The Baby Incident

It has been almost two weeks since I wrote last.

Well, wrote and published would be more accurate. I’ve been doing plenty of writing, not least for the daily and weekly tasks for The Artist’s Way. I realize now that I haven’t talked about that much on here and now the group I’m doing it with and myself are almost two weeks away from completing it.

The Artist’s Way is about healing, healing one’s creative self and allowing it to flourish and be the guide for our creativity after it’s healed and unblocked. A few weeks ago, one of the tasks was to think of ways to forgive ourselves, to acknowledge whatever the situation was, remember it and let it pass as something we can’t control and to forgive ourselves. Since my biggest self-flagellation weapon of choice is being too hard on myself, I remembered ways I’d been too harsh about my writing, berating myself for not being productive at every instance of downtime I had, feeling guilty for taking out any sort of free time without feeling like I’ve earned it.

This week, as I took two days off work to not exactly go on vacation or disconnect but to be away from my desk (currently writing from the couch), I tried to allow myself the luxury of not planning my time off to the minute and to allow myself to recharge. I realized I hadn’t posted in a while, and when I went back to my content calendar to find planned posts I’d skipped over in the past few weeks, I found another way I like to self-flagellate: ruminating on embarrassing stories.

Those embarrassing stories that nag at you, bouncing around your head and making you wish you could go back and pull yourself away to spare yourself and those around you. Unfortunately, by allowing myself downtime to do nothing, my brain came across this memory from last Christmas, one that still makes me cringe and want to hide under a rock. In a hole somewhere. Close to the center of the Earth. Inside a locked room.

So, enjoy. It’s not fiction today, but storytelling, which I enjoy doing just as much, although I do wish the story itself were fiction and had never taken place outside my own brain…

Image of an adorned Christmas treeing the foreground, with two people blurred out in the background.
Photo by Eugene Zhyvchik on Unsplash

December 2019. A Christmas party. Not a work Christmas party, but a colleague’s of my mom’s. A direct report of my mom’s. This is important to the rest of the story.

My whole family, including my sister’s boyfriend, was invited, and I was grateful I wouldn’t need to drive everyone home at the end of the night. I started drinking, buzzed on being at the only Christmas party I’d been to that year more than on the free-flowing, self-poured mixed drinks. I didn’t know a great many people, and I was self-conscious that I’d come in as part of a crowd made only ore conspicuous by the fact that my sister was on crutches (she’d broken her foot weeks earlier). The solution to that was, of course, drinking and mingling with those people I did know.

No, this isn’t a story about my making an ass of myself by drinking too much and dancing on a table at a practical stranger’s house party, a practical stranger that would have to see my mom at work come Monday. I knew that going in and I knew to behave myself, to be polite, to introduce myself and be chatty enough. However…

I tried keeping to my crowd, talking to my mom’s manager whom I’d met before. She is talkative by nature and wasn’t drinking as she’d come with her young daughter, so she provided as much conversation fuel as I’d needed. The night went on with party games, raffles and nibbles, and I was even more self-conscious when my crowd kept winning prizes. A stuffed animal here, a reusable water cup there and we were one number away from winning a scanner-printer. I felt people staring and their spiteful thoughts at the back of my head – but I just liked winning free stuff so much…

The first slip happened as some groups started leaving, those with young kids. The living room emptied and there was more room to sit. One of the hosts shouted over my head to those behind me, “Before you head out, let’s do a Sherwood picture.”

Sherwood sounded familiar. It’s the high school up one of the main roads in the city, in the more affluent side of the county. I heard once, forever ago, that while some high schools had yearbook spreads of students with cars, Sherwood had a spread of the best student cars, with Mercedes and BMWs making the cut while Subarus and below didn’t.

This memory played in my head as I said, “Oh cool, you guys went to Sherwood. I went to Wheaton.”

I realized I hadn’t talked to this host much, so in my drunk mind this was my way of making conversation. Sober me would have noticed that he was busy entertaining and organizing his guests for a picture. Sober me would have stayed quiet, especially after his reply came.

“Yes, but forever ago,” he said without meeting my eyes, preoccupied with assembling the crowd.

Drunk me caught the slip, too. Of course. These people were older than me, not by much, but significantly enough that they were obviously adultier than me. By my calculations and by my mom’s intel, they were in their mid- to late-thirties. They had missed my high school years by a lot for me to casually want to spark a conversation about where we went to high school. Even talking about where we went to college would have been too far removed.

If I could have shrank and melted into my seat, with my drink in hand, I would have.

As it often does while you’ve been drinking, time started moving in quick bursts, and my actions were erratic. My crowd and I moved to the garage, where I was told there was a ping pong table and a photobooth. That occupied my time for a while, though I couldn’t say then or now how long it actually was. If I were skilled enough to learn Photoshop, those pictures would be edited to look like they were taken over many occasions, not one monopolized instance. Our crowd was big enough that we monopolized the ping pong table and darts board in the room, but we were conscious of that fact and kept ourselves out of the way, long enough for a young couple and their baby to come and take pictures at the photobooth.

Reader, this is where the story turns.

The baby didn’t look older than one year old, year and a half to guesstimate high. He wore a red onesie that would have looked adorable on anyone else, but it looked particularly striking against his white complexion and blue eyes. His parents held him and took picture after picture, trying to get him to look at the camera. My drunk self tried to be helpful, momentarily forgetting that I did not know these people and that I do not like babies. I was being obnoxious. I tried to get the baby’s attention, suddenly stopping when I realized I was cooing at him like I do at my dog, but luckily by that point the parents decided that they had gotten enough pictures and thanked me, much more gracefully than I deserved.

After they left the room, my dad started ushering the rest of us back to the living room too, trying to herd us like drunk cats. I sat with my parents for what felt like half an hour but could have easily been an hour or two minutes. They were waiting for my sister and her boyfriend to finish taking pictures and join us in the living room so we could grab our coats and go home, as I learned later on.

My parents chatted with the host who had invited us, my mom’s direct report, and it wasn’t necessarily shop talk. The young couple from the photobooth were with us in the living room, too, changing the baby and getting him out of the red onesie.

“We have one more Christmas party to go to, and this outfit has to last that long,” the mom said and chuckled. She handed the baby to the host, who was sitting next to me.

He hugged the baby as he sat on his lap and said, “I really want one.” My mom chuckled at that and the young parents continued to gather their stuff and rearrange the baby bag.

When the host turned slightly away from me to chat to the young parents, I tried my attempt at a joke. I looked at the baby, looked at parents and, very deliberately, scooted away from the child, as if I were repelled by him. I continued to look at him over my shoulder, aware I still had my audience, and scooted away a little more. The mom grabbed the baby away from the momentary sitter at that time, and I turned and giggled at my parents.

“Let me get you guys’ coats,” the host said and stood up, leaving me in plain view of the mom as she tried to put the baby in the car seat. I looked as she strapped him in, wincing a bit as the baby started wailing, not wanting to sit outside someone’s arms.

“I’m just going to leave this right here,” she said to me, pointing to the car seat on the couch next to me. “Is that okay?”

“Oh yeah, totally,” I said, casually and very much oblivious to her tone.

She went to grab her and her husband’s coats from the host’s arms, and they were gone shortly after, wailing baby with them.

Drunk me thought I was being funny. Drunk me was doing a bit about not liking babies and being put off by them. Drunk me did not see how that “joke” could have come off completely different to another audience with higher stakes on the butt of the joke than I had.

Before she left, the mom saw me inch away from her child, who wasn’t doing anything other than sitting and looking around at things he didn’t have names for yet. I was repelled by an innocent child who was doing nothing. To her, I was offensive.

I’d learn this weeks later, well after Christmas, too late to realize my mistake but soon enough to be full of shame. I tried to rationalize my behavior, to excuse it, really. Parents shouldn’t expect their child to be well-liked everywhere, especially not if they come across me. Parents shouldn’t expect people at parties to want to hold their child or want to hear stories about the latest development milestone, especially not me.

But every parent should expect their child to be well-received, not offended like I had done, joke or not.

We’re closer to a new Christmas and I’m still haunted by my behavior at that last Christmas party, with the baby incident only the culmination of embarrassing behavior of the evening. I was the boss’ daughter, acting out and showing off like a spoiled child, earning disapproval for her and for me, for our whole family.

Before COVID and its ramifications, my mom said we’d already been invited to the host’s yearly pool party in the summer. I had been thinking of ways to get out of this invitation since I received it, not wanting to own up to my mom that I was still embarrassed about the baby incident, and wanting even less to run into the young family again. They were close friends of the hosting couple, and they would no doubt be at the pool party, and an apology from me wasn’t enough or needed at this point. Of course, that’s a moot point now.

All I know is that even if we’re invited again, even if it’s two years from now and it’s safe to gather again, I will not be going. They probably forgot about the incident by now or would have done by then, and I would like to keep it that way.

For what it’s worth: Graham, Graham’s mom and dad, I’m very sorry.

Getting Ready to Write: An interior monologue

Took another week off, but you wouldn’t think it for how busy I’ve been. I prioritized some paid work again last week, but I’m back on schedule now and what better way to jump back in than with this week’s topic.

I’ve stalled my progress on the latest writing project for a bit – I actually can’t remember the last time I worked on it. However, one of the many things that occupied my attention last week was plotting this new project, so I’ve made progress but nothing tangible, and having the plotting done actually makes it that much more intimidating to get down to write. So I have to talk myself into it most of the time.

This week’s post is a short clip of what that monologue looks like some of the time, without the specifics of the current project because I’m still waiting for it to look a little more polished before sharing. Enjoy as I let you into some of my thoughts…

Before you go into a snippet of my head, check out this Rewire article I was recently quoted in (it’s wild writing that down…). I’m happy to be able to process an uncomfortable experience this way.

Happy reading!

Image of a journal with 'Write Ideas' on the cover, and a pencil next to it, on a wooden surface.
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash. Me talking to myself when I just need to write SOMETHING down.

Right, I just need a drink and to find a comfortable place to sit. I wish I had more natural light. Or a more exciting view out the window. My back aches if I sit like this for too long. Never mind that; need to start writing.

I love and hate a white page. Can’t decide if I like it more than continuing an impressive word count or rearranging whole sections and watching it come together. There won’t be anything to put together if you don’t start writing…

Should I work on a scene I already wrote or start something new altogether? What was that one scene that went through my mind the other day? How is it connected to what I’ve already written? No, that makes sense – start something new altogether.

Asterisks or a few hyphens? Asterisks in the middle or left justified?

Maybe this new scene does fit somewhere that already exists, but where? It could be a continuation of that one scene, I suppose, but then would that tie up that scene and another one? Let’s write it down and see what happens.

I always want to start with dialogue, it would seem, or in the middle of what’s already happening. I guess that could come in handy if I decide to combine this new scene with something else, especially since I end scenes in media res anyway. I wonder if I will ever write multiple scenes in one go, ones that are linked together for once.

I really chase that feeling of getting into a flow and finding that the words just come on the page, like I’m just a conduit and they have already been written somewhere else, at some other point. I wonder if today will be one of those days, where I look up from the page and don’t really see what I’m looking at because my head is occupied with the scene unfolding in the words I’m writing. Not having a particularly exciting view outside the window comes in handy for that.

My back is achy and the page in front of me isn’t less empty… how do some writers get to the point where they hear their characters talking? I can’t even see what mine would be wearing… but I guess that’s okay. That’s not necessarily important to the story and it’s not like readers aren’t smart enough to realize she’s not naked… I wonder what her frame of mind should be on this scene, or what she’s thinking. Maybe she’ll tell me as I write it down.

Maybe she’ll just observe on this scene, and it’ll be one of those filler scenes in between the “really important” parts. If I get through this filler scene, maybe I’ll even write a more important one afterward, one of those that moves the plot along. What if all it takes is one scene to really get the flow going and I end up with a couple of thousand words’ worth? That would be a pleasant surprise, but I first have to write something to make this page look less empty and get the word count moving a bit.

Damn, I never did get myself something to drink… and I might as well find another pillow to prop up my aching back while I’m up.

The Lost Ring: Part II

Back for part two of this prompt: writing about something you misplaced using only the passive voice.

I have to admit that this was a bit of a challenge – I’m not used to using the passive voice and pride myself on never using it. I was taught that the passive voice is weak, as its name suggests, and it makes your writing look weak and uses up too many words.

Like a lot of things we learn from professional writers and teachers, there is no hard and fast rule to the passive voice, and I’ve found that sometimes I’m not too turned off by it when I come across it (case in point, this sentence). There could be an instance where a character is or is narrating a passive scene or are themselves a passive background character, so using the passive voice here wouldn’t be the end of the world. I had just as much of a challenge last week while writing only in the active voice; I had to catch myself and double check whether a sentence was sneaking in the passive voice, and edit accordingly.

Besides being a challenge, I found this as an opportunity to read less like an editor sometimes and just read like a reader. It sometimes takes me more than one reading to step into these roles, but I need to remind myself that just as I’d like for someone to be kind to my work, I need to be kind to someone else’s, and to not be such a hardass about the passive voice. After all, there are some people who are very offended when they read a sentence that starts with “and” or “but,” and I don’t think twice about doing that!

There’s a foot for every shoe. Or, rather, there’s a ring for every finger…

Image of rings in a tray
Photo by Viktor Forgacs on Unsplash. In an unsurprising turn of events, I’ve lost all pictures of the ring in question or my wearing it…

I am dropped and now I am bounced across a train that is taken by her on every work day – except when the gym is paid a visit. I am bounced on the train floor and the sound is questioned by passengers not lost in the music or books carried to pass the commuting time. I am rolled under seats, between legs and around bags, until I am stopped behind a seat leg.

She has been seen by me through three graduations, at least five moves and a few boys and, most recently, guys.

I was given to her at 15 as a gift and I was so treasured for having the birthstone of April, the month her father was born. She was teased for my fitting perfectly on her left thumb but on none of her other fingers.

Her emotional milestones were watched from my perch on her finger, and I was removed at security during her many travels. She was accompanied by me on so many travels, so many train rides, so many commutes by car, foot and train.

And now I am dropped. And I will be forgotten and abandoned, because while I will be thought about for a day or two, as with the other rings lost over the years, I will be forgotten and thought about fondly down the line sparingly. Her brain, memories and feelings will be filled up with more important things, just like the same finger that was occupied by me will be occupied by another ring some day.

Rings have been her staple for years. Before I came along, her fingers were populated by cheap jewelry, the kind that her skin was stained green with after a few weeks. Before her finger was habited by me, her wrists were full of bracelets, but bracelets never kept her attention or fondness for a long time.

People she was misunderstood by, people she was disliked by or people she was admired by would marvel at how her fingers were adorned. Wondered how long her morning was extended if her fingers needed to be dressed too. These comments were often seen as an imposition by her, a testament to how little she was known by these people.

When the train is covered in darkness at the end of the day, I am grabbed by a gloved hand and shoved into a pocket. Covered again in darkness and jostled, I am assaulted by fear at where my story will take me. No doubt there is another finger waiting to be adorned and dressed by my shiny and silver offering. As much as she will be missed, it is my purpose to adorn, not to care. There is another job to be had, another person to accompany for as long as I am wanted and needed.

I am carried inside this pocket for a while, before ending up in a clear bag with writing on it. I am left on a shelf for a few weeks before being given as a gift to another woman. And so my story is begun anew.

I know I will be missed. The sadness was evident on her face as I was dropped. So was the indecision: walking away or saving? She was accompanied by me for long enough – she could be released. She is evaded by readiness and preparedness as she is left behind, but her choices are limited. It was time. Time for a new story to be started for her too.

The Lost Ring

Back with the writing prompts this week.

I’ve deviated from my content plan for the past few weeks, and I’m kind of proud of myself for that. I have a hard time being spontaneous on a normal day and I’m quite fond of routine, so when I catch myself veering off course without ruminating on it, it’s like a gift to myself. Spontaneity is so alien to me by now that I don’t even notice when I’m being rigid.

I am evaded by spontaneity

Being evaded by spontaneity isn’t just my attempt at being poetic, but a way to introduce what I’m tackling this week: writing about something you misplaced using only the active voice (see what I did there). 

This is part one of two of this exercise, and during next week’s installment, you’ll find out what happened to what I misplaced and find out that I know exactly where it is. It’s just not with me anymore.

Happy reading! What have you misplaced that you know exactly where it is?

Image of white background with various silver rings in the foreground.
Photo by Natália Jonas on Unsplash

Rush hour. Going home for nothing in particular other than because I finished the work day.

It’s the middle of summer and there’s a heatwave. It’s not a heatwave by my East Coast standards, but it’s a heatwave when very few places here believe in AC.

The train pulls up and it’s full already. My current stop is only the second on the line. I hop on and barely make it down the aisle before other riders block my way. I grab onto the back of the closest seat in front of me and square my feet up. Six more stops.

At the first stop, still underground, no one gets up and those of us standing have to find a space to shove into when more passengers come on. I squeeze a bit further down the aisle and find a new backrest to hold onto. Five more stops.

All available windows are open, but the heat and humidity find a way to make all passengers sweat. I’m wearing black jeans and a sleeveless top, but the ebook on my phone and music in my ears can only keep me distracted so long from the heat I feel everywhere on my body. I should have put my hair up.

At the second stop, more people hop on and off the train and the mass pushes me farther down the aisle, but at least I’m now directly in front of a cracked window. Four more stops and I can at least be out in the breeze.

We are above ground again as the train arrives at the third stop. No one moves out but more people come inside the train. We pull space out of thin air to accommodate ourselves.

The fourth stop rolls around and people start shifting, grabbing their bags and scoping out a way to leave the train with as little scuffle as possible. When the train finally stops, the frenzy begins, and yet I still can’t find an empty seat. It’s fine – just two more stops to go.

With the breeze from being aboveground also comes the warm, overbearing sunlight. Sunlight always feels better when you’re sitting on cool grass on a blanket that never gets damp, with drinks and snacks and nowhere to be until you feel like moving. With two stops away from your destination on the height of a summer heatwave, ten minutes feel eternal.

The fifth stop rolls around and enough people get off the train to allow me to square up my feet again and gain some space. With my stop in mind and so close I can see it, I relax a bit and try to reread the same page I’ve been stuck on since the second stop.

I feel an itch.

It’s an itch I can’t reach in my current predicament, but I have just enough purchase and dexterity to put my phone in my bag, hold steady with that hand and reach inside my pocket with my other hand to scratch the itch over my clothes through the thin fabric.

After I scratch the itch and start pulling my hand back out from my pocket, my ring catches on a belt loop, comes off my finger and bounces on the floor and under a few seats in front of me.

My stop rolls around at that moment and I have to get off the train. The image of getting on my hands and knees and under people’s legs flashes across my mind. The train stops and people shift around me, signaling me to drop or get off the train. I move with them and bid a silent farewell to the ring that has been on that same finger for 10 years.

On the walk home, I hope the ring has a good life, that whoever finds it wears it, sells it or gives it away. But I hope no one throws it in the trash as just a cheap piece of jewelry. As I contemplate that a piece of me is gone, while I’m so far away from home, I don’t feel too bothered by the heat anymore.

The Third Person

So I took a week off again… I doubt anyone noticed besides me, but it was for a good cause this time: to complete some paid work and to leave space for some self-care.

Part of this self-care included watching Julie & Julia. I set aside some of the problematic aspects of the movie and its indulgent push for cooking with butter to enjoy the silliness and feel-good aspects of it. I watched it while eating a delicious batch of vegan mac & cheese (highly recommend this recipe – I hate cheese sauce and this is essentially creamy cheese-less pasta), and it was fitting to watch Amy Adams’ character writing into the void and thinking no one else cared about her blog other than her mother and her husband. A line from the movie particularly stood out: “Are you listening, … whoever you are?”

So, in case anyone other than me noticed my absence, here’s a present: my being open about an experience with a person that means the world to me in a place that means the world to me. A place I miss dearly and feels farther away than usual during these uncertain and unprecedentedTM times.

Yes, it’s London again, and while I won’t give away details of the actual memory because it’s personal and I’d like to keep it to myself, I will tell it from another POV. This could be based on true events, but I’ll never know – the main character at the time was invisible.

Happy reading! I missed writing for you … whoever you are.

Image of a pub bar, with two empty stools in the foreground
Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

Friday night. Central London. Mid-August.

The weather was relatively cooler than the heatwave at the beginning of the summer, but people were still enjoying the odd drink outside. Their lack of a pub garden exempted The Pub from having Pimm’s and Aperol Spritz ready to go and instead let them serve their usual beers on draught, mixed drinks and gourmet potato chips and pork rinds. This didn’t stop patrons from crowding the sidewalk with their drinks in hand and posing potential road hazards. But it was Friday night, and Friday nights in London belonged to Londoners on foot.

On his way to clock in, the Bartender prayed that they wouldn’t be busy and that people would start their night in one of the many pubs around them with gardens so they could enjoy the gentle heat, smoke without risking their seat and get the perfect selfies at sunset. One step into the place and his prayer had been ignored – it was almost 7 pm and there were few open tables, but at least the bar remained free of loiterers. He clocked in, grabbed his apron and bottle opener and picked the section farthest away from the front door. At about twenty minutes past 7 pm, a man walked in.

The Bartender was confused at the man’s fresh haircut, matching navy blue jacket and trousers, clean white shirt and a bushy beard. It didn’t look like it was part of his ensemble and the hairs were pointing in multiple directions away from his face. Fresh haircut but no fresh shave? Was the man meeting his mother and making a defiant statement?

The bearded man pulled up a stool next to the one he was sitting on and ordered a pint of wheat beer. He pulled out his phone and sent a text before putting it back in his pocket. The bearded man didn’t look older than late twenties, but he didn’t look at his phone while he waited for his companion to arrive. He looked around and watched those around him, taking fidgety sips of his beer and rearranging the glass precisely so it would be on top of the water ring the cool and condensed glass had already created.

The Bartender served some other patrons down the bar and directed a few tourists upstairs where food was being served. He made a mental note to give a coaster to the bearded man and jogged upstairs to get some limes and lemons from the kitchen. When he came back, the bearded man was halfway through his drink and still alone. The Bartender knew better than to ask him if he was ready for another drink. He’d seen too many of the type: men, women and others who arrived early for a date, fidgety, nervous and on their phone just for something to do, only to leave alone after their first drink.

The bearded man checked his phone again and took another drink, but and as the Bartender was about to hand him a coaster, the bearded man put down his glass well away from the careful water ring he’d been making and looked in the direction of the door. He didn’t smile, but the bartender knew the companion had arrived so he stepped away. He snuck a peak as he pretended to rearrange the potato chips and shot glasses. The bearded man was waiting for a woman, but not his mother. He was on a date.

The woman had dark hair that wasn’t too short but not too long either, the style the Bartender had seen that summer on women who couldn’t stand long hair in the heat but apparently didn’t want to make the chop commitment. She wore a denim blazer but pointy black boots that clacked when she walked in. She made an entrance without meaning to, and the bearded man had eyes for no one but her as she sat down on the stool next to him. She moved her hands a lot as she spoke and looked for a server – she was nervous, not really looking at the bearded man.

She asked for a gin and tonic in an American accent and took our her wallet. The bearded man got more confusing to the Bartender – fresh haircut, clean-cut outfit, border-line unkempt beard and he didn’t offer to pay for her drink? The Bartender saw it going one of two ways: they parted ways after two drinks at most or they drank until closing and left together after sloppily making out in a booth.

The Bartender checked on them every so often, and they drank slowly. The bearded man paid for their second round of the same drinks and they drank those a little faster, laughing a lot more than during their first. When one of them went to the restroom, the other took out their phone and sent a text, probably telling their buddies how well the date was going or checking in with a friend to make sure they knew where they were at all times that night. The Bartender was surprised when they got a third round and the bearded man paid again – the woman had her card out ready but he stopped her. Maybe the date was going well after all.

They finished their third round, then he went to the restroom and they headed out. They kept a careful distance from each other as they walked out, the woman looking straight ahead and walking with good posture, while the man ran a hand through his beard as he walked behind her. So maybe the Bartender had been wrong – there was a third way their night would go after all.

**

Wednesday evening. Central London. Early September.

The weather was holding up its heat and the Bartender had heard optimistic office workers talk about an Indian Summer. He wouldn’t hold his breath – he could feel the days getting more humid as the summer drew to a close, and the odd barfly would carry a sweater or a jacket over their arm rather than on their shoulders.

The Pub wasn’t busy and the bartender knew it would stay that way. Only office workers stayed late midweek, and no one stayed later than 9:30. It was too early in the year for university students, but he had to card the occasional international student who showed up with a group.

The sun had just started to set when he saw them come in.

The man didn’t look familiar to him, but seeing the dark-haired woman next to him shed a light immediately.

The couple from the date a few weeks ago.

They were back sooner than the bartender would have expected them, then again they did act in a very unexpected way the last time he’d seen them. They were dressed much more relaxed this time, and the man had shaved his beard. His prominent brow now matched the rest of his face, and he looked comfortable yet ill-at-ease in his tan bomber jacket. The woman wore gray jeans and a plaid shirt with a small knot around her waist. Both of them wore sneakers – had they not been to work that day?

They asked for their same drinks as last time – the Bartender remembered the couple well and only took their order as a formality. There were no stools near them, so they stood and drank. They would chat and laugh occasionally, and they hugged and kissed often. They looked at their drinks sadly after each sip, and after looking at their drinks they looked at each other. Then they would kiss and say something to each other before looking sad again. At one point, the woman stepped closer to the man and put her head on his chest. He put his arms around her and kissed the top of her head. The Bartender felt like he was intruding just by glancing from afar while pouring another man’s pint.

Had they had a whole relationship over the past three weeks and were now breaking up? In the same spot they met? That seemed dramatic, but the Bartender stepped away to collect empty glasses and bottles, leaving them to themselves. He was glad he was only one of two working tonight so they would have relative privacy.

Close to quarter after 9, the Bartender went back to the couple to offer them another drink. He planned to make a joke of how he’d remembered them from a few weeks back and offer them a round on the house – maybe that would get them to be less sad. But as he was stepping close to make his offer, they drained their glasses at the same time, kissed again in a way that made the Bartender feel like an intruder, and walked off, holding hands. The no-longer-bearded man betrayed no emotion, but his eyes lost the happiness and wonder he’d had weeks prior. Deflated. The woman didn’t have as sad an expression, but she looked straight ahead as she walked out like she had the last time.

The Bartender shook his head as he collected the empty glasses and put them in the dirties tray. He had to add a third way first dates would go in his Central London pub: they have one,  two drinks at most, and go their own ways; they drink until close and sloppily kiss in a booth; they go on to have a relationship that will end right where it started, three weeks apart.

Venus the Cat

My new notebook has “Fables” written on the cover, and it reminded me that I’ve never opened my beautiful clothbound copy of Aesop’s Fables since I bought it years ago. These fables were one of the first memories I have of reading, except it was in an elementary school in Quito and they were Spanish translations. Still, I enjoyed reading the quick vignettes.

I’ve had the fleeting thought before of trying to adapt a fable into a bigger story, so I tried that this week. Inevitably, I wrote about cats again… but I also tried my hand at realism (I think?) for the first time in a while. What started as another attempt at flash fiction came out as a short story and 668 words over a decent first draft of flash, but I had fun imagining it.

I enjoyed writing this one, so I hope you enjoy reading it. I also hope you read some of Aesop’s fables too. You may find that some sayings you use often started with him.

Image of a cat sitting on a stone wall and looking at the camera.
Photo by Γεώργιος Κίτσος on Unsplash. NOT a picture of my own cat, for once.

Every day, Venus sat on the wall in front of her house, tapping her tail and waiting for him to walk up the street. Every day, she’d rush outside in the morning to catch him on his walk to the bus stop, and on the afternoons she’d sit to wait for his attention. Except on days when it rained – she hated the rain, and when it rained he speed-walked head-down past her house. If she played her cards right, he’d pat her head and scratch behind her ears. That was her queue to follow behind him inside his apartment – he let her spend time there until she got hungry and had to back to her house for dinner.

Today, he’d mussed her head in the morning and even pet her all the way to her tail a few times. She’d bumped her head against his leg before he walked away.

“Have a good day, kitty. Catch a bird or something.”

Venus watched after him, thinking of his scent. After she couldn’t smell him anymore, she went inside for her first nap. She dreamed of him in fragments, his face coming up close to hers as he pet her and scratched her chin. She loved his touch because he didn’t tug at her whiskers or pull on her face fur. Cindy, her owner, always wore a thick thumb ring with a thin slit in the middle that was big enough to get at least two or three painful hairs stuck. He never had what she liked to eat, and that was the only reason she came back for mealtimes.

When Venus woke up, Cindy had gone out for work as well and the house was quiet. After a visit to her litter box, she claimed her daily perch on the window and watched the world go by. When the sun was shining through the tree and she was snoozing away with the sunlight on her face, Venus felt something in the house. Her tail puffed up and her back arched, and she turned in the direction of the presence. It felt like a human but there wasn’t a human around.

“Venus,” a voice came from where she felt the human presence. “I can give you what you most desire.”

The voice didn’t sound like that of a human, and it sounded like it should be coming from another cat – Venus’ instincts were prickling up and tingling, ready for attack.

“I will let you be with the person you most want forever.”

Venus wondered why she should receive that and what the gift would actually be.

“You deserve this gift for all the patient waiting you’ve done. I will turn you into a human woman and you will be able to be with the human man you love.”

Venus’ tail came down as she sat on top of the couch. She hadn’t wanted this offering this much until the voice said it. As soon as she thought that, she felt a change in her body, a pulling sensation that started at her core and stretched upward. It went as soon as it came, and when it did, the window looked smaller than it had this morning, and she couldn’t hear the mice under the house or hear the bugs in the walls.

“You will walk outside when you see him come as the sun sets, and your new life will start. Beware of your old instincts, for I could not rid you of those.”

Venus went to the kitchen were her water bowl was and found it so much lower to the ground than she was used to, and when she bent down she lost balance and put her hands out to catch herself. She didn’t have her black fur anymore and was naked instead, with hands like she’d seen on Cindy. Ashamed, she ran to Cindy’s room and grabbed some clothes to wear and some for a bag she’d take with her. She’d seen Cindy do that and often laid inside her suitcase when she packed for a trip.

Back in the living room, she tried perching on the window again but kept falling, so she sat on the couch instead and waited for the sun to come down. When the sun set, as the voice predicted, he turned the corner. Venus walked outside, not having a plan but desperately wanting the man to see her and touch her. She almost knocked into him in her rush, but he steadied her and looked her in the eyes. His scent was still there, and the familiarity comforted her.

The man said his name was Gregg, and when he asked for hers, she didn’t hesitate to reply.

“Venus.”

Her voice was high but from the throat, like a cat’s meow.

“You have the most gorgeous green eyes, Venus.”

He invited her to come into his home, but he invited her to sit down on the couch this time and fed her pizza – it was more appetizing now than in her former life.

From that day on, Gregg and Venus built a life together. When they walked out together once and ran into Cindy, Gregg asked after the cat. Cindy teared up and said she had found the front door open one day and that she must have ran out. She was racked with guilt and hoped that her end had been quick at least and not at the hands of a fox.

Gregg and Venus turned the apartment into a home, with a lot of natural light – Venus liked to lounge on the couch in the sunlight while Gregg stroked her legs. It was perfect and peaceful, but Venus’ instincts never left her. They had become human-cat hybrid habits that Gregg loved but were hard to explain. When she heard a bird outside the window, she went into the other room to avoid the temptation of chattering at it. The first time it happened, Gregg had asked her what she was whispering about while looking out the window.

Venus hated loud, sudden noises, and showering was something she had to get used to after she gave into the pleasant feeling of warm water on her skin. Eating with Gregg was her favorite time, but she didn’t always like what he gave her. They worked out together that she was a big fan of fish, especially canned tuna, so every meal was pizza or steak for him, and plain fish and white rice for her. Here, too, she had to resist the urge to stick her whole face in the plate in favor of utensils, and even when she had mastered the fork, knife and spoon, she had to fight the temptation to lick the plate clean.

Venus was happy with Gregg, but it was the kind of extreme happiness possible only because it’s brief, whether we know it or not. For Venus, happiness went as fast as it had come, one sunny day, after Gregg had gone to work.

She was laying naked on the couch, letting the sun warm her skin and the breeze from the open window dry her hair, when she heard a rustling from the kitchen. It was a familiar sound, so she sprung up and listened. The sound came again, along with squeaking. She went to the kitchen, keeping her footfall light and silent. Instinct.

In the tiny gap between the fridge and the stove was a mouse. It hadn’t heard or seen her, so it kept sniffing around and gobbling up crumbs from the floor. She sprang. The mouse tried to run, but her size was in her favor more than before, and the mouse was dead in her mouth before he knew where the predator was coming from.

She dropped the dead critter on the ground and realized what she’d done, but not before she felt a tugging sensation from a familiar place inside her, a place she was shrinking into. She became compact and was closer to the dead mouse than she had been minutes before. When she went to grab it, instead of hands she had paws again.

She screamed, but it came out as a wailing meow, a sound familiar to her now-keen ears. She swatted at the dead mouse and it flung across the room just under the couch. She ran around the apartment, knocking into chair legs and barely fitting under tables, wailing and screeching as she went.

“I told you to beware your instincts.” The voice was back, and Venus felt its presence by the open window. “I had no choice but to turn you back.”

Venus lunged at the presence and aimed for the voice, but as she would have made contact, the presence disappeared and Venus was outside the window. Not having stood on sills in a while, she fell to the wet grass. She tried jumping up and crawling through the window, but after her fifth or tenth attempt gave up. She tried summoning the voice again, but she had never called for it in the first place and she knew she had lost her chance.

Gregg loved the human Venus, and she wouldn’t be able to tell him that she was right here, that he didn’t need to be sad or miss her or call someone to find her. She knew she couldn’t stand the sadness and his longing for her human self, so she went back to her old home and meowed at the door until it opened.

“Venus!” It was Cindy. She picked Venus up and cuddled her. “Thank you for coming home.”

I am not home.

In the evening, she looked at the clock in the microwave, a skill she would force to stick from her human days. Gregg would be walking up the street any minute. She started to cry, but it came out as a wailing meow again.

So Venus went out to sit on the wall to wait for him, in the same place that she started.

Goodbye to My Old Journal

I took last week off – it felt like a heavy week all around and my teeny tiny blog didn’t really fit in any conversations.

In the week I took off, though, I managed to write some more of my project. I’m just over 16k words, and it feels great! I certainly didn’t expect to be here earlier this year, when I had no words of my new or old projects.

Also this week, I joined a friend and some of her friends in doing The Artist’s Way. I’d never heard of it, and we’re onto week one. So far, I’m enjoying the Morning Pages, and they feel more like therapeutic journaling than unblocking my creativity, but maybe that’s the start. It is a journey after all, and hopefully by the end I’ll know myself a little better so that this new project falls out of me like stories used to years ago.

And it is thanks to The Artist’s Way that I finally finished the pages in my old journal. Six years, at least three countries, at least two moves and a lot of personal turmoil later, I am retiring the journal that was originally a present. I don’t know if it’s a writer thing or a me thing, but I was really nostalgic about running out of pages. I still enjoy the feeling of writing on the first pages of a brand new notebook, or even using a brand new pen on an existing journal, but… this journal saw me through a lot and went with me everywhere for a while, especially when I lived in London.

I reread a few pages as a weird exercise – the closest I’ll get to actually reading through it. Handwritten musings and stories are more intimate than typed-up drafts, like an imposition on the version of me who wrote those pages. Out of respect for the person who wrote them (and, to be honest, to avoid the inevitable cringe), I include here some snippets of where I remember being when I wrote those pages. A journey through time is the only travelling I’ll be doing for a while after all…

Do you enjoy new stationery as much as I do, and get as nostalgic as I do when running out of notebook paper?

My journal. Entry from September 2018.

Two weeks after moving back from London, in September 2018. I now know that what I felt was a tough time adjusting and being out of survival mode. With the benefit of hindsight, I would advise the person who wrote that to wait a little bit longer, that the only way out of the discomfort of adjusting to a new situation, familiar as the setting may be, is through it. I don’t think I wrote anything when I was more settled, but again with hindsight, one wouldn’t notice the exact turning point when a difficult situation becomes manageable again.

My journal. Entry from sometime in 2016.

My now-abandoned first novel. I went through a phase while I was in undergrad and for most of graduate school where I wanted my big projects to be about motherhood. My undergrad thesis was three short stories about mothers, and I convinced myself that my grad school thesis would be my last piece about motherhood, that it was the last part of the phase. I’ve never been a mom and I’ve never been pregnant, and I ask myself every time I remember the project, “What made you think you were qualified to write something like this?” Now, Julia Cameron would tell me here to be kind to myself, that that kind of negative self-talk is detrimental to my creative self. Speaking realistically, however, and even allowing for creative license and “being a writer,” I was very much out of my depth at 21, 23, 24 and 26. Yes, I did my research on what pregnancy would feel like and what to expect, but I’d be dishonest with myself if I didn’t admit that I have complicated feelings about motherhood as it applies to myself, and maybe these pieces were me working through those complicated feelings at those ages. I still have complicated (read: unconventional) feelings about motherhood and whether or not I want to experience that or have that role, and maybe that’s what this project was for: not to be published but to help me realize something about myself.

My old journal vs my new one. I was drawn to the “Fables” image because I read Aesop’s Fables as a kid, and what better to draw inspiration for a creativity journey?

Like running out of pages felt incredibly nostalgic, buying a new notebook felt incredibly important, like I had to pick wisely because what if I also end up with it for another six years? Realistically, though, it will only be for the Morning Pages while I complete The Artist’s Way. Or, hopefully, for Morning Pages even after I finish the course, if anything to finish another journal so I can justify getting another new one.

Onto write on these crisp blank pages!

The Portrait on the Wall

I tried my hand at flash fiction again this week, with the final word count being 1,025. I wasn’t intending for this piece to come out as flash, but it was a good exercise to keep the story concise and avoid unnecessary details, while also telling a story that could stand on its own. Like my previous attempt, this post is also a decent first draft in need of polishing, but I was really inspired by one detail and a real-life story I heard recently, so I ran with the idea.

Read on and let me know what you think – did I nail this flash fiction story? How did it make you feel?

Image of woman sitting on an armchair, with her hands on her lap, with a dog in front of her.
Photo by Camellia on Unsplash (This was not meant to come out this eery, but I had a hard time finding a photo of the ACTUAL detail I focused on for this post).

The portrait of the man in the living room hung on the wall on its own.

Imogen’s chair was in direct view of the portrait, so she spent her days looking at the serious expression on her late husband Ricky’s face.

Imogen was tired. She didn’t do anything with her time to warrant being so tired, but at ninety-seven, even breathing required effort. Things kept getting handed to her while she sat on her rocking chair: an over-ripe banana she didn’t want to eat, a small TV with pictures of people she didn’t know, babies she didn’t recognize.

There were always people in her house, and she wondered how that had happened when she had only had two daughters. Imogen thought Alice and Rosie only had two kids each, Alice a boy and a girl, and Rosie two girls. Imogen had helped raise all of them while living in the house that she and Ricky built after he came back from the war. Even after he died almost 50 years before, she would not leave the house. Imogen would instead help with the grandkids so her two daughters wouldn’t fight over who had more rights to the house.

Ricky also stayed in the house with her after he died. Imogen would see him walking around the kitchen as she fixed the kids’ meals, or standing in the doorway looking at her as she dusted his portrait. Imogen would catch him smiling at her as she fussed over a doily or arranged and rearranged the flowers for the kitchen. On the days she’d catch him with that smile on, she woke up in the middle of the night to his singing voice at her bedside. She was never afraid when she saw him or heard him nearby – Ricky was keeping his wedding day promise of always looking after her.

“Your dad came by today,” she’d say to Alice. “He thinks your little ones are precious and wants the boy to be a soldier, like him.”

“Mom, Daddy died years ago. He never met the kids.”

Imogen would insist that her dad had come by the night before too, to serenade her with a ballad he’d written for her while he was away at war. “The same one he sang to me when he came back.”

“Okay, Mom,” Alice would say, and Imogen would walk away without noticing the concern on her daughter’s face.

Without her permission or awareness, Imogen had started remembering less about life after her kids and more about her life before them. Strolls and fights with her sisters when they were all kids; ice cream and bicycle rides with Ricky when they were fifteen; the day he shipped out when they were nineteen, how he’d kissed her and said he should have married her the week before so he’d die a married man.

“Then you need to come back intact,” she’d said. “Don’t think you can run away from me to some other country.”

The day he came back was as vivid in her memory as the day he died. Imogen’s sisters had pulled their resources and their husbands together to get her that portrait of Ricky. She was glad they’d picked that expression on him, the serious soldier look and not the sweet boy look he had only for her. The same smile on Ricky’s face when he came to see her.

As more days without him passed and as her hair went whiter, she spoke less and only sat on her chair facing the portrait. Alice and Rosie would come up and speak to her, and other kids called her Grandma and Mammy while giving her hugs and kisses. She returned them, not because she felt anything, but because it was nice to feel loved when she was so tired.

She sat eating the banana, looking around to everyone who had gathered in her house. She knew it wasn’t Christmas because the tree wasn’t up, and it wasn’t Easter because Rosie hadn’t pushed her to leave the house for church. She looked for Alice or Rosie, to ask them why everyone was in her house today and why she had been handed a banana. She couldn’t taste the fruit – it was only getting mushed between her gums before making its way down her throat. It tasted no different than the mush she was given at all other mealtimes.

“I think it’s time to go,” Imogen said out loud.

“Go where, Mammy?” A little boy that was next to her said. He didn’t look anything like Alice or Rosie, and Imogen wondered how he’d gotten in there. “Mom, Mammy said she’s going somewhere.”

“It’s alright, honey, she’s probably confused.” The boy’s mom looked a little like Rosie. “We’ll let you rest now, Grandma.”

Later, when Imogen was lying in bed, her eyes opening and closing as she was drifting off, Ricky was at her bedside. He smiled at her, and when he serenaded her, his voice didn’t sound far away anymore. It was the clear and assured voice he’d had for her that dripped with love and devotion, the voice that made her name sound like a sacred melody.

He stretched his hand out, but she didn’t need support to get out of bed. She knew she hadn’t fallen asleep, but her perpetual tiredness wasn’t with her anymore. She could move freely again, and when she looked down at her hand as she gave it to Ricky, all wrinkles were gone. She turned quickly to the mirror and saw herself as she remembered on her best years, no wrinkles and with brown hair falling at her shoulders.

“I feel so alive,” Imogen said. Ricky smiled and pointed to the figure lying on the bed. Imogen looked at the old woman, her face sad and with some tears falling down the corners of her eyes.

“Come on, Immy.” Ricky said, grabbing her hand. “It’s time for you to be with me now.”

She went, because she wasn’t tired anymore. And the portrait in the living room was later taken down because there was no one on the chair to look at it anymore.

Aching Back and Black Tea

It’s high time for a new project. A new Work in Progress, better said. I’m hoping this new idea turns into a novel, and I’ve almost hit the 15k-word mark for it. Working on this one has been so refreshing, and (so far) the self-doubt has been manageable and muted in favor of wanting to find out what happens next. That feeling, of wanting to know what happens next and where the story goes, before realizing you’re the one writing it… I haven’t felt that feeling about one of my pieces in a long time.

I’m sharing a small piece of it, a continuation of a scene (chapter?!) I wrote a few weeks ago. Recently, I also came up with the emotional theme that the story will follow, so I didn’t feel too bad or self-indulgent if I didn’t go back to the story for two weeks to keep writing. I favored self-care while feeling off after hitting month two in quarantine, and I still came up with a major break-through for a new project. Time well spent.

What you’re reading is what I consider a very rough, in-need-of-polishing first draft, so keep that in mind when reading. I would love to hear what you think regardless, so please let me know how reading this short scene makes you feel.

Trigger Warning: References to domestic violence.

Black and white image of mug with steaming liquid inside
Photo by Salome Alexa on Unsplash

Her head still ached, and in her dream she was walking on streets, some in Camden, some in Virginia, and even one in DC. They all blended together, with a seafood restaurant with a Natty Boh sign appearing next to an entrance to Camden Market. Xander kept walking, but she broke into a run as she wound past some streets. As she got to one similar to the bridge underpass she’d walked with Neal the day before, she started running, but she wasn’t moving as fast as she could.

Like all dreamers, she ran and moved fast but she wasn’t going anywhere, and when it came to pushing past some kids waiting at the bus top, she felt herself pushing hard but there was no impact to her shove, and the longer it took for her to make her way past the packed bus stop, the bigger the urge to run. No one was behind her, but it was a presence, almost a mist or a fog, that threatened to consume her if she didn’t keep running. But the people at the stop wouldn’t move, and when she turned to find another way through, she saw Oliver’s face.

The sound of the door closing woke her, forgetting where she was. She tried to sit up straight, but her lower back screamed at the attempt and she couldn’t move. Slowly, Neal’s living room started looking familiar again, and as she unwound herself from the fetal position she’d fallen asleep in, her back stopped hurting a bit. She reached around her head to the arm of the couch for her phone where she’d left it charging and checked the time – 7:30. Neal probably hadn’t gotten in bed until almost 1 and if he left at 7:30, when had he gotten up?

Oliver’s face in the dream was the same as it had been the night before, before Neal clocked him. It was the same anger Oliver had had before he’d hit Xander, the same look she had noticed briefly before the smack came down. She was scrolling down Facebook but not really seeing anything but Oliver’s face in her dream, his face at the bar when he smiled at her in front of everyone at the bar, then his face the morning before, when he wound his arm back before bringing it down on her.

She went to browse Instagram but then jumped back to Facebook again, forgetting she wanted to see what her one friend from high school was doing for the latest pyramid scheme. She browsed again and scrolled for a few minutes before remembering she was working at noon and that she should probably get an hour or two more of sleep before getting ready.

She set an alarm for 8:30 and set her phone down. She turned to her other side, carefully to avoid the shooting pain on her lower back. She settled in and tried to go back to sleep, her eyelids heavy. She thought about Neal, how he’d said he’d be cutting a key for her today, so she probably shouldn’t leave until going to her shift, which meant she couldn’t go out and buy groceries like she’d wanted. She could clean the place, but that would be too presumptuous, not to mention predictable – he gets her out of the biggest pickle she could possibly be in while living in a foreign place, and her gratitude would come in the form of Cinderella?

What would she have for breakfast? He hadn’t said to help herself to anything to the kitchen yet, but isn’t it implied when letting someone stay with you? Or would he be pissed if he knew all she had to eat all day was a cup of black tea before going into work for five hours? She could go get brunch before going into work – that was an idea. Get a snack for her break on the way into the bar and hold off until dinner – but then she wouldn’t be able to cook him dinner like she told him she wanted to. What would they have for dinner tonight? What would they do for dinner?

Xander turned on her back again and put her arm over her eyes. Neal could use some curtains; those blinds were very dusty, but at least they were keeping some of the light out because of it. She could buy him new blinds or curtains, as a thank you and to help her sleep a little better if she was going to keep crashing in the living room. What if he wanted to stay up watching TV one day and she wanted to head to bed? What was the expectation there? She probably would have to stay up with him, yawn politely and be on her phone, or get comfy on the couch until she “accidentally” fell asleep and he let himself out quietly. She couldn’t be there for long – she had to find a cheap room somewhere close. Tracking down her great aunt in the country had never been an option, really.

She could feel herself dozing off, her eyelids getting heavier, her thoughts more disjointed. She thought of what she’d do for dinner again. They could have dinner together, get some take-out that she’d pay for. But that would surely set a precedent, right? Like a curfew, or being home (or back there) at a certain time every day to have dinner together. And who would cook? Not Xander.

What if he had ladies over – he wasn’t married. She’d never thought to ask. While having his beers at the bar, Neal didn’t talk about seeing anyone else at the end of the day other than his mom, and if he were married, a wife would certainly have something to say about those dusty blinds. If he had a wife, would he even have offered Xander the place? If that was the arrangement – but no, that wasn’t it. The way Neal had thrown Oliver to the ground, it had the familiar concern of a father behind it, not a possessive husband. That’s what Oliver’s face had been like. But she pushed that face out of her thoughts, not wanting to dream of him ever again.

She turned to lay on the side she had woken up on, and finally fell asleep. Her alarm went off what felt like minutes afterward, and she couldn’t get comfortable with her achy back, so she went to the kitchen and put some water to boil on the kettle. The plastic appliance had stains on it and was greasy everywhere except the handle and button to turn it on. So that’s where her gratitude would start. She grabbed the mug she’d used the day before and poured some hot water over a bag of black tea, and while she went to look for the painkillers in her travel first aid kit, she hoped Neal was the kind of bachelor that kept clean dishrags and dish soap somewhere.

Flash Fiction: Toss and Turn

This week’s entry was supposed to expand on this alternate reality post of imagining my life had I pursued a different career – in my case, a nurse. With the current situation and the literal heroes that nurses are (they always are, but especially now), it felt out of touch to proceed as planned.

I’m not feeling particularly creative this week, and I didn’t work on my new project over the weekend – I’m trying this new thing where I don’t berate myself for not being productive while in quarantine. It’s lovely once you realize you don’t have to have something to show for it to prove you were productive – self-care can also “yield” the result of feeling better, and that’s important too.

So my remedy for feeling uninspired? Attempting a challenge (and being satisfied with the result if I tried my best, but I’m still working on that) gets my writing muscles moving and stretching, and hopefully by the end of it I’ll feel more inspired and excited to go back to my new project.

This week’s challenge: flash fiction.

I have to thank a good friend and writing colleague for this idea. It’s not quite the “a story in six words” challenge – that’s further down in this year’s plan – but it’s equally a challenge to condense a story with a beginning, middle and end in 1,000 or less (my final word count is 1,014 – a respectable first draft). Less words doesn’t mean less writing; it means more editing.

So here I go – tell me if I nailed this!

Image of a broken paper heart strung on string against a black background.
Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Breathe.

She’s awake. What time is it? Why is the bed empty? How long has she been asleep?

3 a.m. And he’s not here.

She calls him, asks where he is, if he’s okay, why he isn’t back yet. What happened to being back by 11?

I’m across town. I’ll be home soon.

The phone clicks and she turns to her side, knowing sleep was impossible but deluding herself to try. She had just gotten good at falling asleep when he wasn’t there.

Breathe. Toss and turn. Breathe. Toss and turn.

She checks her phone again. Facebook, Snapchat, texts, then Facebook, Snapchat, texts, then Facebook, Snapchat, texts, then… Anything to tell her that he’s okay and he’s on his way home, that nothing has happened to him on his journey.

Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.

The door goes and she comes to, angry that she’d fallen asleep but relieved at the same time. She can sleep without him there, but it’s more comforting otherwise. She doesn’t know this yet, but she would become quite good at sleeping alone soon.

She turns toward him, asks if he’s okay.

Yes.

She turns his back to him, hoping that by some miracle she’d fall asleep. The morning light was starting to stream through the skylight and she checks her phone. 5 a.m. She has to get up for work in an hour and 20 minutes.

He crawls into bed and she feels his arms around her and for the first time in her life, she squirms away. Says no.

Stop breathing. Start crying.

Their house crumbles, disrespect as big and destructive as a bulldozer. Their foundations are not as solid as she thought, if one late night without calling can do this much damage. Where had he been? Who had he been with? Only bartenders, students and dishonest people stayed out past 3 a.m. on a Sunday – which one is he?

In the dim morning light, he looks alien to her. The smell of alcohol and sweat familiar but unknown on him at 5 a.m. on a Sunday. She tries searching for another smell, any indication of where he had been and with whom, what he’d done with whoever it was. But smelling requires breathing, and she is too busy crying to do that.

Breathe. Slowly.

She turns over and hiccups more sobs. She stares at the wall and more sunlight streams in as he repeats, over and over, that he’s sorry. He repeats it so much, he falls asleep and his even breathing is interrupted when her alarm goes off. She turns it off and shoots awake, headed to the bathroom. He tries to grab her again but she shrugs him off and heads inside the small bathroom. She slams the door.

Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.

Swollen eyes. Red nose. Messy hair. Where had he been?

Since when was this a place he didn’t want to come back to? What had she done for him to think that staying out past 3 a.m. without a call was acceptable? People who loved her didn’t make her worry, lose sleep and cry.

Is she a good girlfriend? Is she a good homemaker? Is she someone he doesn’t want to come home to anymore?

Is she a good woman?

Her teeth are brushed, her hair is combed back and full of product and her face is washed of the salty tears but not of the shame. She boils herself some water and squeezes a lemon in it – it was time to work on her face.

She’s not tired or sleepy, but this exhaustion was as alien to her as the man who was supposed to be the man who loved her, lying in bed with his eyes closed but not breathing deeply. She isn’t tired but her body is heavy, her head threating to start pounding at any loud sound. Her eyes hurt and twitch every few seconds. Every movement is loud.

Moisturizer, concealer, powder, foundation, more concealer and more powder. She looks more normal, like someone worth coming home to. She flicks eyeliner across and swishes two coats of mascara before putting on red lipstick. She briefly considers the too-red red not really work appropriate, but settles for a muted rose – no need to call more attention to her face today.

She gets dressed, cup of warm water now lukewarm and acidic. She leaves it on the vanity and heads for the door – it’s the first time in months she’d be early to work. She walks past him – he’s awake.

Breathe. Breathe.

He’s on his phone typing and she’s angry. She ruffles through her bag like she doesn’t know everything that is there.

I’m going to the gym after work.

I think we should talk when you’re back.

Talk about what?

Us. Where we go from here.

She turns around and is wide awake. Her body stops being so heavy in a split second and she lets anger buoy her up. Her old self is on a life raft, floating and maybe surviving this shipwreck.

You get home at 5:30 a.m. and you’re the one who wants to know where we’re headed?

It was 5 a.m.

You’re joking.

I’m not. I checked my phone and it was 5 a.m.

She looks at his face. He’s gone. He never really came back from wherever he was last night (this morning?) and whoever came back wasn’t the same man who left. The man who loves her doesn’t look at her with unkind eyes and arms folded across his lap on top of the covers. This man is a stranger.

He didn’t come home last night, in the end. The man she thought she’d spend forever with. Because she isn’t someone worth coming home to. If she were that kind of person, the same man who kissed her goodbye yesterday afternoon would have been the same man who respected their home and came back by 11 as he’d promised. Not this stranger who isn’t looking at her in the face. The face he once couldn’t get enough of.

Breathe. Through a hollow chest. Breathe.