Some Stories Are Different

Five titles:

1. Befriending Giants

2. Things to Say When You Don’t Know What to Say But Don’t Want to Stay Silent

3. The Summer of Finches

4. The Madcap Man on Wimpole Street

5. Building a Chair

Five first sentences:

1. Catherine didn’t know how she was going to do it, but she’d made up her mind and there was no turning back now.

2. In a small chest, half-buried in sand, deep down in the darkest corner of the ocean, lies a piece of my heart with a gold thread wrapped around it.

3. Sometimes you don’t feel like going to work; it’s a thing.

4. She looked at me and laughed the sweetest laugh I’d ever heard, and I realized finally that she reminded me of my mother.

5. The highway patrolman spat on the ground and looked at his watch; his shift was far from over.

Five fictional quotes:

1. “I wouldn’t touch the balloon if I were you. It’s unsafe, you know.”

2. “Me? Freak out? I so did not freak out. I may have gotten giddy. Just a little bit. But I seriously did not freak out, okay?”

3. “Dickens didn’t write an autobiography. He wrote David Copperfield instead. What does that tell us about the book? Should we treat it as an autobiography? As a novel? As a mix of the two? Come on, people, you’d think I was the only one in this room. Talk to me!”

4. “There are some things you just don’t say. If I ever had any respect for you, it would have dissipated right around now.”

5. “Ready… Set… FLY!”

Five emotions:

1. Anger

2. Confusion

3. Anguish

4. Elation

5. Tenderness

Five last sentences:

1. She died that day, and though I knew that it was a sticky, humid morning, I couldn’t help picturing it as a perfect autumn afternoon.

2. He freed his hair from its restraining cap and shook out his long curls for all the world to see them one last time.

3. An eagle let out a cry and the party below all looked up and shaded their eyes to watch the majestic creature swoop.

4. The coffee cup stayed in the sink for months before anyone dared wash it out again.

5. No one picked up the phone, so I left a message, but the machine cut me off before I finished speaking.

Faced with an Empty Page

Opening a new, white and pristine page can be one of two things. It’s either exciting, pulse-raising and inviting, or terrifying, threatening and off-putting.

It doesn’t matter what sort of page this is – it can be a new page in a much used notebook, the first page of an unopened one, or the electronic, virtual one that comes up in a writing program.

No matter what emotion arises when faced with a blank page, the demand that it throws is undeniable. A blank page craves to be filled, to be written upon with ink or to be full of coded letters.

There’s nothing worse than opening a new page and feeling the terror bubbling in your throat, the pressure building up behind your eyes, in the crevices of your very mind. The emptiness seems to call to the very soul, demanding in loud and certain tones what it needs. Sometimes, fear can lead the way into the second, better emotion. Once a page starts to fill up, the demand lessens, the pressure recedes, and bit by bit, the terror evaporates.

There’s nothing better than opening a new page and feeling the excitement bubbling in your stomach, the itch in your fingers as they long to start writing and the images that jump around your mind, urging you onward, ever onward, so that you can’t resist putting down your pen to the paper or your fingers to the keyboard and beginning to write. When the page fills up, bit by bit, a sense of pride in your own words filling up such a space is added to the other emotions, and it too spurs you onward.

Sometimes, when a page is full, it demands another page to be opened. It’s not finished yet, the emptiness of the next page tells you, you must continue.

Sometimes, when the page is full, it’s enough. The urge, the need and the drive all quiet in you, and you can look at the full page and know that you’ve completed something, even if it’s not finished, you’ve put something down on the page, and there it will stay.

Being faced with an empty page is an adventure, whether dream or nightmare.

The Little Moments

-I sat in the kitchen this morning, eating cereal and reading a book as usual. The book, A Home at the End of the World by Michael Cunningham, is incredible. But my eyes kept straying to the big kitchen windows, and the glorious clouds visible through them. They were white and fluffy, but had grey lining in one direction, making them seem like an artists rendering in pencil.

-I looked at the salesman in the Nissan dealership, and I saw that he genuinely wanted to sell us a car. It was his job, and I knew he got paid by commission, but I appreciated the sincerity in his gaze, as well as his manners.

-My mom and I sat behind a gas station eating yogurts and brownies and chips, our only snack between about nine and four-thirty in the afternoon. The wind was blowing my hair all over the place, but it felt so nice, so comfortable. I could feel the hairs tingling on my arms with the slightest chill, but ignored it and turned my face into the wind.

-I was reunited with my book during my exercise walk. I read avidly, walking as fast as I could, but at the same time heard the silence of the afternoon settle around my pounding footsteps and my ragged breath. My sweat dripped down my forehead, but I was so immersed in my book that I hardly felt it.

-Chatting over coffee with my mom, I felt like an adult, trying to decide on a car to buy. My opinion meant something, and I could contribute. I’ve been doing this for a long time, ever since I aged almost overnight when I was fifteen years old, but it still feels like a marvel when I stop to think about it.

It’s the little moments, the good moments, that can make a day tolerable. They can even make it good.

2. Amanda [3]

Amanda sat in the back of the auditorium, ready to spring up the moment the last speaker was finished. She was wearing a dark red t-shirt two sizes too big for her, bearing the legend “Valley Camp Leader” in bright pink letters. Once again, she felt that although she loved her college, their sense of humor was often a bit stilted. Not many of the first years liked the joke of being at camp – they, like Amanda had felt just a year before, wanted to be reassured that they were free from their families and from their old towns and homes and were embarking on some sort of independent life.

As the lights came on, Amanda got up with the other three orientation-leaders, and they all blew their whistles half-heatedly – more for the benefit of the overenthusiastic Office of Admissions employees then for the new students. Leaving off the piercing sounds, they just yelled instead for their respective groups.

She was leading the new Oakwood students to the day’s activities that were supposed to acquaint them with the campus and the school. Her group was rather feeble, stretching and yawning and rubbing their eyes. She gave them what she hoped was a sly smile, and told them that before they were going to go on their in-depth tour of the campus, they’d go back to Oakwood and bang on the doors and wake all the lazy butts who hadn’t shown up for the morning talk.

This won her a few smiles, and she led them down to Oakwood. A gangly boy, with a mop of blond curls adorning his head, came up to her.

“Your name’s Amanda, right?”

“Mhmm, it’s right on my sticker,” she pointed at the big tag on her t-shirt with her name on it.

“I know this is like, totally weird and all, but are you by any chance Jake’s twin?” the boy’s face was open and honest, and Amanda stared at him for a moment, wondering how on earth he knew her brother. Then the pieces clicked into place.

“Bo, right?”

He grinned at her and ran his fingers through his hair, making them unrulier than ever.

“Yeah, I work with Jake at Lila’s. I was working full time over the summer, but I’m thinking that at twenty-three, I’d better finally use that fund my grandparents left me for college. Plus, this way, I get to stay in a dorm instead of with my Aunt Tanya.”

Amanda couldn’t help but smile. She could see what Jake saw in this boy’s – young man’s, she corrected herself – guiless face and long limbs flying every which way as he walked.

“Well, I’m glad you came here. It’s kind of weird for me to be your-” she made air-quotes with her fingers, “Camp Leader and all. I’m only nineteen, you know.”

“Yeah, I know I’m starting college late, but heck, I figure I’ll be really popular what with having a real ID stating I’m over twenty-one and all,” he grinned at her as she waved a finger at him and walked back to join the group trailing after her like tired little ducklings.

Amanda’s mood took a definite upward swing. Jake had mentioned in his rambling and confused way that Bo was coming to Valley U, but Amanda hadn’t realized he’d be living on campus. She hoped this would mean she’d get to see Jake more often, as well as in a better mood. Good start to the year, she thought.

Mr. and Mrs. Adams [6]

While Mr. Adams was reacquainting himself with his old office, Mrs. Adams, who was the less nostalgic and whimsical of the pair, decided to skip going to her office and walk straight to Bloom Hall, the large auditorium where the first years would be gathering.

Mrs. Adams had long been a part of that faculty that spoke with the new students during orientation and made them feel welcome. Although she was sometimes gruff with her own students, believing usually that they could do better than they were, she firmly believed in keeping the kids’ confidences intact and making them feel as if they could do whatever they wanted if only they applied themselves. It was for this reason that she asked, year after year, to participate in many of the orientation seminars – the staff in the Office of Student Affairs agreed one and all that the students left Mrs. Adams talks with smiles on their faces and a sort of hope in their faces.

Mrs. Adams walked into Bloom Hall through the back entrance so she could walk onto the floor of the sunken stage when called. She greeted the other faculty who were going to speak at the event – entitled “What Valley U can do for U!” – and they all complained together about the involuntary cringe they experienced when they had read that title in the invitation to speak.

Soon enough, Mrs. Adams was sitting comfortably on a chair in the auditorium alongside her fellow professors, waiting for her turn to stand at the microphone. She let her mind wander as the Dean spoke of some of the boring technicalities that she knew backwards and forwards. Instead, she contemplated the students in front of her.

A good many of them seemed to still be half asleep – no doubt there had been numerous late night gatherings the night before, which had been the first night in the dorms. Mrs. Adams could tell that a good many of the new class wasn’t even present, and that those who were both present and alert were few. It was amazing to her just how young they looked each year. Four years changed people at that age, and she knew from experience that when she watched these kids at graduation in four years, they would look more like young men and women than like the kids barely out of puberty that they seemed today.

This made her think of what three years worth of growth had done to Claire. She hoped she hadn’t changed into too much of a woman just yet. She hoped that when she got to lunch and saw Mr. Adams, he’d be able to give her some good news – Marty having called or e-mailed, for instance.

“And now, Professor Adams of the psychology department will speak to you a bit about how you guys can avoid utter insanity during the coming months,” the Dean’s words, followed by tired titters from the students, broke into Mrs. Adams reveries and she got up with a smile and went up to the podium.

Interesting Boredom

I always take a book with me, no matter where I’m going or for how short a time. I simply hate leaving the house without a book. I think the reason for this is mostly a fear that I’ve developed over the years – a fear of boredom. I bring a book with me wherever I go so that if, by some chance, I need to wait at a bus station or for a friend or for something unexpected – well, I’ll have something to immerse myself in. Some people can find a hundred ways to occupy themselves with their cellphones. Some people can file their nails for an hour or count how many red cars go by. I can do those things too, but I simply would prefer to have a book.

Still, there have been times when my fear of boredom has been alleviated by the fact that I can, surprisingly, entertain myself with my own thoughts fairly well. Last week, for instance, I was taking a long bus ride and I began to grow nauseous while reading. I put my book on my lap and stared out the window, trying to calm my roiling stomach and concentrate on my breathing. Soon I found myself engaged in memories and imagined conversations and in musings about this or that, while also enjoying the view and trying to invent details or stories to add to what I saw.

Boredom, I’ve discovered, can be quite pleasant at times.

4. Marty and Claire [2]

Claire dug out some clothing from the big suitcase that sat beside the mattress on her floor. She hurriedly threw on her usual baggy jeans, a big “I Love NY” t-shirt that used to belong to her mom, and shoved her feet into her tattered Converse high-tops. Back in the kitchen, Marty had found a paper and pen in his breifcase and handed her a list with some essential groceries before giving her a few twenty-dollar bills.

“If it’s too much or too heavy, call me and I’ll come help out with the carrying home, okay? Got your cell? Your new keys? Okay, Honey, see you soon.”

“Bye, Dad,” Claire skipped out the door and locked it behind her with a resounding ‘click’ as the bolts fell into place. Marty sighed just a little. This is why you moved, he reminded himself, to feel that she was safe.

Also, so she could be close to her grandparents. Marty hadn’t told Mr. and Mrs. Adams yet about the move. It had been rather hasty, and he wanted to surprise them. He wasn’t sure yet about how Claire felt about being reunited with them – after all, the last time she’d seen them, she was ten. Now she was just fourteen, which seemed to Marty to be miles away from the sweet and innocent little girl she’d been. As he began to dig in another box for cutlery to arrange in a drawer, Marty thought of the last couple years and the gaping hole that was Susan’s absence in their lives. Claire had gotten her period, had bought her first bra, had started eying boys – all without a mother to help her through it. Marty did the best he could, trying to be the hip dad, the cool dad that girls could talk to. He felt he’d succeeded, more or less, since Claire and he were on good terms and she wasn’t embarrassed around him about the changes her body was going through. But still, he always felt inadequate. Susan would have done things better, he felt.

As Marty indulged himself in nostalgia and meloncholy, Claire took in the bright and beautiful sunshine that made Victoria Road, their new street, seem to glimmer. The neighborhood sure was lovely, she couldn’t deny that. There were trees planted in the sidewalk every few yards and the apartment buildings all had expanses of lawn or flowerbeds in front of them. A warm breeze warmed her face, and she noticed the pleasant sound of the leaves rusteling.

It’s so quiet, she thought. Certainly different from Manhattan. As Claire walked down Victoria Road, only two cars drove by. It seemed unthinkable to have so little traffic after the constant rush-hour that permeated the streets of New York. She liked it very much, she decided. As she turned from Victoria Road to Brushfield Street, she saw her target, Bill’s, the little grocery store that she and her dad had marked last night while driving the U-Haul. She took the list out of her pocket and entered the store.

New Year

New Year’s Eve. All around the world, there will be people counting down to their own time zone’s midnight, raising glasses of champagne to their lips and toasting each other and the entrance of the new year. People will kiss, dance, rejoice in something that feels monumental to them. Some will be saddened, feeling the holiday season’s last gasp come to a close and thinking bleakly about the coming week which will be completely back to normal.

New Year’s Eve. A holiday of sorts that should mean something – the beginning of something new and the farewell to something old. It should be a time for resolutions and dreams, hopes and ambitions, fears overcome and disappointments shrugged off.

New Year’s Eve. It’s never meant much to me, honestly. It should mean a lot of things, but it never seems to live up to what I would expect it to be. It’s just a night like any other night, to me. I feel like we should always be ushering in the new and making resolutions and hoping for the future – not just one evening a year.

1. Mr. and Mrs. Adams [3]

“Yes, hi, it’s me.”

Caroline clutched the receiver in her hand. She looked at Mr. Adams, and words failed her as tears sprung into her eyes. She hadn’t heard Marty’s voice in almost three years. Now, out of the blue, there he was, sounding just as he did before. Mr. Adams walked into his study and picked up the phone on his desk there. He spoke into it in a quiet, sad voice.

“Where have you been, Marty?”

“Oh,” the voice over the phone sounded taken aback. “Hi, Dan.”

“Well?”

“I- I’m sorry,” the voice began to choke as the words tumbled out. “I’m so sorry, to both of you. It’s just that after Susan… and then the funeral was just horrible and Claire wasn’t speaking to anyone and I couldn’t shake the feeling that the both of you blamed me somehow – blamed me for listening to Susan, for not telling you sooner, for hiding it from you for a year. And then the operation – and the doctors didn’t know that they’d find what they found and just – we didn’t know, and it was supposed to be easy and quick and gone within a few months and Susan felt that it was bad enough that we lived so far away and I just…”

“Oh, Marty,” breathed Mrs. Adams.

She and Mr. Adams had the same memories flooding their senses. Both were remembering their blissful lives, teaching at the university and living peacefully in this house that they finally managed to pay off the mortgage on. Both remembered how three years ago they got a phone call from their only daughter, their Susan. They remembered her calm and collected voice as she lied to them outright, telling them that she needed to have some really minor surgery and not to worry and not to come down to Manhattan for it – it was just this tiny lump the doctors needed to take out, it would be over in a few days. The surgery had, in actuality, been for removing her breast-cancer, which she hadn’t told her parents about since it was considered curable. The doctors hadn’t expected what resulted in the surgery – a complication, a blood clot. They’d removed it, but apparently some of it had traveled through her bloodstream already and had obstructed some smaller veins. She’d died from the blood not managing to travel to her brain rather than from her cancer.

She hadn’t told her parents about any of her chemotherapy, hadn’t told them about what she was going through – she didn’t want to worry them, as she told Marty over and over again. It was bad enough, in her eyes, that Claire, their daughter, had to know and see what was happening. That was Susan’s biggest flaw and always had been – she wanted to take everything on herself, without help from the outside, without causing worry to anyone. Mr. and Mrs. Adams knew this. It was themselves they blamed for not guessing more about her surgery. They blamed Susan, too, although it had taken them two years in counseling after her death to be able to admit it to themselves. But the only thing they blamed Marty for was his cutting his ties with them after Susan’s funeral. They loved Marty like a son, and they wanted to be a part of Clair’s life.

This is what they both, through many moments of choked silences, managed to convey to Marty during their conversation that August evening. Marty, who had broken down completely and sobbed into the phone a few times, sat alone in his apartment in Manhattan – Claire was at her drawing class – and felt that for the first time in three years he had some hope in his horizons. He’d lost his own parents when he was much younger, and the simple warmth of Susan’s folks and the way they forgave him immediately for his mule-headed guilt-trip went straight to his heart.

It sealed his decision. After hanging up with his in-laws, and promising them that he’d bring Claire for a visit very soon, he made a big post-it note and hung it on the fridge. It said “CALL REAL ESTATE AGENT AND SAY YES.” He underlined the word “YES” three times, picked up his keys, and set out to pick Claire up, thinking that the future might finally be looking up.

Across Five States: Into Virginia

It seemed that the moment we crossed into Virginia, we hit real life. For real. We were stuck in a monstrous traffic jam of people leaving Washington D.C. for the day. So many people commute there, not to mention the fact that tourist season had begun, and so we felt that we were slammed back into reality, along with all the inconveniences it brings. As we sat on the sixty-six highway, we inched forward and began to cruise the local radio stations. We found some good easy listening, and settled in to wait.

The highway was bordered by high walls, and the directions were separated by hedges. We rounded a bend, and suddenly there it was. The Washington Monument. We could see its peak all the way from the highway, jutting into the sky like a beacon, heralding that we’d reached our destination. It was an exciting moment for all of us.

Soon enough we were taking the badly marked exit – Virginia seems to have a dark sense of humor and enjoys luring newcomers into a false sense of security by marking the exit well before it comes and then putting a tiny sign at the actual exit so you undoubtedly miss it – and driving into Arlington County, which was to be my brother’s new home. After some more muddling around with befuddling directions, we reached his apartment and discovered yet another thing about Virginia – the lack of parking, and the importance of tow trucks, which will tow any car that’s not marked by the right stickers placed in the right ways in the right corners of the right window.

This forced our hand. My brother and I unloaded the U-Haul at superhero speed, while my mother guarded it, just to make sure no policeman or tow truck would catch us unawares. Loading the truck had taken the better part of five hours. Unloading it took an hour, and we were drenched with sweat by the time we were done. By this time, night had fallen and we were all ravenous. We piled back in the U-Haul and found a dingy place to eat at, and afterwards found the only U-Haul drop-off spot in the area. It was a relief, seeing that truck for the last time, but we all felt a bit of a pang. It had safely conveyed us across five whole states, and as ungainly as it was, we had become proud of it – especially as we had the coolest U-Haul in the lost because ours had a picture of snakes on it instead of a U-Haul advertisement.

We took a taxi back to my brother’s apartment and, just like that, our move was done. We still had unpacking to do, we still had furniture to buy, we still had a whole county to get to know, but we were done. We’d moved my brother from Chicago to Virginia in two days. We accomplished what we’d set out to do. It was marvelous.