Stars, Sparks and Lightning

I year ago I received a nomination on the shortlist for the first annual BBC Young Writer’s Award. The story below is what I submitted, but not exactly. Even though this piece is what got me my first recognition as a writer outside of my family or school, it continues to change. Every time I go back to it, a change something. Usually it’s just a word, a synonym that fits better than the original. This short story represents, to me, the writing process. Nothing can really ever be complete. Also, admittedly, I’m trying to relive my glory days.

Stars, Sparks and Lighting

Persephone is all sharp lines and cat-like reflexes, inured from decades of mean Russian dance teachers and days on pointed toes. Her voice is as sweet as lavender syrup, conditioned into a soaring soprano through years with voice coaches and musical directors. She glides where I stumble. All the time I’ve spent in the kitchen has made me soft, like the butter I eat too much of, rounding my edges into gentle curves.

The night we met, I was catering with an hors d’oeuvres company. It was a job I hated. I didn’t want to be offering artisanal cheese puffs to sweaty people in black tie. The rooms were always too small, and the odor of hundreds of nervous socialites hung in the air. Persephone was already doing what she loved. She was performing. This night it was with a jazz band set up in the corner, playing Armstrong and Basie. I like music as much as the next girl, but something about Persephone was bewitching. I couldn’t help but stop and watch. Her large eyes were closed, the lids shrouded in dark shadows, and a slinky black dress draped off her sinewy frame. I could smell her perfume, something deep, with hints of sandalwood and musk, coming towards me in small waves as her chest heaved with “Learnin’ the Blues”. I stood, neglecting my cheese puffs, to listen to Persephone croon. It was as though the music possessed her, flowing out of her fingertips and the perfect O of her petal pink mouth. She finished the song, and kept her eyes closed until the band played the last flourishing note. She finally looked up, her nails already tapping out the next song on her thigh, to see me obviously staring. Our eyes connected, and Persephone winked. I turned bright red, hurrying away to replenish my platter and continue the rounds.

I was packing away dishes at the end of the night, when Persephone approached me. “Hey,” she stood with her hands on her hips, towering over me as I kept my head bowed and my hands busy with plates and boxes.

“Hi. Is everything all right? Were the mushroom turnovers too mediocre? Any complaints will have to be taken up with my boss,” I told her, flicking my head towards the fat man smoking outside the door.

“No, actually, I wanted to talk to you,” she said. I kept my eyes focused on her bouncing feet.

“I’m sorry I stared at you earlier,” my cheeks flushed with embarrassment.

“Oh! Don’t worry at all. I find it flattering… I was going to ask you if you were hungry.”

I closed the top to the last box. “I could eat,” I stood with my arms crossed.

“I wanted to see if you’d like to join me for Vietnamese food once you’re done here,” she smiled, and looked down at me through her thick lashes.

“Really?” I was skeptical.

“Yeah. Why not? You seem nice, and I’m tired of eating alone.”

“That’s very sweet of you,” I told her.

“Do you have a car? The place is a bit of a ways, and the band already left with the van. I was counting on you saying yes,” her wide grey eyes crinkled hopefully.

“Yeah, it’s the Volvo out back,” I reached for my bag. We stood uncomfortably for a moment. “We can go,” I urged, leading her out the door.

My station wagon waited for us in the parking lot. We got in, Persephone shifting the seat to fit her statuesque frame. I started the car, wondering what this stunning girl was doing in my passenger seat. She looked confusedly around at the lavender that cluttered the dashboard and hung on the windows. She pointed at it saying, “Is this some sort of vampire repellant?” Out of the corner of my eye I saw her smirking at me.

“Breathe in,” I told her.

She raised an eyebrow, but I nodded, inhaling deeply. Persephone followed. I could feel the sweetness of dried lavender filling my nose.

“Nice. Air freshener,” she said.

“Yeah,” I agreed, smiling slightly. “I like things to smell nice,” I admitted. We drove in silence for a little, down the interstate, Persephone humming quietly to herself as I focused on the road.

 

Sister, Sister

She stands taller than the rest of her small family, not quite towering, but with more of a poised presence. Most people seem alarmed, offended, frightened even, when a stranger tells them that their beauty is almost otherworldly. But she’s magnetic. With the kind of lips that are easily described as pillowy. Smooth, perfectly bronzed skin and small, dark eyes covered by expensive lilac tinted shades. In between her grey crop top and light wash shorts, is the small of her back, the space covering her spine a valley. Wrapped around her hourglass waist is a thin arm. The arm of a younger girl, wearing mascara and matte pink lipstick but navy blue overalls covered in multicolored hearts. Her legs are bronzed, but in a less calculated way than her sisters, still covered in the dark peach fuzz of youth. Tanned, not from lying on beach towels and turning every hour, but from full days spent running under the sun. Her hair falls in long, ebony ringlets from underneath a backwards baseball cap. The gorgeous hair that her sister traded in for permed straight locks and pin striped highlights.

They’re both arresting; beautiful, brown and soft. One is painfully aware of that. The other clings lovingly to her arm, laughing at everything she says and looking up at her with eyes full of awe.

Dear London

Dear London,

I know our time together is almost up, so I just wanted to say thank you. These past two years have not been easy. But I have acquired a whole host of opportunities I would never have been presented with in my hometown. I’ve visited places I never thought I’d see, had my writing recognized by the BBC, met people who have shaped my life and changed it for good. There’s no easy way to say this, so I’m doing what I do best and hiding behind my words. I’m feeling pulled back home. Seattle is where I need to be next year, so it’s where I’m going.

I want you to know, London, that this is the hardest decision I’ve ever made in my life. You’ve made this place the best home I could have asked for. I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything.

I am leaving with new passions, amazing stories to tell, and a total thing for British accents. And this isn’t goodbye forever. When people ask where I’m from, you’ll be as much part of the answer as Seattle. Because London is where I learned and changed almost as much in the last two years as I did in the previous fifteen.

Much love,

Clare

P.S. I’m sorry for all the cliches

P.P.S. I’m sorry

Whoever You Are, You’re a Star!

Her voice catches at the end of the song, and her muscles clench, pushing the end of her breath out of those raging lungs, eyes shut desperately to get that last note to ring as loud as possible. The crowd erupts into applause, screams, flailing hands, as she gestures to the instrumentalists before bowing herself, shoulders strained against the uproar. She stalks  off the stage but they keep clapping, thinking they can urge her to sing more, urge her into an encore. But she keeps moving, past stage hands and manager’s assistants, who pat her on the back and smear deafening smiles onto their faces. She goes faster, hurrying away from stranger’s chants of Kel-ly! Kel-ly!

She closes her eyes and rounds the corner to her dressing room, refusing the same name plastered in gold on the surface. She slams the door behind her, barely making it to the toilet before she vomits. Nothing comes up but clear bile, coating her throat and mouth with poison. She wipes her lips violently, draped over the bowl for a moment, breathing in an acidic mix of bleach and stomach.

She suppresses an audible scream, but feels it rise like heat through her chest and head. She rubs her eyes, ignoring the black that clings to her fingers like charcoal. She pushes herself up, almost ripping the lid from its hinges. Breathing deeply, counting in even paces of six, in through the nose, out through the mouth.

She stares at her face in the mirror, monstrous, eyes ringed in black and purple, skin three shades paler, sickly, under the foundation that’s been rubbed off around her mouth. “I am Gwen Green,” she begins, raking her hair back from her scalp. “I am Gwen Green, and when I was seven-years-old I was sure that name meant I was a superhero. It’s all in the alliteration,” she chuckles. But she is a superhero. She is Kelly Krystal, sparking, sharp, and valuable only after being cleaned and cut. “But I am not a superhero. I am not Kelly Krystal. I am human, she does not really exist. I am unique, she has never experienced anything.” She is a superhero. Alliteration, double life and all.

Her heart jolts when the door swings wide open, manager, mother, assistants and six VIP fans entering. Five girls and a boy brimming with giddy silence. Her breath is rancid and her face is a mess, but she grins at them, tongue behind teeth, a Rockette worthy, show-stopping smile, pushing pain down. She’s on again, on display, on stage, in the limelight. “I’m so sorry, all the sweat really ruins my makeup. Give me just a moment,” that smile is stuck like duct tape over her mouth.

She re-enters the bathroom, shutting the door behind her. She presses the nails of her right hand, hard, into her palm, leaving fleshy half moons of anxiety. She cups water in her hands, splashing warmth onto her face before slathering it in soap, rubbing until her face melts into a mix of tan, black, purple and red. Not a superhero, a monster. She washes the paint off, again and again rinsing with increasingly cool water. She stops when she remembers people are waiting for her. She pats her raw face clean, reapplies mascara and lipgloss and opens the door again.

“Sorry about that,” the blinding binding smile is back, white teeth cracking into a piece of gum. “How old are all of you?”

“I’m Mariel, I’m fourteen, and I drove all the way from Baltimore to meet you!” The one farthest to her left begins, bouncing slightly on the balls of her feet and in the auburn curls of her hair.

“Sarah,” this one’s shy, glossy black hair falling straight down her back.

“And I’m Rebecca,” same glossy black hair and large nose smiles next to her, twins only in appearance. “We’re both thirteen.”

“Jonathan!”The lone boy cries, not letting her say hello. “I’ve been listening to your music since I was twelve and I’ll be fourteen on Tuesday!”

“Well, happy almost birthday Jonathan!” Her cheeks hurt slightly, the facade holding fast. “And hello, Mariel, Sarah and Rebecca.”

She pivots slightly, placing her hands on her knees and bending slightly to come closer to their small faces. A mousy girl is quivering with excitement, thin brown hair moving with each miniscule convulsion of her shoulders. “I’m Molly, and I’m ten.”

Gwen’s heart leaps in her chest, these children too young and too kind. Too excited and too nervous. Too good for her. “Hi Molly, thank you for coming.”

The last girl has black hair pulled back in chubby braids, her dark skin glowing. “I’m Carmen,” she says, not only brimming with excitement but confidence. “I’m fifteen,” she stretches her hand out, but Gwen opens her arms for a hug instead. She moves back down the line, pulling each of their small bodies into a protective embrace. Sarah looks like she might cry, Gwen does too. Selfies and sticky-sweet smiles ensue, and after being given signed posters, photos and CDs, they file out. “I love you, Kelly!”s and “Thank you Miss Krystal!”s shouted, too formal and too sincerely insincere.

The facade cracks, then fades with the click of the lock. She sits on the suede couch and wraps herself in a blanket adorned with her own face. Her mother sits on the opposite side of the couch, pin-straight and uncomfortable, glancing every so often at Gwen with apprehension. Suddenly Maria reaches her hands out towards her daughter, shocking Gwen and herself, maternal affection alien to them both. She plucks a stray eyelash from Gwen’s face, holding it on her index finger in front of her mouth.

“Make a wish, sweetheart,” Maria says with an unsure smile.

The smile is met with eyes full of contempt. Gwen purses her lips, and blows a thin stream of air towards her mother’s hand. The stray lash rockets through the air before floating down, disappearing into the couch.

 

Creativity Breeds Compassion

The current state of the world, and especially America, my home, is heartbreaking. There have been more violent shootings in the United States than there have been days in 2016. Within a recent 24-hours, two pre-meditated shootings happened in the same city. One was the murder of 22-year-old singer Christina Grimmie, who I personally admired since she was about 19, for her incredible voice and kindhearted nature. The other was the brutal attack on a gay night club, resulting in the deaths of almost 55 members of the LGBTQ+ community and almost the same number of injuries. Although these two crimes were of different calibers, they reiterate clearly many issues that come up again and again and again within our society. It’s hard, seeing this type of violence happen somewhere I call home, to people I feel a bond with. Although I did not know anyone involved in either event, I love and support both the LGBTQ+ community and anyone who has dedicated their life to performance (artists performing at the club were also targeted). I feel I have never held such a heavy heart. It’s hard to think positively at times like this, when it seems like the state of my country is only deteriorating. Although nothing can atone for the tragedies that have befallen the friends and family of these people, it feels like a reprieve when we can be reminded of the good in the world.

The night following the massacre in Orlando was the 70th Annual Tony Awards. One of the reasons I continue to fall in love with musical theatre every day is because it is inclusive. Watching those beautiful history making people perform in the wake of so much tragedy only added to it’s power. The nominees for awards this year were especially incredible. Not only do four of the nominated musicals have almost completely non-white casts (Hamilton, The Color Purple, Shuffle Along and Get On Your Feet), but one also has a cast of deaf young adults working alongside the singing performers (Spring Awakening). On top of that, all five of the biggest awards for musical theatre were awarded to people of color: Lin-Manuel Miranda (best musical), Leslie Odom Jr. (best actor), Daveed Diggs (best featured actor), Cynthia Erivo (best actress) and Renee Elise Goldsberry (best featured actress). Four of those winners were in Hamilton, and all played characters from history who were white, which shows that casting does not need to be discriminatory to be powerful and relatable.

Theatre, and musical theatre especially, has always been a safe haven for people who are different. It’s a welcoming environment where people can begin, from a young age, to express themselves. Other art forms offer this as well, but I’m focusing on musical theatre because I have seen the effects. I worked in a youth theatre for three years, performing in seven shows. Even at twelve, I was able to see kids blossom from almost silent wallflowers into performers that could belt with the best of them. I was never on stage, but I played in the pit orchestras. I was able to be part of a creative ensemble of professional adult musicians and other kids like me, and it shaped me into who I am today. These talented kids I got to watch loved what they did, and their passion (as well as my own) was greeted with open minds full of respect and knowledge ready to be shared. When I was thirteen, I discovered the ukulele, and in four years, my mediocre playing has led me to be more confident than I would have ever thought I could become.

Although I was lucky to be raised in a community ripe with creative opportunities, I don’t see them being promoted as heavily as I think they should be to kids. Creativity is therapeutic. I have not only felt the positive affects of playing music, writing in journals and singing, but I have seen the way visual art has helped every one of my sister’s friends, and how every person I know who has some sort of creative outlet in their life is grateful for it. The arts are important because they allow people who often go unheard share their voice.

The world can be a terrifying, disgusting, horrific place, but in the aftermath of tragedy, we must find what is good in order to invoke change.

As Lin-Manuel Miranda said in his acceptance speech, “Love is love is love is love is love. It cannot be killed or swept aside.”

 

Wear Me Like a Winter Jacket

“How’s work?”

“Great, mom.”

“And Will, how is he?”

“Doing just fine, mom.”

“A proposal in the works? A grandchild, maybe?”

“Not anytime soon, mom.”

“And what abo-”

“Hey, mom, I’ve got work to do, sorry to cut it short,” you bite your thumb, tearing a strip of salted skin down its length.

“Oh, of course sweetheart! I love you!”

“You too, mom. Bye,” you end the call before her inevitable One more thing!

You sigh, shift the pillows under your back and reach for the pack of Marlboros on your table. You light one with a match, pulling deep and watching the blue smoke curl out of your lungs into the air, slowly filling your room.

What she doesn’t know won’t hurt her. You don’t necessarily enjoy lying to your mother, and you keep saying you’ll tell her the truth, but the reality is it’s just easier not to. Besides, the cigarette clicks as it exits your mouth, Baltimore is far from Salt Lake. She hasn’t visited since freshman year, when you were still in school and still living in a clean little dorm room just off campus. Five years was more than enough time for all your good habits to be replaced by chain smoking and cheap wine every night.

You’d picked Salt Lake City because it’s what a good Mormon should’ve done, and you realized you were stuck somewhere you detested for the foreseeable future only after breaking up with Will. You still miss him, sometimes, but then you remember that he cried after every orgasm and hated most of your friends. Nothing else should’ve been expected from a BYU boy. You still see him occasionally, on the TV, second row in the Tabernacle Choir.

You couldn’t imaging what your mother would say if she ever set foot in your shitty apartment, cluttered with its candles and incense, rocks, crystals and books filled with artistic portraits of naked women.

Being able to hold down a steady job is still a relief, and it pays well, a perfectly boring position that is suitable for saving money. Saving money, specifically, to buy a car and drive yourself out of this Mormon hellhole. That’s your daydream when you sit at a desk sending emails for someone else; racing across icy tundras or through the Amazonian rainforest. Maybe you have enough for a car, but you keep saving because your mind shouts coward! on repeat.

You’re lighting a second cigarette when there’s a quiet knock on your door. “You know you don’t have to knock,” you laugh a little. Emily pushes the door open, drowning in an XL BYU Class of 2015 sweatshirt and baggy cut-offs.  She pads the short distance from the entrance to your mattress and plucks the cigarette from your fingers. You grab her free hand and pull her to you, her soft body folding easily into your lap. Her long chestnut hair settles wildly on her shoulders.

You pass the cigarette back and forth and watch the world slowing down outside your window. Emily takes the last pull and drops the butt into a half empty glass of water on the floor. The sunset spews gold light onto the accidentally off-white walls.

You brush her curls back and kiss her neck, thinking maybe this is why you’re still here. Not for money or cowardice, but because of her. Because this is the best part of every day, when she crawls into your bed in varying stages of undress and asks what you want for dinner. She’s wonderful. She stays wonderful. She stays.

 

P.S. None of my “you” characters are the same person, or even related. I’m just enjoying writing in the third person.

Inky Vixen

A night owl, a lone wolf, a minx. Light shines from the yellow-tinted street lamps through your lashes, catching on the glitter stuck to the tips and refracting itself in your eyes. Creating rainbows, just for you to see. Maybe a girl like you shouldn’t be out this late at night, but even that thought doesn’t deter you from taking the long way home. You revel in your solitude, rejoice in your loneliness. Less than an hour has gone by since you waved goodbye to the drunken whores you call your friends and began your pilgrimage of 1.7 miles back to your flat.

You wrap your leather jacket around you and your black dress melts into the surroundings. You sink into the night, almost invisible but for your pale-moon face. It shines with leftover makeup and leftover sweat. Maybe you’re a bit drunk, you realize, as you struggle to fit your key into the lock.

Silence engulfs you as you step into your home and you throw your bag down and kick off your shoes. And your foot is bleeding. You stare at it for a moment, decidedly drunk, before padding down the hallway, uninterested or unconcerned about the dots of crimson leaving a bloody bread crumb trail in your wake. You open your freezer, elated by the half-empty pint of ice cream sitting alone on its shelf, giving in fully to a stereotype as you pick up a spoon and eat straight from the container. Suddenly you’re annoyed by your squeaky leather and form fitting dress, almost dropping your dessert in the haste to shed your exoskeleton.

You move, indecent, to the couch. You predict, correctly, that you will end your night here, half naked and horny, with Friends on the big screen and a melting pint of ice cream in your hand.