Sunday, November 12, 2006

Searching the past for inspiration, part 1: "Four Wise Men" (short story)

Lately, I've been trying to inspire myself to get back into my writing, so I've been looking through my portfolio for works that don't quite embarrass me. I thought I'd post some things here on my blog.

Near the end of 2001, I wrote a series of vigniettes that really went no where and meant nothing. They were part of a Christmas gift I gave someone, a collection of four of my favorite books, each with one part of this story glued to the inside cover. I've always liked the voice of this character, but I've never figured out if there's anywhere for her to go.
"Four Wise Men"

1. When he knocked on the open door, I continued gazing at my reflection in the full-length closet mirrors, crinkling my nose and pivoting my body back and forth. I said, "The girl in the mirror tells me that my breasts are too small," which is the truth - she does.

"And what do you think about that?" he asked, taking two tentative steps through the doorway of my bedroom.

I had not thought about there being a difference. I placed my hands on my hips, resting the weight of my body on my right leg and shook my head, saying, "I don't believe her lies." I faced him for the first time, and he smiled at me. I asked, "Are you taking Aimee out tonight?"

"I thought I might," he said. He put his hands in his pockets. "What do you think? Does she deserve it?"

"I guess," I said, shrugging, stepping back, and dropping my butt down onto the edge of my bed. "But of course the real question is whether or not you want to run the risk of being seen in public with her."

"Ah. Yes. Well. I think I'll try it, anyway," he said. He looked around my room, and then his eyes went to the nativity figurines sitting on the small table beside the closet.

"You waiting for her to get out of the bathroom?" I asked.

"Yeah, she's putting her make-up on," he said, stepping in closer, with his eyes still fixed on the nativity. "Your nativity has four wise men, you know that?"

"Yeah, I know."

"It come like that?" he asked, kneeling beside the table. "They don't seem to match."

"Nah," I said, leaning back with my elbows on the bed. "But Mom had an extra wise man lying around, and I figured four wise men's as good as three. Besides I read somewhere that they don't even know for sure how many wise men there really were, anyway."

"That's true," he said. He nodded approvingly. "Cool baby Jesus."

"Yeah. I know. His hair rocks." I lay down on my bed, longways, with my legs sticking up in the air above me. "I saw this thing on T.V., once, about how millions of people - like, you know, kids - write hundreds of letters to baby Jesus and Santa Claus every Christmas and how the post office has nowhere to deliver all these letters, so different people volunteer to read the letters and respond to them."

"You're thinking of that Greg Kinnear movie," he said, standing and turning to face me.

"No, but I've seen that too. This was like a news story I saw once. Anyway, I wonder if they'd do the same thing if a bunch of kids started sending Christmas cards to Osama bin Laden."

He grabbed my left air-born ankle and wiggled it around like a giant stick shift. "Why? You thinking of writing him?"

"Not really," I said. "I just wondered what would happen if I did. If I'd get some kind of response or not. Maybe the FBI would show up and carry me away."

Right then, Aimee appeared in the doorway. "Okay," she said. "Sorry that took so long. I was about to start getting ready when Monica called and talked my ear off about this new guy she's sleeping with. Big surprise, right? Anyway, you ready, sweetie?"

"Yeah, I'm ready," he said, releasing my ankle. "Want us to bring you back anything?" he asked me.

"No," I said. "That's okay. I think we have some waffles in the freezer."


2. My sister's fiancé is this guy named Freddy. I like Freddy because he'll sit with me and eat peanut butter right out of the jar with spoons with me and because he tells me crazy things that make no sense most of the time but are cool to think about and ponder. Like one afternoon while we were eating peanut butter together, Freddy told me that he thought maybe the word "heaven" was just another way of saying "unstuck in time," which was a phrase he had read once in some Kurt Vonnegut book he says he's going to make me read one day. He said that maybe when we die, a part of us becomes eternal while another part of us remains eternally temporal, so that we simultaneously inhabit every moment of our lives at once. Thus all the dark, painful moments become joined with all the exciting, joyful moments, and what results is a perfect eternal peace about everything and a oneness with God. That part's important, he said. He said that since we'd neither be in pain and suffering any longer nor distracted by what we think of as our best moments, God would have our full attention, and we would suddenly see him present in every event in our lives. We'd no longer feel betrayed for the times that we were hurting, when he failed to intervene, because we'd experience those same moments as infinite and would come to understand their meaning in our lives. Likewise, we'd be free from the idolatry of pleasure and would look on pleasurable moments for the first time with true sobriety and wisdom. That's what Freddy told me.

I asked Freddy if he really believed this about heaven, and he said, no, of course not, that heaven was a large urban city with gold paved streets and traffic cops and everything.

That night when I was lying in bed alone, I tried to imagine Freddy's eternity. I tried to picture the very worst thing that ever happened to me and imagine experiencing it in the very same moment in which Freddy and I had had our conversation about eternity over spoons of peanut butter. The worst thing I could think of having happened to me had happened a year earlier, when I was fourteen, and I'd never told anyone about it. An older boy I had liked named Joel tried to force me to do it with him.

Joel had come over to my house while no one else was at home. At first we were just kissing, but then he was getting too physical for me and started pushing me to the floor to lie down on top of me. Trying to picture this again, I felt his weight pressing down on me, his violent muscular arms trying to force me into submission. I told him no. I told him to get off of me. I knew if I could get my legs free of him - I have strong legs from years of ballet training - I could kick him off, but he had my legs pinned just above the knees with his legs. I began to cry, scream, and wonder why I didn't feel like a kid anymore, wondering if my parents or Aimee would get home sooner than I expected them, which was not soon at all.

Then I tried to imagine the scent of Freddy's peanut butter breath and to hear his voice, like he was right beside me, telling me about being unstuck in time after we die. So far this didn't feel like heaven. It felt more like drowning or acting in an Eminem video, just remembering it so vividly, this boy, rubbing himself all over me, trying to tear my clothes from me while subduing my flailing limbs. At first it made me angry to think that Freddy would not help me. I watched him sitting on the couch above me, sitting there eating peanut butter and talking to me about eternity. I asked Freddy why he didn't love me anymore.

"What kind of question is that?" Freddy asked me. His breath smelled so sweet like peanuts in my mind that for a moment I wanted to kiss him and tell him that I was sorry for ever having asked such a ridiculous question, and I did not feel alone anymore.


3. The girl in the mirror tells me that my breasts are too small. She also says that my hips are too narrow, my lips too thin, and my ankles too fat. She says these things relentlessly, refusing to cease and desist. Her verbal assaults on my appearance begin every time I encounter her and continue until we have parted our ways. Sometimes she constructs awful rhymes about my body and sings them to her amusement at my expense. "Your chest is flat/Your ankles fat/You have no hips/Too thin are your lips . . ." and so on and so forth to her heart's content.

Sometimes I argue with the girl in the mirror. Our arguments go like this:

Girl in the Mirror: "You are ugly."

Myself: "No, I am not. I am beautiful, and so - by the way - are you."

"Who are you kidding? We both know that there's a million things wrong with both of us."

"Yes, but those imperfections are what give our beauty character. Besides, no one is perfect."

"Aimee is perfect."

"Aimee is beautiful, yes, but she's not perfect."

"She's prettier than either of us."

"Well, okay, maybe she is, but then again, maybe she isn't. Maybe we're each pretty in our own right, incomparable to each other."

"You are flat chested. Guys like big chested girls. Therefore, you are ugly."

"Okay, now you're not even arguing logically." This is the usual pattern of our disagreements.

Now, technically, the girl in the mirror has made some valid assertions. I'm by no means chesty. I asked Freddy once about whether or not that mattered. Our conversation went like this:

Myself: "Guys like big boobs, don't they?"

Freddy: "Hrm? Excuse me?"

"You heard me. Just be honest. All else being equal, if there were two versions of me, one with large breasts and one like I am, which would most guys be drawn to?"

"Been talking to that girl in the mirror again, haven't you."

"Stop. I'm for real here."

"Any guy who'd pass you by for some bosomy bimbo--"

"But I'm talking about me! She has everything I have, all the same personality traits and same appearance except I'm an A cup and she's a C or a D."

"Look. Yeah, it's a thing for some guys. But not all of them. Me? Look at Aimee. You're probably chestier than she is, and you're only fifteen. I happen to prefer a girl with a slender build."


"Definitely. It's not like I'm attracted to your sister for her personality." Upon hearing him, Aimee came in from the kitchen and whacked him with a spatula.

Later that same night, I went to Aimee's room before going to bed. Our conversation went like this:

Myself: "Aimee?"

Aimee: "Yeah, what's up?"

"Do you think I'm beautiful?"

"Are you kidding me? Of course I think you're beautiful!"


"Yes, really. In fact, I'm jealous of you. I think you're just about the most beautiful woman I've ever known." I thought I might cry in front of her, so I ran out.

That night while I was brushing my teeth, the girl in the mirror told me that my breasts were too small. I told her that her mouth was too big and that she should keep it shut. She left me alone after that and went back to brushing her teeth in silence.


4. I'm positively in love with this boy named Nathan. He is beautiful and kind, and his voice is musical to me when he talks in my ears. However, Nathan is a year younger than I am. Freddy says good on Nathan - every man deserves at least one fling with an older woman - but I worry about the potential differences in maturity. I'm rather mature for my age, and I'm not at all certain that Nathan is ready for a woman like me.

The question first became of serious importance to me after my first double date. I'm not actually allowed to date or have a boyfriend until I'm thirty (or so says my father), but I am allowed to go out with Aimee and Freddy when they go out and to bring a friend along with me. The first time I tried this with Nathan, we all went out for shakes and fries at the Sonic Burger. Nathan ordered an eggnog shake (special for Christmas) and sounded musical as he did so. That was the highlight of the evening.

For the rest of the night, however, Nathan was too busy joking, flaunting, and generally showing off to be beautiful, kind, or musical in the least. Frankly, I was embarrassed to put Freddy and Aimee through it all. "Don't worry about it," Freddy said later on, after I had apologized for the whole debacle.

"I just really wanted you two to like Nathan," I said, "and instead he acted like such a boy."

"Yeah, well, expect that for a few more years, sis," Aimee said. "They stay boys for what seems like an eternity."

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