Friday, August 6, 2010
I’m a poetic soul and always have been, against my better judgment and the beatings of my classmates. My seventeen years of upper middle class life have caused me to be precisely as tough as paper mache and as daring as a monk on sedatives. I have no curfew because even my parents want me to get a life. I drive a 1996 Mustang Cobra, which is still cool because it’s 1997, but I’m afraid of ruining it so I put a cover over it every time I stop somewhere, which is apparently incredibly un-cool. I don’t play sports because they don’t let you carry a copy of Pride and Prejudice beneath your football jersey.
Yes, I am a man and yes, I love Jane Austen.
Most days, and nights, I sit around doing exactly what I am doing right now. I sit on the floor of my bedroom, perfectly decorated with original Star Wars posters, and debate the meaning of life with my witless best friend, Brian Aliander. Oh, and I believe remaking Star Wars will go down as being the only attempt at meaningful contribution for this generation, which since it was a photo copy of a masterpiece will also define us as the stupid little pot-smokers we really are.
It’s the last night before senior year and I am, rather obviously, a virgin…and a band geek who fiddles with the violin.
“Thoughts are fluid and stormy,” I begin with sincere emotion and depth. “They drift between the crevices of our minds as if to suggest there must be something more than this, but what if there isn’t? What if the thoughts we hold and the dreams we cling to are nothing more than the anxious fears of a hopeless heart? Maybe the brokenness, the agony, the hate this world produces in mass is all there really is. Maybe the blood, bruises, and scars we bear are the only truths we will ever find. Thoughts are worthless without the elements that have the potential to make them true. There is a distinct possibility there is nothing more than this.”
I stop and allow my profoundly brilliant realization to be absorbed into the air. Brian’s pudgy form looks back at me with utter amazement. I know I have reached him on a personal level. He swallows his last bite of pizza and chases it with a swig of soda. I sit, in complete anticipation of the affirmation sure to be thrown my way, as he draws in a deep breath before speaking.
“Dude, that’s f’d up,” he finally says, takes another gulp of soda and belches loudly. “You need to sort out your shit or stuff like that’s going to keep coming out of your mouth and you’re going to get the crap beat out of you.”
I shake my head in complete disbelief, which turns out to not be enough to keep him from continuing his unwanted response.
“Not to mention,” Brian continues. “You’re never going to get laid with a mouth that has more practice at quoting dead chicks than with making out with live ones.”
“But I…” I stammer in disbelief.
“I know,” he says after finishing off his drink and tossing the can to the side. “This is our tradition and it’s what we’ve always done. You sit there and say something brilliant and I sit here and applaud you for it. I just can’t do it anymore. I think I finally grew a pair and you should probably do the same.”
With that, and nothing else, my best friend of eleven years gets up, walks out, and disappears from my life.
“How f’d up is that?” I ask my stuffed bear, resting against the bed where he’s been listening to the entire thing. He too looks appalled, though I am uncertain whether Brian or I put that look there.
I know Brian is right. I have reached the point in my life where all my philosophical studies, my nights of lengthy reviews of the newest enlightened compilation of thoughts, and my tiresome habit of thinking before acting mean only one thing: I am un-cool.
The next two weeks prove to be nothing more than the endless cycle guilt accomplishes on every soul stupid enough to listen. One day, I am convinced everything is my fault and I must apologize to Brian. By the next day, I’m convinced I don’t deserve his friendship and he’s better off without me. I’m pretty much a woman like that. I go back and forth until I give up and wait for him to come to me, something I know full well a dimwit like Brian is never going to do because he doesn’t know what he had. The thought alone solidifies the fact I am totally a chick.
I step into Mr. Winter’s advanced calculus class and pull an oversized textbook from my bag before sitting down next to Margerie Swangster, the most beautiful girl on the face of the earth. I could spend days on end, without food or water, completely satisfied just staring at her perfect smile and bouncing blonde hair. If I were slightly cooler, not much but enough, I would comment on her gorgeous rack and hips that move with a mind of their own. I don’t possess the amount of cool necessary to think such things without blushing enough to send me into fever.
“Can I borrow a pencil for the quiz?” Margerie’s angelic voice slips into the air like vapor and vanishes in an instant.
I stare at her dumbly and wonder what a pencil is. I don’t blink.
“Danny?” her voice again.
Danny? That’s my name. Somewhere inside of me I know she is talking to me. The incredible, brilliantly beautiful, sensuously delicate Margerie is talking to me. I can’t breathe and my face begins to pulse red from thinking the word “sensuously”. Alex Bernstein, built like a bear, reaches across my desk to hand her one of my pencils.
“Thank you, Alex,” she hums softly, almost a purr. “You’re a life saver.”
Damn it. Damn it all to hell, me and my inability to function around anything in a skirt. Not that woman have to wear skirts, it’s not the fifties and I’m not that guy. Damn it. I must look angry. I must look angry enough to kill someone because when I regain composure, everyone is looking at me.
This time it is Mr. Winters’ voice punching me in the face.
I wanted it to sound calm but I know it didn’t.
“You all right, son?”
I burst into flames, metaphorically speaking. It is this moment, the one in which I realize I am no longer un-cool but am now officially a loser, when I start thinking about everything else in the world; beer, belly dancers, bratwurst, caramel apples, catapults, crash scenes. Even my rebellious thoughts appear in alphabetical order.
This was my entire high school experience. I could go on about my freshman year when I showed up to the prom in a bright blue suit because I thought, when this lovely senior girl leaned within inches of me and asked if I’d go with her, she was talking to me and not the senior football star sitting at the desk to my left.
I could tell you about my sophomore year when I thought I made the football team only to realize they thought I was a girl and they were being accommodating in order to not get sued by an irate father who wanted his daughter to play football with the boys.
I could tell you about my junior year when I set the curve on the senior English final and the entire class beat my ass after school. I could tell you a lot of things that have already been summarized by my one minute too long of staring at Margerie Swangster.
I now, two years later and none the wiser, attend a prestigious university, drive a slightly beaten up 1996 Mustang Cobra, and am still a Star Wars loving virgin who plays the violin. My psychology book is cracked open on my desk and my eyes are endlessly searching for answers I can’t find. Professor Grubik’s classes are notorious for answers you can’t find because no one is certain what the question is. I rub my eyes and hear the shower turn off. I hadn’t realized the shower was running.
It is only two a.m. and my roommate, Kevin, usually doesn’t venture in until the sun rises and another day begins. I think that’s actually his motto. He’s one of those guys who are popular enough to have their own motto.
I had stepped out for a minute or two earlier to ask a classmate a question but I hadn’t seen Kevin. It doesn’t matter. I shake my head and convince myself it doesn’t matter, even though what it means is that he is going to step into the main room, brag about his conquests, and remind me of exactly why he’s him and I’m me. Now, I really have no idea where to find the answers and I slam the book shut. The door to the bathroom slides open slowly, not in Kevin’s normally boisterous style, and I turn to comment on exactly that.
There, in my room, completely naked and dripping wet is Margerie Swangster. She’s immediately angry, in the quiet way a girl gets angry even when it’s her fault, and I can’t stop staring. Her body is more perfect than I ever imagined and I certainly did spend many days and nights imagining. She has marble skin, smooth as water and curving perfectly to cover her sensuous hips that still move as if they have a mind of their own. Her immediate anger moves into a smiling state of intrigue as she realizes how much pleasure I’m getting from this. I’m not subtle and I can’t stop staring.
She fixates on my eyes as I settle on her breasts, circling around her nipples until I unconsciously lick my lips with the feel of her skin against them. She stands still but I still feel every inch of her. I throb and I burn with a passion I am unable to satisfy. I take her with a strong but firm hand and she removes my shirt and begins to unbutton my pants. I lay her down on Kevin’s bed and begin to move over her, my tongue pleasing her flesh. She moans and I feel the satisfaction as she grows louder and I dig deeper within her. My fingers are inside of her and my lips taste every inch of her hips as she squirms in ecstasy beneath my strength.
I’m still staring.
“You have a towel, Danny?”
Her voice is precisely as delicious as I remember but I have changed enough to move when she asks. I toss her a towel hanging over my bed and she wraps it around herself. It doesn’t remove the images. I can shake my head a thousand times but it won’t remove the images.
“Thanks,” she says.
I have changed in the last two years. I realize I have changed enough to do something. She pulls one of Kevin’s shirts over her head and as her head reappears, I am there. I touch her hips gently and the towel falls. I’m against her, my hands touching her bare flesh and I kiss her.
The kiss is timid at first, then lingering as an act of rebellion. I allow my lips to part more deeply and she presses herself against me. I don’t know why she’s kissing me back. Maybe she’s curious or maybe she is the sort who gives to charity in more ways than soup kitchens and fundraisers. Her lips are sweet and her skin is warm, the feeling will never leave me. The door opens, of course, and Kevin appears in a sudden movement of panic and disbelief.
“Margie,” he half yells.
She pulls away from me with a giggle and I know she’s smooth enough to live through this.
“Hi, sweetie,” she wraps the towel around her waist, leaving her breasts bouncing beneath his shirt to distract him, and moves toward him, kissing his cheek. “You were late so I thought I’d have a bit of fun with your roommate.”
Her smile melts him, toward her anyway. He turns to me and I make a mistake. Every once in a while, my obscenely high I.Q. gets me into trees I can’t climb out of.
“I thought she needed a little passion in her life,” I smile sharply, like a man who can fly until he’s thrown out a window. “You know, someone who knows what they’re doing.”
Turns out, that was the last thing I would say for over a month since he broke my jaw and I spent twelve hours in a coma. Twelve hours in a coma for kissing Margerie Swangster. Well worth it if you ask me.
That is the basic summary of my college experience. I graduated top of my class, teacher’s favorite, and still a virgin, though I did see a girl naked, rarely picked up a violin, and only put up two Star Wars posters in four years.
Two years after the perfect kiss, I stand in front of the entire university in my long black gown, waiting to give a speech of some limited significance. I have it all written out, all the things I know I should say. Things like “the world is ours” and “these lessons will carry you through the rest of your life”. I know exactly what should come out but when I stand up to the podium, the words disappear. I stand up, in front of everyone and say absolutely nothing. I say nothing because this is exactly what I want to say…
“I am incredibly un-cool and always have been but I know what happens next,” I want to say. “In three years, I will have been working for one of the highest rated companies in the world when I decide to quit in favor of starting my own Internet Company and making several million dollars a month doing almost no actual work whatsoever. I will be on my way to a conference in San Francisco, teaching young kids how to be as amazing as me, when I run into Margerie Swangster who decides it is high time we catch up. I’ll take her back to my penthouse suite, lay her down in all the ways a man does a woman, and realize she was never really that good.
“I will get to wake up the next morning and move on with my life without the fantasy no one can live up to and let her return to her passionless life with some hack she married for money while I realize it was Kevin I always had a thing for,” at this point, if I was speaking, I could watch Kevin squirm. “Turns out his violent overreaction in college was nothing more than a mask to hide his secret love for all things Jane Austen and his dark fetish for Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the homosexual movie theatre on Fifth and Elm. I’ll look him up in the Pink Pages and take him out to a nice meal and an Elvis wedding. We will buy a house by the bay, adopt one of the Jolie-Pitt children as soon as the divorce is finalized, and settle into a comfortable routine consisting of Star Wars novels and violin lessons. I’ll be happy and I will still be un-cool because about twenty years from now, I’m going to realize un-cool is the new cool and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
I stare out at the audience staring back at me and my eyes fall heaviest on Kevin, sitting sternly in the third row from the back. We lock eyes for a moment and I realize it doesn’t matter what I say. I regain my composure and say exactly what I should say, all the clichés that rest on the page in front of me. The crowd applauds politely and I take my seat behind the podium, staring at Kevin’s firm features, content with the fact I already know how it ends.
M. Esther Sherman is the product of Newberg, Oregon, currently resides in SoCal, has the gift of sarcasm, a need to write, is the mother of the most amazing kid on the planet, and still can’t believe Jake was dumb enough to choose Vienna over Tenley (who’s also from Newberg, fyi). She graduated top of her class with a degree in sociology in ’06 and uses her knowledge of human behavior and social norms to craft characters with internal and external controversy with a splash of political animosity. Esther loves to write novels, screenplays, short stories, poetry, and the occasional thank you note and would love nothing more than to have a long happy career in fiction. Some have already said she is, “sure to be one of the most dynamic and masterfully original authors of our time. The witty complexities of her humor and the manner in which she brings her characters to life are nothing short of genius.” Of course, so far, the only people to say those things have also been fictional.
Tuesday, August 3, 2010
The Cloud Creature by Kate Zahnleiter: 2010 Second-Place Winner
I like to walk to clear my head, when it gets heavy and full, and so I slip out the front door while he's in the shower. I should leave a note to save him from worry and rage, but I doubt I'll be gone long and either way I cannot bring myself to go back into the house. Henry has made an appointment for Thursday, 11.30. He has printed off an information sheet, complete with carpark diagram, and left a pre-procedure checklist on top of the kitchen bench. I learn something new each time I pass. No food or drink for two hours prior to the scheduled time. Patients will be given medication for the pain. Should infection occur, a course of antibiotics will be prescribed and all discomfort should be cleared within a few days. Bold type at the bottom of the page tells me I will not be permitted to leave the clinic unless accompanied by a family member or friend, but Henry hasn't offered to come with me. He hasn't offered anything other than the money, but then I don't really have any of my own.
I push my way up the hill, enjoying the way my muscles tighten and release, trying to trust the soundness of them and believe that they will not give way and leave me the victim of gravity and the ground below. Lately, I have been thinking often of my body. As a constant. As something other than a vessel which carries me from place to place, a vessel from which I can disembark at any moment. I suppose I have you to thank for that. You've been focusing on your own body, I know. First with the rapid division of cells and now, millimetre by millimetre, every day you are growing yourself. I push my way up the hill and try to ignore the sharp pain in my side which could be your handiwork or could be Henry's, or could simply be a symptom of my general lack of fitness. Exercise is good for foetal development, I know, though I suppose that won't make much difference.
'Get rid of it,' Henry had said, and he had pushed his fingers into my stomach so hard I thought you'd be able to feel them, so hard I thought he was trying to rip you out of there himself. Get rid of it, he'd said, as if he was referring to a stain on a bed sheet or some sort of blood-sucking parasite. He'd spoken that way about a couple of church group leaders, once. They had climbed our front steps and asked if I wanted to be saved, and I did, oh God I did, but he slammed the door in their faces and slid the lock into place.
Get rid of it, he'd said of you, even though I hadn't breathed a word. I hadn't even thought about you while in his presence, just in case he had broken through the final barrier and had learnt to read my mind. I had been careful not to let my hand rest on my stomach more than usual. I had been careful not to let my eyes glaze over when he spoke, since Henry liked to clear my head by cracking it against the nearest hard surface. Instead, I kept you buried until the private daylight hours, until I heard the front door click shut and felt the house clear of him. Then I would sit at our kitchen table in silence and let my mind grow fat with thoughts of you, while I stared at the clock and tracked its movements. I'd heard that time slows down that way, and I wanted to savour each solitary tick. Thursday, 11.30. That's a little over 24 hours, and I wonder if my legs could hold out for that long and keep my head clear. I doubt it, since already I need a rest.
The door to the coffee shop chimes happily as I enter, the bell's enthusiasm not matched by that of the waitress, who sighs when she sees me. I pick a corner booth next to the window, and slide across the seat so I am huddled against the wall. The air conditioning has been turned up too high, and my flesh rises in tiny bumps as it often does when I need an extra layer of insulation, when I need to seem intimidating and larger to my enemy. I rub my body to warm it, careful of all the tender places. There are four fading purple circles on my forearm and I try to line my fingers up with them, the same way I have seen people try to fit their palms into other people's handprints hardened into concrete. Mine aren't a match, though that's no surprise; if my body could be dusted and lighted forensically, every inch would glow with Henry's arches, loops and whorls. I have read that by the seventh week of gestation a foetus has already developed an individual set of fingerprints. You are already unique.
'Can I help you?'
Oh please, yes, could you?
'I'll have a camomile tea, thanks.'
Research shows that light to moderate caffeine consumption is safe during pregnancy, but I'm unclear on the widely accepted definition of 'moderate' and know a lot of the data comes from studies involving pregnant rats. The process differs from creature to creature. From rat to human, from human to human, the process is different for everyone. I think that animal testing is cruel, on a whole, but an argument could be made that there are some things people need to know. For the greater good.
Growing up, I knew two things about my mother. The first was that she had long black hair, like mine. The second was that I had killed her. There was no information at all about my father, and my Child Safety Officer told me not to think on any of these things too much. Unfortunately, there was little else I wanted to think on, between the endless rotation of foster families and government homes and faces, large and twisted, familiar and unfamiliar at once. When I was eight I asked Mrs McTeague, the school librarian at the time, if she knew how to find out more. She had always been so supportive with class projects.
'I can't help you, Cal,' she had said, ducking her head so I couldn't see her eyes. She gave me a book on African wildlife instead and let me sit in her office while I read it. She knew I hated the communal reading room, with the low murmuring of other children and the erratic flipping of pages. She knew even such small sounds bothered me when I was trying to concentrate. She knew how I needed my solitude.
Sometimes I wonder what it's like in there for you, in your own little world. No day or night. No hot or cold. No food or water or air, other than that which I pass on. The ultrasound gave nothing away but a strange rushing, pulsing noise that seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere at once. I hope it doesn't overwhelm and confuse you, in there. I hope you don't get lonely. Sometimes I try to remember what it was like for me, when I was in your position, but it does no good. The human brain and memory can only stretch so far; some things need to be pushed out to make room for others.
Towards the end of my schooling I stayed with a family called the Clarksons. They had three children of their own and the eldest, Miranda, taught me to revise for exams by standing in front of a mirror and saying facts aloud until they stuck in my head. I liked the Clarksons, and I would have liked to have stayed with them for longer than the six months, had Mrs Clarkson not developed multiple sclerosis.
During this time, I met my grandmother. She was much younger than I imagined grandmothers to be, with a raspy voice and a smell of stale scotch and talc. We caught the train to
'She liked to swim to clear her head. She loved the sea. She named you for it.'
I trembled with the effort of restraining myself and tried not to rush her for more. I could already see myself saying these facts aloud to the mirror. I could already see myself moving to
'She never went anywhere else. This was where we laid her to rest. She's still down there, you know. She's still swimming.'
I trembled again, but this time mostly in fear. I imagined my mother as some sort of interminable sea monster; her tired body wrapped in seaweed, her long black hair threaded with salt. I imagined her climbing out of the whitewash and up the side of the cliff towards us, her aching arms outstretched to claim me, to pull me down with her.
'If things had been different...' my grandmother said, but she let the rest of her words fall over the edge of the cliff, so I wasn’t sure what would happen if things had been different.
I sat by the phone for three weeks before I realised she wasn't going to call. I knew I should have spoken more, tried to appear more interesting. I shouldn't have complained when I stumbled and cut my leg as I tried to keep up with her, her footing as steady and sure as a mountain goat's. I shouldn't have told her I didn't know how to swim. I thought about catching the train to
My tea arrives; tiny flowers floating in hot water.
'Don't burn yourself,' the waitress says, but she doesn't sound as if she cares one way or the other. She looks worn out, and I wonder if she spends her whole day praying not to hear that door chime.
I stare into the pot and try to see shapes in the bobbing yellow clumps. When I was 18, I met a young man with green eyes and a slow, deliberate smile. He could find pictures in the clouds; a swan, a boat, two lovers in the grass. He could put words to the pictures as well, plucking stories from the heavens with such skill that by the end of the day those stories were more real than we were. He told me he saw me playing the piano. He told me he saw me learning to paint. He told me these things while he held my hand gently, stroking the back of it with his thumb. I try to read my tea, now, but it is only the past I see.
'I want to marry you, Cal,' he said to me once, and my heart had beaten right out of my chest and landed in the sky, where it became white and fluffy and read as a single, simple Yes.
Three weeks later, he rolled his car while telling me the story of a cloud creature that grew so large it became everything. I was trapped inside with his lifeless body for two hours, but he didn't suffer. Not as I did. They cut me out and told me I was lucky. They told me I would lose my limp, over time. I still had it when I met Henry, though that didn’t seem to bother him. I still have a scar down the left side of my face, too, which I don't want to lose. That seems to bother him a little.
I told Henry I wanted to study, and to work with victims of trauma and sufferers of chronic pain. I told him I wanted to teach them to play the piano. I told him I wanted to teach them to paint. He nodded, he encouraged me, until one day he changed his mind and broke each of my fingers. But he was sorry for it.
'I just want you here with me, Cal. I just want to take care of you.’
I had considered telling him I could take care of myself, but the truth was I wasn't so sure of it.
'I just love you so much. See?'
His eyes had been full and wet, his intact fingers vice-like on my waist, and I thought that I could see. If I looked at it a certain way. If I tilted my head and squinted.
I didn't want to see you, at first. The nurse offered to hold my hand but I gripped the sheets instead until my knuckles turned white, begging for a misunderstanding, hoping that you had disappeared through my silence and neglect. I didn't want you. You wouldn't want me, with my sallow skin and lank hair, with my swollen gums and concave chest. When I break and bruise I am slow to heal. These are all signs of malnourishment.
The doctor had pointed to a beautiful, floating blur, and I had tried to make a picture out of you. I had tried to build you a story, but I had no talent for it. Practice makes perfect, though, and the doctor had printed out a copy for me to carry home in my back pocket. In my head, I carried home memorised paragraphs from the waiting room brochures. Pregnancy should be a special time. There are many factors to consider when making a decision. A woman has a right to control her body. A woman has a right to choose. Say those lines in front of a mirror and repeat them until they stick. I would say them now, in front of the reflective coffee shop window, but the glass is dusty and streaked with grease, and my likeness is mottled and unformed. I don't think she'd understand. She rarely does.
'Do you know what you've done?' Henry had said. 'Do you know what will happen?'
I knew I had created life out of chaos. I can’t know the future, but I'd done some research. I'd read about crack babies that come out screaming for their next fix. I'd read about foetuses choking themselves before they are even fully grown. I'd read about young eating each other inside the womb. Intra-uterine cannibalism, they call it. Though that article had been about grey nurse sharks.
'Is the thing even mine?'
His voice had been harsh, and I had closed my eyes against it in case he could see how strongly I prayed. For an immaculate conception. For a severe case of sleepwalking. For a gestation period that would break the records. At altitudes of 1,400 to 1,700 metres, the pregnancy of an Alpine Salamander can last for up to three years, though the process differs from creature to creature. I am still not entirely sure what sort of creature I am. Part human, part titan, part sea. I'm still not sure what sort you are, either.
If things had been different. If I could build you a story.
It takes two hours to get to
My bag sits open on the seat beside me and I try not to tremble as I rifle through it, try to keep my breathing even so you don't have to fend for yourself. In its depths I find travel tissues, a pen, a packet of gum with three pieces missing. I find my phone with the crack down the middle; a crack along its face which tells me I have five missed calls, though I don't know how I could have missed the shrill, shrieking sound of them. I continue to rake my hands through the debris at the bottom of the bag, even though I know, in my stomach, that I have left my wallet at home. I can see it on the kitchen bench, right next to that appointment slip. I can't even pay for the tea.
I like to walk to clear my head, when it gets heavy and full, but now I don't trust my shaking legs to hold me up. Instead, I fold my arms into a pillow on the tabletop and let them take the weight of it, though I do my best avoid the tender places. I press my ear into the cavern created between the old wood and my body. It echoes, there; a strange rushing, pulsing noise that seems to come from nowhere and everywhere at once. It confuses and overwhelms me. It sounds like the sea.
Kate Zahnleiter was born and raised in South East Queensland,