100-Word Microfiction IV

Mirror Neurons

She’s sitting across from me, flooded in light. Three heavy cameras are trained on her face as she recounts her husband’s murder. We were in bed, asleep, and then suddenly this guy’s in the room. And his face…

Lost for words, her features undergo a flashbulb transformation: teeth bared, eyes dilated with madness, as if the imprint of that night has been caught on one of those wildlife cameras where a predator walks past and trips the shutter. Later, cradling a bourbon, I’ll stare for some time at the isolated frame, wondering if she knows he’s still in the room.

The Narrows

They say that every writer has one story to tell. Just one, repeated from different angles and with an array of characters, the variety of which might be so vast as to disguise this fact even from the writer. And while I don’t subscribe to the “every writer” part of that statement or any other, I think there’s something to it. I do tend to circle around the same issues. There are a lot of violent men in my stories, a lot of crime and romantic dysfunction. That’s the top layer.

However, underneath all the hoodlum behavior and the warped sexuality is this idea of people being unseen, unknowable to one another. I’m fascinated by the odd things people dwell on, the dark impulses, the shyness and inward recoiling. I think we all share a certain craving to be known juxtaposed against the fear of being judged, rejected, reviled. This is what continually pulls me toward stories about sex and violence, sometimes in combination. It’s the depth at which these thoughts reside. These are the taboo subjects, the impulses lying deep within the realms of human imagination.

I’d choose another course for my writing if I could, or steer my current predilection into calmer waters. God knows it’s done me no favors. I become crippled at times by my own squeamishness on seeing what I’ve written, knowing that I’ve repeatedly opened myself to misreading, to the same moral judgments my characters often face. I have tried over and over to write another story, something cooler, friendlier, something I would choose to read, but I can’t seem to get those stories to the finish line. They don’t expand properly in my imagination. They aren’t real for me, and because they don’t exist in my mind, I can’t bring them to life on the page. They belong to another writer, and in my hands they are hopelessly inert.

My heart is not a light one. It’s heavy, hot, and it resents the narrow rib cage into which it was born. To write is to feed the beast that’s eating me alive. To resist is to pretend the cage was empty all along.

Tell me, if you can. What’s your story?

Alignment

It’s 6:15 am and I’m in Redmond, my temporary nest, drinking coffee from a paper cup. I drove here straight from work and ate a bowl of pasta at the hotel bar, washed it down with a bee’s knees cocktail, and went to bed with a collection of stories by Mark Haddon and a back-up book on my Kindle. Already I miss my husband and my house, my feather pillow with its washed silk cover, my son, my dogs, my soy milk and Winco instant coffee. I miss the view from my window.

I don’t mean this to sound the way it does. I’m enduring no hardship here, and I have a day of solitary delights before me. I’ve sussed out two nearby bookstores and a shop that sells houseplants, as well as a comfy-looking cafe where I can sit for a while and write. This is a day of indulgence that my husband couldn’t enjoy, any more than I could have enjoyed a night in the cold, shouting with the crowd at a football game. We have different interests, different minds. It’s always been like this and it’s always been okay. I miss him, I love him, and I’m glad he isn’t here.

Because he isn’t here, I could get up at 3:14 and take a spiky-hot shower, turn on the lights one by one, play some newfound music he probably wouldn’t like. I won’t have to kill time waiting for him to wake up—he works the night shift, so our schedules do not align; actually, my schedule aligns with no one—or confer about whether to walk along the river or the other way through town. I can eat what I want, when I want, or not at all. I can read a book at breakfast, listen to a podcast, take a long nap. My husband wouldn’t complain about any of that, because he’s innately kind and only wants to please, but he wouldn’t enjoy it. He’s uninterested, but only in the way I am uninterested in the ongoing golf tournament he plays on his phone or the mystifying ranking system of college football. We have been married twenty-one years. We share a lot but not everything.

This has always been okay. Is it still? I’ve come to accept that he doesn’t read my stuff, yet I’ve set heart to paper throughout my writing life, so there will always be a part of me, the better part, that’s unknown to him by choice. That bores him. Yet I wouldn’t want his false attendance, with the boredom shoved down out of some misguided sense of duty. That would be a hundred times worse.

Still, because we don’t share an interest, a schedule, a bedroom, or a goal, we are beginning to drift. It’s a natural process, and not one I’m eager to change. Me shivering at a football game, him with aching jaw at my pages—I can’t see it, don’t crave it. When I hear about another couple’s close connection, my knee-jerk reaction is bafflement. How is this done? How do people join at the hip, share every meal, every inner thought? How do people talk so much? How do they fight? It’s a way of life that could only be performative for us and, if I’m honest, would expose my heart to the person who could most easily break it.

I’m not looking for more. Am I? And what about him? Is he getting what he needs or have I made him lonely with my solitary ways? Maybe it’s time to ask, and seek a true answer:

What about you?

100-Word Microfiction III

The Ring in the Lake

She’s wearing her favorite outfit: A blue linen skirt, cinched at the waist with a woven cotton belt, and her sister’s Coca-Cola tee-shirt to go with it, because that’s what he was drinking when they met. A denim jacket in case it’s cold by the lake. White socks, bra, underwear. An old pair of clover earrings, For luck, From Dad, and three slim bangles that make a shivery noise when they touch. A mood ring with an oval stone that will fade to gray as her body sinks, but for now is milky pink and glowing bright as a smile.

Moi

I have a long weekend coming up and I’m not sure what to do with it. What I’d like most is to spend a few days alone, writing, bumming around near this hotel in Redmond where my husband and I like to stay. It’s near the river, and in summers past we’ve rented bikes to ride along its banks and down to Lake Sammamish. Though I suspect the weather will put the kibosh on any thought of biking, there are still bookstores to enjoy, bougie restaurants, an outdoor shopping mall. There’s also a theater where, instead of popcorn, you can get a glass of wine and a panini, or a cup of cocoa and a plate of warm cookies if that’s your speed. Best of all is the lobby of the hotel itself, which has a lovely fireplace and lots of seating. I have spent hours there writing, staring out the window, finding words where I thought there were none.

I haven’t been to Redmond on my own. It feels very self-indulgent, particularly with the aim of going there to write. I’m not working to a deadline, or even toward a goal—and say that were the case, there’d be no need to travel any farther than my armchair. Writing is a sedentary sport. So it’s hard not to feel guilty about booking a room just for me, to work on writing that’s just for me, to see a movie by myself and have a beautiful unshared meal or three while I’m at it. You’ll admit there’s a lot of moi in this scenario.

And it’s possible that the idea of traveling solo is a little weird. I know that for many people, it would be disconcerting to sit alone at a table for two, or buy a single ticket at the theater. I can understand that. But I have never been deterred. Being alone is a joy. I love the release from responsibility, the calm experience of having to please only myself. I love being silent, not having to carry a conversation, finding myself free instead to simply listen, and look, and think about the feels. I like a long silent walk, a car ride with the music turned up. Book by the fire, an early night, a cup of coffee at dawn with the rain like scattered jewels on the window. I love the gradual onset of boredom and missing those more permanent parts of my life, and bundling myself into the car, knowing that the big square house on the hill and my people and my life are waiting to welcome me back.

We write sometimes to see what we think. What I think this morning is that a couple of days alone will do me good, so I’ve got my booking and the hotel’s confirmation ready in my virtual pocket, headed by a promising first line:

The world is waiting for you.

100-Word Microfiction II

Let Me Show You

They meet at the door, which she holds open with her foot. He’s lost, reeking of cigarettes, and sidles closer with his phone to show her where he wants to go. The font is so large that the words appear broken. They don’t contain an address. He reaches into his coat pocket, Let me show you, wait, and as his hand disappears she thinks, whatever’s in that pocket will decide me, and the pocket’s rather bulky, but not that bulky, so she waits in a parody of obstruction, dumb with manners, holding his phone which doesn’t contain an address.

100-Word Microfiction

Post-Op

I didn’t know what I’d feel, seeing myself this way. The woman facing me is pitiable, maimed. Two long asymmetrical scars cross my chest: one over my heart, the other low and slanted red like the claw mark of a predator. My nipples are gone, giving my chest a blind quality, or perhaps a muteness, as in one of those horror movies where the character’s mouth is covered over with skin.

Yet my mind is filled with grim delight. The world has taken something from you, and that’s a first. Your chagrin is my balm, my victory, my silent redress.

Flash I

The Clockmakers

I’m not where I’m supposed to be. You have a knack for sensing this, and I can mark the beat of silence here and there throughout our conversation, where I imagine you with the phone pressed between your ear and shoulder, pausing at your workbench with a pair of tweezers in each hand and that wrinkle of consternation on your forehead, and thinking perhaps that the background noise on my end is not what you’d expect.

My imagination carries on sometimes—a juxtaposition in which the two halves of my life are reversed, and this is our home. Despite the generous expanse of window, no view exists beyond the mossy brick facade of the building across the street, now painted by a watery dash of sunlight and squatting into a dark skirt of ivy. A thinly drawn line of bleach-gray sky separates the sturdy blocks of apartments, one from the other, and behind the speckled windows there are occasional shadows and squares of screen-light as the residents reach the end of their afternoon. I think you’d like the tableau. The lack of pretension, the sense of containment. This is a neighborhood into which you’d fit as sweetly as any oiled cog.

I get up and pass through the sliding glass door to the patio, damp beneath my bare feet. Two stories down, a young woman is jogging up the sidewalk, pushing a three-wheeled stroller and accompanied by an enviable Vizsla. I wonder if you can hear its paws clicking on the pavement.

“So you don’t want to try anymore?”

Your voice is gentle, level. A flat aspect, my mother once remarked, but after such time its freighted modulations are not lost on me.

“Of course I do,” I say as the stroller sweeps past, a tiny fist pumping the air. “Of course.”

You are silent, and the sounds of the workshop fill the empty space. The intermittent buzz of the Foredom, a disembodied voice reading the news. A clatter now and then from that decrepit old fan by the window, which neither of us can decide to repair or discard.

I start over. “I’m just not sure about…”

You wait. You’re good at waiting. A hundred unsynchronized clocks carry on in the background.

“The timing,” you say, finally.

“We can still try.” I glance down the street, empty now but shimmering with rain. “Just on our own, you know. And see what happens.”

The work sounds on your end are fading, and I wonder whether you’ve laid down your tools and loupe to step outside. Automatically I glance in your direction, as though nothing stands between us—not the city with its brutal mat of asphalt, its spires of brick and steel, not the tangled swathes of forest, fields of verdant green, nor the corrugated walls of the workshop, where my tools lie on a bench next to yours. You left them there to act as paperweights. You left, as well, a pen.

“I thought we agreed,” you say.

We agree on everything, I want to reply, and not all of those agreements have been binding. I’d like to remind you of things—the bottles on the bookshelf, the receipt I found last fall—but you and I are gentle with each other. I don’t want to hurt you.

A door opens in the room behind me.

“We did agree,” you say, though your voice sounds far away and floats toward a question.

I close my eyes and imagine yours: gray and steady, laugh lines taking wing across your temples, but flattened now against your cheekbones with only a tracery of white to mark their place.

Snapshot

An idea has settled over me and I can’t shake it off. If you’re a writer, you’ll be familiar with the signs: the queasy excitement, drifting focus, the sense of impending doom. The curse is come upon me, cried the Lady of Shalott. A story looms.

I keep asking whether I have to write it. Will it fuck off and leave me alone, or will it be there every morning at 4 a.m., watching me sleep, waiting to pounce as soon as I open my eyes. Can I pare it down to nothing, write it and be done? Or will it morph and get out of control and take over my life. I’m thinking of the last story I tried to write, for which I sacrificed morning after morning, week after week after month, only to come away with a sheaf of nonsensical garbage and the story in full flight. I’m still bitter about that, and disappointed with myself. I like to finish things.

For this reason and many others, I’d much rather write something short. But the problem for me, which dates back to my days as a photographer, is that I have not been able to master the snapshot. I don’t really understand the structure of short fiction. I don’t know how to frame it, where to crop the edges, how to pluck a moment from the continuum and situate it on the page. Yet I realize, on writing this, that I haven’t actually studied the matter. All my focus has been on novels, and shorter work like flash fiction and poetry has only been for play. So I think what I’ll do, before succumbing to the lure of this particular story, is try to round up some resources and do a little homework. I found this book and this one, and of course I have plenty of story collections already on my bookshelf for inspiration. Maybe I can learn.

And if nothing else, I will have given the story a chance to bugger off and find someone else to annoy.

Neckties

My god, these men. These foolish, grasping, needy men. Can we not have a moment of peace? Why must we always divide ourselves into teams: on the chamber floor, on the street, in business and religion and cultural constructs of every kind. Red team, blue team, world without end. Competition is their constant excuse for violence, for conflict, dragging everybody in, as if we all must stand behind our leaders at the urinal while they compare their dicks with the dicks on either side. Yours is bigger, honey, let’s drop a bomb on some children.

I do not fucking understand. I don’t understand why old men want to watch the young ones bash each other’s brains out for sport. I don’t understand these flapping ties in Congress, where the ickiest, Trumpiest, smarmiest specimen is still not awful enough to elect. I don’t understand why rich Russian men keep falling out of windows while young Russian men are sent off to maim their brothers, rape their sisters, reduce a child’s crib to ash. What darkness there is in men. And where did it come from? What evil twisted helix has convinced the male ego that our Earth is more than a speck in the cosmos and that their shitty conduct will be remembered by anyone at all. How terribly sad it must be not to grasp the scale, to believe that power resides in the individual and not in the pulse and flow of life itself.

I just do not understand. Maybe I’m not meant to understand. I’m a middle-aged, middle-class American white woman, bred to be docile. And I am. As surely as men will strut the floor in their star-spangled neckties and perpetrate acts of violence both real and legislative, I will continue to hunker in my bedroom, placid, complicit, chain-popping edibles, trying to sleep through the end of the world.

A world I will never understand.

Pink

I’ve been thinking about one of our patients. A young guy, rope thin, with pink tips and dark roots, who went to the wrong clinic on his first visit and arrived so late we had to work through lunch to see him. He was sweet about it, though, and doggedly pushed through our paperwork, describing his health history, his symptoms, laying out the mundane demographic details we’re expected to collect. He’s had a lot of injuries. A car accident in the recent past has left his arm with a field of scars like a celestial map around a jagged supernova at the elbow. Then he got hurt at work, more than once, which led to the surgery and the post-op side effects we’re trying to address.

He was crying today as I got him off e-stim. He said it was everything. Getting a divorce, and with two little kids. Trying to work through excruciating pain because the alternative is homelessness and hunger. He’s wondering if it will get better. It’s been so long, and it hurts so bad.

He tells me this, slumped over, screened by his long pink hair. You have to be in a mood to go for a dye job like that, you have to be feeling pretty good. But that pink is four inches in the past, and all the new growth is dark.

His truck remained in its spot outside my window for several minutes after I’d walked him out. Finally I went to check on him. I found him still weeping, hands trembling with pain. I went inside and got him some Tylenol and a glass of water, sent the therapist out to see what could be done. For a while he sat with an ice pack; later I invented a piece of paperwork for him to sign, as an excuse to go back outside and make sure he was alright. His truck didn’t move for a long time, but eventually I looked up and he was gone.

I wish I could have given him a hug, which is what the poor guy needed. But people don’t touch each other anymore.