This semester’s creative writing class is already in full swing, and of all the journal entries, character descriptions, and short stories I’ve written so far, two stick out in my mind:
- Those Stupid Mints
- When Things Got Out of Hand
So I’m sharing these two pieces below with a bit of background info prefacing both.
First Up: Those Stupid Mints
BG info: “Those Stupid Mints” was written in response to an assignment where we were supposed to depict two (or more) characters ALMOST having a fight, but not quite… like, there’s bickering, and there’s some tension, but everything is sort of misplaced and blown out of proportion, because the loaded statements and general heaviness in the air are over a remote control instead of who has (or doesn’t have) control in the relationship. OR, there’s a mother/daughter pair nitpicking over socks on the floor and dishes in the sink when the deeper issue — revealed to the reader or not — is bad grades, a recent diagnosis, or a suspected pregnancy. Something along those lines.
And while this is primarily a fiction writing class, the old adage still applies: You write what you know. So I often (but not always) recycle material – either loosely or actually – from real-life characters, memories, and experiences… and Those Stupid Mints — a short little number that features an unpleasant encounter with an ex in a grocery store — actually happened a few weeks back.
And in the short passage that follows, you’ll discover a girl who is pretty straightforward with her request and a guy who becomes oddly emotional and defensive in response to it. Bonus detail: There’s a sensitive line that I chose to leave out of the workshop version: “I was willing to do anything.” Why would he say that? I mean… what the ACTUAL hell?
Those Stupid Mints
“All I’m saying is that if I ever need help, I can find someone else to help me… it doesn’t have to be you.”
He shook his head quickly and laughed at me, but not in a funny way. You probably know the type. “Whatever.”
“What do you mean, whatever? It’s not a big deal.”
He disagreed, of course. “I think it’s insane… you, coming in here and asking me to NOT do my job. To not be friendly. Trying to make me do something that isn’t natural,” he continued to himself in a descending mutter.
“I am not asking you to do something… I’m LITERALLY asking you to do NOTHING,” I cried, exasperated. “We haven’t spoken in six months, anyways, so I’m just asking you to please keep up with that. Unlike yesterday, when you said hello to me and I cried for a half hour afterwards. It’s just easier if you don’t.”
He folded his lips together in an unsmiling line as I watched one of his nostrils flare. Turning to me, he shrugged his shoulders in a way that tried to suggest I really don’t care, but the almost absent catch in his voice gave him away anyways. “Alright. Whatever. You just keep coming in here, getting your rosemary sourdough bread and that vegan chocolate cake.”
And then with those green eyes ablaze, he continued transferring clear packages of soft rolls from cart to shelf, his sidekick name tag catching the store’s harsh lights and then flashing them in my eyes, ruefully.
Stalker, I thought, storming off to buy him an apologetic container of those stupid, 10% ginger mints, because I can’t forget that he likes them.
Numero Dos: When Things Got Out of Hand
BG info: This was my first short story of the semester (classmates are critiquing it this Monday — eek!), and in crafting it, I blended fiction, nonfiction, and magical realism all up together (like a smoothie!). I found a bit of inspiration within an awkward conversation I eavesdropped on at a cafe (hey — professor’s instructions!), wove some light fiction into the middle, and then carved my ending out of an unsettling dream I had last week.
When Things Got Out of Hand
She’s holding the latte with her left hand; I wonder if she’s left-handed?
He’s watching her other hand, the right one… she waves it around constantly; wiggling her fingers, and clicking her wrist back and forth as she paints pictures that illustrate her words. She’s been talking about design, and improv, and what’s tangible and what’s not, and when she speaks, she sounds so sure of herself, so in love with the sound of her own voice… but a minute ago, I heard her saying that a hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant she’d tried shared a plaza with other things that weren’t that tangible, which didn’t make sense. Things that weren’t that popular would have made sense; things that weren’t that interesting would have been fine, too. But the word she chose to use was tangible, and I smirked a little after she said it.
Anyways, the guy she’s with has spent all morning staring at her, spending half of his energy listening to what she’s saying and the other half devising interesting ways of agreeing with what’s she saying. I’ve heard him say: “Yep!” And: “Yeah.” And then: “Oh yes. Oh yeah. Absolutely. Completely!” But most recently, we’ve been on a real “yep” spree. I haven’t heard him disagree with or challenge her yet… not even once. Remarkable.
And she’s dressed nicely; tight denim jeans and a soft blue sweater with a distinctly winterlike purple, blue, and green scarf skiing down both sides of her neck, gently crossing over her protruding collarbone. Her thin lips look a bit fuller with two careful swipes of red running across them, and the rouge on her cheeks makes her look even more sophisticated; even more alive.
“Didn’t you order something?” she asks, after an uncomfortable pause.
“Oh yeah — an omelette!” He gets up quickly, marches to the front counter, and I can overhear someone apologizing. Minutes later, the omelette has arrived, the man who ordered it seems to feel like a real hero, and all is well. He asks her to take a bite but she declines.
“Juice fast,” she explains, rolling her eyes.
Ahhhh… fancy, I muse. She and I both sneak glances over at the forbidden omelette as the pair continue talking: 3D printers and the cafe’s sound-bouncing construction were – sadly – the main highlights.
“I think we’ve established that you like fun things,” he says suddenly, maybe thirty minutes later.
Well that seemed out of nowhere, I think, reflecting on our – their – last few minutes of conversation.
“Yes, I do.” Her tone is heavy, but also smooth, like shea butter. If her words carried a scent, they’d smell like incense, and if they had a look, they’d look like tangled bed sheets. Wine-red ones.
“Then we’re going to find something fun to do,” he states coolly.
Oh god, I mourn on his behalf, laughing inside my head.
“Yes we are,” she murmurs back at him, and I can hardly contain my laughter now. Is she really not picking up on the complete and utter lameness of him?
They’re getting up to leave now — her coat is a hard-to-read gray, and his jacket is black. She’s carrying a pricey-looking purse and he’s got a laptop case.
When they step outside, they realize it’s raining. I’ve been watching the rain pummel the window all morning. Seemingly feeling brilliant, he whips out an umbrella and tries to open it; I observe him, amused. Standing underneath the cafe’s awning together, they eventually figure out how to keep the thing open, and then off they are, to do something fun together.
He’s likely wondering how much more time he’s gotta put in and she’s probably asking herself whether or not she can actually stand his arrogant attempt at coolness… whether or not kissing those agreeable lips will do anything for her at all.
It was totally a first date type of deal, I tell my best friend, and we laugh over it.
Could they tell that you were watching them?
Nah… they were too busy sucking up to each other. She was trying very hard to look and sound cool and he was trying very hard to match her. Vomit. We laugh again.
I exit the kitchen and kick off my shoes in the hallway; dingy black Vans. I shrug my leather jacket off, too, and hang it on the spacey-orange coat rack. I bought it off of Amazon last year when I decided to reclaim the house, thinking that a coat rack would make me happier somehow… bidding me goodbye in the morning and welcoming me home again in the evening, like he used to. I’d sold all of the furniture my ex and I’d bought together a few months after we split, and the place had nothing in it for a while, other than your basic appliances and a bed to sleep on. But now, a coat rack, a collection of cheerful plants, and scarves hanging like drapes from windows and door frames.
Turning away from the coat rack, I plunge my fingers into my German Shepherd’s thick, black fur and then give her a tummy a rough rubbing. I watch her jaw drop as she opens her mouth to grin up at me. I smile back down at her, pat her firmly on the back in a “run along” kind of way, and then make my way over to the staircase.
A few minutes later, up in my November Skies Blue bedroom, I’m laying in bed with a book. I try reading for a while but soon realize that I’m just re-reading the same sentences over and over again, waiting for them to register. I can’t stop thinking about that dumb couple.
Are they a couple now? I wonder. One semi-successful encounter… a two-hour long conversation… and now they’re a thing because they didn’t immediately repel each other? Shouldn’t there be a real spark in the air when two souls go ablaze? Or was there a spark and I just didn’t see or feel it?
I proceed to imagine having my own first date with someone someday. A new someone. I indulge myself in wondering where we’ll be; at a cafe, like them, or a park, or a restaurant…
Not a restaurant, I decide quickly, because I’d be too worried about them watching me eating. The ideal situation, I decide, would be a quick dip into a cafe downtown for two lattes and then a long walk around the park. If we’re walking, they’re looking at me less, I reason, and then I feel settled, having sorted this pesky matter out ahead of time. Possibly well ahead of time. I sigh.
Flinging the book onto a pillow, I scoot off of my bed, and over in the bathroom, I flip a switch on so that I can look into the mirror.
And there in the mirror, I catch my eyes first; blue-green, like late afternoon ocean water. My best friend calls them cosmic eyes, and he says it in a nice way, but I’ve always wished that they were brown. Brown eyes are so mysterious, so full of depth… and some of the loveliest things in the world are brown: coffee, chocolate, tree bark, pine cones, pinto beans, German Shepherds…
Through with my eyes, I travel down to my lips (small), nose (too round), and jaw (too round also). I take a sideways step so that I can examine my profile. What an awkward shape, I frown. I lift my wrinkly t-shirt up with one hand, bunching it against my ribcage, and cover my exposed belly button with the other, feeling the warmth of my curvy stomach and the coldness of my bony hand meet, like two opposing weather fronts. My stomach is never flat enough. Never ever ever. But I’ve always liked my hands. My grandmother casually mentioned them looking like piano hands once, back when I was much younger, and I’ve held the unintentional compliment close ever since.
But because of my stomach, I put the scale away months ago… watching it slowly tick upwards from 105 to 117 was just too painful. I decided that I would live with the belief that 117 was where I’d maxed out and fuck it if I was wrong. Since adolescence, I’d read and written all kinds of stuff about eating disorders, but I decided that owning one would be too trendy. It was simply like this: Sometimes I eat, and sometimes I don’t. Sometimes, I eat a whole damn lot. I thought about the guy’s omelette again and let my shirt fall.
Done scrutinizing, I skip down the stairs and poke my head into the living room. My best friend has his headset on and doesn’t seem to have heard me, so I figure that he’s playing video games. No need to interrupt, I decide.
Instead, I mosey into the kitchen and open the fridge; taking a quick inventory, I can’t seem to see past the numbers — two hundred and sixty calories equals x miles of jogging, y number of sit-ups, or z minutes of cardio… and whether it’s a single-serve cup of yogurt or some thick spoonfuls of egg salad, it is really worth it?
Nah. Not today, anyways. I close the fridge, tiptoe back upstairs, and fall asleep on my bed.
I wake up before sunrise, feeling that something is off. I blink a few times, shaking the drowsiness off, and slip out of bed, descending those stairs again.
I’m inexplicably drawn toward the front of the house, and I don’t question it. I creep towards the front door, hearing my heartbeat kick into high gear and feeling my sweat glands activating. In the background of my mind, I’m wondering if my best friend is awake, sensing the same weirdness that I am.
I wrap my left hand around the doorknob, molding my shape to its own, and use my right hand to draw the side-window’s curtain aside. The curtain’s pattern, or design, has always reminded me of Indian food. I can’t really explain why. My best friend and I order Indian food every Friday night to celebrate the end of another work week. And what day is it? I wonder, because I’m already tasting cumin on my tongue and curry on my lips, and I can actually feel rich bits of paneer sticking to the back of my teeth.
And now, peering through the window, I can see what’s off; there’s a man outside, standing in my front yard. That’s what it is. His back is toward me, and he isn’t doing anything but standing there. How odd, I think to myself.
And like a crazy person — like one of those idiotic, B-rated movie characters, minus the boobs — I unlock the door and step through it. The man turns around to look at me, but his face is impossible to read; the small amount of pre-dawn light outlines his general shape, and that’s it — he’s thin and of average height with short hair.
I continue facing him until he resumes facing forward, and then I notice him toss something into the front yard.
“My dog will enjoy looking for it later,” I offer, speaking aloud for the first time. My voice sounds bright, unafraid. Who am I?
He says nothing, but bends himself into halves, reaching down and then coming up again with something in his arms. He could be holding a bouquet, or a six-pack, or a stereo, or a plate carrying an omelette. But he does something with his right hand and then I hear a splashing sound, like thick drops of water are now hitting the ground.
He shakes the container, as I realize that’s what it is, and rains the liquid everywhere, and instead of watching from the window this time, I’m standing right there in the rain, watching.
In one fluid movement, he jumps further down into the yard, which has a naturally steep slope, and when he lands, there’s a splash. I realize, with less surprise than you might imagine, that the usually grassy and overgrown yard has turned into a pond. Intrigued by him and by this change in environment, my eyes are riveted on the guy as he pulls out a lighter, because it is light enough now that, though tiny, I can see what it is. I hear and watch him flick the lighter on with his right hand. He pauses.
And then when he tosses the lighter directly behind him, somehow, he lights the whole pond on fire.
At once, things become all dancey and orange — it’s beautiful, really… magical — and I’m so stunned that I’m not even sure if I’m scared yet. I return my gaze to the man’s face and he looks back at me for one hard second before closing his eyes and journeying down, down, down into the water.
A pond on fire, I think to myself, reaching for the front door knob and screaming out for my best friend and German Shepherd.