December 27, 2012 § 9 Comments
I teach creative writing workshops. When my writers are kids, I walk the room looking over their shoulders to see how many stories begin, “One day…” and to make sure they are writing, not defaulting to the preferred response, drawing their stories.
If my writers are adults I write too.
One moment I’m ostensibly in charge. In the next, I have a sudden deep knowledge of lives unfolding in a place that bears no resemblance to a room full of writers. That other reality did not exist until the moment I imagined it, but in that moment it was all there, fully-formed.
This ability to be suddenly, and completely somewhere else is just proof that the child who was good at making believe never forgot how to do it.
Maybe the biggest difference between the pretending I do now and the pretending I did as a kid is that I no longer imagine princesses. Instead I inhabit the lives of ordinary people, often on ordinary days.
In the following piece of exercise writing I was in the florescent light of a nursing home hall, watching a woman named Mavis lean on the handle of a stainless steel push cart.
I could smell disinfectant and hear the slightly sticky sound of her crêpe soled shoes on the linoleum.
I knew that her lower back ached and knew that all she wanted in this life was to sit down, put her feet up and drink a cup of coffee.
Here is Mavis on her afternoon rounds:
“Marry me!” The hand that grabbed hers was an icy claw.
She’d been at the Haven of Rest for four years and she’d never gotten used to their skin; cold and powdery-feeling like cigarette ash, or warm and damp.
Marry-me-marry-me Mr. Dexter’s hand was of the cold, ashy kind. His long nails digging into her hand, he pouted like a wrinkled baby. “You gonna marry me or what?”
“Sure thing, Mr. D.” She tugged her hand out of his, then reached for the cup with 4D magic-markered on it. “But first you gotta swallow these.”
He knotted his arms across the ketchup stain on the chest of his PJs. “Marry me first.”
She put her hand on her lower back and sighed. “Didn’t we get married last week?”
“Did we?” His mouth hung slack, and for a moment he looked scared; they all got scared when they couldn’t remember. Then he grinned. “Got a brain like Swiss cheese.” He smacked his forehand with his open palm.
She grabbed his hand and emptied the crinkled paper cup into it.
He glared at the pills from under wiry brows. “What’re these?”
She stroked his back, like she had her babies’ when they woke up fussy. “Just your afternoon meds, Mr. D.”
One by one she rolled the pills across his palm with her fingertip. “Thyroid…blood pressure…the reflux…”
He stopped her two pills short by slapping his hand to his lips, shooting the pills into the moist black hole that was his mouth.
She winced as he crunched down. “Swallow, don’t chew.” She handed him his glass of bedside water and sat on the edge of the bed she’d made on morning rounds. Her back was killing her and her she wished she could kick her shoes off. “What did you used to do for a living, Mr. D?”
“You mean back when I was alive?”
“Yeah, back when you were alive.” Mr. D wasn’t like some on the floor, all touchy and easy to offend.
“Insurance salesman.” He stabbed himself in the chest with a finger. “Damn good one too.”
“Insurance salesman, huh?” She glanced at her watch, then pushed herself to her feet. “If you’da said lawyer, I would’ve married you.” She waved at him, then eased the cart into the hall.
“Ask me what I used to do again tomorrow,” he called after her. “Maybe I wasn’t an insurance salesman!”
Note: I write until the sounds of restlessness in the room bring me back. And I become, once again, a woman leading a writing workshop—but the return to myself is always unsettling, like waking from a deep sleep and realizing it was all a dream.