A farewell love letter written in tears and Lysol

This morning I decided to clean. I do that when I’m trying to force myself to think about things — the book I’m writing, a problem at work, what to get so-and-so for their birthday. Today it was so I could examine all of last night’s feelings now wadded up in tissues layered three-deep inside the bathroom garbage can.

The shallow layer is the fear most late-20s women fear when they find themselves having to start from scratch in finding a partner. I blame my ovaries and ticking biological clock for this one: I will be fine. My creative spirit, work ethic, long-term happiness, emotional strength, relationships, and passions will soon stand up and dust themselves off. My primal reproduction function does not believe this is important and is a finger away from dialing up a sperm bank.

Under that is betrayal: When simplifying it to the very basic core of everything, you lied to me. You let me carry on like there was nothing wrong, and you didn’t trust me enough to tell me we didn’t have a future. For a year you let me continue to fall in love with you, and never once did you warn me that my decent would end in a crash of two emails, two phone calls, and a weepy ramen noodle dinner.

And within the deepest layer lies self-anger, because in truth you didn’t lie, not even once. You told me everything from the beginning, and I refused to hear it. You told me the first night you came home with me. You took off your shirt and explained every beautiful tattoo on your skin and challenging tattoo on your soul. And then you kissed me, and I saw stars, and then we fell asleep in a cider-drunk haze before waking up to a mid-March snowstorm that failed to cool us off from one another. The next morning, and the next year, I convinced myself that if I couldn’t change your past, I could at least make your future a bit brighter.

You said I helped get you to this place you’re in now, where you’ve learned to slowly light the lamps of recovery and discovery so the dark shrinks into something less dreadful. And that’s when I learned my mistake. For the last year I’ve tried to torch the darkness, burn it all to the ground, and singed myself in the process because that’s not how it works. It has to be you wielding the matchbook, and it has to be methodical, or else you could disappear into the flames, rather than emerge in the light. If I stand around and watch, I’ll only get in your way. I love you too much to do that.

As I scrub down my dining table with Lysol, I notice that another puddle has appeared in the northwest corner of my apartment. The tenants upstairs must have left their windows open again during a rainstorm. The last time this happened, I asked the landlord to repair where the speckled plaster had crumbled, and he did. Except now that replacement plaster is on the floor in varying states of dust and chunks that I have sweep up and add to the trash can.

Shattered plaster. Crumpled up tissues. They all look the same — not quite white, but trying to be. All the emotions that gushed out of my eyes and nose the night before, mixed with the broken shell of where I tried to secure you in my heart, convinced you’d find the light you needed inside.

That broken shell doesn’t mean you’ve left, though. You’ve just moved somewhere else inside it, and it’s going to take me some time to find you again. I’ll keep looking, but first I have some cleaning to do.

#NaNoWriMo2019 Excerpt: Bennett and the Halos

Bennett smeared the purple paint across her lips, filling in where yesterday’s application had flaked away or rubbed off. She was due for a breakout any day, having gone almost a week without washing the makeup off her face. That would change tonight, now that she had found soap.

“Are we ready to roll, or what?” Christa called from her brother’s Hummer. Its transmission had seen better days. Bennett could tell from the whine underlying the engine’s glubba-glubba.

She tossed the tube of blue eyeshadow back in her knapsack and straightened up from where she’d been bending over to look into the shard of broken mirror on the pavement. Someone had already raided this Sephora, and Christa was irritable because she couldn’t find her usual brand of toner.

Bennett swung her bag into the back of the Hummer and followed along with it, slamming the door shut just in time for Christa to peel around the parking lot and onto the road. There was nothing else in this shopping mall of interest to them. The Sephora had been cleaned out; the Target was too dangerous for a simple group of three to search alone; the Dress Barn was still immaculately intact due to the lack of interest in styles for middle-aged women. And besides all that, they could hear the roaring engines of multiple vehicles roaring up the street. Maybe if they had more Halos with them, they would stand their ground. But between being outnumbered and not having any reason to defend the Green Valley Shopping Center as their own, it simply wasn’t worth the effort.

Christa took a sharp right on County Farm Road, and Bennett and Imogene twisted around in their seats to see four dazzlingly bright muscle cars glint in the sunlight.

“Fucking Bowies,” Christa shouted from the front seat. “How many?”

“Four cars, so at least twelve people,” Imogene reported.

No one traveled in groups fewer than three, with four being the optimal number. The handful of survivors who had been Girl Scouts taught everyone that: Always go in threes, so if someone gets injured, one person can stay with them while the other goes for help.

“But what if the person going for help gets injured?” Bennett had asked.

“OK, so maybe go in fours whenever possible,” Felicity revised her statement with a toss of her brown-black hair, the sun drenching her blond roots.

From then on, Bennett, Felicity, Christa, and Imogene were inseparable. Not because they particularly liked each other — Felicity and Christa were best friends, and Imogene was desperate for their approval, while Bennett just needed to find someone who didn’t mind her tagging along — but because it had helped them survive for three months since the world came to a crashing halt on June 25.

#NaNoWriMo 2019: What to do when you don’t have a plan

In my latest weekly post, I teased a character I had been working on for a while and was thinking of using for whatever I end up writing during National Novel Writing Month. When I posted it on Twitter, a friend from college responded, saying he was inspired to try his first NaNoWriMo but wasn’t sure what to know going in.

I responded with a couple 280-character tips: Have a network, set up a daily word count goal, tune out the editor in your head, etc. Anything you’d find on a typical writer’s blog.

But then I started thinking: What if you don’t have any plan whatsoever? How do you do NaNoWriMo when you have no concept of what the story is, who the characters are, and what critical human theme you want to explore?

I started thinking this mostly because, Hello! That’s me this year! And, as a sign from Master Bong Joon Ho himself, I saw Parasite on Sunday (excellent film, go see it), and there’s this monologue that’s gripped me since I walked out of the theater:

You know what kind of plan never fails? No plan. No plan at all. You know why? Because life cannot be planned…You can’t go wrong with no plans. We don’t need to make a plan for anything. It doesn’t matter what will happen next.

So in that spirit, here’s what I came up with if you’re facing Nov. 1 without any idea what to write but the egotism? courage? stupidity? to want to get to 50,000 words by the end of the month anyway:

1. Build the story around stuff that’s happening in your actual life. Have a croissant and coffee for breakfast? Your main character did to. What were you daydreaming about while waiting for the barista to hand you said croissant and coffee? Imagine that happened — a homeless man went sprinting through the Starbucks and dropped a weird metal piece on the floor, not turning around to pick it up because there’s three alien-looking dudes chasing him, leaving puddles of slime behind them. But then one of them turns and looks at you, and signals that he wants your croissant, and you (rather, your main character) is now part of the story. OK, now what happened? You’re easily at 2,500 words after describing the scene. Only 47,500 more to go!

2. Pick a two-word name for your main character. Every time it gets mentioned, you’ll be two words instead of one closer to that 50,000 word count goal.

3. Be super descriptive of everything. What music is playing? What does the coffeeshop smell like? Is the croissant crusty, or does it give a little in its paper baggy? What does the barista look like? Multiple hair colors are a plus because they take up more words.

(Spot the trend yet?)

4. Spell out the chapter titles. That’s two words each time you break. Might as well make chapters pretty short, then.

5. Everyone your character talks to on the street has a dog. Describe it in full. More words!

6. I’ve started putting allusions to pop culture into my work when they make sense. Do the same thing. Find a great song to write to when describing what happens when your character finds out that the metal part they absconded with from the coffee shop while the alien was munching on the croissant is actually the key to a spaceship that landed in the dog park across the street. Then have it playing on the character’s earbuds or something, and toss in some of the lyrics to boost your word count.

7. Stuck on a battle scene? Write “They fight” and follow it with little bullet points of things that might happen. Then highlight it bright yellow so you can find it later when you have a better idea (or just need to bite the bullet and write it). My first NaNoWriMo project literally had “Zombies attack” written in the middle of the second chapter because I wanted to get on with the story instead of focus on action scenes, which I hate writing.

8. Which brings me to my last piece of advice: Write something you LOVE! OK, so maybe you’re gluten free and can’t eat croissants for breakfast, and the thought of having to write about an alien species for a whole book makes you cringe. Find something else to explore and enjoy. That’s what NaNoWriMo is all about: playing and having fun with words. We just do it really fast, and really intensely. It’s like a month-long sprint, and we all end up stronger for it in the end.

Character vignette: Merritt King, the Pick-Me Girl

Merritt had lost something and didn’t notice until it was too late.

She had lost herself.

Somewhere in her transition from being Merri, giggle-monster middle schooler who wanted to be an archaeologist who designed fashion based on what she discovered during her digs, to Mer, hard-ass tomboy with little respect for the world and even less for herself, the real Merritt King had ducked out through an emergency exit and left her feeling empty.

“You’re the worst kind of girl,” Cardeja had yelled at her as she stormed away across the lunchroom. “A Pick-Me girl. The kind who pushes other girls down because she thinks it’ll make a boy like her more.”

What made Mer so mad that day at her best friend — no, former best friend — was that Deja was right. Matt Charles had walked into their fourth period algebra class one day, and that night she had gone home and stripped the walls bare of the computer printouts of One Direction with highlighter hearts around Harry’s face; pushed all her dresses to the back of the closet; stolen the oldest issues from her brothers’ Car and Driver and Sports Illustrated archives; and watched an hour of YouTube videos describing how to apply liberal amounts makeup in a way that looks like you’re not wearing any at all.

If every other girl in class was going to hyperfeminize to attract the new boy, she was going to stand out by doing the exact opposite.

The next day she walked into school with her skinny jeans cuffed unevenly, Chuck Taylors rubbed dirty with mulch from the front lawn, and brother’s raggedy flannel shirt hanging over a low-cut camisole. She passed Matt’s locker, jeans cutting into her sides, Chucks giving her the mother of all blisters, and flannel itching her armpits. But she felt like she looked good, and that was what confidence was, right?

She sat on her hands so she wouldn’t bite her nails during study hall as she tried every opening line out in her head. The Car and Driver sat on her desk, untouched. And then he was walking in, with his hair perfectly pushed back from his emerald eyes, and his Rolling Stones T-shirt so authentically him. At least, it felt that way.

Mer opened her mouth to cooly say “Hey,” but was rudely interrupted by Mrs. Tarvinski dropping dead at her desk in what would become a mass extinction of anyone over the age of 17.

Vignette: Smoking in the running lane

He tried to shake the image of her standing in the kitchen, her tiny frame draped in the XXL Absolut Vodka T-shirt she had been handed the night before by an overzealous liquor promoter. She had taken the shirt, laughing as she sipped her gin and tonic, and loudly disclosing that she didn’t even drink vodka but was always up for free swag.

One oversized shirt, pair of plastic sunglasses, set of Mardi Gras beads and beer kookie later, and they had rolled out of the club and to her place until the sun rose three hours later. They hissed against its glare through the curtains, which she hadn’t remembers (or bothered?) to shut.

She asked if he wanted breakfast — a fried egg, a Clif bar, a cup of coffee, anything — and he had refused, his stomach churning at the thought of anything but a beer joining the alcohol still sloshing inside of it. Snatching the plastic Absolut sunglasses from the side table in the hall, he waved goodbye with the promise of calling her, even though he wasn’t sure he had her number.

Wind blew down the lakeside block, but not the kind that had torn the window out and thrown its sash javelin-style into his leg. It was the pleasant kind that he used to use as either a challenge or a support system on his long runs. He had a hard enough time walking these days, let alone jogging mile after mile.

When the physical therapist released him from his daily sessions, she had warned that running was going to come harder, if it came back at all. A few failed starts and embarrassing crashes, and he had decided that if he couldn’t enjoy what he once loved, he might as well take pleasure in the exact opposite. Weekly cheeseburgers, ten-hour TV binges, club-induced one-night-stands like this one. She was a nice woman, really, even if she relied on the word “actually” too much. And sex had to count for some kind of cardio.

He had even picked up smoking, and as he approached the lakefront path, he pulled a pack of Benson Hedges from his jacket pocket and tapped one out, lighting it with the Bic that was on its last clicks. This had become his favorite past time: If he couldn’t run in the fast-paced pedestrian lanes, he would saunter along them, filling his lungs with tar and nicotine, and exhaling the smoke as runners passed him, almost taunting him.

Today the path was busier than usual. The marathon runners were out training on the last weekend before the big race, and he resented each one as they swerved around him, shaking their heads at his ignorance — or was it arrogance? Depending on the person, he was labeled as either.

Eventually the running path leveled off with the beach, and he took pleasure in cutting across in front of a man going at a particularly heavy sprint and forced to splash through a puddle to avoid him. He tossed the spent cigarette into the sand and walked straight into the waves, letting the water crash into the jeans covering the scar from the window sash. Not this year, the therapist had said, but maybe next year. Maybe next year he’d run the marathon, if he didn’t smoke his lungs out first.

He lit another cigarette and belched. It tasted like vodka.

Scene of the write: The Music Box Theater

The street festival outside is closed, shrouded in thick white plastic sheets held down with duct tape so the midsummer breeze doesn’t pick them up and fly them like Halloween ghosts down the road. The emptied racks and tables underneath brace themselves for another 90-degree day.

Inside the century-old Music Box Theater lobby, it’s cool — the kind of dried and seasoned air that comes out of an aging air conditioner. Indie acoustic music plays over the speakers, and the Manhattans served in plastic cups taste worth the $13 even though they don’t look it. A dark luxardo cherry burrows under the ice, a secret treat to whoever finishes the booze part first.

From my seat in a chair that was once maroon but is now a dusty mauve, I watch the employee sliding the letters off a sign above Theater 2. The words change from “Paris is Burning” to “Paris is Bu” to “Paris i” to “Pa” to muted white light.

The projector could be illuminating the screen with anything, and I wouldn’t know it until I peeled my sticky legs from the grip of the vinyl seat and waddled across the floor, plucking the shorts from their bunch between my legs, and walked under the ladder and through the door. No longer would it be the story of Harlem’s drag queens. It could be a grim noir with revolvers, running boards, stocking dresses and hats with little netted veils. Or maybe it’s a new experimental film hand-drawn by someone coming down from an Adderall high courtesy of their college roommate’s drug dealer.

Overhead a white girl strums her guitar and sings Rihanna’s “Desperado” in a voice trained for honeysuckle country and straining for grit. And in a blink, the Theater 2 sign says “Escape from NY.”

This Banned Books Week, to Hell with the Hays Code!

In the early years of movies, filmmakers didn’t have any restrictions — apart from the sense of morality held by whoever was funding them — as to what they could put in a movie. And so the Hays Code was born.

Ultra-restrictive, the Hays Code was a set of guidelines to combat the liberal content increasingly present at the movies (which, of course, pales in comparison to today’s films). The bottom line: “No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it.”

Last week I learned about this mock photograph by A.L “Whitey” Schafer, who fit as many code violations as he could into a single photograph. At the time it must have been seen as shocking by some and considered deliciously disruptive by others.

Read more here.

Personally, I see this photo as a a much-needed middle-finger to stringent rules that, among other things, banned depictions of childbirth, interracial relationships, “sexual perversions (such as homosexuality),” religious figures as villains, and illegal drug use. You could not justify illicit sexual relationships between unmarried characters, and scenes of passion were closely monitored. In love scenes, partners couldn’t be in a horizontal position while kissing, and women had to have “at least one foot on the floor” (i.e. not in bed).

So what did Whitey do? He set up this photo, which broke ten of the Hays Commandments in a single image.

Writers face the threat of people reporting, banning or burning their books all the time. That’s why this week is “Banned Book Week.” To a lot of us, having your book be listed as a threat by ultra-conservative groups is a feather in the cap. The Hate U Give might be the most recent example I can think of as a YA novel that’s constantly in turmoil because of its realistic portrayal of a black teen being shot by a cop. Harry Potter was famously burned for its magical content — though its massive popularity stoked those flames, too, as not every fantasy book gets the same treatment.

That’s why this photograph came to mind when I sat down to blog this week. As writers we often have to make people uncomfortable to make our voices heard. Safe stories are sometimes nice, but we learn when we’re pushed to see things the establishment doesn’t want us to see.

The Hays Code was eventually abandoned in the late 1960s when enforcement became impossible — too many filmmakers were just paying the fine and making movies that shook the country to its core. If no one had flouted the rules, we’d still be watching versions of Frankenstein where the doctor’s god complex was completely brushed over.

It’s our job as creators to break the rules, but to do it in a way that “punches up.” Represent the marginalized. Criticize those in power. Funny, how that not only applies to making art, but also making life…