Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Personal Essay, Writing Exercises

Boys at the Window

What was outside your bedroom window?

(Doing this exercise from the phone today as our TV broke and my family has commandeered my iPad to watch Star Wars. A little weird, but I like it because I get to be lazy and lie in bed while I write. On to it.)

I’ve lived in three of the four bedrooms of the house I grew up in. I started at the end of the hall, moved across the hall to the front of the house, then back across the hall to the biggest of the little bedrooms, at last. When I lived in the bedroom at the front of the house, my window looked out on the walk, the lawn, the sidewalk, the streetlight that was supposed to be orange but was always broken, the street, the across-the-street neighbor’s house, and the across-the-street neighbor’s house’s front windows–their living room and a little square bedroom just like mine.

I slept with the head of my bed up against the window. I liked to look out through the blinds at night and contemplate the mysteries of junior high vis a vis the mysteries of the mostly empty street, an unhurried car passing once in a great while.

One night, my boyfriend and two of his friends came to the window. They whispered and laughed and sang and coaxed me out without permission. I think it might have been all of 10:00pm. We were doing what good kids walking the razor sharp line between good kids and slightly less good kids do. We thought we were stealing the world. It’s good we thought that.

Just now the thought: I have had romantic experiences in my lifetime after all, or at least this one–and the several times after that it also happened once they figured out I was so easily persuaded. Once they figured out I was just bad enough.

I came to expect them. I prepared myself for it. I dressed. I made sure my hair was ok, but not too ok. When my best friend came to my house for a sleepover, I made sure her clothes and hair were also ok, but not too ok. She was the best of the good kids. To her, we really were stealing the world. She looked afraid when I told her they would come. She went along anyway.

-M.

Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Personal Essay, Prose, Writing Exercises

Exceptional Vehicles

Let’s talk about driving. What goes unnoticed? What do we take for granted?

All you people take driving for granted.

I can’t drive because I’m legally blind and it is one of the most horrible kinds of crippling, or at least I imagine it is. Having never been an independent driver, I wouldn’t know.

I don’t know what it’s like to have a notion to go somewhere and just go. Cold night, playing Freeze Out like my dad used to do with us girls in the car—all four windows down, whoever rolls theirs up last is the winner—but with only myself as competition. I’ve never had to keep myself awake with only myself and the double yellow lolling out endlessly before me in the dark dark desert between here and Las Vegas.

I don’t know what hitting 100mph is like on that same highway, in the middle of the night, when I’m sure the CHP isn’t watching.

Yellow line, lulling you to sleep. Blaring the radio to fight it, Botts’ dots rumbling your eyes open again. The danger. The responsibility. The irresponsibility. The win when you get there somehow, miraculously, safe.

I wish I could stand somewhere alone that I drove to alone that I decided to drive to alone, and that no one but me, alone, would know about it.

Freedom. A grass is greener freedom as my side of the fence is on foot or riding the bus or in a cab or mooching rides from patient friends.

It’s hard to be independent when your broader movements are, by necessity, dependent—when, at the very least, the bus driver is going to know where you came from, where you went, and, if you ride enough, most of what your story is.

I sound bitter.

I am a little bitter.

No one to blame but the DNA. I was born wing-clipped in Southern California. Apparently my genetic material never heard the song “Nobody Walks in LA,” or heard it and thought we would be the exception.

Special genes do make one exceptional.

I am exceptionally half-sighted. I am exceptionally good at scheduling my errands around my friends’ errands so I don’t trouble anybody too much.

I am exceptionally blessed with the gift of the gab and, by lack of automotive freedom, have gained masses of unlikely friends all over the country because of it. There is not much else to do when you’re stuck in transit together, breathing each other’s air, than to become compatriots.

Rwandan refugee cab drivers in Nashville—that ride share guy in DC who asked me what color palm trees are—the Uber lady whose dog just died yesterday—the bus driver who wouldn’t take my ticket without putting on gloves first (she was new and we weren’t virus-stricken yet)—the disability cabbie who brought his family along at eleven at night to pick me up from work, his wife sweetly piping up into the conversation from the back—the Pakistani guy who asked me to marry him—the Russian guy who also asked me to marry him—that other guy who asked me to use my employee discount to buy him a coffee pot “for church.”

I suppose all of these, in truth, are my own kind of exceptional vehicle and, once-in-a-while bilious drivers’ envy aside, my clipped-freedom grass is brilliant green because of them.

-M.

Creative Nonfiction, Family, Memoir, Personal Essay, Prose, Writing Exercises

It Grows and Grows

Talk about disease.

It puts me ill at ease when my mom starts talking about my grandparents’ cancer—how they were dying at the same time, in hospital rooms next to each other. Lung cancer.

They smoked together. I’m sure he lit her cigarettes when they were dating. A sexy gesture. A sexy pull. Firsthand smoke to firsthand smoke. Breathing in each other’s breaths. Secondhand to secondhand. Thirdhand smoke in each other’s clothes. They breathed it in when they were dancing close.

Thirdhand smoke in their clothes still, even their clean clothes that my mother had to divvy up amongst relatives or donate after they passed. You never really can get rid of the smoke, the breath, the illness, the cancer. It grows and grows.

My mother’s marriage was falling apart as her parents were dying. My father was useless.

One day, after having worked a full day and spending most of the evening sitting at her parents’ bedsides, my mom came home to find that my father had put my sister and I to bed in our day clothes. She tells me he didn’t even bother to take our shoes off. That’s the part she couldn’t get over.

Unemployed and couldn’t be bothered to take our shoes off.

Unemployed and he would do the laundry at three in the morning with all the lights on in the house and Hank Williams roaring from the record player.

She wasn’t spending her evenings with him. He couldn’t throw a toddler’s tantrum, so he chose Hank Williams instead and, “You did say you wanted me to do the laundry, didn’t you?”

The cancer grew and grew.

My grandparents died and my mom got a divorce in the same year.

I once asked my mom if she was glad my grandparents weren’t around to see her get divorced. I asked her if there was some relief in it for her—in their passing. I don’t remember how she answered. I know she spoke, but all I really remember is the silence while she thought about it.

-M.

Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Prose, Writing Exercises

Lesser Sickness

Tell us about a sickness you once had.

My pediatrician just about whalloped my mom after listening to my lungs and determining I had pneumonia. My mom hadn’t believed me when I said I was sick. I had asked to stay home from school, day after day, and she pushed me out the door anyway, thinking it was just another case of chronic truancy, from which I had suffered mightily my freshman year.

I remember geometry class. I sat at a group table by myself and put my head down in my arms. I coughed and sweat and almost fell asleep before the coughing woke me up again. Two dudes I didn’t know walked by on their way up to the front of the room to talk to Mr. Wahl. One dude said to the other, “Why is she like that?” The other one said, “Because she’s sick. Can’t you see?”

Weird my mom didn’t see.

That makes me want to get into all the other things my mom didn’t see, but then we start getting into blind Freudian territory and I don’t particularly want to go there.

Tell me about your mother.

I don’t want to go there.

I’d rather focus on how I felt vindicated when my doctor announced I had pneumonia and not a case of the terrible truancy. One of only a handful of times I can remember actually being happy to be sick.

Speaking of psychoanalysis:

Have you ever wished you were sick, like physical sick, so you would know for sure what the hell was wrong with you? Have you ever wished you were sick, physically sick, so you would have a clear explanation for why you feel like shit all the time and a clear method to fight it?

Sometimes, when I’m very blue, I imagine myself in the hospital and…

I just realized how gross and self-indulgent it is to talk that way when people are dying of the virus. Why my mind didn’t go there first is beyond me. Blind Freudian territory again. Perhaps I’ve quarantined my head too far up my own ass to remember why I’m quarantining in the first place. It does things to the mental health. It brings a lesser sickness, or, in my case, exacerbates the lesser sickness that already was.

Truancy, I suppose, is a lesser sickness than pneumonia. Tough loving your children is a lesser sickness than ignoring them completely. Depressive narcissism is a pretty bad sickness, but a lesser sickness than the actually dying have.

The actually dying of the virus at hand. We are all actually dying. Most of us aren’t newsworthy, at least not to the nation.

This took a darker turn than I intended it to. Mostly I wanted to champion myself to the world that, in 1993, in the autumn, Michelle actually was sick despite what her mother thought.

Let it be known.

-M.

Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Writing Exercises

Running Ahead

When did you know you were going to suffer, but you went ahead anyway?

Something as mundane as I found out he was courting other women, and yet I went on, enmeshed, with him anyway.

Courting is a nice word for manipulating. Affairs of the imagination, choosing which flesh to realize.

I sat in the car with a friend after finding out. Devastated. She told me it isn’t the lame zebra’s fault for being lame. It’s the asshole lion’s fault for going after lame zebras. I didn’t mind her calling me lame. I was lamer than that. Lame was an understatement. I was more like hobbled. The asshole lion the kind of asshole that hobbles the naive zebra then makes her sport—makes her an easy catch.

I told my friend I was done. We arrived at my house and, in the dark, in my driveway, before opening the car door to let myself out, I told her I was done with him. That was it and it was over and I was done.

She patted my head and said sympathetically, “No you’re not.” A sentence of death and destruction and many, many more months of eating my heart out.

It sounds cliched, but time was the only thing that healed it. Time and he got married to one of his other lame zebras. He said she made him feel like a teenager again. That’s likely because she was the worst hobbled amongst us and, compared to her, he could run like the wind.

He wrote to me, “Since I’ve been with her, I’ve been running. Can you imagine? Me? At my age? Running?”

I wonder how long that lasted before she gave up and he, at his age, convinced her life was easier sitting, limp and licking his chops as she puts on weight and wonders what happened to her legs that used to run so swiftly and kick so high.

I took up running myself a few years later and I’m faster now than I ever was. I have no hurt for him anymore. I hurt for her. I’m sure I won’t be seeing her at any local, smalltime races anytime soon. The LA Marathon is bound to miss her as well. She might have wanted to do that before she was forty only a little less than she was terrified she wouldn’t be married by then.

Better wed and walking than a spinster fleet of foot.

I feel you sister. I do.

-M
(Ten minute writing exercise from the book Old Friend from Far Away.)

Family, Humor, Memoir, Nashville, Personal Essay, Prose, Writing Life

Christmas Onions 2000

My first Christmas in my first apartment alone, trying to be a big time grownup. I made French onion soup for dinner. I called home to California earlier in the day. I had read a scripture, I told my mom, something about getting my house in order, and I felt I needed to do that, which involved me staying in Nashville for Christmas, again, alone. She wasn’t convinced, but because she couldn’t fly out and physically drag me home, she accepted it. 

I was trying to be so adult. I was trying to prove something, though, looking back, I can’t imagine what. Was I trying to prove that I could withstand severe holiday depression? Was I trying to prove that no matter how badly I wanted to off myself that season, I didn’t need my family to help me not become a statistic?

I called my Hungarian violin teacher after I called my family. He was a big part of my life then as music was a big part of my life. I also adored his stories of escaping communism. Communists used to make Hungarians eat diseased cow meat and chocolate made from blood. Zsolt was also disappointed I wasn’t coming home. He was put off by my choice of Christmas dinner. He said, “Well, maybe you could float an ornament in it and make it more Christmasy that way.” I laughed and felt lonelier by the minute.

God I was miserable then—a miserable sort of miserable that radiated in waves across the country from Nashville to my little city Berdoo.

I was new to keeping my own appliances then, just as I was new to keeping my own household in general. For example, while I had used a garbage disposal many times as a kid growing up, I somehow never learned that putting onion skins down one is not such a great idea. By the time I had all the onions in the Christmas soup pot sautéing with butter, beginning to oddly smell like apples, my garbage disposal was filled to brimming with onion skins. 

I ran the water and turned the disposal on. It growled like an offended demon and the water didn’t go down. It began to spit up chopped onion skins in great belches, making of the sink water a slimy, stinky soup of its own. I stopped the thing. “That was not bright,” I told myself.

I grudgingly lugged my plunger into the kitchen from the bathroom. In retrospect, it is amazing I had a plunger given that, when I first moved it, I hadn’t realized until I was in dire need that toilet paper doesn’t grow on the roll. 

I stuck the plunger to the drain and plunged for dear life. More and more onion skins belched forth from the disposal along with other unspeakable things most likely from tenants past. I sucked everything out that I could. 

The water still didn’t go down. The chopped onion skin and unnamable goo mocked me as it danced its spiral around the sink.

I ended up having to strain all that onion skin and other detritus out of the sink with my bare hand, letting the water slip through, but retaining the chunks that clung to my fingers. I pulled the trash can up next to me and went to town. I think a year might have gone by. 

The sink came clean, the water went down, and the garbage disposal growled happily, its gut no longer sick.

I washed my hands at least three times. I washed the plunger. I raised the plunger over my head and made He-Man muscles. 

“I am the Garbage Disposal Master of the Universe!” I proclaimed to my empty apartment.  

“I am the Garbage Disposal Master of the Universe!” I shouted again just in case the ghosts I lived with hadn’t heard. 

I lowered my plunger and shrugged my shoulders. Shoving the onion skins down the disposal was not the only terrible mistake I made that lonely Christmas. Not by a long shot.

Memoir

Falling in Love with The Tin Drum

80019-coverI was assigned The Tin Drum spring semester of my junior year in college, but what would become the love of my life in novels was uninteresting to me then, when it was made a chore.

But I did at least start reading it then, of course. We always start out with the most productive plans for that sort of thing. So many pages a day, I told myself, and I would be golden by the time the paper rolled around. I lost track of it during the week and had to catch up on a Saturday—a beautiful Tennessee early spring Saturday when the air was warm but the sky was gray and lovely. There was a concert called Spring Rites going on at Alumni Lawn, one short, curvy path from my window. I stood up in my bathrobe and cranked the window open to let the air and music in—to make the duty of reading more pleasant.

It became pleasant. It became so pleasant it began to scare me. I began to fall in love with the language, with the off-center, with the dirtiness, with the grit and grime and beauty of the pit. There was a piss joke and sex in a potato field. There was a mental institution and a singing midget. It was like a circus of the grotesque, the kind I would pass with my nose up at a carnival—the kind that would have my heart beating loudly if a lover were to drag me in by the arm and force me to be human for the few minutes it took to walk through it.

I stopped. My lips were starting to feel full and my sex was tingling. It was too rich. It was too much. I was too young and I didn’t know then, what I know now, the eroticism of fine writing.

I left the book unattended for the rest of the semester, but when it was over, moving away from Nashville for the summer, stopped at a dusky motel on the drive home to California, I picked it up again. Something had told me to pack it in my overnight bag. It seemed fitting to pull it out there, to engage again in our dirty affair on sheets that would illuminate with spreading galaxies if under black light.

-M.

Memoir, Prose

How Do My Breasts Look? (memoir)

go_cougar_womens_tshirtMy first boyfriend and I sweat together in my room with the door closed and his hand under my navy blue “Go Cougars!” T-shirt. I lay on the floor halfway underneath him, one of his creeping hands at the waistband of my white cotton shorts, the other pushing my shirt up. His alien fingers probed their way under the pale pink of my little girls’ bra that had been too tight for months. He didn’t kiss me. He gave me a hickey on my midriff instead and smiled, proud of himself the way he and his friends were often proud of their own farts. He got serious then and tugged at the band of my bra. I lay there bare-chested for the first time with a boy, still wearing my T-shirt that was now rolled up under my chin. He unceremoniously pinched my left nipple, then my right, frowned and announced, “Your boobs look funny.”

I don’t need a whole essay to tell you I never got over that.

In my later teens I’d stand sometimes in front of my mother’s full-length bedroom mirror and pull my Garfield pajama shirt tight over my chest and belly to get a better view of the curve of my breasts in relation to my other curves. I’d shift right and left—diagonal—I’d bounce, look back over one shoulder, turn around with one arm up behind my head, but I couldn’t tell. I’d pull my shirt up and wonder for a while at my nipples. I couldn’t figure them out either. Too big? Too small? Too low? Too pale? I didn’t know.

I once used a French class report on impressionist artists as an excuse to look at a lot of paintings of naked women so I wouldn’t look like a perv for getting close to the page, squinting at them, and comparing. One red-haired woman, all in fading yellow light, a royal blue wrap around her shoulders and her white underthings visible at her waist, appeared to have breasts that went at near right angles at the bottom—her tan nipples pointing this way and that. I thought surely mine weren’t quite as different as that, and even then, some artist found hers beautiful.

When I got older, I got brave once and asked a lover what he thought of the funny-looking breast issue. I should have known I wouldn’t get a straight answer considering his face was between them at the time.

But maybe that’s my problem—thinking “No!” kiss, “Not at all!” nibble, “Absolutely not!” muffled through busy lips—was not a straight answer.

-M.

Memoir, Prose

Envy (memoir)

Danny LeavesMy oldest dog—a red, hairy, shedding beast of a border collie/German shepherd mix will be turning ten this August and, at 50lbs, he still loves it when I pick him up and hold him in my arms like a baby.

He isn’t afraid of anything.

Whack him on the top of the head or his big fuzzy butt with a rolled newspaper and he barks, jumps, turns in circles in happy play, which it is.

He thinks his own farts are awesome—smiles a wide, bottom-toothy smile, spotted tongue lolling out the side like a broken window shade. Sometimes they make him sneeze. He wipes his nose on the carpet or, if I’m lucky, on my pant leg.

He isn’t afraid.

He isn’t afraid of the big blue vacuum monster either. He stalks it like the wild beast of mechanation it is, goes on the offensive, attacks with abandon.

I’ve had him since he was three months. I brought him home from the pound shivering a week before Thanksgiving. But I’ve come to the realization the shivering was an act to woo the weepy-eyed rubes, like me. I was wooed. I admit it.

He isn’t afraid of anything

He isn’t afraid because he was never taught he should be afraid.

I picked him up in my arms like a baby ten years ago—all six disingenuously shivering pounds of him, and he never had anything to fear after.

He lies on his back with his legs straight in the air and lets me scratch his tender belly with my toes, even if I’m standing up at the time—and my balance is terrible. And he knows my balance is terrible.

No fear.

No fear.

I think I’ll write this down. I think I’ll call it “Envy”.

-M.

Family, Memoir, Prose

Unaffectionate Boy (memoir)

Natanon was near the last one to deplane and make his weary way through the Roy Rogers airport. He met us by the empty spinning of the baggage carousel. His mother sent him to us from Thailand to finish his education in the States.

He was sent to us to get a little time with his dad.

He was dressed in black like a cowboy villain, but almost bald being only two weeks out from a stint as monk in his hometown of Phuket. His father and grandfather hugged him welcome. He smiled, but his shoulders were drawn up. He and I shook hands. He smiled again, but looked down at his shiny, square-toed shoes.

Later that day with the family, eating fast food Chinese— a mystery to him—he slid his cookie’s fortune across the greasy table for me to read to him, his English still a little weak. I read it low-voiced like a mystic and, as benediction, exclaimed, “…in bed!”

His English and teenage hormones were just strong enough to make him blush, drop his head and silent shake his drawn up shoulders down, with laughter.

-M.