Tuesday
Nov222016

A New Writing Friend

Teresa Carmody


 

Because the two women wanted to change their lives, they enrolled in a writing class. All summer, they considered their lives as lived before and all summer they turned those lives into stories. The teacher, a thin-nosed woman with pale thinning hair, told the class, and thus the women, to avoid reading the new theory. No one knows what the new theory is, said the teacher with a little laugh, but it will make you want to hurt. I like to read contemporary novels, confessed Violet. My mother, she said, called me Vi, and old, canonical works bore me. I can't locate myself in books by dead white men, said Marie. It was a name she shared with the family dog. Marie had read a piece of advice written in an instructional book for young writers: Don't try to write The Great American Novel, it said, such an effort will only clamp you up.

The sky that summer was bright blue and the two women commented on this in the evenings before entering the brick building at the local university, which was hosting the writing class as part of its community education program. The women had chosen two colors to best describe the summer sky—true blue or deep sky blue—and greeting each other, they would also decide which of the blues best fit that day's sky. Their ability to easily agree was refreshing and taken by both women to be a very good sign. Writers, they said, must learn to describe. What is your boyfriend like, asked Violet. Is he industrious? She liked to write stories about old boyfriends and other boys she had sexed. She had started sexing boys when she was thirteen, and so at the age of twenty-seven, she had been sexing for almost half her life. She liked this math, and liked even more to consider what it might mean. He is industrious, said Marie, but he also drinks a lot of beer. Sometimes he passes out in the hallway or on the stairs and I have to help him to bed. He would hate for you to know this.

Two years before enrolling in the summer writing class, both women had suffered a personal crisis from which they barely recovered. Violet had realized, with the help of a therapist, that her sexual relationship with her high school English teacher, a man thirteen years her senior, was technically abuse. She had known the affair needed to be kept quiet, but she had loved this man and sexed him quite willingly. In fact, before this point, she hadn't considered him to be a man, but more of an older boy who liked her essays, who said her sentences turned him on. He had also praised her skills in cock sucking, and this too made her proud. Meanwhile, Marie had attended the funeral of her ex-best friend, Nina, seeing, for the first time in two years, Nina's widowed father. Nina had driven her pick-up truck at a very high speed, sailing through a stop sign and into the side of a garbage truck. The police said it was an accident and Nina had, luckily, died on impact. Marie had been friends with Nina for several years and through as many psychotic breaks, during which Nina would, eventually, be involuntarily admitted to a psychiatric ward by her emotionally-repressed yet well-meaning father. Nina said it was this same man, her father, who had driven her now-dead mother mad. Nina said her problem stemmed from sexism, not mental illness, and at first, Marie 100% agreed. It was a difficult friendship to maintain, and when Nina posted an ominous and slightly threatening note on Marie's apartment door, she severed the friendship. Two years later, Nina died.

Women are always wanting so much, and this causes problems. That summer, the two women read a story about a Mexican teenage girl fleeing her American bully husband. They read another story about a woman returning library books while her ex-husband followed her and blamed her for not inviting the Bertrams to dinner. In another story, a girl deftly followed many instructions for cooking and cleaning, but nonetheless, she still might be the kind of woman whom the baker won't let near the bread. And then there was the story of the young black girl who found a lynched man's body while picking flowers in the forest. These were the stories the women read together, and the thin-nosed, copper-eyed teacher approved, as the stories did not seemingly include the new theory. The women read other stories also selected by the teacher. There was, for example, the story of colonial officer who shot an elephant, and the story of the moth, which danced and died, uncomplainingly composed. In a third story, a man watched a young woman with straw-colored hair as she stood on the back of a white horse, riding around a circus ring while he thought about time and the authentic true beauty of original sources. Each of these stories included vivid and poetic descriptions of a scene achingly full of significance.

Wanted, said Violet. I definitely wanted my English teacher though he was thirteen years older, and the first time we sexed, I was only 14. She and her current boyfriend had recently adopted a grey and black striped tabby cat named Poe-Poe, and she was petting him as she spoke to Marie on the telephone. The two women had begun calling each other on days when the writing class did not meet, and they would ask: How is your story going? Did you write about your Aunt Jane? Did you write about your high school boyfriend, Anthony? How did your Aunt Jane die? What did you wear to the funeral? Will your boyfriend notice if you're not available for three nights in a row? We must practice, said Violet, and she pushed Poe-Poe from her lap and began leafing through a glossy advice magazine for aspiring poets and writers.

To Marie, becoming a writer felt as likely as becoming a magician. Her dead friend Nina had frequently written stories, and Marie had once written a story about Nina, a story based on a story Nina had told her about her true life. In the story, Nina was eleven years old and a teenage boy molested her in the neighborhood swimming pool. They were playing Marco Polo and her eyes were closed when the boy grabbed her and pushed her swimsuit bottoms to the side. His name was Tony. Later, Marie gave a copy of the story to Nina, and even later, during a tense period full of arguments, Nina spoke loudly into the telephone while Marie was sitting within earshot in another room. I told her I was molested, Nina laughed. She believed me. She believes everything. Marie's forehead burned even as she suspected Nina was having a fake conversation, for as far as she knew, Marie was Nina's only friend.

Change comes slowly or quickly, and one day, while the women were standing outside the building, smoking cigarettes and waiting for class to begin, the sky turned from their mutually agreed upon true blue to a striking slate grey. At this same moment, a yellow leaf fell from the tall tree in front of the building, and the women watched in silence. This, said Violet, could be a significant moment. Did you see how the leaf moved slowly, back and forth, like a baby's cradle? She inhaled deeply on her cigarette and squinted her eyes. What decision do you need to make, asked Marie. Can you make your idea a reality? Marie looked at her cigarette and wished she didn't want to smoke it. She looked at Violet, who was standing tall and firmly-footed. This is not my significant moment, said Violet. A significant moment defines you, she said, if you believe significant moments exist. I liked the story of the moth, said Marie, but stories written by rich people make me angry. That's because you think their stories have more meaning, said Violet. In history, said Marie, they do. Why do you think our teacher hates the new theory? Neither woman had officially read much of the new theory, but they suspected it may already be all around them.

Their class was going to host a reading, and each student would have 6 to 8 minutes to read a story of his or her choice. The thin-nosed, small-boned teacher instructed the students to read a story written that summer while working together, and they should time themselves before the big event because that is what professional writers do. They would hold the reading at a small store and café owned by old hippies who sold clothing and bags and other indigenously-crafted objects from places like Guatemala and Thailand. Do you think your boyfriend will come to the reading, asked Violet. Marie thought a great deal about this question, and decided her boyfriend would be bored by the other students' stories, if not her own. My boyfriend will be out of town, said Violet. What can we do with our writing besides publish it, asked Marie. I want to publish my writing, said Violet. I want to write a book about my old teacher. When people read it, I want them to feel sexy. To feel that power. Before Nina died, said Marie, my boyfriend never said her name. He called her Your Crazy Friend. Now, she doesn't exist.

Lives, said the thin-nosed, well-dressed teacher, are always worth living. Every life is full of many stories, but not all stories are interesting to others. The key, said the teacher, is to choose stories others will care about because of their social significance and beautiful language. Don't whine, said the teacher, but let the reader feel your pain. Your pain might lead you to engage in multiple affairs with young women half your age. Or perhaps you will need to care for your younger siblings because your parents are drinking, or working. Or dead. We have all been unlucky in love and money, said the teacher. We all know how upsetting it is when a stranger comes to town. Write something relatable. When I say your pain, I mean your character's. Perhaps your character doesn't know how to express his feelings, and this is painful for everyone, especially him. The lesson he learns will be even sweeter when he shares it with his reader. But don't make the lesson obvious. That is cliché.

They listened to the teacher and discussed her advice. I am trying to understand the reasons I sexed my high school English teacher, said Violet. I believed I loved him. Do stories always start at the beginning, asked Marie. The women were sitting in Violet's apartment and Poe-Poe sat with them, perched on the back of the couch just behind Marie's head. He periodically bit her hair and she liked the sensation this caused on her skull. The sky had been deep sky blue that day and the women were drinking sweet red wine. The story of my teacher is more than a story, said Violet. He was the first person who told me I could write. I don't think my boyfriend likes me writing, said Marie. Violet nodded, and thought about how her boyfriend listened to her every word. Are you writing about Nina, she asked. She wanted Marie to understand that boyfriends are easily threatened. The problem with my boyfriend, said Violet, is that he is too scared to sex.  

Enrolled in the class was an older white man who often argued with the thin-nosed, clear-spoken teacher. He felt she was both too relaxed and too rigid. He wanted to get the most out of this opportunity, his chance to write. He spoke about his feelings to Violet and Marie while the three stood together outside the building. It had been another true blue sky day, and the man told the women he was not unfair or unkind, but stories, he said, might only bear the appearance of truth. Consider, he continued, the transitional object. The object is real and also excessively real in the mind of the infant, as it facilitates the space between me and not-me. Have you published any stories, said Violet. The man had published a story in a literary journal dedicated to regional writing. Our teacher has published a story in a national magazine. Why are you talking to us, said Violet. The man said he liked their stories better than the others'. Sexy is a powerful feeling, said Violet. Marie, said the man, was that story based on your real Aunt Jane?

In class that evening, the thin-nosed, makeup-free teacher asked several students to practice reading their stories aloud. A young man with dark eyes read about his butterfly collection and the day he captured a Mission Blue. He realized, after it was dead, that the Mission Blue is listed as an endangered species and so he was caught with a prize possession he could not show to other collectors for fear of scorn or worse. Another man read a story about a father who drank and hit his children. A young boy hid in the woods, where his father couldn't find him although the boy's heart beat all the same. The teacher called on Violet to read her story. Red, said Violet. I see Anthony and I see red and I am on my hands and knees and he is behind me. Violet's story was angry and graphic; when she finished reading, the students burst into ringing applause. Are you happy with your story, said Marie. It was later and Marie was driving Violet home. It is a good story, said Violet. It has momentum. But Anthony and I never sexed like that, she said. I never let him in, though I did give him blowjobs. He liked my blowjobs. He called them sweet. Like me.

A few days before the public reading, the two women met to revise their stories. My Aunt Jane suffered a brain aneurysm, said Marie. She slowly lost her memory, but even before the physical breakdown, she was weird. She was the only woman in my family to graduate from college. She wore her hair short and never married, and every day, for almost five years, she called my younger brother and asked him if the dishes were done. It was funny because he's a boy. I don't know how to write about Nina, said Marie. I don't know what was wrong with Aunt Jane. I didn't know, said Violet, but while we were dating, Anthony was sexing my friend Angela. Angela's other friends were skinheads, they were in a skinhead gang. I quit speaking to Angela when she told me I was not like the other Mexicans. My family doesn't come from Mexico, this was something my high school English teacher understood. It was a private high school in Los Angeles and most of the other students were white. Two years ago, said Violet, Angela wrote me a letter of apology. She said she was sorry, she was in love with one of the skinheads. Did you really have an aunt named Jane, said Violet. Don't tell, said Marie. Our teacher is rather fearful, said Violet. Do you think The Great American Novel is the story of white men and the women who sex them?

Writing was becoming a habit for both women. When Violet wrote, she liked to use a blue ballpoint pen, and Poe-Poe liked to bat the pen and sit on her paper. Marie couldn't write at the apartment because of her boyfriend, so she began spending long hours at a coffee shop. She also wrote by hand. Marie wrote a story called Mind Over Matter about a young woman who refused to mother her children. She wrote another story called Hidden Forces At Work Are Challenged. Violet wrote a story called Bright Prospects and Imagined Community. In another story, an older man helped a young girl rearrange her dollhouse in a linear manner. It was a tragedy. When the rearrangement was complete, the dolls were dead. She called this story The Emperor Dominates Through Intelligence and Reason.

Class is dismissed, said the thin-nosed, bright-eyed teacher, with a wave of her cleanly trimmed hand. The older white man clapped most enthusiastically while the other students and their friends quickly joined in. It was the final minute of the final day of the summer writing class. Thank you all for coming, said the teacher. She stood in front of a display of indigenous art greeting cards, and she was proud because not one of the students had read for more than 8 minutes. Marie turned and looked at Violet. Do you feel wiser, she asked. Please, said the teacher, stay and drink more coffee. Buy some cards or beautiful paper, hand-made in Thailand. Violet sighed as she slipped her notebook, her newly revised story tucked between its pages, into her bag. My boyfriend, she smiled, won't return.