Start Writing Fiction – 2.1 Setting as antagonist – Activity 18

List 6 objects found in a character’s bedroom, office, garage, or other semi-private space. Be specific. Name them, for example:

    plants
    books
    magazine

Describe them, for example:

    clothes
    snacks
    photographs
    detritus

In 200 words, describe the character’s space in a way that provides clues to character. Now consider: could any of these objects lead to a larger story? For example:

    Is there a shameful or glorious memory attached to one of them?
    Do any of them belong to someone else?
    Is one of them being hidden on behalf of another character?

The walls were a soft pink, the paint chipping around the edges. It hadn’t been changed in a decade. There was a wrought iron bed topped with a lacy white coverlet.  A dresser, white and with painted pink roses and carnations, matching the walls, with a simple, matching white-framed mirror was pushed against the far wall.  On it sat a framed picture of a mother and a 10-year-old daughter. A generic one taken at some soulless department store studio. They both smiled, but not really. The mother’s hand appeared to rest on her daughter’s shoulder.

It was a room for a little girl.  No one would have guessed that it belonged to a young woman of 21. Not unless they lifted the spotless white coverlet and saw the jagged piece of metal between the mattress and box spring, brown with rust and spots of dried blood. And deep in the darkness underneath the bed lay a pristine suitcase that had only seen daylight once, yet to be unpacked. Yes, if you lifted the bedspread you would finally understand, the girl who lived here was trapped.

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The Office/Supermarket Sadness

Open University – Start Writing Fiction

2 Setting

2.1 Setting as antagonist

Activity 16

Write one paragraph describing a place where you have worked. Describe how the people used their tools, machines or other equipment. Try to engage our senses, as shown in the Richard Yates’ example given in the ‘Setting for special effects’ section of item 5 in the Anthology.

Discussion

Feedback

If you stated the type of workplace – an office, hospital ward or canning factory – delete the information and see whether it’s still obvious. If not, rewrite the piece with a focus on the sounds, sights, smells and general atmosphere of the place.

THE OFFICE --
THE OFFICE — “Finale” Episode 924/925 — Pictured: (l-r) Brian Baumgartner as Kevin Malone, Jake Lacy as Pete, Paul Lieberstein as Toby Flenderson, Angela Kinsey as Angela Martin, Phyllis Smith as Phyllis Vance, Craig Robinson as Darryl Philbin, Ellie Kemper as Erin Hannon, Kate Flannery as Meredith Palmer, Ed Helms as Andy Bernard, Leslie David Baker as Stanley Hudson — (Photo by: Chris Haston/NBC)

Down three flights of stairs, the lowest one the most precarious, is where it lies.  There’s a sign on the outer door classifying it as a storm shelter, but it is rarely used as such.  Beyond it, there is a sea of cubicles and flickering fluorescent lighting; an artificial chill in the air, despite the tropical temperatures outside the wall of glass.  People sit at their desks, in a state of almost-hallucination, eyes trained on the action on their computer screens.  Some working, others only pretending.  It’s mostly quiet, aside from the occasional burst of congenial laughter or scattered conversation.  Some look up from their screens longingly on pleasant days, eyes on the green expanse outside, longing for quitting time.

It’s not unique in appearance, there are rooms just like it across the country, but the general mood is one of hopefulness.  One created from years of good people working side by side, or cube by cube, day in and day out for many years.  There had been babies born, weddings celebrated, divorces mourned, promotions, retirements, disagreements and reconciliations.  It wasn’t the place, or company policy, or the sparse decor, but the people, that made the room special.  They knew there was a bond among them that transcended the ordinariness of the room, that would find them, no matter where they ended up.

organic-zone

Activity 17

Think about how mood and circumstances affect perception. In 250 words, describe a supermarket visited by a woman who has just received a promotion at work. 

For the first time in months, I feel like cooking.  I only feel like cooking when I’m excited or happy, otherwise it feels like a tedious, dull task, not to mention unnecessary, when there’s so much delicious take out a few mouse clicks away.  But tonight, with a fatter account balance waiting on me tomorrow, which just happened to be payday, I will cook.  First, a stop on the wine aisle, where I grab the best this snooty, high end grocery story has to offer, which still isn’t very good, but tonight, it will taste like a decades old bottle from a winery in the south of France.  Pasta, truffle oil, mushrooms, asparagus, cherry tomatoes, several cheeses, and bread are tossed in my basket in haste before I make my way to the registers.  Maybe I’ll invite the boyfriend over to celebrate with me.  Or maybe I’ll sit in my PJs and consume this scrumptious meal all by myself in front of the television, a satisfied smile on my face as I think about how my life is falling in order, finally.

Now, in another 250 words, write about the supermarket from the perspective of the same woman, who has just ended a love affair.

For the first time in months, I feel like cooking.  He and I always ate out.  He considers himself to be quite the foodie.  We had to try every well-reviewed restaurant in town.  He’d sneered at my provincial, suburban taste when it came to dining.  Just because I don’t mind a burger from Chili’s every once in a while doesn’t mean I’m some sort of philistine.  They have great burgers!  But he never let me forget that I “made” him eat there once.  He insisted on picking the restaurants from that point on.  Even on nights we didn’t spend together, I found myself ordering out instead of cooking.  I’m a great cook.  I KNOW that I’m a great cook.  Every friend, family member, and ex-boyfriend, except him, has raved about my cooking.  But I was so insecure after night after night of eating at five-star restaurants, whenever I thought of cooking it was almost like I could hear his voice in my head, telling me how much I sucked.  Well, not anymore.  I grab ingredients for my world famous lasagna.  Lots of veggies, tomatoes, cheeses, pasta, herbs, plus a great wine.  Make that several great wines.  I will call my girlfriends.  We will gorge ourselves.  We will drink too much.  And they will all tell me I’m too good for him.  Which I don’t really believe right now.  But I know, I know, that one day, I will.

Toy Story

Open University

Start Writing Fiction
2 Setting

2.1 Setting as antagonist

Activity 14

Write a scene in which two characters are quarreling about the setting. One wants to stay and the other wants to leave. A setting could be:

  • a rowdy bar
  • Disney World
  • deserted beach
  • zoo
  • second-hand bookshop
  • school classroom
  • expensive hotel
  • alien spaceship

The two not-so-little girls entered the old-fashioned toy shop with their mothers close behind.  It was supposed to be a ‘girls’ day,’ as planned by their moms.  A stop at the toy store, then lunch, then a movie.   They did it once every two months or so.

“This place is for babies,” Sunny whispered under her breath so their mothers wouldn’t hear.

“Really?” Leelah asked, stopping in front of the display of dolls.  It was a tradition.  Sunny and Leelah always picked a doll to add to their collections at home.  They’d been doing it during every trip to the toy store since they were three.

“Yeah,” Sunny insisted, halfheartedly glancing at the fashion doll perched on the edge of the shelf.  “I mean we’re going into fourth grade after the summer.  We’re almost in middle school!”

“I guess…”  Leelah let her voice trail off, her hand resting on the package of the doll she wanted.  She had bronze skin and big brown eyes, big bouncy curls piled up on top of her head, wearing a white lace dress.  It was the one she’d seen in the window of the store many times as they’d driven by over the past few weeks.  She’d been looking forward to finally being able to call it her own.  But Sunny was changing, like so many of the girls she’d grown up with.

“Let’s just tell our moms we don’t want anything, and we can just go next door and eat.  I’m starving.”  Sunny rubbed her flat belly for dramatic effect.

“I don’t know…I don’t want to hurt my mom’s feelings.”  Leelah looked back at their mothers, who were standing near the front counters having a hushed conversation.

“She’ll be fine.  They’ll both be glad they don’t have to buy us anything.”  Sunny considered the matter settled and strode to the front of the store, telling her mom she didn’t find anything she wanted.

“Are you sure?”  Her mother asked, eyebrows knitted.

Sunny nodded.  “Yep, we can go.”   Sunny looked back at Leelah still standing in front of the doll display and motioned for her to follow as she and her mother walked out the door.

Leelah’s mother walked over to her daughter.  “How about you?  Is there something you like?”  She gave her a knowing look, then turned to Sunny and her mom who were still standing at the front door.  “We’ll catch up with you guys next door!”  She said with a wave.

Sunny rolled her eyes and sighed as she and her mother walked outside.  Leelah handed her mother the box containing the doll she loved.  “Just one more.”

Her mother smiled down at her.  “Just one more.”

Setting as antagonist

Open University course – Start Writing Fiction

2.1 Setting as antagonist

Write a scene in which a character is unhappy in his or her surroundings. For example, he or she might be:

  • shy
  • frightened
  • disgusted
  • trapped
  • homesick

Show the feelings through the descriptions of the place, rather than by naming the feelings.

First day back.  The worn floor squeaks under my feet.  Freshly waxed.  I can still smell the antiseptic solution the janitor always uses while we’re out on break.  The smell of the chemicals mixing with aroma of the stale, re-heated breakfast wafting from the cafeteria for the free lunch program kids creates a sickly, nausea-inducing scent.   Students push by me.  I’m walking too slowly, I know. I hear feminine laughter ringing out, floating down the hall, dancing above my head.  There are whispers as my so-called peers pass by.  Psycho, one boy spits angrily as he shoulder-checks me, knocking everything from my hands.  I stoop down to gather my things, as a high heeled, perfectly pedicured foot kicks one of my books away.  Just slit your wrists already.  

I ignore her, get my stuff and stand up, realizing I’m right outside the room where it happened.  I step inside.  It’s totally empty at the moment.  The wall of windows across the room lets so much sunlight in it’s blinding.   The windows must be freshly scrubbed too.  I rush over to the windows and draw all of the shades.   It’s eerily quiet as I stand there in the almost darkness.  Without the light, I thought it would be different, better, somehow.  Students continue to their destinations in the hall, not noticing me now.  I crouch to the floor in the corner of the room, touching one of the tiles.  It’s been scrubbed clean too of course, of any sign of her, of what happened here.  It’s just cold.  I stand, not knowing what to do with myself.

I feel a dry hand on my shoulder and nearly jump out of my skin.  “Are you supposed to be in here, young lady?”

I turn and the young teacher almost jumps too when she sees my face.  She knows that I’m that girl.  I say nothing to her.  I owe her no explanation.  I duck around her and leave the room, taking the emergency exit into the breezeway between the buildings of the school, lean my head against an ancient brick column and welcome the fresh air.  I don’t know if I’ll ever go back inside.

The Table in the Foyer

Open University – Start Writing Fiction 2.1

Activity 11

Make a list of objects you remember from your childhood home. Don’t use any particular order or many adjectives. Don’t censor yourself – something seemingly unimportant may evoke strong impressions. Read through your list and circle the objects that evoke the strongest feelings and memories of events.

my list:

marble table in hallway

green carpet in dining room

linoleum floor in kitchen

wood paneled walls in living room

carpet covered steps leading to living room

shelf in bedroom closet

bookshelf in bedroom

bookshelf in living room

high bed in brother’s room

bedroom closet

bedroom window – trees outside

Now write a paragraph describing one of these events.Where exactly did it happen?What objects were involved?Don’t use any overtly sentimental language – let the details speak for themselves.Example: In the space beneath the staircase I find my old dog’s house, with his shaggy hairs caught in the rough edges of the wood planks, although the dog is long gone.If you don’t spell out the emotional significance of the dog, you create poignancy without sentimentality.

There was a table that sat in the foyer.  The first thing one saw when the front door was opened.  It’s ordinary in appearance, dark wooden legs, a small circular white marble top, perfectly positioned so it was directly in front of the front door and the kitchen/dining room.  It was always at my back as I sat at the dinner table. Unimportant things were deposited there, junk mail, handbills, flyers stuck in the mailbox and under the screen door, only eventually to end up in the trash.  And the important things, letters from the school or notes from nosy neighbors, lurking, waiting for a parent to open and peruse, then the inevitable punishment or commendation that followed.  Sometimes a source of joy would be found there.  Fresh flowers, candies, gifts, greeting cards, invitations to weddings, parties.  But that was rarer.  The marble table was always the first stop after a school day.  That’s how you learned what sort of evening you would be having.

Coin Flip

Open University Assignment – Start Writing Fiction

1.4 Portraying a Character-Activity 9

Make a character desire something, and make the desire his or her driving force. Write a scene or a summary that creates reasons why s/he can never have what s/he wants. (‘Three hours between planes’ is a good example of this.)

pitch-black-skies

It’s now or never, I think to myself as the train comes to a stop.  We’re at the airport, the end of the line.  All around me, sleepy passengers gather their suitcases and bags and depart the double doors.  Slowly, I rise from my seat, sling my light backpack over my shoulder and get off the train, stepping into the cavernous lobby of the Hartsfield Airport.  There’s so much going on around me.  People standing in line, waiting to get checked in on flights that I imagine will take them to exotic places.  Children crying, couples exchanging goodbye kisses, a man yelling at a ticket agent, the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen wearing dark sunglasses indoors, dragging a wheeled designer bag behind her, striding confidently toward the escalators.  I think she must be a model.  All of the life surrounding me excites me.  It’s one of my good days.  I feel happier than I have in a long time.  I try and forget about the other side of the coin.

I pull out the ticket that I bought with the savings I’ve stashed away from my part-time job for the past year.  New York City. It’s been my dream to live there since I was a little girl.   To me, it was a fairyland I’d created in my head spun from stories I’d read and scenes from movies and television shows. Kisses in the rain, sun-dappled walks through Central Park under trees bursting with color, Broadway shows, proposals atop the Empire State Building. I’d already rented an apartment through the mail.  Two months paid in full.  I finger the warm metal of the key in my pocket and felt an electric thrill rip through me.  After the two months were up, I’d get a job, figure out what I wanted to do from there.  The important thing was, I’d be making the decisions.

My whole life since I was 10 years old has been on a routine set by someone else.  School then home.  Or school, doctors’ appointments, then home.  Now it was school, doctors’ appointments, work, then home.  I worked as a caregiver for an old lady.  I read to her, gave her lunch and dinner,  basically kept her company until her night nurse got there.  She’s the only one that knows that I’m leaving.  She told me she spent a summer in New York between her sophomore and junior years of college and it was the best three months of her life.  I told her two weeks before I was leaving so she could find someone else.  She promised not to tell my parents.  I was an adult after all.  I have the right to leave if I want to.  Once I land, I’ll call and tell them I’m okay.  Right now, as far as they know, I’m at school until 1:30, then at Mrs. Jackson’s until 7.  I am off the grid.  Freedom feels so delicious.  I do an excited twirl in the middle of the lobby, ignoring the strange looks I get.

I march up to the security agent and show my airline ticket and driver’s license, bouncing on my heels with an energy that my body can’t contain.  She looks a little like my mom.  Bronze skin, small brown eyes, hair dyed light brown and brushed back into a sensible bun.  Uniform immaculate and neatly pressed.  A woman that no one really notices until she makes a scene.

She eyes me and my ticket suspiciously.  I probably don’t look like a girl who would buy a one-way ticket to New York City.  I look like a typical subservient, respectful little black girl, which I have been, up until today.  I’m wearing a pastel pink sweater set that complimented my clear, milky brown skin, white jeans and sandals, my jet black hair was neatly straightened and swung down my back.  The only makeup I wore was clear lip gloss.  The security agent looks as though she wants to say something, to stop me, but I was 18 after all.  There is nothing she, or anyone, could do.  Reluctantly, she waves me through.

As I go through security, it starts.  My brain gets hot, my face starts to sweat despite the frigid temperatures.  I get confused with all the orders being barked at me.  Take this off, put this here, no not this line, that one, that’s not allowed, it’s not your turn yet.  As I slip my shoes back on and put my backpack on my shoulder again, I blink back tears.  I think about the medicine bottle I’d left behind, sitting on the dresser in my bedroom.  I’d reasoned that I’d get a new prescription once I’d gotten settled in the city.  I just wanted a few days to feel like me.  I want to feel the leap in my heart when I see the lights of Times Square for the first time, or the beauty of Central Park, or the grand Plaza Hotel rising above the treetops like a castle.  I want to close my eyes as I sat on the balcony of my apartment and feel the energy and hustle of the city.  The pills would only muddle all of that.  My mom watched me every morning as I took each pill religiously, but today I’d pretended.  I held it under my tongue, swallowed the glass of water, and spit it on the floor once she’d left the room.

I’m still determined.  I ignore the weakness in my legs, the heaviness in my chest.  I continue down the escalator, then to my terminal.  I feel it, rising in my throat.  The coin flipping.  I sit down at my gate, I curl my knees to my chest and wrap my arms around them.  I put my face into my legs and start to cry.  I try to be as quiet as I can, but I can hear myself getting louder and louder as though I have no control over it.  My voice seems to fill the terminal.  I know people must be pointing, watching, laughing.  But there’s nothing I can do.  I feel the ticket and driver’s license still clutched in my hand slowly slip away.  People are asking me questions, I think.  My head is underwater and on fire.  I don’t know my name or why I’m here, or where I’m from or if someone’s with me.  I can’t answer them.  Don’t they understand?  All I can do is sit here and cry and scream and wait for this feeling to go away.   Muddled voices “safety concern…unstable…cannot board…in no condition…”  In what feels like a few minutes, but what must have been hours, I hear my mother’s voice.

“Oh Nic, what have you done?” I look up and see the shame in her eyes, the crowd of people behind her, staring.  She hands me my pill and a plastic cup filled with water and I take it without question.  She holds out her hand and I take that too.  It feels cold and rough around mine as we start to walk out of the terminal, all eyes on us.

Get Happy – Conclusion

Today I get to combine two assignments in one.  First I revamped my blog based on tips from Blogging 101 – Day 2.

Next – Open  University Assignment: Start Writing Fiction 1.4 Portraying a character

Now present your new character in the four different ways outlined in Activity 7. Here they are again:

  • Make a summary of what the character is like.
  • Show him or her through appearance.
  • Show him or her through a habitual or repeated action.
  • Finally, show him or her through a speech in a scene.

*

swiss alps

There was a knock at the front door.  Sara had just stepped out of her dress and was about to pull on a pair of worn jeans and a t-shirt, preparing to meet up with some friends a few blocks away for a drink.  She wanted to spill all of the details of her date that never was.  Her eyebrows raised, she slowly approached the door as though there were some sort of deviant on the other side.  She never got unannounced visitors, especially this late at night.  Had the elusive Chet tracked her down and decided to apologize in person?

She padded across the dusty hardwood floor in bare feet and peeked through the peephole.  It was Amy.  Sara stepped back from the door and sighed.  Her sister was ready for round two she guessed.  Well, she was too.  She quickly whipped the door open and could tell she’d startled her, which pleased Sara the tiniest bit.  Sara just stared back at her, eyebrows still raised, as if to say, ‘Can I help you?’

Thirty miles away, in a sad little suburb in a sagging house on a toy-littered cul-de-sac, Amy and Sara’s mother, Helen, poured herself her fifth glass of wine of the night.  Her husband was settled in in his usual spot in front of the television in his armchair, laughing at some dumb, subtly sexist sitcom.  One of those where the wife is impossibly gorgeous and the husband is bumbling and overweight and goofy, but the disparity in their union is never mentioned.  Helen often wondered why the reverse was never portrayed.  A gorgeous guy dating an average-looking woman?  Perish the thought.

Helen stumbled upstairs to her bedroom, settled into her usual spot on her king sized bed that she usually slept in alone while her husband snored away downstairs in his easy chair, and opened her laptop.   She had a new email.  Unusual for that time of night.  She assumed her friends were already asleep.  At some point, after her girls had grown up and moved away, most of her social life had disappeared as well.  She hadn’t realized that most of her friends were ones of convenience, ladies she could talk to at school events and play dates as the kids ran around.  Much of being a parent was just sitting around with other parents, sipping bad wine and complaining about your husband.  None of the parenting books told you that, but it was true.

Now she was down to two friends she was in regular contact with.  An old college friend with whom she’d maintained her friendship throughout her marriage and the raising of her children, though it hadn’t been easy.  Marjorie was single and had never desired a husband or children.  It made things awkward when the girls were young, but now it was almost like things were back to normal.  They were both unencumbered, not that that meant her life was much more exciting.  She and Marjorie did little more than have lunches and talk about books they’d read.  They played around with the idea of taking a long trip together, just to the two of them, similar to an epic road trip they’d taken when they were 19, driving from their college in Georgia all the way to New York City on a whim to see some band perform.  But now, neither of them seemed to be able to make firm plans.  Maybe they both knew those days were behind them.

Her other friend was Nancy, a woman who was the mother of Amy’s long-time best friend, Amber.  They ran into each other all of the time, especially at all of Amy’s pre-wedding festivities.  Amy seemed to still be under the impression that Helen and Nancy were close, and always included Nancy and her husband whenever she planned family get-togethers.  The truth was, Nancy was a friend of circumstance.  She didn’t dislike her necessarily, they just had nothing in common beside their girls.  Whenever they were left alone they found that they had little to discuss with each other besides mundane things like the weather and fashion.  But sometimes they exchanged funny emails, usually stories about something Amy or Amber had done that confounded them or made them laugh.

Before opening her email, she checked Facebook and held her breath, hoping the first image that assaulted her eyes wouldn’t be that of her youngest, Sara, downing a shot of something dark and suspicious looking, which was usually the case.  But no, there was a picture of Sara in Amy’s living room, all made up, clearly Amy had done her makeup with a heavy hand, in a lovely dress that made her look like a cinema star from the 1940’s.   She looked like Helen 30 years ago.  The same chocolate brown hair; Helen’s mane was still lustrous and shiny but now tinged with gray, but she still had the long, lithe body from the Pilates DVDs she used religiously six days a week, and the wide green eyes that she’d bequeathed to both her daughters.

She stared back at her Facebook timeline.  Amy must have taken the picture of Sara.  Her mouth smiled, but her eyes told a different story.   “Off to a double date!”  Amy had written in the photo caption, followed by a million little smiley faces and other indecipherable emojis.  Sara looked beautiful, of course, both of her daughters were beautiful, but not quite like herself.  Poor Sara.  Helen knew this whole date thing couldn’t have been Sara’s idea.  Her lovely, free-spirited daughter.  She envied her a bit.  All that freshness and spontaneity and youth.  She did what she wanted and didn’t care what anyone thought.  Unless Amy was involved.   She had a vision, many years ago, of sitting in Chastain Park chatting with Nancy and hearing terrified screams coming from the sliding board where Amy, Amber, and little Sara, only two at the time, had been playing.   The slide was for the bigger kids, too much for her baby Sara, but Amy had pushed her, only figuratively she hoped, until Sara had gone down all by herself, screaming and crying all the way.  She ran to Sara, where she’d fallen face down in the dirt  after the slide had propelled her little body downward at warp speed, wiped the dirt from her face, kissed her still chubby baby cheek and dried her tears.  Sara buried her head in her shoulder as she carried her back to the bench.  “What a baby,”  Helen had heard five-year-old Amy whisper to Amber as they’d both snickered.  Sara had quietly sniffled in her lap the rest of the afternoon.  Helen had wished since that day that Sara would stand up for herself more when it came to Amy; clearly she’d been bullied into this blind date business, but she tried to stay out of her daughters’ squabbles.

She went back to her email and saw the new message had been sent an hour ago from Amy.  It was link to a hotel confirmation for a resort in the Swiss Alps booked in Helen’s name, a package that included multiple guided hikes through the mountains, and a link to an airline gift card that would more than cover first class airfare for two.  She clasped her chest and sucked in a deep breath.  Amy.  She’d remembered her whispers.  Helen could still feel the weight of her smaller head against hers, years ago on this very bed.  She’d felt so lost, disillusioned with life and marriage and motherhood.  She’d had no one to confide in.  All of her mom friends seemed so happy and content.  Marjorie would have just said, ‘I told you so.’  She had been convinced since college that marriage was just a sham perpetuated by a patriarchal society set on keeping women from realizing their true potential.  Therapy was out of the question.  Sara was so young and running wild, never noticing her mother’s unhappiness.  But it was Amy who would crawl into bed with her and ask, “Mommy, what is it?  What’s wrong?”  And she’d told her.   Her 10-year-old daughter had been the only person with whom she could be honest.  Horrible parenting, she knew, but she also knew those clandestine talks had saved her life.

Helen forwarded the email to Marjorie and said, “I’m in.  Are you?”  She only had to wait five seconds before she got her response, an enthusiastic, “YES!!!”

Helen closed the computer, steadying herself, then stood  and made her way back downstairs.  Walter was nodding off in his chair, the television and the dumb sitcom still droning on.

“Walter!”  She shook the chair to rouse him.  Her husband stirred and slowly opened his eyes with surprise.

“I’m going on a trip with Marjorie.  To Switzerland.  We leave next week.”

“Errr…okay….” he mumbled groggily.

“And when I get back.  I think we should see someone.  A therapist or counselor or something.   Our insurance should cover it.  Maybe not a top-notch one, but someone.  I’m unhappy, Walter.  I’ve been unhappy for a long, long time.”

Walter looked confused.  He was a simple kind of guy.  As long as he had his family, his TV remote, cold beer in the fridge and money in the bank, he was a-okay.  It was one of the reasons she’d married him.   She knew he would be loyal and sweet, only needing her and their little family, nothing more.  Unlike her own philandering father.  But she wouldn’t think about that now.  That would be a story for the therapist.  The only thing she had to do now was pack.  She hurried upstairs, without stumbling, seeming to have sobered up completely, leaving Walter’s perplexed face behind her.

Back at Sara’s doorstep, Amy was still standing in the hallway, waiting to be let in.  Sara saw something that slightly resembled regret in her eyes, and reluctantly stepped aside so Amy could get past her.  She’d changed too.  She wore her gym gear, a light blue jacket, yoga pants and two layered multi-colored tank tops, her face scrubbed and her hair pulled back.  She was such a beauty, so ethereal-looking, with her naturally clear translucent skin, auburn hair warming her face, her cheeks red from the cold.

Amy stepped inside and started to look around.  Here we go, Sara thought.  She knew Amy would comment on the hastily discarded dress on the floor, the books scattered all over the couch and her bed, since her apartment was so small she could see through the open door of her bedroom from the foyer.  There were dishes in the sink waiting to be washed and dried, a basket full of clean laundry waiting for Sara to pick through and find a clean top to wear out.   But when she really looked at Amy she seemed to be seeing her humble little apartment for the first time.

And she was.  Amy was seeing the wall of bookshelves their father had put up for her, remembering Sara always said she wanted a wall of books in her house when she was all grown up.  A declaration she made after she saw the epic castle library in their favorite movie as kids, Beauty and the Beast.  She saw all of the keepsakes for her travels around the world, a framed photo of her and a friend in the Andes Mountains, stunning pink and aqua blue coiled sea shells, unusual-looking red and brown rocks saved from various hiking trips, white sand collected from a Thai beach in a bottle, the words Samui Beach scribbled on the glass.

She saw another shelf lined with a collection of used vinyl containing some of her favorite bands and an old-fashioned record player. A well-worn guitar leaned against it, which Sara had spent many hours learning to play as a teen, despite Amy’s telling her it was a waste of time. The living room had a wide open space of empty flooring, the only furniture was a small, dark red love seat with bright throw pillows and a side table.  Stepping closer, Amy saw the framed photo that sat atop it.  It was her and her sister, arms around each other, the ocean behind them, the wind whipping their hair around their faces.  It was during their last sister trip.  Two weeks before she married Steve.  Of course Amber had thrown her a huge bachelorette bash a month prior, but this had been a special trip just for them.  They’d gone to Miami and had the time of their lives.  They’d sunbathed every morning, gone running on the beach every afternoon, eaten and drank whatever they wanted, and at night, they’d danced to exhaustion.

She realized her sister was different and free and mysterious, all the things she wasn’t, but that was okay.

“What is it, Amy?” Sara asked, arm crossed, but her face softened a bit.

Amy put her bag down on Sara’s loveseat and pulled out a bottle of red wine.  “I’m here to drink wine and dance with my sister.”

A slow smile spread across Sara’s face.  “What??”

“Put on Nevermind.”  She was still giving her sister orders, but this one Sara didn’t seem to mind.  She went to dig through the album collection as Amy braved the messy kitchen to find two clean glasses and a corkscrew, not an easy task, but as she returned to the living room she heard the beginning strains of Lithium.  She handed a glass to Sara and started to play air guitar.  Sara shook her head and laughed at her dorky sister.  When the chorus hit, they both began to sing at the top of their lungs and sort of jump dance around the room.  As Amy danced she looked at her sister’s flailing body, her hair whipping all over her face as she sang, then pictured her mother on a mountaintop, her closest friend at her side, breathing in the crisp, cold air and sighing deeply, an expression of profound contentment on her face.  Amy said to herself silently, ‘So this is what it feels like.’

Get Happy – pt. 2

Assignment for Open University

  • Make a summary of what the character is like.
  • Show him or her through appearance.
  • Show him or her through a habitual or repeated action.
  • Finally, show him or her through a speech in a scene.

pitch-black-skies

Yesterday’s story from the other sister’s perspective. Amy’s feet were throbbing, but her shoes were killer.  She felt faint from the constricting bright blue bandage dress that seemed to be cutting off her source of oxygen.  Her hair fell in loose, auburn waves over her bare shoulders.  She was hyper aware of the men walking by, taking in the hard-earned, pert curves of her body as she perched on the bar stool.

Beauty was pain, and work.  Everything was work.  Nothing was fun and easy and natural.  There was no such thing as a natural beauty.  There was no such thing as love at first sight, or a perfect marriage.  In any so-called happy marriage, there was a woman who spent two hours in the gym six days a week, routinely skipped meals, spent an hour a day on hair and make up and had a dresser dedicated to nothing but lingerie.  Their husbands bragged on them to their friends; their friends envied them.  The ones with the wives who’d let themselves go after the babies and mortgages and 401Ks.

“Amy’s holding up,” she’d heard one of Steve’s friends whisper to him as she’d slowly walked up the stairs from the basement on Steve’s poker night.   She’d smiled secretly to herself. That’s why she spent an hour making her sister beautiful that afternoon.  If she’d left it up to her she’d have shown up in a pair of ripped jeans and a Nirvana tour t-shirt from 1993.  She made no effort and it was embarrassing.  Happiness was work too.  Just like beauty.  She’d found the man who would make her happy and she made him love her. Made him her husband.  It hadn’t been easy.

Steve was clearly out of her league from the beginning, she’d known that.  She was a lower middle-class townie with a state college degree, he was an Ivy League investment banker that just happened to be a friend of a friend of a friend that she’d met at a group hang out thing one of her friends had arranged.  But being married to Steve meant happiness.  So she reinvented herself into a woman he would marry.  And it’d worked, in six months flat.  Much quicker than any of her girlfriends would have guessed.

Her mother had never been happy.  She was too afraid.  Never asked for what she really wanted.   She’d settled for a man who adored her, but was beneath her.  Weak.  Unambitious.  They still lived in the same shabby starter house they’d bought right after Amy was born, the only empty-nesters in the neighborhood surrounded by singles and newlyweds with fat, cooing babies.  Her mom had told her what she really wanted when she was a kid.  Secret whispers laying side by side on her parents’ bed while her father was downstairs, watching some sporting event or game show, cheers erupting from far away.  She’d wanted a house on the lake with windows that faced east.  She would sit on the porch next to her husband with a cup of tea and watch the sun rise.  She wanted to write novels, she wanted to have more children, she wanted to go hiking in Europe, she wanted, she wanted, she wanted.  But they were just whispers.

She couldn’t stand to think of her mother in that sad house, watching the reflecting lights of the television in her husband’s blank face, a husband that she desperately wanted to love, thinking of trips untaken and the one page of the book saved on the computer upstairs that she knew she would never finish.  She loved her mother dearly, but she was lazy.  She wasn’t depressed, or defeated, she was just lazy.  She could finish her book, she was in good health, she could go hiking anywhere, her father would follow her wherever. It was easier to complain about the things she would never do than try.  That would never be Amy’s life.  And she was going to make sure that it didn’t happen to Sara either.

Amy wound a fat strand of hair and smiled as Sara approached.  She was stunning.  Much prettier than Amy when she was all dressed up, Amy was confident enough to admit.  It was such a rare treat to see her that way, a bubble of pride expanded in her chest.  Chet was a lucky guy.  And he was smart and ambitious and handsome, a great father to his son with his ex-wife.  Amy had always thought guys who’d been married before made the best husbands, contrary to popular belief.  They’d gotten that first disastrous marriage out of the way and were ready for the real thing.  But Amy was shocked that he was going to be so late for the date; it was the height of rudeness.   She wouldn’t let on to Sara.  Sara was too much like their mother.  Aimless, no plan, bouncing around wherever the wind blew her.  If she didn’t nudge her in the right direction every once and a while, she stood still. Sara greeted her and Steve with a hello that was a bit too chipper, refusing to remove her coat.  Maybe she was waiting for Chet to arrive before making the big reveal.  She knew the dress she was wearing underneath was stunning, but she was hiding, just like their mother.

When Sara found out Chet was running an hour late because he was at spin class, she laughed like it was the most ridiculous thing she’d ever heard (and it sort of was) deposited Amy’s $500 shoes on top of the bar and practically ran out the door, five inches shorter.  It was as though she’d been freed from some sort of oppression. Spending the evening with her sister and her brother-in-law was oppressive to her.  And that’s when Amy started to get angry.

She downed the rest of her wine, and without a word to Steve, she stormed out of the restaurant into the cold night after her, catching up with her on the corner.  She was so angry she didn’t register the cold or the fact that she’d left her coat inside until she was standing face to face with her sister, who was standing under a street lamp, waiting for the traffic light to change.  She’d already wiped off most of her makeup with a towelette, back to regular Sara.  Under the lights, she looked so young.  Her baby sister.  Despite her anger, she felt a wave of affection. Sara stared back at her, unintimidated, with a tiny spot of red still left on her otherwise bare lips.

“What do you want?” Sara demanded.  “Did you really want me to sit and wait an hour for that douche-bag?  Do you really think I’m that desperate?”

Amy shook her head, crossing her arms against the cold.  “I just wanted you to meet someone new…I mean….when have you even been in a relationship..?

Sara threw her arms in the air in frustration.  The light changed and the other pedestrians pushed against them as they made their way to the crosswalk. “You know nothing about my life.  You’re too busy trying to get me to become you.”

Amy tugged at her hair and flipped it behind her shoulders. “And what’s so wrong with that.  Having a happy marriage…starting a family?”

“Nothing, if you’re really happy.”

“And what’s that supposed to mean?”

Sara sighed. “Come on, Amy.  You and Steve and your whole fake Stepford Wife thing you have going on…that’s happiness?  Wearing designer shoes and going to dumb pretentious restaurants and talking about….investment portfolios and overpriced preschools or whatever with your ridiculous friends?  That’s what you call a life?”

Amy stumbled back, as though Sara had punched her. “It’s better than sitting in some crappy apartment with boxes and clothes and trash everywhere cause you’re too lazy to clean.  You’re 30 years old, Sara.  Grow up already.”  She maintained her angry stance, but she was losing steam.

Sara stepped closer to her, smiling, looking more at peace than she’d ever seen her.  “I love my life, Amy.  As hard as that may be for you to believe.  I don’t need your pity, or your set ups, or some pretend version of your life.  I’m actually happy.  I’m not pretending. And I think that makes you a little crazy.” The light changed again and Sara darted across the street, blending into the crowd of other pedestrians. Amy stayed on the street corner and watched her sister start to skip down the street away from her in her ballet flats like a little girl, until she couldn’t see her any longer.  Her heart began to slowly crack, and she wondered if she’d ever known anything at all.

Get Happy

Open University – Start writing fiction – 1.3 Sources of characters Assignment:  Imagine a character very like you but give him or her a dramatic external alteration. You might make the character the opposite sex, for example, or make them significantly older or younger. You choose.Now write a brief character sketch in which you reveal the character’s appearance, their feelings about it, and their current circumstances. Use a third-person narrator (‘he’ or ‘she’).  This character is very much like me, but I changed her race and made her single instead of married.

shoes

Sara shimmied into the warm restaurant through the throngs of people, tightening her coat as girls her age around her shed their outerwear and slung them over tables and empty barstools. The restaurant smelled of garlic and olives and full-bodied wine.  Very American-Italian.  Not Italian-American, an important distinction.  A bad choice for a blind date.  Too loud, to aromatic, too warm, too trendy.  Trying too hard.  Just the kind of place Amy would pick. She wasn’t ready for what her sister would call “the big reveal.”  She’d let Amy make her up.  The works.  Dark-rimmed eyes that made the gold in her green eyes glow, pouty red lips, something called contouring, very popular with the reality star set, that made her already prominent alabaster cheekbones even more angular.  Her chocolate brown hair was shiny and blown out, hanging sleekly just beneath her shoulders and parted down the middle.  She’d let Amy talk her into heels.  Stilettos!  For goodness sakes.  She walked in them well enough, but they were so uncomfortable she didn’t understand why anyone would willingly stuff their poor helpless feet into them.  Besides women like her with pushy big sisters.  Sara felt like a contestant on one of those dumb reality dating shows. She normally wore flats.  With worn jeans and T-shirts with ironic sayings or tights with ballet slippers and 50’s A-line skirts with retro blouses, sometimes short floral dresses and flip flops in summer with chunky shoes and frayed denim jackets.  She didn’t wear stilettos.

“It’s just to get him interested,” Amy insisted as she added some blush to her already rouged cheek.  “You can go back to being you in a few months…it’s just how it works.”

She was meeting one of her brother-in-law’s childhood friends, a man unfortunately nicknamed Chet (could she marry a man who freely called himself that?) who was newly divorced.  Sara thought it was too soon for him to be dating again.

“Come on, Sara, just meet him,” Amy had insisted.  “Plus, I know you’re sick of being single.”

Am I? Sara had thought.  It was just like Amy.  If she wanted something, everyone else must have. Her life was of course the default master plan that everyone craved.  Amy would never understand that she liked solitary nights next to the open window in her small apartment, sipping good wine and reading a book, letting her feet rest against the window sill, feeling the delicious chill of the wind between her toes.  She liked eating in bed without anyone complaining about crumbs, watching whatever movie or show she wanted on television, not having to talk at all for hours if she didn’t feel like it, she liked waking up on a Saturday morning and doing whatever she wanted to do whenever she wanted to do it, she liked being able to call a girlfriend and plan a spontaneous adventure, no husbands with whom to smooth things over or babysitters to arrange.  She liked her life.  But this was Amy.  And for some reason, since the day Amy convinced her to go down the big slide on the playground at Chastain Park when she was two, even though her legs and arms were shaking and she’d nearly wet her pants, she hadn’t been able to say no to her.

Under her tightly wound coat she wore a dark red dress with a V-neck criss-cross neckline and an A-line skirt that swished as she walked.  It wasn’t really her, but she’d felt adventurous when she bought it a year ago.  It’d hung in her closet forever, waiting for the day it would make its debut.  She feared she’d wasted it.  She wanted to wear it on a date with a guy she’d already met and was maybe a little in love with.  Not full on, let’s run off and get married love, just fluttering in the belly, tingling in your toes, can’t stop smiling all day, goofy kind of love.  She would have worn it to a place where a live band played old standards like The Way You Look Tonight or Fly Away With Me, he’d twirl her on the floor as she pressed her cheek into the curve of his neck.  So the coat was staying on, for now anyway.

She sat down at the bar, where her sister and her husband were already sitting, nursing glasses of red wine.  Sara had insisted on driving her own car.  Amy’s husband Steve was exactly what Amy said she’d always wanted, like she’d ordered him from a catalog.   Tall and generically Ken-doll handsome, romantic but in a conservative, non-overt way, polite, gentlemanly, always stood when Amy arrived and when she left, opened car doors and always paid the tab, no matter how many of Amy’s friends have been invited along.  They went from just friends, to boyfriend and girlfriend, to engaged and then married in six months flat.  All according to plan.

Sara confused Steve.  She could tell.  She only politely laughed at his jokes, stayed only as long as needed at his and Amy’s soirees so as not to be considered rude, and turned down every invitation to travel with them until they stopped offering all together. Sara liked alone Amy, not Amy-and-Steve Amy. It was rare to catch alone Amy anymore.

“Hi guys,” Sara said in a fake-cheery tone.

“You look great!”  Amy responded with a wink as Steve nodded.  She flipped her dyed auburn hair over her shoulders and blinked her matching green eyes excitedly at Sara.  People always asked if they were twins until Amy had lightened her hair.  Sara didn’t know if that was an insult or not since Amy was three years older.   “Take off your coat!”  Amy demanded.

Sara stood, noticing expectant, appreciative glances from men around the room.  The big reveal. Her face flushed.  “I’m a little cold,” Sara lied, sitting back down. ”

You’re so beautiful, Sara,” Amy had told her earlier that day, hanging a gold locket around her neck.  “You shouldn’t hide it.”

Sara had stayed silent.  Beauty wasn’t something that you could hide.  It was always obvious to those who were smart enough to see it.  She wanted be with someone who saw her, actually saw her, or else, what was the point?

“So, a bit of a setback,” Amy started in that babyish, sing-songy voice she used when she was about to deliver bad news.  “Chet is running super late.  He got held up.”

Sara raised her newly manicured eyebrows.  “Really?”

Steve nodded again.  “He just texted.  He’s really sorry.  He’ll be here in about an hour he said.”

“Oh, is everything okay?”

Steve and Amy exchanged worried glances.

“Of course, he’s fine, just a class ran late.”

“What kind of class?  Is he going back to college or something?  That’s interesting.”

A long pause. “No, not that kind of class.  It’s Heart Cycle.”

“Heart Cycle?  What in the world is that?” Amy released an elongated sigh, emphasizing for Steve’s effect how hopeless Sara was.

“It’s a new cycle studio?  It just opened in Buckhead?” Steve looked at Sara expectantly as if these details were supposed to jog her memory.  “There’s a two-page long waiting list to get in and he finally got in last month, but his favorite instructor was late for class today.  He felt really bad, but he couldn’t miss it.”

Sara looked at the gravely serious expressions on Amy’s and Steve’s faces, glancing back and forth to see if they were joking.  Then threw her head back and laughed heartily, so loud that half the diners dropped their forks and looked up at her, probably thinking she was deranged.

“Saaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrraaaaaaa…” Amy whined.  “You should be glad that he takes care of himself.  A lot of guys don’t even care about that stuff.”

Her admonishment only made her laugh harder.  She slid from the bar stool, still chuckling, and pulled on her coat. “You aren’t even going to wait?  He’s a really nice guy.”  Steve got that confused look on his face he always did when Sara didn’t behave according to his or Amy’s expectations.

Sara shook her head.  “You tell him I hope he enjoyed his class.” Amy put her hand on Sara’s arm as she turned to leave.  Her face was flushed red with annoyance. “What are we supposed to tell him when he gets here and you’re gone?”

Sara paused.  Then bent down and took off Amy’s ridiculous shoes and placed them on the bar, probably breaking a few hundred health code laws.  Her feet breathed a sigh of relief as she slipped them into the pair of flats she’d dropped in her purse just in case.  “Tell him I was never really here anyway.” She smiled at their dumbfounded faces, then turned her back to them and headed out the door to do…whatever the heck she wanted.  But first she would stop home and hang up her dress in its usual spot –  in anticipation of a night that was worthy of its presence.