Writing Exercise: Driving (Part 1)

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The driving is nothing for me. Years of practice have taught me to turn off whatever part of the brain is responsible for boredom, fatigue, for feeling your body’s reaction to sitting in the driver’s seat for hours. The ritual is like this: You put the keys in the ignition and you start the engine, and the resulting sound will be the sound of work, a symphony of gasoline and transmission fluid flowing from tanks through lines curling like snakes under the hood, and there is the imperceptible sound of sparks firing, all mechanical processes I don’t fully understand and I don’t care to. I only really know the sound of the engine and the relief of the car starting, which sends off a chemical reaction of endorphins and serotonin that flow within me and pump blood through my veins, as if I am a vehicle myself that is awakening. I am certain this is the same pleasure smokers get from nicotine.

Not me though, I smoked a few cigarettes when I was a kid, a little more than a teenager, and for all my nervous habits and  inclination to step outside of parties into the cold silence of the host’s doorstep, I never understood The Cigarette, or the Ritual of Smoking, although I envied those who did. I watched enviously as my friends borrowed lighters from one another and started conversations with strangers as code for a cigarette. I watched them try it the other way around, too, asking for cigarettes as an excuse to begin a conversation. I saw bulky men with strong hands delicately strike matches across auburn stripes of phosphorus, and I happily breathed in the puff of sulfur that appeared when they shook out the flame. But I myself never liked to smoke. I could not get past the violation my lungs felt as if I had betrayed them, and I felt no pleasure in it.

When I smoked, it felt like I was an actor in a play. Every time I held the cigarette in my hand I could see the stage directions in my mind – She flicks her cigarette absentmindedly and takes a deep drag, staring ahead. I don’t even wear lipstick, so the filter seems emptily used and naked afterwards, no red lip stains, no evidence of Me, and it reminds me of a one night stand that leaves no trace of emotion in your memory.

Oklahoma City is eight hours away, and really, as I said, I don’t mind the drive. I am three hours in and feel the numb high that comes with having no association with my surroundings. Everything is neutral when you are driving. No one is particularly good or bad; people are simply a blur of faces that either smile at you through their windows as you pass them or just stare blankly. I do talk with some people, mostly at rest stops or gas stations. It’s always the usual small talk that involves where are you coming from (Albuquerque), where are you from, and upon hearing I’m from North Carolina (though not mostly recently), the comments follow about visiting a very nice beach in the Outer Banks once whose name the stranger can’t remember. I find myself very cheerful during these conversations. Laughter comes easily and I never feel at a loss for words when talking with a stranger. Short exchanges, meaningless in the end, finishing once we each nod in parting and close ourselves off into our cars, our metal doors a physical end to the conversation.

The open road is a kind of meditation for me. I-40 East flows smoothly like one big black coffee spill and for the most part, I am able to empty my mind completely. Except for the intermittent thoughts of Ethan, and the memory of the blue hair-tie on the closet floor. The hair-tie that was not mine, an object so minuscule, a simple thin, elastic band, an ordinary thing that was only unusual for the fact that it had somehow manifested over the weekend while I was at my spring work conference. Of course, at the moment I discovered it, I at once realized the hair-tie had been a long time coming. It had threatened its presence with the extra work obligations, the sudden interest in texting, and most telling of all, the way Ethan seemed to lose the ability to look me in the eye.

But driving is a good anesthetic, and the memory is pushed further down into my mind with each billboard that I pass. Amarillo comes and goes; I pause there only long enough to stop at an ice cream stand, a wooden structure with thin walls against which several tumbleweeds are beginning to stack. I hold the ice cream in one hand and drive with the other, soaring out of Amarillo and further east, eventually crossing the Texas-Oklahoma border. It is a somewhat drastic change from dust and dirt to endless grass, infinite green. The Oklahoma sky seems to hang lower, its clouds more in reach, billowy tufts of cottony-grey atmosphere hovering above the stretch of highway. The low Oklahoma sky is a total contrast to the New Mexican sky which always remains distant, like the inside of a church, with its high domed ceiling.

I reach Oklahoma City eight hours and twenty-eight minutes after I left Albuquerque. The city is an expanse of typical urban buildings, a jumble of squares and rectangles arranged along sidewalks filled with meandering people: splashes of red, blue, green shirts here and there, most everyone in blue jeans. I have no other plan than to spend the night in this city, away from Ethan, away from my friends, away from anything that requires me to think or assess, make judgments. I take an exit that leads to the downtown area, and the road I am on takes me directly into the city center. I know nothing about the city, having only passed through it on occasion driving between New Mexico and North Carolina, but I have no desire for any more knowledge. I am not here for visiting or exploring. I just want to be away for a while.

The passage above is a fiction piece that I started a while back and just picked up again. I plan to post the remaining parts in the future. Thank you for reading and as always, I welcome constructive feedback!


Writing Exercise: Mirrors

Photo by Jon Eric Marababol on Unsplash


“In her New York Times essay “The Ghost Story Persists in American Literature. Why?,” Parul Sehgal writes about how ghost stories throughout American literature have functioned as social critique, manifestations of protest and redress that reveal “cultural fears and fantasies,” and which understand “how strenuously we run from the past, but always expect it to catch up with us.” Write a story that uses a dark or troubling part of history as the impetus for an appearance of a ghostly presence. How does the ghost serve “as a vessel for collective terror and guilt, for the unspeakable” in your story?”

My passage below is based on the Poets & Writers prompt (above). I found this prompt on their weekly “The Time is Now” section. It was apparently posted on Halloween, but I happen to love ghosts any time of the year and decided to try out the prompt today. I am hoping to turn this passage into a short story. Feel free to leave any feedback or suggestions in the comments section!

She was tired that morning. God, was she tired. She felt it in her back and left shoulder as she sprayed the cleaning solution in the bathtub. The start of the new year last week weighed on her. This year marked nearly fifteen years which she’d spent cleaning houses from top to bottom: sweeping, mopping, dusting, vacuuming, sanitizing, scrubbing, all of it for clients with their endless trinkets and other testimonies of wealth, materialized in rolls of white carpet spread out in spare rooms never even used by their owners.

Early in her cleaning days, Iris had suspected many of the rooms were just for show for most of her clients (how could one childless couple possibly put six bedrooms to use?), and this suspicion was confirmed each week when she saw her own vacuum marks on the rug undisturbed, not a single footprint having tread over them since her last cleaning.

This morning the temptation to take the day off and rest had hit her harder than normal, but she was glad she had gone in after all, as she’d forgotten Mrs. Kerry was going out of town for a church trip for the next four weeks. She felt obligated to look after the house in her absence, as Mrs. Kerry was one of the few clients she really cared for. Mrs. Kerry was an elderly woman, one who had never once accused Iris of stealing a misplaced ring, nor demanded she clean the baseboards a second time, or readjust a slightly crooked painting on the wall.

While some of Iris’s clients left the house while she worked, Mrs. Kerry, being somewhat frail, typically stayed politely upstairs and out of the way, even going so far as to suggest Iris have free reign of the tea cupboard and pantry while she worked.

For clients like Mrs. Kerry, the ones who reminded her of her own grandmother, Iris didn’t mind the work so much. As nice as the old woman was though, she was somewhat glad she would be gone all the next month, as Iris preferred working alone in the quiet solitude of the house, undisturbed.

The bathtub she was working on had accumulated a surprisingly thick layer of dust since the week prior, and she had to take more time than normal to clean it. She sprayed the cleanser a few times before realizing the bottle was empty.

“Of course,” she muttered and slowly stood up to refill the bottle with the gallon jug stored under the sink, her knees cracking painfully as she rose. She bent under the sink, rummaging around until she found the bottle of bleach. Raising her head, she caught her reflection in the full-length mirror hanging on the back of the bathroom door.

Something was not right, and she felt her breath catch in her chest as she realized what it was. It took her a few seconds to place the source of the strangeness: she was looking at two separate reflections of herself. Her normal reflection appeared before her, holding the bleach bottle just as she expected, but a second reflection stared back at her, from behind where she stood.

It was her: her image, her form, but yet it was not her entirely. “It” – that was all she could think to call the creature in the mirror – had her same tired face with the matching undereye circles of exhaustion. The same wispy brown ponytail, flecked with gray and falling over one shoulder, and dressed in the same faded blue cleaning uniform. Yet “it” stood, empty-handed, straight and tall, in the center of the bathtub behind her, wearing a small and unwavering smile, pleased with itself.

Her lungs, frozen with fear, demanded oxygen and she now breathed in a huge gulp of air, blinking involuntarily as she did so. The apparition vanished with the blink, and only Iris’s usual reflection remained in front of her, staring in disbelief. She sat on the bathtub’s porcelain edge, trying to collect her bearings.