Returning the Ring

As I discussed in an earlier post, I have mixed feelings about autobiographical fiction. The following is very, very much based in reality. I wrote it about two years ago as an autobiographical fiction assignment for my personal narrative class. I suppose I could tell you what parts are fictional, but that would take away all the mystery and fun, wouldn’t it?

By the way, any feedback and comments are appreciated.

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I left my car running in the driveway. The exhaust coughed as I walked to his front door with a plastic bag. It was sometime before seven and Scott was sure to be in bed for at least another four hours.

Good morning, love. I hope you have a wonderful day!

My day was already planned. Feeling sorry for myself after a night of little sleep, I had called in sick to work. The idea of spending eight hours typing useless data and making numbed small talk with women in surrounding cubicles was just too much. After graciously returning Scott’s belongings, I would stop into the coffee shop and get a quad-shot iced americano that, between the sickly bitter espresso and obnoxious amount of ice, would eventually give me a headache. That headache would later be dulled with a half bottle of vodka and fruit juice while I got bikini baked.

Don’t let David hit on you anymore, otherwise Imma have to go down to Ohio to beat his ass. 

His junk had to go. A cello concerto scribbled on a stack of staff paper, a Russian textbook I had borrowed, pit-stained undershirts I had begged him to bleach, and a six pack of Leinie’s Red. I walked up to the front porch and dropped it all into a heap. I dug into my pocket for the last item – a ring of his grandmother’s.

xoxoxoxoxoxoxoxxo

The tiny pile insulted me. After a year, this was all I had to show. Scott wasn’t the nesting type, apparently. Not with me anyway. He never said sweet things to me. I figured he just had the quiet kind of affection. So of course it was a little surprising to see that he was willing to send adorations via text to a girl who lived three states away.

I’m going to rehearsal now, but I’ll be thinking of you the whole time. xoxo

I wanted the revenge to be grand. I wanted him humiliated. Everything I could think of seemed so typical: Spraying painting “cheater” across the front of his house. Salting the lawn. Sprinkling sugar in his gas tank. Putting his name and number in the craigslist casual encounters. Signing him up for subscriptions to eight different fetish magazines. Slamming an axe into the hood of his car. Buying a billboard and listing his indiscretions. I wanted to do it all though. I wanted to make his life as difficult as possible.

I wanted him to burn with shame the way I had when I had seen the text messages the night before. Scanning his inbox, I found he told this “Belle” that he loved her more times in the previous five hours than he had in eleven months with me. The worst part was that the texts were burned into my memory and kept playing on repeat like a short film.

I love you, Belle. 

I put the ring between my teeth and reached to tear pages out of the Russian textbook and shred his concerto. I ripped the t-shirts in half while considering what to do with the ring. I could toss it in the lawn and let the lawn mower jam up next time he mowed. I could somehow melt it down into the shape of a dog turd and send it with a friendly note.

I wanted that ring to be destroyed. He had left the other things with me without a thought. He had copies of the concerto on his computer. The textbook was two editions old, and he neither remembered nor cared about the vocabulary and verbs. I cracked open a beer and tipped it upside down, soaking the pile.

Next door, a neighbor was unraveling a hose to water his flowers. He watched while I smiled, waved, and reached for another bottle. I poured all six onto his things.

It started to feel good. Almost as good as I had felt the night before, slapping him across the face.

I wish I could be there to hold you as you fell asleep tonight. 

But this ring was more than all of that. It was still resting between my front teeth and saliva, no longer held back by tight lips, was beginning to creep out of the corners. He had given it to me two months earlier, on the morning of an audition. We had spent the better part of a year at universities two hours apart and I had decided to transfer to his university. I told my friends I was transferring to save money, but I really did it to be closer to Scott. He had encouraged me, saying it was obvious that music was in my soul and that I should study with the violin professor at his university.

“Literature doesn’t suit you,” he told me. “But it’s obvious that music is your real passion.”

Flattered by his apparent ability to realize things about myself that I didn’t, I prepared an audition to complete my minor. He had done his best to convince me to change degrees altogether, but I wasn’t willing to dedicate four more years to a bachelor’s degree. While my fingers were callusing and my neck developed a persistent red mark from my violin, Scott encouraged me and told me he was looking forward to playing in the orchestra with me.

On the morning of the audition, I was running through the second movement of the Haydn concerto in a moist practice room when he had knocked on the door, an americano in one hand and the other in his pocket. “Morning, love,” he said. “How’s it going?”

“I’m nervous. I can’t get the double stops right in the cadenza,” I said, taking the americano from his hand. “I mean, I can get them right half the time, but the other half sounds like crap.”

“You have nothing to worry about,” Scott said, kissing my forehead. He sat down on the piano bench. “You’re going to get in no problem. Half the violinists here suck anyway. Play a little for me.”

I took a drink from the americano, ignoring how it burnt my tongue and focusing instead on the tensions in my body. My left shoulder had a knot. My wrists were sore. The spot on my neck felt raw. My fingers were sweaty and rigid. The caffeine I was sucking down wasn’t going to help me feel any less shaky. I handed the drink to Scott and picked up my violin. While I played, Scott watched. I got through the cadenza perfectly. When I finished, he stood up and kissed me again.

“I’m proud of you, Ashley,” he told me, hugging me. “Like I said before, you’re going to do just fine. There’s no reason to stress.”

“I know, I just haven’t done this in a while.”

“I want to give you something,” Scott said. He reached into his pocket, retrieved the ring, and pressed it into my hand. “It’s for luck.”

“Thank you,” I said, looking at it. A think silver band with small dots framing a smooth center. It made me think of a zipper. I slid it over my right ring finger, not wanting him to think I thought it signified an engagement or promise.

“It used to be my grandmother’s. It’s really not worth anything, but I wanted you to have it,” he said. “I found it in my dresser the other day.”

“Thank you,” I said, a little amazed he had given me a family ring. “It’s really nice of you.”

His jaw got tight and he suddenly looked like he regretted giving it to me. “It’s not like…you know, a ring ring.” he said. “It’s not an heirloom or anything, just something my grandfather made for my grandma and I somehow got a hold of it.”

“Don’t worry, I know. An engagement ring would have to have a big ol’ diamond, anyway,” I joked, sensing his discomfort.

I still think he’s an asshole.

I took the ring out of my mouth and looked at it. Slimy with my spit, it shined a bit more than usual. It was ugly. I had recognized that the moment he gave it to me. Since it was too big for any of my fingers, I had put it on a chain of beads and occasionally wore them around my neck. He had given it to me halfheartedly so I wore it halfheartedly. Maybe it was his last ditch effort to commit to me. By giving me a tangible sign of commitment – even if it was a worthless piece of family jewelry – maybe he felt like he would have to fully commit to me. Maybe it was a peace offering when I didn’t realize there was a conflict. Maybe it was a pathetic attempt at making up for what I was about to find in a few weeks. Whatever it was, it didn’t make much sense.

I remembered his face the night before, when he came into the room, seeing me with his phone my hand. Shocked. Eyes and mouth gaping. Taking a second and hoping the worst hadn’t happened, he swallowed and asked, “Did I miss a call?”

“No, but who the fuck is ‘Belle My Dearest’?”

Suddenly I realized the emptiness in my stomach. I blinked hard and dropped the ring on the pile. I took the empty bottles, placed each neatly in the cardboard caddy, and crowned the weepy mound.

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Welcome back to fiction, Ashley!

I met with a former professor a few weeks ago, telling her I wanted to pick her brain on writing and publishing but secretly hoping some of her brilliance would rub off on me and inspire me to write an incredible best-selling novel or memoir. I ended up going away with my publication process knowledge reaffirmed (search for lit mags and journals, write a short cover letter, include a SASE, include your manuscript, expect rejection), a realization that I am unfamiliar with the concept of economy of language, and a name to contact about a writer’s group.

I met with the writer’s group today. It was a slightly varied group, our ages ranging from 24 to what I assume was 50s. I was the only female to show up today. Apparently one was hungover, the other three had other obligations. We discussed two first chapters – one a sci-fi and the other a sort of coming of age story that reminded me a lot of David Rhodes. While I had a difficult time critiquing the sci-fi since it’s a genre I literally never read, I realize it’s probably a good exercise for me to read and think about.

It was exciting to talk with other writers, to know that there are people slaving away at computers (one used a typewriter, claiming it was too easy to highlight and delete passages he’d miss later on), and that I am welcome to join them. It was surprisingly refreshing to be confronted with fiction again. I’ve spent the last year so intent on writing memoir that  fiction has become this sort of looming figure in the back of my head. I told myself to avoid it because I felt so passionately about writing my own stories. In the past, a person or a phrase would stick in my head and I’d think to include it in a short story. It’s been years since I’ve met a new person in my head. But talking with these guys reminded me of all the possibilities of  fiction.

There’s a definite comfort in writing memoir: things happen to you. Reflect. It’s as simple as that. With fiction, you have the responsibility to create realistic and likable characters, worlds need to feel real, the plot needs to feel immediate and make sense, pacing needs to feel just right, the language succinct, all while maintaining an honest true-to-you voice.

It’s a lot to take on, but that’s exciting to know that I’m able to do that. I’ve done it in the past, and now that I’ve gone through and discussed books and stories and theories for hours upon hours, I know what makes something successful.

So I’m planning on taking the time tomorrow to sit and write fiction. I have a scenario, characters, a conflict, and a bit of dialogue. With any luck, I’ll be able to get a first draft out.

Dear Jackass

I’m in the process of moving. Like most people, I hate the idea of packing everything up because it requires a lot of time and energy. I do, however, love the necessity of going through everything to see what objects I once deemed necessary to hang on to. I found that I had made nice folders containing old syllabi, class readings, writing exercises, and manuscripts from classes I took at UW-Milwaukee. The class folder I just went through was from my Intro to Fiction course. Me writing fiction is a silly thing when I think about it. The true fiction that I wrote seems very silly. I never have a clear picture of where I want my fiction to go, much less a greater moral or deeper truth to the piece. Anything readers claimed to have found in my fiction was a product of their active imaginations and literally nothing I had intended. I sort of felt like I was playing a joke on the readers. “Haha, this piece is about nothing. Good luck finding meaning in it!” I wonder if I’m the only writer to feel like that. It’s been a while since I’ve written fiction, but I remember just letting the story go where it wanted to. 

I was a moderator on a fiction board for a writing forum. I had posted a story about a guy who kept pacing back and forth on a street, popping quarters into parking meters, only to be deeply disturbed when he saw his ex-lover walking in a scarlet dress with her fiance. The penultimate moment was when he dropped a red bead from his pocket onto the street. Readers in the forum claimed there was this deep significance – lots to do with the Catholic church (seriously?) and a wandering soul. I was just like, “Yeah, that’s an interesting read on it.” In reality, I had just thought it was a cool image – this crazy guy obsessed with saving people, however little the action was, then finally casting aside the woman he never could save.

Okay, that’s actually kind of a cool concept. I still don’t know how they got the Catholic church involved.

Other than the joke-fiction I wrote, most of what I tried to pass as fiction was really just personal narrative. This gave a lot of the pieces really emotionally-charged details and anecdotal side notes. For instance:

You turned on music – The Shins, most likely. We were always listening to The Shins. How many playlists and mixed CDs did I try to make in the months that followed, just trying to create the perfect blend to capture that damn summer? I have sifted through all the evenings to pick out the music that captured us (that romantic notion of “us”). Owen, Broken Social Scene, matt pond, Sufjan (Soof! Come to Wisconsin! I have the tallest man with the narrowest shoulders! This man of suburbia will not steal your heart!), Bob Dylan, Eisley, Psapp (remember I laughed? I said it sounded like a zoo? I’m not laughing anymore. They suck), Josh Ritter, the Weakerthans (those damn underdogs! I loathe you for this!), The National Splits, Tegan and Sara (I’m no longer walking with a ghost, you pompous piece of shit), and for Christ’s sake, who could forget Radiohead? You were obsessed with Pablo Honey that summer. That album sucks as badly as a Radiohead album can suck. Thom Yorke sounds like a high school sophomore on that album. The only halfway decent song on the damn CD is Creep. And maybe Ripcord, but the rest suck – especially the one you loved some much, Thinking About You. That has to be the worst Radiohead song ever. Upgrade your taste to OK Computer and quit it with your elitist bullshit. 

Many of the details were fabricated ones – ones that don’t apply at all to the relationship on which this piece was based, but there was a lot of bitterness I was attempting to work through with this piece. I accomplished this too. I did a full-class workshop on this piece, and it gave me a sense of closure and retribution when it was all said and done. Airing out the dirty details and humiliations was electrifying.  Reading the piece, I can point to the areas where I changed the details in a cheap attempt to fictionalize it (instead of pesto pasta, we made marinada, instead of blue raspberry popsicles there was ice cream bars, etc), and it’s funny, because with a little editing, the piece functions almost perfectly as a personal narrative, which is what I intend to do with it.

Since I’ve matured since that class (it was in 2008. I’d like to think I am no longer as whiny as my 20 year-old self), I didn’t think I would find anything of worth in the folder. I figured all that I wrote then could and should be regarded as dribble. However, it gives me great pride to see what I was capable of creating. I was brutally honest in that piece, and I see now that I am capable of such honesty; I am able to forget about that somebody looking over my shoulder while I write.

I remember feeling caught off-balance when I first had an advisor ask me if I was a writer. I didn’t know how to answer at the time, because I didn’t know the qualifications. I posed that quandary to the readers of my blog at the time, and they responded with answers that basically amounted to “Yes, you moron. You are a writer.” In this moment, I don’t feel I need the outside affirmation. I can say with the utmost certainty: Yes, I am a writer.