by Lori Sambol Brody
When I was preparing to write this, I searched for some old stories I wrote as a teenager. Not long after we moved into our house, fourteen years ago, I threaded stories into an old UCLA binder. I recall punching holes through the yellow graph paper my father took from work, sliding into the prongs, college-ruled paper scrawled on with erasable pen; tucking a story into the binder’s pocket, a booklet of flower fairy stories I wrote with a friend in elementary school, its cover a drawing of the fumitory fairy from the Cecily M. Barker flower fairy books. I couldn’t find the notebook.
I thought I’d be sad. That scene in Little Women – we all felt Jo’s loss when Amy burned her papers. But I actually feel relieved. Let them go.
I remember some of those stories. At the time, I wrote mysteries and science fiction. My first novella was about Chaia Tavruc, the lavender-haired, violet-eyed space ship captain/smuggler (I wrote the first draft after Star Wars came out; I had a crush on Han Solo), framed for a crime she didn’t commit.
I could probably reconstruct that story, should I want to, I rewrote it so many times.
I’m not going to.
When my sister and I cleaned out my mother’s house after she died, we found a box on the top shelf of the closet in her spare bedroom. Inside, my stories from elementary school. In third grade, we turned in a story a week as booklets with elaborate covers: a bejeweled cover (for a story about a gem robbery), chapbooks of “scary” stories. My youngest daughter laughed because all of the scary stories contain the words, “And then I ran” when the narrator confronts the ghost, the haunted house, the witch, the talking pumpkins.
I avoided the main conflict. “And then I ran.”
My grandfather told me stories about talking flowers on walks around the neighborhood. My grandmother told me about the “olden days,” her young brother dying of appendicitis in the back seat of the taxi speeding to the hospital, her grandmother keeping a carp in the bathtub to make gefilte fish. The local library: I swear I read every book in the kids’ section. My mother’s shelves full of books. My shelves filling with books from the used bookstore: Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys.
I read Stephen King and noticed how he shortened scenes and cut from character to character close to the climax when he wanted to create tension. I realized Madeleine L’Engle’s books were linked through recurring characters. I read André Norton and Ursula LeGuin who created amazing worlds. My grandmother hooked me on old movies: I watched Hitchcock, hardboiled detective, any mystery movie. From Charade I learned that everything had meaning, the passed-over object could unlock the mystery.
I wrote. No one read these stories. Mostly. I showed my mother one story, about a computer program slowly deleting letters from human consciousness – of course those letters were not used in the story. I waited for her reaction. She looked up at me, uncomprehending.
One story I still have: “Dead Men Don’t Eat Sundaes.” (At this time, I was reading Raymond Chandler, watching Chinatown and The Big Sleep. The name is an obvious rip-off of the Steve Martin film Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid.) As you can see from the picture, some famous writers agreed to give me blurbs. You’ll also see, in the synopsis, that I’m stealing a major plot point from Charade.
I was scared: I said I wanted to be a writer. I always said that. I thought I had no talent. I took the easy way out. I went to law school.
And then I ran.
After I graduated from law school, I took workshops, both through UCLA Extension and private workshops lead by a teacher from UCLA Extension, Tom Filer. He’s the little voice in my head inhibiting me and correcting my sentences as I write. I wrote self-indulgent stories about lonely young women, because I was a lonely young woman. I published two of those stories in the late 90s. They were in print, and I am happy they can’t be read now.
I gave my mother my contributor’s copies. When I packed up her house, the journals were in the basket beside the loveseat in the den. The spines are uncracked.
I had two daughters, I took a break from writing, but didn’t really take a break, because I was still writing, still meeting with my writing group, still taking workshops, with another teacher from UCLA Extension, Rachel Resnick. I was just not submitting. I attended workshops even when I was supposed to be on bed rest, missing only the last class because I gave birth. At a writing retreat six years ago, Rachel said, looking up from my story about a teenage girl on a tour through Uzbekistan who has the hots for her tour guide: Everyone has a voice. You should work on the teenage voice. You have a knack for that.
Rachel is the tough-love voice in my head, telling me when things don’t work, but inspiring me to make it better.
For a long time, I wrote about the trips I’d taken. Moroccan deserts, a Turkish fish farm, Baja whale watching, Russian train trips. I still write about travelling, but now I also write closer to home, about mother-daughter relationships, being a teen, the canyon I live in.
What I’m avoiding, what I’m writing around: I only start submitting again after my mother died, August 1, 2012. All my publications – but for three – are in the last five years. I know there’s a reason, because I hadn’t stopped writing. Is it because her death was freeing? That she wouldn’t see herself in every mother I write about, me in every teenager? Or is it that she wouldn’t co-opt the story, take my success as her own?
And then I ran.
Baby in the Slingbacks
When unpacking her suitcase from their trip to the other continent, the woman finds the toy baby slipped into her new crocodile skin slingbacks. In a pointed toe, pale pink glows against the gold leather insole. She peers closer. A small plastic toy baby, as small as her thumb, like the ones frozen in ice cubes for baby shower games. As she pulls the shoe from her bag, the toy gleams brighter until she spills it radiant into her hand. When she closes her eyes, she sees an afterimage, luminous and red.
The brightness fades. The toy’s mouth opens, as naked and raw as the mouth of a kitten. She almost drops it in her surprise. The baby lies warm and trembling in her palm. It has no navel. Its penis is an exotic tiny mushroom.
She moves through the house, looking for the man. Her breasts are heavy, sensitive against the gauze of her shirt. The man reads the newspaper in the yard, sitting in the garden chair he always prefers. He’s finished watering the plants and the ground is wet around the beds of overblown peonies. While they were out of the country, the tomato plants grew wild, tendrils escaping from the wire cages, branches heavy with dark red fruit and plump horned worms. She’ll have to can the tomatoes before they rot on the vines.
The woman balances on the edge of the other chair, the baby cupped in her palm. The baby has grown: he’s now the length of her hand and as heavy as the thick gold coins used as currency on the other continent. The legs and arms stir.
She holds out the baby. “What’s this?”
He folds the newspaper and prods the baby with a damp finger. The baby turns his head to the man, eyes still shut. “Looks like a very small baby. What kind of joke is this?”
She has to hold the baby now with both hands, he grows so fast. His mouth is bright red, his cheeks rouged.
“Did you put this in my bag?” she says.
“Why would I do that?”
“You didn’t want me to stop treatment.” The woman cradles the baby against her shoulder. She is careful to support his neck, as her friends instructed her when she held their newborns.
“Maybe all we had to do was to go on vacation to get a baby,” he says. “What everyone told us.”
The woman looks away. The garden walls are thick with vines, the morning glories tight cylinders like the hand-rolled cigars sold in the country they visited. Beyond the walls of their garden, the hills are undeveloped; in the summer heat, the wild grasses have browned, the plants already flowered, and the birds fledged.
The baby has grown to the length of her arm and bobs at her shoulder like a bird pecking. His fingernails are flexible and almost translucent. She traces the arch of his foot; his skin peels between the toes and in the folds of his legs. “When I found him, he was plastic,” she says.
“Are you sure?” The man strokes the baby’s hair. His fingers graze her arm.
“Of course I’m sure.” She holds the baby tighter. He mews in protest against her blouse. “What if he changes back to plastic?”
“Let’s worry about that if it happens,” he says. “With kids, there’s enough worry.”
At her feet, nasturtiums bloom the color of a Buddhist monk’s robe. The flowers will taste bitter in their salad tonight. She thinks: in birth, there is always the promise of death. She closes her eyes and feels herself floating, as if interlocked arms carefully bear her up the slope of the hill to the wildness outside the walls. But when she opens her eyes, she has not moved, and the baby has stopped growing. He roots into her neck, her chest.
She unbuttons her shirt, moves the cup of her bra aside, and puts the baby to her. He takes her nipple in his mouth and a sting as vigorous as an electric shock singes her breast. And the entire world focuses on that pain.
(Originally published on Tin House Open Bar)