A Story, Spoken: Chapter Five

Annie has agreed to a date with Gavin, the handsome handyman from Cheney’s store, but a trust has been broken. Will Annie’s dreams be collateral damage? If you haven’t caught up, you can read the first four chapters here: Chapter One, Chapter Two, Chapter Three, Chapter Four. Let’s see how Annie’s doing…

It wasn’t just that he picked his teeth with his thumbnail at the table, or that he tried to order for me, it was the way he laughed. I had put myself together, changing my outfit three times, rushed out the door with a fib ready on my lips if Nan asked who I was meeting. I had stumbled through the awkward realization that a smile and a cute butt was not enough for me, even for a “distraction from my life” date.

Gavin hadn’t stopped talking about himself since we’d arrived at the restaurant. We slid into a booth at the back of  Jimmy’s Family Cafe and perused the menu as he continued with his life story — how he had started the handyman business two years ago, how he still didn’t regret not going to college because he didn’t see the point, how loving and present his mother was in his life, but his dad was a hardass who died young and wasn’t missed. I couldn’t tell if it was nerves or if he always spilled his guts like this on a first date, but I was grateful because the more he talked the less I had to. I prayed silently that he had enough material to get us to the check so I wouldn’t have to answer or avoid painful questions about the current state of my family life.

But it wasn’t to be. Just as I was biting into the burger he’d cracked a joke about when I didn’t choose a salad on the first date, he zeroed in on exactly the last thing I wanted to discuss.

“So Cheney told me you have some internship next year for writing or something. What’s that about?”

My eyes rolled before I could stop them and he laughed. A loud guffaw, smile broad on his face, not realizing that I hadn’t joined him in his amusement.

“No, I don’t.” I took the bite and looked down at my plate while I chewed, occupying myself with squirting ketchup on the plate for my fries.

“You don’t, huh?” I glanced up to see him watching me, waiting for me to elaborate.

“Nope.” I popped a fry into my mouth and smiled through my chewing hoping he’d move on if I didn’t react.

“So you don’t want to be a writer?” His elbows were on the table now, food left untouched because he’d found a better treat in bothering me about things I’d rather him not know. I was furious with Cheney for putting me in this position and furious with Gavin for not getting the hint.

“I did,” I thought a short answer would give him enough satisfaction to move on, “but life happens, you know? A lot in my life changed very quickly, and now it doesn’t make sense for me to go. So that’s that.”

“Does Cheney know you aren’t going?”

“Yes, and I don’t know why she would tell you otherwise.”

“Well,” he said with another laugh, “seems like it’s for the best anyhow.”

“What does that mean?” I wiped the burger grease from my hands.

“I don’t know.” Gavin finally picked up his own burger, looking for something else to fill his mouth now that the words were running short. “Your heart doesn’t seem to be in it anyway. And I get it. Life does happen, and hobbies take a back seat when it does. That’s just how it goes, right?”

I felt like I’d been slapped.

“Hobbies?” I glared, no longer the least bit concerned about making a good impression.

“Yeah, writing, gardening, that kind of stuff. Sometimes we’ve just gotta get to work and push through and not get too caught up in time-fillers. Idle hands and all that.” Another bite. A drip of pink juice from his undercooked burger slid down his chin, but he didn’t seem to notice taking another bite before even swallowing the first.

“Writing isn’t my hobby. It never was. It’s what I wanted to do with my life. It’s what I studied at college. Everything I ever wanted to accomplish in life came down to being a writer.”

That laugh. It crept under my skin and needled its way into my heart so swiftly I was shocked at the surge of anger that swept over me.

“What the hell is so funny about that?”

“I’m sorry,” another chuckle, “no need to get your panties in a twist. Maybe I’m just naive about that kind of life. Hard work for a hard buck, that’s how I was raised.”

“And you don’t think writing is hard work?”

“Putting words on paper? I mean, I never liked it in school, but it’s just telling a story, right?”

I breathed in and out, using the gift of his momentary silence to try and steer myself away from yelling.

“You know what,” I set my napkin on top of what was left of my food and reached for my purse, “I could spit a lot of names at you right now, and I’m really tempted, but most of the words coming to mind are probably over your head, so I’ll keep this simple. Go to fucking hell you ignorant piece of shit.”

I didn’t wait to hear his response. I was across the restaurant and out the door in seconds and let each stomping step it took me to get home fuel the fire of astounded anger. I still had the consciousness to open the door quietly and softly open Nan’s door to make sure she was asleep before shutting myself into my room and pulling down the typewriter from its recent home in the back of my closet.

I set it down on mom’s secretary desk I’d squeezed into the corner and retrieved a small stack of blank paper from an open package on a shelf. I fed the sheet in and sat staring at the blank page, fuming, grasping for words, any words that I could pour onto the page.

My mind was a blur of pain and a deep feeling of betrayal. Cheney had told my secret. She had hung me out to dry and allowed me to be bombarded by a cute smile with a limited vocabulary for her own damn pleasure and I couldn’t stand the way it was making my stomach churn.

I typed a few words of frustration and crossed them out. I typed a sentence or two about what writing was or wasn’t and crossed those out too. I sighed and tried to put words to the storm of memories and fears about my mother that had consumed me over the last several months, but I didn’t get past “M-o-m” before I was sobbing and I couldn’t see the paper through the tears.

I stood up and pushed my hands through my hair, understanding why women in old movies tore at their hair in desperation after heartbreak. I stared at the typewriter, blurry until I swiped away the tears with the neck of my shirt. I knew now that everything that had happened, everything I felt, it had broken me. The life I’d imagined was dead. Just like my mother.

I pulled out my phone and opened my email app. I quickly read through the draft I’d typed earlier in the week but hadn’t had the guts to send. It was for the best, though. If I didn’t let go, I’d just keep hurting and I couldn’t bear anymore hurt.

I hit send and watched as the bar creeping along the bottom of my screen filled and my formal decline of the internship flew off to New York in my place.

The House of Broken Angels: A Book Review

As I have jumped head first into this whole “being a serious writer” thing, I’ve exposed myself to pretty incredible literature that I can’t believe I’ve been missing. I think I’ve mentioned before that I had a decades-old habit to only read old classics, or best sellers long after they’ve lost their new book luster. I think I had some twisted sense of responsibility to catch up somehow with all the books I’d missed before I read the new stuff. Like that makes sense, or is even remotely achievable. Along with featuring new publications in my book reviews, I’ve been listening to several podcasts about the current goings-on in the literary world and I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ve been starving myself. Yes, the classic greats will always be great, but there are some truly incredible authors living right now, publishing right now, creating right now, that are simply too good to miss.

That is my disclaimer and poor excuse for never having read anything by Luis Alberto Urrea until now. Holy cow, can this dude write. I mean, it says “Pulitzer Prize Finalist” next to his name on the cover, so I should have known, but sometimes there’s a certain…pretentiousness in books with that honor…or books even close to that honor. There was nothing pretentious about this book. The House of Broken Angels is humble even in its striking beauty.

image2 (8)

The story spans two days with the De La Cruz family as they come together for a final birthday celebration for the ailing grand patriarch Big Angel. A week before the party, his mother passes away at nearly a hundred years old sweeping the family up in a blur of reminiscing and dreaming of what the future holds.The partitions between the aging generation that made their way to America from Mexico in their youth and the younger ones who barely speak Spanish are blurred, as the De La Cruz house bulges with familia and theatrics of emotion.

A slow read, its lingering sentences draw you to read them again just to bask in their light. This is a book you read a bit at a time, letting each moment sink in before you continue. The structure reminds me of music composition. The first third of the book serves as an overture, explaining the scope of the story, introducing themes and revealing backstories of the many players. You are then submerged in a dance of perspectives as you jump from character to character, what they see and experience in the forty-eight-hour period. You fall in love with their individualities, their simple pleasures and jagged pains, known, but not acknowledged by the others.

I felt entirely immersed in the culture of this family, each person so distinct but part of a powerful whole that leapt from the page. I stopped reading at one point and announced to my husband, “This man needs to write a screenplay.” The dialogue and simple painting of the picture are so pure and perfect I couldn’t help but make small exclamations of pleasure, adoring the very act of reading his work.

This is not what I would call an easy book, but it’s not hard either. The language is easy, the story is a meandering family fable with sharp gut-checking moments when a revelation hits true north. A stunning story that deserves to be savored for every delicious word. Luckily, it’s written in bite-sized portions, easily consumed in spare moments, but the words will follow you off the page to percolate through your mind long after closing the book.

As fate would have it, while I was reading The House of Broken Angels, I listened to another podcast, not literary-related, yet they referenced and quoted Urrea’s book The Devil’s Highway as they spoke about the history of border control and immigration from Mexico. Just the small bits they read were enough to prove that this guy is not a one-hit wonder. I will be reading as much of Urrea’s writing as I can get my hands on.

Happy Birthday To Me

I’ve had a birthday since the last time we spoke. It was a pretty big one, too.

I turned thirty.

Thirty.

I know the typical reactions to those digits tend to be ones of fear or at least a rapid uptick in blood pressure as we start to ask ourselves, “What in the world am I actually doing?” However, I’ve been looking forward to this one. I’ve managed to cram a ton of life into my thirty years, the details of which I’ll save for my memoir if I ever write one, and in doing so, I grew up pretty fast. Even as a child, I gravitated to the adults in a room and didn’t shy away from trying to participate in whatever most astute and mature conversation they were having. Precocious is what they called me, and while I appreciated the recognition that I was able, on some level, to “hang with the big dogs”, there was always a little laugh or a little flippancy hidden in the corner of their smile.

At some point in childhood, we all become aware of the thirty milestone and what awaits us on the other side. Often joked about, a dress-rehearsal for the even more feared “over the hill”, thirty has its fair share of foreboding whispers.

Once you leave your twenties you’re not young anymore. You’re a “real” adult now.

While some of my peers may have slapped a big ole warning label on the distant “thirty” in their psyche, my eyes lit up. Thirty! That’s what I want. That’s what I’ve been waiting for. I want to be thirty. I want to be an indisputable adult. I want the mantle of respect and acceptance of my adult peers. I want the simpering smiles and chuckle of surprise when I speak to stop so that my words are actually heard.

Now, I’m not naive. I know now that my initial idea of what turning thirty would mean isn’t how the world works. There will always be someone older than me, assuming that wiser is a given. And I’m okay with that. I welcome the opportunity to give them something to think about.

I know that what was and is beyond thirty is entirely what I make of it. Thirty is youthful and wise. It’s hopeful and serious. It’s excited and prepared. It’s believing in your dreams in a solid way. Tying the balloon of imagination to a platform where it can take root in reality. It’s earlier nights and earlier mornings. It’s coffee, but even more water. It’s recognizing health as a privilege and something you have to work to maintain. It’s looking back at the last thirty years in appreciation for their tempo, and not allowing it to quicken as you continue.

The years ahead of me are sweet. There will be inevitable bites of bitterness, but growth and development follow closely on its heels. When I close my eyes, I imagine a little girl hunched over a pile of kindling. She is rocked by sudden gusts of wind that threaten the ember she is coaxing to life. As she grows before my eyes, the flame rises and the soft fibers of wood begin to burn. The young lady carefully places twigs around her fire, feeding it, nurturing it. As she turns to retrieve a larger branch, the light catches her face and you see the fine lines forming on her brow and in the creases of her eyes. She slowly sets the log on the growing fire before her. She does so with such meticulous care that you worry her hand will burn. How can she bear to stand so close? But as the wood hits the flame, it ignites and sparks fly. The woman steps back, watching the fire she has created and mothered into strength. And she smiles, feeling the heavy presence of the mountain of fuel set beside her.

Thirty isn’t the finish line of youth. It’s not the end of anything. I carry forth what I know, and my lust for life and all its treasures just like any other day. Thursday was no different than Tuesday. I’m still feeding my kids, I’m still running the laundry, I’m still writing.

But still, I’m thirty.

A Story Spoken: Chapter Three

It’s been raining like crazy for weeks around here, and now the storm is hitting Annie’s hometown. This month, we learn that she’s been hiding something from Nan. What kind of secret would Annie keep from her beloved grandmother, and will Cheney convince her to fess up?

If you haven’t read the first two chapters of my serial or need a refresher before you continue, you can read Chapter One here and Chapter Two here.

 

A rhythmic “shave and a haircut” knock rattled the front door to the apartment. Closing a bookmark into the novel I’d been reading, I glanced up at Nan’s old mantle clock. It was balanced somewhat precariously on the two by fours Mom had nailed together and mounted on the wall years before so we had a place to hang our Christmas stockings. A shelf would have worked fine, but I guess that hadn’t occurred to her at the time. If she had an explanation, I didn’t recall ever hearing it. Just another mystery quirk of hers I’d never be able to ask about.

I crossed the room, tapping the last two beats back to Cheney before opening the door.

“You’re early.” I smiled. It was getting easier, but guilt always tagged along quietly behind and I honestly couldn’t sort out which was right: being able to smile again, or keeping myself from it.

“Yeah, sorry,” Cheney huffed a bit as she lifted a box from the ground, “I wanted to go over putting the mailers together before we left if that’s cool?” She set the box of paper and envelopes down on the kitchen table with a loud thump that made the occupants of the lazy susan centerpiece rattle.

“Oh, yeah. I forgot you were dropping those off.”

Cheney looked up with concern, “You’re still okay with helping out with this, right?”

“Yeah! No, I just forgot. That’s all. I’m happy to help.” Another potentially disloyal smile.

“Oh, good,” Cheney sighed and opened the box to reveal the neatly stacked fliers for her mother’s boutique. “I’m already mad at myself for not just ordering the glossy postcard mailers. They were a little more expensive, but stuffing envelopes is such a pain in the ass. Thrifty is not always a good thing.”

“It’s not a big deal. I’m not sleeping much anyway. If I’m going to binge on TV late into the night, I might as well be productive while I’m doing it.”

“Have you seen that new true crime thing about the family in Minnesota that just vanished? Trent and I watched it the other night and it gave me nightmares!”

“I don’t know why you do that to yourself,” I couldn’t help but laugh at the obvious residual distress on her face. “Take a break from the murders and missing person crap before you really freak yourself out.”

“You’re probably right,” Cheney sighed, “We’re just lucky to agree on anything at all, much less what to watch on Netflix.”

I helped Cheney empty the box, neatly stacking the fliers, envelopes, and stamps in an assembly line across the table.

“You guys still having a rough time?” While I knew they weighed heavily on her mind, Cheney’s problems were mundane enough to be a break from my own. It was easier to help her sort through dating problems than it was to cope with my grief and the ever-expanding effort of taking care of Nan.

“A rough time?” Cheney scoffed, “Yeah, you could say that. I don’t think he sees it that way, but I’m about through.”

“Really?” I couldn’t hide my surprise. Two months before, Cheney was talking about rings and babies, ready to brave the meticulous and overbearing force that was her mother and plan a wedding.

“I just…,” she paused, visibly searching for the right words, “He’s a nice guy, Annie, he really, really is. I just don’t think I love him. I know I thought I did, but the longer we’ve been at this thing, the more I’m realizing that I might’ve gotten ahead of myself. He’s a solid guy, but not always the most compassionate, and I don’t really feel like hand-holding him through kindness my whole life. I want someone who cares if they hurt my feelings and cares if I hurt his.”

“He doesn’t care if you hurt his feelings?”

“Well, he cares, I guess. I shouldn’t have put it that way. He’s just so mellow that I can’t tell how he’s feeling most of the time. That’s harder than I thought. I don’t know where I stand with him and even when I’ve tried to talk to him about it, it’s more of the same! No reaction that shows me he even understands what I’m worried about.”

“That sucks, hon. I’m sorry.” I was quiet, letting her talk through what was bouncing around her head, knowing that she just needed the ear and not the advice.

Cheney trailed off, finishing her story and went through the steps of how they wanted the flyers mailed out. Cheney’s mom, Ruth, owned a small shop downtown and they sold everything from ruffled mommy-daughter outfits to embroidered tea towels. The Hummingbird Boutique was also known for having the best consignment furniture around and Ruth and Cheney were helping to sell the excess furniture we had after moving Nan in with me full-time. Most everything we’d given them had sold, but there was a small secretary table that was pretty beat up and hadn’t moved yet. Cheney had asked if I wanted to keep it on the floor for another week, but I wanted to take another look at it to see if it would fit in my room to use as a writing desk.

“Ready to go?” Cheney picked her purse up and started heading for the door, “Oh, crap it’s raining. Do you have an umbrella? I had to park pretty far down.”

“Uh, yeah there should be one hanging by the mail basket. I’m gonna let Nan know I’m leaving real quick.”

I knocked quietly on Nan’s door, pushing my arms through the worn denim sleeves of my favorite jacket while I waited for an answer. I poked my head in when I heard her call. She was lying on her bed, an old crocheted blanket loud with burnt seventies orange draped across her lap. She had pulled her headphones off one ear to hear me better.

“I’m headed out with Cheney. We’re going to run up to The Hummingbird and probably grab some lunch on the way back. Do you want anything?”

“No, that’s okay, honey. I can warm up some soup from last night.”

“Are you sure?” Nan tended to be overconfident with her ability to feed herself without at least some assistance, “I don’t mind bringing you something. That way you won’t have to mess with the microwave.”

I’d put raised stickers on certain buttons for her to feel her way around if I wasn’t home. She just needed to count how many thirty-second increments she needed for whatever needed heating up and then press start. Still too scared to leave her alone for too long so soon after the accident, I’d been making ends meet with the checks from renting Nan’s house out and odd jobs like stuffing envelopes for Cheney. I knew I’d have to find a steady job soon, but Nan wasn’t ready yet.

“I’m fine. Don’t fuss over me,” Nan grumbled. She didn’t wait for my answer. She replaced the headphones and pressed play on her audiobook.

Somehow knowing I hadn’t left yet, she waved her hand, shooing me away, “Go on, now. Have fun. Bye!”

I stepped into the room and pressed a quick kiss on her cheek. She smiled, patted the hand I’d rested on her knee as I leaned over her, and gently pushed me away.

“Bye, Nan.”

When I returned to the living room, Cheney was sitting on the edge of the couch reading something. She looked up, and, upon seeing her expression, I knew what she’d found.

“What the hell, Annie?” Cheney lifted the letter with an angry shrug, “When were you going to tell me about this?”

“There’s nothing to tell. I can’t go,” I lifted my purse off the hook by the door, sweeping the strap over my head in one fluid, practiced motion of a woman who didn’t have a lot of free time, “Come on. I want to get back by one.”

Cheney wasn’t buying it, “Nice try,” She shut the door again when I started to open it.

“Shhh!” I glanced back toward Nan’s room, “Let’s talk about it in the car.”

Cheney’s face flushed and her frown deepened, “You haven’t even told Nan?” she yelled the whisper in a huff, pursing her lips, but she followed me as I drug her through the front door and down the stairs to the parking lot.

“Annie!”

“No!” I turned to her as I walked through the rain, my shoulders lifted to my ears as the chilly raindrops dripped down my neck. Cheney had the letter in one hand and my umbrella in the other, but, in her frustration, she’d forgotten to open it.

“No, I haven’t told her. And why would I? She’ll want me to go, and when I explain why I can’t she’ll just get pissed. It won’t help anything. We’ll both just end up feeling guilty and shitty when it’s said and done,” I shrugged, turning away from her again, “I didn’t see the point.”

We’d reached Cheney’s hand-me-down truck she’d bought from her dad when we graduated from high school, but even when I rested my hand on the handle, waiting for her to unlock the door, she just stared at me, raindrops dripping from the tip of her nose.

“Cheney, get in the truck. It’s pouring out here!” She snapped out of it long enough to get us from the parking lot to the main road, windshield wipers screeching with each swipe, before she started in on me again.

“I can’t believe you.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Annie, for as long as I’ve known you, you’ve wanted to be a writer. You wanted to get out of this town, head to a big city somewhere and write! Now you finally have a chance and you just aren’t going to go?”

“It’s just an internship,” I gazed out the window, switching my focus from the raindrops to the traffic beyond them.

“At a New York City publishing house!”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“That’s bullshit, and you know it.”

“Hey!” I turned to face her then, anger getting the better of me, “You think I don’t know that it’s an amazing opportunity? I agonized over sending my application for that internship for months!”

“I know! That’s why I don’t…”

“Cheney! My mom died! She’s gone. Nan is blind and not getting any younger. Someone has to take care of her, and I’m the only one left. It fucking sucks. I know that, but there is no way that I can just pack up and leave after everything that’s happened. It’s just not in the stars anymore.”

“But…,”

“Stop! Please, Cheney. There’s nothing else to talk about.”

She wasn’t looking at me, eyes still focused on the road, but she clapped her mouth shut. We rode the rest of the way to the boutique in silence, but when she pulled into a parking spot and threw the truck into park, she unbuckled her seatbelt and turned to face me.

“Look, I’m sorry. I know that this has been horrible for you. Losing your mom, taking care of Nan. I can’t even imagine what you’re going through,” she looked down at the now crumpled letter in her hand, and lifted it up to my face, “but this is the most amazing thing that’s ever happened to you, and I can’t stand to see you give it up.”

I took the letter and looked at it, ignoring the burning threat of tears.

“It says you have until September 1st to formally accept. You still have a few weeks. Please, will you please just think about it some more? At least don’t make up your mind until you have to.”

I knew there wasn’t anything else to think about. I couldn’t imagine how I could afford to put Nan into a home even if she agreed to go, which she never would. I couldn’t abandon her. She was all I had left of Mom, and I know she felt the same about me. We’d lost her. We couldn’t lose each other, too.

“I’ll think about it.”

Cheney sighed with relief and beamed at me, satisfied that she had achieved what she’d set out to, and I would now magically come around somehow.

“But, please,” I stopped her when she turned to get out of the truck, “don’t tell Nan.”

She nodded and we ran to the door, squished together under my umbrella, as I shoved the letter deep into my pocket and away from my mind.

An American Marriage: A Book Review

What to say about a book that was added to Oprah’s Book Club a few days after I pre-ordered it and is currently sitting at #4 on the New York Times Best Sellers list? Well, I could start by saying that I try to approach books without expectation. I don’t like to read a bunch of reviews before picking something up because I abhor spoilers, – so worry not, you won’t find them here – and I really just want to have an honest and organic relationship with a book as I’m reading it. No influences. Just living in the printed moment. That being said, the summary I read had me expecting one thing and Tayari Jones delivered something infinitely better.

image3 (5)

An American Marriage tells the story of Roy and Celestial, an educated and well-on-their way black couple living in Atlanta. Roy’s flair for business and Celestial’s budding career as an artist sees them traveling a road to success in comfort and faith in the future. Just 18-months into their marriage, Roy is arrested, convicted, and sentenced to 12 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Two people, in love and in pain, attempt to make sense of the wrong done to them and how to move forward with a life you thought you had avoided.

At its core, this book is a love story, but Jones wrote about love on the realest of real levels. Love is tricky and tangled and it changes with time and circumstance. She skips the theatrics, what you’d expect to be the meat of the story, and instead shows us the moments in between. The moments where it becomes real for the people living through it. The quiet moments when they make decisions without realizing they’ve been made. The vulnerable moments when they can’t quite face the totality of their situation so they each forge ahead toward a future they have yet to accept has altered irreversibly. Most incredibly, you are there when those layers of quiet self-deceit begin to peel away and are invited to witness the beautiful rawness of what’s underneath.

The writing was so good that I didn’t even realize just how good at first because she writes these people so realistically that it seems like you’re just looking in on these people’s lives. A story that you expect lots of flashes and bangs from, is really a slow burn. I didn’t even think I liked the book until I was finished and couldn’t stop thinking about it. I’ve gone back over and over in my mind to these people brought to life and when I re-read – something this book merits, likely more than once – I will not take the unassuming richness for granted.

image4 (3)

I’m having a hard time approaching the acknowledgment that Jones is a black author writing about a black family living a life that is forever altered because they are black. In a world full of people itching to be overnight experts on how someone different than yourself experiences life, I’d rather shut my mouth and listen. So I’ll just say this: I’m a white woman and that privilege does not give me a right to act like I know something about how a black family lives because I read this book. What I will say, and mean from the depth of my heart: It was enlightening, it was heart-wrenching and heart-filling, and I am better having read it. I will choose to see more because I read this book and was shown more.