Monday, October 26, 2009

My despised writing part II: non-fiction.


And so I was talking to Steph and she said something about where my general dislike of people came from and I guess I could trace it to the sixth grade when I entered middle school hopeful but a little fearful. I remember balancing on the curb along the street of my new house, looking up at the mountains that were so strange and comforting, and wondering what school was going to be like tomorrow, hoping I’d find some friends maybe like me but not daring to believe that it would happen. And on the first day, during science, I sat at the front table across from a girl named Srini who befriended me instantly because she knew I was smart and thus began my since-then struggle with being befriended by people I don’t particularly like.

What was hard for me with Srini was that she was Hindu and at eleven years old the only friend with completely different beliefs from my own that I had had had been Jewish and she moved to Florida after second grade (but gosh she was the coolest person I had ever met. Julia Horowitz had dark hair and she would wear threaded wraps in it with beads at the end that made little lines of color and her eyes were so dark they flashed like stars when she smiled and a there was a tiny beauty mark placed perfectly on her cheek. And she had a little brother Ezekiel called Zeke who was on my soccer team that fall. Sometimes during practice Julia and I would rifle through the piles of leaves that were beginning to collect under the bleachers on the field intending to press and dry the prettiest ones, which I don’t think we ever actually did.

We made fast friends in class that fall and I was at her house for her October birthday, and I remember her mom saying how grateful she was that Julia had made some friends so quickly, in time for her party. And I remember driving up to her house in Timberlake that first time, at dusk with the lights glowing and the ivy and the trees dark along her curving driveway. Timberlake edged Lake Erie, and it was green and leafy and eclectic. And Julia’s house was white with windows everywhere and inside was hardwood floors with rugs and dark and wonderful things everywhere, shelves and leather and family pictures in black and white. And out of the bay window in the living room we could watch the sun set over the water. And I wanted to snuggle in the cushioned bay window and read like Julia did. And the sill was lined with little bits of translucent green and white and blue sea glass that they had collected on strolls along the shore.

And I remember having dinner at Julia’s house in the dining nook with her mother and her brother. They had an avocado or two in the bowl on the table and I think I knew what it was but I’m pretty sure I had never seen one before; I certainly remember asking about it. And they had a little t.v. that you could watch while you were eating or cooking and I wasn’t crazy about t.v. but I was so intrigued.

And once Julia’s mother drove us to Cleveland and I watched the urban park areas in their summer greenness roll up and down out the window as we drove and we parked and we walked some colorful and artsy section, sparkling in its funky magic and sunshine. And we browsed through intricately stocked shops and her mom bought us little colored rabbit’s foot keychains. And I was suspicious of superstition and I was unsure she should be buying me something because I was just tagging along and so glad I could come but I was caught up in it all and it just added to my wonder. And Julia and I found a photo booth and took funny pictures of ourselves, flash flash flash, and we divided up the squares three and three and that was I think the first and last time I ever took pictures in a photo booth. And then she moved away but whenever I remembered her there was always a twinkling and a sense of something I wanted to be).

And so I went to Srini’s after school and ate steamed rice with butter that her grandmother prepared for us in her sari with a little patch of her belly showing and I ate with a fork and Srini ate with her hands (though once I tried it with my hands too and Srini clapped for me proudly) in her house of white, white couches with white pillows and white carpet and white marble with a crack where it had settled, perched as it all was on one of the most visible hills in our valley with some of the most striking views from the floor-to-ceiling windows. (And once when I expressed admiration for her house, Srini said she much preferred mine, the one in the “devel-UP-ment,” as she pronounced it, with its crazy paint on the walls and old circle chair and pictures and worn saltillo tiles. It was more comfy, she said. It looked “lived in.”)

The first time I came over, I was struck by the lifesize photograph in the foyer that was repeated in cloned forms all over desks and appliances and side tables depicting an imposing Indian man in a flowing tangerine saffron robe sporting a dark afro and smiling like everything was a giant joke and he knew it. And I thought maybe it was one of Srini’s uncles dressed up for Halloween, and I thought maybe someone had printed a bunch off and put them up everywhere as a practical joke. But I asked Srini and she told me that her family believed that God continually inhabited people, and that this man was the current God incarnate. And I wondered how someone so smart could believe something so ridiculous.

And so I felt I could never get close to her, that we didn’t share the things that were most important to me and so could never talk about the things that mattered most to me. And she was crazy and fun and I liked it but sometimes it was too much for me. And so I kept my distance, hung out with her when she wanted to but was mostly passive and undemonstrative and I wonder sometimes if she was ever hurt by it or if she just thought that that was just how I was. I hope it was the latter. But toward the end of the year I began to make friends with a girl who went to my church as well as school.

(I feel I should insert here a brief but upsetting friendship with Lauren, a girl I met in P.E. She lived just two blocks away from me with her mom, and she was quiet and pleasant enough, so we hung out a couple of times until her birthday party that year when her friend Alexis started picking on me even though we had just met and Lauren stood by and did nothing. [I remember sitting up in my sleeping bag that night and looking over at Alexis and thinking how nice she looked while she was asleep and wondering how she could be so mean when awake.] And Lauren offered some sort of apology the next week at school and it was the first time I had ever said it was okay when it wasn’t.

And I remember telling my mom about it and her saying I should have confronted Lauren and told her how much I was hurt and me insisting no, no, that’s not how you do it and thinking that this was the best way to deal with this sort of social situation and that it wasn’t really Lauren’s fault but that I just wouldn’t be friends with her anymore, that was all. And looking back I can see what poor inner resources Lauren had had to draw on, with four step-brothers she didn’t see much since her mom was divorced, and having little to do with her father, who had never been married to her mother, and thinking she was “a mistake” because that’s what she had been told, and spending nights at home alone since her mom was spending nights with the neighbor who waved to us as he watered his lawn across the street. And I still don’t know what the right thing for me to do would have been.)

Desiree went to my sixth grade Sunday School and she brought Christian magazines to school and she was tall and thin with long blonde hair and I thought we would make good friends. She did take part in an after-lunch competition with the boyfriend her mom didn’t know she had and another couple to see which could press their lips together longest while a group of classmates watched and counted. And I was a little scandalized and I privately laughed at her boyfriend Karl, who was shorter than her and whose ears stuck out so much that they were the only things that burned when he spent a day at Sea World. But no one was perfect and Desiree seemed fun and she was a Christian, right? And so we became friends. She served as my social educator; once when I tried to hold her hand as we walked between classes, just as I had done at recess with my friends in elementary school, she batted my hand away and told me we couldn’t do that.

And so we laughed together in church and I spent summer afternoons at her house floating in her pool and stealing quick breaks out of the blinding sun into the equally blinding dark through the sliding glass door inside the maze of rooms that seemed more sprawling than mine but so much more windowless that I decided I’d rather not live there, had I the choice (which was rare, because I almost never chose my house over someone else’s). And we went to summer camp together and something happened, I think she ditched me for other people or something, but it was okay because I got to know some other people and Desiree and I were fine by the end of the week anyways. And we hung out some more and I was delighted to start school with a real friend and so glad that things were finally working out.

But a funny thing happened as soon as we were back with all the other seventh-graders. We would be standing in a circle, or maybe it was that I came over to join a circle, because Desiree would tell me to “go stand over there, I’m talking with my friends.”

And I could take this a couple of times, but I couldn’t take this forever, and by September 11th the world was falling apart and I had no one to share it with. I woke up that morning and put on the radio like I always did and that’s when I heard it but I had no one to tell about this and at that point I didn’t really understand the ramifications, had barely ever heard of the World Trade Center, but I walked into my parents’ bedroom and the t.v. was on and my mom was crying and I had no one to share the tragedy rush and the uncomfortable profundity of the moment.

And I went to school and tried to join the excited chatter of the group on the steps of the band room but just couldn’t and in English class my teacher had the news on because no one still really knew what was going on and all the girls around me could talk about was what Carson Daly was doing right now in New York and I put my head down and I wrote about it because there was nothing else I could do.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

It's been a long eight weeks...

I would like to tell you a story. A story that will lead to another story, incidentally. I am, as some of you may know, the editor in chief of our campus creative arts journal, which features fiction, non-fiction, poetry, photography, art, music, and film (we're extending our deadline, by the way. Send your entries to You don't have to be affiliated with the school!). We hadn't received too many entries for the first few weeks of the semester, so I wrote up a short story one weekend and decided to submit it to the fiction committee so that they would have something to judge. I also grabbed a couple of non-fiction pieces I had written over the summer.

We judge blindly, so the committee members (a.k.a. people my age who I pretty much teach in a class once a week) didn't know the pieces were mine. Well, as soon as the first judges' eyes hit my writing, moans and exclamations could be heard throughout the classroom. "I don't understand this . . . This is not grammatical . . . I don't think this is even a word . . . Look how long this sentence is! Eleven lines! . . . This is hurting my head."

Well, I was a little shocked. I had no idea my writing would elicit such visceral reactions. I sent my pieces to my advisor for the class, a professor of creative writing, and he told me I had good ideas but just needed some basic improvements to make my pieces more reader-friendly. He lent me a book on narrative craft, and I skimmed it and decided I would never be able to write anything decent and was glad that my writing minor isn't a major. I tried to work on my pieces but I really couldn't find the cracks in their surfaces and so just ended up breaking up a few large paragraph blocks and adding a scene to my story. I'm going to time-release publish the pieces here, since they'll probably never be read by anyone and, I'm pretty sure, will not be featured in a campus publication anytime soon.

Without further ado, the despised short story:

Discrete Math

Michael Massey knew that everything could be contained in a pencil and it bored him. He could count all the items there were and he could write out that number and all of existence would be contained on that piece of paper and really, what was the point?

Just now, Michael was counting. Stitches. In, loop, hook, through, out. Twenty-seven. In, loop, through, hook, out. Twenty-eight. The lengthy crocheted rectangle lay in his lap, growing steadily as his math class progressed. Twenty-nine. His professor was a nice guy, but he didn’t teach much. Michael liked the repetition and the yarn curling around his fingers. The low clouds out the window on his right cast diffuse light over the classroom, sharpening the outline of the professor’s silver hair as he leaned against his desk discussing his weekend, the burnt orange plastic chairs peppering the classroom, the tiny hairs twining out of the thin line of mossy yarn that pulled out of the skein in the backpack beneath him.

He reached the end of the row and hooked up to begin another. He held the equation on the board in his head, calculating steadily while keeping his count of stitches. Michael wasn’t delusional; he didn’t really think he could count everything, but it was undeniable that it was possible, and the sheer quantification left him lost. If the world is indeed a physical entity existing right now, then there is a fixed number of things in existence at this given point. The universe held little import for him. Physical existence was finite; even an infinite universe would be a finite infinity, bound by itself.

He didn’t care if his line of reasoning didn’t make sense to anyone else; he rarely articulated it to himself. But it was a truth that had knotted so tightly around the core of his being that he had resigned himself to it as an inescapable inevitability. Wonder in others was ignorance. All the world was knowable if you had just the mind and the time to do it, and a thing known has lost all its power. He longed for limitlessness.

Michael was thin and dark-haired and adequately prepared for his college education. He was majoring in mathematics because he could do it well. He assumed he’d be a moderately-liked high school math teacher and that would be that. He took only brief detached joys in the startling abstractions of well-formed equations. That he didn’t care about what he was doing and secretly considered it all futile bothered him only occasionally.

Michael started as a door slammed across the hall and students garbled down the stairs on their way to lunch. He gathered up his looping work, a single line that you didn’t see if you didn’t think about it, and walked down the hallway.

The campus was small and well funded. Oaks and maples and the odd pine gathered near sweet little bricked and gabled buildings. Michael walked the neat sidewalk past the circled fountain where students reflected off the still olivey stone pool.

Sarah was waiting for him outside the dining hall. It had gotten a little darker and colder and the low clouds were autumny and she just wanted to curl up somewhere warm with him. But she didn’t let herself know that. It wasn’t that Michael didn’t like to touch her. He just wasn’t a touchy person. And she wasn’t, either. Or she didn’t spend a lot of time touching other people, anyway. And she was fine, and always had been. She could smell the leaves drying.

The scarf he was making was for her, of course. He liked the thought of something he had spent hours fingering and fashioning draped around her neck, liked the way the green would nestle in her brown hair. He liked her. She was a computer science major, and she was a girl with all the regular girl aspects, and once in a class that they had shared she was reading the exact book he had just finished a week before, satirical science fiction, and that was sufficient. He had invited her one night to climb on top of the auditorium and they sat in the dark watching bits of light play on the surface of the lake that lay along the edge of the campus.

They collected their meals and sat together, alone. Michael looked up from his sandwich over the chattering cafeteria and nodded to his roommate a couple of tables over.

“I asked Richard about that program thing you were talking about and he said he could help you,” Michael said.

Sarah sipped her coffee and her glasses fogged over her green eyes for a moment. “I figured. He’s been hanging out in Professor Welling’s office for a week.”

Sarah worked in binary, lived and breathed in binary, thought in binary. It was how she knew she liked Michael, and not Richard. Michael read in his spare time: 1. Richard didn’t: 0. Michael worked inconspicuously, did what was required of him and didn’t let anyone else know: 1. Richard didn’t: 0. Michael didn’t have stuck-out ears and blank blue eyes: 0. Richard did: 1. Michael was programmed for her. It wasn’t that she disliked Richard. It wasn’t often she devoted much space to disliking anyone. Memory was too valuable.

“I was thinking about walking out to the lake tonight,” Michael said, his fingertips like pads gripping his cup of milk.

“Oh yeah?” she replied.

“You can come with me if you want.”

She hated having to invite herself along and rarely hesitated when he outright asked her to accompany him somewhere. “Okay.”

They finished and parted on the cafeteria steps, the air chillier now and dark brown spots appearing on the concrete as silent drops hit the ground. Sarah gave him a flickering wave, reaching her hand toward him, and half smiled. “See you tonight.”

He raised his eyebrows briefly and nodded. “Yes.”

Michael walked back to his dorm building later that afternoon, hands customarily clasped around the straps of his backpack. He glanced through the glass window of his mailbox out of habit and stopped to reach in when he saw a sliver of envelope. The envelope was unmarked except for the logo of the campus poetry society in the corner. He opened it anyway and read the thin sheet of paper inside. “In celebration of National Poetry Day, a poem for you.”

Michael gave it a cursory read. He didn’t know whether Dylan Thomas was a student or not. It was a peculiar, repeating poem, and a line kept saying itself to him: “Do not go gentle into that good night.”

It meant little to him but it stayed there in his head anyway. He thought to the rhythm of the line as he plodded upstairs: “Do not go gentle into that good night.”

Sarah met him later that night outside his dormitory. The grass had left wet lines on her brown shoes. Now she could smell the rain that had fallen after lunch. The air was clear and edged and Michael was framed in the glowing doorway for only a moment before he was beside her in the dark.

They walked across the deserted campus, each with their hands buried in the pockets of their coats. It wasn’t quite time to resign themselves to evenings huddled in the moist, thick dorms against the cold, but it would be soon. Michael spied his usual path and led her through the dripping branches toward the water.

They rounded the ridge beside the shore and walked out among the lined trees. Michael pointed out an owl staring down at them. At the water, they listened to the quiet lapping and watched the lights of the campus flicker across the surface. A startlingly opaque moon floated in the center, trailing its shine in skips behind it.

Michael reached out around her and drew her close to him. He stood on the edge of the lake and knew he could count the stars if he just had enough time but for the moment he pretended he couldn’t.