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There is an argument I have been having with myself lately about first-person v. the omnipresent method of story telling. This came out of choosing to embody a bunch of different people while writing my novella. In a world where everyone is the center of their own world, their own favorite topic, I wanted to put together something that borrows from that idea - complete, crippling self obsession and how it alters everything. It is perfect, strictly because it is totally unreliable. People are flawed, biased. Memory is a crutch, it can be remodeled and spruced up. The reader has to do a little more work, compare similar accounts, sort out what happened. Read the pauses. The pauses are where the truth lies.
When someone is telling me a story - whether it be a friend or a stranger blogger in the internet - about their life, what happened, I bond with that person. It is like a diary entry. It is like a secret. Real and fake fall away. So, I suppose, this is what drives a wedge between the narrator and I. Trying to form a relationship with a speaker who is somehow distanced from the story is difficult for me. Why should they care about anything? If it wasn’t their life, why are they telling me the goddamn sequence of events in the first place? Can they be trusted? Isn’t it gossipy? Doesn’t it remind you of high school, when you went around and told stories about other people when really you should have been minding your own business?
That said, a lot of brilliant novels are written in third-person. Some of my favorite books, in fact. I can’t dismiss the form entirely. For me, though, for the moment in time now, where a lot of our conversations take place with “I” and “me” I think it is a way of communicating that is familiar and comfortable. Modern.
At the same time, the reader becomes the “I,” your own identity is sort of abolished while you’re immersed in the text. For instance, when I read We Have Always Lived In the Castle, I was Mary Katherine Blackwood. Lines were blurred, I understood her, because we became close. Closer than anything. I wonder if I would have had that same experience if the perspective was changed.
Obviously, readers and writers will always have a preference in such matters as these. (Or maybe they won’t…) Look at your bookshelf. How are those stories told? Is it something you consider? Why or why not?
All I do know if that I have experimented and played around through the years and I can admit that I’ve never felt more certifiably insane (or had more fun) writing first-person narratives. In those quiet moments, I can be anyone. It is like playing dress up as a girl. I can be a homicidal maniac, I can be a blind old man, a mermaid, a stripper, a demon. I take on a million personalities, shifting and navigating between them with ease. As a woman, I do this anyway. I have the freedom to be this and that. I’m not bound my limitations. I am not locked into some prison of masculinity.
With my narrative, I can shock and awe. Abolish whatever notions someone may have. And that is a hell of a time to have. If I am going to be the underdog, I may as well have a good time. I may as well be freer on the page than I can ever be in real life.
The voice was insistent. Shouting from far away, through the muddy gray of lost memories. He took it as an affirmation, a hazy encouragement to forge ahead. It wasn’t until later that he realized it was a warning.
They conversed quietly over thick, tangy espresso. The steam from their mugs wafted between the years that separated them.
He wanted to believe that the story he heard would illuminate and confirm the romantic notion of the father he never knew. That delusion was slain kindly, gently by the old man’s wisdom.
The story was one holed up for years within the heart of the old man, and now, now that the inevitability of the End hovered, he got the sense that these punishing secrets brutally (happily?) assassinating his fantasies needed to be set free. They needed to fly before they disappeared with yet another ancestor.
He tried to corral the winged beasts as they fluttered around his fear and hurt and anger, buzzing wildly in and out of his thoughts. He wanted to grab them, hold them tight, their savage little hearts beating rapidly against his palm. He needed to insert them into the neat little cages he had spent so long building, small spaces for waiting with gleaming bars and secure latches. Once snatched out of their haphazard flight paths, they would settle in nicely, their own plaintive cry for freedom evolving into the captive’s serenade, melting into the cacophony of the loves he had grown, the fears he battled, the goals he conquered, the dreams that dimly shone out of reach. They would flutter once and again fighting against their new boundaries. They would look at each other and reminisce, relishing the time that they left the dusty confines of the old man and tasted the sweet air of revelation. They would eventually accept their fate of captivity among another keeper of secrets.
His eyes teared. His clenched jaw kept it all together.
It was already there when I woke up. Sluggishly wandering out of my bedroom and across the hallway, I looked towards the door, and there it sat. A white A5 envelope: clean, no creases - marked only with my first name. It seemed strange; a letter on Sunday, and I dreaded the possibility of its contents being yet another invite to a neighbour’s party.
I ignored it at first. However, a curiosity fermented inside of me as I drank my morning dose of coffee. Halfway through the cup, I retrieved the letter and began carelessly ripping it open. I thought it was a post card at first, but it was photograph. I focused in on the image that captured a dark silhouette standing at a window, looking out across the street to a woman in a yellow coat, waving back from the building opposite. Obscured in shadow, I could not make out who the figure at the window was. The outline seemed shrunken, as if they were about to give way to an unrecognizable weight forcing down upon them.
Holding it between my fingers, I felt faint indentations on the other side, consistent yet sporadic, lines curving back on each other. Turning it over I found a message scribbled in pencil.
The day you die.
It struck me at first, chilling the skin on the back of my neck. Flipping it back over, I dismissed it as a joke or meant for someone else and threw it onto the sofa. Looking out of the window, I watched a movers-van across the street. Men struggled with boxes and furniture transporting the monotonous artifacts of an expectant tenant.
But wait! What if the poor soul this was meant for is in jeopardy? I hurriedly snatched up the picture again, holding it up to the light, trying to ascertain whom the figure was. They were completely obscured but for a faint square of white that looked like a label sticking up from behind their collar. The poor man: whoever he was, I suppose I could not help him. Dropping my arm to my side and sighing, I looked out the window. A woman stood in the apartment opposite me, waving. I waved back. She wore a yellow coat. I felt a tickle on the back of my neck where a label met my skin. I turned my head.
And there you were…
وقف يحدق وقل شيء (Stop Staring and Say Something)
The mouse, just as the mackerel and sardine, as the fawn and cub not yet a lion, must lie hidden in its tender infancy or become prey, so must a man smile and seem pleasant or find himself in the venomous fangs of his own ilk. Temper, humor, mien, vigor, strength, and bloom lie traceable in the creases of a cheek to the sourness of a laugh. Subtle notes and tones that separate the desirable and the untouchable, the miser from the meritorious. Some might wonder ‘Why always him?’ or ‘Why only her?’ and Darwin lies in his grave mumbling Natural Selection with only a coffin and dead silence to hear him.
Sunday evening in the South of Houston Street is a stale affair. Even the cabs lurch restlessly through the street with no passengers, not one fare, because the day is oddly warm and the dull dozen denizens enjoying it prefer their latte strolls and weekend shopping on foot. And as they dawdle and stare through shop windows, smoke their cigarettes and suckle their milkshakes, I can’t help but wonder about them- where they are going, where they have been, who they are with, when have they cried. But the hour calls and corner light beckons WALK, and the thought shuffles away between all our slow paces and car horns.
I pass Broadway, then Lafayette. I pass merchants and peddlers, the slumming artist and petty thief lined side by side against a wall selling their wares, or lies, or both. A dingy orange jewel shimmers against the fading light and brings me close. It’s an earring. As I graze it with my finger I realize the orange fragment could better be described as a rock tethered to a small strand of a sterling chain.
“You like?” Says a small Indian woman standing by my side with a bright leopard shawl about her face. I must have failed to notice her being blinded by the dull rock.
“Is Tourmaline.” She adds, as if the fact is supposed to be impressive. “Verrrry precious. You give to your girlfriend, she like it, she be very happy, you be very happy.”
As she speaks I’m distracted by a slight glint on her forehead, a tiny red dot glaring against the pale brown wrinkles around it. A bindi is what it is called, I think, but I do not know their value or why they wear them. Something religious? Or…spiritual? Words begin to form and bubble in my mind, join then pop in incohesive fragments. Muslim. Allah. Qu’ran. Burka. Alone they stand firm columns, together they are scattered seeds with no base or root. I wonder if-
“Only $45.” She says snappishly, and I realize I’ve gone too long without responding than was socially acceptable.
“No thank you,” Is all I say, is all I can say, and march off sadly clutching all my wonder between my lips.
I want to write the kind of book that gives your brain papercuts. The kind you can’t stop scratching at cause how could something so small hurt so bad?
And I want to see who keeps scratching and scratching until they uncover something hidden deep in there that explains exactly how and exactly why. Exactly who they are in bare, raw syllables. I want to see who understands pain is part of the process of becoming.
And I want to see who just slaps a band-aid on it and pretends it isn’t there. See if they even finish it.
(I bet they won’t.)
I once had a hope for eternal sunshine.
And the core currents that wound tight my heart are different. And the old sorrows beneath my irises are dead leaves torn apart. And nothing is real unless I will it, but don’t worry because I willed us— once among the ashes of a life lived. But in fragments.
You are dead; I am death; souls are the everlasting reality of Earthdust. And this is now- a complacency in our timeline- and this is now- a dry burnt love to the skin- and this is now, as the goldenrod summer powers its way towards us: nothing. Nothing at all.
I took my fingers and touched my skin to remember I am real. I looked at my eyes in the mirror and believed that if love exists, then it is forever connected with death. My laughter sounded like the broken yelps of an ape in exile, and the moon shrouded the whole scene. Took my keys and drove to the highway we followed everyday. Screamed in song the whole way back home.
I once had a hope for eternal sunshine. It is gone with my past. I am better this way, I keep telling myself. I am better this way because I understand what is possible and what is impossible— in love and in life. Yet the fog that swamped around my windows brought me to a land that sought my own soul, and I wanted to return briefly, because back then I heard a universe in a single girl’s laugh.
The draft of the night seemed to pull my car back into the driveway. I sat at my kitchen table and reflected. The core currents that once wound tight my heart are different. My old sorrows are there, in my eyes (just look), but torn apart. Mixed. And that is my world.
I did it again; lifted my fingers and touched my skin. I wanted to know that I was real.
We’re just friends we say as we go to the movies every other Friday night. Once, we watched a crappy spinoff of Romeo and Juliet. I was afraid I was bugging you, constantly whispering how the characters relate to the actual Shakespearian piece. You told me you liked it when I did.
We’re just friends we say as we drive the back-country roads near your house, just because we can, out well past our bedtimes on a Thursday school night in your beat-up Ford. We lean over the dashboard, looking up at the stars that are starting to fade in pink morning light. You play the radio and whisper the lyrics under your breath.
We’re just friends we say as we see our favorite band together, screaming out every note of every song in harmony. I remember the way your face looked ecstatic as you crowd-surfed, your flannel shirt torn open and your middle fingers saluting the moshers below, and then the way you screamed my name when a wave of shoving in the pit knocked me to the cement floor. We went to Denny’s after, two in the morning, and ordered pancakes. I gave you my bacon and you helped me count my bruises because there were too many for my two hands. We smelled like beer we didn’t drink and cigarettes we didn’t smoke and other people’s sweat.
We’re just friends we say as I cheer you on at the regional cross country meet. You were in the winning pack with only one kilometer left when the guy next to you pushed you down. I remember the feeling of my heart shattering and my blood turning to ice when you fell, hitting your head on the flagpole, star-fished on the ground, and then the burning in my lungs as I screamed for you to get up, and watched you finish in 16th- the last place to make it to states- beating out the guy who pushed you over. You collapsed into my arms, wrist and ribs broken and red marks left over from half-inch shoe spikes. You lean heavily on me as we walk back to camp; you fade in and out of consciousness and mumble nonsense. I hold you upright as you vomit up Gatorade into the soft, wet grass.
We’re just friends we say as I call you at night, panicking and trying not to cry into the phone because I hate the sound of my own tears. I say no one understands, and you tell me about a guy with razors under his pillow and suicide letters rewritten a hundred times in shaky print. You sit on the other line with me for two hours, until I finally start to calm down and drift off. Before I fall asleep, you promise I will be okay. The next morning, you hug me for the first time before I even put down my backpack and don’t let go until I’m smiling again.
We’re just friends we say as one drunken night, you tell me you could marry me. Not now- maybe three or four years. I have a feeling we were more sober than we thought.
out of retirement
He’s a handsome man, a little rough around the edges, but still good looking. And lonely.
He’s nursing a beer as the door opens and a woman comes in. She’s holding a free drink coupon, but it’s all but forgotten now.
Neither of them felt Cupid’s arrows, which is just how he likes it.
He’s retired, but old habits die hard.
He can spare the free drinks if it means love gets another chance.
Cupid smiles and tucks his bow back under the bar.
She gleans daisies because it reminds her of him. She sits at the coffee shop twirling its delicate stem and watching the petals glide onto the table, in a motion much like her heart, as the hours pass and he does not appear at the door she watches so intently. She continues to wait, and in an overstimulated state from too much caffeine, she changes her order to distilled water. This is her ritual every Friday afternoon. The staff call her “Patience.” Here is where they met; here is where they fell in love; here is where they parted ways. She often thought of never returning, but the walls are still seeped in their laughter and endless hours of verbal exchange in the form of childhood stories and their adoration for each other. She can still hear the conversation clearly amidst the atmosphere of clinking coffee mugs and the hushed murmur of blossoming love from the other patrons. He would bring her daisies when they would meet once a week for their ritualistic Friday afternoon coffee. It is the only flower she purchases now. She feels it would be a betrayal to look upon any other petal. It is the same reason she continues to return to this place. To go anywhere else would be a slap in the face of their time together and the bond they had formed which she thought would never disintegrate.
I wonder if I were to look through the window of this coffee shop 10 years from now on a random Friday afternoon if I would witness her sitting there, twirling a daisy and nursing her fourth coffee cup. How we hold onto hope to the point of never moving on. I nourish the vision of her twirling a rose one day and truly smelling it as she walks away.
The Selkie's Lover
The sea is a cruel lover, cold and temperamental, but she loves him because he is all she knows, glory and despair, depth and width and flood.
She goes where he drives her and lets herself be battered by his storms because, after, oh, after. He comes to her then, in the debris of human things, in the predawn colours and the northern lights, he comes to her and presses a kiss of magic to her temple until she grows and slips into her other form, the one created in his image.
I looked up into the plum tree. All of the fruit must have fallen off and been eaten by animals. The sunlight through the oxidized blood-colored leaves cast a warmth about me. As I closed my eyes to bask in it for a moment, something smacked me hard on my right jaw. I distinctly heard a muffled squish and felt a trickle of liquid running down my neck. I opened my eyes to see what appeared to be a retracting branch, part of the tree, and considered that I must be in shock because plum trees don’t retract their branches. Aware of the steady trickle of blood soaking my t-shirt, I ripped my shirt off to use it to stanch the flow of blood as I staggered as quickly as I could along the one-quarter mile path back to my house in a confused half-panic. I felt a bit drunk, as if I had been injected with a tranquilizer.
As I stumbled to the house, the light looked a bit chartreuse. This wasn’t tornado season and no storms had been in the forecast. I realized that my vision was impaired. I was experiencing severe horizontal gaze nystagmus and nausea. Paranoia set in as I heard sounds behind me like dragging logs over gravel. I knew if I tried to move any faster I would most likely fall down. My line of sight was severely limited at this point, but I turned back to see the source of the sound and could swear that the plum tree was in the middle of the path and moving towards me. I kept traveling to the house and made it there, but no one was around. My husband, my children, my parents, my cousins had all been there earlier, but now there were no cars around and everything was silent. I started to wonder if I was imagining that I had any of the those people in my life at all, as I could not recall their names or faces. The door was locked and I fumbled in my pockets for the key. Once inside gawking into the bathroom mirror, my face was unrecognizable. It was swollen and rough, as though all of my veins were enlarged and on the outside of my skin. The bleeding had stopped, but a black liquid appeared to be coming from a gaping hole above my jaw line. There was knock on the door and I must have fainted.
When I awoke, I felt pretty normal. I was in a bed. I sat up and and no longer felt impaired. My face didn’t hurt at all. I could hear voices in the kitchen, the children and their grandmother, perhaps. I wasn’t sure. I stood up to look at my injuries and recoiled from the reflection. I was not myself. My skin looked like the toughest leather. My eyes were extremely close-set and my teeth were horribly discolored and protruding. My hair was wispy, gossamer. I screamed and touched my face hoping it was a mask. As the sound of footsteps approached I hid in the corner of the room. A voice at the door called out, “Mary, are you OK?” My name is Jessica, and, thus, I replied informatively. The person giggled, “Okay, Mary. Dinner is almost ready. Since you weren’t well we cooked for you this time!” She bounded off. A feeling of bitterness overcame me. My previously elegant hands were gnarled and red. I had been a beautiful matriarch and now I was something close to beastly and apparently a maid of some sort. Surely this was a nightmare.
Years went by in my new, strange experience. I found joy in small things, but I resented my distinct lack of advantage. I could not accept that this was my reality and kept imagining that I was in a coma in a hospital somewhere dreaming all of this. Surely, one day I would awaken and my good life would be restored. The family was kind enough to me, but I was treated with pity and expected to cater and kowtow. This was not in what I thought was my true nature. A servant’s heart I had never had. I would often visit the plum tree in hopes of being clobbered again. I would hug its trunk and beg it to return me to my superior status. The plum tree would remain silent. I grew more and more bitter with every day. My sullenness did not go unnoticed by the family and they would often cavalierly tell me to brighten up. I felt hatred toward them.
When I thought I could stand it no longer and began to plan to take my own life one day, I noticed the same eerie chartreuse light outside. I ran to the plum tree, but nothing hit me. However, a sharp breeze whipped through the leaves at one point. I walked home and tried to search for a sign in the eerie light. No one appeared to be around and I grew excited that perhaps my ordeal was about to end. I ran to the bathroom and stared into the mirror. As I watched, my flesh shimmered and I felt that I was being turned inside out. The ugly exterior was turning inside and, after excruciating pain, what came out to the surface was me again. I fainted happily. When I awoke I was in my own comfortable king-sized bed and my princely husband was by my side looking worried. I bolted up and ran to the mirror, giggling with joy at my gorgeous exterior. Everything would be normal again.
I was beautiful and back to my more comfortable social status, but I couldn’t shake the memory of what I had experienced as Mary. Initially elated, I gradually began to feel bitterness. My husband looked at me strangely at times and I felt as though he could see something of Mary in me. He became distant and I became resentful. As time went by my children did not express the joy to see me that they once had. Why couldn’t I be satisfied with my apparent perfection?
To this day, I am not. I have become cruel. My therapist believes that I experienced a fugue state and that I have not been able to leave the experience fully behind. Yes, he is paid to tell me obvious things. I am angry. Mary is angry inside me. How can physical appearance determine how this world treats a person? The chance of birth, the genetic luckiness, the acceptable standards for beauty determine how we treat people. I am ugly inside, but you are all too willing to accept me because of my beauty without. There are creatures who live in caves and never see light. They are pale white, albino, practically transparent, yet they thrive. Perhaps someday we’ll be relegated to underground cave dwelling and what will matter to us will be what we can do for each other and the love with which we do it - not how we look while we are doing whatever we damn well please. Yes, Mary keeps me bitter and cruel. The false smile on my face fools the world and the world loves me for it.
The truth is, if an apocalypse stared us right in the face, we would sit amongst hailing fire and scorching pieces of buildings with a bowl of sugary cereal in hand, leaning against one another in nonchalant laziness.
I need to teach myself how to talk about us in past tense. Right after I stop beating myself up about the present.
Have you ever tried to catch your words in mid-air? It is the most heartbreaking thing. To accidentally utter inflamed anger because your veins were carrying approximately three-storeys worth of fire at that millisecond. Remember death? Now imagine you are responsible for invoking it.
I will hold onto thin air until it turns into to you.
At The Whisky GirlScott Syx / Russil Tamsen
At The Whisky Girl, narration by Russil Tamsen, flash fiction by Scott Syx aka cheshirecatgrins. This piece said noir to me although updated. So I said noir back! 4’20”. An unlikely romantic encounter between a pair of drinkers starts at a noisy night club. The two grapple cautiously on the perilous road to intimacy - their respective emotional baggages are casting long shadows…
All rights reserved. Russil Tamsen is a narrator, comic improv actor, book editor, and author of 21 ebooks. Please visit his ebookstore at QuirkEbooks.com
I’d give anything to fill a bathtub with candle wax, to go up in flames with a sweet scent in your nose. I want to disappear. I want to be your goddamn ghost, I want to haunt your waking as much as your dreams. I want you to feel all the oceans you shoved in my body. my mind is a fishbowl being stirred with a wooden spoon. But I’m out from under your hands, your fingerprints are still bruised in my skin. I sit here, in this red chair, knees to my chest and coffee cup in hand, wondering what it will take to bring laughter back to my old bones. I’m crumpled up like a mistake on paper. You made this.
You don’t remember what the world looked like when they made you.
You don’t remember what the world looked like when they made you. Your parents’ clothing in those pictures belongs more to their youth than their lives as fathers, mothers, people. Men and women.
You were born in round numbers, 1980. Decades collapse in large forms, that’s so 90s, but you came when Disco spat up New Wave, there’s no Punk where you live. Your dad dressed like The Knack that night out in the City, your mom was Debbie Harry. They were dancing queens.
You don’t remember what the world looked like when they made you. Round number, 1970. Your father was a roadie with James Taylor cheeks and hair. Your mom was Laurie Partridge. She worked at the diner where your dad’s band came for coffee and open-faced roast beef and gravy fries. Their first date was the late shift 39 weeks before you met them.
You don’t remember what the world looked like when they made you, 2010. Your mother was a decoupage of 40s, 50s, 60s — your dad was Fukuyama. They were bangs and whimpers, open-sourced and empty, signifying nothing.
You are in a white room. There’s a bed at one end of the wall and a locked door at the other end. There is a window with a small crack in its corner. At first you think you’re in a dream. The silence is so powerful that every breath is magnified. Each movement of your arms and your legs, every pace is thunder and every touch is electric. You think you’re alone but you hear someone crying in the distance. Someone is shouting, somewhere so far away. And you can hear them. You can hear their soul break into a thousand pieces, that sound ripping through your chest. Suddenly you stop moving. Everything becomes still, so quickly. The cry is severed, a sharp cut like the cool metal of a scalpel blade. You’re waiting for something. You’re waiting for your breathing to start again, and your lungs start to move again. Everything is quiet now, and you realize just how lonely you are. Just how quiet you have to be to survive.
Can you remember how you got here? Can you remember the beginning of this dream? What makes the day and what makes the night? You wake up in the morning, or what you think is the morning, and there is food at your bed. The room never changes. You are in a little box with nothing for company but the ghosts you build from your imagination. You used to believe in good things. But now you can’t remember what people look like. You can’t remember if you were ever in love, can’t remember what you look like. Your nails pull away and your toes start to lose their feeling. You sleep, wake, and sleep again. You are in a white room. You can never leave.