Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Susa Stories #2: Shrapnel.

#2: Shrapnel. 

 For one season, a springtime, Susa lived by herself. This was before she married H. She lived in a small studio apartment on the ground floor of an old house. She got a patch of yard, a front stoop even. And every single morning she was alone. There was both beauty and danger in this independence. She sometimes wondered: what if she would never feel as happy with someone else as she felt with herself? This was the threat, the lurking worry that she pushed away but felt like a piece of shrapnel buried deep in her skin.

Susa’s father was a veteran, an old, silent man; he contained more pieces of shrapnel beneath the skin of his chest than he could count, although as a child Susa had sometimes asked him to try, and he’d begin, touching his chest through his t-shirt as he stood half-shaven before the bathroom mirror, Susa standing on a stool next to him. He’d try to count the way one tries to count the stars; you’re lost before you’ve begun. He felt the pain of the metal shards still; they were almost like living things when he became overheated with work or worry, suddenly taking it upon themselves to find a way out. Her father called the shrapnel ‘prisoners’ in his joking moments, his own prisoners of war from his time served. The pieces didn’t want to be in him, his native body; they hated being in him as much as he’d hated being in their homeland, too. As a child, Susa couldn’t understand, and would live most of her early life envisioning rebel armies of human-sized bits of shrapnel (for she’d seen some of the pieces up close—those that did manage to work loose and be pried free, sharp and thin as shards of mica) until her high school history book set her right.

Like shrapnel, she envisioned her own secrets: loving being alone more than being with other people; a distrust of powerful women and Europeans; a daydream of becoming a famous singer; the threat that one day a nerve ending would snap and she'd lose all composure, wiping a restaurant table clean with a single angry sweep of her arm. The secrets tried to surface now and again, and she’d feel their attempt at freedom, and again stifle them until they were hidden safely within her. 

Living alone, Susa never got lonely; there was no one around to forget about her, so there was no attention to long for or feel insecure about. Living alone, she felt that she became a powerful woman herself, and out on the street she walked a bit differently; she felt less guilty about answering no. Living alone, she could sometimes drink too much wine and sing in the bathtub, pretending a concert. Her waking moments were colored by a feeling of greatest luck. She painted the small bathroom in her apartment a sunrise orange, brought home a small spotted cat, bought herself seeds and flower pots for the windowsill where the slowly strengthening spring sun came through. She cut poems from the papers she read and pasted them to the cupboards in her kitchen. She played records loud or soft, went out when she felt like it, came home to sleep heavily, sprawled across her bed, to wake to boil water for coffee, take in the morning news, ready herself for the day, taking as long in the bathroom as she pleased, and all of it alone, alone, alone. Nothing, she felt, could equal freedom more than this, and when Susa thought the word ‘freedom’ she thought war, and with war came her father, and with her father, shrapnel, caught and fighting beneath the surface. 

Her father wanted that shrapnel free; he would sometimes cry, during a bad spell, though he tried to keep this hidden. Some pieces did get free, slowly, and as a child Susa envisioned them traveling back to their homeland, pulled there by some magnetic force. Freedom, she wanted to write in a letter to her father in that season of living alone, freedom is what everything wants. Her mother would have sighed and asked her if she’d met any single men, but her father would have understood. He would have sat beside her on the front stoop of her apartment on a dark night, looking up and trying to count the stars.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Susa Stories. #1: Susa in the Morning

Susa in the Morning

It is a morning in mid-November and Susa is awake before the others. She goes from the bedroom upstairs, leaving the electric blanket and H’s warm, curved body, and crosses the upper living room. This room is carpeted in a mossy green, of a fabric that prickles her bare feet; in a little recess, hidden behind paneled sliding doors, there is a small sink and bar, things added by H over the years as they’ve grown older and gained money. Within the walls of the room are shelves, built in; behind these shelves are mirrors, so that the bottles of gin and whiskey, bourbon and rum, and something called sloe gin that Susa loves a little too much, are reflected and multiplied over themselves, creating a sense of wealth that Susa sometimes finds cloying. This closeted space is H’s proudest household achievement. 
Last night, Susa had two glasses of the sloe gin, giving her the requisite headache and sending her away from the game of Bridge that she and H had been playing with their daughter Adelaide and the man she's planning to marry. She’d gone to bed with an aspirin and cold washcloth at eight o’clock, so on this winter morning she wakes around six and leaves the bed.

The little dog who sleeps on a fat cushion by the bed wakes with her and follows at her heels. He is all excitement and anticipation over the turn towards morning; he stretches and dances and makes little yawning noises. Together they pad down the stairs—covered in the same mossy green. In the kitchen Susa makes a strong pot of coffee and leaves it to warm on the range. From the metal drawer beneath the stack of phone books and cook books she takes a packet of cigarettes and removes the cellophane wrappings. Cigarette in hand, she goes to the back door to let the little dog outside, following him after slipping her feet into a pair of H’s discarded winter boots. 

Even at this early, cold hour, people are awake and beginning to live: on the side street by the entrance to the college a car engine labors, its headlights dim, its exhaust breathing white into the still air. Susa stands in robe and boots, cigarette between slack fingers, and listens to the crunch of hardened snow under boot heels; two muffled figures pass the end of the hedgerow that shields the back side of the house, their shapes black and bundled, their voices low. The little dog, lifting his leg on the winter-dead raspberry stalks, hears them and barks—a shrill, startling sound in the frozen dawn. The shorter figure, a woman, looks up at the sound and sees Susa down the narrow pathway, at the top of the stair. She nods, the glint of her eyes clearly visible, and is gone. Susa brings the cigarette to her lips once more before tossing it atop the other butts in the cracked flower pot on the top step. She ties her robe more tightly, beginning to feel her numbness, and whistles for the dog—a little white terrier named Maxine, begged for by the children when they were young; begged for, then slowly forgotten, tired of, and Susa, who'd never understood animals, found that she was the dog's truest companion.
Back in the kitchen, the coffee has begun to boil, and a half-burned smell is growing. Outside, the sun has come up; it will linger behind a layer of ashen clouds until late afternoon. Susa pours herself a cup of coffee. She listens to the thump of newspaper against doorstep. She scoops kibble into the dog’s dish. Upstairs, she hears the creak of bed springs as H lifts himself from sleep. From the children’s bath down the hallway comes the sound of running water. She is no longer alone, and the day has begun.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Dear Kristen Stewart.

True story: I enjoy the Twilight saga. While I'm the first to concede that these books and movies have relatively little (okay, maybe zero) literary and/or artistic magic, they do manage to capture, somehow, the attention of millions, so they must be doing something 'right'. For awhile there, I was a little obsessed with Twilight. Deep in the winter of 2008, living alone for a season in a house meant for three, with only two friendly dogs and a snobby cat for company, I spent a lot of my hours reading about vampires, swooning (but stubborn) girls, and the occasional werewolf. At one point, I was so hooked that I read deep into the night and found myself weeping. Over a Twilight book. I don't think it was very long after that that I decided an intervention of sorts was needed. To date, I've only read the first two books in the series, but I've most certainly seen the movie adaptations, and I love me a good, rollicking Twilight debate with my like-minded sarcastic literary feminists (debates that usually get kind of dirty, of course; how can a guy with no pulse produce semen? But that's another story...).

I won't say much more about Twilight, because I'm sure you're already judging me, for better or for worse. This isn't a post about Twilight, anyway. It's a post about Kristen Stewart. And some words she recently said in an interview. But more than those things, this is a post about strength.

My lovely friend Hannah understands my guilty interest in all things Twilight. This is only one of the many reasons she's lovely. On a recent hike, Hannah and I got to talking Twilight (totally normal hiking talk, of course). She happened to mention that one Kristen Stewart (who, for those of you who live under a rock and/or are more cultured than I am, is the dark-haired, moody gal who got the lifetime paycheck gig of bringing Twilight's Bella Swan to the big screen) had recently been photographed and interviewed in Vanity Fair. Later that week (no doubt anticipating a much needed work break), Hannah sent me the link to this interview. It was only just today that I got around to reading it (skimming parts). Just to debrief you (and because you're surely riveted): I have never been a Kristen Stewart fan. Quite frankly, she seems like someone who would a) chain smoke and swear incessantly, in an attempt to appear tough, b) wear skinny jeans and smoky eyeshadow, in an attempt to be hipster, and c) be quite the bitch. (Forgive me.)

I'm not going to say that Stewart's interview with Vanity Fair dispelled these judgements entirely; she did swear when swearing wasn't necessary, she does sport quite a hefty load of eye makeup in her photographs, and the writer did mention that she showed up wearing skinny jeans and leather. I was fully prepared to walk away from the interview with my totally baseless judgement of this complete stranger intact. That is, up until I read this:

 "As for some of the feminist critiques—that Bella is a throwback heroine because she sacrifices so much for her man—Stewart strongly disagrees. “In fact, you have someone who is stronger than the guy she is with, emotionally. Fight for the thing you love—you are a remarkable person if you do it. It’s a cop-out to think that girl power is all about gusto and ball-busting.”

Fight for the thing you love--you are a remarkable person if you do it. It's a cop-out to think that girl power is all about gusto and ball-busting. Cue my Kristen Stewart Conversion. I wanted to shake the girl's hand right then and there. I even went so far as to post this quote to my Facebook page--which is saying a lot, as I've got major status-update stage fright (not to mention hypocritical Facebook opinions). 

Strength. It doesn't always have to be loud and aggressive. It doesn't have to be about being right, proving wrong, speaking out, forcing our way in. The word 'fight' is in this quote, but so is the word 'love'.

In my life, I've often felt that my tendency towards trying, towards keeping, towards fighting to save love in my life (often beyond the point of repair) was an inherent weakness. My loyalty (a prouder, kinder version of attachment) was my Achilles heel, because it almost always came back to bite me (no vampire pun intended). Most things that I tried desperately to fight for seemed to slip past my well-meaning grasp. Left empty-handed, I felt myself not only a failure, but a fool for even fighting. Real 'strength', I would try to tell myself, must lie in the ability not to need. But I challenge you: show me someone--a happy, human someone--who has ever not needed. Someone. Something. Love. (I mean, even vampires long for things, and long to be longed for, and fight for the things they love. Anyone who's even heard of something called Twilight knows that it's monsters who win, in the end. Needing must not be such a weakness after all.)

I am often accused (in the gentlest terms) of being a 'very nice person'. Someone even once called me 'the puppy' (as in, why would you ever want to hurt the puppy?). There are worse things to be accused of, so I'll gladly take the label, but with it (and for all you other 'nice' people out there) I'll offer the following warning: with nice comes an almost obsessive need to please. It's a dangerous trap, this nicety, because it makes any emotion other than gentility--sorrow, loss, anger, jealousy (hell, even a subtly formed opinion)--incredibly uncomfortable. Run away, my 'nice' self says, when misfortune darkens my doorstep. Nice surely isn't enough of a weapon. It's not strong enough. Misfortune squashes nice like a bug.

Or so I once thought. I'm not sure when the change occurred, but somewhere along the way, in my past few months of darker days, I began to dispel the notion that kindness couldn't nourish strength. That gentleness doesn't fight the battle. It wasn't until I read some words spoken by a woman I had always assumed to be my polar-opposite (tough, edgy, unapologetic), that the belief really clicked into place.

I feel strongest when I am nice. When I am kind. When I am gentle. When I am accommodating. It's not that I'm not standing my ground. It's not that I'm letting you walk all over me. It's not that I don't have opinions or boundaries. I do. They've been challenged, pressed against, even crossed; surely, they will be again. And as before, when it comes down to it, I'll quit the fight. I'll say, enough, or not enough, or whatever is necessary. And I'll hope you won't think me foolish for holding on so long.

To fight: To make one's way. To strive. For whatever you think deserves the battle. With whatever weapons you've worked your whole life to hone.

Thanks for reading.