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Open Letter to Patti Smith, Day 18 (on refusing to write a short story)

Here is a section from an epistolary short story I’m not writing:*

Dear Vi–

I haven’t been able to stop crying. No, let me be accurate about this. I have only been able to stop crying for short periods of time. I cry when I make my morning coffee. I cry while I unpack another box of books. I even cry when I’m sitting on the toilet  and of course I pee so much these days.

Everything here is green. Which is beautiful and too much all at the same time. Sometimes I look at M, at those eyes I trust with my everything and think yes, his eyes are also too green.

I didn’t think that at home. I mean at my home.

I look like no one and nothing here, but I knew that going in. I said yes anyway. Loudly. Publicly. Enthusiastically.

I feel I need to be as accurate as possible now. So I don’t misname things. So I don’t get confused. So I don’t think “grief” when this is probably only homesickness.

You remember those poems about a lover being a home? Everyone liked them, including me. Do you think I was wrong? And who was I lying to? And why?

Who cries at the beginning of things? Who cries at wonderful and perfect for me? Who cries when it’s taken so long to happen? Why can’t I stop crying?

(Oh, about the pee-ing thing. I’m not pregnant, just middle-aged. Remember that time we talked about everything that disappears after a woman turns 40—why didn’t we include bladder control?)

I hate the phrase “ugly cry.” I told my sister about the weeping—not how often just that I was doing it—and she said,” I hope you’re not ugly crying. You and M haven’t been together that long.” (I also  hate that she said “together” not married. I mean I know it was just a clerk’s office but she was there, wasn’t she?)

I should go now. I’m about to start up again. I can feel the waterworks rumbling just underneath my skin. I’ll write more tomorrow.

I’ll write about how beautifully green it is here. I’ll write about my plans. I’ll figure out how to tell you how damned happy I am.

*Reasons not to write this story: I have an adversarial relationship with commas, sentences and I don’t get along, James Franco, I am much lazier than I appear in the mirror, I don’t know where it starts, having a short story roaming around in me is more painful than the usual giants,  the poems will get jealous and lustful for revenge, if the story refuses to have a happy ending, oh, how that will break my heart.

From the Archives: “Mighty Tight Woman” (#longread)

I have never been BFFs with prose. Given the number of tears I shed trying to write the personal essay portions of my grad school essays, I’d say we used to be frenemies at best. Over the years I dabbled in prose—a (really wretched) screen play, the short story I blogged about here—but basically it was one bad date after the other. Then came grad school where many of the poets swung both ways, equally at home in the nonfiction workshops as the poetry ones. But it turns out that Richard McCann’s life-changing creative nonfiction workshops were a gateway drug. Next thing you know I was following my prose-writing friends into Kermit Moyer’s fiction workshop. I was still under the heavy influence of Chicago, which may have been how I happened to,  instead of writing a blues poem, write a blues story. And, maybe, just maybe, I was also inspired by a serious crush on one of the professors in the college writing department.


Mighty Tight Woman

(originally published in Willow Springs)

Mama Sylvie and the Northside Blues are the house band at The Mill every Tuesday night. When I lived in Chicago, I’d go see them every week, getting there early so I could get the table right up front, lean into Mama Sylvie as she leaned into the mike, her big hips marking time as surely as Barenboim’s baton down at the CSO.

“My man don’t love me, he treats me so mean.” Mama Sylvie had this way she worked the notes so they sliced into you like paper cuts, each note working its way between layers of skin. You could see the audience shiver, especially the women, each song leaving the kind of cold sadness that begins at the bone, impervious to blankets or the large hands of men.

I could never quite make my notes sound like hers. I came close sometimes, but it was like I could never get past the point of keeping secrets. I couldn’t tell the whole truth, not like Mama Sylvie did. You can’t do the blues in a small way. I don’t mean you’ve necessarily got to holler-shout them, but you’ve got to let them all the way in to get them all the way out. You have to actually feel the silk of that no-good man’s shirt slipping through your fingers as you sing, really believing you want him to “skip that lipstick, don’t explain.”

I’ve been singing all my life, but I never wanted to sing the blues until I heard Billie Holiday slur her way through “Violets for Your Furs.” “You brought me violets for my ferrss.” Some folks will say she’s not a blues singer because she didn’t do that many twelve-bars, but on that song, at the end of each phrase, you can hear her voice shake, as if it’s counting each drop of whiskey and each needleful of smack she’s ever hungered. Her mouth sounds so heavy—with regret, with loss—that she can’t even manage the final short “u” sound.

Listening to her, I thought, “Here’s truth.” I decided to stop singing show tunes—each with its carefully assigned slot—and learn the blues.

I tried to start my own band with this kid Josh—Little V and the Kings—but all he wanted to do was play Stevie Ray Vaughn.

In rehearsal he’d always tell me, “Nah, that’s not how Stevie Ray does ‘Tin Pan Alley.’” Then he’d play some indecipherable solo on his pawn-shop guitar.

“But shouldn’t we be trying to get our own sound?” I’d protest, trying to get him to listen to Sippie Wallace and Little Esther. I was buying used discs of female blues singers by the armful, playing their songs over and over, trying to find my way into that heart-and-bone place Billie sang from. Josh just kept trying to sound like the record. Eventually, after sleeping with my friend Carrie a couple of times, he borrowed my Billie Holiday songbook and stopped showing up for rehearsals. I heard he works at TGIFridays now. Read the rest of this entry

Under M for Miscellaneous

“That dawn is my final picture of Rachel, her round little face screwed up in anger and hurt as I make her promise not to tell anyone I was there. Her arms are folded so tightly that her t-shirt rides up and you can see that she’s wearing white panties. She just listens while I talk, her eyes seeming to become darker and darker. She knows we’ve come full circle to where she takes up a lot of space but isn’t really there. But I don’t let myself know that; I just wheel my bike down the hall and out into the morning.” — from “Rachel,” circa 1998

I’ve been rifling through my file cabinets trying to find something to write about tonight. I was watching the Christmas special of Vicar of Dibley where Geraldine finally gets married, and I thought I might write about weddings, but then I knew I’d have to ask the question, “Do I not want a big wedding because I really don’t want one or because I think I don’t deserve one?” and tonight I just want to drink wine and watch Netflix and not stick my hand down my throat and root around for my heart.

In the Miscellaneous file I keep a lot of false starts and fragments and finished poems that weren’t very good but I can’t bear to throw out. I’m not one of those artists that can blithely discard old work just because I don’t want anyone to find it. Even though the writer I am now knows it’s not good, when I read the old poem or story, I remember how proud of it I was then, how each was its own risk, its own achievement, and that’s what I’m holding onto, promise and risk, the failure part of it isn’t very relevant other than as a sign that I was willing to take a risk.

I’m also reminded how self-conscious I was as a writer, how worried I was about being honest versus hurting someone’s feelings. These days I know that the people whose feelings might be hurt by what I’m writing don’t actually read my work—there are perks to having a family who’s not into the arts. And anyway, would they even recognize themselves? Living the same life doesn’t mean you remember or feel or even actually do live it the same.

I wrote a story in my late 20s called “Rachel.” It was my attempt to understand what had happened between me and the one who got away in college, who was also the one who was but wasn’t. My big idea was that if if I wrote it from his perspective, I’d maybe understand if I’d loved him, if he’d loved me, what had broken between us, if there was even anything there to break. I was still in touch with him a little then, and I faxed him the story (or maybe I e-mailed him) before I started submitting it to journals because I wanted to make sure he was okay with me revealing so much about our relationship. So many of the scenes I wrote about were barely disguised fiction: the time I was the a/v tech when his English class watched The Red Balloon, the time he tried to kiss me on his bed and I panicked and ran, the time he came by my apartment our senior year for a booty call.

Nearly two decades later I’m fairly certain that he wouldn’t have recognized any of those scenes. There was no reason for him to hold onto them, playing the filmstrip frame by frame searching for meaning, for connection, for love. I think I was important to him, but not the way I wanted to be, not the way that makes you remember every detail like that. I thought I’d written the story from his point-of-view but, really, the way I’d seen it kept getting in the way.

Sometimes I think I’d like to see him again but we couldn’t have the conversation I’d want to have, the one where he could tell me if the whole thing was in my head back then or not. The one where I could explain all the ways I used to be numb, and what a relief it was to be with him because I actually felt something, even if it was anger half the time.

There are answers I’ll never have. And really, I don’t need them because they don’t matter now. We wouldn’t have worked out even if I hadn’t been awkward and numb and fumbling. I still had decades of growing up to do. At 19, 20, 21, I still had no idea how closed I was, and I certainly didn’t understand that there was, in fact, another way to be in the world. He really wasn’t the one that got away, I guess. He’s the one who was a really smart,  good-looking guy, who sometimes made me feel pretty, who got tired of how often I hung around him and his friends but didn’t know how to say it, and the one who introduced me to Patsy Cline. And that’s enough.

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