True things about:
I write mostly short stories these days, but I was writing on the internet alongside the dinosaurs.
I also wrote the book You Are Among Friends: Advice for the Little Sisters I Never Had, which is a self-explanatory title.
Her name was Laura—a healthy, Midwestern name—but she’d changed it to Lara. She hadn’t filed any official forms or notarized any documents, just changed her outgoing e-mail name halfway through college and informed her easygoing parents that she was Lara now, the dramatic double ah sound befitting a sleek Bond girl or a mysterious Russian spy.
Looking back on the summer we spent together, it’s easy to see why people thought we were in love. She would stand askew and hook her fingers into my belt loops protectively in crowds. We slept in the same bed while drunk on cheap wine and then woke up and pulled on each other’s clothes from where they lay puddled on the floor of my apartment. Former college classmates ran into my friends at parties and asked about my girlfriend, the one they’d seen in so many of my Facebook photos. She called me from a wedding reception once when she was sitting alone and bored, dictated an address and told me to wear a pretty dress.
We met, aloof and arms-crossed, at a house party. Leaning into a sheet strung up with clothespins behind us, thinking it was a wall, she crashed through into a stranger’s collapsed laundry baskets, scattering the detergents and softeners. I had just happened to be standing next to her, and I grasped her skinny bare arms and tried to hoist her up, both of us weak with laughter. I swore to her that no one else had noticed, and it was true; other people at the party were just shadows in the blue lights, dancing and drunk and watching their own feet. Lara and I wandered upstairs together and found the kitchen, where we flung open the refrigerator and ate cake by the handful.
You think of the word husband one hundred times a day; say Hello husband in the mornings and again at 4:30; practice the words my husband in conversation with cashiers, fellow elevator-riders, other married people (from whom you vaguely expect a response akin to a secret handshake). But most people are used to being married. So many people wear wedding rings; you check in class when they shuffle their papers into stacks, on the street when they squint at their phones in the sunlight, on the plane when the dark-haired woman next to you sniffs sadly and presses a dusty yellow Kleenex to her eyes through the descent. Don’t know what you’re looking for. You wonder how it could be possible that so many people are married, seemingly like you, when it took so much of your own life to get to this place, this marriage: two people who promise to stay beside each other and who also believe in keeping promises. You wonder at how life has so much room within it.
When it came time to request my second-semester mentor here at Lesley, there was an unfamiliar name on the faculty list: one William Lychack, a fiction writer who was returning after a hiatus. The first Google result for his name was my fateful first impression, the following excerpt from his 2004 novel The Wasp Eater, published by Houghton Mifflin:
The mother stepped across the room and pushed closed the dresser drawers until they all lay even. The house seemed to hold its breath as she turned with her mouth pinched down and her chin trembling so fast she could not have been controlling it. The boy watched her and felt as if he’d swallowed a bit of metal—a washer or a coin—and someone was bringing it back up along his spine with a magnet.
The level of poetry and palpable detail swimming in these three sentences embodied the writing I strive for in my most optimistic moments. The professional reviews I found agreed with me; Polly Shulman of The New York Times Book Review says “This spare, meticulous novel opens out like a poem, its deceptively casual images bearing an entire universe of weight.” Writer Adam Langer ranked this Lychack person, out of all the authors he’d interviewed, as a “Gold Medalist” in the “Genuinely Decent Human Being” category. The William Lychack Wikipedia page said he had worked both as a Mr. Softee Ice Cream Man and a Judo instructor. And he had read his piece “The Ghostwriter” on NPR’s This American Life, which, frankly, seemed like overkill. I was still sold.
Earlier this week a newspaper reporter came to write a preview article, and when she asked me what I thought of the play, I said it was strange and beautiful and poetic and poignant, and I meant them all in equal measure. It’s about a girl (yes you may have heard the myth, no it isn’t required reading) who dies on her wedding day and, after arriving in the Underworld, doesn’t remember anything about being alive. She forgets how to use language; when she opens her mouth to speak to the audience, the sound of swarming bees comes out. She can’t remember her husband’s name, can’t describe how it felt to leave her body when she died, and doesn’t remember her long-dead father when he arrives, saying her name joyously, which to her sounds like an exotic language, although she can’t describe that either. “It’s like a fruit!” she says, listening to him talk.
I don’t talk a lot about acting and I never have; truthfully, I find that people are only rarely interested in hearing about my theatrical hobby, which is not at all surprising here in ye olde smalle towne Midwest. Sometimes people come to see me because they know me and want to be nice, and I find out in the lobby afterward that it was the first play they’d ever seen. And I can’t ever say that I’m surprised. Acting was one of those secret childhood hobbies for me, something I thought I’d made up; then something I quietly honed for ten years in a church-turned-theatre with a capacity of thirty seats, tucked away in a town of a thousand.
Find the two people above in the year 2005—the two blurry people on the left, the ones touching shoulders but not looking at one another. I’m the girl, the one looking nervous. Larry is the boy, looking disaffected. Set your time machines to a painfully bright summer day in mid-July, and find the downtown apartment that he can no longer afford since his ex moved out in the spring. Depending on what time you arrive, you’ll either find us in the kitchen—Larry mixing avocados and lemon juice at the counter and me standing in the doorway behind him, completely blotto with nerves—or, later, sitting politely side by side on his couch, watching a rented copy of Pooty Tang, settling into cold green bottles of beer.
I’m freshly twenty-two, moving back into a dorm room three hours north in less than a month. I know from finding his abandoned MySpace profile that he turns thirty-two in a little under one week. He’s in a rock band—of course he is—this absurdly charismatic and funny lead who every person in every room in every bar either knows or, like me, wants to know. In my journal at home—“home” being the weird, sprawling 1950s house that I’m living in that summer, rent-free in exchange for keeping it clean and lived-in—I’ve copied the words he typed to me earlier that day, about the movie, which he thinks will be terrible: Gonna risk it and watch it tonight….you should come over. The next page is wholly taken up with the following quote, inked over at least twenty times by the time I leave my house for his: If you don’t go, you don’t see.
A few hours after the movie has ended, we’ll be easy to locate: still on that couch, music on the stereo, a book about The Beatles that I’ve pulled from the coffee table still lying open, but now forgotten; the buzzing giddiness of 1:30am, the beer, and our insane crushes on each other all rendering conversation crutches unnecessary.
Find us there on our first night, tipsy and humming with nerves, and tell us that later that week, we’ll be decorating his van with crepe paper nicked from a supply cabinet in his closed office, about to buy a bag of root beer barrels to toss out the windows one by one, keeping the brakes lit on downtown streets, a spontaneous two-person parade. Tell us that in two years, when guests step into the living room of our new shared apartment, Larry will go to my closet and find the scarf I just finished knitting to show it off, quote the number of tens of thousands of stitches it took to make. Tell us how Sydney will squeak from the backseat about the “Series Tower” the first time we take him to Chicago; tell us about our family prayers at dinnertime, how we all hold hands; try not to let our laughing drown out your voice. And just when we’re winding down and about to kick you out, ask us if we’ve talked about marriage yet—we will, somewhere around the 2am mark, agree emphatically that neither one of us is interested in it—and tell us that in six years, not only will we both be married, but we will be married to each other.
How does it all work? How you hear and tell a thousand stories, tracing plot lines and wrangling predictions, scoffing at the obvious, while at the same time, your own story is moving swiftly along, skipping ahead of you? And how wonderful is it to arrive in a place where the seeds have finally sprouted and everything is in bloom? To arrive there together, in the same place, at just the right moment? Or, really, to realize that there is no such thing as the “right” moment. That if you ask us these questions in 2005, as we’re splayed on the couch with the beer gone warm and the book spine stretching, we won’t know what you mean. We’ll look a lot like a summer fling, until we are somehow not. We are in different places in our own stories, then, and the years to come will not be easy, but we will keep moving, even when it aches. And then, miraculously—but not magically—on a weekday morning in 2010, just after autumn has officially arrived, we will talk again about getting married, and from my perspective, in the same place as my friend, surrounded by our own shared life and all the music and stories and color in it, it will not be a difficult decision. To keep on walking with him as my family, to see what happens next and next and next.
(Originally published on youareamongfriends.com)
A topic that’s revisited a lot in Writing School discussions is whether or not we as authors “should” utilize brand names, topical trends, etc. in our writing; in these very internetty times, that usually translates to doodads-cum-entities like Facebook, iPods, Twitter, etc. We run the risk of dating our work when we mention things which will undoubtedly become obsolete in the next couple years, as newer better faster shinier things evolve; think how much you’d LOL if the main character in a novel supposedly set in the present-day updated his or her Friendster profile in the first few pages. Setting a whole novel in the orbit of the internet also puts you in a spot likely to alienate whole demographics of readers—my best friends and I may Gchat all day from our separate cubicles in far-flung office buildings, but my mom still can’t seem to figure out how to update her Facebook profile with anything except thumbnail-size photos, for instance, and my grandma actually shed tears of terror when presented with a new computer at Christmas.
At midnight, Eastern Standard Time, I was sitting on the thinly-carpeted floor of the student center, in a small circle of classmates-turned-friends, thoroughly sloshed on red wine, broadcasting my favorite Marilyn Monroe songs from a borrowed iPod speaker and very nearly crying with joy. A custodian was making his way up the stairs toward us with his cart and clutch of keys, likely thinking that four or five hours was actually plenty long for a post-reading reception to stretch on a weekday, despite our cries to the contrary.
I’m twenty-seven today.
I must have been around five years old the first time I thought about the universe. I’d easily swayed my mother into buying a set of Childcraft encyclopedias from the salesman who had shown up at our door (a rare visit for our rural farmhouse). I stayed up late to read about volcanoes and examine the timeline of the world, ponder the extinction of the dinosaurs before falling asleep. Before I had been taught to fear math, I read excerpts from a book where a boy and his watch-dog eat subtraction stew and meet a Dodecahedron; The Phantom Tollbooth was my first favorite book when I read it in full a few years later. I begged Mom to buy tempera paints, the main ingredient in most of the crafts in Make and Do. They sounded exotic, my first non-Crayola medium; Mom had to stop at a special store to buy them.
I guess I have always been afraid of Larry dying.
Of course I fear the death of anyone I love, but the roads of my life converged as such that I met Larry on the first summer after my first big death. Not “my” death, but our death—my family’s, our baby’s. Before the winter of Macey’s death, I had known the sudden deaths of high school classmates in speeding cars and the slow, confusing letting go of some older relatives. I had gone through adolescence, I had trudged my way through the swamp of my first broken heart, but I had never experienced grief. I was twenty when Macey was killed at ten months old and, like an animal knows how to fight or fly, I had never known grief but I knew how to shut down my body, how to mourn for months.
I met Larry the summer that I was still lost.
This evening I finished re-reading The Year of Magical Thinking, the memoir written by Joan Didion in the year following the sudden death of her husband, John Dunne, after a cardiac arrest at the kitchen table. It is a study of her own grieving—and all grief—as she moves her way through it. I first read it when it was released in 2005, during the few regrettable months I worked in a bookstore one town over. The owners were passive-aggressive and were in a Christian rock band, but I got a 20% employee discount, and I bought my first Didion hardback with part of my first paycheck.
It is fitting that Elsinore’s upcoming EP would be titled after their latest magnetic single, “Chemicals.” After building up a name and following, the Midwestern band spent the last few years trying to shed their stubborn “folk/Americana” label, and The Chemicals EP is their strongest case yet for destroying all labels completely. “Chemicals” itself is either a rock song disguised as a love song, or vice versa. The song sparks with its own colorful energy, featuring an irresistible, soaring hook. It is clean and catchy, but hardly simple—after the bridge, it spirals into more sinister territory, feedback and electric buzzes echoing. So it is difficult enough to categorize the five tracks themselves (and why would you want to?)—they move seamlessly through shades of rock ‘n’ roll, shoegazey pop, and space rock. But it’s not hard to understand how or why Elsinore struggled to lose the folk clothes; their songs are full of heart, both emotionally and—especially on the new EP—literally.