Monthly Archives: May 2015

One Tough Character

From the start, I knew I wanted to write my current novel-in-progress in four sections, each told from the viewpoint of a different family member: the mom, dad, brother, and last but not least, the daughter Alice. While I was excited to develop all of these characters, I most looked forward to telling Alice’s story. I felt that the 30-something year-old commitmentphobe would be the most compelling character in the bunch, with the clearest voice. I also relate to her on a personal level, having faced a few of my own commitment issues over the years. She is a little like me, so therefore should be the easiest to write. Right?magical-weave-mirror

Wrong. I have struggled with this character more than any other, in large part because she is a little like me. How am I supposed to resolve her conflicts even as I struggle with my own? But perhaps through her redemption, I will discover some of my own.

I am deep into the fourth and final section of the third draft of my novel. Next step, beta readers, which both excites and unnerves me. In celebration of getting this far (and to encourage myself to keep going), I’ve shared below a pre-beta excerpt from Part Four, Chapter One, and the first glimpse at the world from Alice’s point of view. Thanks for reading!

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Why I Hate Working in Offices:
1. People talking to me when I have my earbuds in
2. Having to listen to people talk to each other over the stalls in the bathroom while they pee
*Unique to this office: the bathroom is located next to the kitchen and it always reeks like whatever anyone puts in the microwave. Fish, popcorn, leftover Chinese. Bathrooms should not smell like food!
3. Close talkers
4. People touching my monitor
5. People touching my keyboard
6. Supervisors “checking in”, “reaching out”, and “touching base”
7. “Dialoging”
8. Having to comb my hair

“Hey Alice,” Shareen said, leaning over the edge of her cube and into my airspace.

I could smell her gum. Grape.

“A little bird told me it’s your birthday.”

Shareen smiled. Her eyes looked even bigger than usual due to the ring of peacock blue liner that circled them.

I was pretty sure I knew who the little bird was. Danielle, the receptionist, was almost clinically nosy. She peppered me with questions — where was I going for lunch, did I prefer waxing or plucking — nearly every time I passed by her desk. She also had a habit of complimenting my shoes or my purse or my earrings, but with her lip turned up just enough to make it clear she wouldn’t be caught dead wearing any of it. I’d taken to responding in kind: Love that color of lipstick on you, I’d say and then wink.

I ignored Shareen and kept my eyes on my monitor.

“Are you doing anything fun to celebrate?” she asked. “Is your boyfriend taking you out somewhere nice?”

“I’m on deadline, Shareen,” I said, still not looking up.

“Oh. Cool,” Shareen said. “Later.” And she disappeared into her cubicle.

I’d decided three years earlier that I would not take another contract job that required me to work in an office. I explained to my potential employers that I was much more productive working at home, and since they were paying me hourly, this would actually save them money in lost time due to non-project related activities (i.e., pointless meetings, over-the-cube-chit-chat, etc.). Most companies were happy to take the discount, but MediaBlitz apparently had money to burn. It’d been nearly a month since my last contract had ended, and my savings was starting to take a hit. MediaBlitz offered me a three-month full-time contract at a ridiculously high hourly rate. The only condition was that I had to be in the office from 8:30am to 5:30pm Monday through Friday. I was backed into a corner. I relented. And I had regretted it ever since.

“How are you coming along on the Emerson Winslow copy?”

This time it was my direct supervisor Janet leaning over the wall of my cube. She was always doing this — popping up behind me, ninja-like — as if she expected to catch me playing Minesweeper.

“Almost done,” I said, still not looking up.

I find it’s best not to make eye contact with suspicious people. Far from reassuring them that you are telling the truth, it only seems to make them think you feel guilty. Best to keep your eyes on your work as if you can’t bear to be parted from it.

“I’ll have the final draft to Proofreading before lunch,” I said.

Emerson Winslow was a huge law firm and Janet was their account manager. I couldn’t decide which was worse: copy editing for the world’s most boring ad campaign or working for Janet, who clearly saw it as her job to look over everyone’s shoulders. She was barely five feet tall and almost perfectly round in the middle, yet didn’t make a sound when she crept up behind you. She always wore black, not in a gothy sort of way but more like a mime. She pulled her hair back into a severe ponytail, a move that gave her face a stretched appearance, like an iguana.

I could feel her standing behind me, could feel her eyes on my monitor. My skin prickled and it was all I could do to keep from whirling around and shouting, How am I supposed to get anything done with you breathing down my neck?

But I didn’t, because that’s the kind of thing that gets you fired. Or at least, the kind of thing that got me fired in the past.

“Can I help you with anything else, Janet?” I asked. Janet didn’t say anything, and when I chanced a glance back over my shoulder, she’d disappeared like a puff of smoke.

Shareen was right. It was my birthday. 31 years old. I disliked birthdays. Not because I was afraid of gray hair or saggy boobs, but because birthdays and their associated celebrations had always been a source of anxiety in my family. I’d enacted a strict No Celebration rule years before, but this time around had agreed to let my boyfriend Patrick bring over take-out from my favorite Burmese place, as long as there was no singing or candles. My boyfriend. I was still getting used to that word. We’d been together for one whole year. My longest relationship ever.

I was dating a few different guys when we met. Well, dating wasn’t exactly the word for what we were doing. More like drinking and screwing. They were the kind of guys who had their jeans back on and a reason to leave before I had a chance to ask them to go. Which was fine with me, because the last thing I wanted was to wake up and find one of them still there, expecting breakfast.

But then I began to notice a curious pattern: whenever I went out with Patrick, not only did he end up in my bed but he was still there at 2am, at 4am, at 8am. And he didn’t once eye his discarded clothing longingly, didn’t look at the clock and comment on the lateness of the hour, the fact that he had to visit his mother in the morning, or meet a friend for breakfast. Patrick was solidly present and his attention was 100% on me. Until he fell asleep.  And even then, he cuddled into me, his arms and legs wrapped around mine. It was both comforting and suffocating. I wanted him to leave but I didn’t want him gone.

That first morning, he woke me with a kiss on the forehead, despite my plaintive groans. When I opened my eyes, his face was warm and sleepy. Peaceful.

“Why are you looking at me?” I asked, squinting into the light.

“Because I like seeing you in the daylight, Vampire,” he teased. I was too surprised to have time to recoil.

He smelled like vanilla beans, and when he kissed me, I felt spikes of lightening shoot through my body, like static electricity but much better. After he stayed the night, I could still smell him on my sheets the next day. It drove me wild.

Over the next few weeks, I stopped seeing the other guys and then it was only Patrick knocking on my front door with a bottle of wine. Only Patrick pulling my underwear down and sliding his face between my legs. Patrick fumbling with the coffee maker in the morning, inviting me to lunch, to meet his best friend from college.

And in this way, he covertly became my boyfriend, a word I had not used since high school.

“Don’t be late tonight,” Patrick said the morning of my 31st birthday, as we departed from my apartment and went on our respective ways to work. “I’ve got plans for you.” And he raised his eyebrows up and down in a Groucho Marx sort of way.

“Wild horses couldn’t tear me away,” I sung out to him as I walked backwards toward the bus stop.

It was a Wednesday in early February, the skies were gray and gloomy, and the temperature cold as hell. One of the downsides of a winter birthday is that you can pretty much count on bad weather. A real birthday present would have been to stay home, to avoid the rain and the irritating people at work, and instead spend the day curled up on the couch, watching my fish. Electric yellow cichlids, green cobra guppies, neon tetras, harlequin rasboras, and red cap oranda goldfish swam around the tank like colorful little gangs patrolling their territories, occasionally putting on a show of dominance to impress their respective posses, but never pulling out a switchblade or tire iron. Their movements seemed choreographed, like characters straight out of Westside Story. I could watch them for hours.

Patrick didn’t understand my fascination with the fish and had started campaigning for a cat. I tried to explain that just because cats were allowed in my building and not his wasn’t reason enough for me to get one. Anyway, my neighbors’ cats were always streaking down the hallways, scaring the shit out of me and practically knocking me down the stairs. I already had plenty of cat interaction without all the shedding and the shitting-in-a-box business.

The next time he brought it up, I suggested that a peppered cory catfish would be a nice addition to Little Puerto Rico. I thought it was a pretty good joke.

After the tenth or one-hundredth time he brought up his childhood cat Smokey and waxed nostalgic about how the flat-faced Persian had curled up in bed with him every night until the day it died of a respiratory infection, I knew I had to address the issue head on. I did not want a cat, I explained, because they shed everywhere and scratch the furniture. I did not want a cat because I did not want to be beholden to a small furry creature for 15 years. Patrick retaliated with the rewards of caring for another living creature, the comfort of a sleeping cat on your lap, the soothing sound of purring. He quoted research that suggested people with pets tend to be happier, less stressed out.

“But the fish make me happy,” I explained. “Easier than meditation and cheaper than therapy.”

“You’re impossible to reason with, you know?” Patrick said, for perhaps the millionth time. He was fighting back a smile. It was so easy to make him laugh, and this had quickly become my best tool to diffuse any brewing storm.

“What fun would life be if you could reason your way through it?” I said. I knew this didn’t make any sense, but Patrick smiled just the same, shaking his head at me in mock bemusement.

“The thing is,” he started again, his tone thoughtful now, “as much as I’d like to have a cat, I want you to want it too.” And then he looked at me with his big brown Bambi eyes, and I felt both a swoon of affection for him and a strong urge to leave the room.

He had this way of saying things that made the room contract, the air thinner around me. He had this way of saying things that made me want to diffuse the moment with a smart ass remark although I understood that to do so would be unforgivably cruel. So I did the only thing I could on such an occasion: I leaned in to kiss him. First on his forehead, then each cheek, then his chin, the tip of his nose, and finally his lips. At first he wouldn’t kiss back, but then I would feel the pressure of his lips on mine. His hands would wander up over my hips and onto my ass and before I knew it, desire would take over, blocking all other thoughts for the time being, and soon we’d be screwing on the couch, the bed, the living room floor.

I had a cat once. Or I think I did. It’s hard to keep the murky visual details of childhood straight. Maybe the cat belonged to a neighbor, because my brother swears we never had a cat. Anyway, I remember a cat. It was gray and black and somehow had both stripes like a tiger and spots like a leopard. Maybe it was two cats and my amorphous brain blended them into one for the sake of simplicity. Regardless, there was at least one cat. I remember the sensation of it butting its head up against my hand, its wet little nose grazing over my skin. I remember the sensation of its whiskers tickling my face when I tried to kiss it on the head.

I can’t remember the cat’s name and I have no idea what happened to it, but I always feel a little sad when I think about that cat. Or any cat, really. One time when I was twelve or thirteen, I spotted a gray and black striped cat in the window of a second story apartment; the cat was poised on the back of a sofa, gazing out the window like a sleepy feline neighborhood watch. And without warning, I started to cry. Not full-on sobbing or anything, but I definitely teared up. There was something so beautiful about that cat watching the world go by from behind glass.

I didn’t tell Patrick about the cat in my memories. I wasn’t nostalgic about my childhood the way he was.

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Emotional Word Vomit aka Writing as Therapy

We all have our go-to stories, the ones we love to tell at dinner parties or over drinks with friends. The time you came across porn on a co-worker’s computer. That time in college when you got drunk and passed out in the laundry room. I have several of my own favorite stories, ranging from awkward blind dates to the roommate who routinely ate spoiled food. While these experiences were somewhat horrifying at the time (i.e. the therapist who referred to his clients as “whiners”, the ever-present smell of my roommate’s rotting produce in the refrigerator), they are some of my favorite stories to tell.

But what about the stories we can’t laugh off, even years later?

I recently came across a call for submissions for personal essays on the theme “It Left Me Speechless”. It sounded like a fun challenge and a good introduction to a possible new writing venue, and almost at once, I thought of the perfect story. The problem was that even thinking about delving into the emotional details of this perfect story made my stomach squirm.

For several days, I tried but failed to find inspiration in a series of lighter but much less compelling experiences. By its very definition, a personal essay is, well…personal. It reveals the writer’s innermost thoughts, feelings, vulnerabilities. Sharing our intimate selves with others is part of what makes us human. But it’s also scary as hell. And the requisite self-examination that goes into the effort is often even more terrifying.

So, about that “perfect” story that I am compelled to tell but afraid to face…well, I will say this much: I had a minor nervous breakdown. Not the straightjacket-and-padded-cell kind we usually associate with the term. I remained a generally productive member of society, went to work, fed myself, bathed regularly. But I was broken. Word Vomit

It started off as what should have been a relatively routine break-up. We weren’t a good fit, we wanted different things, etc. But for months afterward, I was plagued by anxiety. I awoke every morning to the crushing realization that I was still alive. My mind was a churning cesspool, and I was afraid of my own toxic thoughts. I didn’t vacuum my apartment for over six weeks because I couldn’t stand to be alone with my brain while the sound of the vacuum drowned out all other external noise. I started smoking again because I needed to do something with my hands. I also started running because I had so much nervous energy, and I couldn’t bear to sit still.

In short, I was a mess.

While I am well over the guy, it seems I am still not quite over the aftermath. And perhaps really digging in to write this piece would help me to resolve that. Both anecdotal and statistical evidence shows that people who write out their feelings tend to be happier, to feel more resolved with their problems. This is of course a form of therapy. Perhaps the best thing I could do for myself is to look my demons in the eyes.

Can you only write about something once you’ve resolved it? Or is writing about it part of the process? And once you’ve written about it, how do you know when to share it with others and when to file it safely away under “Emotional Word Vomit – Do Not Disclose”?

I don’t know the answers. I may discover them by plunging in headfirst, but only if I can find the guts.

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