An Excerpt

Maybe if I post this, in concrete form, on my blog, I’ll be motivated to actually flesh out this little novel of mine…


Amber Elba drummed her fingers on the coffeeshop counter, craning her neck a bit. If she kept her gaze unfocused, it would appear to others she was peering intently at the cash register before her. Really, she was in the midst of watching a businessman about to take a tumble.

Trip. Do it. I know you’re gonna do it.

The man, all-professional in his navy blue slacks and tie, wobbled toward the back corner table with four large cappuccinos. Amber absently reached under the counter for the paper towel roll. In the forefront of her mind, the scene about to transpire repeated itself like a cartoon on loop: a nail-head jutted out of the floorboard in the man’s path; he’d catch his left foot on it, stumble forward, and promptly drop all four beverages on the floor. Splash the lady in the gray suit–no, the girl in the beige one, even worse!

Amber made her way from behind the counter and toward the potential scene. Just as she crept up behind him, the man let out a startled yelp and fell forward.

Annnd–boom.

Hot coffee flew in large droplets all around. The espresso-covered woman promptly swore. Amber gave the players a moment and herself a few seconds to take it all in. Almost missed the beige detail, still. Nailed it.

She tapped the businessman on the shoulder. He whirled around in rage to face her, red-faced and sputtering.

“Here you go, sir,” she said, trying to keep the grin off her face as he snatched the paper towels from her hands.

Just another day at the office.

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Loss Reborn

Loss is never easy. Grief is complex–so much so that we have names for stages of the processes humans experience to handle it. There’s immediate loss, of course: of a family member or friend, a familiar routine, a pet, a job, a wasted opportunity. It rips into us, shards of ice in warm blood. No matter how many times it happens, loss is always new.

But what continues to baffle me is loss reborn–a sensation of the exact feeling washing over you, years after the initial loss happened. I tell myself–I think we all tell ourselves–that it goes away. They say time heals all wounds. I’d disagree.

Today on the train, I was engaging in my usual morning commute activities–reading, listening to music. Typically, people coming in and out and shifting seats don’t really perturb me. This morning was different. A woman probably in her mid-to-late forties sat down beside me, and a wave of simultaneous surprise and nostalgia washed over me.

I’m not sure if it was wishful thinking, or a combination of an array of scents of people and the rainy weather and the places we whizzed past, but I could have sworn she was wearing my grandmother’s exact perfume.

Gramma passed away in 2011. She was essentially a second mother to me. She took something akin to childlike glee in practically everything–a strong, positive force who’d overcome adversity in her home life as a child to eventually, with my grandfather, create a beautiful new home of her own. She raised my mother and uncle with compassion and understanding (and perhaps a touch of overbearingness), and helped shape my sister and me into the young women we are now. She was my childhood best friend, a selfless individual with almost too much to give. She died within my first two weeks of college. I didn’t get to say goodbye–all that remained was an unanswered email from her in my inbox, which afterward I could not bear to open for many months.

I’m almost positive the scent that I grew up with was actually due to my mother–Gramma didn’t really have a sense of fashion (she preferred baking over beauty tips, despite running her own hairdressing business in the basement of her and Papa’s house when the kids were young); so my mom often bought her clothes, makeup, and the like. Whichever this perfume was, it certainly stuck–I don’t think Gramma ever stopped wearing it. From my very first memories of her, the scent matched exactly who she was: sweet, sharp, clean, familiar, a bit like roses (her favorite flower). I could sense when she’d just been in the room, or when the breeze of the scent indicated her walking past. With my eyes closed, I could recognize her in a crowded room.

And apparently now, I still can.

I hadn’t been exposed to the scent in almost five years. Today, jarred and completely vulnerable on a train full of jostling people, I was overwhelmed with it. I leaned back against the seat and closed my eyes. I remembered sitting in the back of Papa’s Toyota Camry (which is now mine), watching her count on her fingers in sheer delight the hours we got to spend together for the day. I recalled one of her last months in which she explored, with great effort but quiet enthusiasm, the hilly Wheaton campus to see where I’d be studying the next four years. I thought how she never saw me graduate, will never see my sister do the same. Will never see my cousins grow up.

There was a slight difference in it, too, but it was enough–at its core, it smelled like my grandmother, but it was missing the soft simplicity that came with the sensation of her hand on mine. There was so much right about it, and yet so much missing that I would never be able to experience again.

Loss reborn. It stung–stings, as if it’s September 2011 again, and I am 18 and wishing with every fiber of me that I had replied to that email. The swelling will ease, the pain will lessen throughout the day and the remainder of the week. But it will remain, humming under my skin, for the rest of my life. It’s hard to imagine it that way, but in moments like these, I realize that’s what loss is. Constant.

We just learn to deal with it.

I think of Gramma often, but it’s been so long since I could put any of my five senses to her memory.

The part of me in which spirituality has been ingrained since childhood said, It’s her saying hello to you. People have been arguing for centuries as to whether or not that’s a valid observation, so I won’t go there. But I will admit–I felt her there. Make of that what you will. I don’t know the name of the perfume, though perhaps I used to. You might ask why I wouldn’t look it up, or ask my mother about it. But truthfully, I don’t want to. Perhaps it’s best that the source of the scent remain a mystery. I don’t want it to be associated in my mind with a mixture of chemicals–but with a person who shaped my childhood and loved her family unconditionally. The kind of person I aspire to be.

For what it’s worth, I’m saying “hello” back.

Not Great

If I’m honest, I’m not doing great without you.

The worst part is, your presence isn’t the part I miss. I miss winding you up, like a child’s toy vibrating with anticipation before the release. And in turn you would litter me with half-drunk half-caffeinated promises I always believed you’d keep–every time. You kept them when you felt like it–vows of convenience. But mostly I was alone in the stuffy bedroom staring at my open skin and willing it to rot, until you came home at 4am with boys and slurs in your mouth.

They say absence makes the heart grow fonder. I hope it will for you, because smothering you was something I never meant to do to you. In trying not to hurt you, in desperately clawing at your ever-wandering body I drove you away. Now perhaps you’ll have time to breathe and realize all I ever tried to do was love you. I just did it wrong by the end. Badly. Crookedly. 

But for me. For me, for me, absence makes the heart grow stronger. Being blinded, separated by walls of miles from your big Ireland eyes I remember myself again. I’m restarting my heart. The monitor goes beep, beep, beep in rhythmic time. When I see you again it will flutter, with anxiety for your mistakes you make in spite of me (in front of me, Ireland-eyes glowing), with affection for a personality that’s only sometimes there to cradle me at night. But for now, I am me. No, not me-without-you, not missing-an-appendage. Me, within myself. I patch up my open skin and face my newly open life with uncertainty, but with the driving force of myself. Like Bad Wolf “I create myself.” Beep. Beep. Beep. 

I’m not doing great without you. 

But I’m okay. 

And that’s enough.

Paths

My feet are worn from treading heavy paths for you. While I take each dusty step, you glide in front of me, never touching the ground. It would be so simple if I had wings like yours–bold, in spring colors, dainty like a flutter-by’s, beating strong like your heart and the color of your eyes. My wings are gone. I clipped then myself, with prongs of doubt and irrational comparisons.

Time moves in your direction–not backwards or forwards, but at your command, jostled, awoken from a linear sleep by your need for entertainment. And I move with it. Time and I are good friends now, following your lead day after day when we have the lucidity to differentiate day from night. My body feels heavy, but I keep walking. I’ve got no direction without you. 

A Recipe for Disaster

Based on another prompt from the amazing book that all aspiring writers should have, 642 Things to Write About:

Write a recipe for disaster.

RECIPE FOR DISASTER
Preparation time: 3-month marriage

Ingredients:
1 cup of self-doubt
1 tablespoon of misguided words interpreted badly by the girl in front of you with the purple bow who owns your heart
2 teaspoons of regret
A handful of drunken apologies and passive-aggressive phone calls
A half-dozen bad decisions
1 couch meant to be slept on alone

Directions:
Stir self-doubt words into a bowl until made into one bland-colored mixture.
Crack open two bad decisions and wish you hadn’t. Whisk into bowl.
Add 2 teaspoons of regret and a pinch of a drunken apology. Stir.
Pour mixture into baking pan. Let it sit and stew, contents separating, fermenting, filling your kitchen with the stench of everything gone desperately wrong.
(Tip: Keep handy 1 cold smile to answer questions from neighbors and your mother about your relationship!)
Place pan in oven preheated at 350 degrees. Burn to a crisp. Toss it in the trash. Sleep on the couch.
Repeat all steps as needed.

Note: Including love in this recipe is optional, but not generally recommended.

A Characterization in which I am (Hopefully) Not a Mary-Sue

Based on a prompt from the amazing book that all aspiring writers should have, 642 Things to Write About:

Describe yourself in the third person–your physical appearance and personality–as though you were a character in a book.

—————————————————

She had the kind of smile that needed more crinkles around the edges, a bit waxy and chapped, but sincere if she liked you. Her hair was cut just above the shoulders, unpredictably wavy, her eyes a bright, Romantic blue. She talked too loudly when she was passionate about something; and you could tell she was passionate because she talked with her hands. Like most products of the 21st century, she liked to berate herself with sharp words while simultaneously snapping a self-portrait at a flattering angle. Secretly, she thought she wasn’t half bad-looking. She would never tell you that.

Her answer to any given question might have been different depending on who was asking, because she’d lived a long twenty-two years of people tending to forget about her–not out of malice, simply out of convenience–so she’d be as amiable and amenable as she needed to, in order to feel like she existed outside her own head.

When she loved, she could sometimes love too much, spending nights alone with fistfuls of her bed-sheets to keep from sobbing a scream. She often thought about how she was loved in return, but never by the right people. The right ones were old scars on her arms. Often she felt bad enough to let them know just how many cuts they’d made, and this made her think sometimes that she was an awful person. But perhaps she wasn’t awful, just reaching too far and expecting too much of those who, like her, are human only.

She was short for her age, and wide at the hips. She wore glasses and loved her dog more than she liked most people. She walked up and down Smith Street in a fog some days, wondering if she was real in relation to the pavement under her feet. But if you said hello to her–just hello, that’s all–it would remind her that she wasn’t alone, and she could smile again, and keep moving.

Smoke signals

On a run outside yesterday, the thick, overwhelming smell of smoke tickled the fibers inside my nose and filled my lungs. I’m not sure of its source–it could’ve been someone was cooking, or perhaps smoking a cigarette on break. But immediately, hundreds of images and related aromas filled my mind. Smoke has different scents, naturally, depending on how it’s being emitted or created. And for each of those little differences, there is an association of a memory in my head.

  • Papa’s cigars that he used to chew on for the flavor, to place him back in a time when people thought tobacco could only kill you if you caught fire trying to light a cigarette (which would be really stupid of you). I remember once I saw him standing outside in the front yard of the house I grew up in, cigar in his mouth, gray cap on his head to shield the sun. I was in fourth grade, and we had just learned about the dangers of smoking.
    “Papa,” I said, “you shouldn’t do that. It’s bad for you.” My voice shook, because I loved my Papa, but he was big and tough as nails.
    He half-turned to me. “Bah,” he scoffed with a wave of his hand. “I don’t smoke it anyhow. I chew the thing. See?”
    It wasn’t lit. I nodded shyly. He was more careful after that, though–whether about using cigars or just using them in front of me, I don’t know. And as he got older, he could be seen with a cigar less and less. Three years ago he died of lung cancer–but ultimately of the dementia that didn’t allow for him to tell us that he could barely breathe before it was too late. Cigars still make me think of him.
  • Bonfires, the scent of pine and wood and leaves burning. They had a few in college behind the Meadows dorms (both official and unofficial), each one with a different significance. The first occurred when freshman year was just starting out. I remember trying to find my way through the hazy, red- and yellow- and orange-tinted first-years, clinging to any cluster of them that would have me in their conversations about nothing–what conversation when you’re first meeting someone is ever about anything, really? I was just there for the s’mores (and by that, I mean the Hershey bars).
    Then there were a few hosted by the a cappella groups on campus. By that point in my college career there were enough cliques and drama among the people I knew to last a lifetime. In the dark people stayed and chatted or ran off because some boy or girl wasn’t speaking to them from across the bonfire. I watched the fire and listened to my friends in the all-female group sing “Santa Catalina.”
    Two weeks ago we had a bonfire at my good friend’s graduation party. The scent filled my lungs and I closed my eyes and spent most of the time chatting absently with Fitz, who I probably won’t see for a long while. There were other people inside, one in particular I wished to spend time with, but I felt irrevocably separated from her for a number of reasons and therefore felt my place was outside, watching my own skin flicker red-orange-yellow in and out. The fire relaxed me. I felt okay sitting there, and though I hadn’t felt really okay in some time, this was close enough.
  • Dad cooking on the grille back when the four of us lived together and my parents selflessly kept up the illusion that they were in a happy marriage. Dad didn’t cook much but when he did, it was on the grill in summer. We had burgers and hot dogs and sometimes chicken. I remember flip-flopping out of the pool with my sister in tow, ravenous from a day of swimming. Sometimes we’d eat in our towels at the dinner table. Mom made pasta salad. Things were a lot easier then, but I guess adulthood means looking back and realizing things won’t ever be that way anymore.
  • Family Christmases with fires burning in (often artificial) chimneys. Laughter. The contrast of a warm, smokey inside to a whistling, billowing, snowy outside–the kind of weather Santa travels best in according to my imagination.

I took a class this past semester called “Smells & Bells” in which we studied the five senses and their relationship to each other. What’s so important about the five senses is that they link us not only to our surroundings, but to each other. The scent of Daisy perfume might remind you of the way someone specific walks you by; the sensation of wool fabric under your fingertips might make you think of your aunt’s knitting. It’s all relative, and most importantly, it’s all very, very human.