Friday, January 28, 2005
Just Another Bridge to Cross
I love a good story. I've both attempted to write them as well as teaching others some of the tricks and traps of writing fiction. One of the beliefs I have about fiction is that there is more truth in fiction than in nonfiction. Nonfiction is more factual but fiction can present unvarnished truthes because you are not standing behind them. The characters are not "real" in the sense that you can take them to court for their words or actions. Thus, the writer may be willing to speak his real mind through a non-real entity called a character.
A claim that I make for my fiction is: Every word you read here will be true; nothing that you read will have happened. Fiction shifts the setting and the names of the characters living and dead from one time to another -- from one place to another. Something the character feels in New York in 1966 may be something the writer felt in Columbus, Ohio in 2002. A professed love for Bob by Jane may be a recall of something that happened to the writer many years earlier -- or just yesterday.
Allow me to share one of my favorites with you. The specific setting never existed. I've never met any of the major characters in the story. But hidden within the context of the story are truthes I have known. Hopefully they are well enough concealed that the reader will not waste time with conjecture and just enjoy the tale.
JUST ANOTHER BRIDGE TO CROSS
by Milton Trachtenburg
Published in EWG Magazine, 1998
The morning smog permeating the Los Angeles Basin seemed to Erin to fill her dorm room as she reluctantly opened her eyes. Her first view of the world on this particular morning was already clouded by the decision she had made the previous evening. She badly needed to talk to her mother - her mother from whom Erin was increasingly distancing herself - a situation she needed to remedy.
Erin lay still, her nightshirt sticking to her body, an uncomfortable testimony to her roommate's distaste for air conditioning. The soft snores and pungent alcohol smell emanating from the bed across the room advertised Jennifer's presence. Jennifer always slept nude and uncovered. Erin knew it shouldn't bother her - she'd seen naked female bodies before - but somehow her sense of propriety was offended by Jennifer's complete lack of modesty.
"What if someone comes in the room?" Erin would ask her.
"What if they do? It's just a body, not an invitation to dance."
Just a body, thought Erin, returning to the present. She contemplated her conception of her own body. From the time of her earliest memories, she was aware that her body was something that attracted boys - and repelled her.
"Oh, mom!" she said, "What am I going to do?" Erin visualized her mother, and heard her soft voice singing or telling another of her fabulous tales that made Erin's childhood such a delight - at least until . . . Erin blocked the thought from her mind. Returning to a more recent image of her mother, a startlingly handsome woman, with broad, regular features, and a hint of sadness in her eyes - a sadness that never seemed to leave her.
"Why did I push you out of my life?" Erin asked herself aloud.
"Hmm?" said Jennifer, drifting slowly out of her alcohol-induced fog. "Why'd you what? Somebody here?" she added, making no attempt to cover herself.
"I'm just having a discussion with my mother," answered Erin. Rolling over on her bed, she turned her back to Jennifer so she wouldn't have to look at Jennifer's perfect body, and so Jennifer wouldn't be able to see the expression on her face.
"I thought you and your mom weren't on speaking terms?"
"I'm the one who's not on speaking terms. She's always been there for me." Erin shuddered.
"Ow, that hurts!" Jennifer said as she struggled to stand up. She swayed unsteadily. "Guess I had too many last night."
"Men or drinks?"
"Ooh! Ain't we the catty one this morning? Maybe your problem is just the opposite, huh? Ow! It hurts just to talk."
"Well, I'll save you the trouble. Your next line is: `I'm gonna take a hot shower and steam it out of me.' Then I think, but never say: `What? The men or the booze?' There, I've said it."
Jennifer picked up her pillow, and, held it in front of her like a shield. She faced Erin, shivering. "That wasn't fair. If something's eating you, don't take it out on me."
"Maybe you're what's eating me. Maybe I can't stand seeing you stumbling in here at four in the morning smelling like a cross between a brewery and a . . ."
"May as well say the rest. You don't seem to be holding anything back this morning." Tears welled in Jennifer's eyes.
"Whorehouse," muttered Erin.
"Who the hell are you to judge me? Who gave you the right?"
"I'm not . . ."
"You're not? Well, what would you call it?"
Erin burst into tears. "You wouldn't understand."
"What I understand is that the roomie I thought I knew just called me a drunken whore and I'm so damn hung over, I can't even argue back, that's what I understand." Jennifer rotated her head, her face a mask of pain. "I gotta take a hot shower. We can argue about this later."
"I don't want to argue with you, Jen."
"Well, you sure had me fooled there!" Jennifer turned, threw the pillow over her shoulder onto the bed, and stumbled toward the bathroom.
Erin heard the water drumming against the shower curtain and muffled sounds that may have been Jennifer sobbing. She sat on her bed, rocking for a few moments, her sweaty hair matted against her face, then quickly removed her nightshirt and put on jeans and a pullover.
"You going somewhere?" Jennifer stood in the bathroom doorway, dripping water onto the bare floor.
"What do you mean?" said Erin.
"You're already dressed and didn't even take time to wash up." Jennifer, hands clenched angrily, looked at Erin, who seemed engrossed with something on the floor. "What's the matter, am I so ugly you can't even look at me?"
"You're not ugly, you're beauti . . ." Erin swallowed the end of the word.
"Yeah, sure. Look, maybe we both got up on the wrong side of the tracks this morning. Let's start over, okay?"
Erin mumbled something that sounded like assent.
"Morning, roomie! How're you today?"
Erin laughed despite herself.
Jennifer dressed quickly in a man's tee-shirt, loose-fitting overalls, and a pair of worn docksiders. For the first time, Erin observed the image Jennifer's clothes created. "It's as if she doesn't want to be noticed," thought Erin.
"I have to get to class," said Jennifer. "You going?"
"No, I'm leaving early. I want to go home for the weekend and it's a long ride."
"Yes, no, I don't . . ."
"Hey, if you need to talk - even if I am just some stupid, drunken slut, you know."
"I don't think . . ."
"Yeah, sometimes that is your problem, sweetface."
"I'm sorry I . . ."
"Yeah, well, maybe right now, I can't hear that. You go. Have a safe trip, hear?"
Jennifer gathered her books, opened the door, looked back for a moment, but said nothing. After she left, Erin could smell the mixture of soap, deodorant, something she couldn't identify - but pleasant, and stale booze. She had always believed that Jennifer was easy to read - like the trashy romance novels she left half-finished on every chair and nightstand in the room.
Erin, without thought, threw her clothes into her worn duffel bag. She scratched her head with her index finger, a long-standing habit when she was troubled. As a child, she used to twirl a lock of her hair until it was so tangled that she couldn't extricate her finger and screamed in pain when her mother did it for her. She zipped the duffel, tossed it over her shoulder, and left the room, remembering as always to lock the door - even though there was nothing anyone would want to steal.
The trip from Los Angeles to Tiburon would take the better part of the day, so she wanted to make certain that she caught the early bus to San Francisco. She thought about calling her mother so she could be met at the bus station, but when she considered their previous meetings, she decided to simply show up on the doorstep, like a poor lost soul. Maybe I'll get the sympathy vote that way. Erin smiled, despite her mood.
Just what I needed! Erin thought, contemplating the quarter of a seat left her after gravity gave impetus to the expansion of the overweight woman who insinuated herself into the seat next to her.
"You a student?"
"Shit, now she's going to want to talk, too!" thought Erin.
"Yes, I am," she said, hoping she could politely reject the woman.
"My daughter goes there, too. She's the first in the family ever went to college. We're so proud of her."
Erin turned to look out the window as the bus negotiated the ramp and merged into the northbound traffic on the freeway. Erin watched the drivers jockeying for position on a road which was so jammed that it looked like a six-lane parking lot. It's like my life, she thought. No matter which lane I take, it's going nowhere. Erin squirmed, trying to negotiate an extra inch of seat room.
"What year are you in, dear?"
"I'm a freshman."
"My daughter's a junior. I guess you wouldn't know her." The woman mentioned her daughter's name which Erin quickly forgot.
"No, I'm afraid I wouldn't. It's a big school and I barely know the people in my dorm unit."
"Sometimes, I worry about her. She seems so different from when she lived at home. Maybe it's the pressure of living alone."
Erin looked at the woman for the first time. She had a pained expression and kind eyes. Erin smiled at her.
"I hope I'm not bothering you. I thought - maybe - since you're a student, too, maybe you could help me understand her better."
"I'm not sure I'd be much help to anybody. I'm having a hard time just trying to figure out who I am and what I want."
"It's different for a girl nowadays, I guess. When I finished high school, I was supposed to get a job 'til I found somebody and then get married. At least it was supposed to be that simple. . . .
"Sometimes, I think I'd be happier if somebody else would make all my decisions for me. I feel like there's no rules at all anymore.
"My daughter's pregnant," continued the woman, her voice betraying no emotion, but tears welling in her eyes. "What am I to do?"
Erin felt her anger rising. She recalled her mother using almost the same words to her. She answered the woman, "It's going to be all right."
"Thank you. I needed to hear that." The woman wiped her eyes and nose with a tissue and began picking at the tissue, rolling the remnants into little balls.
"If you need to talk about it, I don't mind."
"I don't know where we went wrong. We raised her to have good morals. We taught her right from wrong. She's so beautiful. Maybe that's the problem. The boys were always chasing her. I'd tell her to be careful, and not listen to them, but. . ." She wiped her eyes with the remnants of the tissue. Erin saw the fragments of tissue clinging to the woman's face. "And her father was no help at all. He'd just tease her and tell her how sexy she was. He gave me the same line when we were going together, except I wasn't his daughter!"
Erin thought about her own life. It was always just her mother and herself. Every once in a while, her mother would go out on a date, or even bring a man home for a night, but in the end, it was just the two of them. The woman was now silent, and Erin stared out the window.
What's wrong with me? thought Erin. What's wrong with everybody? she continued, thinking about Jennifer's strange behavior and of the daughter of the woman sitting next to her.
Erin, lost in her thoughts, barely noticed when the woman got off the bus at Oxnard. She was left alone for several stops.
"This seat taken?"
Erin looked up. The voice belonged to a typical male, California beach type - tanned, blond, vapid eyes. "No," Erin said, tension escalating her already high-pitched voice. Nervously, she combed her hair with her fingers while he eased himself into the seat. She could feel every point of contact between them on the narrow seat.
"The name's Brad, what's yours?"
"You a student somewhere?"
"Did I say something wrong?" asked Brad.
"No, it's just that I had this same conversation a hundred miles ago."
"You mean, I'm the second Brad sitting in this seat today?"
"No." Erin couldn't stop laughing. "It's just that I seem to be attracting strangers today, that's all."
"Maybe it's because you have an interesting face."
"Yeah, interesting." said Erin. She squirmed, trying to move away from Brad.
"Hey! I didn't mean anything bad by it. You're really nice looking. I just meant . . ."
"It doesn't matter, anyway. You're just a stranger on a bus."
Brad sat in silence. When Erin looked at him, he appeared hurt. I can't figure anybody out today, she thought.
The rest of the trip passed without further event. Brad got off the bus without a word to her, and she was alone for the remainder of the trip. It was late afternoon when the bus arrived at it's terminus in San Francisco. Erin felt the warmth of the late afternoon breeze and stared at all the familiar sights as if seeing them for the first time. It had been only two months since she left home to begin college, yet she felt she was a stranger.
The bus ride to Tiburon was a jolting, smelly experience as the bus inched across the traffic-jammed bridge. Erin preferred the view of the mist-covered Golden Gate Bridge from the shore. Viewed from the center, in crawling traffic, it was just another bridge to cross.
The 2-block, uphill walk from the bus to their little cottage on a tree-lined street seemed the longest five minutes in Erin's life. She wanted to turn and run, but realized there was no place left to run. Her mother told her when she was a child that Tiburon was a magic kingdom which appeared one morning out of the fog and was made up of the dreams of all the people who lived in San Francisco. Even after she stopped believing in Santa Claus and the Easter bunny, Erin believed there was a magic quality to Tiburon. Even the sweaty workers, in their now-disheveled, wrinkled suits, trudging home, tired from the day's work, could not dispel the magic.
The first thing that always struck her when she entered her house was its coolness. She almost called out, "Mom, I'm home," the way she did when she was growing up. Entering the kitchen, she almost expected to see a glass of cold milk and smell a fresh-baked chocolate chip cookie waiting on the kitchen table.
Her mother wasn't there, and Erin felt a sense of disappointment even though her mother didn't know she was coming. Mom should have known, thought Erin, smiling at her own irrationality.
"Mom?" she called, tentatively, hearing only the echo of her own voice in return.
Erin walked to the rear of the house into her bedroom. Her room appeared to be just as she'd left it, except it didn't feel like her special place any longer. The softness, the treasures, the muted colors stood in stark contrast to the spartan dorm room she shared with a drunken stranger. A few words of a poem from her childhood came to mind, The little toy soldier was covered with rust - or was it dust? She let herself fall across her bed; she bounced several times before she came to rest, her legs hanging over the side, and she thought of the thousands of times she had come into this room and fallen across the bed. She sank her face into the softness of the down quilt cover, for a moment allowing herself to drift into a peaceful reverie. She pictured herself as a small child, on the day her mother made her close her eyes before she went into her room. "A new bed! A real bed!" she squealed with delight. It was so huge she could barely climb up onto it and was afraid if she fell off, she would die from the fall. She recalled many the time that her mother would sit or lie with her in this bed captivating her with fantastic stories of fairies, princes, rogues and wizards. She could hear her mother's lilting voice which she rode like a surfer on a big wave.
The metallic sound of the opening front door interrupted Erin's thoughts. "Mom, is that you?"
"Anybody else call you mom?" Erin felt tense. Why'd I have to be a wiseass? she thought.
Shauna Moran stood quietly in the doorway of her daughter's room. "Do I need my suit of armor, or are we going to have a quiet time tonight?"
Erin turned over and stared up at her mother. There was no hint of anger in her face or voice. She seemed rather at peace. For the first time, Erin became aware of how youthful her mother seemed. Before she left for school, she had always looked like `mother.' Now, she appeared to be a woman in her late twenties - and a very attractive one at that.
"What gives you that idea?" Erin snapped, defensively. "I already know the answer - because you're my mother." Erin thought, I seem to be talking for everybody today.
Shauna meticulously picked traces of clay from her fingers. "I know there's something wrong because you're here."
Erin rolled over and lay face down. She began twirling a lock of her hair with her finger. She could feel it tightening around her finger but kept twirling. "Damn! Shit!"
"Want to talk about it?"
"I can't get my finger untwisted from my hair!" Erin whined.
"Here, let me." Shauna gently manipulated Erin's soft, dark hair and continued holding her hand after she had disentangled her finger. Erin lay still, unresisting. She recalled how her mother's hands were always both gentle and strong, befitting a potter, and remembered how much she had come to rely on both qualities.
Shauna sat silently.
"Why can't we talk anymore?"
"Why can't we talk anymore?" echoed Shauna. "Perhaps, there's nothing for us to say."
"Why am I so angry all the time?"
Shauna rubbed Erin's back gently, the way she did when Erin was a child.
At first, Erin stiffened as Shauna rubbed her back, but soon relaxed, feeling like a small child, safe with her mother, ready to hear another wondrous tale.
"Y'know, darlin'," Shauna began, assuming a melodious highland lilt in her voice, this reminds me of the story of a beautiful, young princess. It all happened a long time ago in a far-off land. The princess was bright, considered fair of face and graceful of limb, and was prized by some of the noblest knights in the land. But, our princess had only a warped mirror with which to see her own self and didn't believe the compliments bestowed upon her. She heard only her own voice and in the end, she gave herself to the lowest knave in the kingdom."
"You're talking about me, aren't you?"
"Now just be patient, and hear the rest of the story before you go off half-cocked, drawing your own conclusions. There's more."
"I'm sorry." Erin could feel a sense of wonderment building within her. It was as if she was a small child, sitting silent, in awe, her disbelief suspended. Erin rolled over and looked at her mother.
"Now where was I? Yes. The princess knew from the first that she had made a bad choice. The knave prized nought about her, but she remained with him, for she prized nought about herself. As fickle nature would have it, soon she found herself with child. Her father, the king, was, in most respects, a good and wise man, but when it came to his daughter, the princess, he was stubborn and intolerant. `Out of my house,' he said. `There'll be no bringing somebody's bastard child to my door. Let him who bedded the cow take care of the calf.'
"The princess was alone and afraid. When she needed help, she was spurned by her father, the only person in her life who could help her. Her mother had died many years before, so long before, that she was only a wisp of a memory to the princess."
"I don't understand where this is. . ."
"Shhh, let me finish."
"So, she had her child. Alone she was, and alone she stayed, raising her child the best she knew how and making something of her life. After some time, she came to learn that she was more than she allowed herself to see. She raised her daughter to be strong and independent, not needing anybody, not even her mother. Perhaps she should have kept her daughter closer to her, but in the end, the daughter was able to go off and make her own life." Shauna paused.
"You're talking about . . .," began Erin.
"Now don't be impatient. I'm nearin' the end of the story." Shauna took Erin's hands in hers and held them tightly. Erin remained still, hardly breathing. "As I was saying, the princess feared for her daughter, so she raised her to be both cautious and independent. She taught her self-reliance. Perhaps she should have praised her more and nurtured her more, but she gave what she had to give and didn't know different. And, the daughter grew up to be bright and beautiful, but the princess had to accept that she would never be close to her mother. And, that's the end of the story."
"Maybe not," said Erin.
"Oh, so now you're going to be writing the stories for me?"
"Mom? Why can't we just talk? Why do you have to turn everything into a story?"
"You don't like my stories anymore?" asked Shauna.
"Mom, talk to me, before it's too late."
Erin and Shauna stared at each other and for the first time in too long, made eye contact. Shauna started to get up. "Don't run away from me, please. I need you."
Shauna sat down again, appearing discomfited. She stared at her hands and began picking off tiny spots of clay. "I don't know how to say it to you."
"Say what, mom?"
"That I love you more than heaven and earth."
"You just said it. Maybe I need to hear it as much as you need to say it." Each struggled to hold back tears.
Erin thought about the reasons she first became alienated from her mother. She remembered that she was fifteen -- fifteen and curious about life. . . and love. She'd invited Timmy Lake over after school -- Timmy who had been flirting with her all year -- and he'd told her how much he loved her. Erin needed desperately to hear that. One thing led to the inevitable and just as they melted together like butter on hot toast, Shauna came storming into the room. Erin never stopped hearing the recriminations which often replayed themselves in her memory. After that day, the stories stopped, the conversations between Erin and Shauna were reduced to the absolute necessities, and they treated each other warily, as if one wrong word would destroy the tenuous fabric of their relationship.
"You have dinner yet?" asked Shauna.
"No, and you didn't leave me a snack, either."
"Well, there might just be a cookie or two in the pantry. Let's go see, shall we?"
Erin followed Shauna into the cozy kitchen - a room full of mostly pleasant memories. The counters were filled with Shauna's creations - clay pots and vases - all in glorious earth tones. Erin knew that this weekend would be a new memory to add to her collection. Perhaps she would begin to understand all her confused feelings. In any case, her problems seemed less important and more remote than they had only hours earlier. She knew two things. One, she would talk to her mother about them, and, two, her mother really wouldn't have any answers for her.
Hwever, right at that moment, what she needed more than anything else was to do some serious cookie munching. She'd cross the other bridges when she came to them.