Scene of the Write: Observations on a train to St. Louis

The following are observations made from a late June train trip from Chicago to St. Louis.

Just outside of Chicago: A boat graveyard, shells of old hulls and schloops tagged with graffiti inside a barbed-wire playpen. A shredded down comforter dangles from the wire, grayish-white stuffing droopy like mid-February snow drifts.

About an hour later, we’re stopped because they “have an issue on the train” they need to deal with. Anti-masker, perhaps — we just picked up some people in Joliet — but my brain is concocting a number of Mission: Impossible scenarios. Just outside the window is a country road flanked by stone pillars. The inscription is too small to read from here, but it’s fun watching as the drivers of cars are getting out and socializing while they wait for us to move out. There’s a man in a white sedan taking selfies, and a white limo with a driver dressed to the nines, taking his chances on getting out into the humid air.

On the way to Bloomington we pass a barn that looks like a drunk giant stepped into it, splintering half the roof and one wall down while the belfry still stands, weathered but intact.

Shortly after 5:15, the man sitting next to me — the one in bright green Chuck Taylor high-tops, with a copy of Reza Aslan’s Zealot that he’s halfway through, with a kid on the way and a weekend at the Cards game with some friends before he becomes a dad (all of which I learned by eavesdropping on his phone call for the first two hours of the trip) — offers me a shot of Bulleit Bourbon from a sealed bottle. I decline and watch as he proceeds to make a bourbon and coke in a thermos mug.

It’s happy hour on a Friday in the tiny towns we pass, too. A group sits in lawn chairs next to an above-ground pool in Macoupin County, a couple igloo coolers warming in the low evening sun. It makes me wonder what would be different about me if I had grown up in a town with a grain silo next door and Amtrak route cutting through my subdivision. Or if I’d be one of those people knocking back a Bud in the summer evening, watching the train from Chicago click-clack past, wondering what life would be like if I was on it.

I see you shiver with antici…

Tim Curry wakes me up with that line some mornings. It’s just tucked into the folds of my brain, in that rolling enunciation he has:

“I see you shiver with antici—

—pation.”

I’ve seen Rocky Horror Picture Show maybe twice in my life, thought a midnight dress-up show is on my bucket list. But there’s something about that line: About the onomatopoetic joke that combines a creative sense of word play with Curry’s incomparable delivery.

I can’t even say it wakes me up on mornings where something big’s happening. It didn’t wake me up this morning, but I’m thinking about it tonight as I’m waiting for something really wonderful to happen in just a couple hours. I’d say more but…this isn’t that kind of blog. Winky-face emoji.

Instead of shivering with anticipation, here’s the scene, written out as the biggest cheat of a blog post I think I’ve ever written:

Jessie Ware’s What’s Your Pleasure album is spinning on the turntable. The cheap Victrola suitcase player doesn’t do justice to the depth of this album‘s production value, but after months of searching and waiting for Best Buy, then Amazon, to cancel my order of a vinyl copy, I finally got the album from a tiny record shop in Chicago. Buy local, buy indie. The song that’s playing is “Step Into My Life.” Every song on this album is good, though. This and Rina Sawayama’s SAWAYAMA kept me sane during Summer of My Suburban Pandemic.

A candle from Burke & Hare Co. is burning. It’s the Nevermore scent — tobacco, teakwood, vanilla and black pepper, like a high-line cologne that covers up the smell of the brownies I baked earlier.

Instead of reading the biography on Gypsy Rose Lee that’s waiting for me on my bedside table or watching the third episode of Halston on Netflix or god forbid doing more online shopping, I’m waiting for Sims 4 to finish updating so I can build a house and bulldoze it. That’s what I do now, I’ve learned. Sims isn’t fun as an adult: The excitement of building a person, giving them a house, finding them a job, make friends when you’re a barely a teenager completely dulls when you realize that your little virtual person is just as damn tired as you are, juggling the house, the job, the friends. So now I just build and demolish, like a kid constructing sandcastles at the beach.

I told a friend last night that I didn’t know what to do with myself now that my beta reader team has a copy of the first half of my novel: The logical thing would be to start the second half, but I’m far from logical with a can of Dark Horse wine in my system. He suggested I put on music and dance around the apartment.

Jessie Ware just started singing “Mirage (Don’t Stop).” Seems as good a time as ever to get on my my groove.

Leave the ghosts behind

Every box I packed last week, I made sure that none of the infected things were in it.

Nothing that had your memory on it made it into a box. Nothing that you had given me with a card, or shipped me in those polka-dotted sacks that Amazon uses to specify that someone half-dead on their feet put into a bag for someone who didn’t order it. None of the empty vases from my birthday flowers; not the crumpled business card or shotgun shell on a chain or the event wristbands curling into itself on my counter after your last visit; none of the burned CDs you left in my car — remember when we’d tear down silent suburb streets in that 2003 Impala, Nate Ruess and Janelle Monae declaring that we were young?

Instead I held a funeral at the garbage shoot: My own memorial to the people who had come and gone — or, rather, the times I had to the people who had come and gone. A wake for the person I was with them, and the parts of me that they had taken with them as souvenirs.

And I thought it would work. I really did. After all, we always say at the coffin’s edge “They’re in a better place.” And I’m sure all of you went to better places with husbands, wives, children, functioning livers, fulfilling careers. And, truth be told, I myself am in a better place than where many of you left me — a new apartment with in-unit laundry and a private balcony.

But when all the boxes were packed and taped, then untaped and unpacked, it became clear: I could set afire the love notes and friend notes with a bundle of smoking sage, but it wouldn’t burn the memories of you out of my mind.

So I guess I took you with me. I’ll try not to bother you.

Hope you enjoy the fresh air and sharp dryer buzzer.

The first paragraph of my autobiography

Today the vice president of my department gave everyone on our team an assignment. She usually sends a TED talk or think piece out on Fridays as “Friday Inspo,” and oftentimes we all read it, comment, and move on. But today was different: She asked us each to write the first paragraph of our autobiography.

I had two things each working simultaneous for and against me. The first is that I am relatively new to our team. Although I’ve been with the company for more than five years, I haven’t worked a job like this or with almost any of my current teammates before — so this assignment was a way of introducing myself as much as it was a way for me to learn abou teveryone I hear on weekly or daily calls.

The second was that I am a writer, and sell myself/have been sold as such, which means there’s a considerable amount of pressure to turn in something that will knock all their contact lenses out with its powerful prose and turn-of-phrase. I practice enough that I should be good at it, but I also work with incredible wordsmiths in their own (w)right, which means even more pressure was on during the four hours I spent reading the prompt, some of the paragraphs my peers were submitting, and crafting my own version.

If I was being a bit more honest about it, I might have explored my two greatest fears: The first, that I become boring. COVID has severely impacted the effort to avoid this, but between NaNoWriMo, Dungeons & Dragons, my friend launching a media business and naming me her unofficial executive producer, this blog, etc., I’m hoping that I’ll squeak by until a vaccine and solid injection of common sense make its way into the world’s populace. The second, that I become incapable of supporting myself. Daily fitness routines and smart spending are my antidotes to this one, as of today anyway.

Instead, I decided to sink fully into my reputation as an outlandishly inventive writer who’s still trying to figure out exactly who she’s supposed to be. It took a deep dive into my past writing projects (including a few key omissions), but after approvals from Cody and Hannah, I submitted this:

When I was 11, I was a teen pop sensation. Then, at 14, an identical twin with secret agent parents. Two years later, a high school student returned from the dead to settle an unfinished score, then in college a barfly conscripted into a city-wide mob war. Around 25 I became a brain-chipped assassin sprinting through abandoned Chicago streets, and two years later got a job as a press agent for a state-sanctioned superhero, accidentally killed my client, and started wearing the cape and cowl in her place. Lately I’ve been switching between voyaging the mystical seas as a half-elf haunted by demons and traversing the Wild West as a rancher’s daughter who joined a train robbery gang to avoid marrying the undertaker’s boring son. I’ve been all of these before turning 30, but I’ve never shot a gun or saved a city; never performed on stage or returned from the afterlife; never had a computer chip installed in my brain (I don’t think…) or spent much time in the western half of the U.S. And yet I’ve pulled these personas on like second skins over my own, creating complex characters on page after page, if only to avoid having to figure out my own true identity. I guess it’s time to do that here, so I’ll do it the only way I know how: Pen to paper, fingers to keys, one chapter at a time.

“These are my roaring, roaring 20s”

He looked like John Mulaney, and I kissed him — not at midnight on New Years, but sometime around 12:38 a.m.

At least, I think he looked like John Mulaney. That could have been the gin martinis making my eyes thirstier. He was taller than me, even when I stood out like a sore toe in a thigh-high stiletto boots, and had the same long, 1940s face with the added charm of a small gap between his front teeth. Dark V-neck sweater. Clear liquor in a glass. Can of Red Bull because he asked the bartender for it. A medical degree in the works.

I though he was named Ken and from Philly, but when he gave me his number, learned he was actually named Phil and from Kentucky. Blame the gin and the number of times he twirled me around the dance floor like it was 1920, not 2020.

That’s what happens in a time machine. Through a subtle entrance sandwiched between a CVS and parking garage, down a flight of stairs, and we had slipped a century away. A big band greeted us from the main stage upon our arrival. Charlie Chaplin illuminated the library wing as a woman swung from a suspended hoop behind a popcorn vendor in plum brocade. Tasseled burlesque dancers performed behind crimson curtains in another side room. The stage was flanked by “Adults Only!” peep show nickelodeon boxes — dip your face into the viewing window and see Mae Dix slide off her stockings. Lift your face up, and three women in beaded flapper gowns might tickle your nose with their cigarette holders as they pass by, balancing delicate coupe glasses in their silk gloves.

Follow one of those women, and she was likely to lead you to the barber in a black vest and wax mustache, prepped with a straight razor and cream for any lady who’d like to get the closest leg shave imaginable while reclining in a chair in the middle of the main dancefloor. Exhibition at its finest, as the women would tilt their heads back with a smile, drop-pearl headpieces dangling in the light, as the barber ran the blade up their shins (though never past their knees).

At 1:30 a.m. the overhead lights came on, reminding us that we had rung in 2020 and had to return to the world of rideshares, drunken text messages, braggadocio Instagram posts, disposable fashion, Monster energy drinks, microwaveable breakfast sandwiches, scheduled blog posts, Netflix accounts, Venmo requests, yoga classes, allergy pills, teeth whitening, chipped nail polish, and Lululemon merchandise exchange lines. I had lost track of Phil from Kentucky — or was it Ken from Philly? — and had gained clear consciousness of the pain in my feet from five solid hours of dancing.

One 30-minute Lyft ride in a Nissan Altima, and I was home, about 10 minutes from the speakeasy supper club on a normal night, ready for the roar in my ears to subside for just a few hours so I could get some sleep and start 2020 well-rested and ready to dance the nights away all over again.

A flapper in black and pearls sits in a barber’s chair in the middle of a club dance floor as a 1920s-styled barber shaves her legs.

A flapper gets her legs shaved at Untitled Supper Club’s “Bootleggers Ball” on New Years Eve 2020

Vignette: Patrick Bateman is my neighbor

I’ve got a confession to make. “In The Air Tonight” by Phil Collins is not on my phone.

That is why, when I woke up to the iconic bah-dum-bah-dum-bah-dum-bah-dum-dum drum riff at the 3-minute-and-16-second mark at 5:15 a.m. on a Saturday, I knew it wasn’t my alarm waking me up. That would have been the bink-beng-bum-bink-beng-bum-bink-beng-bum-bink-bink-beng-bum guitar of “Come and Get Your Love” by Redbone.

A quick scan of my apartment confirmed that the poltergeist who had knocked one of my framed pictures off the wall two nights before hadn’t continued its mischief by turning my stereo on, either.

“You don’t know who this is?” slurred a voice as loud as the music. “How do you not know who this fucking is?”

Of course I knew who this was, but apparently my neighbor’s guest, a girl cackling with liquored-up laughter, didn’t, and was now enduring his wrath as he continued yelling over Phil’s echoing, ethereal eloquence.

And then — silence.

Maybe he’s murdering her with an ax, I thought during the absence of sound. Seems a high price to pay for not knowing a song, but Patrick Bateman killed over business card stock after explaining Huey Lewis and the News to Paul Allen in American Psycho, so anything’s possible.

The next morning I ran into her as she left his apartment, heels in hand and mascara dust powdering her cheeks. She had the flush of someone who had had a good night. Thank god I wasn’t awake to hear that part.

We stood waiting for the elevator, with her flipping through social media on her phone so she doesn’t have to acknowledge me. And I wasn’t going to say anything until she almost ran me over in an attempt to get into the empty elevator that had just arrived.

As we descended 20 floors, I began to whistle “In the Air Tonight.”

Scene of the write: Colectivo Coffee

I envy how little kids can fall and get back up without blinking an eye.

An almost sickeningly cute child in glasses just took a nosedive off the bench outside the window, tucked, rolled, and resumed eating his perfectly in-tact, cartoonish pink-frosted donut like nothing had happened. Meanwhile, little sister in white tights and black vinyl Mary Janes looked on, absentmindedly patting the head of her minature beagle mut mix of whatever.

Last time I took a spill like that, I bled through the knee of my jeans during an entire Colts-Dolphins game at Lucas Oil Stadium. A blend of blood and leaking ego turned the denim black.

There are two women down the row from us. One just announced she couldn’t decide whether to buy something in a size two or four. Then she continued picking at her avocado toast.

What I thought might be a coffee first-date next to me turned out to be a few friends meeting up. That’s why I like coffee shops on Sunday afternoons: A lot of times you get first dates between people who met at the bar on Friday and knew they’d be too hungover the next day to be first-date worthy. But no, these are just a couple mix-matched grad students from DePaul trading stories of where they studied abroad: Peru, Sweden, Texas.

Of course, I don’t even know how many people have eavesdropped on my conversations in these places before. I’m sure it made someone’s nght when The Man With Time on His Arm and I discussed Taco Bell Cantina’s presumable house wine as a fermented version of their taco sauce. Or just now, with Frannie and I talking about starting a Tindr-like app for people who want to spend just an hour with a dog on their lap while watching Judge Judy.

Oh, the conversation snipets we leave behind, like skin cells and donut sprinkles smeared across the pavement outside this window. 

 

#NaNoWriMo2018 Day 26: The city’s ribcage

For being called “The Oculus,” it looks more like a ribcage than something that can see — especially in this February fog. Its bones splay out, opening its spine up to the sky and exposing the invisible heart that floats within. It’s the heart that holds all of the memories of what used to be in this spot before that Tuesday in September, so no wonder the ribcage is open: It’s trying to let out some of that agony.

The Oculus building stands in New York at the World Trade Center

The Oculus in New York overshadowed by a February fog.

Writespiration: Birthing a story

Maybe I heard this somewhere else before and am just stealing it now. If that’s the case, please tell me. If not, read me out:

Writing a story is like giving birth.

I say this having never given birth myself, but knowing several people who have. No birth is the same. Some are somewhat easy — Mom says she practically sneezed my sister out — and others require scalpels and spinal injections. But in the end, writing anything leaves you feeling tired, accomplished and relieved, with a beautiful future of shepherding the work throughout the rest of its (and possibly your) life.

The same goes for writing. Some stories and poems exit fairly smoothly: Not too smoothly. That means they’re not done being told yet: And these premie stories require a lot of nurturing before they can stand on their own. That’s not to say they’re bad or nonviable. Most National Novel Writing Month stories are this way, sliding out tactlessly only to mature on the outside when an editor’s pen goes to them. They’re just deceptively slippery and too anxious to land on a page.

Then there are the 12-hour labors, the stories that leave you sweaty and exhausted but proud when they’re done. They can be reluctant to leave the warmth of the womb-like imagination, grappling at the walls with their little fingernails to stay inside just a little longer, using plot holes and unclear transitions like handholds. But eventually they, too, squeeze themselves onto a page.

And then there are the Cesarean sections of stories — the ones that a writer has to cut themselves open to extract because of a deadline or misguided promise or pressure from readers. I’ve read too many books by authors that took a knife to their brain, ripped it open and plopped the story onto a page without much more care, Sadly, the stitches used to close their brains back up often heal wrong, making it impossible for them to ever write another thing that doesn’t read forced.

If I’m being honest, Omaha was a C-Section of a book because I had a literary agent waiting to read it. But my newest project goes from easy to laborious and back again — completely enjoyable the entire time as I leisurely let it make its way from brain to page.

Writespiration: Tell the whole truth, or nothing but a little of the truth?

Today is a hot one in Chicago — the kind of wet electric blanket heat that flash-steams your lungs and makes a hot yoga studio more comfortable than out on the street. Plus, at least you know every vinyasa is toning your triceps and there’s no self-consciousness because everyone around you is sweating, too.

Well, almost everyone.

While most of us were risking our lives doing crow pose and Warrior II in puddles of our own making, the woman next to me didn’t let a single drop of sweat fall from her skin. She was perspiring, but instead of leaving it all literally on the mat, she was coated in a glossy sheen that made her look like she had the same perfectly golden skin as a roasted chicken.*

*I hadn’t eaten anything in 16 hours when I went to class, in case you were wondering.

And then I remembered something my friend Aya said — or maybe it was something I said to her, or maybe it’s something I thought I should say to her:

“Never trust anyone who doesn’t sweat in a yoga class.”

Right now I’m working on a book that’s going to have a couple twists and oh-shit moments, and even though I know where they are in the plot, I have no idea how I’m going to get there. When I thought of that line of dialogue this morning — whether spoken in my real life or not — I figured out an important piece of that journey. Never trust anyone who doesn’t sweat in a yoga class: And it just so happens this one character never comes out of the studio looking damper than she did when she went in. It’s the clue the main character needs to crack the mystery wide open.

 

Funny, how adapting small quotes or details from life seems to be a lot easier for me than actually writing a full story of something going on in my life.

A week ago I started mentally writing the intro for a non-fiction book that I want to write one day. It describes meeting someone who’s now a large part of my life, and if all parties involved give me permission, maybe I’ll publish it on this blog. It’s the first time as an adult that I’ve written about a relationship in my life without disguising the names or weaving it into a story about characters that only exist in my head.

The writing part was easy because I’ve told the full story to enough people verbally that I’ve had time to perfect the language, pace the plot, time the jokes and edit out the parts my “audience” finds boring. It’s like I’ve been working on an invisible draft of the story for months before even putting pen to paper.

But the actual act of committing the story to a page with the intention of someone else reading it? That takes moxie — and a bit of monstrosity, according to Anthony Bourdain:

“If you’re a writer or a storyteller of any kind, there is something already kind of monstrously wrong with you. Let’s face it — it is an unreasonable attitude to look in the mirror the morning and think, ‘You know, there are people out there who would really like to hear my story.'”

And I think that’s what it is. I don’t like putting stories from my life down on paper because it feels like my ego is getting in the way of my judgment of what makes a good story. I’m comfortable thinking “That line about not trusting people who don’t sweat at yoga is great for a book,” but not comfortable thinking “That journey about how I hated all forms of physical activity until I found yoga at 19 would make a great nonfiction piece.” Everyone has a story like that, and I guarantee more than one person has written it down — and well, too.

But I think I’ve found a story worth telling now. And so we’ll see how going from “fiction with a smattering of truth” to “truth that reads like conventional rom-com fiction” goes. I think I might be ready to sweat it.