A Moment of Truth

I’ve been having a lot of trouble writing lately.
That is, I’ve been having a lot of trouble writing creatively.
No, that’s not quite right either.
I’ve been having a lot of trouble writing fiction.

I’ve been writing up a storm of non-fiction. From reviews at Electric Literature to articles in Broadly to book-lists and essays on Read It Forward and BookBub to my single article on DAME Magazine.

It isn’t writer’s block. It’s writer’s busyness.  It’s writer’s intense fear of churning out crap. It’s writer’s knowledge that no matter what  she does, she already feels behind (yes, despite publications above, despite fiction publications, despite the fact that today, in an hour and a half, I’ll be lucky enough to have Skillshare folks come to my apartment to film me – me – teaching a class about writing flash fiction). It’s writer’s panic that she doesn’t now how to weave novels together anymore. Or words. Words that are fiction and not truth.

This moment of truth is terrifying because it is natural. It feels right. But this is not the writer I am. I am not a writer who writes truth. I am a writer who lies through her teeth in the form of fiction. I am the writer who’s convinced other people that some of her stories are autobiographical until she corrects them and tells them No, they’re not. They’re fiction. I wasn’t this girl, I wasn’t that man, I wasn’t this woman crying softly on her desk at work, I wasn’t this young woman in the hospital, I wasn’t these women hugging each other, crying, scared for their lives and rightly so because of a horrible thing they did.

Fiction, come back to me. Stop feeling like crap, please. I miss you. I miss your twists and turns, your marvelous language, the feeling of fabric straining through my fingers and wishing to be written into a story, fabric ripped apart and sewn back together again in the editing process.

I miss you, Fiction. I need you, Fiction.

Some Everydays

Wadi’ah sat under the table, tying and untying her father’s shoelaces. He was speaking English, a language she knew the contours of and could recognize, but didn’t understand. She knew that he was talking to a sahafi from a radio program from America. He told her that talking to the sahafi might help, that he would tell the people in America that they needed help, to please help everyone who was struggling. He had made Wadi’ah promise to be quiet during the interview, and she’d promised.

And now she was under the table. Wadi’ah hadn’t expected was for the sahafi to be a woman, in jeans and a long-sleeved black shirt and short, graying, uncovered hair. The woman’s shoes were similar to Wadi’ah’s father’s. They were tennis shoes, grey with a blue stripe. One of the laces was untied.

Wadi’ah slid, as quietly as she could, across the dusty floor. Her mother wasn’t around to clean anymore. Her father said she wasn’t coming back anymore. He’d cried, and she’d cried too, but she still was certain, somehow, that he was wrong.

She lifted the woman’s white laces up off the floor. The woman’s leg was very, very still, and she said something in English that made Wadi’ah’s father laugh. Wadi’ah loved her father’s laugh because it was very loud, like a donkey braying. It made her nervous for a second now, though, because she thought that maybe he would look under the table and see that she was holding the woman’s laces, but he didn’t, so she tried to tie the woman’s shoelaces tightly but without the woman feeling it. When she finally managed the last bit of the knot without the whole thing falling apart, the woman’s leg twitched, and Wadi’ah scuttled back towards her father’s feet.

There was a bang. The door of the house had slammed open. It was Farouk. He was yelling, shouting, like he had so many times before. Wadi’ah lifted her arms up, almost on autopilot, and sure enough, her father swept her up from under the table, at once.

The shelling began in the street as he ran downstairs to the tiny cellar they had built under their house when all this began. Farouk pushed the sahafi woman in front of him and heaved the cellar door shut behind him. The woman whispered something and Farouk hissed, angry. Wadi’ah’s father slapped his wrist in the dark. Then he spoke in Wadi’ah’s ear, so softly that only she could hear it.

“You saved her life, you know. If you hadn’t tied her shoelace, she’d have fallen and never gotten in here. You’re a good girl, my Wadi’ah, you’re a good girl.”

“Will Ama come back to us now I’m good?” Wadi’ah asked.

Farouk hissed at them to be quiet again, and the sound of shelling and the stomps of soldiers grew closer. Wadi’ah knew she couldn’t ask any more questions now, so she hushed. She’d have plenty of time to ask about her mother again later.

 

The Mistress and the Magicians

Mistress locked me in a room with a candle burning and a loaf of bread, whispering to me as she shut the door that she promised to return. I waited for her. I waited and waited, but she didn’t came. The candle flickered and burned out after a few hours, and still the dawn didn’t come. I opened the curtains, but I could see nothing outside. The storm was so bad that no light penetrated the dark clouds. I tore small pieces of bread off the loaf and chewed them slowly, hoping that they weren’t the last things I would eat.

She said that the Magicians were doing something dangerous and that she was trying to protect me. I believed her, because Mistress never lied to me. I’d been with her since I was a small child, and I remained at the castle after my mother, her previous maid, died of a wasting illness. Mistress was about my mother’s age, but infinitely more beautiful. She knew the secrets of the Magicians because she was married to one. I almost never saw her husband, though, even though I’d lived at the castle for most of my life. He was always shut up in the tower rooms with the other Magicians, or else away with them on one of their infinite tours with the militia.

The reason was, of course, that we lived on the Border, which is the only place Magicians were allowed to live. They weren’t illegal, because the Crown used their services, but they didn’t want them to be anywhere near the capital. Some people in the big cities, I’d heard, didn’t believe that the Border was real, and they thought the Magicians were mad, people who’d contracted some illness, and that the Crown was simply quarantining them far away so that they wouldn’t spread the disease. It was feasible, I suppose, but living on the Border as I’d done, I knew that they did a real service for us all. They kept us safe.

So I believed Mistress was trying to protect me. When the men came into my room, I thought that she’d sent them. I’ll never know now if she did or didn’t, because by the time they took me into one of the tower rooms that were Master’s workshops, Mistress was already dead, spread out on the floor with her face as white as can be. They didn’t let me run to her. They pulled me back, roughly, and I knew that it was my turn next.

Renewing My Passport

The government offices were located in an old building that radiated history rather than bureaucracy. The door was up a flight of worn stone steps, and a plaque beside it read “The Ministry of the Interior” in tired bronze letters. It wasn’t until people passed through the door that the present caught up with them.

Inside, beside a metal detector, a fashionably bald guard checked purses cursorily while scrutinizing every male who walked by, checking if they were rivals to his role as alpha in this place. Rows of metal seats were filled with couples with strollers; the solitary elderly staring straight ahead, watching replays of memories in their heads; teenagers nervously fondling their phones to mask their discomfort at being alone; and nondescript adults in whatever uniforms they wore to work every day, hoping to get business done during their lunch breaks.

Everybody who entered became less of a human being than they’d been outside. They were all reduced to ghosts of themselves, pale representations whose most important features were their date of birth, address and payment method. The clerks behind the counters slumped in their chairs, back problems manifesting around their torsos like poisonous vines, and repeated facts in dull, empty voices. They reached for forms mechanically, part of an assembly line that originated in a sub-clause, part b-one-point-two of some document written by some drone of something called the government.

If there is a hell, I imagine it would look something like this. I walked into the office armored with a book and a magazine, and prayed that it would be enough to keep me from becoming another zombie in this space of paper-shuffling monotony. An hour and a half later, I emerged, blinking, into the blistering heat of the August sun, prodding carefully at my soul to see if it was still intact.

Chaos [Flash Fiction]

The store was frantic. There were three strollers filled with screaming babies, four toddlers running underfoot and knocking into peoples’ shins, and even a dog barking, although the store allowed no pets. Then there were the adults, all of whom were shouting to be heard, bickering over items, and breaking into loud arguments over prices with the cashiers. The noise level was incredible.

Hans and Lila sat on the broken ceiling fan and watched the unfolding scene with relish. They were each about a foot tall and chubby, with rosy cheeks and bright green eyes that winked maliciously out of their cherubic faces. They also happened to be chaos demons.

“I love Black Friday,” said Lila. She took out a toffee from her pocket and set about unfolding the wrapping. When a corner was revealed, she took a bite out of it and offered it to her companion.

“No. I hate that garbage.”

“How can you hate toffee?”

“How can you like it?”

“I can’t believe they partnered me with someone who doesn’t like toffee.”

“Well, darling, I can’t believe they partnered me with someone who dresses like a human.” Hans gave Lila a withering glare and let himself drop from the fan onto the head of a slim, perfectly coiffed woman who had managed, so far, to acquire about fifteen items. She shrieked and grabbed at her hair, trying to figure out what was on her head, but Hans was already moving too quickly for the human eye to see, jumping from shoulder to shopping cart and back to head, making people drop their things, yell out and begin accusing each other of assault.

Lila watched sullenly from her perch on the fan that she’d broken earlier that morning. She’d thought it was a clever idea, but Hans was much more dedicated than she was, not content unless he was actively sowing discord and confusion. Lila preferred to sit on the sidelines and watch, preferably with a piece of candy to enjoy the spectacle with. Her boss had been perfectly pleased with her work so far, and she resented the new regulations that paired them up. The pamphlet she’d received had said that it was for the demons’ own safety. Apparently there were some humans who were beginning to see them and who were content to smack down a stray demon whenever they saw one. As if they were flies. The indignity of it all still made her jaw clench.

Hans landed back on the fan blade, roaring with laughter. He’d caused two mothers to begin brawling while their babies cried bitterly, untended. Lila sulkily acknowledged that he had a knack for his work. She was about to apologize for her mood and ask him to teach her some of his tricks when-

“Uh oh,” said Hans.

“What?”

“Look. There. No- there. At the door. The kid with the hair over one eye and the tight jeans. He’s looking right at us.”

“He sees us?!” Lila had never encountered one of these and she stared at the boy in fascination. Hans took her hand roughly and began to tug her in the direction of the air duct through which they’d gotten in.

“Time to go,” he said. Lila wondered if she’d ever get another chance. She looked at Hans, his muscles tense with fear, and decided he wouldn’t come after her. Pulling her hand out of his she leaped down into the crowd and began to run towards the boy, the first human who’d ever seen her.

Radio [Flash Fiction]

Jacky listened to the radio every day. He listened to it as a boy, hiding his transistor under his pillow so he could hear the rock music they played after ten. He listened to it as a teenager, sitting in his room and smoking cigarettes with his friends, and they would strum the air and yell at his parents whenever they tried to offer snacks and soda. He listened to it in college and grad school, often tuning to the classical stations because the sway of the music helped him concentrate. He listened to it as an adult and heard about the Berlin Wall coming down on the night that he met his future wife.

Twenty-two years later, he was still called ‘Jacky’ by everyone he knew, even though his state ID card and licence said ‘John.’ And he still listened to the radio. At this moment, he is listening to NPR and the familiar voices which have been around for half his life. He is lying in bed, alone at the moment, listening to the nurses pattering back and forth in the hallways. He tries to speak but can’t muster up the energy. He tries to move his arm and reach the call-button, but he fails at this as well. It has frustrated him in the past days, and he has felt, for the first time in his life, the urgent need to jump out of his skin.

But he has found a way to deal with it. The trapped feeling, he knows, will drive him mad if he allows it to take over. So he doesn’t. Instead, he listens to the radio that his daughters and his wife insist on leaving on by his bedside at all times. They know how much the radio has always meant to him, and he is thankful.

Relation

Walking around campus, I live. I breathe, the cold air entering my lungs and exiting through my parted lips. I can’t exhale through my nostrils because the low temperature and the freezing wind causes an uncomfortable running of the nose, and so I can only breathe out into a tissue.

But the air that once hurt my very bones and caused every patch of meager flesh to vibrate with fear and chill, is now refreshing and delicious. There’s always a hint of woodsmoke in it, and snow piled up amongst the branches of bare trees. Not only are the smells now accessible to my senses, but also the sounds – the laughter, the murmurs, the ringtones and shouts, the starting up of cars and the shutting of windows – these don’t make me wince as they once did.

It is all life, surrounding me, astonishing me, comforting me and convincing me day after day that I am here, I am alive, I am well. Time passes bit by bit, but the watches and clocks hold no terror for me anymore. Where once I needed the seconds to fly and the minutes to race, I now accept their slow or fast movements as their own and trust to them. Where once my heartstrings pinched and my throat filled with that hard, unmistakable lump of emotion, now my pulse is quiet and normal and my throat is clear and dry.

Has the world changed? Surely not. It is only my relation to it that has.

Acceptance

Acceptance is a good word. For starters, it has two kind of “c” sounds, a delicious “p” and a lovely ticking “t.” It’s a fun word to say. I accept the fact that not everyone agrees with me about the deliciousness of words – for which I must, again, thank Fry, S. J. – and so I’ll elaborate beyond the mere clicks of tongue and lips together. “Acceptance” is a good word because it has good connotations. It sounds positive in every respect:

We talk about accepting someone for who they are – accepting their faults or quirks, their weaknesses and passions. We talk about feeling acceptance from others – becoming comfortable with people, being who we feel we really are with them, shucking off the shells we build around ourselves to guard our hearts from strangers. Children are taught to accept others who are different than themselves, to ignore skin-color and race, cultural barriers or freckles.

“Acceptance” also brings to my mind the feeling of my stomach leaping upwards in a sweet rush when I find out that I’ve passed a test to get into a program, or gotten a big envelope from a college. It means being good enough, proving myself both to others and to the inner-critic.

But “acceptance” can also be a horribly sad word. When someone dies, we need to learn to accept their passing – not necessarily for anyone, but merely because there’s no choice. Life can’t go on unless we accept the death of a loved one. Even if we fight it, life has a knack of getting in the way and forcing us into realizing that we’ve accepted the horrible truth that someone we love will never hug us again, never smile at us, never blink or speak or cry. It’s natural, though, to accept this. If we wouldn’t, we’d go mad with grief at every death, every breakup, every parting.

And yet, there’s a part of me that rages at the acceptance, that feels as if it’s an insult to myself and my emotions. A part of me wants to scream out from the rooftops and subject the neighborhood to the keening sounds I hear only in my mind. A part of me wishes to give up entirely, to lie in bed and never rise from it. But that part is stuffed down, hushed up, quieted, because life goes on whether I want it to or not.

Foghorn

Jack stood on the edge of the cliff, his hands clasped firmly around the thin metal rails that were all that separated him from the fifty foot fall down a hard rocky edge into the raging iron-gray sea below. He gazed out, refusing to look down at the turmoil of waves, spray and jagged rock beneath him. In the distance, a small off-white spot was most likely a cruise ship. Jack watched its slow progress along the horizon and wondered what was happening on the massive hotel-boat, if indeed it was a cruise. He thought enviously of the warmed dining rooms with tables spread in white and set with silver, the sumptuous smells that rose from platters of roasted duck, tureens of gravy and baskets of freshly baked bread. He pictured the heated pool on the seventh floor where children would swim, bouncing a beach ball between them, giggling and watching the storm raging outside the porthole set underwater for their enjoyment. Most of all, he yearned for one of the comfy cots piled with blankets in cabins warmed by central heating and pillows changed and plumped once a day by pretty maids.

The knuckles of his hands were white with pressure when he finally looked down at them. He focused solely on them, ignoring the flashes of dark blue and gray beneath that were blurry and inviting at the edges of his eyes. Slowly, deliberately, he forced his palms to loosen their grip. It took a full minute to pry them loose, but when he did, he turned the usually-white palms towards him and saw that the itching he’d been feeling was due to the rusting flecks that came loose from the rail. It’s rusty, it’s no good, it’s not even a real rail, not really, he thought, words tumbling themselves into a panic so that it seemed as if neon lights lit up his mind with NO GOOD and RUSTY and NOT REAL.

As if the sea were a magnet and his eyes were metallic orbs; as if the sea was a hypnotist and Jack a willing supplicant; as if the sea was a naked woman and Jack was fourteen again, he had to look. He fought the urge and closed his eyes, but they snapped open again, and he watched, mouth stretched wide in a silent scream. The water looked like a violent creature, surging and jumping to reach him but never succeeding. The distance between Jack and his nemesis grew and shrank, his eyes playing tricks on him so that one moment the cliff seemed to rise into the clouds and the next sank like Atlantis into the beckoning ocean.

Pressure fell on Jack’s shoulders. A body, warmer and less wet than his, clung to him. “Come inside, Jack,” a voice murmured. “Stop torturing yourself and come inside. The foghorn’s been going all morning and soon you won’t be able to see your way home.” Jack nodded mutely, his eyes still fixed. A finger turned his chin away, until finally his eyes, strain as they would, couldn’t find the water. He realized suddenly how very drenched and cold he was, how foggy his surroundings were. He realized that the rain was pounding him less because a bent umbrella was being held over his head by a woman. Her eyes crinkled in a smile that was impossible to see because her face was wrapped almost entirely in a hand-knitted scarf.

Jack took a deep, shaky breath and bravely smiled back. He allowed her to take his hand and lead him away from the edge of the cliff.

Horror

Horror doesn’t only happen at night, you know. It happens on the streets of London and in the slums of New York. It happens in the homes of the rich and the poor alike. It happens in your back garden when you’re not looking, or right in front of you when you’re trying not to see. Horror is everywhere.

Believe me, I know. Why? I’m not sure you’d understand. I’m not sure you really want to know. See, there’s a problem with you people – you always say you want to know, but then you cringe and cry, snivel and beg, and I need to deal with it. It all gets very tiresome. So if you want me to tell you why I know about horror, you need to promise me that you can deal with what I’m going to tell you. Well?

Ah, there, I knew it. Once you’re confronted with what happened to everyone else who asked the same question, you back off. That’s smart of you. Sometimes you people actually do learn something. I like that. There’s nothing fun about playing with your food if it doesn’t know what the outcome is. The mouse, for instance, instinctively knows that the cat wants to eat it, so when a cat’s paw descends on its tail, it’ll bit that bit off in order to get away. Of course, once it does that, the cat will catch it by its body and eat it anyway. But the point is, the only reason it’s fun for the cat to play with the mouse is because the mouse knows what’s coming. And now, you do too.

Now, now, don’t give me that look, please. You knew from the moment you called for me what was going to happen. Yes, remember? You’re the one who called me here. You called horror upon you, and horror comes in the guise you gave it. It’s time for you to live with it simply being your own fault. You think you’re dreaming, I know, and maybe you are! But tell me… Right now, does it matter whether or not you’re dreaming? I’m pretty horrible either way.