Diary

Surprise-and-Disbelief

Surprise and Disbelief: A Short Story from Smart Girl, Dumb Love

Surprise and Disbelief

A short story from Smart Girl, Dumb Love of The Breakup Girl Series

Surprise-and-DisbeliefCarl was my first love. It took One Week for me to fall in love with him. One Week. That’s it. Giddy teenage love, propelled by hormones and insecurity. Intense. We lost our virginity together, in a tent, fumbling adolescent sex. Did it go in? I think so. We tried to stifle our moans, to keep our secret, but we failed. Between breaths I could hear my best friend sobbing through the thin nylon walls of her nearby tent.

I went through two years of high school romance with Carl before I decided I needed to experience something fresh. I loved him, the same love as that first Week, only a little less urgent and intense. Now our love was full, soft, familiar. Problem. I was seventeen. I craved the new, the unique. Carl was kind, unfailingly tender, but no longer expressed the same surprise and disbelief when I told him I loved him, or when I let him pull my pants down in the back of his car. I wanted someone to worship me. I told Carl I needed a break. Just a little one. Surprise and Disbelief.

Mark was ten years older than me. He welded bikes at Klein during the week, then raced them down cliff faces on weekends. He sent giant bouquets of roses to my father’s house. We went on weekend trips to the mountains. I acted wild and certain. I pretended to know what I was doing. We had sex in hotel rooms. I would get on top and fuck with a ferocity that would have shocked Carl. Mark would tell me that the guys at work made comments about the bruises on his body. But I knew he lifted his shirt for them, to show where I dug my nails into his skin.

Mark was in love with me. We rode in horse-drawn carriages around Pioneer Square. He wrote me sentimental poetry and wanted me to meet his parents. Roses kept coming. I stopped hanging them upside down from my bedroom ceiling to dry. My father’s compost bin never smelled so sweet. Mark was over-anxious. Sex was too fast, jerky. I felt like I was the one riding down the rocky mountainside on a bike without shocks. One Month. That’s it. Mark drove two hours to see me. I took him to my coffee shop, the one with the smoky upstairs and the rain-drenched windows. I put his finger in the flame of the candle and held it there. He didn’t flinch. He held my gaze and smiled. I told him it was over. Surprise and Disbelief.

I sat in Carl’s car and sobbed. He was the one I loved. Of course he would take me back. He loved me. What? I’d slept with him! He got out and paced around the car, in the rain. At first I thought it was rage that made him clench his hand and smash his fist against the back window, but then he collapsed on the wet pavement. I’d done a Terrible Thing.

When I graduated from high school, I joined the volunteer youth corps. I was going to redeem myself. I was going to build houses, save wild prairie chickens, and be a Good Person.

I was away. Carl was in Seattle, flunking out of community college. I stood at the pay phone in front of the Piggly Wiggly and talked to him for hours. I was a Good Person. I missed my ever-faithful boyfriend just like I thought I should.

Nathaniel was a poet. We met at the Denver coffee shop, the one all the writers go to. He drank Earl Grey tea and quoted Whitman and Hemingway. We had dinner at the Italian restaurant across the street. I drank wine that he ordered. I told him I had a boyfriend and was In Love. I was a Good Person. I was Faithful. He held his hand at his heart; all he wanted was my friendship. Tight curls of black hair covered his eyes. I felt like kissing his lips, but Resisted. We met again and again at the coffee shop, scribbling in tandem in black leather journals. One night I followed him out onto the streets. We wandered for hours, commenting on moonlight and laughing at the stars. Compadre, he called me. Sister Soul. I slept in his bed that night, too weary to make the drive across town to my own bed. He lay beside me, just for closeness, he said. He wrapped his arms around me, just for warmth, he said. I got nervous. This didn’t feel like being a Good Person. It was time to leave. I said please, but he didn’t let me go. I said no, but he quoted Poe and held me tighter.

There is no greater indignity than to be raped by a poet.

The gentleman drove me home in the morning. I sat like stone in the seat next to him. He opened my door for me. Sister Soul, he whispered in my ear. The worst thing ever would be to lose your friendship. The Worst Thing. I had another Worst Thing.

This time Carl and I sat in my car and we both sobbed. You got in his bed, he said. I said no, I said. I had messed up. I had failed at being a Good Person. Carl’s heart was broken, again, by me. His eyes hardened. Marry me, he said. I recoiled. I am poison. Yes, I said, but not now. We moved to New Orleans instead.

I found us an apartment one block off of Bourbon Street. We got corporate jobs and Grew Up. We established credit. We took weekend trips to Florida. I didn’t Act Out. I Led A Good Life. I never got drunk on Bourbon Street. I earned my beads with my demure smile. I lost all sexual impulse. I drank mochas in the back alley cafe and made friends with the transvestites and practicing vampires. They all drank absinthe. Carl and I went to drag queen shows and flirted with boys far prettier than me. I thought I was becoming a lesbian. I wanted to kiss the girls in the cafes. I didn’t feel like kissing Carl. One Year. One Terrible Year.

Carl started to suspect that I wasn’t attracted to him. We took starlit walks along the Mississippi River, drank red wine at quaint cafes, and danced in sudden rainstorms. But I lay still and quiet in our bed at night. I let him move above me, enter me, but I simply lay back and watched the air thicken with southern heat. Marry Me, he said, and I saw The Pain, and I knew I had done It again. Yes, I said, but not now.

Instead I took to writing in the cafes for hours, Carl home alone, waiting for me to return. When he was at work, I found the online chat rooms. I clicked on Pain. One quick typer spelled out my fantasies. I bookmarked his name. Carl went away, back home. Just for One Week. I gave the quick-typer my phone number. He spoke to me in whispers. He was a producer. He was married. He was twice my age. We talked every night, every morning. I felt flush and renewed. I walked through the French Quarter wearing loose summer dresses and no underwear, let the hot air slide between my thighs and up my belly.

The producer was captivated. Could he fly down and see me? No. Would I come to him? To New York? To Cannes, just for One Week? I delayed. I stammered. What if the fantasy died in person? Technically, I hadn’t yet consummated. Failed. Cheated. Done It. Technicality.

Carl came back. Two plane tickets arrived in the mail. One to New York, one to France. Carl saw. What are those?

I threw them on the table. We need to separate, I said. He looked at the tickets then at me. Yes, he said. Marry me firstthen go.

I pulled at the hem of my dress. Yes, but not now.

We made plans to part. He would go North; I would go West. I wouldn’t go to New York. I wouldn’t go to Cannes. I would be a Good Person and miss my boyfriend like I was supposed to. He would sleep with women and catch up with me. That was The Deal. I was horribly, voraciously attracted to him. We had One Week before we moved out, moved on. We got drunk on Bourbon. The transvestites gave us drugs, and we devoured them. We had sex for an entire day. I put Miles Davis on repeat. The CD cycled around and around until the wail of the trumpet became as familiar as Carl’s breaths, my moans. Then we left.

I ran into the mountains, volunteering as an interpretive educator. I missed my boyfriend like a Good Person. I imagined him sleeping with other women. I walked out of my cabin at night into a field of buffalo, imagining Carl kissing other women. Wolves howled at night, and I imagined the moans of other women. A young ranger who worked in the park led me up a mountain to see the peregrine nests. I smoked his weed and made him laugh. I said I was crazy in love with the man I sent away. He said I was crazy. We had sex under the stars, in the prairie grass. The young ranger liked the taste of women. He stuck his whole hand inside me, licked the moisture off his fingertips. I imagined Carl tasting new tastes. I didn’t love the young ranger. He didn’t love me. We got along great. We had sex everywhere. I didn’t feel like a Good Person, but I didn’t feel like a Bad Person either. I didn’t feel. I sensed. I sensed the dirt under my back and the cool air on my thighs. I sensed Pain and I sensed Waiting. Then I sensed Life, and the young ranger drove me three hours to the closest gynecologist. Surprise and Disbelief.

I had Life. The doctor placed conception in New Orleans. In that One Week. The young ranger waited for me in the Laundromat, the only place he could sit and wait and not have to pay for something or be looked at by women waiting to have their privates examined. He told me to call Carl. He said He’d Want To Know. He drove me back to the mountains, singing me love songs. I called Carl from a payphone at the Lodge. Carl said, Marry me.

Yes, I said, but not now.

Instead we met in Salt Lake City, Utah. I picked him up at the airport, and we drove to a Holiday Inn. He stripped me down and laid me on the bed. He looked at my flat belly. There had been no other women. I had known it before he told me. Ever-Faithful. He touched the pink slit between my legs. Other men, he said and stepped away from me. I cried. I had done It again. But Carl did not cry.

We moved back home. Close to parents. I paced around the house and waited for my belly to get big.

Marry Me! Carl demanded.

Yes, I said, but not now.

He left at odd hours. He didn’t tell me where he was going. I went shopping and ran into Mark. He quivered when he saw me. He begged me to come to his apartment, to see the art he made. Fine, I said. But I have Life.

He shook it off. I had to come see.

He’d welded bicycle parts into a jagged womb, a melted lump of metal caged inside. It’s called Don’t Touch My Heart, he said. He read a poem he had written me years before. He tried to kiss me. I felt Nothing. I told him not to speak to me in public and took the bus home.

Carl was suddenly attentive. For One Week he followed me as if I were the sun and the bearer of all light. Tender. Miles Davis hummed in my ear. Walks in the woods and ice cream in bed. Then I found his cell phone. Unaware. I saw the other woman’s phone number. I knew. Surprise and Disbelief.

Carl was gone for the day, working on a house with his friend up north. One hundred miles separated us. I called the friend, and he gave the phone to Carl. I know, I said. He moaned and wrenched. It would be so easy, I said. Rocks in my pockets. The pretty green lake.

No, he said. Come, he said.

So I came. One hundred miles imagining the other woman. Every mile a new moan, a new glint of skin, a new position in bed.

I stepped out of the car. The friend moved quickly into the house. Carl ran to me. He pulled me to the grass, and we collapsed. I wrapped my arms around him, my legs. He held me tight and sobbed into my shoulder.

I did It, he said. I’m a Bad Person, he said.

Bright bright sunlight all around. Summer scents. Marry me, I said.

Yes, he said, now.

SGDL1_600 >> Get the entire collection on Amazon.

Smart like Lydia Davis, bold like Chelsea Handler and relentlessly funny like Mindy Kaling, these short stories these three fast-paced stories about smart girls making dumb love will smack you off your feet and have you pleading for more.
        • Read a checklist of the top five things your lovers will hate about you.
        • Take a journey with the girl who just can’t commit, even though her high-school sweetheart is practically perfect.
        • Live the life of a girl exposed, literally, to prying eyes.
Bonus story: 
Includes an excerpt from Kelsye Nelson’s upcoming novel, The Secret Life of Sensei Shi. 

 

About The Breakup Girl Series:
Simply, A Breakup Girl is a woman that repeatedly, reliably breaks up with entities of all sorts, with boyfriends, with cities, with careers, with families. A Breakup Girl may even break up with herself, move on to claim a new identity. A Breakup Girl is a woman in the midst of change.

Buy now or view Kelsye’s other books

legal-weed

I Bought Pot the First Day It Was Legal in Washington

legal-weedOn Tuesday, the first retail marijuana store opened in Seattle.  As this coincided nicely with our weekly date night, I made the executive decision that my husband and I should head on down to Cannabis City to buy some historic bud.

I should mention that neither of us actually smoke weed. That wasn’t really the point. Our country’s relentless war on drugs has won us mass incarceration and stunning displays of racism in America. Three in four Americans say we have lost this war. Some venture to say its a total failure, causing more harm than good. Colorado and Washington legalizing marijuana provides small, but important progress in our “troop removal” from the war on drugs. It’s kind of a big deal. I don’t want to miss it.

Plus, I have what I refer to as The Writers Defense. As an artiste, it’s my job to experience life to the fullest. I would be slacking to let this historic day pass by without notice.

Enough rationalization. Here’s exactly how it went down…

Imagine its a regular Tuesday night. My husband and I, two respectable, not-quite middle-aged professionals are going to score some weed from our friendly neighborhood cannabis store.

Hoping to avoid massive lines and intrusive media cameras, we rolled up pretty late, about 8:30pm. Despite the opening hoards long ago dispersal, a bevy of media trucks, personalities and mobile video techs milled about on the side walk outside. At this point, the line was pretty short, only about twenty people or so. It felt… awkward, as though a has-been rock star threw a surprise concert and more media than fans showed up as audience.

All of this leads me to a very important decision I had to make earlier in the evening: what does one wear when going to legally buy weed for the first time? A quick look at the meager line showed the consensus as slim jeans and ironic t-shirts, possibly accessorized with a ball cap. I, however, chose to wear a summer dress and high heels. I straightened my hair and made up my face. My husband came in his business casual work clothes. We looked out of place. For this, we were rewarded with the attention of the cameras. My poor, long-suffering husband. He still works for The Man. I, a consultant and author, have no boss or corporate policy to worry about. My husband turned his back to the camera, free to make all kinds of faces at me as I struggled to not wuss out and retreat to the Kia. We simply have to hope his accompanying me on my mission doesn’t come around to bite him later.

It still felt wrong – standing there, in broad daylight, our intent to buy a drug that’s been illegal for years very clear to all who saw us. It doesn’t matter that it’s legal now. It still feels bad. Which is also why buying the first day was so much fun.

After about a 25-minute wait in line, the door man checked our IDs and we were free to enter the shop. Five or so clerks stood behind glass counters with bemused smiles, ready to assist. We approached the display with faux-confidence.

“We’re here for weed,” I said in a loud, clear voice.

“What are looking for?” asked the friendly clerk.

“I have no idea.”

Turns out, it didn’t matter much. There were only three choices – three different strains vacuum packed in 2-gram packets, all priced the exact same at $40. I chose the one with the lowest THC content – 19%. The highest was 21 point something. I paid in cash because I am still not convinced all of this will be illegal again next week. My husband took a picture of me proudly holding my little baggy up for the camera, then the clerk put it in a nondescript paper bag, stapled it shut and told us not to open it in public. On the way out, I took a picture of the Q13 Fox news cameraman filming us. He immediately put down his camera and smiled sheepishly.

We were in and out within five minutes. There was barely enough time to smell the new paint on the walls or admire the polished wood planks the store owner had thoughtfully laid in at an angle which references 420 in some obscure way I still don’t quite understand. Back in the car, we examined our purchase carefully, reading every word on the label.

“How are you going to take this?” My husband asked. “Do you have to get a pipe or bong or something?”

“No, no,” I said. ” Keep it simple. I’ll get rolling papers and just make joints.”

“You know how to do that?” he asked.

I puffed out my chest with pride. “Of course! My parents were hippies. I’ve known how to roll a joint since I was about eight, even if I didn’t know what it was.”

I registered both awe and horror in the look my husband gave me.

Curiosity getting the better of us, we opened the little vacuum pack to take a whiff. Oh yeah. There it is. We laughed, sealed it back up and stashed it in my dashboard compartment, then walked arm and arm to dinner and bingo. (No, not joking about the bingo.)

Imagine our horror when we slid back into the car an hour or so later. Sniff. Sniff. “Oh my god! The car smells like pot! What will the kids think?!”

Here we came to a major dilemma. Now that we have it, what the heck do we do with it? I didn’t want to smoke it that night. Date night is just a couple hours away from the kids. I don’t want to smoke anything altering when I must take care of kids. That means I have to keep this for some later time. We have to stash it!

(Notice how I switched to the plural “we” as I instantly assumed my problem now also belonged to my husband, my ever reluctant co-conspirator.)

We drove home with the windows rolled down, experiencing the side effect of paranoia without taking a single puff. We discussed all the possible hiding places, the parent-child role reversal acutely obvious to us both. Really, no place will be safe for long in our household of curious, and (suddenly inconveniently) self-possessed kids. I’m going to have to smoke it or trash it soon. Throwing it away would be such a cop-out. As such, I’ve been reading the guides and hoping to avoid an experience like Maureen Dowd‘s.

What happens now that weed is legal? I am very curious as to how this will all play out in the next few years. Will marijuana remain an illicit substance kept to basements and backseats? Or will pot appear in our parlors, where we may offer our guests white, red or weed?

My favorite uncle happens to be a retired cop. While enjoying grilled meats and fireworks on the 4th, I asked him what he thinks will happen. He said that while he views pot as less harmful than alcohol, he’s certain we’ll see a sharp rise in impaired drivers on the road. He attributes this to our general lack of experience with the drug. We may know our limits with beer or cocktails, but what about weed? He said that today’s strains are much stronger than those of 20 years ago and folks that haven’t used it since their college days are in for a shock.

As for me, I have one main problem with pot that will keep me from being a regular user. Marijuana sucks you dry of motivation. I’m an ambitious person. I have books to write, kids to raise, and all kinds of dreams I chase with relentless abandon. Weed just doesn’t work with my desired lifestyle.

That said, I bought pot the first day it was legal in Washington. I’ll be proud to tell my kids all about it… in about fifteen years or so.

Keep Dreaming: The Bittersweet Experience of Quitting Your Own Company

As many of you already know, last week I announced my departure from Writer.ly. I stepped down from the role of CEO of the company I started in order to write more books. This is both a terrible and wonderful thing. Note: This rest of this post was originally published on the Writer.ly community site.


Kelsye bids adieu

It is with both heavy heart and great excitement that I announce my departure from Writer.ly. I am stepping down as CEO to focus on my career as an author. My capable co-founder Abigail Carter will be taking up the reigns and charging forth on the Writer.ly mission of helping writers become authors.

I’m not going very far! You can easily contact me through my author website or on twitter. Writing has always been my number one love. A great believer in the wondrous new age of publishing, I have experimented with a variety of paths to publishing. I self-published my Breakup Girl Series and crowd-funded Book Lush: What to Drink with What to Read. Now I am finishing my first novel and just signed with agent Gordon Warnock of Foreword Literary.

I am, and forever will be, a champion and believer in Writer.ly and all the writers in our community. These past two years have been incredible! Here are some of my favorite highlights:

The day we launched. The moment the Writer.ly site went live, a full year’s worth of planning, dreaming and development came to fruition. As anyone that’s every worked on a startup form the very beginning will tell you, seeing your dream materialized in the real world is an awesome moment.

Pubcamp! Pubcamp! In both San Francisco and Seattle, our one-day writing and publishing conferences inspired, informed and empowered writers. Local writing community members gathered together to support and celebrate the great endeavor of the writing life. Personally, I found these events incredibly fun and always learned something new.

Working with my hero Guy Kawasaki. I met Guy just after APE came out while he was keynoting at the San Francisco Writers Conference. He generously gifted me his time to and moved by the Writer.ly mission and purpose. Not only did guy come on as an advisor and give all of our users a free copy of his book, but he also brought along Peg Fitzpatrick and Shawn Welch, a formidable trip of publishing and social knowledge if ever there was one!

Your success stories. Many of you out there that used Writer.ly during your publishing journey sent me a personal note and thanks when your books debuted in the big wide world. I teared up with each and every one of these I received. Transitioning from writer to author is the stuff of dreams. Big, crazy, beautiful dreams. I am honored that I was able to be a part of yours.

If there is one thing I learned through Writer.ly, it is that we are better when we work together. One author’s success does nothing to diminish another’s. We, the writers of the world, collectively rise when we encourage, support and celebrate each other. This applies to our journey of finding our voice and improving our craft, as well as producing and selling our books.

I’m terribly excited to see what comes next in the wildly changing industry of publishing. I am proud to have been a part of it with Writer.ly and know the company, and community, is in great hands with Abigail.

All my love, Kelsye

writing-game

My Favorite Writing Game

writing-gameI saw recently on ye olde Facebooke that one of my favored professors from Evergreen has a book in a Kickstarter campaign by Starcherone Books. While of course I hope you all hop over right now and donate your twenty-five smackers to get his book, it would be foolish of me to think you would do so without a compelling reason. So first, I’m going to give you all something Steven Hendricks gave me.

Steven gave me a great many things; such as clever techniques for book binding, a doodle I can deliver on a cocktail napkin that suddenly makes post-modernism easy to understand, and the understanding that my unearned privilege comes at the direct expense of another soul’s power.

However, the best thing he gave me is a writing game.

We played this little game at our writing group, an oddball mix of professors, staff and students. All of us ridiculously earnest and playful both. So enraptured with this game was I, that I continued to play it wherever I traveled after my college years. Whenever people gather in some intimate place, I pull pens from my bag, start tearing scraps of paper and ask my companions to indulge me.

I have played this game with countless friends and writing groups since. I played this game with Yakuza in a Juso bar. I played this game with every would-be suitor and certain lover. I’ve played with young students, my kids, with retirees, with drunken conference attendees.

Each time is different, each game contains delight and at least a fraction of wonder. Steve’s gift to me, I now give to you.

Here’s exactly what you do.

1. Make sure every one has a pen and a scrap of paper.

2. Ask everyone to write a question, any question, that begins with What is…

This can be simple, such as What is this?, or complex, such as What is the reason the young man takes up his bag and sets to walking when his heart is broken?.

3. Make sure everyone knows to keep their question secret from their neighbor.

4. Ask everyone to turn over their paper so their question is hidden, then pass to the left (or right depending on your whim).

5. Without peeking at the question, ask everyone to write any statement that begins with It is…

Again, this may be simple or complex. It does not need to be connected to the prior question at all. The only rule is that it must begin with It is…

6. Once everyone has written their statements, they may flip over their papers and see the question.

7. Ask everyone to read the question they received and their answer out loud.

Before we read the results, I usually say something like this…
You just wrote a surrealist poem. When we write, we often already have some meaning or message in our mind. We search for the correct words or match our meaning and communicate our message. The game we just played, invented by the surrealist writers in Paris, reverses this process. We put down the words first, and get the meaning after. You, as the artist, have little control over the final product as you have no control over half your poem.

Most often, wonderful pairings arise in the little poems. Sometimes, the mix falls flat. If the questions are droll (what is your favorite color), then all the responsibility for compelling image falls to the answer.

I find that when we repeat this game multiple times, the pairings get better and better. Of course, alcohol helps the process as well.

So next time you meet with your writing group, or sit down for dinner with interesting people, tempt them into this game. If, like me, you find the results fascinating, you may scoop up the scraps of poetry after and keep them as mementoes.

Now that you have this game in your repertoire, it’s time for you to hop on over to Steven’s kickstarter. His book, Little is Left to Tell, will be published by Starcherone Books. The Kickstarter raises the much needed funds to enable the independent press to distribute and market the book effectively. Personally, I recommend backing at the $25 level or above so that you can receive a copy of the novel when it’s available. The book, like Steve, is certain to cause you to suffer a splendid case of wonder and perspective.

Be awesome and back Steven’s book now!

cowboy_heaven

Cowboy Heaven: The Passing of a Patriarch

cowboy_heavenI drafted this piece four years back, just found it in a neglected folder and cleaned up the rough patches. Mostly.

My grandfather didn’t die on my shift. I was back in the city. He died in the ranch house, horses milling about just outside his bedroom window. The aunts stood around him, hands on his ankles, his cheeks, weeping softly, making strange, tight faces, or so I imagine. I’m told my grandmother held his hand, curled up on the bed beside him like a cat.

Two weeks before death, when I entered the scene, he looked bad enough. My giant beast of a grandfather shrunken into the body of a frail old man. Low grumbling voice. Eyes of Caribbean blue darting glances sharp as icicles. Smiling at me. Barking at his daughters.

The aunts are four varieties of neurosis. I came often to relieve them of their posts.

“Get some sleep,” I’d say. They’d pile into pick-ups, Volkswagens, or jeeps and fly down the hill, finding even a trip to Safeway to pick up a prescription or to the sub shop for sandwiches more enticing than spending another slow minute in the quiet house.

My grandmother transformed into a whirlwind of energy, watering plants, feeding the horses, sorting piles of bills and hospital paperwork. My mother sat outside in a plastic lawn chair, smoking cigarette after cigarette. Drinking coffee. Not making sense. Both women jittery and over-tired.

I brought my daughter to float among them all like a wild hummingbird. She talked about dogs. She ate some of the cookies that had been dropped by. She stalked around my grandfather’s bed to jump out by his pillow with a giant boo and make him laugh so hard his oxygen tubes would come askew and the aunts would descend in a flurry of deliberate hands.

Another week into the glorious countdown, I tucked daughter away with other family. My grandfather no longer laughed. Nor did he eat or drink or even open his eyes. An army of cousins paraded through his bedroom, the color draining from their faces when they approached his bedside. The aunts stood around like sentries. Twisting necklaces. Timidly reaching out to touch his arms or legs, then pulling back quickly, unable to forget a lifetime of terror in final moments. All business, they could roll him, dress him, wash him without hesitation. But not one could bring herself to place a loving hand on his brow.

I was not his daughter. I was never struck. His berating bounced easily off the thick shield of love and assurances my mother had woven around me. When in my youth I did win his tirades, whether from running the nags too hard, or leaving a gate not quite closed, he would redeem himself with magic tricks and utterly adoring looks when I came to cry in his arms.

I called in to my city job. Told them not to miss me for a while. I hung my leather jacket in the closet, stood my heels by the door between all the pairs of muddy pasture boots and silenced my phone. I sat in the ranch house for long hours and did what the aunts could not do. I held his hand and stroked his face. I mashed up the white pills, mixed them with water and slowly dripped them into the soft tissue of his inner cheeks. I talked about when he pushed me off the hill to teach me how to ride a bike, about that night we all slept on top of the camper in Yellowstone, about how he gave me the name for my daughter. I sang cowboy songs and talk about sufferin’ and down by the river.

The aunts hovered behind me. Crying. Not crying. Trying not to cry. Crying. So desperate to touch him, to sing his name. My grandmother flitting in just long enough to fluff the pillows, adjust the blanket, then rush out again.

“I didn’t know you remembered those songs,” she said to me, quietly, in the kitchen. “We haven’t had a campfire since you were ten.”

My grandfather didn’t die on my shift. I was down the hill, back in the city, checking in on my daughter. The aunts stood around him, hands on his ankles, his cheeks, weeping softly, making strange tight faces, or so I imagine.

 

summer-of-boys

My Summer of Boys

summer-of-boysThe clock hits noon. Time to wake the dragons. With a deep sigh, I do my best to wrap-up whatever contracting project I’m working on and close my laptop. Fortified with a big gulp of cold coffee, I start my rounds with a knock on the 15-year-old’s door. Though his alarm has sounded every nine minutes for the past two hours, my knocks and gentle greetings are met with deep, moaning growls.

“Good morning,” I say. “Time to get up and go have some fun.”

“Grrrr, hmph. Agh.”

On to the next…

This summer, I volunteered to play ringmaster to our extended brood of kids. My daughter, plus my husband’s three sons. The youngest kid is eleven, the oldest fifteen. I work from home and convinced myself I could complete all required contract work by noon each day, leaving us the rest of the hours for grand adventures and happy family bonding experiences.

These are amazing kids. Smart, funny, remarkably conscientious, they arrest my attention and affection with ease. For the summer, I constructed grandiose plans. Perhaps we’ll start our own reading club, or volunteer two days out of the week, or maybe decide on a subject we all find interesting and spend the summer visiting museums and experts to learn all we can about it.

We’re one week in.

What a week it’s been. I have learned that the boys’ beautiful empathy and manners extend to everyone but each other. Two meals out with this hungry crew drained my entire entertainment budget for the week. My goal yesterday narrowed to simply getting out of the house before 3pm and to convince them to stop referring to each other as retards.

Now I review with great skepticism the activities I planned for next week. A trip to the museum. Yeah, right. Cross that one off. Wild Waves? Even if I can find the money to afford the entry and snacks, how will I possibly manage to keep them from shoving each other off one of the slide towers to splatter on the cement below in gory spectacle?

I haven’t written in my novel for five days. I’m tired of explaining how deriding your brother by calling him gay diminishes us all. I’m tired of passive aggressive tactics meant to stall our departure so someone can spend just twenty minutes more on their online game campaign. I’m tired of constantly trying to find food to keep the boys full while working within the confines of their incredibly limited palettes.

Did I mention we’re just one week in?

Most of my difficulties boil down to the fact that despite having lived part-time with these bonus boys for the better part of six years, I still don’t know them very well. When we first started dating, their dad and I waited a full year before we started “blending” our kids for joint activities. Even when we eventually moved in together, I still treated them cautiously, with removed respect and interest.

My father shuffled through an entire deck of girlfriends. Some of them I loved, some I reviled. He even married a few of them. These women drifted in and out of my life with every passing season. I learned to keep my heart closed, guarded, least a bit of leave me as well at their hurried departure. When I first met these boys, I promised myself that I would not hurt them. I would not court their affection and loyalty when I was uncertain about the permanence of my place in their father’s life. I would be a friend, and not a very close one. Yet always nice and welcoming.

While this may have been a good approach in the beginning, it doesn’t work anymore. These aren’t my boyfriend’s kids. These are my step-sons. My family. Yet now that we’ve spent years establishing remote relationships, building greater trust and intimacy proves difficult.

Without trust, my disciple is timid and rare. I still worry about them “not liking me” and hold back in moments when I should be calling out bad behavior and shutting them down. These brothers act out complex power struggles every moment they’re together. When I fail to intervene, these battles may become horrifying ugly and destructive.

My daughter and I are reduced to gawking. How can people treat each other so mean? As I am one of six sisters, I actually know this is normal. My daughter, an only child for many years, regards the boys as though an invading alien species.

In thinking through this post before I wrote it down, I came to the realization that not only did I remain aloof to protect the boys and spare myself the guilt of breaking young hearts, I did so to protect my own heart. Did I mention that these kids are amazing? If I love them a little, I can’t help but love them truly, madly, deeply. Nothing is ever certain. If I lost my husband, I’d suffer three more losses in the same terrible moment.

The time for hesitation and reserve has past. These kids are my kids now. I open my heart. How they respond is up to them. I’m leaving the museum off the list, but I’m keeping the volunteer work, hard-labor if I can find it. We’ll ask their grandma to come to Wild Waves with us. Reinforcements.

Noon tomorrow, I’m going to do the rounds once more. “Good morning,” I’ll say. “Get up. I can’t wait to go have some fun with you.”

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My Daughter Lies: Karma Bites a Writer in Her Skin-Tight Dress

liesMy daughter lies in the best way possible – in her writing.

For her sixth grade language arts class, she wrote a story based on an experience from her life. She titled the story “Betrayal.” It opens with me telling her we’re going to get a new member of the family.

The early version that I helped correct varied greatly from the final draft that came home in her end-of-the-year mass of papers. When I first saw the final, I thought, Oh, she changed the title. I read on. This copy included a line that read, “My mom wore a fancy skin tight dress that looked more like a swimsuit than a dress.”

She described my car as poop-colored, wrote that it smells like left over fast food and that mysterious stains cover the upholstery.

A flash of embarrassment and anger flickered in my chest. My car doesn’t look like poop! My dresses aren’t that tight, are they? These thoughts quickly gave way to, wow, those are really good details.

The story documents the day I took her to the rescue center to get her a pet cat. You’d think I’d be the good guy in this story. No. Not so much.

She thought at first that we going to adopt a child. She writes of how all she’s ever wanted is a sister in her world of loneliness and step-brothers. When she learns that we’re just getting a cat, she feels “heartbroken and betrayed.” The grand resolution comes when she meets her cat for the first time and deems her perfect in every way.

My reaction upon finishing the story: My daughter sure is lucky she has such a dynamic mom to give her messed-up experiences to write about.

When I view myself from her eyes, I am an extraordinary creature. I move her around the world, sometimes to live, sometimes to visit. Her earliest years she bore witness to my rotating cast of loves. I wear heels and tall boots. I get my hair done. She watches me start companies, win investments in San Francisco, but spend weeks at a time in jogging pants while working on writing projects at home. Sometimes we are wealthy-ish, sometimes we haven’t a single dollar to our names. I’m a great character!

I really did leave it open to interpretation when I told her we were getting a new member of the family. I didn’t think she’d believe me and it would be funny when she learned she was finally going to get a cat. I didn’t anticipate that she’d instantly go all-in on the idea of bringing yet another kid into our cramped apartment. The day that story took place, I learned that my daughter has incredible capacity for love and generosity. She learned that her mean mom thinks it’s funny to trick her sometimes.

I do still think it’s funny. She’s so damn savvy. I have to work really hard to fool her these days.

The lines I’ve written about my own mother horrified her. For the sake of story, I limited the perspective to focus on particular aspects of personality. I chose details that reveal, that make her human, that show impact. These were not the ones she wanted to see recorded. I know a little bit better how that feels.

I do occasionally wear tight dresses. My daughter says they look more like bathing suits. Exaggeration, but oh how it improved the paragraph.

The fact that my daughter is a writer shouldn’t surprise me. Even if she never writes an another story her entire life, she’ll always be a writer. She knows how to carve a page, how to build from nothing an entire world populated with character, emotion and action. How grateful I am to be a part of the world she creates, even if I play the role of wayward mom.

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The Poet’s Advice: Don’t Write Crap

crapWhen I told my writing group that I planned to write one blog post per day in June, Kay, a poet, gave me a warning.

“Don’t write crap.”

I laughed, promised her I’d do my best. My goal was to set habit, routine. I’m a decent writer, so I figured the content would be decent.

“A little crap may creep in,” I said, “But I’ll aim a higher.”

Writing quality content every day proved to be more of a struggle than I imagined.

Even the fact that I use the word “content” reveals part of my problem.

For years, I have been a content machine. I post how-to’s. I share articles. I record tutorials. I think in terms of traffic, clicks, reach and relevance.

Fiction, or creative work of any kind, may completely lack discernible relevance. Creative work may have no goal other than to exist, resonance with another soul the only bonus.

The first two weeks weren’t too hard. I could write some cute little pieces and fill in the dry days with new summaries of old work. My posts are decent enough. Go take a look.

Then, on a Tuesday night date at a jazz club, I heard a vocalist sing a song so beautiful, so full of story and raw emotion, that it arrested me physically. I held a mouthful of wine for an entire song.  I gulped it down at the applause, just as my husband leaned in to kiss me, fearing he’d notice I’d been holding a swig of alcohol in my mouth.

Oh. That’s what art looks like.

I’m fighting my way back to art. I write my way past business and expectation, through weary and worn, shallow and slighted. There is art in me, though now years of key word excrement may coat it thoroughly.

It bothered me that I had this revelation while I was drinking. I don’t drink much anymore. Not since my mother’s intervention. However, I’m better when I’m tipsy. Honest. Accessible. Those careful bars I erect to protect myself become but gossamer threads. If you take a deep breath, puff it out in a burst of air, you’ll knock down all my defenses. And there I’ll be, unobstructed, soulful. Brilliant.

My notebook from that night is full of inky scribbles, fragments, paragraphs and single words to illuminate whole ideas or impressions. If I wish, I have a week’s worth of great content to mine from those pages.

Date night passed, fully sober, I set myself to the task of keeping the door open on my guts. Try not to lose access. I have to go deeper. I need to know what makes me this way and how I may survive myself.

My mother is an alcoholic in the early stages of recovery. Her psyche may currently lack the stability to bear the searching questions of her youngest daughter.

My grandmother doesn’t drink. Did she ever? My dear Renny, from whom I inherited my love of lists and forward motion, does her soul perch on the skin of her fingertips, or does it dwell somewhere deeper, only accessible when the mighty walls have been marinated in moist drink?

This weekend I will drive the windy, tree-lined road up to her ranch. I’ll sit her in the plastic chair in her garden, send my daughter to run wild in the woods as all good young women do, and I will demand answers.

Why am I this way? Why do I fear people? Why does my family drink?  Why did all my aunts despise my grandfather? Why does my sister resent me? What about those old stories I heard, about your husband, my wizard, your sister, a divorce and a remarriage that never happened.

Perhaps if I learn the secrets, I will be free.

 

Killing the Pirate: The Cutting Pain of Editing a Character from a Novel

This evening, I discovered the ending to the novel I’ve been working on for the past nine years. Glorious. It all makes sense now.

Of course, I also realize that I must now cut a good 20,000 words from the end of the manuscript as they really have nothing to do with the story I am trying to tell.

A beloved character will be lost completely with this dramatic, yet necessary cut. Editing this character out of my novel is like killing a love. He was a love of mine, reimagined for the pages, but real nonetheless. I never see him anymore, and likely won’t ever again. The novel gave me a way to meet him, to spend a little more time in our friendship. To feel again the way he made me feel.

Perhaps I will write him a poem instead. Or simply remember him.

Or perhaps, very sneaky, I will hide his pages somewhere on my website, like right here.

 

 

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How to Fail at Being a Writer

fail_at_being_a_writerWould you like to know how to fail at being a writer? Follow these steps exactly and failure may be yours!

First, begin with doubt. Doubt your talent, your brain, your skills, your spelling. Doubt the quality of your ideas and the worth of your stories. Doubt that you even like writing. Doubt your sincerity, doubt your ability.

Once you have a thick, sticky baseline of doubt spread wide over your mind, you are ready to begin failing at being a writer.

Next, sit at your computer and check your social media sites. Click through to Jezebel and Daily Beast. Sign an online petition about health care access for sick kids. Feel a little outrage. Think, I should write about this.

Open your preferred writing software. Sigh deeply. Go refill your coffee cup. Return to your desk. Recheck all your social media sites for new posts and interactions.

Open a file of old writing. Even through you have edited this piece at least ten times, edit it again. Tell yourself editing is writing. Sigh deeply.

Check your social media sites for new posts and interactions. Spend a minimum of thirty minutes reading celebrity gossip. Shudder with self-disgust.

Go pet the dog. Take a walk around the block to clear your mind. Notice how it’s almost noon already and panic that you are wasting your chance to get writing done. Doubt that you even like writing. Doubt your sincerity, doubt your ability.

Sit in front of the computer. Decide to blog instead of working on your novel. Scan through your post ideas and reject all those you deem frivolous, likely not to appeal to a wide audience, too personal, too impersonal, too overdone, too hard to match with a catchy title. Draft a list of the top ten websites where authors can post pictures of their cats. Sigh deeply. Go refill your coffee cup.

Sit in front of the computer. Tell yourself, butt in chair. Read inspirational quotes about how writing is really all hard work. Nod in agreement. Recheck all your social media sites for new posts and interactions.

Jump when the phone rings. Realize you were so absorbed in that online article about trends in book cover designs from the seventies that you missed your daughter’s pick-up time. Run out of the house, late, no real work accomplished.

Congratulations! If you made it this far, you have succeeded at failing to be a writer.

However, take this warning, this failure is not permanent. Tomorrow you wake up again. You must not give into temptation or inspiration to open that file with your novel. Failure requires commitment. You can not become complacent. Stay vigilant. Once again, you’ll wake up tomorrow with every chance of success.