old school social media: friendship books (FBs) and penpals

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Photo Credit: Unsplash

When I was small, I became aware of the spaces between people. A fence separated the building where I lived and the girls who played jump rope next door, a physical barrier that was no match for a religious one. They wore skirts that grazed their ankles and blouses that cinched at the wrists, and I wondered if they could feel the heat. One summer I wore a mint-green short-set until it was threadbare and when I asked the girls next door if they wanted to play, they ignored me. We occupied the same space — why were they unfazed by the hot sun bearing down? Why wouldn’t they play with me? Days later, a small boy would tell me that they weren’t allowed to speak to “people like me”, much less share a rope.

It was summer and I was friendless with only a stack of library books and squirrels scavenging through the trees to keep me company. Everyone seemed to have a crew, a pack of friends with whom they played double-dutch or swam in the 4-ft pool at Sunset Park. I don’t remember how I discovered Friendship Books (FBs) or how I found my first pen-pal, but that summer I finally befriended dozens of girls my age and was awed by the places in which they lived. Ohio, Pennsylvania, California, Canada (!!!) — I considered these faraway lands exotic countries because the farthest I’d ever traveled was to downtown Manhattan. No longer did I spend my days alone! That summer, I spent hours buying Lisa Frank and Ms. Grossman stickers, colored markers, and construction paper with the small amount of money I’d saved — all in an effort to make me desirable, because who could resist an eleven-year-old from Brooklyn who hoarded iridescent unicorn stickers?

Soon I mastered the acronyms:

AA — Answer All
AM — Answer Most
AS — Answer Some
AVF — Answer Very Few
SNNP — Sorry No New Pals
NNP — No New Pals
SNNS—Sorry No New Swappers
NPW — New Pals Welcome
NSW— New Swappers Welcome
LLP— Long Letter Pal

Within a year, I migrated from “AA” to “NNP”, a status that would fluctuate until I stopped “palling” when I was seventeen. Trading sheets of stickers, stationery, and glitter pens would evolve into trading clips from popular teen magazines: Bop, Big Bopper, Teen Machine, and Sassy. Even though foreign penpals meant more stamps to lick and calculations to navigate, glossy spreads of my favorite teen stars (Corey Haim, Robert Downey Jr., Kirk Cameron, Andrew McCarthy, NKOTB) from magazines published in languages foreign to me were worth the trips to the post office. And I had friends! Some pals were purely trading partners while others became close friends. We traded long letters about our parents, all the ways we didn’t fit in at school, and the movies we watched and books we read because we were lonely kids and teenagers and we desperately wanted to feel less alone. Mail was something to look forward to, and I’d stare out my window breathlessly awaiting the men dressed in blue to make their way to my building, and when they left I raced down the stairs and cradled my bounty back to my room. Sometimes I’d open the fat envelopes midway up the stairs, giddy. Other times I’d spend long afternoons writing letters in neat cursive and decorating my small piece of real estate in the FB I’d received.

When I was 16 and 17 I rode a Greyhound bus to Washington state and California to meet my best pals in person, and we snapped photos with our 110 cameras and ordered late-night pizzas. It never occurred to me that I had to travel thousands of miles to do the kind of things ordinary girls did with friends who lived within a 5-mile radius.

This morning, I read a remarkable post about a woman who’s made hundreds of friends through social media. Ella Risbridger writes:

We write online — tweets, DMs, emails — and we write to each other offline, too. Sometimes I picture our correspondences criss-crossing the globe, like those maps of trade routes: old copies of the New Yorker and pictures of cats, postcards, platonic love letters, stickers with lions, little lovely things that might make our disparate lives a little better, a little closer, the world (in the very best sense) a little smaller.

1-lon_HLCqSNYm4G93Xun7cwHer words put me to thinking of space. There was a time when if you wanted to contact someone you had to phone them, write them, or show up at that doorstep screaming their name from the street. There was a time when they only way you could escape the world you lived in was to write your way to a new one through the art of pen palling. FBs were the original social profiles and calling cards, ways in which we could showcase our plumage and find friends who closed the spaces between people. My new pals might have lived thousands of miles away but they felt closer to me than the girls playing rope next door or the cheerleaders in high school who routinely ignored or made fun of me.

And while I miss the tactile ways in which I used to make new friends, I’ve found dozens of wonderful people through my blog and Twitter with whom I’ve formed similar bonds. We may not be trading shiny strips of stickers or pictures of cute boys in magazines, but we’re sharing words, kindness, knowledge, perspective, empathy, and, more importantly, we’re making ourselves feel less alone.


Second image credit: Geek Girl Pen Pals

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new fiction: dark matter

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Photo Credit: Unsplash

 

People ask me how I am and say, oh, you know. Dying slowly. I wake and fall asleep to this tedium and the only thing that’s changed in the past twenty years is the fact that I’ve become accustomed to it. I no longer need to adjust my eyes to the dark because the night is persistent. I am here and I am dead, yet I’m walking. Look at me—a stoplight, a lamppost, an old chair in dire need of upholstery. Turn me on and off like that lamp on the table, and watch as the bulb flickers and fades until one day it flares out.

The night he left, he said cruel things, horrible things you can’t imagine, and he followed me into the shower, photographing me. He took pictures of me crying through the frosted glass, even as I begged him not to. He said you look alive when you’re in pain. When I slept he poured a jar of ants onto my bed and he filmed me when I woke, screaming. He sat on top of me and fanned the camera from left to right. Look at you, Ava. You’re practically ultraviolet. I love watching them crawl all over your face, scurrying in and out of your hair. It was only when I was suffering did I come into color. I was all gray and black light, but that night, with the ants covering me, I was suddenly vermillion, emerald, and actinic blue.

Sometimes I hate myself for missing him. Don’t say his name—don’t even think it. Other times I allow myself to remember how his jaw moved like tectonic plates when he chewed, and his sour breath in my hair. [It starts with a J. Full stutter out—James.] Now all I feel are the crackle of bones beneath my skin. When I close my mouth I taste ashes. My body is a grave.

A year after he left, a woman fell asleep with a cigarette in her hand and my building caught fire. I woke to the alarm blaring and when I reached for the broom to dismantle the thing [the hurt seized you], I smelled smoke. I felt heat rising up all around me, and light beside me. I grabbed my wallet, coat, and keys and made a run for it. Outside my feet curled in the snow. Socks. I’d forgotten them. A week later, a detective stood in the middle of my friend Millie’s apartment, picking up and putting down things as if claiming ownership of them. I was smoking a Newport and pulling at the edges of a skirt that no longer fit. The detective pointed to the smoke and said it was your bed, your cigarette. Your fire, Ava. Are you telling me you didn’t happen to notice that your bed was in flames? I shook my head. Shrugged. I knew there was a fire, I just didn’t know whom it belonged to. Besides, I was half-awake, drunk [black-out drunk, if you’re being honest], and thought maybe the super cranked up the heat for once. It felt nice to come home to a room where warmth cradled you.

No one pressed charges because the building owner took the insurance money and bought a house in the Keys [lady, you did me a favor; wolf-whistles all down the street], and the detectives had all been pulled in to work on a case of a serial killer who harvested his victims’ organs and left John Donne poems in place of what he had removed. Poor Donne. He never had a chance with that Cockney accent, and with Keats and Shelley fluffing their wigs and feasting on spiced lamb. Writing rich boy poems about how small they were. It reminded me of all my friends who would tell me about their sadness. They would talk about finding themselves lost in a place where cartographers failed to map, and I had to laugh because what they felt was a stopover in small town—a trembling pause in their overly illuminated life—while the dark spaces were my point of origin. They had their dark time while swathed by their money, husbands and families in waiting while I had nothing. So while I don’t understand the serial killer’s nocturnal habits, I understand the poet’s desperation. I understand a man who had to wade his way through an ocean with only a pen while others had ships, first mates, and clear skies.

A week later I flew to Los Angeles.

 

*

 

Will you always be your singular hurt? [Interruption—I am small, like sonnets and the architecture smothers.] Will there exist a time when you are no longer the weight you carry? Tell me, how is it that you’re able to excise so coldly? Was it because the wings you tore off flies made you sad? Observe their paraplegic limbs miming flight with a kind of disquiet—the depths of which only you know. [In contrast, my grief is epic poetry.] Or was it the way you arranged your hair—a fugue of roller-set curls covering a half-mask, your sadness filling the gaps. When it’s calm and the sun blows out, you can make a run for it. But before you go, ask yourself: why did he turn away from you? Was it because you shone too bright? Your eyes take on the quality of black matter and you press them shut in hopes that you can stop the flood, the inevitable tears. Like carp, you surface briefly for air only to plunge into the deep again. You’re wearing that lipstick again [I’ve got a taste for the manufacture and packaging of bruises]: a red slash on your lips against a landscape of bone-white and blue. You are forever covered in wounds.

 

*

 

You are worthless. You’re nothing, but how is that you still take up so much space? Don’t speak to me that way. In what way am I speaking? The way you always speak to me. I don’t want to do this now; my face hurts. How is it that I’m the only one who can feel my bones? Can you please not make me talk right now? I’d prefer to not talk. I’d prefer to pinch the skin on my body until the blood collects until it appears as if I’m bleeding beneath the surface because I am. Bleeding. These are the times when I hate you, immeasurably. Immeasurably? [Raucous laughter, rising to a cackle] Just stop. You’ve never been good at math and you’ve never liked me, James. Sometimes you make me feel like I don’t exist.

You don’t exist, Ava. Haven’t you been listening? I close my eyes and think about my mother—my first country, the only place I inhabited completely. I was a sliver of her continent, part of her main.

Back then, James and I lived in a basement apartment. We couldn’t tell when the sun rose or set. I liked that—the confusion. Sometimes he brought girls home and I’d have to sit and watch as he combed their hair, cut it, and shoved bits of it into my mouth. Swallow, pretty girl, he told me. Get every last bite. After he said, next time, can you wear that dress with the lace sleeves? I hate that dress, it makes me look like a doily. Ava, do you realize how fatuous you sound? A fucking doily? You used to be fun. You used to amuse me and now you’re a walking refugee camp. Can’t you do this one simple thing for me, after everything, everything, I’ve done for you? His voice was an avalanche I was desperate to tumble under. Ava, what’s the problem? If it makes you feel better, next time I’ll get one of those frail girls. Maybe an anorexic—they always have thinning hair and rings around their eyes.

Did you think I was pretty while I was choking on that girl’s hair when you didn’t even stop to get me a glass of water? I remember you. You wrote me a letter on the back of a Chinese take-out menu, and it was about how you spent months watching me. How you followed me to the ocean once. Watched me swim against the waves that were blue, green, salty and cool. You wrote about the pelicans that surrounded me as I sprawled out on the shoreline, my body a ticker tape of hurt desperate to be carried out by the wind and the undertow. And, all this time, I fell in love with a man who wrote me a letter, who delivered evidence of his devotion, and I never stopped to consider its contents. I never found it strange that a stranger was watching me because maybe I was happy just to have been watched. Now I watch what you do to younger versions of me. Take me back to that letter, James. Tell me one nice thing about me. James sighed, and with a scissor, he cut the ends off my hair. Your name is easy to spell, was all he could fathom after three years of being the light that blared over my bed.

What is it that you think you’ve done for me? I want to ask, but I don’t.

 

*

 

When I was ten, my mother took me for lunch in a small luncheonette on Long Island—far from the Jackson Heights apartment in which we lived. The luncheonette stood at the end of a long line of empty stores that flashed For Lease or Going Out of Business signs. We only had to walk a few feet from the train station to view the shack with its peeling green paint and faded Pepsi signs. A placard reminiscent of the 1950s read: Hot coffee and a buttered bagel for $.50! This was the sort of place where everything arrived frozen and left torched. I kept asking why this place, why here, and my mother shook her head and cried out: you’re killing me. Ava. Murder in the first.

Inside, a man sat in a booth tearing apart a blueberry muffin. What had the muffin done to deserve such aggression? I stood behind my mother and wrapped my arms around her small waist as she streaked across the room to the table where he sat. On a giant plate lie the remains of his breakfast—a massacre of berries and cake. The man didn’t eat his food, it was more like he attacked it and took pleasure in surveying the destruction. When I edged into the booth across from him, he pushed his plate toward me and said, have some. I didn’t want a muffin; I wanted a cheeseburger! I’m allergic, I said, to which he responded, the whole or parts of it? The man laughed and proceeded to flick blueberries at my mother who laughed while shielding her face and said, my daughter has a casual relationship with the truth. I’m allergic to all of it, I said.

This is Martin, my mother said by way of introduction. I know that voice, it was the same one she used when she introduced my father to people we didn’t know. It was the voice of intimacy, of possession; this is someone you need to know. This was the voice that would alter the days following this one. What kind of name is Martin? I said. The kind of name you’ll be hearing a lot more of, he replied, adjusting his Marlboro man cap to further obscure his gray eyes. Martin owned a fleet of trucks that ran food deliveries all over Long Island, which I imagined was a leap from my father who owned a grocery store that sold lottery tickets and malt liquor on Elmhurst Blvd. When we were flush, which was rare considering everyone in the neighborhood bought on credit, my father would take us to Chinese restaurants in Flushing or Indian restaurants in the East Village, where I’d stare at the carousel of blinking lights until I passed out. Money didn’t mean luncheonettes in beat-up villages. Money didn’t mean caps that shielded a man’s eyes.

That day I ordered French fries and snapped each one in half and imagined Martin’s bones. I held up a fry and said, with eyes black and cold like certain seas, look how easily you break.

On the ride home, my mother told me she was giving me the choice she never had. I could either come live with her and Martin or remain in Queens with my father because she was done with her primary life. It was as if she’d found Jesus in Martin and was desperate to be reborn. I pictured Martin twitching; I imagined him choking on a mountain of ruined muffins. I remember the way he kissed my mother and how he left her face slick like oil spills. I was ten but I remember feeling lethal. I remember feeling that it wouldn’t be safe for me to be alone with Martin. Safe for him, that is.

That day in the luncheonette I never had my cheeseburger, but I bought one the day my mother lugged two suitcases down five flights of stairs to a taxi that waited outside. I went to McDonald’s and ordered the two cheeseburger meal, and I unwrapped the burgers slowly, delicately, and after I was done, after I’d eaten the meat, drank the cola and devoured the salty fries, I tore off bits of paper and cardboard and tossed them out the window like confetti. When my mother left, my father cried every night in his room for six months straight. I’d hear the guttural wails, his anguish, and whenever I soft-knuckled the door and said, pop are you okay, pop what can I do, he swallowed his cries and said he was fine, just fine, and could I be a good girl and get him a beer out of the fridge? I tucked him into his bed when I was fourteen and made his dinner and combed his hair when I was nineteen, and still he never recovered. The problem with me is that I think people are good, he once said. No one is good, pop. When will you learn this? My father never resumed his former shape, and sometimes I’d ride the subway out to Brighton Beach because only the waves rivaled my anger.

My mother sent postcards from a town called Elmont. Why did she send postcards? Did she consider her abandonment a vacation for which she was long overdue? Whenever I thought my wounds were closing up, she’d find a way to jab her fingers back in. Over the years, I sent her newspaper clippings of murdered women—photographs of necks bruised, eyes gaped wide, and the requisite high school portraits that evoked the emotional refrain of: observe her purity and innocence—until there came a day when the postcards stopped coming. The morning of my high school graduation I mailed her my last clipping. It was the story of a young girl who hung herself from a tree. I remember the lamentation, the pieta practiced by the evening news and mourners. The cries of: she had so much to live for; she left us too soon. They spoke of the child’s suicide as a theft, and everyone—the Home Depot location from which she purchased the rope to her parents for giving her an allowance to purchase said rope—was accountable. I wept sad clown tears.

Underneath the girl’s class photo, I scrawled: After you left me. A decade later, long after I had moved out of my childhood home, my father handed me an envelope and inside were five words that had been written by my mother: I gave you a choice.

 

*

 

My friend Millie phones to warn me that the cannibalistic serial killer has expanded his footprint. Apparently, New York is too cold and dark in the winter, and he’s moved on to sunshine and bones bleached white from the sun. Already he’s gouging hearts and dropping sonnets along the 405. I tell Millie that I’ll take my chances. And besides, odds are James will get to me first. He phones to tell me he’s in L.A. for a thing and would I hook up with him after? James says he wants to make sure I haven’t brought my fire-starter proclivities out west. Would it be rude if he rolls up to my apartment with a fire extinguisher and a condom? I tell him I’m busy, and he says that I’ll come around in a few hours because Ava always comes around. Before I hang up I wonder aloud if he’s the man who’s going around putting innocent women on the menu, and he laughs and says he’s strictly a hair man. Have you kept your hair long, Ava? James asks. His voice is as smooth as mirrors. I can’t see you tonight, James. Even the slightest contact with you will break bones. [Start brewing your detachment; shrink down to fairy size.] You can’t call me anymore.

You’re the saddest little bird, he says. Leave your door unlocked—I’ll come by late.

He’s got cards missing from the deck is all I’m saying, said Millie when she first met James. Your man only just met me and already he’s running his fingers through my hair, and you know how I feel about people touching me, especially my hair. Back then I brushed her off, told her James didn’t know the rules, but she wasn’t buying it. Millie drew an imaginary circle around her body and said, this is my space and you don’t get an all-access pass unless you’re on the guest list. And there he was acting all VIP, practically drop-kicking the bouncers at the door. I told Millie she was being dramatic and she countered with I’m being honest. That man doesn’t know his limits—he doesn’t understand that there are places to which he’s not permitted to go. I don’t know, Ava. Haven’t you grown tired of loving the stampede?

By the way, I didn’t want to tell you this because I knew it might upset you. Mission accomplished, I snapped, cutting her off in mid-sentence. No, it’s not about James. It’s about your mother. I saw her the other day holding a little girl’s hand, and the girl looked just like you.

This isn’t news, Millie. You’re not telling me something I don’t already know. Later that night in James’s bed I said, tell me you love me. And he turned to me with eyes shuttering and black and said, tell me you love me. He pulled my hair and said, look at you shivering, my little haiku.

A month later I ran into the man who raped me. I don’t know if rape is the right word because his shouting yes was louder than my no, so maybe he never heard my refusal. After, he brought me a glass of cold water and rubbed the sides of my feet. On that day, I saw him I was with James and the man who raped me was bouncing an infant on his knee. The little girl wore a pink puffer jacket and white socks with lace sewn around the ankles, and James smirked when the man, seated across from us, asked of his daughter: so who’s my little girl? The child reached for the man with outstretched arms and all she could say was Daddy. There should be a law against this kind of male blubbering, James said. I opened a book, but didn’t read it, and when the man who raped me reached his spot, he carried his girl gently in his arms and I leaned my head on James’s shoulder and said, that man raped me. James nodded and said he wasn’t surprised.

Before I left for Los Angeles, I stopped cold in front of a photograph that flashed across my television screen. It was the man who raped me and his neck had been cut from ear to ear, and the only reason he was found so quickly was because his daughter was screaming in the back seat. When the police arrived at the scene, they took a photograph of the child and samples for forensics because someone had scrawled, using her father’s blood, the letters N and O on her cheeks. The killer slipped a CD into the car stereo—Nirvana’s Nevermind, which played on repeat until one of the officers on the scene pressed the Stop button.

 

*

 

Who’s the kid that answered the phone—a repeat of me?

I gave you a choice, Ava.

Is that what you gave me, you fucking animal?

I have to hang up now, Ava. I have to go.

Tell me, where does everyone go when they say they have to go?

I have to go, Ava.

Stop saying my name like that…

—Like what?

Like you’re trying hard to remember it.

I have to go.

So go, I said. You little world, that made me so cunningly.

 

*

 

In Los Angeles, there is no rain, only sun, and James slips into bed beside me and bites the back of my neck. I tell him I’m tired and he tells me he’s tired too, so we lay in a kind of half-sleep for hours until the darkness overcomes us and forces our eyes shut. When I wake, he’s gone, but he’s left a note, which reads: I loved you in my own way.

I stand in the shower for fifteen minutes before I turn off the water and sit on the floor with a towel specked with blood. I look at the towel. I look between my legs and I wonder whether this is my blood. Does this blood belong to me? Your fire, Ava. Are you telling me you didn’t happen to notice that your bed was in flames? I call James and tell him there’s blood on my towel. The line breeds static and James says, you and your convenient memory. You don’t know how much I miss you. Burn the towel in the tub and get some sleep. What happened to the guy who wrote me a love letter on a Chinese take-out menu? James’s pause was measured and pregnant, punctuated the blare of horns on the freeway. I never wrote you a letter, Ava. You wrote me. Don’t you remember?

I burn the towel. I get some sleep. I’m a good girl; I do as I’m told.

 

*

 

I think he’s in my head again, messing things up, I tell Millie over a telephone line. I tell her about the phone call, the bed, and the blood on the towel. After a familiar pregnant pause Millie says, that’s impossible. James wasn’t in L.A. last night. And how do you know this? Because he was with me, but before you freak out it’s not what you think. You don’t even want to know what I’m thinking. Ava, listen to me. I’m hanging up the phone, Millie.

I leave James 26 voicemails. He calls back and in a small voice he says, Ava, you gotta stop calling me. I hurl my phone across the room and shout, who’s the haiku now? I’ll see you in time.

I text Millie: I am two fools, I know.

 


This is the latest installment in Ava’s voice, which has been really fun to write. This is a pure first draft, so I’ll likely be making a pile of edits. Check out “Women in Salt” if you’re pining for more. 

 

the pile is always bottomless

tbr pile

There will always be books to read. When I was younger there was a thrill in entering Waldenbooks. For hours, I’d get lost in the stacks or find a place in which to hide with my pile of books that I was already in the thick of reading. We didn’t have malls in Brooklyn–King’s Plaza–but nothing significant, and when my family moved to Long Island, malls awed me. They were gleaming and grand, and even though I couldn’t afford anything in the stores I’d still wander through them. They all had that new car smell. Sometimes I’d splurge on an Auntie Anne’s cinnamon sugar pretzel, slathered in hot butter or I’d feast on a Johnny Rockets cheeseburger back when I believed Johnny Rockets made a good burger. This was before the world. This was before context and seemingly endless choices. This was when Waldenbooks had the best books.

Back then I didn’t know what a “literary canon” meant. I didn’t know that there were writers you had to read or know. I read what interested me. I read Dostoyevsky alongside Pat Conroy and Alice Eliott Dark. I picked up Ann Beattie’s Where You’ll Find Me because the cover put me on pause. It was austere, bleached bone, and somber. I liked Flowers in the Attic and found Flowers for Algernon, and realized that maybe they weren’t so dissimilar. I read all of Ayn Rand until I realized that Ayn Rand was a bucket of crazy even if she knew how to tell a story. What I read was pretty much determined by my reaction to the first page of a book. If I didn’t like the first page or even the first sentence, why bother? I asked cashiers to recommend books based on ones I’d read and enjoyed. I read books mostly written by men because that’s what I read throughout high school and college. I was taught that men wrote the “big books”, the “great stories” while women wrote the quiet ones. It wasn’t until I was 24 and in the writing program at Columbia did I encounter bombastic, brilliant women. Joan Didion, Susan Sontag, Virginia Woolf (and no, I’d never read her work until graduate school), Gertrude Stein, Carole Maso, Maxine Hong Kingston, Toni Morrison, Mary Gaitskill, Grace Paley, Alice Munro, and I could go on. Until then I read books written by the dead, mostly, with some genre and sparse contemporary fiction for good measure. It’s hard to explain that there was a bliss in this ignorance, of not being aware of canon and the writers “one should read” (although now I think all of it is pretty much subjective bullshit, anyway).

Until then I read books written by the dead, mostly, with some genre and sparse contemporary fiction for good measure. It’s hard to explain that there was a bliss in this ignorance, of not being aware of canon and the writers “one should read” (although now I think all of it is pretty much subjective bullshit, anyway).  Until then I didn’t know the disdain that “literary fiction” writers had for genre fiction, the tension between the books that sold well and were reviewed well. I didn’t put too much stock in book reviews because I frequently disagreed with them. I liked books people didn’t like and hated ones people revered. I read what pleased me and it would take me well over a decade to undo the snobbery I had taken for truth. Now I read whatever satisfies me in the present moment and know that a book’s value lies in the way that it gives a certain kind of pleasure to the reader or how it transforms them in some unimaginable way. I read mostly to see the world through someone else’s prism, and I write to make sense of the world in which I exist, a world that is often wonderful, frightening and confusing. I read and write to see what could be done with language, how it could be architecture or surgery.

I’ve read 52 books this year, most of them written by women, many of them poetry collections and children’s books. I love the latter because both genres require a velocity and precision that’s demonstrably absent from other genres. A child has a short attention span so the work of a children’s book lies in both the economy and simplicity of language balanced by story movement and images that transport the child into an imaginative place. People who think children’s books are easy to write are fucking bonkers. I wouldn’t dare because I’d complicate the story in some way or use an image that would send a toddler to psychotherapy. I tend to look at safe objects and wonder how I can make them unsafe or unsettling–if that doesn’t happen on the page for me, I’m not interested in the characters or story. For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we can just barely endure, and we stare in awe of it as it coolly disdains to destroy us. Every angel is terrifying, Rilke writes in the first of the ten Duino Elegies.

George Saunders says that a real writer makes you feel uncomfortable, he’s kind of a freak. “Uncomfortable moments are not without value…because they make you feel luminous”. And I agree with that. The stories that have remained with me have made me feel unsettled, uncomfortable or uneasy in some way. I cleave to difficult, broken people. I like writing and reading about them.

I’m not blog-famous, and that’s okay. I don’t have a literary community and haven’t found these communities to be particularly inclusive and supportive though I dare say they would say they are all the way to the grave. I find most best-of book lists to be ridiculous because best is merely a subjective reflection of one’s taste and cultural access (or lack thereof). So I think about next year, what I’ll read and write, and I have an urge to re-read the Classics because no one does tragedy and pillaging better than the Ancient Romans and Greeks. I want to read stories that wouldn’t easily slip into my purview (meaning, I have to do the work in finding works in translation, works from POC, those not aligning with a binary gender). I want to read more children’s books and poems because both give me great joy in moments of grave darkness.

In terms of writing, I want to create stories that straddle genres. I love the blurred lines between fiction and non-fiction and the fallibility of memory. I’ve become oddly curious about dark matter and neurology and not sure how that will factor in. I still like my broken, flawed women and will continue to champion dark stories and characters even when the world tells me that they won’t sell, no one will read them. Next year I’d like to collaborate with a visual artist in some way, get better at taking pictures, and allow for different, varied voices in my work. Moreso than I’ve been writing as of late.

Sometimes I think back to those days in the mall, on the floor of Waldenbooks. I think about how much I didn’t know, and even though much has filled the space between that girl then and that woman now, there’s still so much to learn. There’s always so much to know in the brief time we’re able to know it. So this is the work. Always be the student and never posture as a pure teacher.

 

that time I wrote a book in two months

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I wrote a book. I’m in the darkest hours I’ve known and this book came like a torrent. I can’t take on major work projects because I can’t focus, and I can’t tattoo tiny smiles on my face for the people who want me cured, transactional, and normal again–but I can write a book of linked stories that I dare say is better than the novel that I’m set to publish next year. And I wrote 180 good pages, 48,000 words in two months. It took me a lifetime to write my first book, two years on my second, and both endured major surgeries, required backup generators, and defibrillators on standby. This book simply came, effortlessly, and I printed these pages and stared at them thinking, what the fuck is this? Words, illustrations, and photographs surround me on the day I’ve embarked on turning my mental beat around. Frankly, I don’t know what to do with this just yet because it’s not visually ready (although the story is there and it’s sound albeit in need of copy-editing), but it’s something that suggests an urgency. It’s something that needs to be doing something. It’s not like anything else I’ve written that requires cooling on a rack. Part of me is nervous about sharing a story collection with my agent without giving him a roofie first because…story collection and book publishing and yawn and fucking yawn some more. Part of me wonders how this project would have taken shape had I had more money, and then I realize I’ve enough saved for rent and the idea of one of these crowdsourcing campaigns feels unseemly, the equivalent to elegant panhandling and if there’s one aspect of my personality that’s stubborn it’s my inability to ask for help because that means I’m beholden to someone. I owe someone something and I honestly hate the idea of art as a card game, art as arbitrage, leverage. Not being beholden means this can be as strange as it needs to be. Part of me is like, fuck it, I’ll publish this whole thing online knowing maybe 5 people will read it. And part of me wonders if that still matters to me. I don’t want what to tell you other than I have this thing and it’s arrived and it’s doing the thing that newborns do–fucking cry to make themselves known, heard, cared for. This isn’t a call for advice, honestly, it’s just an update on the strange happenings going on in my life.

 

Parts of the book are here, here, and here.

and now you can go (new fiction)

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Leave me alone. Let me have my wine and my poison and let me be done with it. You tantrum your way through a screen to let me know you can see the stains on my mouth, the amber liquid in my glass — reminding me of what I can and cannot have. I am on a spit, roasting, turning and turning from your admonishments. Let the darkness that surrounds me rise up, and watch me fall out of windows and claw under doors. Can you see my desperate fingers stained black from your reprisals? You once worked your way through my hair while I apologized. I’m sorry everything with me takes so long. You send me papers that instruct me to Get Well Soon and I think: and then what? What happens in the space between wellness and not wellness? Do we mime our despair? Perhaps winter will breathe out my sadness, diminish it. Do we stand under deciduous trees with mouths gaped wide? Do we harvest what’s in the earth in hopes that we can pry the cobwebs out of their sleeping mouths so they can tell us what they’ve learned? We plunge those desperate fingers inside to only feel the rough edges of cold coins. Notice where your fingers go when you say your mother’s name, a doctor tells me. I want you to know that I tried to play happiness, but the graft didn’t take, and the fingers become hands that lock doors, and open faucets and bottle caps and sharpen razors and then finally, I feel the embrace of the clean and cool quiet. I will purple. I will sleep with hands in tight fists. My subtractions will multiply multitudes. The glass of still water on my desk warms while I cool. There are no temperatures here. There is a yard of me and I feel hideous and weeded.

Where is the rain when I’m feeling this brave and reckless?

Can you give me permission to go? No, I will not. You have traveled screens and now you orbit a room that resembles a womb, only it’s white and there are bars on the windows. You tell me I was once happy, coaxing what you need from my dry mouth. Yes, I was happy but I was mostly unhappy and what would be the point of living for a number of smiles I can count on one hand when I’m drowning in oceans that are my tears and the sorrow of others who’ve had to bear the burden of my grief. I look outside. The day pulls taut and sours. While the nurses take my temperature, I tell you that I’m tired of being necrotic. I was momentarily purple, but you discovered my cooling body and now I’m back to fucking black. Look at my fucking face, all covered in ruin — everyone’s minor injury. Speak your white noise and leave. Please? You say: did you know you took enough pills to spell out the words I tried so hard to be happy. You say did you know this? And then the razor, the fucking razor I sigh. Of course, I did. I made the words. I’m not one of those cry-for-help types.

The doctor swans in and announces that visiting hours are over. He administers the drugs and you fall out of focus. The days don’t make demands of me so why do you? Why do you insist I go on, I can’t go on?

Doctors scan my skeleton and I ask them what my bones say. Are they trying to hold on to my entropy? Watch for the edges, they’re perforated. Big shock, my appendages are sad.

Make me understand, you say. I shrug. It’s simple, really. I am sad because I’ve never become acquainted with happy. I drink because I am sonnets — my body is too small to house all of this pain so I fill bottles. I’ve been flickering off and on, on and off, what else is there to know? Why do you want what I can’t give you? Trust me, my body is a province and it’s in revolt. If I walked in the world I would crack. Now do you see? Next time can you bring me a carton of eggs? Why? I want to count the children.

One day you come and tell me stories. You stole someone’s laundry. There was a shirt you wanted to buy a few years ago and by the time you had the money it was too late, and wouldn’t you know there it goes like a Ferris Wheel in the dryer in your building, and the shirt was the only thing you took and you’re wearing it now and I say that it suits you. You ask me why I’m smiling; it’s been ages since you’ve seen that shape on my face. It never occurred to me that you would be capable of taking. You have been here for a month and all you do is eat tacos, browse surplus stores, and fit your feet over the cemented footprints of stars. Go home, I say. My father will take the night shift. You ask me if this — the bed, the doctors, and the drugs — was about my mother, about not having time.

It’s simple but not that simple. Don’t reduce this to the sum of someone else’s parts. Does the crack of ice in a glass resemble the crunch of bones underfoot? I don’t say this out loud because I need to leave this place so I can go home and do what I need to do. I need to complete. The woman across the hall practices her primal screams. The color of her pills is different from mine — this much I know.

My father tells me that he has no idea what I’m thinking. My father’s favorite word is coffee. Coffee was a demand, a question, and an answer. Coffee opened and closed are conversations and was the blanket we were tethered to. What are you thinking? What were you thinking? There are tears in his eyes. There is a photograph of him on a horse and he is shimmering and young and I cry independent sad movie tears when I say, coffee.

There’s no going home to the home we think we know. No, no, no home for me. I hold a blank book in my hand and it is filled with your memories. Do you remember the photographs of us — few exist — and we are ghost white and smiling? Knowing that one would soon follow the other to our natural conclusions?

My father doesn’t understand. I was so solid. Things were going well. (All those Get Well Soon cards and well wishes!) I shake my head because I am not a canister. I am the lid of a coffin opening and closing to the hum of the telluric dark. He doesn’t take the joke well. I am a wound where no flesh comes with its warm coverlet. My father tells me he needs me to get better. I nod because I’ve taken inventory of everyone’s needs.

We need you to get better soon. We need you to not open bottles and drink them. We need you to not open pill bottles and swallow the contents. We need you to ignore certain “contents”. We need you to steer clear of sharp objects. We need you to tattoo the shape of a smile on your face. We need you to kick this, snap out of this, forget this, move on from this, and be better than this.

I’m aware of what you do and do not need.

My friend flies home because she’s run out of money and I send her a credit card check for my limit. My father reasons that I’ll be fine with fresh air and walks on the water. Months have passed and I am tired now. I approach a mailbox and it’s hard to see and walk straight and I mail him the Polaroid’s of my slow wave goodbye and there is the water behind me and I write coffee over and over in black ink. You are right. I’ll be fine by the water and under the air. They will carry me coffee, home, coffee.


Author Note: Going forward, I’ll be publishing short pieces of fiction from my new short story collection, multimedia thing, here instead of Medium. If you like what you’ve read, let me know! 🙂 

new fiction*: this is our playground

Sad, depressed black man in a empty room, low light

 

Nobody told Marlon that he would grow up hustling rock. He was thirty years old when he died, but he had the face of a boy fresh out of the crib leaping onto the playground. Kicking sand out of sandboxes and twisting the iron chains that held up tire swings. Yet underneath his skin you’d find scales webbing from his hands to the small of his back and cartons of cigarettes smoked down to the filter. Meaning, he came out of the womb all Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? even though he was far from the aging actress whose star had managed to darken an already black sky. You know how the story ends and how it wasn’t supposed to be what it was, but if you’re game and have the time lean in for a listen. Because nobody did suffering like Marlon—he reached for the dark far more than he stood in the sun.

 

Marlon was the miracle child, a stone that held its weight. Eve was set to have her tubes tied because what did she need with another girl in the family when she already birthed three of them? Children were a chorus of puckered mouths clamoring for the teat. Smacking their lips with that wet sound they make. The years had cradled her in sorrow. Kids she knew hopped off roofs and fell out of windows. The junk-sick lay, arms outstretched, their eyes and the tips of their fingers jaundiced. And although the police finally arrived three hours later from the time you called them, they still managed to toss lit matches into burning buildings. There they go covering the bodies with soiled sheets because they ran out of tarp, but you could still see a row of toes, a patch of unblemished skin peeking out. Cancer and tumors emerged as the new breath-robbers because who could afford to go to the hospital and wait the night it took you to see a doctor who would only tell you that the swarm advanced, your body was a contagion of growths, and here are a few things left for you to consider. Have you thought about your final days? We thought about the dolls we used to have and how we hid coins, marbles and baby teeth in the trap doors that were their insides. Flip open our flap of fabric and there goes death multiplying. Did we think about our last days? Sure we did. Hand me my smokes, do my hair good, dress me in my Sunday best, and leave me out with the rest of the trash because no way can we scrape together the bills needed for a funeral. Slow-sing over the heap of us, will you? Sing me Nina Simone, as loud as you can.

 

People laughed during episodes of Good Times that played on televisions suspended from the ceiling, although we knew that times were far from good. Somewhere, in the distance a phone rang. The forecast called for thundersnow. A woman studied a piece of paper, a form she was supposed to complete. I can’t read. We have these forms in Spanish, the receptionist said with a kindness that made the woman who held her frayed purse close grip it tighter. The woman shook her head and stared at the floor. Come here, mamí, the receptionist said. Let me read it to you.

 

What kind of lie are you living, said Eve’s friend when she learned that Eve was pregnant again. There you go thinking that another kid will increase your monthly check. Eve was carrying a boy and the father was who knows because it was 1974 and there was a party every night, and Eve sang the Chi-Lites on volume ten to all the boys in the room even though she didn’t have a movie star voice. Instead, Eve had the kind of body you wanted to wind around bed sheets. Eve swore this was the last one and what she was going to do—kill the boy in her body? Girl, please. Pause your nonsense. Marlon wasn’t about a paycheck; he’s going to be good to his mama. He’s going to be the one man who stays.

 

The night Marlon was born Eve threw her 8-tracks out the car window on the way to the hospital. Eve drove with one hand at the wheel, breaking lights. Her water broke twelve weeks early and she knew this couldn’t be good. Her body hurt like Riker’s, and Eve wondered if this what happened when you were a mother to a child making a prison break from the womb. In the emergency room Eve sprawled across two plastic chairs and pushed out a small mess of a child that weighed three pounds while the girls behind the desk were snapping their fingers to Rose Royce, and will you bitches get out here because there’s blood on the floor, blood everywhere, this black boy is fucking blue, and will someone call a doctor? Will someone cut the cord?

 

Marlon was a black boy gone blue, but he kept on breathing. Two months later Eve brought him home and the girls rubbed the sleep out of their eyes and wondered how five pounds of hostility could cause so much ruin. Behind his back, the girls called Marlon the leftover child because he was what remained when your mother got passed around one too many times. Even Eve knew that her child would be like all the other men in her life, a body that slept on top of sheets, never between them. One foot poised at the edge of the bed, ready to run. Six months in the womb, and already the boy was making a break for it—Eve had all the evidence she needed.

 

Notice how no one’s claiming him, said one daughter whose father came by once a month with Starburst and coloring books. Someone beat him hard with the ugly stick, the other two laughed while Marlon crawled around the linoleum. They kept the shades drawn; they lived a house where the light couldn’t get in. The girls sidestepped his groping hands while Eve worked the night shift. Rarely was he kissed. Rarely was he held.

 

Bitch, what did I tell you about touching me, said Marlon riding a girl called Lenny. He was thirteen and spent his days bussing to a magnet school in Park Slope and hitting up any girl who had grass on the field come evening. Marlon preferred girls who looked like “before” photos because they were grateful for the crumbs while the “afters” were throwing attitude in every direction. Marlon pushed Lenny off the bed to work on his exponents. Why did everyone need to get physical? You can at least help me with my homework, she grumbled pulling on her clothes. Peering over his shoulder, Marlon laughed. Are you wearing Care Bear underwear? Shit. You need to take your ass back to remedial because the only way you’re going to learn math is by lying on the bed issuing numbers to the homeboys outside the door. Now go on and get the fuck out of my house.

 

Marlon rode the bus to Bed Sty to hang with Eric, who was putting together the money to make a record. Marlon amused Eric because of the way he could do complicated math in his head. You threw numbers at the young brother and he gave you an answer on the exhale, and Eric thought some kid speed-balling multiplication tables in the chorus might make a rhyme worth repeating. Why Marlon wanted to mess around with the corner boys mystified Eric, but he never mentioned it and always slipped Marlon a twenty just for stopping by. Eric knew it took two trains and a bus for Marlon to stand on the corner shuffling his feet and eating Dipsy Doodles while all the base heads on the block lifted their shirts for a piece of the rock, thinking their skin was going to help the cause. You’re going to catch the fade, the boys hollered back, shielding their eyes with their hands because they all knew the story of Medusa and they didn’t want to turn to stone. One day Eric leaned in and said, I heard about your mom, and Marlon shrugged his shoulders because, so what, he hardly knew the woman. You don’t miss what you don’t have, even when the woman’s body whittled down to a mess of scraggly limbs and bone and flashing going out of business signs. You don’t love what you don’t know, even when the lesions told the story of a woman who’d been passed around one time too many. When Eve died no one rented the apartment she lived in, even after the super bleached the place and repainted the walls because no one wanted to live in the same place where a disease you couldn’t cure had festered and bred.

 

When Eve’s body was laid into a casket, Marlon ate stolen hog dogs in the park, crying his own quiet, miracle baby tears. That summer there was no shade, only sun, and it was gold and blinding. That summer Marlon slept naked on a bed stripped of sheets because even the fabric hurt. Cotton threatened his skin. Everyone was watching reruns of Good Times, talking about when times were good. Girls were discussing their tag names—Coco, Sugar, or Queen Lethal—because no one wanted to sit in their skin.

 

The year Eve died we found out our pastor got the sickness too and was on his knees praying for forgiveness. The Lord ain’t got time for that bullshit, said everyone on the block, passing around cups of Folgers from Ginny’s pot. Some cowboys from the Bronx shot Eric at point-blank range because everyone was having greed for dinner. Nobody made a record that year. The corner boys filed into Eric’s house for potato salad and pork cutlets, and Marlon was so tense he couldn’t speak except to whisper the times table in front of Eric’s high school graduation photo taped to his mom’s fridge.

 

Marlon was a black boy born blue, but he kept on breathing.

 

The black and white television cast the room in blue and Marlon leaned over the edge of the bed to where Felicia watched a late night movie about a man who killed a woman and got away with it, and said, I could be your daddy if you want me to. Felicia stared at the television screen, unblinking when she said, that’s not what I’m looking for. She was eight and he could tell she appreciated the sentiment. You’re a little young to be watching a movie about girls getting killed. Felicia shrugged her shoulders, smiled and pointed to the screen covered in snow. What’s on there is no different than what’s out there. They sat alone in the dark like a Hopper painting, and Marlon had to agree. You had to give it to the girl—she had a point. Marlon heard her mother spray the perfume that smelled like real flowers instead of the fake ones everyone had in their homes, and Felicia said in a small voice, how long are you going to stay, Marlon—longer than the rest? I don’t know, he said. Maybe I’ll hang a while.

 

Earlier that day: you remember my boy, Eric? Oh, you don’t? But you know your son, right? Little T? Here’s a picture I took of him—I like to think of this as the before because the after snap you don’t want to see. It’ll be one the coroner takes once they fish your boy out of the river. I wish you were there to watch Little T beg for his life, but don’t worry, I made you a tape and I’m going to play it for you twice. Marlon lived for the unexpected plot twist.

 

Marlon’s home became a revolving door of need. You’re crazy for selling crack where you rest at, said his boy Jamal. There was his eldest sister who was already burning a hole through the door after cashing her check. Maria was angling for a family discount, and if that didn’t work they could negotiate a friendlier rate. Put your clothes back on, Marlon said, shutting his eyes. Maria wrapped a blanket around her and cried playground tears at the kitchen table. They’re coming for me because my baby girl died in her sleep. I can hear them, she said, knocking on the wall. They’re in here, in the walls, listening. We have to be quiet; you have to give me a little taste so they go away. So I can to sleep. Remember mama and how she used to sing us to sleep? Marlon shrugged his shoulders because the only songs he remembered where the ones she sang on the other side of his wall, never in his room.

 

Marlon held his sister’s trembling hand over a bowl of spaghetti. Maria begged for darkness and unmolested sleep. Felicia turned nine and from the other room she said: just give her what she wants. Maria passed out on the couch. Marlon held his head in his hands while Felicia drew tears under Maria’s eyes with a ballpoint pen. In a year’s time, Felicia will lie in a morgue with a hangtag tied around her wrist and Maria will lie unconscious, a price tag swinging from her bedpost like a pendulum. But now, right now, Felicia was crying the tears she drew on Maria’s face. Sometimes your sadness scares me, Marlon said. Sometimes it scares me too.

 

Sad wasn’t a good enough word for what Felicia was—Marlon would sooner or later learn this.

 

Marlon didn’t like pools because they reminded him of oversized coffins. But he liked to swim so he took a pretty girl named Luz to Brighton Beach. Luz was the kind of girl you got when you were big enough to sell rock on consignment. What was she going to do in Brighton? There were no fun house mirrors, cyclones, and Nathan’s Famous—at Brighton Russian grandmas, overcharging for the air you breathed, surrounded you. Marlon and Luz split a knish when Marlon asked if she ever considered that a single haircut could ruin a whole doll’s life? When he was small his sister passed down a life-sized doll called Big Michelle whose eyes had fallen out. He carried Big Michelle everywhere until some B-boys hanging out behind the A&P knocked out his front teeth because boys don’t play with dolls and you should happy we’re teaching you a lesson. Marlon dragged Big Michelle along the pavement and when he got home he set fire to her hair and cut where the flames didn’t go.

level-up

When you’re small your mother tells you to be careful when you cross the street. Look both ways. But sometimes your mother isn’t there or she looks away when you cross or doesn’t say anything at all. Boys who broke out from the womb were bound to find their way, right?

 

You’re creeping me out, Luz said while perfecting her hair flip. Tell me about Felicia. I heard you were the one who found her body. I heard they found pieces of her skull in the alleyway. Marlon punched Luz in the middle of the street, and everyone looked the other way. When she got home she told everyone who would listen about what Marlon did, and then she called a brother in the Bronx and told him a story about a boy named Little T. A month later neighbors reported a smell and the police found Marlon in the bathtub with a knife in his head.

 

Marlon was a black boy born blue, and one day he stopped breathing. The police found a notebook he kept, and inside was a torn piece of paper and the words: you stayed longer than most. Know that you did the best you could do. –Felicia

 


*It’s been challenging to write in this space over the past month because I’ve become so absorbed in this story collection. Right now I’ve 140 pages of stories about women in and out of peril, tentatively titled, Women in Salt. The stories span decades, class and racial boundaries, and it’s been a joy to move in and out of voices. I’m living off meager savings, but I believe in this project so much that I’m commissioning custom illustrations and photography to take these pieces to another level–for you to feel something deeper about what’s written on the page. Right now I’m using images from Unsplash.com as place-holders but I’ve got exciting plans for this. I’ve published a complementary story, “Broke Land”, on Medium and There Was No Shade, Only Sun. And while most might think this endeavor to be silly or not financially sound (because story collection), I’m enjoying this. I’m enjoying this regardless if people read it, regardless if it’s published in book form. I hope you enjoy these stories as much as I love writing them. If you love this, why not share it with someone else? –FS

I’ve been busy…producing and taking care, offline

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There’s been silence on this space but I assure you a lot of good, healthy things are going on. I’m spending time with friends on the phone, on Facetime and in-person. I’ve been making calls to find a person who can help me sort everything out and get me back on track and I’ve been producing. A lot. I wrote an email to my agent relaying that I will likely have to drug him to read a story collection, but the work I’ve been producing, and the velocity of it, excites me in a way that you can’t imagine. In three weeks I’ve 120 good pages of a new story collection.

You can read “There Was No Shade, Only Sun” on Medium.

Also! I’ve decided to launch a weekly newsletter. It’ll be a sweet compilation of links, finds, and oddities online + off. And I promise–no spam. One email, once a week. I’d love for you to subscribe!

Photo Credit: Unsplash

the dark she brings

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“Lay still,” Jack said. “Keep quiet.” He stood over his daughter’s bed with a ball-peen hammer in his hand. He didn’t see his Tasha rubbing the sleep out of her eyes or the way her mouth quivered, as she cried, Daddy, no. He didn’t know she still existed in the space between sleep and awakening; her night terror made real by the figure perched over her bed. He didn’t see her small, balled fists punch her arms and her small cries of Daddy. Wake up. Wake up. Tasha couldn’t wake. Jack only saw a piece of cool metal, a bit of handiwork he needed to perform. All the nails must be found. They must all be pounded into the floor. What if his Tasha stepped on them? She was ten, prone to infection. It was nearly dawn and the wind blew in cold through the open window. It was late, or early, depending on how you looked at it. Jack could hear the men at the door.

The men were in the house. They were coming up the stairs.

Jack had to protect Tasha, just as he did his wife, Ramona, who lay facedown in their bedroom, having drowned in her own blood.

“This is for you,” he said to Tasha before he struck her in the head. Before her face converged into itself, before it became a mess of cracked bones, ruptured skin, and black hair matted claret. Sleep, sweet girl. It was at that moment when his daughter no longer appeared to him as a thing relegated to toolboxes. It was when he saw her teeth gleaming white did he reach in his pocket for the syringe and the Nembutal. He had to be efficient and quick about ending his life. Before he fell into his final sleep, he bounced Tasha’s ball on his bed. Not on the floor, not in the house.

When they found the doctor, they pried a crumbled piece of paper out of his mouth—a note that read: evil is the proof of god. Inside a book of poems found by his bedside was a photograph of his family. On the back, scrawled in blood: three blind mice.

###

I spent the past week on this story. It started as a diversion because I got lost in the all the books about math and architecture. I felt overwhelmed and sickened by American history revisited. It started as a bridge–maybe I’ll occupy myself with this strange thing because the idea of writing a new novel felt like too much to bear. I wrote ten pages and deleted eight of them, and, one morning, I received an email with dozens of lush photos from Unsplash. I scrolled through them and made a game of it. I would pick a handful of photos that evoked a specific mood and I would use them as a base to write a scene. And here we go. A very raw, unedited draft of something strange.

I don’t know what this is or whether it’s any good, all I know is that I enjoyed writing it. And that’s all that matters.

on writing and publishing an “experimental” novel

Felix The Cat

What Rilke said: Surely all art is the result of one’s having been in danger, of having gone through an experience all the way to the end, to where no one can go any further. ― Jenny Offill, Dept. of Speculation

I didn’t find my voice until I was 37. I’d been writing for as long as I could remember, and in my first poem–a haiku, was published in my elementary school annual–I likened my mother’s voice to thunder. I was in second grade. Throughout my childhood I was routinely called into the guidance counselor’s office, a copy of a story I’d written in her hands–is something wrong at home? Always whispered, always asked in that measured voice people use when speaking to someone for whom English is not their first language. Because who writes stories about sad girls who hang themselves from trees? How is it possible to be a child and filled with rage? Of course something was wrong at home. Something was always wrong at home and out of it.

No, nothing’s wrong, I’d say. And I’d keep writing my stories and continue to lose writing contests because what kind of PTA would award a story to a girl who wrote about death so comfortably? So I lost out to happy endings.

You are dark, was everyone’s refrain, always. A few words mumbled like a record skipping. People seemed to be afraid of the words I’d arranged on paper, and in turn, they seemed anxious around me, the small child who’d created them. A child who seemed unnaturally comfortable with sitting in the dark. A child who didn’t speak much and read a lot, who didn’t understand the petty politics of living in Long Island–a seemingly foreign country to which I’d emigrated. And trust me, if you’ve been to Long Island and Brooklyn in the late 80s, you’ll understand the two might as well have been continents.

In college I set aside my stories and studied accounting, futures and options, mergers and acquisitions, and corporate finance. I memorized ratios (quick: current assets/current liabilities), navigated the fine art of the abbreviation (EBITDA, FIFO, LIFO), and considered Wall Street and American Psycho with interest. I was so finance that when I submitted a story I’d written for the college literary magazine, the editor came up to me with my story in his hands and asked if I’d really written it. Because a woman who calculates debt and drinks an unusual amount of alcohol could never write about growing up in a home that felt like a prison.

When I received a call from Judy Budnitz that I’d been admitted into the Columbia writing program, I kept her on the phone for an hour trying to convince me that this wasn’t some sort of prank. I’d written a very early (and very messy) draft of my first book and what fancy school would accept that? When I left a job at Morgan Stanley to pursue my MFA at Columbia, everyone thought I was getting a masters in financial accounting (this doesn’t exist). When I said I wanted to write, my boss said, genuinely confused: why would you want to do that?

Columbia was a wonderful, terrible nightmare. Everyone seemed to have majored in creative writing and English in college while I didn’t even understand the rudimentary elements of formatting a short story. (What is 3rd person? What is omniscient?) I was 24 and I routinely left workshops sobbing. Imagine being on an operating table, wide awake, enduring a dissection without anesthesia–that’s workshop. I left after a semester because I had a drug problem and when I returned in 2002 I was further tormented because everyone went “experimental.” The line was tantamount, and if you didn’t write like Joy Williams, Ben Marcus, Christine Schutt (I took a workshop with her and she was lovely), or Lydia Davis, you might as well not.

Family stories are done, a girl with blank eyes said to me as we were discussing a short story I’d written–characters who would find their way into my second novel, albeit in a different form, nearly a decade later. After workshop? You guessed it. Sobbing.

I finally got a backbone but still didn’t have a voice. I read voraciously. I experimented. I copied and embarrassed myself. I knew what I was writing–the style, the content–bored me, but I didn’t know anything else. Until I started editing my first book when I told my editor that presenting the story in a linear way wouldn’t work. When I said that parts of the book had to be deliberately vague, out-of-focus, because that’s what writing about my life felt like. I started to play with short chapters, strange imagery and narrative devices–much of which my editor encouraged me to tone down because writing should never call attention to itself. And while I believe that to an extent, and while I revere my first editor, I felt a belt tightening around my neck.

I talk a lot about a job I took, hated, and left in 2013. For four years I didn’t write. And what I did write should probably be torched.

In 2013 I found myself in Biarritz during off-season. It was chilly, rainy, and I spent much of my time in this tiny town staring out at the ocean. I spent most of my days inspecting rocks. I came back to my hotel one night and the first chapter of what would be my second book came like a torrent. I’d written a story about a woman’s hair catching fire in a hotel room–revenge enacted by the daughter of a father having an affair while his wife lay dying. I wrote 18 pages in one sitting and referenced Ishiguro, The Shining, barnacles and Goya’s black paintings. After, I felt like the days when I’d wake from a hangover, inspecting my receipts to see where I’d been, what I’d done.

This story, in form and content, felt like nothing I’d ever written and I liked it. That summer was one of the worst I’ve known, and there was no other way to make sense of it other than writing in a fragmented stutter.

First substantial revision, December 2013

First substantial revision, December 2013

It’s taken me nearly three years to write, edit and have my novel acquired. And the process felt like prolonged surgery, a bandaid slowly sawed off. The story didn’t reveal itself in the first draft, but rather the FOURTH. I restructured the book three times, deleted over 150 pages and wrote 170 new ones. I was attempting a project that had multiple points-of-view, moved between past/present tense, and battled with a narrative that was the antithesis of linear, and an unreliable, unlikeable main character. Over the past three weeks I’ve restructured the book, again, and added three new chapters–and I’m finally excited by the pacing (the story FINALLY moves) and how I’ve tidied up some of the plot elements I’d left dangling.

I started to read books and think, you’re like me. It’s less about stroking my ego but more the comfort of finding other strange people like me who can do what I do, only better (Jenny Offill, Leslie Jamison, Claire Vaye Watkins, Lydia Millet, Susan Minot’s latest novel). Even though writing and editing my novel was a painful, exhausting process, I’ve finally found my voice and style–elliptical, a hybrid of traditional/experimental fiction, dark, acerbic, comic, drawing on outside cultural references to complement/augment my story. In my novel, I’ve incorporated a barrage of cultural references, including: film (Psycho, Carnival of Souls), art (Goya, Marlene Dumas), writing/documentaries/cult figures (Don Delillo, Bret Easton Ellis, Shakespeare, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Kira Henehan, friend + primary reader, Dante, Ted Bundy, Charles Manson, Jim Jones, Jim Baker–just to name a few). By the by, listening to Ted Bundy for seven hours straight does things to you.

And all of this feels right.

My agent will likely shoot me for writing this but my road to publication was…challenging. While I received some critical, constructive feedback, most of the responses fell into two camps: editors who didn’t get the story and editors who got it but were afraid of it. The former is bound to happen because finding an editor is like getting married–two perfectly wonderful people who simply don’t connect for one reason or another. The second camp was a bit more frustrating. Editors found it too dark, the character of Kate unlikable, unrelatable (I wanted to gouge out my eyes when I heard either statement because is PAT BATEMAN likeable/relatable?). Many of the editors loved it (can we see more, does she have something else?) but felt it was too experimental to find a large audience (i.e. we won’t sell enough to warrant acquisition). And although I worked with my agent (he was an editor in a previous life) to make the narrative smoother and apply the feedback we thought would make for a stronger draft, I’m grateful that I have someone in my corner who didn’t ask me to compromise my style. Every revision focused on making the book better, clearer for what I was trying to do–rather than shaping it to a traditional, linear narrative, a place to which I refused to go.

Throughout the process I felt all the emotions–sad, bitter, angry, heartbroken. More so when author friends of mine chided me, assured me that SO MANY EXPERIMENTAL BOOKS ARE BEING PUBLISHED. See those ten titles over there by our friends? See the small circle of people continually ushering their strange work out into the world? I was angry not because the strange work was getting published (THANK GOD IT WAS/IS), but that some of my friends live under the illusion that publishing tough books amidst the sea of same is easy.

It’s not easy. I’ve worked in book publishing (marketing), published a successful online/print journal, wrote two books and lots of short stories, and it is never easy. What keeps me motivated is the fact that this is the only thing I love doing. And while I sometimes shy away from creative writing books and anything bordering on self-help, I felt much of what Elizabeth Gilbert says is spot-on. It’s fear that keeps us alive. It’s our love for the work that makes everything else, even the business of the work, easier to bear.

And then we found Jennifer Baumgardner + Clarissa Wong at The Feminist Press. The entire team got the book, and didn’t want me to “soften” Kate or change her in any way. (Kate is essentially the female Pat Bateman without the Cerruti suits and taste for carnage, with a little plot twist thrown in for good measure). The point was more about writing complicated characters instead of likeable ones. As I finalize my manuscript, I’m excited for the editorial feedback. More importantly, I’m glad my strange little book found a home with people who believe in me and Kate.

I’m actually sad that after after fifteen years of being with some of these characters (Columbia classmates might recognize Gillian, James and Emma–now Ellie–in a different form in my novel), I’m letting them go.

Now to find more strange people to fall in love with longer enough to stay interested in writing about them.

This post ended up being a little longer than I imagined! Haha! And while I’m by no means an expert, if you have any questions about writing, publishing, book recommendations for people who write strange fiction, leave a comment! I’m toying with the idea of video responses 🙂

short short: the man and the rice girl

fiction

Photo Credit: Death to the Stock Photo

I held her. Both arms. And asked her to stop. She shrugged me off and told me to where to go. Then she fell. Knocked her head against the table. I heard her neck snap. I wanted her to rest somewhere beautiful. Somewhere where I could see her every day at the exact center of my world. Here. She looked so beautiful. –From Hinterland, “The Girl in the Water”

The sun came down on the branches, lit them up in a pale fire. A man leans back, considers his life. The whole of it. Thinks about the girl he left in the field, which puts him to thinking about the girl he used to love who worked in a church. She was the rice girl, responsible for harvesting the white pearls just as quickly as they were hurled at couples, who seem to perpetually move in slow motion. Couples who were once sepia and sun-kissed, but the rice girl knew that sepia invariably crescendos to color to only tumble to black. She knew this because the women who shook rice out of their hair would one day charge back into the church and ask a man of cloth if it was possible to once feel a love so great her heart would burst to then feel nothing at all?

The rice girl told the man this while he cut the ends of her hair. She liked this, she thought, the feeling of damage being excised, removed. How do you tell them that their faces will be a river, the rice girl said, to which the man replied, what do you do with the rice? Throw it away? The rice girl laughed, said that would be bad for business. No, she said, we box it up and onto the next. The man considered this act of recycling life, of throwing the same seed. This didn’t sit well with the man, no it did not, and he considered ending it, ending her, until she interrupted and said that municipalities were cracking down, laws were in the process of being rewritten, and now she’d been forced to be creative. The rice girl rose from the bed where the man held a pair of sheers in his hands and she came back with packets of sunflower and bird seed. She said why not get to straight to the point because one day one of them will decide to leave.

Because people always leave.

My hair, please cut it, the rice girl said. She couldn’t imagine parts of her still broken, breaking. He had to cut it all, she thought, there’s no other way.

The man met the rice girl on a cold beach and felt something resembling affection when he caught her staring at a little boy longer than she should.

The man realized that she would bring him seeds and then nuts and then he’d have to leave her because who up and kills the nut girl? You can’t rationalize that. He liked them simple, knocked-kneed and wide-eyed. He preferred their vocations to be among the unnecessary, the exotic, the no-one-will-ever-miss-you variety. The woman in Japan who was responsible for pushing people onto trains during morning rush. The woman who fluffed pandas. The woman who was paid by doctors to feign illness for internists to diagnose. The woman who dressed circus elephants in all their silks and finery.

These were women who hated their mothers and secretly thought about killing (or fucking) their fathers. They were brilliant but they would come undone in the face of simple arithmetic. And they needed to hold every single kitten on pet adoption days. The rice girl was all of this–beautifully insignificant, and then she started talking about nuts and possibly a day job in an office with air conditioning because she’d never been in a place that was temperature adjusted, unless you count the mall.

The man cut more than he should have. How did she fail to notice the sweep of hair blanketing the bed? How hadn’t she noticed her cool neck? For a moment he pressed the metal against her shoulder, let it linger and the girl moaned and wondered aloud if living with air conditioning was like boxes of scissors pressing up against your body.

Something like that, he said, rising from the bed. I got to go, he said. I have a shift, but he didn’t have a shift or a job or a home. He lived where they lived. He occupied their territory, learned their passwords and pin codes and paid their bills on the 1st and 15th. He wondered about supermarkets, if there were people who still bagged groceries or was it all just self-serve now?

Where does everybody go when they say they have to go, the rice girl asked. He distracted her with talk of packets of petals and dried leaves, other things one could throw. For some reason this made the rice girl nervous and she cut the bags of seeds open and began eating until there was nothing left.

You can leave, you can leave, the rice girl said.

Please leave, the woman in the field says, now. Give me the dignity of not having to die next to the man who killed me. Give me at least that.

I must write: when a woman finally finds her vision

Illustration Credit: Summer Pierre

Illustration Credit: Summer Pierre


Anyone moderately familiar with the rigours of composition will not need to be told the story in detail; how he wrote and it seemed good; read and it seemed vile; corrected and tore up; cut out; put in; was in ecstasy; in despair; had his good nights and bad mornings; snatched at ideas and lost them; saw his book plain before him and it vanished; acted people’s parts as he ate; mouthed them as he walked; now cried; now laughed; vacillated between this style and that; now preferred the heroic and pompous; next the plain and simple; now the vales of Tempe; then the fields of Kent or Cornwall; and could not decide whether he was the divinest genius or the greatest fool in the world. –Virginia Woolf’s Orlando

When I was small I used to watch my mother knit; her thin fingers mastered the tango between two needles as they warred to create a scarf, shawl or blanket. For years I took up mimicry like a kind of cross-stitch, but I failed because the complexity of patterns and needlework subsumed me; the chink of cool metal forever eluded me. Here I was, a child composing haikus likening my mother’s voice to thunder, yet I couldn’t thread a needle. My thread always grazed the eye but never dared plunge through it. And I worried about this. A lot. If I couldn’t conjoin cheap yarn how could I possibly tell stories? How could I step into a world and inhabit it so completely? Words belong to one another, and a writer’s job is to sit amongst spools of thread and weave. Their work lies in creating tapestry, silent symphonies.

I think about the movie, Heat, specifically the “face-to-face” scene between Al Pacino and Robert De Niro.

These are two men who are what they go after. Two men who don’t know any other work than the work in which they do; their life is their work, no going back. And although the work is risky–it’s like risk versus reward, baby–the action is the juice. The work, the life, is the reward. Even in moments that feel like plague, when the ground gives way and the fall seems infinite, bottomless, we press on. We carry the weight of the dark on our backs in the journey into the light because all of it, the depth of it, the darkness of it, is worth the stretch.

We try to see in the dark; we toss up our questions and they catch in the trees. —Anne Dillard

A WRITER? Why do you want to be a writer? Writers don’t make any money, said a woman to me once. I remember the way she said writer, as if it were tinged, sullied, a word not worthy of the letters that comprise it. Maybe she thought herself as someone who could wash the stink off me, scrape away at the plaque that had begun to harvest its way into my heart. Because finance will make you clean again. This woman was a managing director at Morgan Stanley and I sat in her office discussing my resignation. I’d just been awarded admission to a fancy writing program and I was jubilant. My work until then had become a blanket intent on smothering me, and all I wanted to do was fucking breathe. For a time I relegated writing to a hobby state while I managed the serious work, my vocation, off to the side. Because I was an adult now. I had student loans now. I had an apartment now. I had a bone-crushing subway commute now. I had my mid-day Starbucks run now. I had happy hour now where everyone was on the road to ruin, night drinking until they saw black, now. I had to wake up now. I had to Monday moan now. I had to do this all over again now. I had to measure my own grave now.

The days had become repeats of themselves with minor variations.

I go through this a lot–trying to deny writing as something serious and true in favor of the work over there. And I always, invariably, come up short. I always end up working myself into a place of despair because while I’m good at what I do–marketing, projections, budgets, brand positioning and planning–it’s not the only thing I’m meant to do.

What I’m meant to do is write. Plain and simple. Although, in reality, not so plain and definitely not so simple, but give me a minute with this.

Illustration Credit: Elle Luna

Illustration Credit: Elle Luna

Over the weekend I read a book in one sitting, an exposition off of a widely-read essay, “The Crossroads of Should and Must”. I remember reading the essay with a considerable amount of interest and passing it along to my friends. I remember being inspired by Elle Luna’s words but untouched. Perhaps I wasn’t primed for confrontation because I was still sorting out the nuances of this freelance life, but now, right now, I’m ready to drive my car off the road.

I’m good at compartmentalizing things, brilliant even. When I resigned from my last job I talked a lot about having room for all my children to play in the proverbial sandbox, that none of them would be considered changelings. That I could practice my writing in one space, my affection for food in another, and finally, the marketing–the bill-paying stuff–in another silo, far over there. Never once did I consider how I could merge the three. How I could seamlessly move from one state of play to another and even imbue my life with play! IMAGINE THAT! Never did I think that three simple children could morph into one complex child.

Never did I realize that I’m now in the midst of my own needlework.

Over the past few months I’ve been thinking about my life. That might sound dramatic and it probably is, but when you’re inching your way toward 40 and you’re still in student loan and credit card debt maybe it’s a good idea to take a step back and take stock. I did the 8,760 hour mind map. I read a slew of books. I got angry all over again about shit blogger books getting published while I’m told my strange, beautiful writing will never find a large home (fuck this and the horse you rode in on). I thought about my move to California and the role a foreign place would have in the grand scheme of things (more alone time, more space and less distractions). And after all this noise and mess and thinking (all that yarn!) I asked myself a really simple question:

What brings me joy?

I started to look at everything I did over the course of the day and I realized that my joy lies in writing. Whether I’m working on a brand voice guide or a blog post or a short story, the art of weaving words together challenges and excites me. The art of reading and constantly absorbing information so that I can keep the knife sharp as it were, feels like home.

Writing is home to me.

It’s taken me 39 years of denial to admit that I have to put writing front and center. I have to design a career, a life, around my ability to take up wordsmithing like cross stitch. And I’ve finally landed on an idea that I’ve been sharing with friends over the past few weeks–a consultancy focused on storytelling.

Now, this isn’t about creating content or some other bullshit reductive term that looks fancy on LinkedIN or gets you penning articles for trade publications–as you know I don’t care about exposure or popularity. By default, I’m unpopular and far from mass market. What I’m talking about is the ability to hire me (and down the road, others) to help you create a world or tell stories. From product naming to brand architecture to helping you write your book, I want to be able to practice what I love, what I must do, EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. Will I fail? Probably. Will I get to connect with talented artists? Absolutely. Will I get better at what I do? You better believe it. Will it take the sting and weight off of having difficulty publishing my own experimental fiction? For the love of god, yes. Will I freak out? Probably once a day, on a good day.

But it’s like risk versus reward, baby.

Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigues, I have had my vision. ― Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

I’ll unveil the official name + all the fireworks in the coming weeks, but for now know that I’ve set down my brush, as Lily Briscoe once did.

Know that I’ve found my vision.

chocolate banana mousse (vegan)

chocolate banana mousse (vegan)

Yesterday I had lunch with my marvelous agent, Matthew Carnicelli, and I left inspired, invigorated and ready to start another novel. We spoke at lengths about my first book (he’s still making the rounds) and the tremendous feedback it’s received balanced with the fear of publishing my book because it wouldn’t break through, it wouldn’t be big because it’s largely so dark. My book is this beautiful, risky thing, was the constant refrain from book editors, and Matthew and I brainstormed possibilities while he tries to sell this dark little thing I’ve created.

We spent two hours talking about what I write on this space and we decided that what I write here (personal stories connected to food, career advice, issues of race and identity, how I’m redefining success for myself on my own terms) should be kept here. The writing on this space is honest, good, and brings me joy in writing it and sharing it with you. So it’ll stay here and I’m privileged that you’ll bear witness to its inevitable bloom.

I talk about a new project that’s been stirring. The problem with how I write is that I never, ever think of plot, a story fully realized. I start with characters and a few scenes. I figure that if I know the people they’ll do some interesting things and the plot will follow. So I’ve a rather ambitious idea, one that will yank me out of my comfort zone, and it centers around a neighborhood in Brooklyn and a prominent (and potent) Puerto Rican crime family. Naturally, me being me, I have a few fully-realized scenes toward the end of the book, when I laugh and tell my agent this, he rolls his eyes because he’s been down this road with the last book. I always start in the middle of things and give him a 100 pages and inquire whether what I’ve written is any good. It’s always good, he assures me, and I can tell he’s relieved that this story is manageably dark, rather than relentlessly so.

I pause in the middle of our lunch, stir food around on my plate, and ask, timidly, the novel isn’t that dark, is it? He laughs because what I’ve asked states the obvious, because the title of my book is Follow Me Into the Dark, and he says, Felicia, it’s dark. But it’s also beautiful and good and we’ll find it a home.

I left reminded of the singular rule I was always taught in graduate school. Don’t just lean your hopes on this one great thing. Write new books, tell new stories, scatter them like confetti all over the place. So this is me, investing more time here, more time away from here. Writing. Creating something new. Every day.

INGREDIENTS
2 medium ripe bananas
½ ripe avocado (3/4 cup)
¼ cup cacao powder
½ tsp ground cinnamon
2 tbsp maple syrup (or honey)
½ tbsp water

DIRECTIONS
Add all ingredients to a blender or food processor and blend for 30 seconds or until smooth and well combined. I added cacao nibs and pistachios to my mousse, however, I can imagine this would be AMAZING with some whipped coconut cream. I let this chill in the fridge for an hour before serving.

chocolate banana mousse (vegan)

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