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Wednesday, February 2, 2005

Choices Immature (Short Story)

July 9, 2004 1:00 p.m.



She said she loved me, and I wanted to kill myself.



“Christ, Mother, I know that already,” I snapped at her. How could I not? Over my twenty-two years, I had learned that my mother used the word “love” like a sixth grade English teacher uses punctuation: as a tool. As a garnish. As a manipulator.



She drew back from me, and the pearly pins ready to decorate my hair paused. “Well, Louise, there’s no need to be snarky about it. I only try to do what’s best for you, you know.”



“I am aware that’s what you tell yourself.” I sighed and gestured for her to resume pinning my hair. I had to: somewhere out in that enormous gothic nightmare of a cathedral a man was waiting for me to walk down the aisle. Waiting to whisk me away to our new home 3,482 miles away from my hovering mother. A man who rarely said he loved me, which at the time was just fine by me.



Now, sitting here in an open-air hut in the middle of an uncivilized jungle, I would desperately like to laugh at how young and stupid I was only a few months ago. I’m far more likely to cry, though, thinking about it. Sniping at my mother had become a staple of our relationship, same as other mothers and daughters hug and kiss and laugh over the foibles of the men in their lives. Today, the only entertaining interaction I have is when I brutally murder an entire family of mosquitoes that makes the unlucky choice to feed upon my leg.



I was so damn smart, so damn sure of myself, so full of naïve ideals. Mother would tsk at me and repeat the admonishment always made me near matricidal: “Louise, really, do you want to base the rest of your life on decisions made by a 22-year-old? I don’t think so.” Every time she said it, I rolled my eyes and tuned her out, just like the sullen teenager I’d always been. I knew what I wanted, where I was going, who I wanted to be with, everything that would make me happy for the rest of my life. I thought 22 was so old, old enough anyway to get married and dump my family to chase some wild-hare dream that was nothing more than a schoolgirl fantasy. Now, a few days away from my 23rd birthday, I feel like that girl is a fossil, a relic of another era.



I knew I had it made when I started working with my first environmental company, fresh from West Texas A&M with my Environmental Science degree. Save the whale, save the rainforest, save the horny toad; these were all slogans that striped their way across my baby tees. Mother viewed every recycled product as dirty, so I made sure to only dress in hemp clothing and only use biodegradable soap. Deodorant was optional, and the only reason I shaved was because it itched too much not to. Each day I managed to get through without showering was like an extended middle finger in my mother’s face. It’s a miracle any man wanted to sleep with me, but Walter did, and there you have it.



Walter. God, do I have to think about him now? I haven’t yet had my crying fit today. Maybe if I don’t think about him, I can get through the day without wailing and tearing my hair out (the local villagers are highly amused by that spectacle). Ah, hell, too late.



Later…



Okay, that’s done. I feel better now. One of the village women gave me some kind of thick chocolate caffeine brew. It’s like a muddy mocha, but it does the trick. I wish I’d had it at my wedding. I might have actually been happy about the whole damn thing, instead of spending the festivities trying to piss my mom off one last time. Who knows, maybe the jolt would have jumpstarted my brain enough to take my mother’s backhanded advice.



“Darling,” Mother kept saying, her beauty-tattooed eyebrows rising. “Darling, I just don’t see why it’s necessary for the two of you to live in Brazil, of all places. It’s so…dirty there.”



“Because that’s where the company is sending us this year.” I gritted my teeth, only half in pain from the pins scraping my hair into complicated layers of knots.



“But he could go down there for a year while you stay here with me.”



“I work, too, Mom,” I reminded her. I was so eager to crusade for the environment, imagining myself as a female Indiana Jones, trekking through the glorious endangered forests, bearing the invisible banner of the environmental savior.



“Bah,” she replied. “You’re a glorified secretary. What’s a secretary going to do in the jungle?”



“Mother, it is my job. My job is to go to Brazil with Walter, and do what he needs me to do. Besides, if I didn’t go, then we wouldn’t be married.” In desperation, with tears of frustration threatening to smear my gobs of theatrical mascara, I seized upon this idea. “And if we weren’t married, there’d be no chance of grandchildren for you, now would there?”



“Posh. Don’t be such a twit. Men go off to war for years, yet they’re married and have plenty of children.” She dabbed a droplet of moisture away from my eye before it could do any damage to my face.



“Right,” I said shakily. “Bastards they leave in Cambodia.”



“Language, young lady.”



Language. That constant scolding to watch my tongue, to be careful what I say. I’m not at all certain that my grandmother ever cautioned my mother to consider her words before she uttered them. Maybe if she had, my mother wouldn’t use such hurtful methods of expressing how she feels. Sitting there in wedding white, I wished I’d been born deaf. Not that my mama would have ever noticed. I often thought she could easily carry on a conversation with the echo of her own voice off the bathroom tiles. Now, of course, I’d gladly trade my daily mocha sludge for someone, anyone, even my mother, to talk to me. Even when Walter’s here, it’s only the sound of my own voice that soothes me. Yet I sit and wait for him to return, hour after hour, day after day. Waiting. Waiting, and slapping at flying insects.



July 11, 2004 3:00 p.m.



I awoke this morning to the sound of my mother hollering nonsense in my ear, her voice raking through my head like a chainsaw on steel. I was actually smiling until I discovered it was only a macaw screeching in the trees outside our hut.



Brazil. It’s beautiful and scary and colorful and sadly poor in such a conglomeration that you can’t help but be overwhelmed. I was at first, anyway. I spent my first week – our “honeymoon,” a stopover in Rio – acting out a neurotic role that would have suited a Hitchcock film perfectly. Every time we sat down in a restaurant, every purchase I considered, every decision I made was accompanied by Mother’s flapping voice that originated somewhere near my right shoulder and scratched its way like tin-foil on teeth all through my skull. I couldn’t get away from her, couldn’t shake the neural fibers she’d woven in my brain.



The second week, however, was heaven. Mini-Mom gradually disappeared from her post on my shoulder. I was free from hagging, nagging, bitching, sniping remarks, and those motherly adjustments of my clothing that told me I hadn’t dressed well enough or eaten the right foods or said the correct thing. My hearing slowly returned, and instead of tuning out everything that fell in the general range of her voice, I could appreciate the full spectrum of sound waves again. Music made a lot more sense to me.



By the end of the third week, of course, it became painfully clear that my job with my husband’s company came with quotation marks around it. I guess that’s what happens when you start bonking your boss on your first internship. Lucky for me – I thought at the time – Walter liked me enough to marry me.



I didn’t start my professional life with the intention of bagging a husband. On the contrary. In another of my attempts to be nothing like my mother, I was determined to launch a storied career with a celebrated list of saved species on my eventual resume. Mother had gone to finishing school in Dallas with a gaggle of debutantes, and they each rushed home after graduation to marry an oil man or a cattle rancher. My mom must have been at the bottom of the class because she didn’t manage to land a husband until she was 25, a DA she met while working as a file clerk in the county courthouse. She must have thought Daddy would go on to be a judge or something, but she was sadly mistaken, for my father wanted nothing more than a quiet practice settling estate disputes, which is exactly what he has now. Mother hasn’t gone to a school reunion in fifteen years, and I’m fairly certain it’s because she’d be embarrassed to compare her husband and daughter to her former classmates’ families. It always made me mad that she would feel that way about Daddy, who’s never done her any harm, but now I can almost see her point.



At any rate, I didn’t want to spend my whole life just waiting on my husband to come along, or marry him just because it would make me look better. I really wanted a man I could love, and who would support me professionally. Walter seemed perfect.



My husband isn’t a mean man by any stretch of the imagination. It’s just that he isn’t much of a man at all. My first day as an intern, he gave me a brief smile as he asked me to find a certain file for him, and from then on I insisted on comparing him to my father. He was quiet, like Daddy, and unassuming. He sometimes smoked a pipe if he thought no one else was in the office, and the aroma made me feel giddy, like I was reading Charlotte’s Web at my father’s feet while he puffed on his own tobacco. When Walter finally approached me late one evening, it wasn’t even exciting like a scene from Working Girl or Secretary. I fell in love with the sweetness I saw as he asked me, “Miss Parker, would you mind if we ordered in Chinese so we can finish the analysis of these field tests this evening?” Romantic, I think. Romantic as Walter gets anyway.



I determined myself to adore him, and the modicum of attention he gave me was more than enough to inspire me. I vowed to love and appreciate him far better than my mother did my father. Only now, I think maybe Daddy never gave Mother enough of himself to love.



My father loves me, though, that much I’m pretty sure of. He only wanted what I wanted, and on the day he gave me away, he thought he was doing what was best for me, same as I did.



Daddy interrupted Mother’s latest harangue by poking his shiny head in the door. I could hear the organ music honking away out in the main chapel. “Almost ready, poo?” Daddy asked. “The natives are getting restless.” He spoke directly to me. He always spoke to me, never to Mother. He never said a word to her or against her, but I know sometimes he wished he were deaf, too.



I nodded, which resulted in a sharp jab on my scalp and pinch on the arm from Mother.



“I’m ready, Daddy.”



“No, you’re not,” Mother insisted, frantically poking pearl-encrusted bobbies into the tangle atop my head. At this point, my wedding night would consist of shaving my head, as that was now the only recourse left to me for ridding myself of those torture devices.



“You have to be beautiful. I didn’t give you my dress so you could exchange vows in front of God and everyone I know looking like you just got out of bed.”



“You didn’t give me the dress, Mother. It goes back directly into your trunk as soon as I say ‘I do.’ Anyway, I never asked for it. I wanted Grandmother’s dress.” I was making my best attempt to be civil regarding this matter. Truth was, I despised my mother’s wedding gown. It was a hooped monstrosity that even Scarlett O’Hara would have blanched at and exclaimed, “Why, gracious, Louise Pahkah! The devil himself could not have designed a more beastly configuration of lace, feathers, and wire. My dress made out of curtains was more fitting for society than this insult to the institution of marriage. Fiddle dee dee.”



I should have bit my tongue. My mother’s reply was a sharp reminder of why I couldn’t wear Grandmother’s dress: “Don’t be childish, Louise. No amount of dieting would have gotten your chest into that gown.”



“I’ve got plenty of room in this one, that’s for sure.” I tugged at the baroque bodice. “Was it a shotgun wedding, Mother? Because you could have been six months pregnant with me and no one would have noticed.”



My father cleared his throat from the doorway. The barbs meant for Mother often pricked him instead, and I immediately flushed with repentance. It was Mother’s fault, of course. I slapped her fluttering hands away from my wounded scalp and struggled to stand up amidst the yards of stiff material entwined around me.



She leaned back to inspect me, and imitated every TV-movie mother-of-the-bride she’d ever seen. “Oh, Louise, you just look breathtak—”



“Come on, Daddy, let’s get this over with,” I said, not even looking at her, not asking for her opinion, not seeking a tearful kiss on the cheek or a final good luck squeeze. I should have at least let her hug me.



Instead, I held out my hand to my father, who gave me the tearful kiss I wouldn’t let Mother deliver, and gently tucked my hand into the crook of his elbow.



Her nose held high, Mother wafted past us to take up her post in the front pew.



Daddy walked me down the aisle behind several bridesmaids – all cousins or daughters of Mother’s “family friends,” the debutantes from school she was determined to impress. I had taken a vote amongst my closest friends from college over a nostalgic bong full of weed, and we all decided that I shouldn’t put them through the soap opera that was to be my wedding. I may have had to wear an antebellum costume and perform the dancing monkey tricks so Mother could finally show off for her society ladies, but I saw no reason to subject my friends to the same torture. As a result my nearest and dearest sat on the back pew on the bride’s side in corduroy pants and shimmering halter tops, reeking of mary jane and giggling uncontrollably.



Daddy and I stutter-stepped past two hundred faces that were either completely unknown to me or vaguely resembled folks I’d seen once or twice as a child. For all the guests who were not my “dearly beloved,” I felt as though I should take a seat among the congregation and observe as some distant relative stepped up to the altar and exchanged vows. This could not be my wedding. There was a priest instead of the justice of the peace I wanted. There were flowers where I wanted none, ear-splitting organ music where I’d requested a low-volume recording of the London Philharmonic Choir, and scores of unwanted guests where I’d only desired a couple of hired witnesses. This could not be how I started my marriage. This was how I started my nightmares.



“Brazil,” my father whispered. I blinked at him, and he smiled. “Just don’t forget about Brazil. Three thousand miles away from all this nonsense.”



He lifted my veil and kissed me, letting me go to the new man who, traditionally, would rule my life. Little did tradition know a man had never ruled my life at all. Now what rules my life is the schedule Walter keeps. Beautiful women, tropical scenery and exotic nightlife notwithstanding, Brazil has quickly turned into an old married routine for Walter and me. He trudges around for days in the jungle, collecting samples in plastic containers and Ziploc baggies, then brings them back to the makeshift laboratory in our house. (I say house, but it’s really just a glorified hut. Exhilarating at first, but after three months it’s all I can do not to manufacture my own sheetrock and install it myself just to have some measure of privacy.) Every so often I make a show of cataloguing his research, or entering data into his laptop, but for the most part I just patch my thinning “Save the fill-in-the-blank” tops and kill insects. I want to help the environment and all, but somewhere between the production of getting married and the reality of life in a puny village without plumbing I’ve misplaced my enthusiasm. Trekking through teeming forests and running endless swampy samples through gas spectrometers gets old quicker than a three-legged man in a sack race.



I wonder when I’ll finally crack up for good. I wonder if the villagers have an aboriginal equivalent of a sports book, and if they have a pool going on which day I’ll finally run mad for good. I’d bet even money it’s before next week.



July 13, 2004 9:00 a.m.



Walter came home yesterday from the latest collection trip. I lost count of how many days it was this time; his absences seem to grow longer and longer. Yesterday morning I got that fluttery feeling of excitement in the lower regions of my abdomen, but my general malaise suggests the emotion might nothing more than my bowels reacting to some kind of berry stew I ate with the old man whose hut squats next to ours. He’s a nice old man, and he talks a lot, but since I don’t know his dialect and he doesn’t know a jot of Portuguese, much less English, there’s not much in the way of stimulating conversation.



The prodigal husband trudged through the village, his khaki, mud-covered pack hunching his weak spine, trudged all the way through the curious children and chattering women, through the silent men and the old crones who viewed him as a monster because they knew how I cried. He trudged right to our hut, set his pack on the dirt floor and tossed himself on a cot. Without ever saying a word to me. Before I could open my mouth, his gaped wide with a snore.



By the time he finally awoke, I’d already unpacked his pack, arranged his samples, prepared the paperwork to record the lab results, and chewed my nonexistent fingernails down to bloody stubs. For the first fifteen minutes I was grateful for the chance at some activity, but once that activity was gone I went into stark withdrawals once again, watching him sleep so deeply and wanting to hack his head off with his trail machete.



And when he got up, what did he do? Did he warmly greet his new wife, who has missed him so terribly? Did he ask me how my time has been spent, how I am, if I’m glad to have him back? Did he kiss me and hold me? Did he jump my bones the way a good newlywed husband who’s been away for God only knows how long should?



No, he most certainly did not. He nodded at me and proceeded to his lab bench to run the tests on his new samples. I’m not his wife. I’m not even his roommate. I am what they call me in the company directory: Laboratory Assistant.



“I don’t see why you can’t run those samples tomorrow, honey,” I said to him at about the time I figured Friends would be showing if we were back in the States. (At some point, I created my own imaginary TV Guide, and on the all-Louise-all-the-time station, Friends is on 50% of the time. Perhaps it should be called Imaginary Friends.) My only true entertainment on “lab nights” is if Walter screws up a sample and lets out a rare “Jesus on a pogo stick.” It’s one of the more interesting things that come out of his mouth.



He never even looked up from his pipette. He peered through his spectacles – I can’t bring myself to call those little gold-rimmed glasses on the end of his nose anything else – at a murky tube of water from the Parana River and replied, “Because I have to get these results uploaded to the server in Atlanta tonight so they can work on compiling data from the other regions. If I go off schedule, it costs the company money.”



Maybe this last statement is the reason I have no burning desire to prod the depths of the river with my husband: we don’t slave away for an environmental conservancy, or even government-sponsored research. We examine pond water and bugs and macaque droppings for a pharmaceutical company, purely so they can mine medically-rich substances from the unexplored regions of the world. Granted, the company sponsors all kinds of environmental studies and spouts PR spins to the effect that they are all about conservancy and saving the world, but when it comes right down to it, a guy in a suit in an office with a view is calling the plays. It just kills the romance for me.



So in an inspired move destined to go down in the history books as yet another manifestation of the stereotypical hysterical white woman in the jungle, I got up from my hammock and wrapped my insect-bitten arms around Walter. I even nibbled his slightly earthy-tasting ear.



“Come on,” I whispered. “They can wait for their precious data for twenty minutes.” I was stretching it. It’s a favorite dream of mine that Walter can go for twenty minutes.



Walter swatted at me much as he would a pesky snake that dropped in on him from a towering tree. “Lou, I have stuff to do. Don’t you have a book to read or something?”



“I’m tired of reading. My eyes hurt. You’ve been gone for over a week this time, and I missed you.” If my voice took on a reedy, whiny tone, I am not about to admit that here.



“You’ve got at least three days’ worth of samples to catalogue, and about a week’s worth of data entry you could do.” Still, he did not pause in his endless pipetting, shifting tiny droplets of river water and reagents from here to there and back again. “What do you do all day when I’m gone? Can’t you find some way to entertain yourself?”



The bastard, the rat, the insensitive swine. What does he think, that I have a television, satellite, and a full bar? That I sit around our hut all day eating bonbons and watching Oprah?



“I entertain myself just fine.” I shoved away from him, petulant and full of angry frustration. “In fact, more and more I have to ‘entertain’ myself even when you’re here. This is a tiny little nowhere village where no one speaks English and I don’t know anybody and you’re the only companion I’ve got and you don’t even care.”



“Of course I care,” he said to the river water. “If this is about sex, we can fit that in later, maybe in the morning before breakfast, hmm?”



My meager supply of nouns and verbs deserted me. I stood there, arms dangling, mouth catching flies, yet he never once turned to catch my reaction. He’d offered to pencil me in. The ink was hardly dry on our marriage certificate, and already I was reduced to scheduling affection time with my husband – and then only when he could squeeze it in before his powdered eggs and freeze-dried bacon.



In my ear, Mother cackled like the Wicked Witch of the West and said very smugly, “Darling, I hate to say I told you so, but decisions made by 22-year-olds aren’t the smartest!”



Tears surged up, attracting a few no-see-ums to the corners of my eyes. I rubbed the tickle away and asked the stupidest question a dejected, lonely, desperate bride can ask: “But don’t you love me?”



Finally, he set his pipette down on the makeshift lab bench and turned to face me, his brown eyes peering over his spectacles freakishly reminiscent of my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Pressler. “You know how I feel about that sentiment, Louise,” he responded easily, in the same tone he might use had I asked how he felt about the craptacular cuisine at Taco Bell. “And I know how worked up you get about it, so let’s not enter into some childish discussion that doesn’t have anything to do with either of us.”



And back to the pipette he went. I wanted to snatch it from his smarmy hand and smash it against a wall, only the effort would have been futile as I had no walls to slam it against. So as an alternative I lashed out in the only way I knew how: “Well I don’t love you, either. I only married you to get away from my mother.”



“I am aware of that.” Calm, collected, completely scientific.



I never want to have sex with him again.



I sat down on the dirt floor of the hut, pulling my knees up and resting my forehead on them. I cried for a few minutes, starting off small and subtle at first, then ramping my way up to hiccupping sobs when he didn’t respond. Eventually my wails must have broken his concentration, for he gave me a rather sharp, “Stop that, Louise. Quit being a child.”



I snuffled, then peered up at him through the saltwater eyes and mucus dotting my face. I said what I said next to be hurtful, to try to get some reaction out of him, to entice him to possibly stand up, come over to me, wrap his arms around me and whisper soothing assurances. I don’t know now whether I should have taken them back, but as soon as they left my lips I knew I was going to stand by them.



“I want to go home.”



He did not embrace me or kiss my tears away. He did not smile indulgently and promise to spend more time with me once his data deadline had been met. Instead, he heaved a huge sigh, the sigh of Atlas shifting the weight of the world upon his shoulders, and replied, “Don’t be ridiculous. You can’t go running home to mommy every time we have a fight. Go to bed, you’ll feel better in the morning.”



I followed his advice last night, but I don’t feel any better this morning. We didn’t have sex, either, as I am seized by the urge to vomit and cry at the same time whenever I think of him touching me. He just seems to have forgotten about it, and tomorrow he plans to go off again, this time to a collection point even further downriver. I don’t think I’ll miss him this trip.



July 17, 2004 2:30 p.m.



A café in Rio. Jesus God, civilization. I stayed in a hotel last night and had a real shower and non-dehydrated food. I spoke my native tongue this morning to an Australian couple traveling through South America.



Tomorrow, I go home. I suppose my tail should be tucked between my legs, but it doesn’t feel that way. When I called my mother this morning to tell her of my homecoming – the first words I’ve exchanged with her since my wedding – she didn’t say “I told you so” or chastise me for my immature decisions.



She said, “Of course, you know you can come home at any time, Louise. We’re your parents, even if you do sometimes treat us like dog doo you stepped in.”



“Mom,” I pleaded, “please don’t make this harder than it is.”



“Why should it be hard at all? You know where you’re going this time.”



My throat closed up, and I listened to her “Hello? Hel-loooo?” for a few seconds while I regained my ability to speak. “It’s just…” I faltered, trying to assure her we still had a connection. “It’s just that I’m leaving my husband. I’m quitting, giving up.”



“Posh.” I can see her shrug, see her wave my fears off with a flick of her Pink Rose manicured nails. “You grew up a little bit, that’s all. You were thinking like such a little girl. Now I just hope you’ve figured out that going against your mother’s wishes does not a career make.”



A laugh gurgled through the tears and mucus tightening my chest. Six months ago, I’d have seen red at her convoluted logic. “Mother,” I told her, my tone joking and as light as I could make it, “I hate to break it to you, but everything’s not about you, you know.”



“So your father keeps telling me,” she sighed. “All right then, just call us when you know your flight schedule, and I’ll make sure your father is there to pick you up.”



“Okay, Mom.”



“I love you, Louise. You know that, right?” For the first time in maybe my whole life, I heard a catch of uncertainty in her clipped tones.



“I know, Mom,” I said. “I love you, too.”



I suppose in three or four days Walter will come back to the hut and discover me gone. My heart wonders if he will be sad. My ego is scared maybe he’ll be relieved. My brain thinks he probably won’t even notice. When I consider them all together, I can’t muster the energy to care.



I’m twenty-three years old today, and I’m not about to base the rest of my life on decisions made by a 22-year-old girl. Not anymore.

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