short stories

Brain-Picking Becky #13: How We Tell (and Edit) Our Stories

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I’ve been thinking a lot about the micro memoir. I’m a wordy writer (and person in general), and I typically fall victim to over-explaining my ideas in an effort to be extra sure that what I’m trying to say is understood. This often results in clunky sentences and unnecessary repetition, not to mention how time-consuming it is. When I edit both my fiction and nonfiction, I try hard to channel my inner Hemingway and delete, delete, delete. Focus on the power of what is left unsaid. Except I’m bad at leaving things unsaid.

I’ve also been thinking a lot lately about the way we tell our stories, the choices we make when it comes to mood and tone, the language we use silently in our minds versus the language we share with our mouths and our fingers. So much of how we see the world, our place in it, ourselves in general, is our own choice, and this is so deeply affected by the way we frame our own stories. Yet how much of this framing really is our choice? How much of our personal narrative comes from our parents, their parents, and their parents? How much comes from early childhood memories we don’t remember but feel like we remember because our family has remembered them for us? From our genetic makeup, from the makeup of our neighborhoods, from the makeup we put on before we go out into the world?

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Last year, Lew loved the ocean water. He would run into it and shout with glee, jump, splash, run away, run back. This summer, he is two-years-old and has developed the capacity to fear. Now when he goes close to the water, he freezes and screams, partly playful, mostly afraid. He loves it when I carry him in, he’ll beg me to go deep enough that the waves splash against his delicious round belly, yet he clings to me so tightly that I can let go of him and he doesn’t even slip down my torso. The other day, as he and I were digging holes in the sand and filling them up again, my friend asked me if Lew liked the water and I said, “Oh he loves it but he’s also scared of it. It’s a new development this year, I hope it doesn’t last long.” Later that afternoon, Lew and I walked to the shore hand-in-hand and then right when we approached the ocean’s edge, he stopped, scrunched his nose and eyes together, reached his arms to me and cried, “Mommy, up, up, I scared of ocean water!” He had never used the word scared before.

In thinking about my story, Lew’s story, the story of my family and the tiny pieces that come together to make up these stories, I am deeply grateful for all the things I get to experience. Yet at the same time, I am deeply exhausted. An editor might say that my story is going in too many directions and needs to be pared down.

Leave more unsaid.

I’m reminded of Rivka Galchen’s book Little Labors, a beautiful, unique collection of short essays about new motherhood. I feel like these snippets, these micro memoirs, capture the reality of our existence so well. In the end, isn’t life really just little pieces of memory put together and called a whole?

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Click here to learn more about the ongoing column Brain-Picking Becky.

Ella, The Man and The Dog

An original short story by Becky Fine-Firesheets

Motherhood filled Ella’s days with meaning yet also made them meaningless, made the whole world meaningless. How much this little creature needed her, how every task served a clear purpose of keeping him alive, yet how unimportant this actually was, how it absolutely didn’t matter to the greater planet or its billions of inhabitants if her baby lived or died. Late at night when she was awake despite the fact her baby and boyfriend were sleeping, this awareness of her own smallness and futility terrified her. But most of the time, it was relieving. Freeing, even.

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— ◊ —

The sharp yip of the neighbor’s dog. Ella came to and immediately scanned the room for Dylan, found him on the floor nearby with his manic grin, his fat hand clutching a Lego.

“Oh my God, oh my God, honey.” She stood up – a rush of vertigo. Fighting through the dizziness, the fog, the fear, she stumbled to her baby and collapsed around him. He screamed and kicked; she’d interrupted his game. She released her grip and rolled onto her back, heart pounding so hard she could feel it banging against the hardwood floor beneath her.

It had been over a decade since she’d lost time like this, and then only once and only because of The Man.

— ◊ —

After it had happened, after The Man had leaned in for a goodnight kiss but instead forced himself into her apartment and then into her body, she dreamed of poisoning him. It would have been so easy, just a quick dash of almond syrup in his morning latte would have been enough to trigger his allergy. The key would be to fix her lips into the same tight food service grin she faked every day, to control her shaking hand as she offered him the drink, to turn to the next customer like nothing was out of the ordinary. But she felt sure she could pull it off – her anger gave her confidence – and she even came close enough once that she’d unscrewed the cap and gripped the bottleneck in her fist.

He was asking for it, she would say afterward, just like she’d overheard him say about her. But doubt rushed through her, and then she lost time and her job and never saw him again.

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 — ◊ —

The relentless barking. Her head pounded with it. The dog had barked all day long before the baby, but Ella was working a 9-5 office job then and hadn’t noticed. Now that she was a stay-at-home mom, her life split into blocks of play, eat, sleep, repeat, the barking was ruining her life.

My God, she thought, how much did I lose? Misty, her old therapist, had sworn this wouldn’t happen again, but here she was after all these years, and alone with the baby no less! If only the dog would shut up so she could think. Ella pulled back the curtain of her kitchen window and scanned the neighbor’s yard – watching the poodle shake in desperation, completely immersed in his own anxious hell, gave her some satisfaction (at least he, too, was miserable) – but she didn’t see him anywhere. So why the hell could she still hear him so clearly?

— ◊ —

Of course the original time loss had coincided with a double at the cafe. And of course she got fired for running off and never explaining herself. But she was okay with that; brewing the espresso, steaming the milk, pouring it out into the shape of a flower then handing it over to The Man with his reeking cologne and thick fingers was killing her day by day, and she knew that despite the holes in her plan (what if he spat it out? what if he had an Epipen?), she was going to do it one day. And then what? Losing the job was for the better.

Still, it took three months to mention the time loss to anyone. It wasn’t meant to be a confession, just a distant, asking-for-a-friend kind of thing during her annual gyno exam, but the doctor’s probing fingers, the questions about her sex life, the sticks and brushes twisting inside of her unleashed a flood of anxiety and suddenly she was rambling like a child about the missing hours. The doctor suggested she find a therapist then said that otherwise, she was well and healthy. Ella was shocked; she was sure the markers of her pain were glaring from her every pore, much less the inside of her vagina.

Another month passed before she mustered the courage to go to Misty. Their first appointment was strained, but Misty was naturally kind, and her cardigans and baggy pants, hoarse yet soothing voice, her wrinkled hands and eyes, made Ella feel safe enough to let it all out by visit number two. She hadn’t spoken about The Man to anyone, hadn’t even allowed herself to think of it as a rape, and the realization that this had actually happened to her was nauseating and exhausting. By the time she got around to the missing hours, she’d gone numb.

“This kind of thing is scary, yes, but also within the range of normal. Many people disassociate when they’ve experienced a trauma like yours. Together, we can work through it,” Misty said with so much certainty Ella almost believed it.

But later that night, as she rolled the word ‘disassociate’ around her tongue, examining its different parts and what they meant for her, Ella did not believe. She tried out the idea that her brain had become disjoined, dispartnered itself from itself, and now it was her job to bring it back together. But how? She stared at the two shitty choices splayed out in front of her – to get over it or to get lost in it – and the fear of succumbing to the latter while attempting the former left her paralyzed.

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— ◊ —

A knock on the door, aggressive, urgent. Ella opened it to find the poodle’s owner, a well-intentioned but neurotic old woman, frantically turning a wrinkled napkin over and over in her fingers. “I can’t find Moxi she’s been missing for hours have you seen her?” she asked in one rapid question.

Ella felt high, fuzzy; only bits and pieces of the words reached her brain. She focused in on the patch of blue nail polish remaining on her thumb, tried to slow down her heart beat.

“Did you hear me? Moxi is missing!”

“That’s awful,” she replied, voice steady despite the knot gripping her throat.

“She’s never run off before, never. And the craziest thing is that I haven’t even heard a peep from her. For hours now! I just don’t know what I’d do without my dog.”

Ella opened then closed her mouth. The dog was still barking, she could hear him barking. What the hell was going on?

“Dog!” Dylan shouted from the floor, a word he’d never said before. “Dog dog!”

“I’m so sorry. I’ll keep my eyes open,” Ella managed to say.

“Please do, I’m just desperate. You have my number, right?”

Ella nodded and shut the door, leaned her back against it, slid down to the grainy welcome mat covered in ink from the pen Dylan recently broke.

“Dog dog dog,” he repeated. Then, “Mama. Mama dog, mama dog.”

— ◊ —

Eventually, Ella believed. She talked and sobbed and shouted her way through it, and even though the missing hours never came back to her, she emerged with The Man safely in her past and the shocking ability to fall in love with another man when she wasn’t even looking for it. Motherhood was similarly unplanned, but she was tough, a survivor, and her boyfriend was the good kind who massaged her feet and brought home flowers and cooked lasagna, her favorite, at least once a week, so Ella allowed herself to relax and balloon up with hope.

When Dylan first heaved out from between her legs, slimy and pruney and shrieking, Ella felt the strange twist of unconditional love deep inside her gut. Becoming a giver of this kind of love transformed her so intensely that she was positive everyone she came in contact with would also be transformed in its presence. But no one, not even her boyfriend, reacted to it, and the long stretches of motherhood with so much downtime yet also no break sent her mind on a freefall (thus the ruminations on meaningful meaninglessness), and then one day not so long ago, she found herself in a ball on the kitchen floor, absolutely repulsed by the fact that she’d still love Dylan even if he raped someone.

— ◊ —

Ella scooped up her baby and slid him into his high chair. She had no answers to any of her questions (how long was she gone? why had she gone? where the hell was the damned dog, and why could she still hear him barking?), and the anxiety was getting harder and harder to breathe away. She turned to the island in the middle of the kitchen, grabbed an apple from the silver fruit bowl and instinctively reached for her favorite knife in the block, but its slot was empty. She looked in the sink, the dishwasher, on all the countertops. Where the hell could it be?

Yip yip yip, throbbed in her ears. “Just shut the fuck up!” she shouted, then, turning to Dylan, “I’m sorry baby, I’m fine, we’re fine. I’m sorry.”

He looked up at her with an unfazed smile and said, “Mama dog, Mama dog, Mama dog.”

Photo credits:

  1. 39: Høgevarde by Norefjell / Creative Commons”
  2. Futile by ~Morgin~ / Creative Commons”
  3. “Toaster Oven” by Me 🙂

Flash Fiction with Babies

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My College Years in Sunglasses

Our first kiss was in Chinatown, red and yellow and boring. At the age of 41, he was ashamed about loss. It was an easy joke: a possible husband. We had a few summers, a cute story. Door signs to another future. As I rode the express train that took me away, I didn’t even pretend to feel sad.

***

One of the most amazing things about my life as a new mom is the Mamas Writers Group I belong to. These two women and their adorable boys have kept me motivated and inspired during the past few months, which in turn has made me a more fulfilled person and a better mother. Our biweekly meet-ups include hang out/play time with tea and chocolate and milk and rice puffs, commiserations about the difficulties of being a creative mom, some type of writing exercise that we take turns leading, and a round of goal-setting for the upcoming two weeks. The boys chase the cat, grab our pens, rip our papers, and generally have a blast. Somehow, we actually manage to get shit done. I look so forward to these Monday afternoons.

At a recent meet-up, I led an activity inspired by a workshop with Thomas E. Kennedy in which each person tears up other peoples’ writings then makes a list of words that pop out at them from these torn pieces of paper (we used the leftover copies from my latest ESL class, which included fiction, creative nonfiction, journalism, and grammar IMG_4344worksheets). The writers then use this list to write something (anything) in a set amount of time (our time limit was flexible as we were also trying to keep our babies alive). From my understanding of the original workshop, the idea is to push yourself outside of your typical boundaries as a writer, to engage with English in a new way, and to use a process you would normally never consider. It can be quite inspiring and also revealing; I think this type of exercise shows us parts of ourselves we may not encounter through our regular writing. As a novelist, it also felt really good to sit down for 20 minutes and come out with a product. I’m the first to confess that I don’t understand flash fiction, but I felt okay enough with the way mine turned out that thought I’d share (plus, I needed a good excuse to post these adorable photos).

Sundress Publications’ Best of the Net Awards

sundress pubI am incredibly excited to announce that my short story, The Roof (appearing in Serving House Journal’s Fall 2013 issue), has been nominated for Sundress Publications’ Best of the Net Awards!  Winners will be announced in October, but no matter the results, I’m incredibly excited and honored.  Many thanks to Clare McQueen of Serving House Journal for nominating me.  Click here to browse last year’s Best of the Net anthology, and stay tuned for this year’s winners!

Sundress Publications’ logo pictured above.

The Roof to Appear in Serving House Journal

servinghousejournalI am very excited to announce that my short story, The Roof, will appear in Serving House Journal’s fall issue.  This is a very exciting step for me, as my previous publications have been either creative nonfiction or journalism.  I’m very eager to hear your thoughts!

For Emma

For Emma
By: Becky Fine-Firesheets

Emma writhes in my lap.  I hold her against my chest, one hand on her head, the other across her back.  The sweat from her forehead soaks my t-shirt.

“We have to go back,” my wife says.  She hits the brakes, stopping the car in front of a Welcome to Springton sign.

Emma gasps.  Her legs jerk against my stomach.  “Just keep going!” I shout.  “For Emma.”

Shea looks at our daughter then up at the rearview mirror.  Her teeth clench so tightly her head shakes.  She takes a deep breath, shifts her eyes to the road and slams on the gas pedal.  Our rundown Corolla tears wildly through the night, squealing around the country road curves, past the trees and farms toward the city lights in the distance.  Emma’s breaths become shallower, more painful.  Her fingernails cut into my skin as she squeezes her tiny hand tighter and tighter around my arm.

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Fifteen Years Later

“Do you have siblings?” Shea asks.

Greg nods as he chews his bite of spaghetti.  “I used to have an older brother,” he says after he swallows.

Emma smiles supportively at him.  I like them together.

“What happened?” I ask.

“A wreck,” Greg replies.  “He was hit by a car when I was a kid.”

“Oh,” Shea says.  “That’s terrible.”  She glances at me then back to her salad.

“Truly an awful thing,” I add.  Greg shifts in his seat.  Emma reaches out and squeezes his knee with her delicate hand.

“Where do you live?” I ask, to change the subject.

“In Ossipee now.  I grew up in Springton, but we moved after my brother died.”

Shea drops her fork.  It clangs loudly against the plate.  “I’m sorry.  Excuse me,” she mumbles as she wipes her lips with her napkin.  She stands and walks toward the bathroom, her usual confident stride replaced with hurried, shaky steps.

“Springton,” I repeat.  “We’ve passed through there before.  Beautiful farmland.”  I pick up the breadbasket.  “Anybody need another roll?”