked about the faeries.

When I was nine, my mum sent me to a psychologist. He was a really tall man, and I can’t remember his face well. I can remember his office though – it was full of plushies and board-games. More like bored-games, if you ask me. We always played Shoots and Ladders or Monopoly or something, and he would ask me about the faeries. I remember that I got really impatient with him, because he talked in this sort of slow babyish voice. I don’t think he was a really good psychologist, because my friend, Natalie, goes to one now since she’s bi-polar, and she says that she likes hers. I guess it depends, just like with teachers.

So on my tenth birthday I wished the faeries away. But now they’re back.

They don’t call themselves “faeries.” That’s just what I call them. I don’t know what they call themselves, but I don’t think it’s a name I can pronounce. They don’t speak in English amongst themselves, and when they talk to me they have funny accents. They don’t look like storybook faeries at all, but I guess when I was little I just thought that anything that could fly and talk was a faerie. They’re very small, each one about the length of my finger now, but they don’t look like little humans at all. They’re really skinny, almost like twigs really, and their bodies are furry, like animals. They’re all different colors, browns and whites and grays with patterns and stuff on them. When I was in an art class for a while when I was seven, I made a sculpture of them out of pipe-cleaners. They roared with laughter when I showed it to them. I chucked it in the bin.

That’s the other thing about my faeries. They’re not very nice. They laughed at me all the time, and they got me into terrible trouble. Once, when my mum and dad were out, they started playing with a bowl that my gran made for my mum and they ended up breaking it. My gran was a potter, quite famous really. My mum says I get my artistic talents from her. That was before she died in a mental hospital, screaming about wicked things coming to get her. My mum never let me see her, I was too little I guess. My big sister, Diane, got to see her though, and so that’s how I know about gran being in the loony bin. Mum always lied to me and told me that gran died of a heart attack. I had nightmares for weeks after gran died about her having a heart attack while she was in the loony bin in a straight-jacket. It was awful.

So yeah, the faeries aren’t nice. When gran died, they didn’t even try to cheer me up. They just told me to… what was it they said? Oh, yes, they told me to “keep my chinny up-up and get better grades, ya ninny!” They’re full of weird advice like that. On the one hand, they yell at me to do better at school, and on the other hand they always bothered me during exams, so I got bottom marks.

After they went away, things got loads better. But, like I said, now they’re back.

Three Cars at a Curb/Another Award?

The first car is what they call a clunker. It’s unclear whether the original color was tan or yellow – it’s so dirty that it looks gray more than anything else. The back window is full of bumper stickers. One says “Save the Whales!” Another reads “Keep Calm and Carry On.” There are at least twenty more, seemingly random. There are two conflicting ones, side by side, supporting opposing political parties. Other than the stickers, there isn’t much that distinguishes the car from dozens of other similarly dirty, old cars that are scattered around the city. But the stickers give the car character – it’s almost possible to see the teenager driving it, enjoying the confusion as people behind him in traffic try to figure him. He jokes with his friends that his car provides entertainment – something to read on the road. Secretly, he fears someone will cut his tires one day, because they won’t find his ironic take on issues to be amusing.

The second car is stunning, spotless and gleaming in the sun. It looks like a commercial rather than a real car. The curves and planes, the perfect proportions and stylish color – they reek of money. Lots and lots of money.
Every passerby looks at it with a mix of admiration and envy. Some want the car, but some just don’t want the owner to have it. The car has tinted windows, which gives it an air of mystery. Maybe the solution to it is the woman inside, cowering as people peer closely at the car, hoping the windows will do the trick and keep prying eyes out. She has a black eye and a cut lip, and her clothing is piled up in the back seats, haphazardly. All the money she owns is in the glove compartment and she’s spent the day on the phone getting her boss to allow her some paid leave. Just until that pesky cough of hers goes away. Why paid? Because she needs a little extra this month – you know how it is, the taxes are always going up, up, up. The paid leave is given, but she doesn’t want to emerge in daylight. No one needs to know what she’s gone through.

The third car seems dull, after the first two. Not a clunker, not a stunner. It’s just a medium sized sedan, clean, but not gleaming. It has no distinguishing features whatsoever. It doesn’t seem to have any story behind it at all. The people walking along would never notice it – it’s just another car. They wouldn’t even guess that the owners were trying to have a baby, that there were problems and treatments and horrors to go through, that the couple’s relationship seemed to be fraying day by day with the mounting pressure, that they might one day break up, and then who gets the car? Well, the passerby won’t know any of that, but maybe, if they live in the area, they’ll notice one day that the woman is pregnant and glowing and driving off to Lamaze class. Or maybe, instead, they’ll see the man driving off in a rage, never to be seen again. Maybe the car itself doesn’t have a story, but it has, like everything, a story hiding just behind it.

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I can’t believe that I forgot to mention Desiree in my post yesterday… She writes beautifully, and her poems break my heart sometimes. She awarded me this, for which I thank her deeply. I’d like anyone, everyone, who wants to, to receive this award. Because (corny warning!) I truly feel that every one of you whose blogs I read has a magic touch. You all make me think, smile, laugh and cry, and to me, that’s what writing is about – making others feel something. And making someone feel something… well, that’s magic. (I warned you, I warned you! But I mean it.)