#NaNoWriMo2017 Day 7: “Split-lip Gossamer”

Blood dotted my shoes as the blond girl flung the brunette girl down on the ground. The red bandana tied around the brunette’s upper arm meant this was what she wanted.

Across the makeshift ring stood Louisa, her face red with exertion and blood. She caught my eye and smiled, wincing as the cut in her lip opened wide and trickled crimson. The glossy pink lipstick she usually war was long gone, sweated all over the floor. The blood was a better color on her, she once commented.

Louisa and I met during our Survey of Celtic Mythology class two semesters earlier. We worked on a massive project together, which I guess in her mind made us friends. I was ambivalent, just trying to keep my head above water during that 18-credit-hour semester and thankful that she did most of the work without complaint. Then again, I was so scattered that she was probably happy to ensure we got a good grade, extra work be damned.

The next time I saw her after the holidays, she wore the same coat, carried the same bag and walked like she was strutting to music only she could hear. But something was off: Her face was pink from the subzero weather, but a California-shaped bruise darkened the side. Try as she might with makeup, it was clear as day.

I didn’t ask her about it because she walked too fast past me, clearly disinterested in talking. From the shy smile she gave me in recognition as she tugged her hair to hide the bruise, I guessed she was embarrassed. So was I.

The semester before had ended on a less-than-festive note. She had gotten drunk at a Christmas party, found me there and decided it was time to give me a kiss under the mistletoe. I wasn’t sober, either, and she wasn’t unattractive. I had no idea that she had a boyfriend. Not just a boyfriend; she was dating the Hulk.

I didn’t actually see him hit her, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it had happened. There wasn’t much I could do — the party was at his house and all — but something about the way he steered her away, taking her arm like it was the strap of a book bag, gave me the creeps. The least he could have done was take a swing at me instead.

That’s why as I walked past her a month later, it wasn’t outlandish to think the California-shaped bruise looked suspiciously like massive knuckle marks chained together.

A few weeks later, she was sitting in the library. California was gone, but there was a tear in her lip and she had a brace around her wrist. I wanted to ask her what had happened, but she left too quickly.

The next week I saw her again. Her lip was half-healed, and she had upgraded from a brace to an ace bandage. Opportunity hit when she stopped to dig her phone out of her bag. I tapped her on the shoulder, and she winced, as if I had punched her.

Louisa looked up, phone in hand. Her knuckles were raw and red.

“Oh, hello,” she said. “How are you?”

“Fine,” I said. “Haven’t seen you around in a while. What happened?” I nodded to her knuckles. She smiled the sarcastic smile that she had all of last semester when I had a question she could answer glibly.

“Would you believe me if I said it’s from Fight Club?” she asked.

“No,” I said, not smiling. “What really happened?”

“I got in a fight,” she replied, shrugging. “Battle wounds, you know.”

“He’s still beating you, isn’t he?” I started. I didn’t want the conversation to go this route so soon after our reunion, but I saw no choice. My sister had been in an abusive relationship, and I didn’t want to see any other woman just shrug and sarcastically smile it away.

“I dumped him ages ago,” Louisa laughed. “He hit me for the last time. Even told the police. They didn’t do much, of course, but his parents pulled him out of school and put him in rehab. I don’t intend to find out if it worked or not.”

My eyes squinted against the veil of her smile, trying to see through the split-lip gossamer to see if she was telling the truth.

“Fight club, huh?” I asked, deciding to play along with the joke. “Isn’t the first rule of Fight Club not to talk about Fight Club?”

“Not ours,” she said. “If we didn’t talk about it, we wouldn’t have a club.”

Thanks to Chuck Palahniuk for the inspiration.

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Excerpt: “Day 290” (from “Honeymoon”)

Although they had both passed under the signs pointing “To Ground Transportation” before, they had never been received by so many cameras. Neither had they received a police escort through Terminal 3 of O’Hare Airport. To two people who had just survived 278 days on an island bereft of healthy human life, there was only one word to describe it.

Lonely.

“We can do this,” Thom’s hand reassured as it squeezed hers.

“I don’t know,” Anna’s hand squeezed back.

“You killed that many zombies, and you’re scared of a few reporters?” his hip laughed as it bumped into hers.

“Hardly the same threat,” her eyes flashed in a side-glance.

The bottom step of the escalator came quicker than either of them wanted, and they were immediately surrounded. The two officers who stood in front of them were pushing the cameras back as the two behind them moved to their sides and shepherded them past the crowd as more flashes and questions blinded them.

“Did you know each other before?”

“How many did you kill?”

“Who are you going to visit first now that you’re home?”

“What did you eat on the island?”

“Will you ever go on an island vacation again?”

“What’s it like being home?”

“How many did you kill?”

“What thought kept you fighting?”

“How many did you kill?”

“How many did you kill?”

They had been instructed not to answer any questions and to keep their faces down. No looking at each other because it would connote a relationship that would land on People Magazine’s cover. No displays of affection, not even a look at each other, because it would become US Weekly’s money shot. But hold hands because it shows solidarity and fortitude. A handholding picture would be on Time or Vanity Fair with a tasteful cutline.

So they had exited the plane, walked through the terminal, descended the escalator and now were standing next to a coffee kiosk besieged by photographers climbing on the counters to get a better angle — all while hand-in-hand with their heads bowed.

The crowd pressed against the four soldiers and five airport personnel who had come to the rescue. Overhead, announcements and security reminders barely cut through the camera clicks and questions being hurled.

“Has this affected your stance on vaccination rights?”

“How many did you kill?”

Anna and Thom surveyed the crowd, looking for the thinnest layer. Just like old times — meaning just 12 days before — Anna squeezed Thom’s hand when she saw a spot in the surrounding melee that was only two bodies deep. He squeezed back to signal he had seen it, too, then again to say he was ready. She squeezed back one more time before Thom raised his other arm over his face, leaning in to cut through the middle of four reporters and cameramen huddled together.

Outside was a black SUV usually reserved for high-ranking politicians and visiting celebrities. The driver, a Secret Service veteran, was supposed to take Anna and Thom straight to her old condo, where another team of agents would stave off the press.

Instead, they ran past it and into the taxi column, where they jumped into the nearest white-and-teal cab.

“119 West Randolph Street,” barked Thom, sliding a stack of bills onto the driver’s armrest before ducking down to join Anna, who had already crouched onto the floor.

“That was remarkably easy,” she said. “Almost too easy.”

“You’re confusing ‘easy’ with ‘bloodless,’” Thom said.

She kissed him with smiling lips as the cab pulled into crawling traffic. Only when they felt the car get up to speed on the expressway did they sit back into the seats. Anna played with the diamond on her left hand, letting the light catch it and flash at her like the cameras had in the airport terminal. Somewhere in the haze of normal life, she had dreamed of being so important that reporters and cameras met her at the airport when she returned from some major economic summit or peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians. Instead, she was one of two surviving warriors returning home from a nine-month zombie uprising that no one even knew about until three weeks before.

Meanwhile, Thom watched the light glint off the diamond and thought about the day he had gotten it for her. The cut on his hand had scabbed over, but it still itched. It was all worth it, he thought as his eyes traveled from the ring to Anna’s downturned face.

Forty minutes later, the cab slowed.

“119 West Randolph,” the driver said. Thom worried about how quiet he had been during the drive, but didn’t dwell on it — they had gotten where they wanted to go, and no police, news crews or military seemed to be waiting for them at their destination.

He handed over another $20 before joining Anna on the sidewalk. They looked through the handful of usual protesters to the marble interior shielded by bulletproof glass walls. Anna took his hand again and gave it another squeeze. He returned it. They walked in together.

“Hi,” Anna said to the clerk at the front desk. “Can you point us toward the marriage and civil union court?”

This is the first chapter of a larger project, Honeymoon, that I started over National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) 2015.

Welcome to “Convincing the Muse”

Maya Angelou described her writing process as persistence:

“When I’m writing, I write. And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says, ‘Okay. Okay. I’ll come.'”

When I was 11, a muse decided to sit on top of my history textbook and tell me to write instead of study. More than a decade later, that muse rather watch and re-watch YouTube clips of 1950s-era Academy Award acceptance speeches.

But the last few years of creative drought have to do with more than procrastination (and having a full-time job). Sylvia Plath once said the “worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt” — and as I’ve gotten older, I understand what she meant. I used to think more life experience would help: Unfortunately, it also comes with the crippling realization that I’m not the only one with a story to tell or the ability to tell it. Sometimes, the words just don’t work in my favor.

But that doesn’t mean I’m giving up.

Convincing the Muse is an act of selfishness. It’s a site meant to encourage and challenge my writing. Yes, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. (another writing idol, or “writol”), said “Write for one person.” In this case, that one person is not you, internet explorer, but me.

But since you’re here anyway, here’s what you’ll find:

  • Excerpts are spoiler-free samples from larger projects that I’ll share once in a while. When you see these, you’ll know I’m either in a committed relationship with what I’m writing or need to make a grand romantic gesture to win back its heart.
  • Nonfiction are observations, descriptions and commentary based on real-life experiences. Stay tuned for some refreshed content from my old blog when I’m feeling lazy or busy working on something big.
  • Poetry doesn’t happen often, so don’t get your iambic (pants)ameter in a twist.
  • Short stories will be far and few between because they can be harder to write than novels.
  • Vignettes are stabs of dialogue or description that come to me when doing dishes, painting my nails, walking to work, pretending to meditate or completing other mundane activities.
  • Writespiration are photographs, songs, quotes, advice or anything else that cloud-seeds a brainstorm. Want to skip my work and start your own? Use the “Writespiration” tab up top to go straight to some shots of creative adrenaline.

If this seems like an unnecessarily strategic approach, know that my father is an engineer and my mother used to make index-card itineraries for family trips to Disney World. Over-organizing and perpetual planning are as snugly woven into my DNA as my eye color and risk for colon cancer.

Sometimes the muse decides to do stand-up comedy. Other times it broods in a one-muse angst play. You’ll find a lot of genres, moods, and characters among the posts. Some pieces will sing, and others will get stage fright from being published too soon. But they all have one thing in common: They’re proof that I’m ready to get to work.

Come at me, muse. I’m serious.