Strangers

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On hearing and personal normalcy.

Published September 28, 2016 by mandileighbean

Round of applause, please; I’m actually posting weekly! Granted this is the first time it has happened, but it’s all about the baby steps, right? It’s all about doing the work.

So without further self-aggrandizing glory, or further do, here’s this week’s writing prompt. I’d like to thank Cristina Hartmann who wrote a beautiful, poignant article on her deaf experience. Her willingness to be so honest and so personal helped me through writer’s block and taught me to be open-minded through validating the idea that there is a common human experience no matter the extenuating circumstances.

Enjoy.

WEEKLY WRITING PROMPT #29: A deaf woman undergoes a surgical procedure that enables her to hear for the first time.

The surgery had been an absolute success, one worthy of being documented in some elite medical journal that was never actually read but given a prestigious place on a bookshelf of some pretentious professional. But Monica had no idea that she was a medical marvel; not yet, anyway. She was still floating somewhere in the dark ether of anesthesia, blissfully unaware of the momentous, tragic changes in her life that had occurred while she was sleeping peacefully.

Monica had been born deaf, an innocent victim of her mother’s sins. Monica’s mom had been a pretty heavy drug user in the very beginning of her pregnancy and though her daughter had been the reason she finally got clean, it was too little too late. The damage was done and in her youngest years, Monica was constantly shushed so that the toddler wouldn’t make noise at inappropriate times. How was Monica to know she was even making sounds, let alone when she was being shushed? The kid couldn’t hear, couldn’t hear a damn thing, and so Monica struggled to learn American Sign Language. Doing so allowed Monica to meet many, many different people and in her important, formative years, she signed with adults, and that early exposure to maturity and a cynic sort of wisdom only vaguely hidden behind smiles that didn’t quite meet the eyes (because she was still a child after all) indelibly shaped Monica’s personality. She had always been an old soul – polite, conservative and comfortable even in the strange solitude that came with being unable to hear.

Being comfortable wasn’t always synonymous with being complacent, so when Monica had been referred to the Cochlear Implant Center, she continued on that journey to meet with an audiologist, and when her medical history had been sufficiently reviewed and all the necessary medical tests had been conducted, Monica willingly moved on to the last phase, which involved a psychiatric evaluation. In the end, all had been golden and she was approved for cochlear implant surgery.

Monica remembered her hands twitching nervously as the surgeon explained the procedure. She thought it was nice he wanted her to be informed, but Monica was letting most of it simply fall away. She was too nervous to concern herself with the details of the surgery because it wasn’t the impending incision that troubled her; it was the aftermath. She had been relieved to discover that she would still be unable to hear like a hearing person, and that the implant could be turned off so that Monica could effectively be deaf again. The thing Monica hated most about being deaf was that it was not her choice; taking a wide view of the thing, Monica supposed you could say it had been her mother’s choice, but unwittingly so. Either way, Monica liked the idea that being able to hear was her choice, very much her choice. If she longed for the familiar soothing and peaceful silence she had lived in for so long, Monica could go there any time she liked. That thought had calmed her enough to go ahead with the procedure.

Surprisingly, the surgery was no big deal; Monica learned that the majority of patients go home the same day, and that the surgery only lasted between two to three hours. After minimal hair shaving and a small incision (the aerated bone behind her ear had to be removed so the device could be implanted), she’d go home and remove the dressings the next day, standing in front of her bathroom mirror, breathing deeply and listening hard for anything, anything at all.

What a change it would be; good or bad, it would certainly be different.

So as far as anyone was concerned, Monica should have been on her way home. But her shit luck reared its ugly head once more, and there had been a minor complication. The procedure had caused facial nerve stimulation, and they wanted to keep Monica longer (overnight) for observation, to make sure the damage wasn’t permanent. The surgeon would tell her, with an overly enthusiastic smile and tone to let her know her optimism should not in any way shape or form be deterred, when she woke from the anesthesia but even that was taking longer than it should. A surgeon couldn’t be expected to wait around all day, could he? Certainly not; time to wait around was not a luxury in the business of saving lives.

Monica was therefore all alone when she began to stir. Well, all alone if one discounted her roommate, which it seemed most people did. He was a young man essentially being kept comfortable until he inevitably kicked the bucket. The car accident had ravaged his insides; so much vital stuff had been bruised and was bleeding and it was just a God awful mess. The next of kin had been alerted, but there wasn’t enough time (was there ever) and that poor young man was going to die alone and he was going to do so in a matter of moments.

“I’m so scared,” he breathed. It took a lot, to make noise, to push enough air through his throat to vibrate his vocal chords. It was a lot of work, a lot of effort, but it had to be done. Everyone deserves to have a final say, and he was going to have him, goddammit.

Monica’s eyes shot open. She heard it; she heard it. It startled her awake, the husky voice wracked with pain and despair, but it was the only voice she had ever heard. She was hearing. She was smiling and tears were freely pouring. She hadn’t processed what the voice said exactly, but for now, it was enough that it had been audible.

“It’s not fair,” the voice croaked. “I didn’t do anything wrong, man. I was wearing my seatbelt. I was sober.” There was a deep, shuddering breath. “How can there be nothing that they can do? How can this be it?” The voice broke near the end, cracked into a million desperate shards that had nowhere to land, nothing to shatter against.

The voice asked questions Monica was unable to answer, not only because she didn’t know how to intellectually, but because she didn’t know how to physically. She had years of speech therapy to go before she’d be able to effectively communicate without using her hands. Any sound she attempted now would be unsettling at best, impossible for the man suffering beside her to discern. Her smile had faded, had done so quickly, and something akin to indescribable sorrow had contorted her features to something decidedly less than beautiful.

“It’s karma,” the man said. He waited a moment, for an absolution perhaps. Maybe he was waiting for a kind soul to argue otherwise, but there was nothing. “It has to be karma,” he continued. “I knew she was drunk but she was smiling and laughing and I never heard no.” There was sharp intake of breath. “I swear to God, she never told me no. She never asked me to stop. I was young and…” his voice trailed off. Monica didn’t think he would speak again, and she was okay with that. She didn’t like playing priest in this warped confessional. How could the first voice she ever heard belong to a dying man, a dying man that felt the need to confess the worst thing he’d ever done? If he wanted to talk about what was unfair, Monica was game.

“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” he sobbed. “I don’t want to die.”

Monica shut her eyes tight, letting the tears roll freely. What else could she do?

 

deafness

On needing a break.

Published March 26, 2013 by mandileighbean

Hello there, Stranger Danger!  It has been quite some time since we last spoke.  Unfortunately, not too much has happened, nothing terribly exciting.  Well, aside from the past three days, which were a complete whirlwind.  But – I am jumping ahead.  Let me begin with a highlight of the past two weeks.

The play was a roaring success!  The students were so talented, and sweet, and appreciative.  They made me cry and they made all the time spent, all the bruises, and all the frustrations completely worth it.  I was given flowers and a signed poster and a t-shirt, and was truly touched.  I know I kind of decided that I wasn’t going to be stage director next school year, but if Lee asks, I will say yes.

Lee was amazing.  I miss spending hours and hours with her every day.  She is so sweet, and she is beautiful inside and out.  I wish she had won The Biggest Loser at work.  She came close, though; second place!  I rounded out the top five and was only one pound shy of my goal weight!  I want to lose another fifteen before the end of the academic year, and then I am going to tone.  I am more motivated than I have ever been before, and believe I have a shot at making it this time – a real, bonafide chance.  That will most likely happen after this vacation, though – which brings me to my (slightly) harrowing tale.

I have been looking forward to Spring Break more so than is healthy and probably humanly possible.  I had plans to begin my second novel, to continue dieting and exercising and to really relax.  I used the word “need” whenever I talked about it, and I talked about it constantly.  Everyone at work was echoing similar sentiments; we all agreed that between the mold in the middle school, the split sessions, the bomb threats, Hurricane Sandy, the offensive bathroom graffiti, the new Danielson model of evaluating teachers, and schedule changes, the school year has sucked (pardon my lack of eloquence).  Personally, I believed that I was cursed for having such a year be my first full year as a teacher, and those suspicions were doubly reinforced when I tried to leave, to finally catch a break.  The rare occasions where I am selfish always seem to occur on the worst possible days.  I have always had the worst timing; even Mom says so.

“And the sky opened up, and God looked down, and He said, ‘I hate you, Amanda Bean!'”  Nothing that I plan ever works out; it never goes as planned, even despite all of my desperate, frantic prayers that are intermittent with sobs.  Nothing goes right for me.  In the film “Stranger than Fiction” with Will Ferrell, the main character discovers that his life is being narrated, and thereby dictated, by a female author.  To find out how his story ends, he must first determine whether his story is a comedy or a tragedy.  He keeps score in a little notebook, and soon believes that he is living a tragedy.  I now firmly believe that I have this in common with Harold Crick, the character’s name that I have just remembered.  Better yet, I would argue, and do so successfully, I’m sure that my life more closely resembles a Shakespearean tragedy.  However, if that is the case, then where, oh where, is the sweet release of death?

I know that I am guilty of being melodramatic, particularly with that last line, but I earnestly believe that I cannot win for losing and that if it weren’t for bad luck, I would have no luck at all.  Every time I look forward to something, it inevitably and devastatingly crumbles.  My reality NEVER meets my expectations.  As a result, I recently marched myself into the fairly swanky convenience store beside the Shell gas station where I was temporarily stranded (Exit 118 off I-95 South in Thornburg, Virginia) and purchased a pack of Marlboro Red 100’s – cigarettes.  I planned on smoking as many as it took to keep from drowning myself in my “pity-pool-of-tears” party.  I only smoked one, though I did so down to the filter.  I was distracted by the healthier urge to write and the 24 ounces of coffee that I also purchased.

I was about an hour and a half away from Missy’s house when my car overheated.  The needle was BURIED in the red and steam was POURING from the engine.  I called my dad asking him if I should pull over, or what else I could do, and he began listing the WORST CASE SCENARIO; that my car would have to be left in Virginia and be towed, that I could not have the Spring Break vacation I had been salivating over.  Being a dramatic, young woman, I began to cry.  Dad said, “Jesus Christ!  This is why you can’t go anywhere!” and, essentially, blamed me for the whole incident.  Naturally, I cried harder.  I then called John, and he was SO cool, calm, and collected and totally talked me off the ledge.  Working together via cell phone, we were able to get the car a couple of more miles.  It overheated again, and I had to pull over and there, on the side of the interstate, in the cold and in the dark, I was going to have to wait nearly two hours for Missy to come and find me.  There my car would sit, abandoned.  I was back on the phone with Dad (I had over forty calls in total that night from Missy, John, Dad, and Mom) when flashing yellow lights suddenly appeared behind me.  I was kneeling on the passenger seat in the front, remarkably disheveled, searching for a flashlight to check the fans in the front of the engine.  My high heels were near the pedals, on the floor by the front seat.  My eyes went wide and I was worried that my life was about to turn into that scene from “Taken.”  I was waiting for Dad to say, “Mandi, these men are going to take you.”  Luckily, it was only Steve from the Virginia Department of Transportation.  He wanted to make sure everything was okay, and I am fairly certain he can read minds because he explained why it took him so long to leave his truck and to come to my car is because he had to call it in to the local police.  Could he have seen my wide eyes, wild hair and trembling lips?  Maybe.

But Steve was a godsend.  He looked under the hood, added anti-freeze and that may have fixed the problem, but a new problem emerged right there before our eyes, as unbelievable as it may seem: my battery was dead.  This was most likely because I had left my lights on while parked and waiting for the engine to cool down.  Steve explained that he had a soft bumper and would push me to the nearest exit, which was only about a mile away.  There was a Dairy Queen where I could park and wait for Missy.  He pushed me all the way there, gave me his card and left me with the knowledge that three hours ago, right where I had been stranded, a helicopter landed to fly an elderly woman to the hospital after her car and trailer flipped, with her, her husband, and their dog inside.  The woman did not make it.  The scene was chaotic and horrifying.  But I was okay – I suppose that was his message.  He was smiling when he walked away.

I made it to Missy’s after she came to rescue me with Jimmy.  She drove three hours to get me somewhere safe, even though she had two little ones at home and work the next day.  She sacrificed a lot for me, and John had been so calm and helpful and reassuring.  They were excellent.  I owe them SO much.

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The next day, Mom and Dad drove down to my car.  I did not see my father, but he assessed the problem (which was simple; the car needed antifreeze), fixed it, and went back home because he had to pick Mike up from his camping trip.  That’s seven hours in the car for me.  Mom spent the entire day in traffic to come down, only to drive me to my car the following day.  All that time, all that money (gas, tolls, etc.) for me.  Dad even filled my tank with gas (which was unbeknownst to me, and I purchased $2.51 of gas and spilled it all over me).  And after driving through the McDonald’s Drive Thru in first gear, it was smooth sailing.

I made it to Vero Beach, Florida.  I spent the day outside in the beautiful sun.  I had my phone interview – which was a live radio interview – on the beach.  The interview was conducted by an incredibly sweet, professional, and talented junior by the name of Jeida from Atlantic City High School.  I thought it went extremely well, and Jeida ended the conversation by letting me know she wanted to interview me AGAIN in the near future.  And while the interview was going on (and while my hot wings were getting cold, but I’m not complaining because they weren’t worth the trouble; I have braces now), I began to schedule another interview with Montclair State University’s Alumni Association.  I got some sun, some sand, some good food, to experience the local flavor, and most importantly, to relax.  Life is good.

It’s funny how things work out sometimes.

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On not saying anything.

Published July 10, 2012 by mandileighbean

Jimmy, my nephew and my godson, is staying with us for the week.  I am sincere and completely honest when I say that I love the time spent with him, but I am also sincere and completely honest when I admit that I would like my “old life” back.  Jimmy is all-consuming and being a naturally selfish and self-involved person, it has been a difficult adjustment.  I only say this because there are activities and projects I’d like to complete and accomplish but with Jimmy here, I’m only allowed a small window of opportunity in which to do it.

And then my stomach drops when I realize I’m pawning my inadequacies off on a four-year-old boy.

I don’t know what’s been going on with me lately; I feel lazy and weak, and I’m anxious ALL the time.

Hopefully my body’s reacting to some great change that I have yet to be aware of.  Maybe there’s excitement brewing. Or maybe it’s just a case of the Mondays.

PROMPT: “I’m never doing that again.”

PIECE:   “I’m never doing that again,” Brianne grimaced as she slammed the shot glass back down on the wooden, dampened bar top.  She shook her head quickly from side to side and pursed her lips, doing her best to handle the way the liquor burned as it slid down her throat and exploded upon entering her liver.

Hannah laughed with her head thrown back.  She was handling the shot decidedly better than her best friend, although there was no mistaking the sudden appearance of a mischievous gleam in her stormy, hazel eyes.  “Oh, don’t be such a baby!  It wasn’t that bad.”  Hannah took a long, impressive gulp of beer from her amber bottle.  “Hey, I’m going to use the bathroom.  I’ll be right back.”  Sliding gracefully off the stool, Hannah grabbed her clutch bag and moved like a gazelle through the massive throng of people.  The bar was unusually crowded for a Wednesday night and Brianne wondered if she and Hannah shouldn’t try somewhere else.  Between the roar of the crowd and the booming music, they could hardly hear one another and it had been months since the last time they had talked; there was much to catch up on.  Musing on the time that had passed, Brianne began to pick at the label on the beer bottle, peeling it back slowly so as not to leave any residue upon it.  It was a feat she had yet to accomplish to her satisfaction – the condensation made it difficult, and there was always some white paper left over, complete with a fuzzy-feeling kind of adhesive.

Brianne’s attention was diverted when a young man sidled up beside her and seated himself upon what had been Hannah’s stool.  Indignant, she turned to the intruder with her brows furrowed in anger and bellowed, “Hey pal, keep moving!  My friend’s coming back any second!”

The young man turned to face her, and Brianne’s stormy countenance instantly smoothed.  In fact, contempt turned to compassion for this young man looked so miserable, it was heart-breaking.  His big, brown eyes were framed by worried brows and he seemed defeated, broken.  His thin lips were fighting a childish pout, like it was taking everything he had within to keep it together.  His shoulders were way up high by his ears and he just couldn’t relax.  He looked tortured, but did his best to offer Brianne a pleasant grin when he said, “I’m sorry.  I’ll just order my drink and be out of your way.”

“Oh, okay,” Brianne said lamely, her voice soft and probably inaudible.  To try and smooth things over, she said, “Take your time; it’s okay, really.”

The young man nodded and then turned his attentions to flagging down the bartender, who was an older gentleman currently working the other end of the bar, where young girls were giggling like mad at a joke that probably wasn’t even remotely funny.  The bartender was working hard for tips, the girls were working hard to be noticed, and the desolate young man was doomed to be thirsty.  When the bartender shuffled back to retrieve a bottle of vodka, Brianne moved to wave her arm as close to his face as humanly possible, to ensure his full attention so she could order the man what he wanted.  But as she raised her arm, a hand came from behind to still it.

Hannah had returned from the ladies’ room.  “Hey, my seat’s gone!”  Hannah faked a frown and added, “Let’s get out of here, anyway. It’s getting too crowded! Let’s try Donovan’s!”  Hannah tugged at Brianne, indicating her wish for her friend to follow.  Brianne took one last look at the wretched soul beside her, sighed, collected her purse and slid off the stool.

She made it to the exit without looking back. 

On tattooed maps.

Published March 31, 2012 by mandileighbean

I firmly believe that every morning should be filled with chocolate chip oatmeal, and music by the Dresden Dolls.

It’s gray and rainy, but my spirits are high. I am excited for tonight, when I will be meeting up with some friends from college. I miss them and the memories we share. I know that the small reunion tonight won’t magically revert life to the way it was in college, which was remarkably carefree and filled with social activity, but it doesn’t hurt to be nostalgic now and again. This theme came through in today’s prompt, and I’m sure some will be able to relate.

Enjoy. 🙂

THE PROMPT: “St. Patrick’s Day Hangover”
You wake up the morning after St. Patrick’s Day and don’t remember much of the evening (thanks to too many green beers). You also notice some discomfort on your forearm. When you roll up your sleeve, you notice a tattoo of a map. Panic sets in as you realize that you now have a tattoo on your arm, but curiosity takes over as you wonder where the map leads.

THE PIECE:

Did you ever notice that after a night of some hard-drinking, you can never sleep in? At least, not the way you want to? I’m sure there’s some medical reasoning that explains why I always wake up at 6:45AM instead of 2:30PM, but I’m not as interested in the reasoning as in the cure. Waking up early after a night of drinking always ends badly. I either rush into the bathroom to upheave my insides into a certain porcelain bowl, or I just get up and leave because I cannot fall back to sleep due to an overwhelming sense of grossness that only a pot of coffee and shower can cure. I usually try avoid these situations because of my predilection to wake so early, but who says no to green beer on St. Patrick’s Day, especially when that someone is half Irish?

I was a textbook victim of peer pressure as friend after friend called to invite me to the Big Apple for March 17th. At first I politely declined and wished them safe and enjoyable travels, but they persisted. “It’s on a Saturday this year,” Brandi whined on the other end of the telephone. “That never happens! Dude, you won’t miss any work and won’t have to call out the next day!” She made some good points and she could tell I was relenting, so she added, “Everyone’s going. You’ll be the only one home, and then what will you do all day?” I paused for just a moment or two before I caved in. Brandi was happy, and immediately made my plans for me; I’d be at her house at 7:30PM on Friday night to sleepover and then bright and early the next morning  – after some Bloody Marys – we’d be on our way to the city, via the train.

The Bloody Marys are the last thing I clearly remember.

Sunday morning, I sat up lightning fast, like I’d been shocked by a cattle prod. I was afraid I’d have to puke, but my stomach felt okay. I pushed a knotted mass of hair up and away from my eyes, and looked around. I was back in Brandi’s living room, sitting on the floor. My back and bottom were stiff and sore, and I was kind of pissed that I slept on the floor, as there were two vacant couches to my left and right. I slapped my forehead to release some anger at my stupidity, and realized I was sore in two new places; my forehead and my forearm. Grimacing, I twisted my arm before my eyes this way and that. I could move it fine, but there was a kind of pulsing ache that enveloped it. I let it fall lazily into my lap and gingerly, I began rolling my sleeve back. My grimace turned into sheer horror when I began to see colored lines drawn onto my skin. I stopped being so delicate and nearly tore my sleeve clean off in my insane need to confirm what I already knew; I had gotten a tattoo. I was the jackass, the idiot who gets drunk and forgets she hates needles and cannot get a tattoo because it would be unprofessional as an educator of young, impressionable minds. Cursing silently, I crane my neck to try and see what the picture is of. For a moment, I was worried it’d be Robert Pattinson’s face, or Backsteet Boys’ lyrics I found particularly meaningful. But my brows furrowed into confusion because it didn’t make sense. They were cardinal directions and lines and arrows, and damn it. It was a map.

Why the hell was there a map on my arm?

I whipped my head from left to right, scanning the room for Brandi. She was beside me on the floor, snoring loudly with her mouth open. I shook her, called her name. She responded with something unintelligible. I tried to wake her up again, and she called me dirty word and rolled over. It did not take a rocket scientist to realize that my best friend would be no help. Sighing, I decided I needed to get a move on. Some coffee and a shower would clear my head, and then I could set about finding a tattoo removal service and carry on as if nothing had ever happened. Slowly, very slowly, I clamored to my feet and stood straight. I held my arms out to the side and waited for the world to spin, but it didn’t. I surprisingly felt pretty good, all things considered. I grabbed my purse and overnight bag from beside the door to the mud room – which I’m sure were placed there by the wonderfully kind and thankfully sober woman known as Brandi’s mom – and headed out. I thought about leaving a note, or waking Brandi up to say goodbye, but a text message would suffice.

As I slipped out the front door, icy March wind assaulted me, lifting my already matted hair up above my head, twisting it in ways that would be painful to untangle later. I tried to smooth it down, my ankles wobbly in the high heels that now, on a Sunday morning on a deserted residential street, seemed wildly inappropriate and out-of-place. Wobbling but not falling, I made it to my dilapidated truck and it roared to life so loudly that I was embarrassed, peering out of all the windows to see if neighbors were rushing out onto their front lawns to see what plane had just crashed in the front lawn. But no one stirred, no blinds twitched, and my cheeks cooled and I backed out of the long, gravel driveway onto the biggest effing hill I had ever seen in my life. The hill was the only drawback to visiting Brandi, as I was constantly rushing to the front window to see if my truck had indeed begun rolling backwards and created havoc. Luckily, I had made another trip unscathed; the tattoo on my arm notwithstanding.

The hill ended anti-climactically, with a pizzeria on the left and the largest lake in New Jersey dead ahead. One had to either turn left or right, and right would bring me back to the highway which would lead me home. I was in the middle of turning the wheel when I looked up at the street sign. Why I did this, I don’t know; I had made the trip a million and one times and never before had I cared to note the name of the streets. Hell, if pressed to recite Brandi’s address at gunpoint, I would fail. So I read the signs, discovered I was at the intersection of Iowa Avenue and Brady Road, and was prepared to continue on, to make the right and do nothing with the newly learned information. But the same something that made me look at the street sign made me look at my tattooed forearm, and there was the intersection, etched into my flesh very clearly.

There was also an arrow pointing to the left.

I had never been left down Brady Road – that brought you further into the quaint but very rural town, and I had never had any occasion to check things out, or any real desire to do so either. Now, though, things were decidedly different. Last night, I had clearly sat through some pain to obtain the skin map I was now reading. That undoubtedly meant that it was important, and that the map lead somewhere worth visiting. I bit my lower lip in thought for just a few moments, before turning to the left and following Brady Avenue farther from home and deeper into the unknown.

I rolled along slowly, constantly checking my arm and the street signs. Brady Road eventually turned into Prospect Point Road, which ended in a choice of either going left or right. I knew I had another choice, which was to turn around and head home and finally put an end to the insanity. What did it matter where the map led? I had been drunk – that was it. I checked the map on my arm, and it indicated that I turn right. I decided to continue the map because right was right – had it said left, I would have shook my head, laughed at my silliness, and turned around. But right was a good direction; its name had nothing but positive connotations. Turning right led me to Route 181 and I followed this barren, meandering country road until it met up with Route 15, a road that was more familiar to me as it could bring me home. If I were to call it a day and stop the treasure hunt, it would have to be if and when the map told me to turn off Route 15. I wasn’t sure if I wanted it all to end. I wasn’t sure what I would find at the end, or what I would regret if I just gave up and went home. But the uncertainty of it all, the not knowing, was the most excited I’d been in months. Being a teacher – well, just a substitute until the economy finally picked back up – was routine. While no class was ever the same, the schedule was, as were the faces and the expectations. Getting up early meant going to bed early, and my social life had tanked. The outing with Brandi for St. Patrick’s Day had been my first social activity in God knows how long. And even then, everything inside of me had told me to cancel – to be responsible with my time and money and just stay home. Everything inside of me told me to play it safe. It wasn’t a matter of self-preservation as much as it was cowardice. The largest part of me wanted to be comfortable and complacent.

There was a tiny part of me, though , that didn’t want that at all. It was that part that had me following a tattoo on my arm on a Sunday morning, miles from home. I wondered at the origin of this brazen voice, as it certainly couldn’t truly belong to me. This reverie ended when I came to a stop light, and had to slow down. I checked my arm, and was surprised to find that I was to turn in at the diner on the right, just a few feet ahead. My stomach grumbled in agreement and I thought what the hell? If nothing else, I could get some breakfast. The parking lot was empty, so I found a spot close to the entrance with ease. Once the engine was silenced, nervousness and nausea assaulted me in alternating waves. What if there was a masked gunman waiting inside, and I was his getaway driver? What if everyone inside was dead, because some virus had infiltrated the diner and though I had the antidote, I had been too late? Or worse, what if there was nothing at all inside? Disappointment scared me more than anything else, and I decided to take a moment to prioritize and get a grip. I flipped down the visor and did my best to make myself look presentable in the mirror. I pulled my hair up and back, aside for a few loose strands that hung casually about my face. I wiped dark eyeliner from beneath my eyes with my thumb, and did the same with the excess lipstick around my mouth.

I didn’t think I looked too bad, and smiled with a strange kind of confidence that felt out-of-place. Then again, nothing I did that morning was making any sense so hey – why not feel pretty? I climbed out of the truck, and the door slammed shut loudly behind me. No one else seemed to be moving about, and I pulled my coat tight around me, warding off the cold and the sinking suspicion that I was doomed to life of mediocrity and that even when I did something crazy, like get a tattoo, it was still mundane.

The bell above the door rang as I entered and I released a breath I had only been
vaguely aware of holding. There were a few people inside, none of whom were dead. Two old men in flannel coats at the counter turned to observe me, then turned back around, as if I was more of an irritating disturbance than I was interesting. A harried looking older woman came out from behind the hostess stand and asked me how many. My face fell. I was always just one and it was taking its toll. Even drunk in the Big Apple, I had been lonely. So many bodies packed crowded bar after crowded bar, and not one male had been intrigued to ask my name, or offer to buy me a drink. The confidence so recently enjoyed fled, and I opened my mouth to tell her I was still just one, when a masculine voice said, “There you are.”

Both the hostess and myself turned to the voice. A handsome young man was standing beside a booth. He had dark hair that was in danger of being too long, and dark eyes that shone in a peculiar, unexpected way. A small, coy smile played upon his thin lips, and his hands were shoved deep in the front pocket of his jeans. His flannel shirt hung off his thin but strong body. I smiled in spite of myself, and turned to look behind me, just in case the real object of his attention was somewhere else. When I turned back around, he was laughing and waving me over. I looked to the hostess for some help or clarification, and she offered none, but returned to her station, as if this was the most normal thing in the world. On ankles that were once again wobbly, I walked over to the booth and sat across from the young man. He sat, only after I was seated, and said, “I thought you weren’t going to show, and then I would have been heartbroken.”

I raised an eyebrow, and leaned forward to whisper, “I’m sorry, but I don’t know who you are.”

He shook his head slowly from side to side, the smile fading ever so slightly, and he leaned back in the seat. “I’m Sam. We met last night, remember? We were both at McSorely’s.”

I covered my face with my hands. “I am so sorry, but I don’t remember anything from last night.”

“Then why are you here?”

I lowered my hands and looked at Sam. He wasn’t smiling anymore. The humor had left his expression entirely, and I was afraid he was insulted. Did he think I was lying? I laid the forearm with the tattoo on the table and lifted my sleeve. “I woke up, saw the tattoo and thought it might be important. I followed what my arm said, and it brought me here.”

Gently, he took my arm into his hands to better study it. The physical contact sent shivers along my body, and I wondered if he felt the tremors. If he had felt them, did he chalk it up to the cold, or did he suspect something else? He laid my arm back down on the table, and met my eyes. “I drew this on your arm last night. I was not with you when you decided to get it tattooed there, though.” It was obvious to me he was trying to hold back laughter, and my face grew hot. I didn’t want him to laugh at me. I was done being embarrassed, so over it. I snatched my arm back and rolled down the sleeve.

“Why did you draw on me?”

“So you would know where to meet for breakfast.” He paused a moment before asking, “Do you really not remember?”

“Why would I lie to make myself look like a jackass?”

Absent-mindedly, Sam rubbed his lips with his palm. He was deciding something and whatever he decided, it made him lean forward to talk in a serious tone. “Last night, or really early this morning, I saw you sitting at the bar. I thought you were beautiful, so I sat down next to you, and started some lame conversation about snakes in Ireland.” He paused again, watching my face closely for expression. He must not have been deterred or alarmed by what he saw because he continued, saying, “It worked, and we had the best conversation I have ever had in my entire life. I don’t know how long we would have sat there. You told me about your book, and how you wanted to move to Maine. You told me about how you were terrified of being boring, and that you wanted to stay young and reckless forever. I was going to ask you something else, but your friend came over and said you had to go.” Sam suddenly dropped his eyes. “I couldn’t let you leave without making plans to see you again, so I invited you to breakfast, because we had also discussed how we both can’t sleep in after drinking.” He leaned back in the booth, and still didn’t raise his eyes to mine. I thought he was finished, but he cleared his throat. “Your friend told me you couldn’t, because you didn’t live in the city and that the two of you were going back to her house, which you told me was in Jefferson. I just so happen to live in Jefferson, so I suggested the diner and you said yes.” Here, he raised his eyes to mine and said, “You said yes without hesitation.”

I was blushing. The heat ran from my neck all the way through the top of my head. I dropped my gaze and tried to breathe smoothly. Idly, I picked at the paper placemat and again, I waited for him to continue. Sam wasn’t saying anything though, and the silence was building and becoming uncomfortable, so I decided to break it. I said, “So you drew the map on my arm so I would know how to get here?”

Sam nodded.

I laughed. “Then I must have gotten it tattooed because I was afraid it would wash it off, and then I wouldn’t-“

“You wouldn’t remember,” Sam finished. He ran a hand through his hair and started to slide from the booth. “Look, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to – I just wanted – ugh, forget it.” He went leave, and I panicked. I didn’t know him from a hole in the wall. He could have been a serial rapist and murderer, but I didn’t want him to leave. I reached out across the table and grabbed his arm to stop him.

“Please don’t leave. I’m sorry I ended up being such a drunk, sloppy mess, but look – I got it etched on my skin with a needle because I wanted to make sure I made it here.” Sam looked at me. I didn’t know if he was waiting for something else, but I said, “Let’s have another great conversation, okay? Hell, it could be exactly the same if you wanted. You have a second chance to wow me.” I smiled lamely, knowing I sounded desperate and dumb. I slowly slid my hand from his arm, more than ready for his departure.

Instead, Sam surprised me. He slid back down the booth to seat himself across from me. He smiled genuinely and asked, “So what time did you get up this morning?”

On stranger mothers and familiar daughters.

Published March 27, 2012 by mandileighbean

I was feeling really blue when I awoke this morning – completely suffering from a case of the Mondays. I was listless during work, and struggled to find motivation to do anything other than sleep.

I felt infinitely better this afternoon, when my friend Melanie and I walked the deserted boardwalks of Seaside Heights. Among the caged stores and waves crashing in the distance, we talked about everything and anything. Walking against the wind, with sand stinging our faces, we admitted our fears, bad habits, and desires. It was relaxing and rejuvinating.

I felt ready to tackle what I consider a very difficult and very personal prompt. This prompt unnerves me for two reasons, the first being it deals with my mother. I love my mother deeply, although I must admit that I do not know her. There are times when I was confident I had my mother figured out, but she continues to surprise me. I’ve considered her the stronger of my parents my entire life – that she was a little colder, refrained from showing emotion and told us kids “no” when she had to. But now that I’m older and wiser, and Mom feels like she can talk to me as an adult about adult worries, I realize that my mother is vulnerable, and that she has feelings that can be hurt. I think this realization was subconsciously playing at the back of my mind when I decided the route this prompt would take.

Also, it reminds me of myself when I was about five years old. I wouldn’t let my twin sister inside our room after I had retreated there, hurt and embarrassed because I had been yelled at by my mom. Tears streaming down my face, I had fled from the dining room table in hysterics. I wailed with each step and had no idea my twin sister was right behind me, step for step, worried and eager to make me smile and forget the whole thing. I closed and locked the door behind me, and for as long as I live, I will never forget the desperation in my twin sister’s voice as she begged me to open the door and let her in. I will never forget how she raised her tiny fists again and again against the door.

I will never forget how cold I was, how selfish I was, and how I did not open the door.

THE PROMPT: “Your Mom at Five”
Today’s exercise is courtesy of Leslie Pietrzyk, a novelist and short story writer who lives in Alexandria, Virginia. Imagine you are your mother. You are five years old. What are you seeing / thinking / doing?

THE PIECE:

It was late, much too late for a five-year-old girl to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, but Kelly Ann was just that. Her eyes were as wide and as bright as the moon, shining just as clearly. Her eyes were a wonderful shade of green that altered ever so slightly depending on her outfit. Her eyes were beautiful, but all of the character in her face came from her nose – a little too large with nostrils that were a smidge too wide, but shaped in a more attractive than abrasive manner. It was reminiscent of a pig – but the cute, small, pink kind and not the wild boar kind – and she would grow into it before the cruel teenage years.

            At this moment in her remarkably young life, Kelly Ann was not dwelling on her eyes or her nose or her mouth or her ears, and the only thought she gave to her less than clean, knotted hair was to push it back and out of the way because it had a troublesome habit of falling into her face, obscuring her view and tickling the tip of her nose. Kelly Ann didn’t have time for useless things like hair because she was in the middle of quite the captive conversation with Thumbelina and Pebbles. Kelly Ann was enthralling the ladies with her adventures from outside earlier in the day, when the sun had been high in the sky, and she had tried pedaling as fast as she could. Kelly Ann had been bicycling through the paved streets of the neighborhood with a kind of reckless abandon that only the very young – or the very foolish – could afford, sometimes lifting her hands from the handlebars and her feet from the pedals, so that her own momentum would take her places. She hadn’t been slowed by any of her nine brothers and sisters, or by her stressed and harried mother. Kelly Ann was free, speeding along hills, navigating curbs and weaving across the road as she saw fit. It had been a wonderful day, and she had been thankful for every breath in a small, genuine way – the only way a five-year-old could be thankful.

            She was just about to relate how Mean Mr. Polly had tried to squirt her with the water hose as he tended to his garden near the edge of his lawn when Kelly was interrupted by loud yelling. Kelly Ann had been so enveloped in relating her melodrama that she hadn’t heard the voice, which seemed to be coming from outside and which seemed to be growing steadily louder. Kelly Ann narrowed her eyes, annoyed at whoever was making such a ruckus. If Ma woke up and found her awake at this time of night, it would be catastrophic.

            But at that time enough, and with an imagination such as Kelly Ann’s, maybe it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if Ma woke up, because what if the boogeyman was out there, yelling and making all sorts of noise to get all the children up and out of bed so he could gobble all of them up? Shivering slightly before going completely still, Kelly Ann inhaled sharply and let her beloved – albeit uncommonly dirty – dolls tumble to the uncommonly dirty, carpeted floor. Kelly Ann’s face fell as she decided what to do – wake up Ma? Should she maybe sprint to Ma’s bedroom and dive beneath the itchy blanket to curl beside Ma’s thin body, at least until the boogeyman left and the terrors passed? To do that, though, would mean admitting to Ma she had been awake and the wrath of that woman would be worse than that any boogeyman who made a scene on the front lawn.

            A new round of yelling was starting up, and Kelly Ann listened with all her might, closing her eyes tight to aid in the effort. Was it unintelligible growling, or were there English words? What kind of monster yelled out to be let inside? How scary could a monster be if he had to beg? The voice sounded like it was demanding, like it was telling and not asking, but it didn’t really sound dangerous. Kelly Ann opened her eyes, now more intrigued than ever. It wasn’t a monster at all, but someone she might know. She rose from her scabbed knees to stand on her bruised feet and then paused again to listen hard. Her nightgown, which was really some worn, smelly tee that one of her two older brothers had used for gym class, hung just below her knees. The fabric rustled gently against her thighs as she padded soundlessly to the bedroom window opposite the bedroom door. Breathless with excitement – and an ashamed twinge of fear – Kelly Ann stood on tip toes and gripped the windowsill in tiny, grimy hands. She pulled herself up as much as she could, and peered out of the window and down onto the lawn below.

            It was Daddy. Daddy was on the lawn, yelling for someone to come downstairs and let him in. Kelly Ann’s face broke into a radiant smile, and she released a breath she had been holding just in case it was a boogeyman down on the grass. Daddy’s face was red and looking up at her window. He must have seen the light, known that Kelly Ann was up, and was trying to get her attention. She raised one of her tiny, grimy hands to wave, and she saw Daddy smile big. He jumped into the air, waving both of his arms above his head, and called for Kelly Ann to come downstairs and let him in. Careful not to shout and wake Ma, Kelly Ann showed her Daddy the thumbs up sign and then disappeared from sight.

            Once again, she padded soundlessly across the room to light switch beside the bedroom door. Once again, she employed her tippy toes and stretched until she could stretch no more so she could flick of the bedroom light, lest Ma knew she was awake. Once she was safe among the shadows, Kelly Ann slowly, slowly, slowly opened her bedroom door, simultaneously biting down on her full, bottom lip as if that action would not only keep the door from creaking, but also keep Ma snoozing peacefully down the hall.

            With the door open, Kelly Ann peered up and down the hallway. She saw no one and released a tremulous breath. The only movement came from dust mites, gracefully floating in the random shafts of moonlight that reflected through the upstairs windows to light upon the floor. The only noise Kelly Ann could hear was her own breathing and the ticking of the big clock downstairs in the living room. As far as she could tell, the coast was clear. She crept along the hallway and tip toed down the stairs, making sure to lightly tread along the carpet running down the middle and to jump over the trick step that always seemed to squawk at the worst possible moments. Enthralled by her stealthy abilities, Kelly Ann began to imagine that she Agent 99 from that show “Get Smart” and that she was really rescuing her Daddy from a group of masked bandits that had gathered on the front lawn. He was depending on her, he needed her and Kelly Ann was going to save the day.

            Kelly Ann reached the bottom of the stairs and took only a few steps towards the back door, which was through the kitchen that was straight ahead before she stopped dead in her tracks, terrified and open-mouthed.

            “What do you think you’re doing?” Ma sneered, standing just inside the kitchen doorway with her hands on her hips, and her shoulders so tensed that they were all the way up by her ears.

            Kelly Ann turned to her mother slowly, fighting an oncoming pout and averting her eyes. “I – I was just, I was just gonna let Daddy in.”

            “Don’t you dare,” Ma growled. “If he wants to go out drinking with his friends after work, and not come home to help a woman with ten children, then he can stay out, the bum!” The last part was more directed at Daddy than at Kelly Ann, and Ma turned her body more towards the door to prove it. She sneered at Daddy, and Daddy just looked back at Ma helplessly through the window.

            “Come on, Helen,” he pleaded. “It’s cold and dark out here, and it’s late. Let me in and we can talk.”

            “Not a chance in hell, Charlie!” she shouted. Ma was fighting mad.

            Daddy rolled his eyes in exasperation, and in doing so, landed them on Kelly Ann. He smiled brightly and waved. “Hey, Kelly Ann, come on over and open the door for Daddy!”

            Kelly Ann beamed back at her father and forgot that her mother was in the room at all. She took a few more steps forward before she felt Ma’s icy, iron grip around her arm. “Get upstairs and go to bed!” Ma ordered. Kelly Ann offered her father a small, sympathetic look before turning and bounding up the stairs.

            Kelly Ann was crying. She wasn’t scared anymore – well, she was a little scared of Ma and what she would do to Daddy, but she was very sad that she couldn’t save the day. Daddy had been depending on her, and she had fallen short of the mark.

As always, please comment to offer critiques, responses, and pieces of your own.

On the words of a complete stranger.

Published March 15, 2012 by mandileighbean

I totally meant to write earlier, but I had somewhat of a hectic day. I was a substitute teacher at the local high school today, and that put me in an abysmal mood for a number of reasons I don’t care to discuss right now, as doing so would only cause the mood to return. After school, I ran some errands, taught during home instruction, and ran some more errands. I was worried about when I would write, but I am so glad I waited.

It wasn’t until 8:30PM this night that I had anything worth writing about.

I called my oldest sister, Missy, while I was waiting for my younger brother to be let out of CCD – his Catechism class. Missy answered, and I told her about how our cousin, Danielle, wants Missy to make buffalo chicken dip for the family’s St. Patrick’s Day Party on Saturday, and that Danielle said someone would be at Danielle’s house every night this week if Missy wanted to pick up the bowl Missy left there after the family’s New Year’s Eve party … which was also the last time Missy made the buffalo chicken dip.

But I digress, and I apologize for doing so.

The main point of the conversation between Missy and myself, was that I mentioned moving to Virginia with them in September. I just started entertaining this idea earlier today when I was feeling particularly hopeless and discouraged, but the more I think about it, the more excited I become. In a good-hearted manner, Missy asked me where I planned on living in Virginia. Clearly she knew I planned on staying with her – until I found a place of my own – but I was feeling humorous and said, “I don’t know, but I’ll hook if I have to.”

I should mention that it was an unseasonably warm night, so I had both of the front windows rolled down in my truck. I should also mention that I was sitting in a church parking lot, talking about becoming a hooker, while waiting for my little brother. I didn’t realize that the older man in the car beside mine also had his windows down, and when I hung up, he called out, “You won’t have to hook, sweetie. Things will get better.”

What awesome advice. We laughed together, made a few more jokes and then fell silent. Truth be told, I was totally embarrassed.

Before he left, the man called out to me again and said, “Remember what I said.”

This older man, this complete stranger, saved my entire day. He made me laugh, helped me to lighten up and not be so … blah, for lack of a better term.

Laughter is as soothing as this warm weather – it heats the blood as it pumps through restless hearts and wearied veins, which makes one feel infinite and optimistic to a fault.

What a great night.

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