The road of rejection

Let me begin by recognizing the historic ruling against California’s Proposition 8. A judge overturned the ban against same-sex marriage, and though we’ll have to wait through a long appeals process to find out if this actually changes anything, it’s definitely a step in the right direction. Now, of course, I feel all this pressure to blog about it, but I’m gonna go ahead and take the pressure off and selfishly blog about myself in the midst of social change. I’m definitely happy about the decision, but for my thoughts about the marriage movement as the central focus of the struggle for LGBT rights and the idea that marriage rights mean “equality for all people,” please click here. I’ll have a response later, when I’ve gathered my conflicted feelings into coherent thoughts.

On to the selfishness:

Continuing what’s becoming a series on how to begin failing as a writer, so you can someday find success (yeah, I’ll let you know if I get around to that “success” part): Earlier this week, I got a rejection letter that came with a personal note. For something I’d written, that is, not some kind of dating rejection or a rejection of my being, or I might be feeling a little more discouraged.

Anyway, what began with a disappointing “We’re sorry that your submission was not accepted…” ended up sort of lifting my spirits by adding that they really enjoyed my story, and they hope I find a home for it somewhere because it just wasn’t the right “fit” for them at this time.

That’s the best I can ask for, right? Well, I suppose the best I could ask for would be to actually be accepted, but the eternal optimist in me (ha) says that the majority of what I submit at first won’t be accepted, so a rejection letter that comes with a personal note is the next best thing. I’m sure they get bombarded with submissions, and I’ve always heard that if someone takes the time out to recognize what they like about your work while they’re rejecting it, that’s a pretty good sign. Perhaps these particular editors write personal notes to everyone, but if you happen to know this, I’d advise against bursting my bubble. I’m gonna go ahead and revel in my rejection.

I’m sure this is just the beginning, and if I work hard I should soon have a pile of rejection letters to welcome the next acceptance one. I don’t want to get my hopes up too high — it doesn’t help that the first piece of fiction I submitted to a magazine was accepted and given an award, but I certainly can’t expect that every time. So I prepare my work for submission while expecting rejection, which might seem like a hopeless way to go about doing things. But I don’t see the wall of rejection as an unbreakable one. I’ll hold on to the little glimmers of hope: Oh hey, they liked my story. Oh hey, they used my name instead of just writing “Dear Reject.” Oh hey, they didn’t advise me to keep my day job. The little things.

And I’ll build my wall of rejection, made of flimsy pieces of paper and not-quite-right fits and comic sans (at least, I believe all rejection letters should be written in comic sans, that way I can giggle a little and not feel so bad about them). I’ll build it knowing how easily it can be knocked down. Knowing that someday, I’ll get a letter saying that the editors enjoyed my work and found it to be a perfect fit. Knowing that no rejection letter, no matter how impersonal or discouraging, could stop me from writing or getting my writing out into the world. This blog itself is a reclamation of personal power over my work, as I put work out there regardless of whether anyone wants to publish it (and find that some people want to read it). Even the act of getting up each morning to write, knowing that most of what I write will never be seen, is an act that declares that my writing means something to me, even if someone else chooses to reject it.

So, even while I’m failing to get my work published, I’m determined to define success in my own terms. And I’m considering myself a damn successful failure.

And now, some fiction to help heal my wounds.

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They never called her anything but “the intern.” During the fall reading period, it was her job to brew their tea (three different pots of three different varieties). There were no coffee drinkers. If they had a guest editor who drank coffee, it was her job to get that, too.

It was the end of the reading period, and they’d given her a pile of letters for the rejects (they never called them anything but “the rejects”). Now their job was done, and she was alone in the office, addressing rejection letters to make sure nobody received one that began “Dear Reject,” as that was how they were formatted. She wasn’t supposed to write anything personal, though she knew each of their stories quite well, having familiarized herself with them so that she could understand the context of the comments made when she took notes during their meetings. They couldn’t be bothered to take notes themselves. The rejects weren’t worth removing their hands from their warm teacups.

But before she sealed the first letter, she hesitated. She recognized the name, Rupert Singer, and remembered his story, the one about the boy and his rabbit. Cliché, they’d called it. They hated that it ended with a sunset.

She took a pen and wrote by hand, bright blue ink sticking out like a moving flag against the black and white printed paper.

“Loved the images in this story,” she wrote. “The last one of them hopping into the sunset will stay with me forever.”

She looked at the stack of papers beside her. It would take all night for her to do this for each one. They wouldn’t pay her for that.

But it would be worth it to someone, she told herself as she picked up the next sheet.

Published in: on August 5, 2010 at 11:24 AM  Comments (2)  
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Pep talks and perfectionism

Well, August is here. It crept in all slow and stealthy, like the fog over the Richmond District. This would be about the time when I’m worrying that I’ve wasted the summer as the beginning of a new school year approaches, but there will be no school for me this fall. It’s kind of strange. I’ve been a student nearly my entire life and I still feel like a student, so I guess August without school will remind me that I’m not right now. I’ll have to figure out another meaning that August can have for me, besides scrambling to have last-minute adventures and finish some leisurely reading before the school year. I’ll let you know when I figure it out.

Yep, it’s August, and according to San Francisco weather, summer has yet to begin.

Anyway, I mentioned that I’ve been working on pieces to submit. I’ve only recently, and very tentatively, begun the process of submitting my work to places like literary magazines and readings.

I find that I have different relationships with different pieces that I’m working on. Some will sit quietly, waiting for me to return to them, even if I never do. Others call out to me, demanding attention, usually at inconvenient times like when I’m traveling between places or trying to sleep. They usually have the best intentions in mind, I think, like reminding me of looming deadlines or keeping me committed when I’m feeling discouraged, but sometimes they’re just being obnoxious. Here’s a conversation I’ve been having recently with a newly “finished” piece:

Finished Piece: Okay, what’s the problem?

Me: What do you mean?

FP: I finally get you to come back and work on me, and now you’ve been sighing and shaking your head at me for the past hour.

Me: Yeah, I know. Okay. The truth is, I know we’ve spent a lot of time together, but I’ve decided that you suck.

FP: Well, if I suck, you suck. Besides, I’m the best you’ve got, and I’m not getting any better.

Me: Forget this. I don’t have to settle for you.

FP: Yeah? What are you gonna do, abandon me to go write the next great queer girl novel?

Me: Maybe I will.

FP: Ha. I’ll believe that when I see it. And I’ll be here waiting when that falls through.

Me: Not if I get rid of you.

FP: Tell me again what’s so wrong with me?

Me: Your dialogue’s all wrong. You’re way too sentimental, and I don’t know what I was thinking with the setting. And I’ll never get that last sentence right, I know it.

FP: Here’s some news for you: everything you write is sentimental.

Me: Don’t go there.

FP: Anyway, you felt okay about me a week ago. I think this is just you being afraid to submit. I think this is you being crazy.

Me: I’m not afraid. And I’m not crazy.

FP: Girl, look at who you’re talking to, and then tell me again you’re not crazy.

Me: There have been plenty of successful writers who are crazy.

FP: Not your kind of crazy. If they were your kind of crazy, nobody would’ve ever seen their work. They’d still be sitting at home talking to it.

Me: Well, there’s no way I’m submitting you as you are! I’d have to cut at least a hundred words. And I’d have to change that last sentence, dammit. I’ll get it right if it kills me.

FP: You’d die for me? I’m touched.

Me: Not really. It’s more likely that I’d kill you first, so you better help me with this last sentence or you’ll never get out of here.

FP: The word you’re looking for is “destiny.”

Me: Bullshit. I never use “destiny.”

FP: That’s not what those papers in the trash bin say.

Me: Yeah, and if I use “destiny” with you, that’s where you’ll end up.

FP: Geez, again with the trash threats. What’ll it be after you fix the last sentence?

Me: What do you mean?

FP: You know what I mean. After you fix the end, it’ll be the beginning that’s not good enough. And after that, you’ll need to change the characters’ names. And you’ll just keep fixing and fixing until you give up, and we’ll never get anywhere.

Me: Well, I have to get it right…

FP: Listen. Isn’t it the journey that counts? You’ve learned something while working on me, yes?

Me: Yes. Something about not having conversations with pieces of ficiton…

FP: And you improved your writing?

Me: Oh, yeah. You were atrocious when I first started working on you.

FP: And you had a good time? You remembered the whole reason you started writing, because it’s something you love to do?

Me: Yeah, we had some pretty good times together.

FP: Then it doesn’t matter what happens now, does it? Look, I might not be what you envisioned when you started writing. I may not be the piece that changes the world or touches lives. I might not ever get published. But I’ve been a part of your journey, and you’ve grown as a writer in the time you’ve spent with me.

Me: I hate it when you’re right.

FP: Hey, I come from your mind. I’m not saying anything that’s not already in there somewhere. Give yourself some credit. If I’m right, you’re right.

Me: Sure.

FP: And that last sentence? Switch the clauses, and it’ll be perfect.

Me: Wow, that is perfect. You’re brilliant!

FP: And if I’m brilliant…

Me: Then I’m brilliant?

FP: Don’t give yourself too much credit. I was going to say that if I’m brilliant, then it’s time to send me off! I wanna see the world.

So, this is what happens when I’m in need of encouragement. I turn to my writing, and it… talks to me. Hmm. This seems to be another one of those things that I meant to keep to myself, and ended up blogging about instead…

Published in: on August 3, 2010 at 1:18 PM  Comments (3)  
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9/11 stories

I’ve been writing September 11th stories. I’m not sure why. I don’t tell my own, or stories of people I know, but stories of people who are strangers to me. Of women waking up from one night stands to find the towers falling, watching it all on television as they hold on to the strangers they’ve just met with more intimacy than before. The stories are all beginning to sound the same, of people who are close enough to one of the crash sites to spill their coffee when they hear the boom, or of someone who’s across the country finding out he has HIV right before it happens. I started to write one set ten years later, in some apocalyptic future, before I realized ten years later will be just next year and the world’s nothing like that now. Not yet.

For some reason the one about the kid keeps coming to mind. It’s nothing elaborate, just a short, simple story about a little boy who stays home from school with his parents to watch the towers fall on the news. He finds a new game to play as he watches, putting up makeshift buildings and having his G.I. Joes knock them down, over and over again. The buildings are made of legos and cardboard, and each time he knocks them over, the multi-colored blocks scatter like fireworks and the cardboard wears down a little more, making each new building a little weaker, a little easier to destroy than the one before.

He plays this game until his father breaks his locked gaze with the television, looks down and yells at his son to tell him that that’s not what G.I. Joes are for.

I’ve been thinking about that kid all morning, about where he might be now. He might be old enough to be considered an adult now. Old enough to sign up for the military. I wonder what messages from that day and the days that followed helped make him the person he is today. If he learned not to trust brown people, to hate the enemies of the U.S. I wonder if he decided to enlist, or if he decided that that’s not what his body is for.

I feel, somehow, that this isn’t my story to tell. I hope he’ll tell it someday.

Published in: on July 28, 2010 at 11:25 AM  Comments (2)  
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Bus beauties

Another one of those uncategorizables. Or maybe that’s just me trying to hide. Either way, much of my writing happens during SF Muni adventures so I thought I’d share one such piece.

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There’s a woman sitting in front of me on the bus. I can’t see her face, but the back of her head is the most enthralling I’ve ever seen. I say these things often, I’ll admit. Once a week or so I’ll see the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen, and forget all the others who’ve had that title before. But I won’t forget this one, I think.

Her hair is the color of the rotting wooden fence in my backyard. That doesn’t sound pretty, I know, and I never thought it was pretty before now, before I recognized it as the color of nature when it wants to reclaim something as its own. The faded black tips of her hair tell me she once tried to be something she’s not, only to have her roots grow back, her natural hair color refusing to be denied. There are also threads in her hair, dark orange ones braided like ropes. Way in the back are a few purple ones. They look loose and forgotten, like they found their way in and she still doesn’t know they’re there.

Every now and then she turns and I can see her profile. I start to predict it after a while; if there’s a big dog or some little kids playing outside, she’ll turn and look. Her eyes are brown and crinkled in the corners, and they look kind to me, like Bob Marley’s eyes. Or maybe I just think that because I’ve got my headphones on and Bob Marley’s singing “Stir It Up,” the acoustic version.

At one point her cell phone rings from inside her knitted bag. Her ringtone’s a fast-paced song I don’t know but recognize from the radio, and before she answers, I turn my headphones up so I can’t hear her voice, in case it ruins how I imagine she speaks. I don’t think she has the voice of an angel or anything. I imagine it to be very human, maybe sort of androgynous, the kind of voice that makes her cringe when she hears it played back on a recording because she thinks she sounds like an old  man.

I turn to my book until she’s finished with her phone call. I’ve mastered the art of pretending to read while looking at pretty girls. And soon it’s all the same, the lines on her face shape the letters on the page and I think I know her name because I’m reading a book by someone named Michelle and the name seems to fit her, Michelle. She starts to look familiar, too, like the pretty girls often do. I feel a little guilty at this point, like it’s just me being a pervert, the “hey, don’t I know you?” kind of pervert. But it’s just that each time I glance over, she looks more and more like someone I’ve met before, so I think maybe I have. Maybe I’ve met her, maybe her caramel skin looks familiar because I’ve touched her, and maybe I’ve kissed her, because I’ve had many nights kissing in dark corners, many faces I couldn’t really see, many that faded into dark nights I don’t quite remember. Maybe she’s one of those.

Though I didn’t think she was one I could forget.

But at the next stop, she gets up and walks down the steps, orange threads bouncing as she goes out the bus doors, and when she’s gone I find that I’ve forgotten her already.

Published in: on July 26, 2010 at 12:08 PM  Comments (2)  
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What the hell am I writing?

What the hell am I writing?

I think one of the reasons I’ve been feeling so strange about my writing lately is that I’m having trouble identifying what it is. I was once a poet, see, and then I became a fiction writer and I was comfortable with that title. Comfortable, at least, with calling myself a fiction writer who sometimes writes poetry, but always able to identify it as one or the other.

Then, in my last semester as an undergraduate Creative Writing major at San Francisco State, I decided to take a poetry class with the incredible and talented Toni Mirosevich. Partly because Toni is so incredible and I didn’t want to graduate without ever having taken a class with her, and partly because I thought that reconnecting with poetry would help me think outside of the box with my fiction.

Well, the class helped me think outside the box, all right. So far outside that I didn’t know what to call my writing anymore. If you’ve ever read Toni’s work, you might know that she’s the queen of creative non-fiction and you might have expected that I’d end up writing some kind of poetry/fiction/non-fiction fusion that could never be categorized.

Not that this is necessarily a bad thing. I’m all about letting go of labels, after all. And I have great respect for writers who can pull off these sorts of things. But with my writing, of all things, I’ve always been something of a control freak. I like to go into it knowing that I’m writing fiction, that my paragraphs will begin with capital letters and end with periods. That it’s fiction because it’s not true and it doesn’t rhyme and there are no line breaks.

Right?

Then I find myself writing pieces like this, and when I go to post it I have to tag it as something, so I have to decide: is this fiction? Is it poetry? What about that truth element? Does that make it creative non-fiction? Can I call it poetic non-fiction, prosey poetry, poenonfiction? And what about when I write something that’s not true for me, but it’s somebody’s truth, and that’s why I write it? And what happens when I rhyme?

According to Toni, this is a good place to be in my writing. I’m on the edge of discovery, on the verge of… something, I suppose, though I’m not sure what. To me, being on the edge of something unknown feels like I’m about to plunge. I ask myself what’s the worst that could happen if I wrote something that can’t be categorized, and my mind goes to all kinds of illogical places, like the crumbling of the universe as we know it.

Then again, I wrote a few uncategorizables this morning and the world seems to still be in tact. For now. We’ll see what happens.

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‘Til Morning Comes

We know morning will come

but we try to carry this night together

by holding our breath

keeping darkness in our lungs

to release

when dawn begins

its painting of the sky.

I’m holding on until

your breathless laugh

makes me sigh.

I watch the air from within me

move to you

and I hope you’ll hold my breath

‘til morning comes.

Published in: on July 17, 2010 at 10:42 AM  Comments (3)  
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Another me

Sorry, I took a break from writing for a couple of days. Now I feel guilty for neglecting the blog. Here’s what I wrote this morning, after an odd experience the other day…

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I was downtown the other day when I saw myself. Or rather, I saw another version of me. I’m sure of myself enough to know that I was me, standing on the corner, but I’m pretty sure that was another me, sitting on the outbound 5-Fulton bus that went by.

Needless to say, it was a strange experience. I don’t even take the 5.

I couldn’t really see her very well, just the outline of her hair and her shadowed face, and I wouldn’t have been so sure that it was me if it wasn’t for the fact that she was facing me, staring too, seemingly equally enthralled. And there was that strangely familiar feeling in the pit of my stomach, like I was reuniting with a long-lost soul. If you ever come across another version of you, know that it’s not like looking in the mirror, knowing it’s a reflection of yourself. It’s more like watching a video of yourself that time you got blackout drunk at your cousin’s wedding, and you don’t remember it at all and you’re sure you’re incapable of such behavior, but there it is on the video, a person with your face and your voice, smashing things with strength you never thought you had, until your uncles subdues you. And you have to admit that it could’ve only been you.

Only it wasn’t me, there on the 5. I figure that momentarily she or I crossed into some parallel universe, the Other Me existing in a universe where I take that bus. I’ve seen it in the movies so I know it must be possible. In the movies, of course, there’s always a good guy version and a bad guy version, and while I’m used to thinking badly about myself, I’m trying to change that, so I decided to think badly about the Other Me instead.

She must be the bad version. I bet she didn’t even pay for that bus ride. I bet there’s an old lady standing there, hanging on to a pole for dear life, wishing she could sit down, but the Other Me is only sneering at her as she sits comfortably in her seat.

Sitting on that bus going in that direction, I bet the Other Me lives downtown and goes to school at the local private university, instead of the public one I graduated from. I bet she affords it by selling out to some corporate place, getting on her high horse every day as assistant manager at some place like Pottery Barn, decorating her downtown apartment with the same pastel colored rugs she sells to ten customers a day.

I bet she has a dog, instead of a cat. I bet it weighs 8 pounds and lives in her purse.

Then I start to wonder about her writing. I can’t imagine a version of me that doesn’t write. She’s bold enough that I’m sure she’s already gotten at least two books published, because she wasn’t afraid to break into the business writing something like erotica. I bet she puts her writing on a self-indulgent blog.

Now, of course, the lines between good and bad are beginning to blur. Nothing wrong with writing erotica, and at least she’s gotten published. So she’s bold. So what? I bet her boldness is good in some situations. I bet she’s unafraid to speak her mind. I bet she doesn’t do things like shrink away from confrontations or apologize to the guy who runs into her. I bet she’s unapologetically out about being queer, in all situations, like making the most out of Mother’s Day at her grandmother’s church by taking the pastor’s daughter home without even trying to pretend it’s for further “Bible study.”

I think maybe I’m starting to get down on myself again, thinking this other me is so much bolder and more self-assured than I am. Or maybe she and I aren’t so different after all. Maybe she just didn’t have to wait until she saw another version of herself to realize the possibilities of who she could be. Or maybe that’s not true at all. Maybe she was staring in awe of all that makes me, me. Maybe she didn’t know what was possible until she saw me.

I just hope that from now on she sticks to her own universe, or at least she stays away from my buses. I can only imagine what we might think possible if we put our heads together.

Published in: on July 14, 2010 at 10:49 AM  Comments (5)  
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Words

I’d like to think none of my words have gone unheard.

Even the ones I tucked away into files I never intended to open have slipped away when I wasn’t looking.

They’ve found their way into tattoo parlors, where the artist, shaking his head as he inks “trash” on the customer’s body as requested, is surprised when he finishes to see that he’s written respect yourself instead.

Some have stopped violence, finding their way to a man who’s shouting at a stranger, fists clenched, ready to taste blood. He finds himself tasting the word peace instead, and he thinks it tastes like his mother’s blueberry pie.

The daredevil words, like fearless and powerful have gone on adventures, holding on to the bellies of planes, letting go and skydiving when they’ve reached their highest point. They split open when they hit the ground, then put themselves back together letter by letter and do it all again. The exception is powerful — I wrote that so it’ll never come apart.

Even words I’ve hidden away in diaries written at thirteen years old have gotten out, coming alive again by finding the diaries of those who are girls today, giving them words for their feelings so if they can’t hurl them at the world, at least they’ve written them somewhere.

Some words wrap themselves around the ankles of children who pass, like stray kittens who have found a home. Many are too big for the children, like oversized hand-me-down pants, but they’ll grow into them eventually. Like the little girl whose teachers won’t let her speak. The word oppression enters her mind, and she doesn’t know what it means but suddenly she understands how it feels. Her mother is surprised to find queer girls’ stories among the bedtime tales, but she reads them anyway, wondering why they haven’t been told before.

There are words that steal away into the night. Some settle into the craters of the moon, finding their way into the dreams of anyone who gazes above before sleeping. There are words that add light to the stars, and hop upon falling stars to give words to wishes.

My words bleed ink through paper, and rip through pages. Even the words I mean to keep to myself won’t let me be so selfish. They set out to fall upon the ears that need to hear them most.

Published in: on July 8, 2010 at 9:53 AM  Comments (2)  
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Crossing lines

The boy was thirsty when she found him. He hardly spoke, and she couldn’t understand his words when he did, but Vanessa watched his chest rise and fall as quickly as a jack rabbit’s, even though he was just sitting on the ground beside a mound of his belongings, and had been for as long as she’d been crossing the desert toward him. He was young, younger than Vanessa and about half her size, with long skinny limbs and brown skin that was turning red as the dirt around him.

Vanessa took a bottle of water from her pack and handed it to him. She watched him take it all down in a few gulps and smiled, glad for the chance to help. The Arizona sun was glaring down at her with treacherous heat, and the air smelled putrid, like someone had left a rotten egg to cook on the ground, but the open desert was where she preferred to be. She knew the other children, like her older brothers, were either in air-conditioned living rooms with video game controllers in their hands or jumping into the cool waters of the community pool, but Vanessa didn’t mind the heat. It was with her always, and she didn’t know why everyone else seemed determined to try to escape it.

“We don’t play like that,” her mother said, each time she let her daughter in to realize she hadn’t been playing with her brothers but wandering the desert. “Desert’s not safe. That’s for those other kids.”

She didn’t have to specify for Vanessa to know what she meant, that black kids weren’t meant to play in the desert. It just wasn’t how things were in her neighborhood.

Vanessa took the empty water bottle back from the boy. He looked up at her with grateful brown eyes, wiping away the dark hair and sweat that covered them. What he carried with him seemed meager and sparse, just a small green pack that seemed like it once carried more, if Vanessa didn’t count the mound that was covered by a blanket. He couldn’t have carried that. She’d seen the desperation in the way he drank the water, of course, but only just now realized that he wasn’t out there for fun, like she was. He was one of those other kids her mom talked about. That they debated about on the news. The ones whose parents her father grumbled about at dinner.

She shielded her eyes to look toward the rocky area marked by sporadic spiked barbed wire.

“You made it,” she said to the boy with a grin. “You’re in America!”

She expected him to understand that last word, at least, and held up her arms triumphantly, but the boy only looked more terrified, with wide eyes and trembling lips. She started to move away from him, gesturing for him to follow.

“Come on,” she said. “Time for your new life.”

The boy shook his head. “Mi hermano,” he said.

Vanessa looked down, noticing for the first time that one of the boy’s legs was injured, his pant leg soaked below the knee in blood so dark it looked black.

“Hermano,” she repeated. “Yes, your leg. Can I see?”

She reached out to touch it, but the boy pulled it back from her, and she felt silly in her haste. This boy didn’t know who she was. He couldn’t understand her, and certainly couldn’t be expected to trust her. She remembered stories she’d overheard, of the men who carried guns and sneered as she and her brothers passed, doing worse to people they found crossing the border. She wondered if someone would hurt the boy on purpose.

“We have to find you help,” she said, more gently this time, but feeling a little more urgency in getting the boy to move from the open space.

The boy seemed to understand what she wanted, but he shook his head as his eyes began to fill with tears.

“Mi hermano,” he said again, and though she didn’t understand what he was saying, Vanessa recognized his grief. He held his hands out before him, small palms up, in what seemed to be a universal symbol for loss. She noticed his hands were held above the outstretched blanket, and as she moved closer to it, he repeated his wail.

“Mi hermano, mi hermano.”

She wasn’t sure if he would let her touch his belongings, but his face was in his hands now so she moved to the blanket. With care and two fingers, she lifted one small corner of the thick wool fabric, then gasped and dropped it down, her heart pounding a nervous drumbeat in her chest.

She’d only seen, as a strange oversized reflection of her own dark hand, stiff brown fingers. Now she recognized the smell in the air, not as ordinary desert stench but the smell of desert death. Had she smelled this before? She stood up, watched the boy’s sunken face mourning for his brother. Had she seen this before? The grief, the desperation now seemed to be an ordinary sight she’d simply never stopped to observe before.

What could she say? She was lost for words, and knew the boy wouldn’t understand her even if she found them. She suddenly felt quite protective over him, knowing somehow that he was in for more trouble, and she’d do anything to keep him from it. She put one hand on his shoulder, feeling his bones tremble until her palm settled upon them. With the other hand she picked up his green pack. He’d carried it far enough, and they would have to move soon.

Published in: on July 3, 2010 at 10:36 AM  Comments (2)  
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Dad meets the family

I wrote this as an opening scene for an end-of-semester reading a couple of semesters ago. Recently I found it again and I’ve been working on it more, developing the story further. I’ll share it now and see how it feels.

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As soon as the music began, I knew it was a mistake, bringing my father there. The audience had grown silent, the cold air still as the lights went down and some overeager mom began to pump shrill, lively tones into the auditorium. She apparently believed that the less rhythm a song had, the easier it was for children to dance to it. The spectacle on stage said otherwise. Two dozen kids were bumping into each other, their eyes wide as they looked up at the teacher who led them and gazed past her bobbing head to see the dimly lit faces of their parents behind her.

I tried to imagine how my father, standing beside me, was seeing it all. His eyes falling upon his grandkid for the first time, frosty white lights beaming onto the stage to show her standing out like a fly on a potato salad. One side of her white dress was tucked into the side of her loud orange underwear, and as if she didn’t look alien enough already, her braids were standing up on her head like antennae. The other folks’ kids were picking up the dance pretty quickly, doing what looked like four easy steps and repeating them over and over again. My kid, on the other hand, was bouncing around on her feet in any old way, to music that only could’ve been in her head. I’m not saying I was jealous or ashamed of my kid or anything – kid’s seven years old, and what man is cruel enough to be ashamed of a seven year old? No, I wasn’t ashamed, just wished I’d practiced a little with her at home or something is all. I could see what all the other parents saw when they looked at her, a kid who couldn’t even tap her feet to a beat, probably the product of another absent black father.

More importantly, I could see what my father saw when he looked on stage. My wide-set eyes and sturdy jaw on the kid’s dark round face, each misstep a sign of bigger mistakes, the tapping of her feet sending out thunderous echoes of many years of disappointment. Since I’d picked my father up at the airport and driven him to the recital he’d had a strange look about him, his narrow eyes wrinkled in the corners as if everything he was seeing was a part of some joke and only he knew the punchline. As I glanced over to see the look still fixed on his face, the audience began to stand.

Standing. Really? My father stood with them, and I rose only because I couldn’t see over their balding heads. My wife Elsie, of all people, led this premature ovation. She stood on my other side, opposite my father, and though she’d shaken his hand briefly just before the recital began, I knew this moment would sear itself into my father’s mind as his first impression of my wife. Elsie thought our kid was perfect. She was convinced that kids were flawed because they were kids, and couldn’t grasp that maybe our kid would be better off if she didn’t have a mother who was so willing to accept her flaws. Elsie was gaping at the stage, her eyes bouncing with joy, her hands clasped in front of her like she was uttering a prayer that was being answered as she said it. Thrilled that our kid was standing out, Elsie was too dense to realize that standing out for being the black kid unable to dance among white kids isn’t a good thing.

I’d always hoped to help the kid out before she turned out like her mother. I never liked kids, but of course I loved my own, and I knew that if she followed what her mother told her, all that crap about being herself even if it got her off track, then she’d end up being stupid. Happy, maybe, as they say ignorance is bliss, but stupid. And if she got smart enough one day to realize I didn’t let her turn out that way, surely she’d thank me.

She stopped dancing. Music still playing, white kids swaying around her, and the kid stood still as a tree on a windless day. I looked at her big brown eyes and saw that they’d found mine. She grinned, teeth glowing, reached up her hand as far as she could and started waving, not at Elsie or anyone else, but at me. For some reason this kid thought I’d be glad to see her up there waving like a fool.

Through the corner of my eye I saw my father look at her and look at me, and I was sure I felt the lights above me grow brighter. A chill rushed through my body. Should light be cold? The kid’s eyes were locked on me and I didn’t break their gaze. It was the only way to avoid eye contact with my father, and with the other audience members who had surely turned to look at me. Beside me, Elsie was shrieking her high-pitched giggle. It was all too much – the lights, the music, the eyes on me. I watched the kid as I sank back down into my seat.

All I could see now above the audience’s heads was her small palm, pale under the spotlight, as she slowly brought it down to her side.

This was my father’s introduction to my family. It was the first glimpse he’d seen of my life since he’d vanished from it nine years earlier.

Published in: on June 18, 2010 at 9:25 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Nature’s Way

New fiction from this morning:

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As a child, Evelyn never would have confessed to something while her mother was gardening. She knew better than to deliver what might be called “bad news” while her mother was on her hands and knees in the dirt, her earth-colored skin glowing beneath the sun as she tended to her flowers with such gentle care that she might simply turn to a tulip in bloom and say, “why can’t my children be more like you?” if Evelyn disappointed her.

Now, as Evelyn was getting older, she reconsidered this strategy. In her eyes, it wasn’t bad news she was delivering, and perhaps if she was in the garden when she heard, her mother wouldn’t see it that way either. Evelyn could only hope, as she approached the towering woman brought down to the size of a hydrangea bush crouching in the garden, that her mother’s oneness with nature in this moment would make everything easier. Perhaps she would listen to what Evelyn had to say and then turn to a tulip with acceptance in her heart, remembering all that it went through before it came to bloom, the winter it hardly survived, the way she planted it carefully in hopes that it would face one direction, only to have it grow to face the opposite, surprising her with the discovery that that’s what she preferred all along.

As Evelyn got closer, the harsh gleam of the sun suddenly felt more hostile and she wiped a line of sweat from her forehead as she began to wonder what she would say, exactly. She’d had the words planned out but now, watching her mother’s fingers abandon a shovel and dig through the dirt themselves, tunneling quickly and carefully as ants, Evelyn felt like her words were buried too. She’d forgotten everything. How would she explain? There was nobody to introduce her mother to, no deep love of which to speak. She was only describing an inkling, a feeling she got around some girls that told her that there would, someday, be a love of which to speak. As her mother looked up to greet her, Evelyn tried to smile, but could only open her mouth in a terrified grimace. Her throat was closing. Her fingers trembling. Her heart and her stomach tightened as one entangled mess.

“Ah,” her mother said, smiling and nodding when she saw her daughter’s face. “So. You’ve finally come to tell me.”

Published in: on June 17, 2010 at 9:45 AM  Leave a Comment  
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