The Catalyst

A Writing Teacher Writes (plus some writing prompts and recipes)

Growing Pains February 1, 2017

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The prompt this time was about Sea Turtles. I read the group a page of information about these creatures. A few excerpts are:

They spend their entire lives at sea, except when adult females come ashore to lay eggs several times per season every 2 to 5 years.

After laying her egg, she returns to the sea, leaving her eggs to develop on their own. The hatchlings do not have sex chromosomes, so their gender is determined by the temperature within the nest. 

Experts say only one out of a thousand will survive to adulthood under natural conditions.

What I wrote is below.

___________________________________________

We were all settled in at Rockaway by the Bay, napkins on our laps and sourdough bread piping hot, water glasses full, when Sarah cleared her throat and announced that she had “something very important to say.” I felt a familiar tightness in my chest anticipating what this might be about. It had been a tough year with the kids. Since she had turned fourteen, Sarah was always upset with me about something; my middle child, Jamie, had become obsessed with getting nothing less than straight A’s, and recently my youngest, Bobby, had come out to us as trans, at age seven.

Something to announce? I prayed this wasn’t about her support for the Tea Party again. “I can see where they’re coming from,” she had argued with me one afternoon, right there in the kitchen. Or maybe she was going to defend Putin’s behavior in Chechnya (that pig!). Here we were on a Sunday evening in Pacifica, the sun was setting on the water turning everything steel and rose, and she suddenly had to make an announcement?

“Okay, Sarah,” Robert said, just like the therapist had taught us, “What is it you would like to say?” She stood up, flicked her strawberry blonde mane over each shoulder and said, “I am now a vegetarian, and I think you all should be as well. Every bite of flesh that you put in your mouth is contributing to environmental disaster and the suffering of innocent creatures.”

Jamie was already wearing the paper lobster bib the waiter given us, and I was trying to decide between a New York strip or a Crab Louie. ”

Can we eat seafood?” Jamie asked.

“No, Jamie!” Sarah hollered. “If it has eyes, don’t eat it! Meat is murder!”

“All right, Sarah,” I said. “We hear you loud and clear.”

“But I want to talk about it!” she said. “We need to dialogue as a family about this.”

“Okay. I know. But will you please sit down?”

The waiter came over to tell us about the King Crab special: a grilled sandwich with a side of coleslaw and steak fries. Bobby started to cry. “We’ll just need a few more minutes,” Robert told the waiter.

“I won’t sit here and watch you all eat dead animals!” Sarah said, gripping the edge of the table dramatically.

“What about hormone-free meat?” Bobby asked, tearfully. Since she began her transition, she was obsessed with the concept of hormones.

“Murder is murder,” Sarah said, sternly. She crossed her arms and looked straight at me. I could never look at her without thinking about how different we were physically: me with my dark features and she all peaches and cream. Those blue eyes like the sky in Iceland. I remember seeing her the first time in the hospital and thinking, Where did this baby come from? Defiant she was, and ice queen beautiful. Smart and strong, but impulsive too.

“I suppose you’re having a steak, Mother, just to spite me.” I never liked it when she called me by my first name, but when she called me “Mother,” I felt like Faye Dunaway in Mommy Dearest.

“I think I might just have dessert,” I said, surprising myself. “Their coconut cream pie is out of this world.”

 

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Strange Empathy July 8, 2016

Filed under: Grief,Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher DeLorenzo @ 5:55 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,

The prompts this time were:                                     16381196-Modern-surgical-lamps-in-operation-room-Blue-cast-light-represent-purity-and-clinical-mood-Useful-fi-Stock-Photo

Did we fear being too close?

He/She was never really good at living

Tiny and temporary

What I wrote is below.

____________________

She wants to tell him that she feels his fear—even though a surgeon may never express fear—she knows he feels it. It’s her body he’s entering, after all, her side that he’ll cut into: three small incisions. The blood, the fluid, the air in her lungs. It’s his hands that will maneuver the tiny scopes, the miniature machines, the stapler with the little metal sutures. He’s going to be inside her body. They are strangers, but they are about to get very intimate.

It’s her organ, her growth, benign hopefully, malignant possibly. He has to go inside to find out. Go through the narrow spaces between the ribs, near her heart. “Be careful with my heart,” she wants to say, but she doesn’t. Instead, they shake hands. He asks her about her teaching job, about which dates work best for surgery; he gives her his card with his cell phone number on it. “You can call me anytime,” he says. They talk about millimeters versus centimeters, smooth edges or ominous spiculated edges, lobes and membranes and drainage tubes. Taken out; left in. They talk about cancer: liver, bone, brain. They talk about cancer.

In the elevator, finally alone, she weeps. She allows herself to weep. She realizes she’s about to enter into another intimate relationship. How many hundreds has he had in this lifetime? How many vulnerable, naked bodies have lain under his hands? How many people has he hurt and healed before he met her? How many has he lost right there on the table? She weeps, but she isn’t sure who she’s weeping for. Is it for him and the great responsibility he has chosen? How many can he do in one day? What happens when he is tired or depressed or hungry? He isn’t allowed to be imperfect; he can’t have a bad day at work. She feels for him. How hard it is to tell someone that they might die soon, that he can’t save her—or himself. The reminder of mortality, he is, and the remover of ugly tumors, hideous growths.

“We got it all,” she longs to hear him say, as they begin this new journey together, as they enter this new place, as they hope for a happy ending.

 

 

Dinner with Dad April 29, 2016

The prompt this time is called 5 X 5. It’s a list exercise that asks you to create five short lists with five items on each list. The topics for each list are as follows:

  1. Five cities you are familiar with (they do not have to be cities you love)
  2. Five colors
  3. Five people you have loved
  4. Five favorite foods
  5. Five regrets

After you’ve generated the lists, take one from each list and generate a new list of five. Do this several times (five times would be a good number to aim for!)

Here’s the list I ended up with:       red wine

  1. Pop
  2. NYC
  3. Filet Mignon
  4. Silver
  5. Not marrying him

What I wrote is below.

_________________________________

We meet at the Monkey Bar, at a table in the back. It’s not the same Monkey Bar that he and Mom sat in on their honeymoon; it’s moved. It has a corporate owner now, and it’s trendy and loud. The bar is packed with the after-five crowd: overpaid Millennials and Generation Xers who are still dressed all in black, still trying to be relevant. The walls are a deep red; thin lights hang by long silver chords over a black bar top, and the hostess stands at the black stick of a podium with an unhappy blonde queen next to her.

“I’m here to meet Dan DeLorenzo,” I say, and he picks up a bronze, leather-bound menu and walks me back to a small, cool dining room, where the noise from the bar becomes muffled.

Pop doesn’t look up when I arrive. He’s halfway through a filet mignon and a half-bottle of Cab; the pink center of the steak is glowing under the soft light of the sconce on the red wall behind him. “You’re thirty minutes late,” he says, taking a bite, chewing slowly. He looks up at the blonde, using his fork to motion toward his wine glass, then toward me. “I’ll bring another glass right away,” he says, and disappears.

“I was pretty hungry,” Pop says, “so I ordered.”

“Okay,” I say, opening the menu. “Sorry I’m late. I decided to walk. It’s such a beautiful, warm evening.”

“Yeah, well.” He looks up; his eyes look brown in the dim light, though I know they are blue, like mine. “You could have taken a cab. I don’t have a lot of time.”

I’m thrown off by his demeanor. I’ve never known this man: he’s typical, gruff, unaffectionate. An imposter of sorts. The host returns with my wine glass. “May I have the salmon, please?” I ask. He nods, and takes my menu.

“Still polite as ever,” Pop says, giving me a half smile. “Just like your mother.” It’s a compliment, but he still sounds mad.

“You seem angry,” I say. “Are you?”

“Maybe a little bit. I don’t know.” Now this sounds familiar. The man who didn’t quite know what he was feeling.

“I mean, I haven’t heard from you in months,” I say. “Not even last night, on the Day of the Dead.” He puts down his knife and fork, pours me some wine.

“We’ve been busy,” he says.

“Really? Doing what? Answering prayers?” He laughs.

“Something like that.” It’s the first warm moment between us; there’s my Dad. A crack appears and some light shines through. “I’m disappointed, if you want to know the truth.”

“Now you sound like Mom,” I say. We both laugh.

“I mean, why didn’t you marry that nice guy? All those years he’s loved you—”

“Dad—”

“And the other day at the gym—”

“You were there?”

“Couldn’t you see that he still felt the same way as always?”

“Dad—”

“The guy’s got some money, Tiger. He could take good care of you.”

“He wants a mommy,” I say, taking a sip of the wine. It’s full of tannin. It will be terrible with the fish.

“You want to live alone, is that it? You don’t want to give up your independence?”

“No,” I say, “that’s not it.” I don’t have the heart to tell him I don’t want to marry someone just like him. I love the guy, but I don’t want to marry my father. It took eight years to figure that out, but I finally did. I can’t say that out loud, but he looks up, and in that moment I know that he knows. He already knows.

My fish arrives and we eat in silence.

 

You Beautiful Doll April 22, 2016

The prompts this time were:                               307.8L

A beautiful doll

There’s nothing to be afraid of, really

Roses, Roses, Roses

_____________________

The Spunky Shirley doll was flying off the shelves that year. She was the first of her kind: a lifelike toddler that walked, talked, drank from a bottle, peed and even pooped (plastic panties and diapers included). Personally, she creeped me out, but as a Toys R Ya’ll employee in charge of the doll section, I had to deal with her.

Dealing with her meant stacking the pale green and pink boxes of her five high, scanning the new boxes that came in weekly on huge pallets, and separating the variations of the spunky one: Asian, African-American, Native American, and Caucasian. You think those guys at Mattel would have at least given them different names, but no: four faces, all named Shirley.

“How do you look at those faces all day?” my co-worker, Rose, asked me. Rose was a pretty Millennial who looked like Snow White with a pierced nose. Management made her take the steel hoop out before every shift, so she had a big red hole in her nostril.

“You get used to it,” I said, tidying up the Cabbage Patch dolls; they were always slumping over in their boxes.

“They remind me of that episode on The Twilight Zone,” she said, looking up at the Malibu Ken and Barbie 2-for-1. “You know, the one where the doll talks?”

“How do you even know about that show?” I asked. “Way before your time.”

“My parents own the boxed set. Anyway,” she went on, waving her hand in the air as if to push my last question away—her nails were short and painted black—”this doll starts threatening the family, saying shit like, ‘You better be nice to me, or else.'”

“Uh-huh.”

“Then she trips the dad and he falls down the stairs and breaks his neck.”

“Nice story, Rose. Well, Spunky Shirley would never do that to me,” I said. “And the Cabbage Patch kids over there? Spineless. Literally.” Rose didn’t laugh.

“She fucking creeps me out,” Rose said, staring at Native American Shirley with a muted rage. Then she gave the box a little kick.

“Hey!” I said. “Knock it off. That’s a $100 doll. Get back to work.”

“Ooooh,” she said, mocking me. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt your little baby doll. You probably liked Chucky, the murdering red-headed doll, too, didn’t you?”

“Get the fuck outta here,” I said, laughing.

“Whatever, doll lover.”

“Get back to work, Rose.”

“When no one’s around you probably fondle them and—”

“God damn it!” We both cracked up. “Go, you asshole!”

After Rose left, I sort of felt bad for Shirley. Just like Madonna, people either loved or hated her. No one was indifferent. I picked up African-American Shirley—really just an Anglo face with brown skin—and looked deep into her glassy eyes. She walked and talked and peed and pooped; next year she would probably spit up a little, but it wasn’t her fault if she was creepy and annoying. She was designed that way. Still, if you want to know the truth, I never liked being alone with those dolls on slow nights. Her battery was built in, so she would blink occasionally. I know it just meant that her battery was working, but it never ceased to startle me.

 

Everybody Loves Raymond (Except Me) February 19, 2016

The prompt this time was the five-word free write. For a description of this prompt, click here.

The five words, and what I wrote in response, are below.

Honeybees   image

Mushrooms

Magenta

Thunder

Crashing

_____________

As if having my Dad in rehab wasn’t bad enough, Steven’s cousin, Raymond, decided to show up on that rainy day, asking to crash on the couch.

“Steven’s in Vancouver on business,” I told him, knowing it wouldn’t deter him. He was calling from a pay phone at the train station. I didn’t even know pay phones existed anymore, but Raymond didn’t believe in cell phones.

“That shit gives you cancer,” he used to say so eloquently.

“Steven will be back on Monday,” I said, hopefully, but Raymond wasn’t deterred.

“Well, I’ll be heading to LA on Sunday night. I can just crash with you for a couple of days, can’t I?”

“LA?” I aked. “I thought you were living in Vietnam now.”

“I am. My flight back there leaves from LA.”

I had grown used to Raymond living across the ocean in another country. I liked having him far away. The farther the better. Mongolia would have been nice, or the South Pole.

I didn’t want to be alone in the apartment with him. I didn’t trust him (or myself) after what happened the last time. But he was the closest thing Steven had to a brother—they even looked alike—and Steven had always been loving and loyal to Raymond. In other words, I didn’t really have a choice.

“You still have keys?” I asked. I figured I could conveniently be out for the night when he arrived.

“Jimmy,” he said—he was the only one who called me that, other than Steven—”I don’t know where the hell those went.”

When he arrived, I was baking a spelt and sesame loaf. Everyone knows that means I was anxious. I always bake bread when I’m anxious. It calms me down.

“God, that smells great!” he exclaimed, dropping his duffel near the door and grabbing me. Raymond is about seven inches taller than I am; he’s burly and furry, a bit like the lumberjack on the Brawny paper towel packages. He looks like the straighter version of a Tom of Finland drawing, though Raymond would be the first to tell you that his sexuality is “fluid,” something he feels proud of.

“You look great, man,” he said, holding me out in front of him and looking so deeply into my eyes I blushed and had to look away. “Been doing a lot of yoga?”

“Yeah, and also running a bit.”

“Right on.”

Cally, our seven-year-old Calico, came running right up to him, rubbing on his legs and purring loudly. She hates everyone, but she can never get enough of Raymond.

“Hey, baby,” he said, leaning down to pet her. I could see the curve of his deltoids through his shirt and I felt myself rush with arousal. “Are you going to sleep with me tonight?” He was talking to Cally, but I knew the invitation was open to me as well.

It was going to be a very long weekend.

 

 

Nonna* January 29, 2016

The prompt this time was two lines from David Ray’s poem, “At Emily’s in Amherst“:Scan 26

Outside, standing between Cypresses

I imagine her 

What I wrote in response is below.

__________________________________

The angel, Gabriel, came to her in a dream, she said. He told her to get her affairs in order: she only had two weeks to live. So she gathered her grown children from as far away as Chicago and Los Angeles, and brought them to their childhood home on Mt. Washington.

“Are you pregnant?” she asked my mother, who was only six weeks late.

“I think I am,” Mom said.

“Yes,” my grandmother said. “And it’s going to be a boy.”

She was right.

We never met. That kidney-shaped fetus was me, and she did, in fact, die two weeks after having that dream.

Here’s what I know: she was a healer. Women would bring their colicky babies to her and she would lick her thumb and make the sign of the cross on their foreheads. “Don’t wash it off,” she’d say, and send them home to sleep.

She baked her own bread and grew her own tomatoes. Made lasagna from a simple recipe handed down to Mom, to Pop, and then to me. Everyone always asks for the recipe.

She never learned to speak English. When my father was a little boy, she used to make him translate for her at the open markets in Pittsburgh, haggling over prices in two languages.

She gave birth to eight children. The oldest, Nicholas, died of pneumonia after crossing the Atlantic with her alone in 1903. They were processed at Ellis Island. Her name is not on the wall there, but she exists in the ship’s manifest in curly script. Nucito was her maiden name.

When I visited her hometown in Basilicata—a hilltop town called Corleto Peticara—I stood in front of the altar in the exact spot where she married my grandfather in the tiny church built in the 15th century.

Life was hard for them. They picked olives and grapes, they tended sheep and cows. To her young, strong body and mind, America seemed like a magical place where life would be clean and new and modern.

Here’s what happened: they lived in poverty, in an Italian, Irish, Jewish ghetto. Her husband had an affair with the homely widow up the street who had a witch’s hook nose and always wore black. My grandmother grew older and had a stern, handsome face, but my sister said she was kind and quiet and always smelled good. She always wore an apron. My mother only spoke a little Italian, but they still managed to have long conversations, and they often held hands.

Sometimes, I still see her in the old country, her hair in a long, dark braid. I imagine her standing between two Cypress trees. I want to tell her not to marry him, to stay in Italy, but I know she won’t listen to me. She wants to come to America. She wants me to have a better life than she had.

_____________________

*Italian for Grandmother

 

 

 

Role Playing November 13, 2015

The prompts this time were inspired by a recent obsession with Dynasty, that high-camp show from the 1980’s. A friend and I worked our way through all nine seasons on DVD. I wrote down many of the one-liners that Joan Collins had every episode. The few that follow were the prompts one evening. What I wrote is below.

If you’re quite through with your pop psychology lesson for today, I am late for a meeting

Well, the only word for it is passeimage

Listen, we all know you for the gold digging slut that you are.

I’m terribly sorry, but you’re not going to make love to me tonight.

________________________________

Let’s not quibble, Dear,” I said earnestly, and Jason shot me a dirty look.

“Stop talking like that.”

“Like what?” I said, rearranging the scarf on my neck so it covered my wrinkles and the brooch faced forward.

“Like you’re Joan Collins, that’s what,” he said, then motioned for our waiter to bring two more mimosas. He used the international hand signal: two fingers pointed at his empty glass, then two fingers up.

“Slow down, Darling,” I said. “It’s only 11:30.”

“You’re driving me to drink,” he said, only half-kidding.

I was sipping mine self-consciously. The lip gloss that little tart at Sephora sold me was tacky, and I knew it would only stick if I dabbed it with a paper napkin. Jason was looking away.

“What are you staring at?” I asked. “Or should I say whom? The busboy?”

“Stop it,” he said.

“Well, why are you looking away? Look me in the eye, dammit!” He rolled his eyes.

“You’ve gone too far this time, Cookie. You really have.”

“Have I?”

“Yes. Method acting is one thing, cross-dressing offstage is clearly going beyond the beyond.”

“Is it really?”

“Aww, Christ! Will you stop talking like that?”

The waiter brought our second round. The glasses were thick and sturdy, catering types, but I did so enjoy the bubbling orange of a mimosa at Sunday brunch. I took a big swig and emptied mine in one gulp.

“Thank you, dear.”

“You’re welcome, Ma’am,” he said. Jason audibly groaned. It seemed I was passing.

It was one of those glorious late summer days in San Francisco: seventy degrees with big, fluffy fog clouds hugging the perimeter of a pale blue, otherwise cloudless sky. We were trying out brunch at an old hangout that used to only be open for dinner; sitting under an awning without a heat lamp in my strappy sandals (size 10 1/2) felt wonderful.

“This is because I asked you to wax your chest, isn’t it?” Jason said.

“What?” I was sincerely incredulous.

“You’ve always criticized me for emasculating you.”

“That’s absurd.”

“And now you’re punishing me with this, this act.”

“I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about. I really don’t.” I laughed then; I did my best Alexis Carrington Colby Dexter laugh. “Ah ha ha ha ha, Darling. Don’t be daft.”

“And you can drop that fake English accent, Cookie,” he said, knocking back the last of his drink. “We both know you’re from Ohio.”

“But Mummy insisted on British boarding schools,” I reminded him. “I guess the accent just stuck.” I batted my false eyelashes at him.

“Oh, God,” he said, smacking his hand against his forehead. “Do I really have to endure this for the entire run of the show? Eight weeks?”

“Nine,” I corrected him.

“Coookieee,” he moaned.

“Yes, Darling?” I adjusted my bra. Could I ever get used to wearing these contraptions?

“I want my husband back.”

“I know you do, Sweetheart, but—Oh, look! My Eggs Benedict!”

Below the table, two little sparrows were hopping about and peeping for dropped crumbs. They sounded like they were in an argument. I wondered if they were a couple.