Monthly Archives: May 2011

Sarah’s Journal

Welcome to my first fiction entry. My supplementary comments are at the end if you get that far! Thanks for coming!

Sarah’s Journal

Day One, Thursday, 5:00 p.m.

  • Call co-op to see if they want me to do their fall newsletter,
  • Do laundry,
  • Make dinner (God, I’m boring,)
  • Walk?

I am not convinced that this journaling thing is the “magic bullet in seven days” the doctor on TV says it is, but I have nothing to lose, and if I don’t start feeling better soon, I am going to…what? Go into a closet and never come out? That is the safe way to say going to…die. Not kill myself; I still can’t quite envision that no matter how badly I wish that my stupid life was over. I can say that here. The whole point is that no one will ever read this, which is such a relief. I already feel so judged, condemned. No matter what I am doing I feel people looking at me with disgust, even when I am all alone, which sounds crazy—but face it I am not far off crazy. My husband, my kids, my mom, myself, everyone—I feel like I am letting them all down; that I have somehow irredeemably screwed up and there is this nasty, critical person inside my head who won’t let me forget it. I don’t even know where it comes from, all this hate. I’ve always had trouble feeling good about myself, but it has been so much worse lately. It fills me up and overflows until I hate everybody else, then hate myself more for feeling this way.

I have such a headache, like bungee cords wound tight around my head with the hooks biting into my neck. The desk I am working at smells funny, so maybe that is part of my problem. It was Grandma’s. Aunt Margo had it in storage forever and just left it with me a few days ago so she doesn’t have to move it Florida. I set it up in the nook in the corner of the dining room. I was hoping to make this my space to have to myself for work and whatever, but if I can’t get rid of the weird smell the desk is going to have to go. Nice family heirloom, just the kind I deserve. I am supposed to write more, but I don’t think I can manage it—can’t see through the tears.

Day Two, Friday, 4:45 p.m.

  • Start the fall newsletter,
  • Vacuum,
  • Dinner—what in the world am I going to feed them tonight?

I can’t believe I made it back to the journal; normally anything I do that requires discipline is abandoned as soon as it is started. I suppose have to give myself credit for that (mostly because giving yourself credit is the doctor’s rule, but two days in a row is a step in the right direction, even I can see that.) After I finished writing yesterday, I was surprised by how I felt. A little lighter somehow, like I’d set down a heavy bag. I made dinner and nobody complained about the food—except me of course—and I managed to get the kids to do the dishes so my kitchen was clean this morning when I got up. That made a huge difference.

I have now cleaned all three parts of the desk, the bottom cabinet, the cubbies behind the fold out desk top and the cupboard on top. The smell is better. I can’t get over how weird the desktop is, though. I’ve only seen leather or felt or a wood surface, which I suppose is what is under this blackboard. Why would Grandma cover the desktop with a blackboard? It is horrible, with a slightly chalky texture I can’t get off no matter how much I wash it. I am thinking of prying it off just to see what is underneath. Maybe I can restore it. Hey, there is a positive thought! I don’t know if it is the writing, or maybe my hormones are straightening out, or it is just a random better day, but I’ll take it.

Now if I can just keep myself from screaming out my irritation at my husband tonight, “Why do you just sit there watching TV, can’t you see I need you to talk to me, to see me?” When I do try to start a conversation about anything more than what is for dinner, he is a little irritated that I am expecting something from him, like I am testing him or accusing him of something, then when I am hurt by that he is confused by what my big emotional deal is. He just says, “I don’t know what you expect me to do or say,” then he goes out and smokes, which makes us both feel worse. When he distances himself just as I am reaching out to him it makes me literally want to kill him. Not that I would, of course. There I go again. “Not that I would, of course,”—am I hedging, so someone won’t think I am homicidal, but who is that “someone?” No one will read these pages. I don’t have to defend myself against judgments. So, sometimes I feel like killing him. There. It seems like saying it makes me feel less like doing it.

Day Three, Saturday, 9:30 a.m.

  • Continue working on fall newsletter (got a good start!)
  • Get mushrooms for stroganoff,
  • Laundry

A weird thing happened yesterday after I journaled. I smiled at my husband (for the life of me I don’t know why,) as he drove into the driveway after work, and he said, “Hi, sexy.” I can’t remember the last time he said anything like that to me. I know I’m not sexy, but just the fact he would say something like that put me happily off balance. Okay, almost pathetically so. I know I really can’t keep caring so much what other people might think of me. It wasn’t so much what he said, but that he spoke first, and it was a connection.

I got a lot of work done laying out the fall newsletter last night, and the housecleaning today won’t take too long because I got the kids to vacuum and dust yesterday after they complained they were bored (Hah!) Maybe we can go for a bike ride or a walk this afternoon. My energy is better, so maybe I’ll even tackle the desktop. I filled the display cupboard on top with stuff the kids made in school and gifts from my wedding that hadn’t seen the light of day in fifteen years. I won’t win any decorating awards, but it looks okay to me. All the editing and newsletter work is tucked in the cubbies and the bottom cupboard. I bought myself some colored pens to hide in the drawer, just for me to use. It hardly smells at all, or maybe I am just getting used to it? It is kind of dark right here, in this nook tucked under the stairs, so I claimed a lamp from the living room to brighten things up and it is cozy: a hiding place. I can hear what is going on in the house, but am out of the way, so people aren’t asking me to do things, and no TV in sight to distract me.

I have to say, I haven’t felt like hitting or killing someone (including myself) in almost a day. Maybe this is a real turnaround!

Day Four, Sunday, 1:00 p.m.

  •  To hell with it ALL, pizza for dinner tonight, and I’d better not hear a word about it.

I should have just kept my mouth shut yesterday. Of course, nobody wanted to go on a bike ride: the kids can hardly stand eating with me at the dinner table; they aren’t going to go somewhere they actually might be seen with me. And how I ever thought my husband would set his bony, nicotine-riddled ass on a bike seat confuses the hell out of me.  On the upside, after they stomped my happy daydreams into the mud, they all decided to go see some stupid action movie while I stayed home and got the house to myself for a few hours.

I called Mom, and asked her why Grandma’s desk has this blackboard for a writing surface. As always, instead of answering, she goes off on a tangent. “I don’t know why you wanted that thing. It didn’t even really belong to your grandma, you know.” No, I didn’t know and does that even make sense? Why would Grandma have had it in her home as long as I can remember if it didn’t belong to her? “It was in that old house when we moved in,” she said. “I was just a girl, but I remember there being some junk and that desk left in the house. My dad said the widow who lived there probably didn’t have room to take it with her. People did that back then, you took what you could carry. We didn’t hire big moving vans, or pods or what-all, like they have now.” This struck me as kind of cool; there was some sad history to the abandoned desk, but I had to ask her about the blackboard desktop again. “Oh, that? That blackboard was something we kids played with, but we kind of outgrew it, and it fit perfectly so Mom took the frame off it and glued it on.” Now I was getting mad—“But why?”  Mom seemed surprised, kind of, well why didn’t you ask me that in the first place, “Oh, the desktop was ruined, all stained and scratched up, vandalized with letters carved in and so on. But the rest of it was too good to throw away, so she fixed it up. We weren’t wasteful back then like everyone is now.” I could almost see her glaring at me pointedly through the phone. Also, her voice had gotten a little darker when she said that, so I guessed, “Was that after Grandpa left?” “Yep,” she said, and then said the same thing she’d said so often I could have sung it along with her, “He left us there and we never heard another word from him, and if Mom hadn’t gotten that job at the post office, we could have starved for all he cared.” I began mentally kicking myself for bringing it up. To re-route the conversation I told her I was thinking about checking the desktop underneath the blackboard and seeing if I could restore it, because seriously, the blackboard is kind of awful, but she’d lost interest in the desk. “Whatever,” she said, then started going on about whether I was taking good care of my husband, I guess so he wouldn’t leave me like grandpa left grandma. I managed to keep from telling her that it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if he did leave, because for the most part I don’t really believe that is true and also, the day isn’t long enough to finish that conversation once it started, and the family was back by then anyhow.

This morning I noticed that a corner of the blackboard is loose, so I could lift it up just a hair, but the board itself is really stiff. I am afraid I’ll break it completely, so I didn’t mess with it anymore. I thought about asking my jerk of a husband to look at it but I don’t want to get into anything with him right now. When he and the girls got back from the movie yesterday he had this smirk on his face, and asked what I’d been doing that I didn’t have dinner cooking (I never did buy mushrooms.) Like he was making a joke, but more like he was pointing out to our daughters what a loser wife I am and how good natured he is about it all. I had this really frightening wave of rage where I saw myself picking up a frying pan and smashing his head in with it, but then I imagined the sound the pan would make hitting his skull, GONNGGGG! And I just started laughing, hysterically, which confused him and he stomped off to work in the garage. I don’t know what got into me, but it was a big improvement over the way things usually go when he makes me mad and I speak up. I ended up making sloppy joes, which he doesn’t like, but the girls and I do, and steak fries and steamed baby carrots. He didn’t say a word during dinner, but no one cared because the girls were telling me about the movie, and afterward he sulked in front of the television and I got the fall newsletter almost completely done. I just had the best energy going, and whenever I started to feel bad about him sitting all alone and kind of miserable, I just imagined that sound again. GONNGGGG! It still makes me giggle.

Day Five, Monday, 10:30 p.m.

  • Go to bed.

By 10a.m., this morning the newsletter was done, the jerk was at work, the girls were at friends’ houses and I had a choice: start the laundry, or get to work on my desktop. That was a no-brainer! I was in a crazy good mood and I put on some music, then got a putty scraper and a screwdriver. I felt like a little kid as I sat on the floor and slowly worked around the edge of the chalkboard. In some places it seems like the glue is willing to crumble a little, but in others it is as solid as iron. I slid the screwdriver in as far as I could and levered the board up a bit, then used a flashlight to try to see underneath. There were some scratches all right, but I couldn’t see much. While I was sitting in that dark corner with my face stuck right up to the desk, the playlist on the iPod ended and in the silence, I swear I heard footsteps on the floorboards in the next room. My heart just about stopped; I couldn’t even take a breath I was listening so hard and trying to stay so still. I don’t know how long I sat there; my knees and feet almost screamed when I finally stood up, they hurt so badly. Of course there was no one there but my imagination, laughing at me. I checked the locks on the door and made sure the garage door was shut anyway, and I was all locked in, but my nerves were still in a tangle. I kept seeing shadows and movement out of the corner of my eye. Like an idiot, I ate the rest of the Oreos and watched some stupid old movie to try to make myself feel better. Then when the jerk got home he could tell nothing got done and he gave me some sideways comments about how hard it is to work all day and how lucky people are who don’t have to do that. Of course, for the next four hours he sat while I cooked and served and cleaned up dinner, and did the laundry I skipped earlier that day, and rearranged my closet just so I wouldn’t have to spend time in the same room with him. I don’t think I ever swore so much in my life, but I kept it real quiet, under my breath, like it was a secret.

Day Six, Tuesday, 10:00 a.m.

  • Make list of school clothes the girls need,
  • Drop old stuff off at Goodwill,
  • Think, think, think.

I should be tired today. A huge storm blew in last night, with lightning and thunder long before the rain started. I woke up with neck and back pains, and it was so hot, almost sweltering in our bedroom. I went downstairs to get some graham crackers and milk and Motrin, and the cooler air below was like slipping into a pool, it felt so good. I was watching the strobe of the lightning fill the kitchen and I could see the road, too, through the sidelight by the front door. I stood there, mesmerized by all the light and the oddness of being up at that hour, and I must have gone into some kind of a waking dream, had to have, because I heard a voice at my ear calmly say, “There is a gentleman at the door.” And there through the sidelight I saw a very tall gaunt man with misshapen legs, like the hind legs of the deer my husband brings home from hunting, only withered and knobby like sticks. He wore a fitted red jacket and a top hat tipped forward that hid his face. Seeing him in the flashing light almost made my heart stop, but watching him become invisible in the dark was even worse. The voice in my ear whispered, “I wonder what really happened to Grandpa?” In my dream I was shocked and afraid for a second, then an instant later I was waking up in bed, with sunlight shining in around the blinds. The milk was warm in its jug on the counter and the graham crackers were soft from sitting open to the sticky air.

I should have been tired with all that noise and activity and sleepwalking or daydreaming or whatever it was, but I was kind of wired, like the storm left a little of its charge in me. First thing this morning I got the girls busy sorting through all their clothes. I figured they were going to be busy for hours while I sat at my desk with the coffee I didn’t need, thinking: my mom has no attachment to this blackboard, I think it is nasty, why would I care if it breaks? I grabbed a claw hammer, levered up the loose corner and with a big cracking noise broke off about a fourth of it. It was only glued around the edges, and it took less than a minute to break off the rest. It isn’t at all like I thought. There are a lot of marks scratched into the wood, but they are designs, diagrams, or letters from some old alphabet I can’t read. Some parts are colored in with burgundy and black and ocher, and there is a stain—wine? It is kind of primitive and interesting…

It occurs to me that I have been thinking about my life all wrong. All along I have been calling myself stupid: stupid for everything I do that my husband makes fun of, or for believing I can get his approval, or for trying to love him even though it is obvious my love annoys him. I’m not the stupid one: he is the stupid one. Why do I care what HE thinks? As of now, I don’t. It is so clear that he is a despicable human being, beneath my attention, let alone my interest. I see a future free of this torment, and I am filled with power. I feel like I could fly.

Day Seven, Wednesday, 5:45 p.m.

  • Get rid of this journal (look at that—it’s been seven days,)
  • Call Mom.

It was a terrible accident, I was in the laundry room taking clothes out of the dryer when Jerry came home, I didn’t hear him, when he tried to come in through the laundry room, the door bumped against me and shut back on him, and he must have lost his balance and fell backward off the steps, crushing his head on the concrete floor. Sounds good. It made quite a mess. When the ambulance arrives, I’ll tell them I had just seen the tiniest flicker of a pulse in his neck. The girls will be quite upset of course, but Mom will come to help us get through this. But before she arrives, I need to find something to cover up this desktop.

Okay, how are we doing? Still friends? You’re not…scared of me or anything, are you? It’s FICTION. Writers take things and blow them up–no wait, that’s demolition experts. Well, writers do too, in a way. I really struggled with the decision to post this piece because it feels risky; I mean, what if my husband actually does fall and hit his head on the garage floor? Who is going to believe I had nothing to do with that now? I must remind him to be super careful. In the meantime, I hope you found this piece interesting, suspenseful and are comforted by my assurances that it is fictional. Mostly. After all, I do have this desk…and yep, that’s a blackboard.

Orca Meat

I would like to thank the funny little girl I encountered at Sea World-San Diego over Spring Break for inspiring some treasured memories to re-surface. Her remarks now top my list of “Best Overheard Conversations,” displacing previous champion, “Lewis and Clark had canoes full of alcohol.” Eavesdropping is underrated but it takes luck to happen onto something worth listening to. You also have to stop talking once in awhile to get it to work, which is part of my challenge. I am cleaning up some fiction to send out this way soon, but in the meantime I hope you enjoy another reminiscence of mine.

The little girl next to me launched herself over the handrail, sneakered feet flying into the air, tartan skirt flipping up to reveal white bloomers before she returned to hanging below the rail from her monkey-like arms. The crowd around us built; show time was gradually approaching. Every time she repeated the maneuver her foot connected with my leg as I impassively watched the masses through my sunglasses. Sometimes she brushed it lightly, sometimes there was definite contact. I wondered if the parents were watching me suspiciously, waiting for me to complain about their darling, but when I glanced their way they seemed oblivious, more intent on figuring out where the beer was sold and which of them would be going to get it. Two little girls were on the other side of the gymnast; a tot, maybe a sister, of about three and one I judged to be a friend about six years old, the same as my provocateur. She took a moment, not to rest, as her energy seemed infinite, but to report.

“Look, Ella, a bad guy!”

“Bag dye?” the tot chirped.

“Yep, that’s a bad guy all right. You can tell because he’s wearing a black and white shirt. All bad guys wear black and white.”

“Bag dye?”

Big sister’s voice got deeper. “Alert! Alert! All officers be aware that a bad guy is leaving the building! He is wearing a black and white shirt and tacky pants. He is stealing orca meat!”

What was this? Tacky pants? Probably khaki pants, but I couldn’t tell without turning around and giving away the fact that I was eavesdropping. There could well have been a tastelessly dressed man walking around back there. And orca meat? What was this guy carrying? At that point the other six year old who had been silent until now pleaded, “Can we please pretend my blood has come back in my body so I can play now?” Obviously the poor child had been killed before I got in line, perhaps by the bad guys or the bag dyes.

“You can watch behind me so I don’t kick anyone,” the Orca Patrol Agent offered as she resumed flipping around the handrail and nailed me a good one against my left thigh. The dead girl sighed morosely and looked the other way.

I shifted a few inches to my right and noticed a woman nearby who may or may not have been glaring at me. It was hard to tell with the sunglasses, but she had definitely pointed her unhappy face in my direction. Did she think the girls belonged with me? Or did she think that in the absence of parental direction it fell to me by proximity to tell the little urchin to settle down? I wouldn’t do it. For one, we had all been standing in line for over thirty minutes to see a twenty-five minute Shamu show that wasn’t scheduled to begin for another twenty or so. Active kids have to move or they get insufferably whiny. Two, I remembered hours of sunny summer days as a child spent spinning around the tubular steel bars of our backyard swing set. We’d unhook the swings to practice our moves on the top crossbar that was baking hot from the sun. One evening playing after dinner I was rudely interrupted when the cute rope belt around my short set snagged on a bolt and I was hung up. My little sister ran to get my dad who laughed at the sight of me wriggling in midair before coming to my rescue. To our delight, rather than tell us to cut it out,  he removed the bolts that had held the forsaken swings in place. As we girls grew and got more daring, we’d whip around that bar so hard the whole swing set would tip so the feet on one side would lift off the ground a few inches before our moving bodies counterbalanced it, and then would lift up on the other side. I am sure we toppled the whole thing over multiple times, counting it a worthwhile and exhilarating risk, until winter came or adolescence got the better of us, and our entertainments changed.

I doubted if Agent Orca had a dangerously unstable swing/gymnastic set in her backyard, but she had a handrail at Sea World and a few inches of clearance and I wasn’t going to try to stop her. If I was a few feet shorter, I’d have joined her. In my mind’s eye, I did.

Creative Nonfiction Class

I went to a free creative nonfiction class at my local library last night and it was a blast! It is so exciting to sit down and listen to an instructor who has been through the ups and downs of the writing and publishing process and who had lots of great tips on ways to practice the subtleties that make the difference between telling the facts and telling a story. Our instructor’s name was Kate Hopper and she has a memoir coming out this fall entitled Small Continents about having a premature baby, and how the experience transformed her life and family. Below please find something I wrote for a class exercise, and I just want to say that my mom isn’t going to be featured in every blog post I write, but I hope she likes this one better. Thanks for stopping in!

My mother brought the party with her wherever she went, but never more so than when she went to the nursing home, the Good Samaritan Center, the Good Sam. She’d get out of the car, dragging us reluctant girls along, smiling and bouncing up the sidewalk on her high heels, past the wizened old men on the bench who waved their fly swatters playfully at her backside as she went by. “It makes their day,” she shushed us when we complained.

Inside, she glowed in her bright dresses and shiny jewelry, catching the gazes of the shrunken people shuffling in the corridor or sagging against the fabric bands that held them upright in their wheelchairs. As we smothered in the heat and smell of extreme old age—scented powder, urine—she moved among the residents like a movie star or beauty queen. She took the quivering hands they held out to her and called them by name, smiling, always smiling, as she listened to their breathy mumbles. “Shirley, I can’t imagine what happened to your hairbrush, but we’ll ask the nurse about it,” she assured one. “Oh, Harold, what wonderful news! I am sure you will have a great visit when your daughter comes.” We all knew the score. The daughter wasn’t coming this week just like she hadn’t been there any of the other weeks. That was why we were there.

When we reached the piano in the rec room, my mom pulled the sheet music out of her bag and began the parade of hits from thirty, forty or fifty years before: loud, lively music evoking dances, parades, better days. Heads lifted, eyes gleamed; flowers turning toward the sun. 

I am so glad you have stopped in to check out my newborn blog! My desire to be a successful writer is almost (but not quite) matched by the fear that I can’t do this at all. I remember when I first started riding a road bike (super skinny tires, handlebars lower than the saddle, shoes that clip to the pedals.) That first summer I found every way possible to fall over, usually in front of other cyclists and motorists. After the eighth consecutive phone conversation with my mom relating my latest kiss with the pavement she commented, “I don’t understand why you keep doing something you are so bad at.” She is not usually cruel that way and will probably deny she ever said it, but it’s true. My response was, “I like it, well, not the falling part, but all the rest of it.” Writing is like that, but more so.  Writing is therapy and escape and growth. It can also be a little bit like picking scabs. Sorry, but you know what I mean, don’t lie and say you don’t. It is agony sometimes and yet I can’t stop doing it. True love or psychopathology? The jury is still out, but I hope that  you will join me on the road to verdict, and that there aren’t too many crashes along the way.