Words Wednesday

Because y’all asked for another weekly feature, right? Every Wednesday, I’m going to share a piece of creative writing—raw and unedited, unless otherwise specified.

This week’s piece is “Carey,” a short story (vignette? sketch?) I wrote a little over a year ago while I was in grad school. It’s just the bones of an idea, but the point of sharing is to keep myself accountable and keep myself writing, even if what I share is full-on trash. Story time!

Carey

The cuckoo clock that Carey had so lovingly restored during a longer stint of sobriety ticked and tocked with distracting purpose. Mae had vivid fantasies of ripping it from the wall and dismantling it in a field, like the scene in Office Space, but she knew that Carey needed the reminder of his potential. Every tick was a second further from the most recent nightmare.

He was sober now, a month, and Mae regretted how easily irritated she became in his constant presence. Not that she preferred his expensive, cocaine-fueled dalliances with other women, but at least then she’d had some alone time to write. The bastard was effusive and charming after a few drinks, but sober Carey tended to be sullen and serious. Fucking became lovemaking, toying around with his guitars became the grave act of composition instead of a diversion. He was, at that moment, in the parlor with his nylon-string acoustic, composing something that sounded identical to Van Halen’s “Spanish Fly,” but Mae didn’t dare tell him. He abhorred what he called “cock rock,” preferring the soulfulness of obscure, esoteric, experimental bands. Mae liked Van Halen—in fact, her guilty pleasure was listening to Top 40 on the radio whenever she wasn’t chauffeuring Carey around, being subjected to his postmodernist jazz, or whatever.

“Do you want me to make dinner?” she asked, hoping the suggestion would persuade him to eat something and put some weight on his increasingly gaunt frame.

“Uh, yeah. Whatever’s fine,” he mumbled back, uninterested. “I’m not super hungry.”

“Just pick a…a food genre,” she replied, frustrated. “An ingredient. Something.”

“How about…stir-fry?” he offered, not looking up to meet her gaze.

“Sure,” Mae sighed, relieved he’d answered at all. “Stir-fry. I’ll get right on that.” She washed the skillet she’d left dirty by the kitchen sink before drying it with a dishcloth one of Carey’s relatives had given them after their wedding.

The warm water streaming from the faucet felt luxurious on her worn hands. She caught her reflection in the kitchen window, and suppressed a small smile. She looked quite beautiful—she always looked most beautiful when she was tired. Exhaustion softened her severe features and smoothed the lines around her eyes. Her nude lipstick looked faint, as though it had been kissed off, and thick black-rimmed glasses magnified her large, storm-grey eyes. Her hair, which typically hung with the weight of a funeral shroud, was swept back by a kerchief to cascade down her back. In these rare moments she felt like a match for Carey.

Carey had the sort of magnetic charm that made him irresistible in the face of his faults. Even as he lied, cheated, absconded with her money, the chipped front tooth of his crooked smile was apology enough. He was a scrawny six feet, and every inch of him was dear to her. She’d been cautioned by friends and family not to marry him, especially so young, but she had a sick fascination with his deviant nature; she was unshakably attracted to the dirty, disheveled, dishwater hair that framed his face, the patches of unkempt stubble that adorned his strong jaw. He spoke softly, in a voice almost sweetly feminine, that had begun to grow gravelly from years of smoking. His bony appendages were covered in tattoos, but her favorite would always be the cluster of mayflowers above his heart, a tribute to her he’d had inked when they were barely more than children. He’d always called her “Mayflower,” and that pet name, unlike their bodies, had not yet begun to grow old.

Carey was 33 now, but looked younger. He had the unaffected manner of someone who’d never committed to anything long enough to gain expertise. Well, anything but her. The only trustworthy thing he’d ever said was that he loved her, and she believed him without a single lingering doubt. The dysfunction between them was intoxicating—a therapist might have urged that they separate, but their bond was a foregone conclusion. They both got high on the misery they inflicted upon each other. He wrote songs about it. She wrote stories. He went off the wagon, cleaned up his act, and did something excessively grand, like build her an armoire. She’d resolve to kick him out, or kill him, but one look into his smoldering dark eyes, and she’d fall into his arms, then he, to his knees.

They’d been living off a modest trust that Carey’s deceased parents had left him, though its funds were dwindling after years of relative indolence. Mae, for her part, had gone to school and always kept a job; Carey had barely scraped through with an undergraduate degree in Psychology, which he’d promptly abandoned as readily as he resolved to skip graduation. Carey was smart—smart enough to get by on looks, charm, and the nine lives he’d apparently been granted by good works in a past life. He had Mae, sometimes a servant, sometimes a concubine, always his wife—conservative in her daily activities, Mae came completely unhinged in the bedroom, performing whatever fit his whim. Even sober sex with him was incredible, despite the lack of levity. In the old days, when they’d get whiskey drunk and fuck, they could be heard laughing down the hall as they tumbled across the bed and onto the floor. It was no surprise that Carey had gotten her pregnant twice—they were as responsible as they were gainfully employed.

When the ingredients for dinner were chopped and rinsed, Mae wiped the counter down with the dishcloth, staining it with the juice of the red bell pepper. She considered, over the cast-iron pan of stir-fry, if she should turn off the flame and seduce him now. He was in an insufferable mood—perhaps that might cheer him up. But it could backfire—it could make him so dreadfully intense. He might speechify his professions of love for hours, and Mae had an early morning. He had always been grandiose, but his increasing familiarity with each and every of the twelve steps lent his words a messianic tenor. She pictured herself, 21-year-old bride in a cheap lace sundress, standing on the American side of Niagara Falls, the most romantic spot their young minds could conjure, and briefly imagined what she might have made of her life if she’d run screaming the first time he relapsed.

The first year of their marriage had been relatively placid—bolstered by their defiance, they had endeavored to enact an idyllic scene of young love and had succeeded. Even her parents eventually began to soften to Carey, though they’d never abandon their dislike of him entirely. They’d never understood how she could tolerate his capriciousness; they, of course, suspected his addictions. Mae was not naive, but Carey was her pet, and when she was young, she thought that proper love and nurturing could relieve his suffering and make him whole. It wasn’t long into their marriage before he relapsed after two years of relative sobriety—devastating then, she remembered it as almost quaint in comparison to what would come later. He admitted to having slept with a college classmate in a blackout and Mae had tried to be upset by it. Not long after their first reconciliation, they found the third-floor apartment where they still lived. The landlord, Rex, was a former junkie who had a soft spot for Carey’s troubles; he never bothered them when the rent was late, as long as they paid eventually. They’d been in the creaky old apartment for ten years that April.

She turned the knob on the gas range off and tossed the dishcloth from her hands as she devised a game for them to play. She walked into the parlor, lifted his chin with her right index finger, and used their wedded telepathy to impel him to the bedroom. He placed his guitar gently onto the sofa and followed her eagerly. Once they’d reached the bed, he flung her down with uncommon force and began biting into her flesh like a starved animal. She loved this Carey, possessed by his animal instincts. This was her favorite iteration of him, and her earlier feelings of irritation vanished as bruises appeared on her skin. Their years together had made their lovemaking efficient—Carey took Mae from behind and angled her just so, allowing her to finish before him, as he always did.

She nestled herself in Carey’s arms, inhaling his earthy scent, tracing her fingers along the patterns left by the beads of sweat on his chest. She began to ask what he was thinking, but stopped herself; it was better she didn’t know. In ignorance, she could imagine that he lay there daydreaming of her—the deep curve of her waist, the high arch in her foot, the taste of her. His soft gaze was aimed at the ceiling, which was yellowed here and there from decades of water damage. His breathing was deep and even. She ran her thumb over his bottom lip, slightly protruding, swollen from its time between her teeth. He turned to face her, smiled, and whispered “Mayflower” as he grazed her brow with a kiss. Carey’s wedding band caught the light of the street lamps outside and glowed yellow as his hand rested on her cheek.The weight of it soothed her—his calloused fingertips felt so soft on her face; they’d been so rough only moments before. Mae kissed the palm of his hand; a barely perceptible smile flickered across his lips as his eyes closed to rest. It didn’t take long for him to fall asleep, and she soon followed. The flames didn’t wake either of them until they began lapping at the bedroom door.

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“Turn on, tune in, drop out,” or, A [Decade] of Fakers

I (very deliberately) don’t remember a ton about my childhood, but one thing I do remember with painful and decade-eliminating clarity is that when I was little I wrote stories and people praised me for it. I doubt the praise was the result of a preternatural and precocious talent for writing; rather, I’m sure that, on the eve of the digital age, adults were just astonished that I actively sought to read books and use my imagination in my spare time. This sounds like a brag. It’s not. I’m grateful for my youthful yen for the literary, but there’s nothing magical about it. It didn’t serve me. If anything, it amplified l’appel du vide to a deafening decibel level. In 2014, Gwyneth Paltrow notoriously called her separation with Chris Martin a “conscious uncoupling;” perhaps this turn of phrase deserved the scorn it received, but I find it enormously apt to describe my own relationship with reality. I spent so much of my youth interacting with stories, in books, on screen, in my mind, that I, at some point, just decided to stop interacting with my own life. To this day, I have trouble making friends and being social—not because I’m shy or nerdy*, but because life, real life, is disappointing. No conversation with an acquaintance could ever match the witty banter of Stars Hollow, no speech the gravitas of Westeros. Reality is…boring. Why not opt out?

This “opt out” mentality is, in my opinion, why many people with pOTenTiAL [see Spongebob meme] underperform. When school is boring, when friends are boring, when family is excruciatingly boring, what incentive does a child have to engage? It’s very nice of you, seventh grade teacher, to tell me that I’m smart and talented, but I’m a kid! I don’t know how to parlay that into something meaningful! When you’re Gifted and Talented, you kind of just expect things to happen. No one would watch a movie about someone working really diligently for ten years before they found success. Entertainment is all about chance encounters, lucky breaks, high drama! There’s no blueprint for achieving success in a reasonable way. It is an immense privilege to have the resources to do so. A loving, supportive family, therapy, SAT tutors, money—these are the trappings of privilege. It never occurred to me that, of my own accord, I could go to a college I actually wanted to go to, that I could audition for the plays I so desperately wanted to be in, that I could get the fuck out of the Boston suburbs and make something of my wretched life. Instead, I just waited for something to happen, ignoring the parts of my brain that were sick, sabotaging me at every turn. I’m, honestly, still waiting.

Eventually, despite the praise of teachers re: my writing, I just stopped altogether. The act of writing, the act of creation, was an acknowledgment that I had to create at all. That the dismal conditions of life necessitated invention and amendment. It made me sad. It makes me sad. What are you supposed to do with your life when the thing you’re good at doing upsets you? Here’s what I did:

Halt all creative effort and stagnate for over a decade as you become increasingly bitter and resentful of those around you building lives for themselves. You take demeaning service jobs that drain you physically and emotionally because you don’t think you deserve better. After all, it never happened for you. It’s not going to happen for you. You go back to college, and then on to grad school (even though you can’t afford either), because that’s what you’re supposed to do, right? And anyway, try as you might to deny this particular allure, it keeps you reading and writing. And thinking. School forces you to be in that sad space constantly. And to fight it you drink, you act out. You endanger friendships, your relationship, yourself, because you never learned how to exist in the sad space. When you leave, you ache with longing for it because even if it tortured you, it made you feel alive. You disgust yourself, a straight-sized, able-bodied, white cis-woman complaining into the void that is the internet.

It would be pretty easy to die on the hill that, because you didn’t grow up with a lot of money and your family life was garbage, you never made anything of your life. It would be even easier to blame your mental illness (spoiler alert: it’s severe!) for your underperformance. But both of those hollow justifications for the fact that you’re in your late 20s and deeply unfulfilled miss the sickest part of all of it: you love it! You love feeling like you’re in on the joke, that you’re somehow hovering above everyone else scurrying through their lives like lab mice, unaware of anything greater. Being sarcastic is easier than being vulnerable, certainly—tuning out is so much easier than trying and failing.

So now, here you are, nearly 28 years old, with absolutely nothing to show for your life except a barely-deserved Master’s degree in English. In a suburb a stone’s throw from the shitty one where you grew up, where you opted out of participating in your own life. While your friends are getting promoted, having babies, attending conferences—you have to try to find your way back to writing stories. You have to convince your sick brain that the words that come out of it aren’t despicable wretches of things, too weird to live. And hardest of all, you have to face the fact that you…kind of** suck. You’re not ugly, unlovable, unintelligent, untalented. You’re just lazy and afraid. At every turn, you could have asked the questions, made the efforts, shot the shots, but you didn’t, because simmering in a stew of diseased, misplaced resentment was easy. Dismissing the successes of others by jealously sneering at them is easy. You have to start all over again, because you were too busy being an imperious cunt when starting was more appropriate, when you could do it without back pain and with a functioning metabolism. Welcome to your life, all 28 years of it: it’s about fucking time you made its acquaintance.

It’s amazing, the impulse to seek attention and praise. We will, time and time again, peel back layers of our own skin, expose our darkest parts, all in the hopes that someone will tell us we matter. That we not only write stories, but that we’re good at it. All I’ve ever wanted is attention (the good kind), but I’ve settled for conflict (the bad kind), internally, externally. All press is good press—any attention is better than none at all.

There’s a solid chance that, even though I undressed myself here and laid bare my dysfunction, that I may never write a good story. There is an oppressive, overwhelming likelihood that no one of sound mind will ever pay me to write a story, that I’ll never get up on a stage and tell a story, that I’ll remain in this bizarre, tortured stasis for the rest of my life. But, I fucking hope not. You, dear reader, you who know so well the nature of my soul, have had the displeasure of reading this—imagine living inside this mind. It’s no way to live at all. We all know the idiom, “Familiarity breeds contempt:” Reader, I am intimately familiar with myself, and the climate is contemptuous at best. It’s clear by now that my lazy attempts at avoiding failure by avoiding living haven’t panned out.

I guess today marks day one of a kind of sobriety—I’m trying to kick the habit of, well, disassociating from reality. Of not living. I’ve been high as a kite for twenty years. I’m sure the comedown will be a bitch, but if twenty years of rolling around in my own mental and emotional filth has taught me anything, it’s that I have the ability to tolerate a world of pain. If I really am as smart as I’d love to give myself credit for being, the actual world has nothing on the pain I can inflict upon myself. I’m going to finally try, and if I do indeed die trying, please make sure my tombstone reads: Here lies Chelsea. She died as she lived, straining to be pithy and adorable for the pleasure of exactly no one but herself. And play Beyoncé at my funeral.

 

 

 

*I do cop to be insufferable—exhibit A: this piece.

**extremely

Sunday Kind of Love xxi

Welcome back to another installment of Sunday Kind of Love! This week, I’m going to attempt to be less materialistic, since this list is usually my purchase wet dreams. With one exception everything on here is either free or personal. As I go into 2019, I want to be more mindful and creative—I want a less cluttered home and a less cluttered mind. I know everyone says this nonsense at the beginning of every year, but instead of setting firm resolutions, I want to be kinder to myself and just encourage myself to look within instead of getting external validation from purchases and other people. So, with that said, please enjoy this picture of Sam Weir, a true icon.

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pic via hello giggles
  1. I’m doing a no-buy January! Okay, so I have read Anna Newell Jones’s book already, but I think I’m going to reread it for inspiration. The idea is not to spend any money on anything except essentials and subscriptions that haven’t run their course yet, which for me are gas, groceries, car payment, car insurance, student loans (they kick in in April), Hulu, Netflix, my Oui Fresh box, and paying as much off my credit card balance as possible. I won’t be eating any meals out or buying anything new unless it completely runs out (shampoo, makeup, etc.) Katy Goodman from Vivian Girls and La Sera did a no-buy December which she talked about on her Instagram stories, and it was really inspiring to hear about her success!
  2. I finally watched the Freaks and Geeks A&E documentary and I ugly-cried the whole time. It is so inspiring and heartbreaking. Paul Feig wrote the pilot on spec, which almost never gets picked up, much less goes to series. So many people believed in that show (and also, Paul Feig is a genius). Plus, the mere existence of John Francis Daley fills me will an unimaginable amount of joy.
  3. Michael and I just rewatched the original seasons of Arrested Development and, my god, it is a perfect, perfect show.
  4. I am so excited to watch Dumplin’. I can’t even tell you.
  5. My friend bought me this for Christmas and I almost died.
  6. Okay, okay, I’ll talk about one purchase. I got this little bag for 30% at Madewell when it was first introduced and I absolutely love it.
  7. In the past week, since I’m OFFICIALLY done with school forever and ever amen, I’ve been writing more than I ever have. I’m working on a YA novel about a study abroad trip to Oxford (sound familiar), and a collection of personal essays. I wrote one this morning about the New York Times Crossword and living with bipolar, and I’m thinking of posting it here.
  8. Soup season is officially here! I’ve been making my minestrone non-stop…I have to post the recipe here! It’s a loose take on the minestrone recipe from the Thug Kitchen cookbook and I’ve never had better in my life.
  9. I’m thinking of changing the name of this weekly post. I’ve been doing it for a long time, and it’s starting to feel weird that I just named it after a song instead of coming up with an original title. So if you notice some random new post in your inbox, don’t be alarmed! It’s just me.
  10. I’m goin’ back to Tally the first week of February! I am stoked, dude. We’re seeing Neko Case at the Moon while I’m there! I can’t wait to gorge myself on a SoDough doughnut and tacos from El Cocinero! The best part is that this time I don’t have to fly into Jacksonville and drive over because I actually found a reasonable flight to the TLH airport!

Also, just a quick plug for my DePop and Poshmark shops! I’ll be adding a ton of new stuff in the coming weeks, so stay tuned! I’m @highwaytochel on both accounts, and I always take offers if you leave me a reasonable one in the comments.

In the words of the great philosopher, Phoebe Robinson, #ByeQBye!

Risk

I submitted the following to the Man Repeller Writer’s Club for January 2018. The prompt was to write about one or all of the following in 500 words or fewer:

What’s a risk you took that you regret taking?
What’s a risk that you’re glad you didn’t take?
What a risk you wish you took?
What’s a risk you hope you take this year?

***

I have been on this spinning blue orb for more than twenty-six years and I have never taken a single risk. Or, at least, it feels that way. I’ve never bungee-jumped, taken a transatlantic flight, publicly declared my love to someone, or gotten a tattoo larger than a postage stamp.

That’s not entirely fair. I’ve done some stuff. I dropped out of college (more than once) but ended up in graduate school, and, I mean, I got married. But, in the moment, these seemed like the safest options, hardly the risks they purport to be. I had played it safe for decades because the threat of the unknown was too daunting.

So, when I started therapy, I didn’t think much of it. It didn’t seem like a risk, because when I’d tried it before, I hadn’t learned anything. I didn’t do the work, I didn’t stick it out. I’d go once, maybe twice, declare it useless, and forge ahead with my life. But by the time my twenty-sixth birthday appeared on the horizon, the nihilism and hopelessness that had characterized my adult life became too overwhelming to bear. My panic attacks increased. I was drinking every day. I was unmoored from reality in a way that was jeopardizing my health and my marriage. And worst of all, I had no fucking clue what to do with my life.

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        And then I met Tanya. Her office was at the end of a long hallway in one of the campus’s newest buildings, which had the sterile vibe of a hospital ward. Her lime green loveseat reminded me of my childhood bedroom. After some sessions, I’ve fallen apart and failed to put myself back together for days at a time. I’ve arranged toys in a sand table and choked on my own tears. I’ve made resolutions, reported successes, and admitted failures. I’ve shown up drunk—she’s seen the worst parts of me up close. And most importantly, I’ve learned to trust another person with my real thoughts, my inner monologue, not just the bullshit performance everyone else sees. The chasm between how I see myself and how others see me is so much wider than I could have ever imagined. Vulnerability is a trip.

Tanya ends every session with the same line: “Remember what we talked about.” Sometimes, that’s the hardest part—remembering that I deserve to be happy, that I’m a good person. That I don’t need to constantly self-flagellate, or be polished and perfect every moment of the day. That I’m allowed to say no.

It’s been the greatest, shittiest, hardest, most wonderful six months of my life. Well worth the risk of actually getting to know myself.