Shattered

shatteredglass

While shopping at Trader Joe’s the other day I kept getting interrupted by phone calls from Nancy, my elder care advocate. Nancy was helping me try to get my mother removed from a particularly ghastly nursing home where she was presently confined.

As I wandered the store aisles, my phone up to my ear, I kept distractedly piling item after item in the upper child-seat section, never noticing that I had neglected to flip the red guard/seat upward. shoppingcartWhen I tossed a box of tomato soup onto the ever-growing heap, the stack shifted, and suddenly jars and cans and packaged vegetables were flying out through the opening.

Thankfully, the only thing that broke was a jar of coconut oil which exploded on contact, leaving behind a three-foot-long trail of white goop and glass.

“I am so sorry,” I said to the TJ employee who appeared the moment after I told Nancy I had to hang up. “Let me help you clean it.”

“No. No,” the smiling woman said. “Please step away. I don’t want you to get hurt.”

When I hesitated, she shooed me with her hand. “Would you like me to go get you another jar?”

“Do I want you to, what? No. I can do it. Thank you.” Embarrassed, I backed away, grabbed another coconut oil, and went to the registers. As I waited to pay, I suddenly remembered when the same thing happened to me while we were living in Bali.

Well, almost the same thing.

Loy had needed more cheese for her ham and cheese sandwiches, and it wasn’t as if I had a whole lot to do that day. I’d asked I Made to take me to Bintang, the gigantic supermarket at the far edge of Ubud. As was customary, I handed him 5000 rupiah so he could buy himself an ice cream cone to eat while he hung out with the other drivers.

I opened the door and waited for the AC impact…there….ahhh. Heaven. I threw a few bags of pasta into the shopping cart, found a new kind of local madu (honey) to try, then made for the beer shelves. As I loaded bottle upon bottle of the large-sized Bintangs, one slipped through the bars of the upper part of the cart and crashed to the floor, beer spraying five feet in diameter around me. I stood there until a young man showed up with a mop-like apparatus. I mumbled “maaf,” (sorry), and sauntered over to the cheese room hoping to find a block of imported cheddar for less than $8.

No luck, but I bought some anyway. Then I picked through the tubs of high-priced yogurt looking for an expiration date that wasn’t within the next 72 hours. I leaned over the freezer section and longingly fondled a package of frozen flour tortillas. It actually hurt my heart to see tortillas being treated as a luxury item.

Out of the corner of my eye I noticed two armed guards eyeing me as I came out of the guardfrosty meat/cheese/milk/fish room, so I smiled at them. They smiled back and then followed me over to the rice area.

Selamat sore,” I said, thinking they were just curious about the American shopper’s shopping habits and wanted to know which brand of rice appealed to me the most. But when I approached the checkout line they were still shadowing me enough to make me a little nervous.

“What?” I said.

They ignored my question. One of the men went around and stood next to the checker while the other planted himself where the bag boy was stationed.

Now they were totally freaking me out. I started unloading my shopping cart, watching my hands, waiting for them to suddenly morph into claws because I wasn’t in the real world anymore. When I looked up at the sweet young checker for some show of supportive reality, she wouldn’t meet my eyes.

Apa? Apa?” What? What? I asked.

Finally, just as the last of my items reached the scanner, the guard near the cash register said, “You pay for beer.”

Of course I was paying for the beer! Didn’t he see the big wad of rupiah I had in my hands? I was paying for all my groceries, wasn’t I?

“You pay for rusak beer.”

 Rusak? But I just bought eight bottles of Bintang. What’s this other brand you’re talking about?

Tidak mengerti,” I said. I really did not understand what he was trying to tell me.

“Broke! Broke beer!” the guard barked so loudly, the people in the other checkout lines  all looked over and gawked at the rich ex-pat, the one causing a crease in the smooth order of things.

What the heck was going on? OH! They wanted me to PAY for the broken beer!

I was stunned into paralysis for a beat, then handed the girl another 12,000 rupiah, took hold of my green plastic bags and made for the exit, smiling so densely at the security guard who had just raised his gun a few inches that I almost pulled a jaw muscle.

 

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Facing My Own Character: When a Fiction Writer Turns to Memoir

Reflections of God's Love oil paintingImage by Ruth Gee

A week after my family and I fled Bali and flew back to the states, I met my literary agent for lunch at Todd English’s Olives restaurant. Over fig and prosciutto flatbread, we talked about my future. I asked him if he thought I should continue writing my new novel about a character who can’t smell, or if I should rewrite the one that garnered ten rejections and sent me scurrying off to Bali in the first place.

“Neither,” he replied. “You should write the Bali book.”

“What’s the ‘Bali book’?”

“Come on, those emails you sent—the ones about the snake hunter, and the cremations? They were hilarious.”

“Yeah, but who cares that a forty-something woman ran away to Bali and almost lost her marriage because she was such a—”

“Did you?” He wiped his mouth and threw his napkin down.

“Did I—what?”

“Did you lose your marriage or did you and Victor fall more in love? What really happened?”

“Well, I guess I learned—”

“Don’t tell me. Tell them,” he said, pointing at a foursome of women munching on beet salads at the table next to us. “Tell them,” he said gesturing out the window to the pedestrians passing by. “It’s everyone’s story. Everyone who ever thought it’d be the greatest thing in the world to move to Bali.”

“But it wasn’t great. It didn’t turn out at all like I wanted it to.”

“Really? I’m not so sure,” he said as he stood to put on his jacket. “I hear Vermont winters are really long,” he added before swirling out the revolving door.

As I watched him disappear into the swarm of humanity down East 17th Street, I thought back to our time in Bali—to the lovely people, our crazy bamboo hut, the ants, the heat and the monkeys. Sure, it was chaotic and horrible, but it was also pretty fantastic. 

gardenpath

Should I tell the Bali story?

More to the point: I’ve been writing fiction ever since I discovered I had a talent for creating imaginary worlds out of thin air. Now my agent was suggesting I write nonfiction.

Could I tell the Bali story?

I mean, how would I do that? I usually get inspired to write a new book when a long-forgotten memory, a glance at a photograph, or something in the news cuts in line in my crowded brain. If it’s dressed nicely and smells good, I unlock the red velvet rope and usher it over to the table reserved for NOVEL IDEAS.Velvet-rope

I order the IDEA a few drinks and get it to let its hair down. Then I look around the room and invite some other CHARACTERS to join us, and now the conversation gets loud and heated; all of us yelling over each other to be heard. What do you do for work? What motivates you to get out of bed in the morning? Are you afraid of heights? Do you believe in God?

I push us out onto the dance floor, where I sweat and sashay to the ever-changing beats until I figure out genre, point of view, setting.

By the time it’s last call and the musicians are winding their electrical cords into tight loops, I’m ready to funnel this bubbling brew of imaginary people and their adventures onto the blank page.

But…if I were to write THE BALI BOOK, I couldn’t make up a main character—I’d  have to be the main character.

I wouldn’t be able to invent a supporting cast. I’d need to write honestly about real people.

And forget about fashioning dramatic scenes out of thin air. Memoir dictates that I deliver meticulously re-enacted accounts of what really happened.

I’d have to bow to the goddess of TRUTH and promise to be faithful.

Writing nonfiction—writing about me—meant taking an IDEA to a different venue altogether. No drinks or frenzied dancing. I’d need to sit it down and stare deeply into its eyes.

So, I took the Bali idea to a quiet café and ordered up a few double lattes. I reminisced with it. Read over myriad emails. Forced my mind to recollect, in as much detail as possible, the thousands of conversations I had while I lived in Bali. I replayed my days waking up covered in sweat, spraying my daughter’s clothes with DEET, fighting with my husband, trying to write, walking through the jungle.

I gazed deeply into my own navel. MeMEME

And you know what? I hated it. I hated thinking about me and talking about me and writing about me.

I lied to the Bali idea, saying I had to run out to a doctor’s appointment, and instead went home and wrote a novel about a sex-hating housewife who lets her husband have affairs, then uses the details to write bestselling erotica.erotica book

Making up Goodlove felt wildly freeing and refreshing. I was giddy, I was, allowing utter strangers to take up residence in my psyche, traipsing and tramping through my imagination like a bunch of drunk teenagers who’ve broken into their high school on a Saturday night. I loved having them inside me, plotting, scheming, writing, talking, eating, screwing.

After I sent it to my (now new) agent, I returned to the café where I found the Bali idea still sitting where I’d left it.

“Hi there, Bali story,” I said. “Sorry I left you for so long.”

“No worries,” it replied with a huge smile. “I knew you’d come back.” It straightened up in the chair, shoulders back, poised for action.

Resigned, I held out my hand. It placed its hand in mine and gave it a firm squeeze. “Ready?” it asked.

“Sure,” I said, because this time I was. This time I knew I could give the Bali idea my full attention. Whether it was because I’d gotten another novel out of my system, or because enough time had passed, or because I was actually starting to think I had a really rich story to tell, I couldn’t say. What I did know for sure was that my agent was right: I should tell the Bali story.

More to the point, I could tell the Bali story.

And I’m really glad I did.

A Rose By Any Other Name

couchfriends

A few weeks ago my dear friend Marcella took a nasty spill whilst walking in the forest (she is British so I have to say whilst). As she took a step forward on the muddy ground, her right foot slid, and then, in a feat of staggering anatomical gymnastics, it flipped over onto its top side. She heard the sound of bones cracking before her body even hit the ground.

In the ER, she learned that she’d suffered a bimalleolar fracture (four breaks), and was told she would need to keep the leg raised above her heart for at least two weeks, to help reduce the swelling.ankle

At the end of two weeks, she underwent a 4-hour surgery, during which time a steel plate and eleven screws were inserted into her ankle. She spent the night in the hospital, bore the indignity of hospital garb, but greatly enjoyed the fresh and spicy Thai soup they offered her for lunch.

Once back home, Marcella settled again into her frustratingly immobile couch-bound existence. No longer could she go on long evening walks through the nearby Intervale Farms with her husband, Jack, and their dog, Jasmine. There would be no hiking or biking or camping or, any number of outings she and her family had planned for their much-deserved summer break.

Though I am overwhelmed by both the impending release of my memoir, as well as my mother’s rapid decline into dementia, I’ve tried to get over to her house as much as possible to keep her company. There’s something sort of magical about just sitting around with a friend bullshitting about this and that. We don’t do this enough, do we?

You can really get to know a person better when they’re rooted to one spot, like Marcella presently is. Before the accident, Marcella was always working. Her job is all about helping other people have better lives, so she always feels there is more to do.

Now, I don’t have to talk to her while she’s driving or doing dishes or walking beside me or meeting me for a quick 15-minute coffee. I can just look at her face and be with her. In the moment. And here’s what I’ve learned about Marcella these past weeks: she’s not angry or sad or resentful or self-pitying. She’s suffered this awful break with the sort of grace I know I would be never be able to emulate. Additionally, I was surprised to discover that she’s not lost her biting sense of humor.

Nor her generous spirit.

On one of my last visits I’d bought her a new kind of chocolate bar chocolatefrom the co-op—dark chocolate with ginger, lemon, and black pepper. She snapped off a square, placed it on her tongue, and grinned with the sly satisfaction of a mistress who’d just been told her lover is finally leaving his wife.

I said something about how certain flavors can do that—ginger, for instance always comforts me, whether in a stir-fry or tea or salad—it warms my spirit. This reminded me of a funny scene in my new book, Rash, where I am talking to Seni, our cook, about a character in the novel I was writing:

As she scooped what looked like a succulent mixture of tempeh, mushrooms, spices and things like galangal and lemongrass into the leaf sections, she asked me how my writing was going.

“It’s fine.”

“You are telling stories about Bali?”

“No. I’m writing about a man who can’t smell.”

“Why he no smell?” she asked as she pinched in one side of the leaf square, then the other, folding over the flap and securing the two ends with bamboo toothpicks. This, in Bali, is referred to as bungkus, which more or less translates into “food in packets.”

“He was born with this genetic—this rare disease, I mean he was sick with this thing  called Kallmann syndrome, and his pituitary gland—the part of his brain where his sense of smell is made—it never formed correctly. It was broken.” 

Where was my Balinese dictionary when I really needed it?

“Oh,” Seni replied. She placed the packets in the bamboo steamer one by one. After she covered it she looked up at me and frowned. “If he no smell, then he no taste the food, and that make him be very very sad, ya?”

No taste? I’d been focusing so long on my protagonist not being able to smell roses or gas leaks or spoiled milk that I’d not bothered to think through anosmia’s other repercussions. “I guess that is true, ya,” I said getting off the stool. “Thanks, Seni.”

I wandered back over to my computer imagining Miles sitting in a restaurant on an awkward first date. First he has to decide what to order based on texture or look. I assumed he’d hate the look of meat, but love fruit, and maybe noodles. Jell-O, for sure, but who orders Jell-O on a first date? Or any date for that matter. Then Rosemary, his date, holds a forkful of something up under his nose and says, “Here smell this; it’s so divine,” and he has to make up a reaction because it’s no different than smelling a dead cow as far as his nose is concerned.

I typed without stopping. I wanted to tell Victor I’d written a few good pages today like I’d promised. I knew that no matter how he felt, or where he was, or how hung over he was, Jack London always wrote twenty-five pages of prose a day.

Heck, if I could slam out two excellent pages a day I’d be self-smitten.

After paraphrasing the scene, I suddenly sat up. “I just remembered something,” I said to Marcella, who, by now had consumed the entire bar of chocolate. “When I was a kid, the parents of one of my friends brought home a jar of rose jelly from Belgium, or France, or somewhere. The stuff inside the jar was this beautiful pink, like glass. I asked my friend if I could taste it and she said no, it was too expensive and too special.”

Before leaving my friend’s house I tiptoed into the kitchen, opened the lid, and dipped a spoon into the soft gel. As I brought it to my nose I was almost overcome by the smell of roses. And then I tasted it and was shocked that it tasted like it smelled. Like a rose. “It was the first time,” I said, “that I realized a smell could be translated into a taste. I’d forgotten all about it until just this second.” Marcella smiled knowingly.

“I mean it was amazing. To be able to TASTE A ROSE. It was one of the best moments of my life, now that I think about it.”

Two days later, this arrived in the mail.

rose2

I’m sorry Marcella broke her ankle. I get that this is a sucky way to spend her summer holiday. I feel sad having to watch her hobble her way to the loo on metal crutches that dig into her palms as she endeavors to hold herself up. I know she misses sleeping in her own bed upstairs, and dinners out in small restaurants where there is no room to buttress her extended leg.

But because my friend was a little clumsy, I get to spend more time with her. Quiet time. Time to reflect on what’s important. Time to share what’s going on in my life with someone who sincerely cares.

Someone who smells as good as she tastes.