Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Idea Farming

I am currently collaborating with my friend Dan to write a musical. It's something we've been talking about doing for a while now, but I had to wait for the right idea to come along before I could make any progress on it. Obviously, I did plenty of other things in the meantime, including but not limited to work, sleep, other writing, and idea farming. Yes, idea farming: reading, listening, watching, and interacting with people are the ways that I sow when I want to be able to reap ideas at harvest-time.

The idea for the musical emerged when I was--of all things--listening to an old-timey variety show on the radio.

When I think about it, the conflict of the musical is that the main character has misunderstood her calling in life, and has focused on goals that are impossible for her to attain. She stumbles upon the key to her success completely unexpectedly. It happens while she is interacting with people (while wallowing in her failure). Sometimes, the very actions of idea farming are what allow you to see all the ideas that are naturally growing wild beyond the fence.

Do you do anything in particular to cultivate your ideas? Or is it more of an organic process? (Like that? I've got more wordplay where that came from!) How do you get your ideas?

Friday, December 19, 2008


My friend Kate was in a band that released a full-length album last year. The album is called "I Am Magically Happening," and if you read the liner notes, you learn that the title came from a mishearing of something else (a song lyric, I think). I thought this was a novel and/or strange creative method when I first read about it. But now, when I'm thinking about where I get my ideas, I realize that mishearings and other general misunderstandings make up a large portion of my inspiration.

Misunderstanding (and striving to correct it) is a fairly solid description of the human condition, as far as I can tell. This is why science and religion are so darn popular. And literature knows it, too. Maybe I've misunderstood, but it seems to me that many of the best stories are based entirely on misunderstandings. Gilbert and Sullivan's entire oeuvre and most of the rest of 18th century dramatic literature wouldn't exist without mistaken identity--a real plot engine that drives conflict, dramatic irony, and resolution with one pump of the gas pedal.

The other way to think about it is to say that we write because we want to understand the world better. Stories are about unusual people (or about the ways in which normal people are, after all, unusual) not just because they make for interesting reading, but because fiction writers want to stretch the limits of their understanding by exploring the unknown. The old saw, "write what you know" means something entirely different when placed next to the wisdom from the Tao Te Ching, "who knows that he does not know is the highest."

When we admit to misunderstanding the world, we admit that we are fallible. When we write to understand, we strive for improvement. Tell me about the ways in which you have misunderstood the world. Did your misunderstanding lead to great ideas?

Thursday, December 18, 2008


The first time he saw her, she was standing outside of a hipster dive on H Street, in that not-yet-gentrified part of town where nothing lives except the nightlife--and even that seems to be hanging by a tenuous thread. Someone's shitty garage band was pounding the hell out of some unsuspecting ballad and a small crowd of scenester kids (and her) had spilled onto the sidewalk to take a few drags of night air, cigarettes. He had never really paid attention to smoking before, until he saw her do it. The smoke expanded to fill her mouth and she pulled it down into her lungs, where it curled into the airways like little white cats, turning in circles before finally choosing the correct orientation for a nap. Then she pushed the smoke out, shooing the comfortable cats back into the chill of the evening. It was startling to him that a single puff of her cigarette could make him purr like that, when many years ago, he had watched a tumor grow in his mother's lungs but couldn't figure out how to tell her until it was too late. This girl was extraordinary.

He crossed the street and sidled up to her, hoping that he didn't smell as drunk as he actually was. "You shouldn't smoke," he said. "It's bad for you."

"I know," she said. She took another pull, and he tried to keep his eyes on her eyes, away from her lungs. He didn't want her to get the wrong idea about him. As he waited for an excuse that wasn't coming, his vision slipped back and up into her brain, where he could enjoy her little electrical storm of thoughts and feelings. If he knew anything about how the brain actually worked, what the pulses meant if they were in certain lobes of the brain, he might have considered this a violation of their fragile, nascent trust. But he did not.

"I'm Sam," he said.

"I'm Sam too," she said.

"It's a pleasure to meet you," he said. She nodded. "What do you think of that band?"

"They're terrible," she said, not missing a beat. He nodded.

"I don't have to pay full cover if all I want is to buy you a drink, right?"

"No," she said. "We can go to the bar upstairs, and you only pay half." She stepped on the end of her half-smoked cigarette and left it as a prize for the scrappiest underage kid or most desperate bum. Inside, he received one hand stamp (instead of the two that Sam sported), and then watched the best parts of her backside work their magic as he followed her up the rickety staircase.

The DJ was just as loud as the downstairs band, but at least the dance music was more predictable. They both knew when to sip their gins and when to talk. He found out that Sam was short for Samantha, that she worked as a paralegal in a big firm downtown, and that her paralegal friends dragged her to see this band because they thought the drummer was sexy. She found out that Sam was short for Samuel, that he was a patent officer in Alexandria, and that he had been drinking alone at the trendy new burlesque bar down the street. From their banquette, they could watch the would-be dancers as they moved by increments, rhythmically trying to push their way through the chaos.

After a little while of drinking and talking, he noticed her noticing her friends by the stairs. "I'd like to see you again," he said.

"I get coffee for my favorite associate every morning at the Starbucks at 13th and Penn," she said. "Maybe it's on your way?"

"I live right near there," he said. "I go to Metro Center to grab the blue line down to work."

"Then maybe I'll see you. I'm in line at nine-fifteen," she said. "Thank you for the drink." She stood up, and he was suddenly at eye level with her internal plumbing. Without meaning to, he saw it: amorphous and an inch in diameter, lodged firmly in her right ovary. It looked like one of the ones that grew, malignant, not just a cyst like the ones he'd seen in other women. He stood, looked one more time into her eyes, and fell in love with her as she turned away to find her friends.

When he was seven years old, he was in a car accident with his father. The car was rear-ended at a stop light. He was wearing his seat belt, but it was before the time of airbags, and there was very little to keep his head from smashing itself on the dashboard. He had a year of physical therapy after that, mostly to monitor his progress after the first painful session when they reseated his cranium over his spinal column. The crrr-aack of his own head and neck being popped back into place haunted him to this day. They treated his concussion by letting him take a week off from school and making sure he got plenty of Gatorade and rest. The goose egg on his forehead went down with regular application of bags of frozen vegetables. His parents asked him how he felt, and truthfully, he felt perfectly fine. But he found that when he stopped focusing his eyes on something, he could see a little more than he used to be able to see. The insides of things. People's insides.

He had to be looking directly at something to see inside of it. Therefore, he could not see the defect in his brain that gave him this extraordinary vision, though he could see the inside of the mirror when he tried. But he could see the bones of his fingers and toes when he looked down at them, the muscles and blood vessels. He rolled his ankle in gym class when he was in high school, and he could see the strain on the tears in his ligaments when the athletic trainer tested him for sprain. Even though he couldn't exactly feel the damage, he could see it, so he screamed and refused to allow anyone to touch him until the nurse arrived. People thought he was peculiar.

When he was an adolescent, he always laughed when his friends said they wished they had x-ray vision so they could see into the girls' locker room. He laughed because he knew it wasn't like that. You couldn't just choose how many layers you wanted to see through for any given object--two for the girl with the thin sweater and nice rack, four for the heavily-wrapped birthday gift. He saw the girl's heart and lungs, and the inside of whatever the present was, which was usually not enough to identify it. He always saw all the way to the center, if he let his mind wander. He had to really focus to see the surfaces.

He saw her again on Monday, at 9:15 sharp, in line at the Starbucks with all the other suit-clad office workers and their ravenous appetites for caffeine. "Fancy meeting you here," he said.

"I didn't think you'd come," she said as she stepped up to the counter. He noticed with dismay that the line was moving particularly quickly this morning. "Two tall chai lattes, one regular, one skim."

"Why is she your favorite associate?" he asked.

"He is a trip," she said, emphasizing the pronoun. "And he always lets me have my pick of the work."

"Do you think he has other motives?"

"Why shouldn't he?" she asked, tossing her hair as she turned to look at him. The barista came back with her lattes, and he nodded toward them to alert her to their presence. She stepped out of the way to let him order.

"One tall chai latte," he said to the barista.

"But he doesn't," she said. "Have ulterior motives, I mean. I've asked, and he's not the sort to lie." He loved how honest she was, about everything. He glanced down to her abdomen. It may have been his imagination, but the tumor seemed ever so slightly larger than it had on Saturday.

"Which latte is yours?" he asked, taking his own from the counter.

"The regular," she answered.

"Good," he said, smiling.

"Will you be here tomorrow?" she asked.

"I might," he said. And he was.

After a week of "chance" meetings over chai lattes, unsweetened iced teas, and an iced mocha (as a Friday treat), he decided that it was time to ask her to go out with him on a real date.

"Only one drink today?" he asked.

"The associate is taking a long weekend," she said.

"Let's go skydiving," he said, using his straw to stir the ice into his cold chocolate coffee milk.

"That's a little crazy for a first date, don't you think?" she said, slowly stirring her own iced mocha the same way.

"Life is short," he said.

"Okay," she said. "Let's do it."

Unbeknownst to him, she went through a phase in college when she wanted nothing more than to hurtle toward the Earth with nothing but a parachute and God's grace standing between her and an untimely demise. She was certified to jump by herself, and she did, even though he had to jump out of the plane with a big Australian instructor strapped to his back. "How're you feelin', mate?" the instructor yelled in his ear as they stabilized after a tumbling freefall. He looked down and watched as her chute opened, an explosion of neon green against the vast, dull earth below.

"Alive!" he yelled back.

"Hold on!" the instructor shouted before deploying their parachute.

On the ground, they decided to follow the jump with lunch at a local vineyard.

"Thank you for suggesting that," she said, pouring herself another glass of cabernet franc. "It has been entirely too long since I jumped out of an airplane."

"I've always wanted to try," he said.

"You did well for your first jump," she said. She spread some soft cheese onto a piece of bread and handed it to him before making one for herself. He read volumes of love poetry in this small, simple gesture, and carefully watched as her pulse quickened, then slowed, then quickened again, a gentle flush appearing in her cheeks.

"Thank you," he said.

"This is my favorite sort of lunch as well," she said. "Spontaneous, beautiful setting, lots of wine and cheese." Their small wrought-iron table was out on the stone patio of a spacious new winery, providing them with a view of the rolling green hills of rural Virginia and row after row of new vines. Sam had always had trouble with women, but in this idyllic setting, sitting across a table from this beautiful, strange woman, he could easily pretend that he'd always been lucky in love. Something about the calmness of her breathing soothed him, and he could envision them doing this kind of thing again and again.

"I'm having a wonderful time," he said, feeling the creamy cheese melt on his tongue.

"A girl could get used to living like this," she said.

"I hope you do," he said.

"I'm going to kiss you now," she said, leaning around the table to gently press her lips against his cheek.

"A guy could get used to more of those," he said, smiling. He knew that his second impression of her--that he loved her--had not been wrong.

"I hope you do," she said. She took another sip of her wine and stared out over the expansive vista. He wondered what it was like not to ever see the water flowing up into the grapevines, to take the pulse of life for granted. He had momentarily forgotten about the tumor. He watched her brain again. The pulses there were quick and even.

After the sun had gone down and they had eaten all the cheese, he took her back to the city and let her out in front of her apartment. "Let's go to Paris," he said.

"Paris? Don't you think that's a little crazy for a second date?" she asked. She raised her eyebrows this time. When he had asked her to go skydiving, she had kept her cool because freefall was familiar territory for her. But Paris was something else entirely.

"I speak enough French," he said. "And the bubbly there is better, or so I'm told."

"Next Friday is a holiday," she said. "You come up with tickets and a place to stay, and I'll go for the long weekend. I'll take Monday off, too."

"Perfect," he said. She had gotten out of the car and come around to the driver's side before he knew what was happening. She leaned down and kissed him full on the mouth, pressing her tongue between his lips, between his teeth and onto his tongue. He snapped his eyes shut and kissed her back, reaching out, touching her hand, wrapping his fingers in hers. She slowly pulled away.

"Goodnight, my enigma," she said.

They met every day for morning coffee. On Thursday, he told her to pack for the continent and reminded her to bring her passport. He'd be by at seven in the morning so they could make their flight out of Dulles. He had tickets on Air France and confirmation of a room with a balcony in an apartment-sharing scheme.
She was astounded. "I can't believe you put this together. For me." Sam had never had the best luck with men, but with this Prince Charming whisking her away to Paris, she could easily pretend that she was a fairytale heroine, a woman who could enjoy everything about her life.

"But of course," he said, putting on a mockery of a French accent. They boarded the plane and alternated napping with canoodling under an airplane blanket. In the evening, they arrived at Orly and took the metro downtown to their apartment. A violinist in a black beret played an old French folk tune as he strolled through the train cars, extracting coins from clueless American tourists who either didn't know the difference between a Euro and a quarter or didn't care. After one such exchange, he looked over at her and mouthed, "Suckers." She giggled, the sound escaping her throat before she could identify it. The unfamiliar place and the strange circumstances had tapped into her well of unadulterated joy.

The apartment was characteristically French--everything in it was about 2/3 the size of things in American apartments and the walls and furniture were draped in toile. As per the description, the apartment "ne donna pas sur la rue," giving the balcony a fine view of the well-manicured stone courtyard in the center of the building. The first thing he did after putting down his suitcase was run out to the marché, where he picked up some fresh baguette; good, thick French butter; imported marmalade; and a bottle of red wine. The apartment was stocked with glassware and dishes, and she had set the small balcony table with them before he returned.

He set out the food and they ate. When they had eaten their fill, he asked her, "How did you know I was bringing back food?"

"I know you," she said.

"After only two weeks?" he asked.

"Yes," she said.

"Good," he said. "Then it will not be a surprise when I ask you to become my wife tomorrow evening, in the sunset under the Arc de Triomphe." He pulled a small silvery ring out of his pocket and placed it on her finger. She looked down and saw that it was in fact white gold, channel set with tiny diamonds.

"It is a surprise," she said. "But I say yes."

"We can choose other rings tomorrow, and clothes, if you want something more French to wear to our wedding. I have already arranged for the ceremony. The Champs-Elysees shall be your bridal aisle."

"This is a formal side of you that I have not seen before," she said.

"And this is a happy side of you that I have not seen enough," he said.

"We should celebrate," she said.

"I know just the place," he said.

Together, the engaged couple strolled out of their beautiful French apartment, down the street to a cafe. Inside, there were old men standing at the bar, plunking sugar cubes into their tiny cups of strong coffee. "Bonjour bonjour bonjour," the old men said. They nodded to the men, smiling. "Quel bonheur!" the old men said under their breaths, remembering the happinesses of their own reckless youths.

"Une table, s'il vous plait," he said to the barman.

"But we just ate!" she said.

"No matter," he said. "It's Paris! We'll eat again." She smiled. The barman came out from behind the bar and showed them to a table outdoors. He took their order: a croque-monsieur, a croque-madame, and a bottle of absinthe with all the trimmings.

"Absinthe," she said. "That's legal in the states now, isn't it?"

"Yes," he said. "But you can't get the really good stuff. You have to come here for that."

"Hmm," she said. "I feel not like myself."

"You haven't even had any green fairy yet."

"It's the engagement, I think," she said, looking down at the ring that beamed up at her from her finger. "And the escape to Paris. It's all happening so quickly. I'm a little disoriented."

"Do you feel unpleasantly unlike yourself?"

"No," she said. "Not entirely."

He mixed her an absinthe with water and a muddled sugar cube, then mixed one for himself.

"Sante," he said, "Chin-chin." They clinked glasses and drank. The food arrived shortly after that, and they shared the gloriously fried sandwiches with gusto, letting the absinthe order them a plate of grilled vegetables, a salade Nicoise, an order of pommes frites with aioli, and a chocolate croissant. When they were quite full of rich food and intensely fucked-up on absinthe, he told her, "I can see through things." At first she thought he was hallucinating. Then she thought that she was hallucinating.

"What kinds of things?" she said, seeming to deliberate over each word.

"All kinds of things," he said. He spoke deliberately too, a side effect of the absinthe.

"Prove it," she said. So he ordered two coffees. The barman brought the coffees and a pitcher of cream, and replenished their bowl of sugar cubes.

"Put a certain number of sugar cubes in each cup," he said. "I will close my eyes and cover my ears. Then you should cover each cup with a saucer. And I will tell you how many cubes are in each."

She thought this a brilliant plan, and hastened to execute it. Even though he claimed that he couldn't hear, she made extra clinks and clanks with the sugar bowl and the cups. She hoped to fool him again by placing a piece of pomme frite in one of the cups. He would have no way of knowing that she tampered with the experiment that way, and would be unable to prove his claimed talent. When the saucers were over the cups, she kicked him under the table and told him to open his eyes.

"Well?" she asked. "How many?"

"The cup on the left has three cubes of sugar. The cup on the right has one cube of sugar and one bit of French fry. I'll drink that one, if you want." Of course he was exactly right.

"I don't believe you," she said, even though she did. "Can you see through other things?"

"The woman at the table behind you has an economy-sized package of dental floss in her handbag," he said. She turned around just in time to see her take the floss out of her bag and start flossing the teeth of her tiny toy poodle.

"What's in my handbag, then?" she asked.

"Both of our passports," he said.


"A lipstick, a pack of cigarettes, a handful of Euro coins, and a condom," he said.

"Okay," she said. "Now I believe you. What else can you see? Can you see people naked? Have you seen me naked?"

"No," he said. "I only see the insides."

"So you haven't seen me naked?"


"That's a shame."

"It is."

"Do you see people's insides all the time?"

"No," he said. "If I focus properly, I can see the outsides of things, like a normal person."

"Like a superhero," she said. The idea of being a Lois Lane played right to her fantasies, her weakness. "I don't care if we are hallucinating. This is the best conversation I have had since becoming an adult."

"Absinthe is wonderful, isn't it?"

"Can you see things inside people? Like injuries? Artery plaque? Tumors?" she asked. The moment she said the word "tumor," he remembered hers. He looked at it. It was much larger than the last time. It was hard to pull his attention away from it. It looked like it might reach up and tear out her liver at any minute.

"You can, can't you?" she said.

He dropped his gaze into his coffee cup, fishing out the French fry with a spoon. "Yes," he said.

"You looked away from me when you said that," she said. "Do I...?" He continued to stir the coffee, even though the sugar cube had long since melted. "I do, don't I?" He did not answer. "Where is it?"

"I'm not sure," he faltered, still staring into his coffee.

"It's my ovary, isn't it?" she said.

"I think so."

"My grandmother died of that. Young, too."


"How long do I have?"

"I'm not a doctor," he said. Her face started doing contortions as she mouthed things to herself. She moved her coffee cup, the empty plates, and the utensils around the table, trying to impose order on them to compensate for the chaos that roiled in the pit of her stomach.

"Is this what the rush was all about? The second date in Paris? The engagement?"

"No," he said. But even as the word came out of his mouth, he knew that he wasn't exactly sure, and the sound wavered with uncertainty.

"It is," she said. "You only love me because I'm going to die." She stood up, then sat down again, still searching for some kind of order, something that made sense. She'd uncharacteristically dropped everything and come to Paris with this virtual stranger, who was now telling her that he could see through things and that she might have cancer. This was exactly the sort of thing that her mother would have warned her about, if she'd been able to imagine something so ludicrous.

"Everyone is going to die," he said halfheartedly. The pain on her face made him unwilling to argue with her, and he wasn't sure his arguments were in any condition to convince anyone, especially not himself. Was he really in love with her, or did he love her mortality?

"Why didn't you tell me?" she asked.

"I didn't know how," he said. "You can't just go up to a person and say, 'Excuse me sir, but I see that you've got a rather large cancer on your left nut that you might want to get looked at, if you haven't already.'"

"I'm not some stranger," she said. "I was going to be your wife."

"I couldn't tell my mother, either," he said.

"If you can't save people with it, then what the hell is your extraordinary superpower worth?" The silence after her question was like a vacuum, sucking out all of his insecurities. He was elated to have finally shared his burden with someone, and even more thrilled that she was already making the load so much lighter. She was starting to feel the weight of his knowledge, pressing heavily on her brow like an absinthe hangover.

"I never thought about it that way," he said. Her face suddenly contorted into a scowl, and his heart dropped into his stomach. The cafe had emptied out, and the barman was eyeing them suspiciously as he dried the coffee cups for the evening. Sam suddenly found himself wishing that he could make the layers of his own body disappear the way he did for others. If even a part of him could have become invisible...

"What were you going to do after I died?" she asked, starting to visibly shake. "Marry someone else? How many other times have you handed out this ring?" Between tremors, she pulled the ring off of her finger and dropped it in her coffee. He had thought that this was going to be the most positive moment in his life, but it was all going horribly wrong.

"None, I swear!" he said. "I only loved you! From that very first moment on H Street when I saw you smoking that cigarette." He took his spoon and deftly fished the ring out of the little coffee cup. Then he dipped the ring in his glass of water and dried it on his napkin. "Please put it back on. Please marry me. All I wanted was for you to have a happy life, with me." He held the ring out to her in the palm of his hand.

"And after my last time on earth? My months? My year? After I'm gone, then what?"

"I don't know!" he said. "I don't know." The look on his face was a cross between sadness and remorse. It melted her a little, but she tried hard not to show it.
She reached out and took the ring from his hand. She slowly slipped it back onto her left ring finger, realizing only then that the ring was unmistakeably her size. He couldn't possibly have given the ring to anyone else.

"I will help you tell them," she said, holding up her beringed left hand as though she were taking an oath. "For as long as I can. Then you have to tell them yourself."

He held her right hand and sobbed, dropping his head onto the table next to his coffee. He looked up at her, his face streaked with tears. "I love you," he said.

"We'll help them," she said. She then used her free hand to fish a cigarette out of her bag. She pulled her other hand away so that she could light it.

"You shouldn't smoke," he said, still catching his breath.

"I know, it's bad for me." A mischievous smile crept across her face as she considered this. "But life is short."

Sunday, December 14, 2008


Well, I was just going to let this languish until after New Year's, but thanks to Seth of The Dating Papers, I have doubled (or quite possibly tripled) my readership in a matter of minutes. Hello, new readers!

I thought I'd start things off with a rejection letter. In a fit of self-righteousness, I sent this story to an electronic literary magazine of some repute. The editor sent me a cordial response:

Good evening. Thanks for thinking of [magazine]. This one isn't right for us, but we wish you the best elsewhere.

And there it was, the first of many rejection letters to come. For me, as a perfectionist, polishing a piece to the point where I'm comfortable having someone look at it is the hardest part of the journey. A rejection letter is just a reminder that I am able to put my work out there for the world. It is a reminder that even the hardest part of the journey is not, after all, impossible.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Winners and Losers

A hearty hello to my very small audience!

I have emerged victorious from my NaNoWriMo adventure. Although I was able to reach 50,000 words, my story remains incomplete, sitting quietly in my Scrivener, waiting for me to return to it. This, I shall do over the holidays.

When I was not posting to this blog, and when I was supposed to be working on my story, I spent a good amount of time thinking about how I might be able to leverage this blog into fame and fortune for me and my work. I am working toward eventually making creativity the focus of my life, instead of having to squeeze it into the corners.

So, starting in 2009, this blog will change. I will still be posting my experiments, but I will also be posting on the following topics:

1. Writing in general
2. Creativity
3. News articles and other useful/fascinating information for writers
4. Writing and new media
5. (possibly) Publishing

I'll keep you posted whenever I get a rejection letter, which will be often, I imagine.

I will be saving up my money for a digital video camera. When that happens (or if I find someone to collaborate with), I hope to also post a YouTube dramedy serial that I am in the process of writing. The current plan is to cast my talented actor-friends to be in it, but shh! I haven't told them yet.

In general, readers of this blog will be seeing more of me, and less of the sometimes-raw/sometimes-polished writerly persona I have been projecting here in the past. I hope to create a resource for frustrated creative writers like me, whether it's a community or just a place to learn something or get inspired.

So, readers that I currently do have, I thank you for your indulgence. I hope you find the new Critical Drinking as compelling as The Ambiguity of Truth. And future readers...welcome.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Mackenzie The Writer

The barn door opened and my eyes flooded with burning, all-knowing light. It was rare for her to come in during the day, so rare, in fact, that it had been at least a week since I’d seen the sun. My eyes, unprepared for that particular assault, felt like she’d slammed them farther into my head. When the light calmed down, I was able to see it--the big, beautiful oak tree that stood majestically outside the barn. Sometimes, when she would forget to bring me a meal or two, I would think about what it must be like to be that tree. I wanted to suck water from the earth and grow lazy and fat on the rays of the sun. These were simple dreams, but at that time, I was a simple girl.

I didn’t see the entire oak tree, though. I saw only a halo of oak tree, fanning out around the shadowy figure of my mother.

“Do you want to go outside?” she asked. Her tone, as always, did not betray a single emotion.

“Yes,” I said, trying to suppress my elation. It was unusual for her to let me go outside during the day.

“Do you promise to act modestly?”

“I wouldn’t know how to act immodestly,” I said. She reached out and slapped my cheek. It was an admonition, rather than a punishment. For that, I was grateful.

“Don’t sass me, girl,” she said. “I’m doing you a favor.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“Come on.”

I followed her out into the yard, eyes wide open, terrified and thrilled.


“There’s a man out here I want you to meet.”

I stopped, dead cold, with one foot still waiting to fall in front of the other. The idea that my mother would want me to meet a man was preposterous! As far as I could tell, my mother was keeping me in the barn precisely so that I wouldn’t meet any men at all. She’d kept me there since she noticed that I’d grown breasts even bigger than hers. I was too afraid to ask her why she hid me in there, but I allowed myself the flattery of believing that her reasoning was as I imagined.

There was a man standing by an unfamiliar car, which was parked next to my mother’s car. The car was a convertible, shiny and pale green, with the top down. The man looked to be about the same age as my mother, and he looked extremely rich. I’d only seen rich people a couple of times, back when Dad was alive and we’d go shopping in town for Christmas. Everything about the rich people I saw seemed perfect, down to their perfectly starched clothes and straight-toothed smiles. They would stop in front of shop windows, and buy whatever they (or their squeaky clean children) wanted. We had to walk past the nicest windows and go straight to the back of the store, where the clearance shelves stood, simultaneously picked over and neglected. This man looked like he could buy anything he wanted from the nicest window in town.

“Mackenzie,” she said, in that tone of voice that said she meant business. “Mackenzie!” She’d been calling me for a minute, now, and I’d been so consumed by the rich man and the convertible and the outdoors and the sunlight that I hadn’t noticed. I walked over to where the man and my mother were standing, near the cars.

“Mackenzie, this is Mr. Richardson,” she said. Mr. Rich. “Mr. Richardson, this is Mackenzie.” Mr. Rich smiled coolly.

“Please, call me Steve,” he said. His voice even sounded rich, like smoke and velvet.

“All right,” I said.

“Mackenzie,” my mother said, gripping me by the shoulders. “You’re to go with Mr. Richardson and behave with him as if I were right there with you. You’re to do whatever he says.”

“All right,” I said again.

“She’ll be back…” she started, looking at Mr. Rich.

“As we agreed,” he said.

“Fine, fine,” she said. I thought I saw something strange happen to my mother’s eyes, then, but I wasn’t sure what. Without another word, she turned around and went into the house. I didn’t see her at the kitchen window, or at any other window.

“Are we going for a drive?” I asked, clearly giving the convertible a mental once-over.

“Yes,” he said. Mr. Rich was still smiling, and I immediately decided that something about all this was quite unnatural. I did not like him.

I reached into my mother’s car through the open window of the passenger’s side and clicked the latch on the glove compartment. Inside, my mother’s leather driving gloves were cool to the touch, in spite of the summery temperature. I took them out and put them on. In hindsight, they probably looked silly with my t-shirt and knee-length cutoffs, but I loved them. Those gloves, which she faithfully donned whenever she drove the car, were one of the few things I loved about my mother. I’m glad I took them with me.


Mr. Rich did not ask me about the gloves, even when we were a safe distance away from home. The convertible ran like a dream, and the pale green of the car seemed to happily coexist with all of nature’s greens. I squirmed against my seat belt, trying to count the number of shades between my pale knee and the creamy leather bucket seat.

“Do you know why your mother sent you to come with me?”

“No,” I said. I figured that I would let him do most of the talking, at least until I got to know him a bit better.

“Do you remember writing that story? The one for the class assignment?” It had been ages since the last time I even thought about school. I had been too busy trying to occupy my mind in that dark barn to think about days with routines.

“Sure,” I said. I had written lots of stories for school assignments. They always urged us to write creatively, even though there weren’t any jobs for creative writers, and we’d all be giving up the pursuit as soon as it was time to apply to college.

“Your teacher showed it to your mother,” he said. “And your mother showed it to me.”

“Great,” I mumbled, looking out over the edge of the convertible. The tall grasses and corn fields rolled by, one after the other. Mr. Rich watched the road and I watched everything else.

“You aren’t paying attention,” he said. “But I suppose that’s to be expected.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You’re thinking about things you’re seeing, aren’t you?”

“Yeah,” I said. “So?”

“Your mother is graciously allowing me to show you the world, so that you can become a better writer.”

I snorted. If my mother was ever planning on letting me live outside of that barn again, I imagined that she would want me to get a real job and make some money to support us. The needle of the gas gauge caught my eye.

“On a quarter tank of gas? Good luck,” I said.

“She keeps you in that barn, doesn’t she?” Mr. Rich said.

I found myself liking Mr. Rich less and less, but I still believed that if I misbehaved, she’d find out and punish me. So I pushed at the boundaries of good behavior. “So what if she does?”

“So that isn’t right,” he said. “And you won’t be going back there without me.”

“Are you my bodyguard, or something?” I asked.

“Or something,” he said. The county road had become a four-lane interstate highway while I wasn’t looking, and we were going faster, much faster than my mother ever drove. I crossed my arms in front of me, gripping my upper arms with my gloved hands, holding on to the one thing that I could trust to be still in my strange new world of motion.

Mr. Rich suddenly slowed the convertible and pulled off the interstate. We glid along a small suburban road until we found a gas station, and he pulled in. “Do you want anything from inside?” he asked. I never got to get anything from inside, so I barely even knew what sort of things they had.

“How about…some candy?” I ventured, hoping that I wasn’t making a fool of myself.

“What do you like?” he asked. Anything he liked from the shop window, from the gas station candy counter.

“Necco wafers,” I said. Mr. Rich nodded and pumped the gas while the soda machine and the machine that dispensed air into tires hummed innocuously next to the touchless car wash. I noticed then that the car looked very clean. I could imagine Mr. Rich polishing the chrome accents, but I couldn’t decide whether he hosed the car down himself, or if he had people who did that sort of thing for him. Cars like this one surely couldn’t go through such a vulgarity as the automated car wash I saw here. I loved it when my mother took the car through the wash, the way the water and soap pounded on the roof and chassis like a superpowered rain.

Mr. Rich surprised me by returning to the car. “They had chocolate ones,” he said. “I hope that’s all right.”

“Wow,” I said. “Sure.” I took the candy from him and busied myself unwrapping the waxed paper, the roll of candy unwieldy in my gloved fingers. I didn’t even know they sold the chocolate ones by themselves. They were my favorite anyway. The car was moving again, and the sugary wafers melted on my tongue. I suddenly felt as though we were gliding into my future.


“Do you think you’re up to meeting someone else?” Mr. Rich asked.

“Yeah, sure,” I said.

“She might be able to lend you some clothes,” he said. “You’re a little shorter, but you’ll fit them, for sure.” I looked down at my clothes and felt embarrassed, even though there was nothing inherently wrong with them. I picked a piece of straw off of my denim shorts and let it blow over the side of the car.

“What do I need different clothes for?” I asked.

“I need to take you shopping,” he said. “And you can’t go like that.” I pictured the children in their Christmas finery, perfectly bleached and starched. I wondered if he would make me wear petticoats.

As we drove on, I could feel things getting closer together, and the air developed a hard edge that made it more difficult to breathe. We were going to the city. The car handled just as smoothly on the uneven city streets as it did on country roads, and Mr. Rich darted us between other cars and around people like a pro. My mother was always a cautious driver, and very rarely drove in the city, if ever. The few times that we did, I recall, she would invariably end up holding up traffic, horns blaring at us from behind while she studied a street map. He pulled the car into an underground garage and parked it in a tiny space next to another luxurious convertible.

The elevator was fast and silent, and it opened on an expansive penthouse apartment with gorgeous high ceilings and windows everywhere. I’d heard about places like these: wide open spaces, gourmet kitchens, manufactured coziness radiating from the expensive furniture.

“I thought you would never come back,” said a husky female voice. The body belonging to the voice lazily loped into view. She looked exactly like a woman from a magazine, tall, thin, long-limbed, but still graceful. Her hair was loose, shiny, and voluminous. She brushed it out of her face with one hand and smoked a cigarette with the other. The woman was wearing what appeared to be one of Mr. Rich’s shirts and little else.

“I thought I told you not to do that inside,” Mr. Rich said. I caught a flash of her black panties when she reached over to put her cigarette out.

“Is this the girl?” she asked. Mr. Rich nodded.

“Can you loan her some clothes or something, and take her shopping?”

“Sure,” she said. “She needs a bath first, though. What was she, sleeping in a barn?” I felt a surge of something powerful and unidentifiable course through my veins. Who was she to judge me? But at the same time, she was exactly right. I had been sleeping in a barn. How did she know? “Can you bathe yourself?”

“Y-yes,” I stammered. How young must I have looked to her? If only I could have seen myself next to her at that moment, me in my cutoffs and driving gloves, and her in her nightshirt and stylish dark manicure. I looked like childhood, and she looked like sex. I wondered whether she, too, had been a girl that Mr. Rich had promised to show the world; I wondered if her present was my future.

“Bathroom’s that way. I’ll lay something out for you while you’re in there,” she said. “I’m Isabelle, by the by.”

“Mackenzie,” I said. I wandered into the bathroom and closed the door behind me.


I used the soap that was in the shower, and it made the whole room smell like lavender, like the hand soap in my mother’s bathroom at home. It wasn’t homesickness that I felt, rather, it was nostalgia for the time when the scent of my mother’s lavender soap meant that my father would soon be coming home from work to love us both. Lavender had smelled empty ever since I realized that he would not ever be coming home. Now, it was just another sensation to be processed and absorbed. It had been a while since I’d had a proper shower.
Isabelle came in while I was bathing, to lay out the clothes like she’d said. I was even more afraid of her than I was of Mr. Rich. But I asked, “Isabelle? Can I ask you something?”

“Yes,” she said.

“How do you know Mr. Richardson?” I could hear her stop moving for a moment, and I worried that I’d asked something socially inappropriate.

“He’s my lover,” she said, carefully. “Do you know what that means?”

I debated with myself for a moment: if I said yes, I might get in trouble. If I said no, she might try to explain it. I wasn’t sure which was worse. “Yes,” I said.

“Good,” she said.

“Are you a writer?” I asked.

“No,” Isabelle said, still choosing her words thoughtfully. “I’m a model.” So she was a woman in a magazine after all. How would a simple girl like me fit into a model’s clothes? I found out, after I’d dried off. The sleeves of the lightweight black turtleneck were a bit too long, and the short flowered skirt Isabelle lent me was almost tea length on me. I pulled my driving gloves back on to complete the outfit.

“What size shoe do you wear?” Isabelle asked. “Are you dressed?” She was in the room already, clearly not caring whether I was dressed or not.

“I’m not sure,” I said. “The last shoes I had were eights.”

“Hold on, I think I might have some eights somewhere.” Isabelle ducked back into the bedroom, probably into a walk-in closet bigger than my barn. “I had a friend who wore eights, she was always giving me her shoes even though I wear tens. Oh, here.” Isabelle came back into the bathroom. “Try these.” She handed me a pair of brown leather mary-jane heels, quite a few inches taller than anything I’d ever been allowed to try on, let alone wear. They matched my gloves, I noticed, as I fastened the buckles.

“There,” she said. Isabelle approached me with a comb, a brush, and a hair dryer. “Now hold still.” This suited me fine, as I was uncertain about walking in my borrowed shoes.
I hadn’t figured Isabelle as the motherly type, but there she was, getting wet while she stood with me in that lavender-scented bathroom, detangling and heat-styling my hair. She walked around to my front and started pulling sections of my hair up, away from my scalp, heating them with the blow dryer.

“You have great hair,” she said loudly, competing with the deafening whir of the dryer.

“Thank you,” I said, pushing on each word with my diaphragm in order to be heard.

“Now you look proper,” she said. “Give me fifteen minutes, and we can go.”

“Okay,” I said. I took a tentative step. I took another step and nearly broke my ankle falling off of my heel.

“Oh, Christ,” she said, picking me up from the floor. “We’ll buy you some flats. Heel, toe. Heel, toe. Come on, walk like this.” Isabelle taught me how to get by in my heels, and I walked cautiously back to the living room.

Mr. Rich was there, reading The New York Times. He offered me a section, and I took it. My eyes rushed over the words for a few minutes and nothing really stuck. “Why are you helping me?” I asked.

“I owe your father a great debt,” he said. I wanted to know more, but I felt odd asking. I didn’t even know that my father knew any rich people.

“What are we going to do?” I asked. “After I have some clothes, I mean.”

“We’re going to begin your education,” he said. “Tonight, we’re going to hear some music.” I nodded. My gloved hands twitched and the paper rustled.

“Will Isabelle come?” I asked.

“You’ll see a lot of Isabelle,” he said. “I hope you like her as much as I do.” Nothing about Mr. Rich seemed malicious at the time, and indeed, he was quite earnest in his intentions.

Sometimes I think back upon this moment, this beginning of my new life, with joy in my heart and overflowing gratitude. But at other times, I realize that my mysterious benefactor had absolutely no idea what he was doing. The moment he decided to repay my father by educating his daughter, Mr. Rich started to create something that he did not know how to control. He and Isabelle could clothe me, educate me, and teach me to drink in jazz clubs. They could and did introduce me to influential writers who taught me and improved my writing. They could disguise me, but they could not hide the frightened little girl whose widowed mother would never get her driving gloves back. They could not stop me from feeling like a manufactured woman, a counterfeit of a fraud.

“I am looking forward to that,” I said. Isabelle emerged from the bedroom then, smelling of the same lavender.

“Come on, let’s go,” she said. “We’ll be back later.”

Mr. Rich just nodded and smiled, sipping at a glass of brown liquor. “The show is at ten,” he said.

“We’ll be back,” Isabelle said. She tossed her rich leather handbag over her shoulder and grabbed me by the hand. “Shoes first.” I stumbled along after her, feeling ready to be remade. How little I knew, then! How little I knew!

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Delusions of Grandeur (part 2)

I'm on a hot streak. Would you believe it? I finished Simon's story. In case you don't recall, here was the first half:

The Ambiguity of Truth: Delusions of Grandeur (part 1)

...and now, for the dramatic conclusion.

The hotel they ended up staying in (and paying for in cash from the Roy Rogers) was next to a divey bar. This was the sort of bar that had a banquet facility much like the ones where Simon’s freelance DJ company (Alyce’s Deal Jays) would send him to DJ for white trash weddings. He didn’t like those gigs because they always requested The Thong Song, but he went anyway because he liked helping to support his wife’s shopping habit. Even though she wasn’t into danger, she was into a good time in the bedroom. And if she bought clothes and lingerie that made her look hot, she felt hot, and the hotter she felt, the more she felt like sharing. Simon liked that about her, and he unwillingly found himself wishing she were here.

It was about the time that his wife would usually arrive at home, and he anxiously anticipated the phone call that was inevitably coming. He took his daughter to the bar and asked the bartender to make up a clean hot chocolate for her. As this was the kind of place that pretended to be cosmopolitan (even though it wasn’t), they had a number of coffee drinks on the menu and the equipment to make it happen. Simon had never seen such a spotless espresso machine in his entire life: it was like it had never been used. The barman looked like Bluto from the old Popeye cartoons, and making a hot chocolate (“With whipped cream, please,” Simon added) would have been humiliating for him if there had been anyone else around to see him do it. When the frilly little hot chocolate arrived, Simon ordered a nervous bellini for himself and set to chatting up the barkeep.

“Where is everybody?” Simon asked.

“It’s seven o’clock,” the barman grunted. “Dinner, maybe? Not from around here, are ye?”

“No,” Simon said. Three bellinis and a few hours later, Simon had still not gotten a call from his wife. He checked the phone, making sure that he had enough service to receive a call, which he did. Traffic in the bar had picked up, but there were still only a few patrons scattered around the space. There was a woman at the end of the bar who looked like a lonely librarian, sipping a G&T and staring at a full pack of cigarettes like she was imagining herself chainsmoking her way through the entire thing. Nobody else in the bar was smoking, and Simon deduced that there was a smoking ban in this county. Maybe she was trying to quit. There was a May/December couple at a secluded table in the corner, sharing a bottle of wine. They each seemed completely incapable of disentangling their limbs and lips from those of the other, and their full glasses of wine remained untouched. The motley crew was rounded out by a man in a trench coat who sat alone at a table near the bar, drinking an O’Doul’s. Out of the four customers in the bar, only this man had given Simon a dirty look after spotting his pint-sized drinking companion. Simon did not like the look of him, and was more than a little shocked that a divey place like this even carried non-alcoholic beer. Then again, the bar also had an espresso machine. The looks of this place had been deceiving.

“I’m getting tired, Daddy,” his daughter said, her head drooping a little, her white-blonde curls tumbling angelically over her arm.

“Let’s go, then,” Simon said. “You want me to carry you?”

“No, I can walk,” she smiled wanly. They both knew that he would be carrying her for the last leg of the journey. But only he knew that they were going to the car, and not to the hotel room. He settled up the tab with the barkeep and left him a generous tip. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the trench coat man take a cell phone out of one of his many pockets, and quickly dial a number into it. He spoke furtively into the phone, covering his mouth with a cupped hand while the barman thanked Simon profusely and loudly, hoping that the other customers would be encouraged to improve their own tipping habits.

Simon hurried his daughter out of the bar, to the hotel. There, he settled up with the concierge and specified that the room should be occupied by vagrants, if any were out and about on that chilly night. He scooped his daughter up and dashed out the door, leaving the concierge shaking his head.

To his great relief, he did not see the trench coat man leaving the bar while he loaded his nearly-sleeping daughter into the car. He wore a blank face while he buckled her into the car seat, and only let fear seep onto his face when he was safely strapped in behind the wheel. There was a reason why she didn’t call. Either the trench coat man was doing an exceedingly poor job of following him for her, or something was wrong. Either way, he figured that he needed to get home as soon as possible, or the consequences might be dire.

As he pounded the highway in the unfamiliar car, he wondered what he could have done to keep himself from falling in love. If only he hadn’t taken that sorority girl home from the pan-Greek party that night; if only he hadn’t been impressed by her sexual skills; if only she hadn’t gotten up the next morning and usurped his fraternity house’s kitchen to make him his favorite omelette, the contents of which he had no recollection of telling her. If only she wasn’t so wonderful, he thought. He remembered the feel of her body in his lap as he flew under overpasses, through exits and toll plazas, less driving than driven, like a magnet toward his own personal north. If only he hadn’t fallen in love, he’d be free to do what he wanted. If only there were a way to keep the one he loved most from ever succumbing to the same fate. As she glowed in the back seat, he finally realized that it was almost certainly too late.

She was fast asleep by the time he pulled the car up a few blocks away from the day care, just where he’d found it. The thought vaguely crossed his mind that a car full of quality weed probably shouldn’t have been parked so close to a day care, but he shoved that aside. All he had left to do was grab her out of the back of the car and run home with her, sneak her into her bed like nothing was wrong, and bring the sacks of money and weed as peace offerings, or in the worst case, medicine.

Then he would be home, and while he’d had another of the adventures that he so desperately craved, the luster was already wearing off of it. Whereas, even after eight years of marriage, his wife and daughter still shone in his mind’s eye like the most beautiful treasures. He was steps away from home when he saw an unfamiliar car in his driveway. It wasn’t a police car, not even an undercover one: they almost never drove frivolous cars like the Mazda Miata parked next to his Audi. The paint was so black, it sucked all the light out of the air around it. He marveled at the car for a moment before slipping silently into the house, going directly to his daughter’s room and tucking her into bed before deciding what he wanted to do about the owner of the Miata.

He kept a Louisville Slugger in the front closet, waiting for the time when his daughter would be old enough to play softball with him in the park. It was also there to combat intruders, because his wife was dead set against having a gun in the house. Simon opened the closet silently and pulled out the bat, tossing the bags of money and weed in to take its place. He tiptoed toward the bedroom. What if she was cheating on him? What if she hadn’t called because she’d been preoccupied by a lover? The very thought made him want to shove the bat down his own throat—if he hadn’t left her alone like that…

He opened the door and poked his head into the opening, the wooden baseball bat still hidden behind the door. His wife was sleeping. The bed appeared to be otherwise empty, but the covers were rumpled such that he couldn’t be sure. He crept in and poked at his side of the bed with the end of the bat.

“Are you holding a baseball bat, Simon?” she asked. She was awake.

“Yes,” he said.


“I thought there was—somebody—here.”

“I thought you took our daughter on one of your crime sprees,” she said. “But you don’t see me coming to beat you to death with a bat.”

“The bat is not for you. And I didn’t—”

“I know you did.”

“Did you have me followed?” Simon suddenly remembered the trench coat man who was suspicious enough to make him leave the hotel bar.

“No,” she said.

“Oh,” Simon said. The man must have been following him on a lead from the police. He was still glad he left when he did.

“Then how did you know?”

“I called you right after the daycare called me to say that she didn’t show up.”

“Why didn’t you call the police?”

“Because I understand you, now.”

“Because of the car?”

“Yes, because of the car,” her voice revealed her smile, even in the darkness.

“Is it yours?”

“It is now.”

“Did you buy it?” he asked.

“No,” she said.

“Interesting.” He wondered whether she would get out of bed to smoke a joint with him, like the good old days. He wondered what had precipitated this particular change in his beloved wife. But most of all, he felt something that he hadn’t felt for quite some time: the complete absence of fear.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Vic and Rennie's America (in three parts)


I'm Vic, it's nice to meet you. The person belonging to that pair of legs you see sticking out of the dumpster is Rennie. We're really glad that you could join us, aren't we? I don't think Rennie can hear us. Where is everyone else? Well. You're actually the only one who answered the email we sent out last weekend. You're the only one who really thought that Americans needed to do something to get out of the rut we've worked ourselves into. I mean, the economy is one thing, but what I'm talking about is adventure. Extreme sports are good, but they are only safe if you're an elite athlete with top-of-the-line equipment. All we have are some rusty old bikes. Wow, yours is nice. Is it a mountain bike? Oh, a cross-country bike? How often do you take it out?

Well, anyway, other typically American hobbies that we've noticed in the recent past include whining, dining out, shopping, and EXTREME SHOPPING. Stop laughing, Rennie, I mean seriously. After the market crash, you're just not going to be able to spend your weekend wandering around a big box store, looking for the exact item you need for your house, or whatever. You might not even have a house. I mean, not you, personally. But maybe you. These are uncertain times. Which is why you need to have some fun. And this weekend, you ARE going to get to do something different...something awesome that, I hope, catches on. And your life will never be the same. I'll just hop on my bike here...come on, Rennie. Kickstands up, my friends. Follow me.

We're not so far off the beaten path out here, but there aren't so many trucks at this time of day, so we don't have to worry about that. Can you still hear me? Oh, you're right there. Good. We aren't so far off the beaten path, but if you'll look to your right...the tall grasses just barely yield one of the last existing sets of...I won't ruin it for you. "In this vale...of toil and sin...your head grows bald...but not your chin...Burma Shave!" Didn't think there were any of those left, did you? Especially not ones that almost moralize like this one. It's amazing...almost like we're going back in time, pedaling up these hills. You're not tired, are you? Do you need a rest? Rennie! Catch up! Rennie looks to be in good shape, but I can't remember the last time we've been able to bike shoulder to shoulder. All right, we'll rest a minute. Didja bring some water, like I said in the e-mail? Go on, drink some. I don't need any, I'll have some at the next break, but thanks for offering.

You're so slow sometimes, Rennie. But it's gorgeous out, and I don't care how many times we stop and wait before we get there. Where? I can't tell you. No, I mean I really can't tell you. We'll know when we get there. It's beautiful.

Why did you decide to come with us today? I mean, I'm just curious. You're a writer, I got that from your email, but--oh. That's it? You wanted something to write about? Well. Good luck describing all this. I bet you wouldn't even know how to describe me. I'm a little bit of everything, you know. Rennie too. And this evening's activity is something that you probably won't even understand. Heck, I don't understand it all, but I know it works. Do you think you'll keep up on this leg, Rennie? Are you ready? Kickstands up, my friends.


Vic and I take this ride a lot. It's kind of our special place, but Vic thought it would be a good idea to bring strangers along and teach them the beauty of what we do. I don't like that idea, which is why I'm letting Vic do all the talking, but I also didn't think it was a good idea to let Vic and the stranger go without me. The stranger doesn't seem like a bad sort of person, but sometimes I think Vic wants to flaunt things that really should be kept quiet. What if the stranger doesn't get it? Strangers are unknown quantities: if we scare them, they could either laugh or kill us, but we won't know which until it actually happens.

Vic is yelling at me to keep up, but I like to ride in the back. I like to watch people riding in front of me, their bodies exerting the way my body is exerting, bones driving muscles to twitch under protective fat, each foot pushing the pedals up, down, up, down, taking turns. Vic and the stranger push harder than I do because they feel they have something to prove (to each other? to me?), but when we get where we're going, my mind will be sharper than theirs. My body, more fresh. I want to tell them to slow down, because my enjoyment will be less if they are tired, but I refuse to talk to the stranger.

The squirrel I was feeding, back in the dumpster near our meeting place, was a pregnant mother squirrel. She was just about to pop with squirrel pups, and a few minutes earlier, I had watched her mate get flattened by a crazy teenager in a speeding Camaro as he crossed Main Street. I gave her my raisins and peanuts, which she appeared to eat a few of before stuffing the remainder into her nest. A dumpster is no place for a family, even a squirrel family, but I didn't try to move her. If I'd been bitten, I probably wouldn't have been able to make the trip.

We're getting close now, I can feel it. The sun is starting to dip-dye the sky in a spectrum of oranges, and the air is noticeably cooler as it flows around my bicycle. Soon, the afternoon fire will fade to the coral, pink, and purple of evening, but for now, I slow my pedaling to hang back with the long, dark shadows that Vic and the stranger are casting. I get farther behind, but I reason that a shadowlength is a good amount of space to leave between us, even as the sun sets and that distance grows.

"You weren't serious about not talking, were you?" Vic shouts back at me.

I do not answer, and Vic knows better than to press the issue. Besides, we are almost there.


It has been a longer ride than I thought, maybe ten miles, but it only felt like three or four. We pedaled uphill the entire time, so logic dictates that I should be more tired. Perhaps it is Vic and Rennie that make me feel like we are just a bunch of kids out riding bikes until dinnertime, or maybe it is my sense of adventure. I have climbed Mt. Everest and leapt from cliffs in Greece, but somehow, this feels different. Perhaps it is the fact that I don't know what's in store for me when we get where we're going. Vic pulls off the main road onto a dirt path, and I am suddenly glad for my fancy cross-country bike. I follow and listen for the clank of Rennie's aged gearshift behind us.

A few minutes later, the dirt runs out and all that's left is grass. Vic pulls over and says, "Kickstands down, my friends. We're here." It's a gorgeous clearing full of short grass and fireflies, and I wonder if anyone cuts it, or if it just stays short, like dwarf grass. The fireflies are just starting to wink on for the evening, and it is just barely dark enough to see them. Vic walks to the center of the clearing and stares out over the edge. All this time, we had been riding up the side of a mountain, or so it seemed from the beautiful birds'-eye view. The sun is practically gone now, glowing red in its little corner of the earth. All we have is early starlight and fireflies.

Vic lies down on the grass and says, "Well. This is it. This is what Americans should do. They should see America. Like this." Vic's eyes go out of focus for a moment, then back in. Then Rennie lies down on Vic, that is to say, Rennie's head rests on Vic's stomach. Rennie motions to me, the most acknowledgement I've received today. Before I realize what is happening, Vic's head is resting on my stomach as well, and we have made a laughing circle--a laughing triangle, I suppose. But nobody is laughing. We are just breathing, slowly and deeply. The air is pure up here, sweeter than anything I've breathed in a long time. And when I am finished being awestruck at my own ability to draw a breath, I see it. The field of stars above us is so enormous, I suddenly forget that anything else even exists. My eyes go out of focus, then back in, and I see the fireflies, lazily blinking on and off as they swirl around us.

"What do you want to do, Rennie?" Vic asks.

I feel Rennie's stomach rise and fall with a deep breath. "I want to help animals," Rennie says.

"What do you want to do?" Vic asks me. I think about the question. It was one I hadn't heard since I was a little kid, a variation on the theme of "what do you want to be when you grow up?" I don't know how old Vic and Rennie are, or for that matter, anything else about them. But I know how old I am. And I know that there are still a lot of things that I want to do with my life. There are a lot of things that I'm afraid to say I want to do, but I am only noticing this fear for the first time.

It sounds kind of lame in my head, but I say, "I want to write a novel." When I actually say it, it feels like something I could really accomplish. I feel Rennie sigh softly, and I can see Vic smile.

"What do you want to do, Vic?" Rennie asks.

Vic says, "I can do anything."

Monday, September 29, 2008

a short play

(A man and two women are sitting in adjoining seats on the Metro. The women are facing the front of the car, and the man is facing the aisle. The man has a deep, gravelly voice. Woman1 is about his age, 50+, and Woman2 is in her late 20's/early 30's.)

Man: Thank you so much for having us. This visit has been really great.

Woman1: You're welcome.

Man: We even got to go to this little town where Jack lives, and he took us to this place where they make the best cheeseburgers. The meat is really fresh and they put this thin slice of cheese on it right when it comes off the grill, so it melts perfectly all over. Delicious.

Woman1: Well, you're welcome any time.

Man: You're so nice. Your mother would have stopped me from coming to visit a long time ago. She always got mad at me and would start yelling, remember?

Woman1: Uh...this is my stop.

Man: Thanks again!

Woman1: No problem. (she gets up and leaves the train at the stop)

Man: That woman is 61 years old. Would you believe it? I never would have guessed.

Woman2: Oh, I see.

Man: This cheeseburger place was really great. But you'd really never believe Jack...he's got this girlfriend, and she's a real knockout. Like, model hot. Seeing them together, man! What do they talk about? Books? (he snorts derisively)

Woman2: Well.

Man: His last girlfriend was much more his speed. She was Chinese, and took language classes and cooking lessons and everything. She was really great, but he wanted someone younger, I guess. Ridiculous, right?

Woman2: I suppose.

Man: I don't really cook that much. I know how, but I'm not really good at it. Though this guy Anthony from work called me once and asked me "how do you do this?" particular thing you do in the kitchen for making desserts, and I told him, and he was like, "man, you're a genius!"

Woman2: How about that.

Man: I keep all kinds of good stuff in the kitchen, though. Jars and jars of things, everywhere. Black raspberries, white chocolate, jams, peppers, artichokes...hey, I made artichokes for these people once, just drained 'em and made them into a dip, and I served them to all these people from work and not one of them had ever had an artichoke before. Can you believe that?

Woman2: That's interesting. Did they like them?

Man: Oh, they loved them. Ate it up. I made it again the next time we had a company gathering. Do you ever have work gatherings?

Woman2: Not really.

Man: That's too bad. If you like the people you work with, work parties can be so great. There's this one girl who doesn't really like me, though. She always gets mad and yells at me, and I can't even figure out why. I mean, I'm just there talking to her, and all of the sudden she snaps!

Woman2: I can't imagine.

Man: I mean, what's that all about? You'd think that you would want to have a good relationship with the people you work with. She's in shipping and I'm in sales, so we have to have a good working relationship in order to get things done, right? But she never talks to me unless we have a work party, and when she does, she always just gets mad after 15 minutes. I've known you for...what...15 minutes? And you haven't yelled at me yet. There must be something wrong with her.

Woman2: This is my stop.

Man: Oh, here? This is a good stop. I heard there are a lot of good restaurants around this one. Do you have to walk very far to get to work? I'm transfering at the next stop to get to the airport. My flight is in a few hours but I like to get to the airport early because you always meet the most interesting people when you're traveling.

Woman2: Have a good trip home.

Man: Thanks.

Woman2: (leaves)


Monday, September 01, 2008


He winks conspiratorially at me, and we are suddenly complicit in something larger than ourselves. It is a promise that we cannot speak, that has no name. And yet, we both understand what he means with that quick wink, curly eyelashes batting away the smoke of his cigarette break. It is then that we become a single being, separated only by time and circumstance, doomed to walk our own paths with dogged insistence, with only these brief, drunken glimmers of recognition to look forward to at uncertain intervals. And it is with this (repeated) realization that we allow our eyes to meet, then part.

Sunday, August 31, 2008


It hasn't been so long, but already I forget the timbre of your voice. I forget the smell of your apartment, like exotic cooking snd Ivory soap...or was it more like cinnamon and laundry detergent? The distinction isn't much, but in my nose, those smells are distinct: one is you and one is just a way I wish things were, when I think of you. Were your eyes blue? Or were they grey, shifting in the sunlight? Your fingers were gentle, I recall that for sure, but was the skin rough or smooth, neglected for the sake of manliness, or cared for as meticulously as you had cared for me? It has been so long that I cannot recall the way your lips would twitch when you were proud of yourself, and I can't remember the kinds of things that used to make you particularly proud.

They say that in time, I won't remember all the things you whispered with your mouth pressed against my ear, the things we dreamed together under our blanket, those long summer nights. That I'll wash a load of blankets and not remember which one was "ours." In time, I won't remember where you came from or why you left.

When I think that I might forget any of this, I hold on tight, wrapping my fingers around you like holding onto a beachful of sand.

Monday, August 18, 2008


As the world passes by in a blur of colors and waving parents who are too oblivious to realize that their children are going through life in circles, I realize that I don't just want to grab the brass ring. I want to grab the whole damned merry-go-round and let it spin in the palm of my hand. I want to hold all the colors and parents and nauseated children, and I want them to know that I am what makes the world spin, that my whim commands dizzying power. I want them to bow to me, to know my benevolence, and to praise it. That brass ring is just a proxy for all the power that could be, I think, as I see a kindergarten-age boy nearly fall off his up-and-down gelding to take hold of it. "I got it!" he shouts, his face lit up with glee. He can see his reflection in it, and the feedback loop of shining face and ormolu ring is almost too bright to watch. How easy this is going to be, I think, when they are so disoriented and so easy to appease.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

sleeping giant

The white noise hums away as he sleeps, his even breaths belying the hailstorm of pain behind his closed eyes. This is his refuge, this dreamless slumber, and I intrude upon it, my feet heavy on the old wooden planks although I am doing my best to swan through his house like an uninvited ballerina. I will have broth ready for him when he awakes, I have decided, but I do not know where to find the pots in his kitchen, and I despair of ever unearthing a fresh vegetable or the remains of a chicken in the neglected cavern where he occasionally stores his leftover takeout meals.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008


After we had passed through the final police checkpoint, Mason and I ran up the stairs to the apartment that I shared with our coworker Rayjeanne. I grabbed two bottles of beer, the cheap-but-decent stuff, and ushered Mason into my bedroom. "Nobody's here yet," I said. "And Rayjeanne wanted me to stay out of the way if it was just her and Trick." Mason shrugged and took the beer I handed him, finding a seat on my neatly made bed. I sat down on the end of the bed and leaned against the wall. I had been looking forward to this for the entire month, this "bonding and brewskis happy hour" party that Rayjeanne had planned as a thinly-veiled attempt to get into Ricky T's pants. I could hear them in the living room. "Tri-ick," Rayjeanne drawled, purposely using the familiar nickname that Ricky had quickly earned around the office. "Can you open this beer for me, darlin'?" I pictured Trick popping the top on his belt buckle, on the heel of his boot, or with his teeth in some wild display of machismo that was certain to make Rayjeanne cream herself. "Much obliiiiged, Trick, darlin'," she crooned, her voice dripping with sex. I tried to smother a smile. If my poor roommate was anything, "subtle" was not it.
"What are you laughing at?" Mason asked me then, his steely eyes grabbing mine and refusing to let go until I answered.
"I'm trying not to laugh," I said, contorting my face into a parody of seriousness.
"You might as well be trying not to breathe," he said, grinning.
"I'm also trying not to breathe," I laughed, taking a deep breath and miserably failing to hold it in my puffed-out cheeks. He laughed too, tilting his head back to take a swig from his longneck. Although this party was ostensibly all about Rayjeanne's desire to make breakfast for Trick, I was secretly ecstatic about it for my own reason: Mason Wayland. Would there ever be a better opportunity to get this incredible specimen of a man into my bedroom, beer in hand? We were just talking, of course, my sense of subtlety being quite overdeveloped in comparison to Rayjeanne's. But there was time enough and beer enough for something else to happen, wasn't there? Sure, we all worked together, but those were the perks of having a dangerous job: everyone who wanted to eventually just fucked each other to relieve the tension, and nobody ever gave it a second thought.
When the waves of laughter were only lapping at our shores, he asked, "What do you think is up with Rayjeanne and Trick?"
"I know what she hopes is up," I smiled at my own double entendre, but my mirth faded when I saw Mason's expression, a bit forlorn with a hint of brow-furrowing that I hadn't anticipated. Someone else came through the front door then, calling out a hearty "hullo!" to Rayjeanne. It was Pete and Mielle.
"Hey kids!" Rayjeanne said, her voice bubbling with excitement. She liked being a gracious hostess almost as much as she liked getting laid.
"Sorry we're late," Mielle said. "But Pete wanted to find the closest approximation to his favorite beer, and we were at that place by the north border, where the guy lets you taste everything?"
"You're not late," Rayjeanne said. "I don't even know if Cat is home yet."
"We're in here," I shouted into the living room, almost reluctantly jumping up and pulling Mason into the fray.
"Jesus, Cat," Rayjeanne said. "How did you get in here without my noticing? Hello, Mason."
"I have a key, don't I?" I said, my voice betraying my annoyance. I realized that this sort of behavior was probably how I had gained my reputation for being the sullen one. That, my wardrobe, and the extensive collection of shoegazing indie rock that I shared on the office's iTunes.
"Hello, Rayjeanne," Mason said.
Sometimes I got the sense that Rayjeanne really only tolerated me, even though we did most of the things that friends were supposed to do. And I was suddenly curious about her relationship with Mason. Why had he had such a visceral reaction to my snarky remark about her and Trick? A timid knock was a welcome interruption to our strained greetings.
"That must be Kristi and her cubemates," Rayjeanne said, opening the door. "Have some beers, everyone! We have enough to last us through a siege!" The ever-effervescent Kristi and her cubemates tumbled through the door the way that cartoon snow falls into a house after a snow-in. The girls were just as glittery as snow, too, and the guys seemed all too happy to be accompanying them to a party. This was really the first time since our start date that our hiring class had gotten together as a group to do anything that wasn't work.
The only one left to show up was Andrew. He was the kind of guy who spiked his hair in the morning and wore a black hoodie everywhere. If it hadn't been against regulations, he probably would have pinned things to it, band logos screen printed on cloth scraps, like the punk kids who hung out near the border, just out of the grasp of the checkpoint police. Andrew and I often wore the same black Converse, which prompted everyone else to think that we should get together. But I didn't want a guy who was just like me. I wanted Mason, a guy who wouldn't have had any trouble fitting in with the popular crowd in my high school: smart, preppy, athletic, blond. Another weak knock interrupted my reverie. But that wasn't like Andrew at all. He had a firm handshake and a percussionist's knock.
"Who is it?" Rayjeanne asked before opening the door. The knock had aroused her suspicions as well. She peered through the eyehole.
"Andrew," came a gruff voice from the other side of the door.
"Oh my God, Andrew," she said, quickly undoing the lock and throwing open the door. "What happened?"
"The cops," he said into the doormat, bent double. "They hassled me at the checkpoint. I forgot my work ID card, and I guess they thought..." Andrew stumbled in, trying to straighten himself out. Rayjeanne closed the door behind him and ran to get some ice from the freezer.
"Are you ok?" I asked.
"I'm fine," he rumbled. "Just need to sit down." Mielle rushed to his side and helped him sit on the couch.
"Andrew, seriously," she said. "You look hurt." His cheek was red and puffy and we could see the dusty brown bootprints at the waist of his black hoodie, with a few on the chest.
"Just a couple of kicks," he said. "I've had worse."
"Maybe you should start combing your hair down," Pete suggested, trying to be helpful. Andrew cut him off with a piercing glare.
"Fuck you too," he snapped. "Isn't this supposed to be a beer party, Rayjeanne?" I had already gotten a beer for him, a twist-off that I opened right before handing over the bottle. "Oh, thanks, Cat." Rayjeanne came back with a plastic baggie full of ice, wrapped in a kitchen towel.
"Take about ten beers, put this ice on your face, and call me in the morning," she said, dabbing at his cheek with the icy kitchen towel. Andrew took the ice from her and held it to the lump on his cheek, which was purpling before our eyes. He thanked her and tried to smile, but the resultant one-sided effect looked more like a sneer. "Drink up, kid," she said, smiling at him. He took a swig. Rayjeanne nodded her approval and I realized that I had been compulsively sucking on my beer since Andrew came in, and it was empty. I went to the kitchen for another, Mason hot on my heels. The party noise was slowly creeping back into the party, now that it seemed that Andrew was not in any immediate danger.

Friday, July 11, 2008

houses on the hill

The houses on the hill float by in silence, their old brick facades filled with windows, filled with incandescent lights. Wrought iron curls up the staircases as we pass by, steadily descending, going back to earth.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

regrets only

She wishes she'd loved the boy who looked like a wet lamb in the morning. His pale blond curls would take a day of drying to stretch into their regular feathery whorls. He had a way of looking at her and seeing a photograph, and she would not have gotten tired of being a perfect, crystalline moment every time he kissed her hello. With an empty notebook, he was a magician. He carried a satchel full of borrowed poetry, too large for his spindly lamb legs.

Then there was the Greek statue, the tall, lean muscled man-boy who looked as though he rubbed his skin with olives every day. Her wildest fantasies were his memories, cliff-dives and ouzo and making love for the first time on a black sand beach, speeding through all the necessary touches because he was afraid that the girl's father might discover them. He had a particular knack for admiring her from afar, and he took care to make sure that she noticed it. She would not have gotten tired of the furtive glances, the words of his favorite love poems recited cautiously in her presence.

And then the scholar, the philosopher king with the unusual crown. He was the one who made her wish she had the courage to be reckless. His erudition thrilled her into feeling young and foolish, so she looked up their zodiac signs and laughed to see that each of their flames would feed the other's fires. Her mind swam the butterfly stroke when he spoke to her, and floated when he sang. He was also a music-maker, and she would not have gotten tired of his fingers, traipsing over the piano keys, down her spine. He was a gentleman's gentleman.

The traveler smelled like yuzu and woodsmoke, and liked the feel of light rain on his skin, soaking through his shirts. He lived cyclically, with the turn of the Earth and the change of the seasons. She would not have gotten tired of the tales he had to tell, of guessing which ones were fabricated. Humor would elicit his gravelly voice from the depths of his unevenly shaven throat.

She wished she would have let herself be angry enough to smash the furniture, to love without analytics, to scream at the world when she thought it deserved a good wake-up call. If she'd let herself sleep more, if she'd loved how she ought, if she'd kissed with the courage of a conquistador, things might have been different. Or perhaps they wouldn't. Regrets only mean something if there are guarantees.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

musings on a sleepless night

The moon outside my bedroom window isn't really the moon, but it emits the same kind of light, pale and insistent. It's brighter, as though you've cast a silver fishing line into the sky and pulled it hand over hand until the moon floated nearby like a timid but curious jellyfish. I sit up in bed, fresh from dreaming of the gentle roll of a rowboat, wondering why you would risk placing the jellyfish (with its terrible sting) so close to my tender, sleeping flesh. But the jellyfish over the bow of my boat isn't really the moon, and you will never be there to man the oars, to take me away from its prying, indefatigable light.

Thursday, June 26, 2008


"Did you remember to take out the trash, Craig?" her voice filtered down the stairs into my little home office, interrupting the rapid click-click of my fingers on the keyboard.  She really had an uncanny knack of bothering me when I was in the middle of something important.
"Yes, honey, I did," I yelled back. "You know I'm workin' down here, sweetheart!"
"Oh, sorry," she said, poking her head through the door at the top of the stairs.  I looked up to catch a glimpse of her long, brown hair and her doll-like face.  She was scowling, but on her, a scowl was only a crinkled button nose and a delicately scrunched eyebrow.  "I'm always so tempted to talk to you because I know you're so close."
"I know, babe," I said.  "Just try to pretend I'm not here." 
"Well, I'm going out now, anyway," she said.  "I'll bring some dinner back." 
"Bye, darling," I said. I cringed a little, fully aware that I'd used four different pet names for her in as many sentences. I found myself hoping that she would ignore it this time, even though we were both aware that the pet names usually only came out for two occasions: when I was irked, and when I wanted sex.  The gentle thud of the front door told me that she had ignored it, and I laughed aloud at the folly of my mixed messages, mostly to fill the silent space with something before I returned to my work. 
The annoyed "sweetie"- and "honey"-ing had been going on for the past month, ever since I started working from home. I had been "decentralized" from the media and publishing firm where I used to work, which meant that it wasn't worth the price of overhead in this energy market to keep writer/editors in cubicles. They actually sold the whole building, mostly to pay the bills that had accrued during the transition from print to electronic media.  A number of my colleagues were downsized as a result.  In the small favors category, while I wasn't technically "downsized," my job functions were.  I used to be full time, but the work they sent me was often not enough to fill more than half of any given week. And editing is still one of those jobs that pays by the hour, unless you're some kind of superstar. 
I really feel like I inhabit my world right now, which is an interesting sensation for someone who had always felt like watching the nightly news was akin to sitting in the back row at a huge, foreign sporting event. When people realized that gas prices weren't going to go back down anytime soon, commuting essentially became obsolete.  Now, working from home is not unusual among my friends and former colleagues.  I move less during the day, and I eat less, but my meals end up costing about the same as they did when I bought them from the hot truck three times a week.  Such is the life of the middle class American these days, according to the "iReporters."  Such is my life. 
On my last day in the office, I was browsing the jobs in the back of one of the commuter rags and I found an interesting little ad. "Wanted: Testimonial Writers/Must have firm command of standard English/Multiple dialects and Internet speak a plus/Creative, self-starter, work from home/negotiable rate based on fiction portfolio."  I was going to be working from home already, so I ripped out the ad and put it in my wallet. It only took me a few days of running out of firm work and being bored out of my mind before I sent a portfolio of my short and flash fiction to the email address in the ad.
Not to brag, but they hired me within minutes.  I negotiated a reasonable per contract/per hour rate and signed and faxed back the employment agreement.  The next morning, the work just started rolling in.  It was every creative writer's dream job, really.  They would send me information about products or services, and I would write glowing testimonials from satisfied customers. Occasionally the contractor would ask for a couple of testimonies with reasonably bad grammar or spelling, just to lend them a little verisimilitude.  Sometimes, they'd ask for a negative one, but it always had to point to another of the company's products as the eventual solution to whatever problem the product in question was supposed to address. Dishonest?  It was fiction like any other, and as long as I didn't think too hard about it, I didn't really care.
I'm mostly just thankful that I was able to get a second job at all, considering the economy.  It makes little difference to me, as a writer and editor, how many jobs I'm working, as long as the work is sufficiently stimulating and it fills the days as well as it fills my bank account.  But for some reason, I was still unable to tell my wife about it.  When she asked, I told her I was writing "freelance ad copy for small publications."  I love her, but I didn't want her to know exactly what I was writing to supplement our household income.  Maybe it was misplaced machismo, or maybe the dishonesty of it rankled on some subconscious level, but then, I've always been secretive about my creative work.  In a way, getting to know my characters often felt like a betrayal, no matter how unattractive they were to me.  It was the intimacy of it more than anything else, and I loved her too much to confront her with all of that.
The loose timeframes on the work allowed me to really inhabit these imaginary customers, and I slowly built a stable of distinct voices that could be called upon to testify whenever their expertise was needed.  There was "Maryann," the mother of three whose children always had some ailment and were always too obstinate to bend to conventional remedies.  Then there was "Steve," the average guy who was always on the lookout for better, easier, and faster ways to do his dreaded household chores.  "Tara" desperately wanted a magic weight loss bullet, and "christine" only used the shift key on her keyboard to type out emoticons.  "Peter" often had problems with products, but was always able to recommend an alternative.  "Jack," "Lily," and "Dee" mixed modifiers, dropped verbs, and sometimes misspelled words.  If any of my characters, even the one-offs, had to claim to behave in an unusual way (for example, eating only one meal per day), I'd give them a compelling reason to do it (violent reactions to eating before or after sleep).  I often had to let them be gullible to make them beguiling.  I loved these characters, even if their purpose was slightly less than ethical.

That evening, I emerged from my office and greeted my wife with a kiss.  "You know I had an appointment today," she said, half asking, half telling. 

"No," I said. "What sort of appointment?"

"With Dr. Bhat," she said.

"Didn't you just see her?" I asked.  It was odd for her to go to the internist any more than she had to. She had a fear of doctors that she would never admit to, but she'd never had a proper blood pressure reading in her life.  She was perfectly healthy, but her blood pressure skyrocketed every time they slapped the cuff on her.

"She asked me to come back for a follow-up," she said, sitting down in a kitchen chair.  My wife was a small woman who was always bubbly enough to fill a room.  But right now, she looked even smaller than her five-foot-two.    

"What's the matter?" I asked, reaching out and rubbing her shoulders gently.

"I have a tumor," she said.

"Not..." I didn't want to say "cancer" because that word reeked of finality.

"No," she said.  "Not cancer.  It's just a tumor.  But it could grow.  And it could become cancer."

Relieved, I choked, "Oh!  So you can get it out, right?"    

"Yes," she said. "I could.  But I'm not sure I want to."

"What do you mean 'you're not sure you want to'?" I asked, incredulous.  This was not like having your tonsils out because they might get infected again in the future.  This was a tumor that could eventually kill her.

"I've been reading about some other options," she said.  "People have shrunk similar tumors with dietary changes, exercise, and herbs."

"Oh, honey," I said.  "You can't believe everything you read on the Internet."

"But some of these stories!  They're so compelling!" she exclaimed.  "I have already ordered a few things."

"Oh, no." I could feel my stomach falling into a deep, dark pit.     

How did sisters speak in the olden times?

"Every time I see him, I must look like a startled doe by coachlight. I'm surprised, nay, shocked, at the way the mere sight of," Julia complained, only relaxing her terse, clipped tones as she carefully decided on "affects" as her verb of choice. From the tone of her voice, I knew that she could have easily replaced that particular word with "elates," "thrills," or "exhilarates" to describe the phenomenon. However, Julia was practicing her signature restraint. "I consider myself to be a woman of densest moral fiber and most solid constitution, Helen," she said. Something about her is dense, all right. I sat in the living room crocheting a lace doily, trying not to smirk. I pictured her getting weak in the knees when the object of her affection, a small young man whose life appeared to be a series of quick, efficient motions, passed by her classroom door. "And I'm supposed to be a role model for all those girls! It simply will not do to have me...swooning...whenever the new headmaster walks into the room."

"Julia," I said, looking up from my work. She shuddered. I loved saying my sister's name because she appeared to hate it so viscerally. (Whenever it was announced in public, she would ask the heavens why our parents couldn't have given her a slightly less Roman-sounding name. I think she may have decided to work in the boarding school because everyone there was obliged to call her Miss Chase.) "Why don't you just go out with him? Isn't there a barn-raising on Friday?"

"Helen!" she snapped. "Don't you understand? I am not the sort of woman who 'goes to barn-raisings' with gentlemen. Specifically not with gentlemen who are my superiors at work. That would be unseemly, and on the whole, undesirable."

"What's better," I posed the question: "An evening of companionship and possibly even some fun? Or being afraid of running into him every day for the rest of your tenure?"

"You don't understand. Not at all," she sighed loudly, collapsing into a rocking chair. For such an uptight priss, Julia certainly had a way of becoming melodramatic. Normally, when I tell a story about my life with my sister, it invariably ends up as a semi-tragic version of The Taming of the Shrew, in which the concerned father will not allow his younger daughter to marry until the older one is married first. Nobody dies at the ends of my stories, but nobody actually gets married, either. But after many stories of the kind, I'd sort of given up on ever even being pursued. All the eligible gentlemen had heard the legend of Julia Chase, and feared that the little sister would be just like her, but worse for having had to skulk around their house like a scullery maid to avoid her temper. Or so the boys said, according to my friend Emma. These rumors were, of course, much exaggerated versions of the truth.

Truthfully, I'd recently taken up crocheting. I found that the small, repetitive motions of it soothed me, particularly when Julia got it in her head to talk about emotions, relationships, or anything else she didn't really understand. Even now, my hands and fingers moved deftly, around and through, making lace while my sister was speaking of being in love. As smart as she was, and well-trained in the arts of nursing, Julia was still entirely unable to diagnose this particular ailment in herself. I smiled, knowing full well that she would skewer my logic if I even attempted to explain it to her. No, she and this headmaster of hers were going to have to figure it all out themselves. With my next stitch, I sent up a prayer for Julia to figure it out sooner, rather than later. From my crochet hook to God's ears, or something.