Shoelace

          Mom was the other shoe, but the other shoe is gone now.  Perhaps she’s marching off by herself somewhere, in the other realm, exploring uncharted lands single-footedly.  I like to think, sometimes, that maybe she’s having fun on her own, that she doesn’t miss us and so won’t be bothered still by the tedious proceedings of our lives.  Clouds must be lighter to walk on than pavement.  But even on pavement she was the leading foot, and I guess we fell out of line when she ceased to step.

          I am the shoelace, now, that pulls together the parts of what remains.  I know I am the shoelace because when I see the girls at school lacing up their sneakers, I think, there is Jamie on one side and there is Dad on the other.  The girls at school are always lacing up their shoes, especially the younger ones in Jamie’s year, because they tie loose butterfly knots and the knots come undone.  I watch them and I want them to pull harder, so that the sides touch over the dividing tongue.  I lace my own shoes tight.  I lace them so tight my feet hurt by the time I get home.  I lace and lace but there are always gaps where the tongue peeks through. 

          Home has become a habit.  Dad is tired most of the time.  The crease lines around his eyes that got there from laughter are sagging from disuse, and a new crease has set into the space between his eyebrows that I want to iron out.  He sits at his computer in his foldable office chair in the living room, which is also the dining room and also the room he calls his office, of our apartment, working out the details of the fund management business he is trying to start.  He thinks he is a failure.  I tell him not to think that.

          The strength comes, perhaps, from the memory that it was once different and the hope that it will be the same if I just string harder and close the gaps.  I remember one night when my palms were sweaty and the plate slipped, and Dad said “butterfingers” and Jamie laughed and laughed and helped me clean up the mess of mashed potatoes and even the gravy.  I stretch myself because I want moments like that again. 

          Jamie is usually sitting at her computer when I go in to bring her her dinner in the evenings.  She takes dinner in her room because she doesn’t have time to eat with us.  I don’t know what it is she’s working on that she can’t leave her computer.  When I ask, she starts yelling about privacy.  Sometimes when I go in to bring her her dinner, Jamie is banging on the drum-set Dad couldn’t afford to buy.  She wanted to learn percussion, so Dad bought her the whole set – the base, the symbol stand, the snares, and the big vertical one that you strike by stepping on a pedal with your foot.  Sometimes when Jamie is banging on them, I tell her that maybe she should use those things that you put on the ends of drumsticks to make the banging a little quieter.  I am thinking about Ed and Louise downstairs who are old and are always taking naps.  Jamie tells me that she won’t get the full effect with the mufflers and that I don’t understand anything about music, so I should just leave and please shut the door.  She bangs louder as I try to explain about Ed and Louise and I can see that it is no use, so I leave and shut the door.

          We don’t see Jamie very often because she only comes out of her room to make trips to the refrigerator in the kitchen.  The refrigerator is about three feet from her door-handle.  When we moved into the apartment a few years ago, Jamie wanted the master bedroom.  It has a small walk-in closet and a bathroom attached to it, so I guess there is really no reason for her to come out.  Dad’s room is the smallest because he wanted me to have the big window.  He said it would be good if I put my desk by the window so that I can have lots of light when I study.  Studying is important, he says, so I try hard at it when I can.  Dad and I share the bathroom in the hallway.  

          I see Dad in the mornings.  He gets up before we go to school and makes eggs.  He tries to make them a different way every morning so that he can know how we like them.  Sometimes he makes pancakes because he’s heard that all the younger generation like pancakes and will eat them for breakfast.  Dad is always preparing a variety of things for Jamie, but I don’t see why he keeps doing it because she never eats anything he makes.  “Everything you cook is too salty.”  Jamie likes snack bars and the diet bars that some of the girls carry around at school.  “Even your pancakes are salty.” 

          I don’t see Jamie at school very often because she’s two grades below me and we’re usually in different wings.  But I noticed that some days our lunch periods overlap so I’ve started to keep an eye out for her.  Like today, she walks in talking to a girl with a red bandana tied around her neck.  I think Jamie sees me but she says something to the girl and they start walking away, so I shout “Jamie!” and the girl with the red bandana turns around.  I walk over to them, carrying my lunch tray with a glass of milk that I’ve filled too much to the top.  All this time, I’m thinking, I’m going to spill the milk, I’m going to spill the milk.  The girl with the red bandana raises her thin eyebrows at me.  “Nice sweater,” she says.  She catches Jamie’s eye and smiles.  Jamie is looking down.  “Thanks,” I say.  I ask them if they want to have lunch with me, but they say they are having lunch with friends, so I go over by the window with the big oak tree and notice the milk on my sweater as I sit down. 

          After we get home, after dinner, Dad and Jamie are fighting again.  I’m in my room trying to fall asleep when they bump into each other in the kitchen. 

          Bumping into anyone in the kitchen is inevitable because Dad is always making tea which means the kettle is always boiling.  Sometimes it just goes on whistling and shouting because Jamie thinks Dad will get it and Dad thinks I will take care of it but I am in the shower trying to untangle my mess of hair.  So they scramble for it at once, and the confrontation is of course inevitable. 

          And we are all making trips to the kitchen because we are all needing food.  Sometimes when I go into the kitchen I forget what it was I came to get, so I stand there and look at the magnets on the refrigerator.  Most of them, Mom bought when she was alive.  We don’t use them for anything anymore because none of us really makes grocery lists or daily notes or family announcements.  The magnets are just there, stuck to the refrigerator. 

          So Dad and Jamie start fighting again and I curl up under the covers because it’s cold.  Dad is asking Jamie how was her day and I hear the refrigerator door stick as Jamie pulls it and says he forgot to buy her tuna again.  Dad says that well he’s sorry but maybe the world doesn’t revolve around her.  The refrigerator door shuts with a suctioning noise.  “Well maybe if you knew how to be a better parent, you would actually remember for once.”  I search under the covers for Tipsy, the bunny Mom gave me when I was three.  His ears are flopping down as usual.  I can imagine Dad shaking his head and sighing.  His eyes look sad.  Jamie’s door slams.

          Tipsy is looking at me like I should go and do something.  So I get up in my pajamas and walk over to the living room/dining room/Dad’s office and find Dad sitting in his foldable chair with his head in his hands.  I pick up one of the old magazines on the coffee table and sit down on the couch.  It is one of Jamie’s.  I turn over pages while looking at Dad.  It is the first time I notice that his hair is graying.  “I think you’re a good parent.”  Dad lifts his head up out of his hands and sighs.  “You know, Liz.  Sometimes I really just want to give up.”  I set the magazine back on the table.  Dad has his head in his hands again.

          I go into Jamie’s room and she’s looking at some sort of old photo album that she flips shut when I walk in.  I ask Jamie what is she looking at and she tells me it’s none of my business, so I am quiet for awhile.  Then I ask her if she wants to have a midnight meal.  We used to have midnight meals, Jamie and me, when we were little and used to play chef.  We also used to have a house, then, and we would sneak downstairs after lying with our eyes open in the dark for hours to make sure everyone was asleep.  We’d sneak downstairs and start pulling out all the pots and pans we needed for our meal.  Somewhere in the midst of our preparations, our clanging and banging would wake Mom up and she’d come into the kitchen to see what we were up to.  “We’re making a midnight meal!” we’d tell her.  We knew it was too late for her to stop us, so she’d begin clanging and banging with us, and we’d be happy to have someone who knew the ways around the kitchen.  So now when I ask Jamie does she want to have a midnight meal, she lifts her head up off the pillow.  She blinks.  What would we make, she wants to know.  I am thinking about strings.  “Spaghetti,” I say.  Jamie shrugs.  “If you make it I’ll eat it.”

            I go into the kitchen and try to think where to begin.  Pots and pans.  Noodles, long strings of noodles.  Boiling water.  Tomato sauce in a saucepan.  Milk.  I stir and wait and wait and knock on Jamie’s door to tell her I’m done.  I start spooning all the spaghetti onto a plate and mixing it with the sauce I’ve made. 

            Jamie comes out of her room to get a bowl and a fork and watches me finish evening out the sauce in the spaghetti.  I bring the plate over to the dining table and ask Dad would he like to join us for a midnight meal.  Jamie has followed in front of me at this point and is sitting at the table with her bowl.  My palms are sweaty. 

            Dad is at his work again, hiding all the sadness I must have imagined in a look almost of anger.  He has not heard my question so I open my mouth to ask him again if he would like to join us for midnight meal, when Jamie tells me to just serve the spaghetti already.  Dad’s brows furrow as he types faster and faster on his keypad.  Jamie’s fork is rapping impatiently against her ceramic plate and I cringe slightly at its metal scrape.  The lights seem to flicker.  Another metal scrape.

            Another excruciating hair-raising metal scrape.

            The plate flies and I don’t even notice until it hits the wall on the opposite side.  Then I flail my arms out to catch it but it has already landed and the sauce is everywhere, sliding down the wall and seeping into the carpet.  Jamie has stopped rapping her fork against her plate and is looking at Dad, who has looked up from his work. 

            Dad gets up from his foldable chair and comes over to observe the mess for a moment.  He brings a fist up to his eyes to rub them in a tired way.

          “Butterfingers,” he says.  He rubs his eyes again. 

          Jamie takes a minute to make sure she’s heard right, then her laugh is almost immediate.  She has expected him to say something about the stain it will leave in the carpet.  She has expected a mess.  Jamie laughs and Dad’s weak smile boldens.  “Such a butterfingers!”  Jamie is practically shaking from laughter now and I’ve forgotten all about the spilled spaghetti, until Dad comes over to help clean it up, and Jamie bends down to scoop some up with her hands.  I retrieve the plate from where it has flown and hold it out as we reassemble the strings of spaghetti, Jamie on one side and Dad on the other, then Dad on one side, Jamie on the other.    

Bella

It’s been awhile…here’s a piece that I’m not satisfied with at all, but am posting anyway.  I will actually be traveling to Piazza San Marco in a few weeks, so will have a greater sense of place when I write about it.  Here’s to magic, anyway:

Bella

He looked her square in the eye. 

I see, he said, and stepped back.  She stepped to the side.  Then she stepped away, and the hem of her dress swayed as she crossed the plaza not looking back.

I’m sure I’m not mistaken when I say there are two kinds of love in this world.  Look now at our young mercenary wiping the mist off his brow.  Look how he turns on his heel, how he scoffs!  At himself, undoubtedly.  And how forcibly he strides in the opposite direction!  We have here, clearly a case of the former.

The birds flew up as they are always doing.  And Salvatore strode over them and around them, kicked the ones up into the air that did not fly voluntarily out of his way.  In this fashion, he blazed a trail through the gently feeding pigeons and the aged couples amongst them who were also feeding, but on more intact pieces of bread.  Salvatore pushed past these coats and feathers until he made it across St. Mark’s Square. 

The day that had barely begun was done now.  And it did not come back the next morning, nor the next, as Salvatore wandered lonely Venice in – pursuit, shall we say? – no – more like directionless searching for the Bella he had lost.  He thought he saw her departing just there, under the canopy, or turning the corner into more corners, somewhere on the horizon when the sun rose.  But because she was never quite close enough, and because Salvatore was never quite sure enough, his search turned rather into a waited observance, and Salvatore stood always staring after her, his loathly lady.

But he did look for her.  I can’t say he didn’t.  He looked in alleyways, museums, the galleries she’d haunted, in paintings of solitary streets.  He looked under trashcans, over streetlamps.  Overturned gondolas and stopped taxi-cabs.  One day he looked— wooden boats down canals carrying musicians to restaurants, along small arches of doorways, window frames, restless balconies lit by sun and light, with chipped paint revealing brick of earlier diplomacy, new paint bouncing color into shifting waters— and saw grayness settle over a skeleton city.

The night brought closer encounters.

Salvatore worked by the light of his beside lamp.  But he could no longer work, so he admired it now, looking at the lamp as if mesmerized.  It was the figure of a woman, her arms stretched above her head holding the light fixture, her head turned away.  Salvatore ran his finger along one of the breasts.  How sensuous the curves!  How soft the stone appears, as it true flesh.  He quickly retracted his hand and stood up.  He pulled a lampshade out from under his bed and felt the thick material between his fingers.  It dimmed the light so he could sleep.  Thus he put it on now, this night shade, over the indifferent figure and the light bulb, and the room darkened.  And so Salvatore lie in thoughts of Bella, falling to sleep beside his sleeping night shade.

Before daybreak, Salvatore woke twice to relieve himself and once to spit.  When he rose in the morning, he remembered that they’d agreed to see each other again.  So Salvatore drew his black overcoat about his shoulders and made his way to St. Mark’s Square. 

She was standing in front of the café.  He saw her before he’d even fully turned out of the alleyway.  It was an old café.  Still alive, but rundown.  Paint was flaked and fading on the large sign over the door so that the entire first half of the word was not there.  The owners never took the pains to fix it, thinking it added to the vintage style of the place, so people, having lost half the name, simply referred to the café as donna.  Bella stood in front of the faded sign now, and touched a hand to her falling golden hair.

This next part – I’m not sure how it happened, but believe me it did.  In this next part, Bella smoothes the folds in her pink-white dress of chiffon and color seeps into the stonework at her feet.  Pink hues, earthen hues, spring up from under people’s shoes.  The paint on buildings softly brightens pastel.

Passersby seem oblivious to the phenomenon taking place, not noticing even when their coats acquire an inexplicable brilliance, when their pearls regain luster, their diamonds lose the stubborn cover of dust and again sparkle.  They pass by.

But Salvatore saw it all.

Bella turned and he looked into her beautiful round eyes.  Then she was gone.  From the northeast corner, the bells on the clock tower tolled – I number only peaceful hours – and slowly, slowly, the city fell silent of echoes.  

 

 

Pantoum

The Twilight Parades

When all at once the daylight fades
and crabs run trails in the sand
then do begin the twilight parades
that twilight can demand

And crabs run trails in the sand
propelling the perfect stillness
that twilight can demand
but from which we shall now digress

Propelling the perfect stillness
waves tumble in low susurration
from which we shall now digress
at this hour of the moon’s calculation

Waves tumble in low susurration
washing creatures, peculiar, ashore
at this hour of the moon’s calculation
oysters arrive, with pearls for the poor

Washing creatures, peculiar, ashore
the falling tide leaves bigger plans
oysters arrive, with pearls for the poor
starfish come, then seashells and clams

The falling tide leaves bigger plans
for slowly begins the march
starfish come, then seashells and clams
the shrimp are the first to charge

For slowly begins the march
with lobsters all in a line
the shrimp are the first to charge
as seahorses follow closely behind

Lobsters standing all in a line
clicking their pincers in the lead
as seahorses follow closely behind
along the shore they softly proceed

Clicking their pincers in the lead
then do begin the twilight parades
along the shore they softly proceed
when all at once the daylight fades

Fiction Portfolio, Revisited

A circumspect reflection on a unit should focus primarily on what I learned. So I shall revisit my portfolio and give a more complete account…

In fiction, the goal that I tried hardest to achieve was to make characters walk off the page – saunter, in some cases, or crawl or sprint. I did this through careful observation of people going about their daily routines as I went about mine. Small movements, the way people acted or talked, were under the scrutiny of my covetous eye. Writing stranger studies instigated a constant sketching of them in my head. Running commentary and fiction narrative scrolled through my thoughts as I met people, observed them, looked at them from afar. This whole process, which was brought out during the unit and intensified as it progressed, helped make me pay attention to how characters might walk off the page – with a jaunty off-step, or with a slight limp due to a previous injury that the reader does not find out about until the end of the story, or with a wink and a line: “Be good. I’ll come check on you tomorrow.”

But it’s quite difficult, creating a full portrait of a character in such a way that he comes to life for the reader. I feel that many of the characters in my short stories and exercises fall flat. (My extraordinary –> ordinary piece is an example of underdeveloped characters.) I realized the challenge of keeping out of the cliché. At times I felt that the expressions I used were very colloquial and somewhat static. It was difficult to write in a different way, with descriptions that were solely unique to the person, and with a new, fresh perspective. In order to develop my characters, I created their back-stories in my head, so that whether I chose to take anything from them or not, the knowledge of their past and their person would still influence the way I wrote about the character in the story.

One risk I took was the experimentation of inhabiting different characters’ voices. I struggled to break out of my own lyrical, quiet, fairytale-like narrative voice to take on different personas and sound convincing. I tried to do this in both my myth re-appropriation The Boy Who Cried, in which I took on the voice of the “villain” character who is usually not given much thought, and in my first person narrative “Pete’s First Date,” in which I adopted the voice of a character I normally would not write about or from the perspective of. First person was by far the hardest voice to write from, mainly because I wanted to interject as the writer, or simply found it hard to break out of my already established style of writing which I had become rather attached to. Speaking of attachment, I wonder if it dangerous to become too attached to your characters. What degree of distance should the writer maintain? Is the goal to have as little distance as possible? Or will the writer become too involved rather than let the character tell his/her own story?

I think the aspect of writing fiction that I explored most extensively was dialogue. Technique-wise, this is the area that I learned the most in and improved the most in. Before our studies and exercises in dialogue, I was not consciously aware of the different ways of writing dialogue and how each functioned and propelled a story. After learning about the effects of summarized dialogue vs. actual dialogue, I was able to make mindful decisions about how people talk to each other in my stories. I practiced summarized dialogue quite a lot and experimented with how it fit into the narrative voice of the piece and kept the story moving forward rather than slowing it down with actual dialogue. And I learned that actual dialogue, then, in the midst of summarized dialogue, could be extremely effective. It felt, in some ways, earned.

Another important element that I was introduced to in this unit was structure. I learned from the pieces we read, the effectiveness of marrying form and content. For some pieces, certain structures spoke to a particular story more than others. The way that a story is told is just as important as what is being told. Examining writers closely (as I did with my presentation author Thom Jones and my response author Milos Macourek) lent insight into how to employ the best structure possible for a piece. In imitating them, I was able to apply their techniques and learn from putting my observations into practice. The piece that most exhibits my experimentation with form and structure is my imitation piece: Johnny’s Goldfish.

The lessons I learned in writing during this unit are many and I cannot recall them all in this reflection. There may be simple stylistic moments that I picked up unconsciously that I have transferred into my writing – the best way to learn how to write is, after all, reading those who know what they’re doing. And put their instruments into practice, get into the habit of keeping a journal and writing everyday. In all, the most important thing I will take away from fiction, I think, is a heightened awareness of my narrator. With this comes narrative voice, narrative distance, etc., but what is most important is to know who is speaking and whose story it is, be it one person’s, many people’s, an ant’s, or even, perhaps, the color blue’s. I tried my best to bring this awareness of the narrator together with all the other lessons I’ve learned into my final piece: Story of the Stone.

Back to fiction portfolio

Here is an update on my long fiction piece, still unfinished, still disconnected, but slightly more developed than where I left it last: story-of-the-stone

Myth Re-appropriation into poem

I Am Sisyphus

I am
more powerful than the gods
am
above
these so-called forces
of nature. Gravity
to me
is just another weight
to overcome.
And I believe,
after these trials,
the Underworld
escape,
games, merely,
that the rock will tip.

Poem from prose snapshots

The Girl in the TV

They were framed
in large, gold-rimmed spectacles,
his eyes.
And my grandpa looked
through them
to read the newspaper.
I was beyond,
staring at the TV,
its already small frame
getting smaller
still,
with time.
And I watched the girl
in the TV
shout and scream
at her grandpa.
But my grandpa
did not see.
So I turned it off.
And removed his large,
gold-rimmed spectacles
so that I
might climb onto his lap
and read the newspaper.