Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Itsy Bits: Unfathomable 2

Boss Man's voice creeps up behind me. "What happened?"

I turn and stare at him. His bald head is bright pink, and he's wearing these big, ridiculous orange glasses. I try to think of a good story, but in the end I come up with nothing.

"He was drunk," I say feebly. Drunk. That don't mean shit. Everyone's drunk around here. On vacation and drunk, because somehow "vacation" means getting up and drinking mimosas until it's time to switch to something harder.

"So?" he asks. "You must have done something to make him angry." He removes his glasses and polishes them on the hem of his Hawaiian shirt. Someone oughtta tell him we're in Iowa, not friggin' O'ahu.

"Honest, sir, I don't know." Sir makes everything better. Show him what a Big Man he is, how I'm scum at his feet. Bow down and worship.

It works.

He exhales.

"Fine. See if Simon will cover for you. Go home and clean yourself up." Boss Man puts his glasses back on and rubs his temples. For the first time ever, I wonder if he gets tired of kissing rich ass all day long.

"Yes, sir." I turn to make my way up the stairs, toward the restaurant.

Simon is in the back room of Spirit Lake Grill, scrubbing and shaking his head along with a Bob Marley tune. I watch him scrape the remnants of an order of Italian nachos, sprinkled with cigar ash, into the wastebasket.

"Fucking animals," he blurts.

A tiny smile stretches my lips. That's the thing about best friends--they're not joined by common interests; in my experience, they're usually drawn together by common enemies.

"Tell me about it," I say.

Simon jumps. He turns and takes me in, from the seaweed in my hair to my soggy All Stars.

"What happened to you?"

"Eh, a drunk threw me in the lake." I don't really need to say more. Simon's worked here for three summers, and he knows how it goes. Rich effers plus alcohol equals a lot of dumb shit. "Can you cover the booth for me?"

His eyes light up. "Hell, yes," he says, pulling his hairnet away from his scraggly black hair. He shrugss off his apron and hangs it on a nail next to the sink.

I scratch the back of my neck. There's one more thing I need to ask Simon, who knows the dirt on everyone in Spirit Lake, townie or tourist.

"Hey, do you know a girl named Natalie?"

Simon rinses his hands and takes too long to answer. The way his shoulders stiffen makes me uneasy.

"Tiny? Black hair? Birthmark on her cheek?"

"Yeah," I say, catching the excitement in my tone and turning it down a notch. "Yeah, her. Do you know anything about her?"

He turns around to face me, his thick, black eyebrows drawn together in concern. "Stay away from that girl," he says, his voice low.

His warning catches me off guard. "Why?" I ask, trying to sound casual.

Simon's eyes hold mine. "He'll kill you. You think getting thrown in the lake is bad? You mess with that girl, he will fuck you up. I'm not kidding." His voice is serious as razors. I think of the rage in that preppy asshole's eyes before he punched me.

I know I should listen to Simon.


Her hair.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Itsy Bits: Unfathomable

"And this also... has been one of the dark places of the earth." 
~Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

Six dollars in quarters lurk at the bottom of my tip jar. I pick it up and shake it around, listening to my future clink against the glass and mentally calculating how many sweltering afternoons I'll have to spend in this dockside booth, slinging cans of Budweiser at rich assholes, in order to pay for a semester at Cornell. The equation dies in my head when I realize there's no possible way for me to pay for a week of college, let alone a semester. I slam the jar down on the counter and rest my head in my hands. The days stretch out in front of me like cars in a neverending traffic jam when I'm already late.

It's official: I'm screwed.

The waves slosh against the rocks as a boat pulls up alongside the dock. I straighten and watch a brawny guy with highlights maneuver his candy red Sea Ray into position. A tiny girl sits in the back, her knees pulled up to her chin, giant sunglasses obscuring her eyes. Her black hair cascades over her shoulders.

The guy pulls himself onto the dock and swings a circle of rope around a post before glancing at me. He is 100% grade A douche, with his sagging khaki shorts and polo with the collar popped and loafers with no socks. He is all tan skin and white teeth and blonde spikes. 

He stumbles over a loose board as he makes his way up the dock, lurches at the ground, and picks himself up. He rotates toward the boat and lifts an arm over his head, waving at the girl to show he's all right. Beyond wasted. Shit. I so don't want to hose a bunch of preppy puke off the dock today.

He stands before me and juts his chin toward the refrigerator behind me. "I'll take a Bud Hev, bro."

"Bro," I repeat. "Let's see some ID."

Something flickers behind his eyes. I recognize it. I see it every day. He's drunk to the point that anything will set him off. I don't want to be the reason for him to flip out, but my boss will string me up by the balls if he catches me serving beer to minors.

The guy makes his hands into fists, spheres of fury.

"Seth," he says, sneering at my name tag. "Maybe you don't know who I am. My father--"

The girl from the boat pops out from behind him and grabs his bicep. She's a slip of a thing, maybe a hundred pounds, but her effect on Angry Guy is instantaneous. His fists unclench, and he wraps his arm around her. He gives me a look, as if to say: "Mine. All mine."

I can see why he'd want to claim her as his own. She's pushed her sunglasses on top of her head, revealing eyes a bottomless blue, framed by lashes as long as my arm. And she's got this hair, this black hair, that's everywhere.

Her skin is smooth and pink like the underside of a shell, except for a mark on her cheek where it's like her skin has no pigmentation. It looks like a tiny hand, like she's been touched by an angel. It reminds me of the white spot on my back that never gets tan, no matter how many hours I spend outside shirtless during the summer. Only hers, like everything about her, seems perfect.

The girl steers him away from my booth and up the wooden steps, toward Spirit Lake Grill, the restaurant that caters to all the rich dickweeds on vacation. The owner also operates the dockside booth where I toil.

"Asshole," I mutter under my breath.

Angry Guy must have superhuman hearing because, in a nanosecond, he's down the stairs and leaning over the counter, blasting hot beer breath in my face. 

"What did you just call me?"

"I called. You. An asshole." I spell it out for him slowly.

The punch catches me in the jaw and sends me spinning into space. And I'm falling, falling, falling, until the water, parallel with my back, smacks the air out of me.

He laughs. And points.

The yuppies on the deck above all half-rise out of their chairs, curious. A woman's diamond earring glints in the sunlight.

I sputter. There's no way to retrieve my dignity. It's sunken to the bottom of the lake and is swimming around with the bullheads, sucking slime off rocks. I do that awkward walking underwater thing over to the ladder. 

The girl with the black hair appears, reaches out, grabs my hand. She's so small, yet she exhibits a surprising burst of strength as she pulls me up onto the dock.

As her skin meets mine, a shock rolls throughout my body. I've never been electrocuted, but I'm certain this is what it would feel like--intense, almost painful energy. Her eyes widen, and I can tell she feels it, too. A connection. An invisible cord tightening between us.

A severe pain blooms beneath my shoulder blade, at first an ice pick of sensation, but then it spreads, warmth throughout my whole back, a bee sting turned sunburn. 

We drop hands, and I stand dripping on the dock, staring at the girl in confusion. When I shake my head, as if to free myself from the spell she's cast on me, I realize the onlookers have gone back to their dry martinis. Nothing to see here. 

For I am nothing. Nothing but a dripping mess on a splintered dock.

Angry Guy isn't laughing anymore. He's back in his boat, leaning against the steering wheel, arms crossed, glaring. 

"Grab the rope, Natalie!" He barks orders at the black-haired girl. She looks toward him, then me, and then back at him again before lifting the rope and wrapping it around her forearm, a snake in her grasp, and stepping onto the boat. 

Angry Guy flips me the bird as he starts the engine and backs up the boat. But all I see is her. Her glowing cheeks. Her flowing, black Wonder Woman hair. Apology in her eyes.

When they pass the buoy, he ups the speed, and the bow climbs the sky. They get smaller and smaller until I can hardly make out her figure. They go around a curve, and I know they're headed to Congo Beach, where mansions dot the edge of the lake.

"Fucking savage," I spit, wringing out my shirt.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

34 Years, 34 Things

This morning, as I was lying in bed (in considerable physical pain, but we'll not go there), I thought about birthdays. And how they generally suck when you're older. You still have all the normal responsibilities, but none of the fun.

When you're little, your mom makes you a chocolate bundt cake with M&Ms stuck to it and everyone sings and you blow out the candles. When you're grown, you might swing by Scratch to pick up some cupcakes after your doctor's appointment. Maybe.

The one good thing about getting older is that, as you gain experience, you learn. So I thought I'd share some things I've learned, one for every year I've been alive.

1. Guacamole always costs extra.

2. A walk around the lake can soothe almost any heartache.

3. To make a change, you must want it more than anything and then do whatever it takes to guarantee your success. Get obsessed, get relentless.

4. You cannot have it all. If you sacrifice all extra hours for your career, your family life will suffer. If you get too absorbed in your neverending to-do list, you let friendships fade. There is no such thing as balance.

5. I am far from perfect. I make mistakes. I hurt people. I am thoughtless. Sometimes. However, I teach and write and love with all my heart. My mood changes an average of five times an hour. I am complicated. I am human.

6. Don't bleach your hair. It will never go back to normal.

7. My favorite moments in life are spent cuddling with my babies in front of the fire.

8. A book a day can keep reality away.

9. You can only escape pain for so long, and when you return, it hurts just as much.

10. Wow, 34 is a lot of things.

11. I'm not sure I've learned 34 things in my life.

12. Perseverance is key.

13. Where's my burrito?

14. You can find a quote from The Simpsons to fit every situation in life.

15. Also Labyrinth.

16. Everyone sucks at one time or another. Some people more, some people less, but everyone does.

17. Everyone also has good points. My colleague told me a secret she has whenever she doesn't like someone. She picks one good thing about them and focuses on that, however small. Like they have really cool nail polish or they said something unexpectedly funny. It's all about focus.

18. When I was a teenager, I took a boombox out to the street and danced with my friends. Now I dance in my kitchen. It's just not the same.

19. Words are more intoxicating than liquor.

20. And more seductive.

21. Death is real.

22. I wish it weren't.

23. But it is.

24. But so is buffalo chicken dip! And flowers! And chubby, kissable baby cheeks!

25. Sometimes people just need you to see them.

26. Family, real family, is everything. They will stand by you no matter what.

27. Singing someone to sleep comforts the singer almost as much as it does the listener.

28. The biggest gift you can give someone is your time.

29. You were born a certain way, with strengths and weaknesses, and though you can constantly improve yourself, you will never become a different person. Nor should you want to.

30. Ambition is a double-edged sword. It can drive you to achieve more than you ever knew possible, but it's best friends with envy, that rotten whore who will destroy your life if you let her.

31. All you can do is be the best you can be at any given moment, for yourself and the people around you. And if you slip up, try to do better tomorrow.

32. If you have a terrible day, a bubble bath will make you feel better than chocolate. Throw in a pedicure and a good book, and you're on your way to bliss.

33. Everything is beautiful. Even pain.

34. Close your eyes. Breathe. This is your life, right now. And it is enough.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

A Light in the Dark

Shortly after my mother passed away, I stood in the room where I last saw her. She and my father had just purchased a house near Des Moines so they could be closer to their grandkids. The weekend before she died, they came and stayed in that house for a couple of days.

I remembered my mother crouched on the floor with my children, playing with the Little People castle she'd picked out just for them so they'd have something to play with when they visited. I was sitting on the couch, talking with my grandfather, who had also come to visit. There was a moment when I looked down and realized my mother was trying to lift herself onto the couch next to me. I don't know if I was talking or lost in thought or what... but I didn't automatically reach over and hold out my hand to her.

She had to ask me to help her up.

Maybe I was in denial that she was so sick. Maybe I was oblivious. Whatever it was, that moment will haunt me for the rest of my life. That I didn't  just offer my hand and pull her up next to me.

I had to be asked.

Guilt is part of the grieving process. You think of all the things you should have said, things you could have done differently. I didn't call her in the few days before she died. I could have talked to her one more time. I've been so absorbed in book stuff the last couple of years. I should have made more time to go visit.

Anyway, all these things went through my head as I stood in that living room a few weeks after she died, looking at the pictures my father displayed over the mantle of the fireplace. I stared at my mother's picture, and I got angry. (This is another stage of grief, and I seem to fly from one to another without any warning, moment to moment.)

I actually said out loud: "You didn't prepare me for this. Why didn't you prepare me? I don't know what to do with this."

Sobbing, I left the house and drove to the storage garage, where I was supposed to meet some movers that were coming from our old house in Cedar Rapids. My father was out of town, and I had the code to let them in. Before I met them, I tried to cover up my splotchy face with makeup, but I'm pretty sure it was obvious that I'd been crying.

I opened the garage for them and then sat in my car as they did their thing, typing on my laptop because I had a revision due. After a while, I just couldn't take it anymore. I turned off my computer and started crying again.

Suddenly there was a crashing noise, and I looked up just in time to see a large filing cabinet slide off the dolly and tip onto its side, spilling papers everywhere. I got out of my car and ran toward the girl who was gathering the papers in a panic. As I helped her to pick up the documents, I noticed a stack of notebooks that had fallen out of the cabinet.

My mother's journals.

Look, I'm not saying I believe that my mother was reaching out to me or whatever... I'm not saying that, but... yeah. All I know is that I took them all home and flipped through each one, carefully examining the pages on which she'd recorded our lives. I felt closer to her than ever as I realized that her world was so like mine is now, with the grocery lists and weight charts and the note to remind her of my brother's dentist appointment. It was soothing, to touch those pages she'd turned. She was in the handwriting, in the smell of the paper. She was there.

I visited her grave not too long ago. It's not something I do regularly, but I was having a terrible day and really wanted her guidance. Resting my cheek against the cold tombstone, I asked her for help.

There was nothing.

She wasn't there.

But as I plodded through the snow, back to my car, I heard her voice in my head. She gave me the advice I needed. And I realized she's still here, inside of me. I knew what she would say. What she'd think. I didn't need her to stand in front of me and tell me what I already knew.

I didn't have to ask.

She'll reach out when I need her. Always.

Because she's my mom.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Fairy Tales No More

I have a routine for processing edit letters. It involves the couch, a box of Kleenex, and some wine. So when I received an edit letter during parent-teacher conferences last week, I had to improvise. Luckily my colleague was more than willing to stuff giant chocolate chip cookies into his mouth and talk like Cookie Monster until I laughed and relaxed enough to get through the (long, long) evening.

Typically I freak out after receiving an edit letter. I only see the negative. No matter how many times my editor reassures me that we're making progress and this is an ambitious book and I'm more than capable of making the changes, I read: "YOU SUCK YOU SUCK YOU SUCK YOU SUCK." Only after rereading the suggested changes a few times and letting the new vision sink in do I realize that the criticism is not about ME at all; it's about creating the best possible book. And my editor (as I've mentioned before) is a genius; there's a reason I trust her with my book babies. 

So, yeah, I'm headed into another rewrite...

THUS no more twisted fairy tales. At least not for a while. I've gotta pour all my creative energy into ELT. (Of course, this morning I kept thinking about the geocaching thriller I was working on two summers ago and would like to revisit... but... one thing at a time.)

Let's not even talk about the 150 essays that came in last week.

Deep breath.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Twisted Fairy Tales: Snow White

I was raised in a house of mirrors. Well, a palace, if you want to be technical about it. My mother, the queen, gave the servants explicit instructions to keep the glass spotless. If you walked down a random hallway at any given hour, you'd be sure to see a girl kneeling with a rag, scrubbing relentlessly at some nonexistent smudge.

The mirrors were all shapes and sizes, and I looked different in each one. First I was as small as a worm; next I was misshapen, strange; then I grew so big I wasn't sure how the room could even contain me. It frightened me, never knowing what to expect when I glanced in one of those mirrors.

So I asked my mother, to learn the truth. "When you look at me, what do you see?"

She stared at me, seriously, for a long while.

Finally, she spoke. "I see a pretty girl. But that's not what matters." This seemed strange, coming from the woman who decorated our house completely with reflective surfaces. "Snow, you are a pretty girl. And smart, too. Creative. But selfish and mean sometimes. Other times, incredibly thoughtful and kind. You are strong, almost invincible one moment, yet fragile the next. You are not any one thing, any particular person, but somehow you are so you."

I frowned and turned back to the mirror. The image before me wavered and danced and teased, always rearranging itself when my eye finally began to sort out my own features. I became exhausted from trying to make any sense of my reflection and went to bed, slept for thirteen hours straight.

When I woke, my father was standing by the side of my bed, tears in his eyes. He didn't have to say anything. Somehow, I knew. My mother was gone. Her heart had been weak for quite some time. The unthinkable had occurred. I would never see her again.

Something within me snapped.

I raced around the castle, swinging my fist at every mirror I saw. Bits of broken glass poured onto the stone floors and nestled in my hair. Blood streamed down my palm, my arm.

I didn't stop.

Couldn't stop, once I got going.

The mirrors had to be destroyed. Each and every one.

When the job was finished, I sank to the floor, sobbing.

There was a jagged shard lying beside me. A girl stared back at me with a mascara-stained face. I didn't know that girl. What was she crying about?

After a while, I realized my father was standing over me, bewildered.

"Father," I croaked. "Who am I? Now that she's gone, how do I know who I am?"

Monday, March 17, 2014

Twisted Fairy Tales: The Little Mermaid

A mermaid's kiss could mean death or life to a human. 

The only problem is there's no way to tell which one it will be.

These are the thoughts rolling through my mind as I watch the boy sinking, struggling, and eventually going limp. We are too deep. There's no way to get him to the surface in time. He's dead either way, I reason. Only one way to save him. 

Tiny bubbles stream lazily from his mouth. I take that as a good sign. Swimming closer, I look into his face, wondering how old he is. Features gone slack, he looks peaceful, like an infant, but I'm fairly sure he's about my age, nineteen or so. 

Another difference between us and humans, though: They only get a hundred years at best, while I'll have a few centuries to loll about in the luxury quarters of the ship on the sea floor, the one silly humans said could never wreck. 

They amuse me that way, humans, how they seem to think they're invincible when they're only a few landfills away from extinction. And not just their own--ours, too. Everyone's.

But this boy is not to blame for the sum of humanity's errors. 

He deserves a chance, and that's all I have to offer him. 

And so I grasp his face in my pale hands and lean in closer, knowing there's no time to hesitate, but pausing nevertheless. 

It's my first kiss.

I press my lips to his, my eyes wide open because there is nothing romantic about this act; I have to gauge whether it's working or not. His skin is warm, more so than I'd expect this far down in the cold dark, and it gives me hope that he might come out of it. 

Sure enough, his eyelashes flutter and his brow furrows a little and then suddenly he's staring at me in wonderment. I pull back, not wanting to startle him. He doesn't look surprised, though. His expression is more dreamy, like he's not really sure whether he's asleep or awake. 

I smile at him. He smiles back.

There's really no way for us to speak, to communicate. If I tried, he'd never understand my language, and vice versa. But, for now, the smile is enough. More than enough. And suddenly I'm filled with this urge for him to see my world. I don't know why, but I want to bring him down to my home and show him my favorite things, what makes me tick. After growing up surrounded by all sisters and an overprotective father, maybe I'm just looking for a friend, some companionship. 

I hold out my hand, and he takes it.

The journey isn't far. 

Before long, the rusted hulk of the RMS Titanic looms before us. I'm sure the boy can't see it; humans' eyes are different from ours, father said. That's why they sent down those cameras with the huge lights that drove us away for days. But I have a secret. One of the men dropped a waterproof flashlight. It's one of my things. I will use it to show the rest of my things to the boy.

My room is spacious, more room than I need, but what can I say? I am the baby of the family, spoiled, so very entitled. After pulling the boy into my quarters, I latch his fingers onto the handle of my wardrobe so he won't float away before I can find the flashlight. I'm so excited that I fumble a little, searching, and then the small torch is in my hand and it fills the room with light. His eyes widen. I touch his cheek, and he relaxes. 

After dragging over a heavy wooden chest, I lift the lid and cannot refrain from sighing in happiness. The contents are my precious collection, the fuel that keeps my imagination burning for days, drives me to spin the stories I regale my sisters with every night. 

First I pull out the broken face that once belonged to a baby doll. The water has rubbed the colorful eyes and mouth clean off, but the shape of them remains. I hand it to the boy, and he studies it with fascination. We repeat this process with several of my other things... a twisted pair of spectacles, a filthy mirror, the key to the captain's office. I'm just about to put the things back and take him to see the rotting piano at the bottom of the stairs when I notice that he's started to turn blue. 

He gasps, sucks in water, wildly waves his arms.

Unthinking, I drop the flashlight, swim over to him, and grasp his chin in my hand. He's flailing so violently that I'm barely able to connect his lips with mine. But then I do, and he calms down. It is a long kiss, different from the first, and I can feel his lips moving, like he's trying to say something. After a few moments, I pull away. 

I'm not sure, but his face looks different. Harder, older somehow. I stoop down to grab the flashlight. When I turn it onto his form, I see the problem. 

You know, father always left that part out. He said you could save a human by kissing them, but that sometimes it backfired. Sometimes they died. 

What he didn't say: they could turn to stone. 


It's been five years since I saved and murdered a boy, all in the same night. Sometimes I have nightmares about it. Sometimes I wonder if I'll ever live it down. Father didn't tell me about the guilt, either, how it can burn the insides of you, make you feel like there's a hell in your very own soul. 

Sometimes I still get out my favorite things and dare to dream about another world. But deep down I know this one, with my father and my sisters and my stories, is just fine.