The Catalyst

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

Wise Guy September 2, 2019

The prompt this time was to begin with a list of five cities you are familiar with, then to write about one of them.

First on my list was Mexico City, but I also had my inner adolescent on my mind. What I wrote is below.

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My inner adolescent is on the couch reading when I arrive. He looks up as I struggle through the door with my gym bag, school bag, and lunch bag. “Hey, bag lady,” he says. “Need some help?” He’s wearing white socks, tight Levi’s, and a red tank top; with his 30-inch waist and bulging crotch, he looks like a Blue Boy Magazine model: oozing sex and yet totally unsure what to do with it. I ignore his offer, knowing he’s only being polite, and heave my book bag into the corner by the printer. 

“What are you reading?” I ask, bracing myself for his naive criticism. He only likes National Geographic or Vanity Fair. Quite frankly, I’m not in the mood for him today.

“Something called Saveur,” he says, surprising me. “A special edition on Mexican cuisine. Pretty delicious.” His eyes are darker blue, more like Mom’s, and the whites are bright and clear. Young eyes. His hair is curlier than I remember, from getting caught in the rain, perhaps, or a working up a good sweat.

“I’m just wondering why you’re here,” I say, heading to the kitchen to put a kettle on.

“Beats me,” he says, leafing through the magazine, “I figured you needed to see me.”

“Tea?” I ask.

“Gross,” he says, then catches himself. “I mean, no thank you.”

We volley this way sometimes. That lovely boy I once was who plays cynical now, but really lived in a world with a sense of wonder and spontaneity, two things I have to get high or travel 1000’s of miles to tap into now.

“Actually,” he says, “I was wondering when you were going to buy that ticket to Mexico City.

“You want me to go, is that it?”

“You’re awfully bitchy today,” he says. “I mean, more so than usual.”

I sigh. He sighs.

He looks so earnest. I want to tell him that forty years from now he will sometimes be driving home in the rain so filled with a sense of melancholy that he will want to drive to a bar instead and get good and drunk. That some days, his work will feel like helping countless young people with their whole lives ahead of them, while he feels stuck in his own life, fearful of chronic illness. That he will feel bone-tired.

Anyway,” he says, “have you bought your ticket yet?”

“I don’t know about Mexico City,” I say.

“Why not? You’ve always wanted to go there: Casa Azul, the museums, and now this hot guy you’ve met online—”

“I don’t think living in a fantasy world is healthy for either of us,” I say. He laughs then, that shotgun laugh we get from Mom.

“Oh, please!” he says. “You’re a writer. We’ve always lived in a fantasy world.”

What could I say in response? He claimed me as a writer, and the kid had a point. Has always had a big heart too. Had no qualms about saying no to dissecting a fetal pig in Biology class because it was “disrespectful to the poor, dead, baby piglet.” (His words exactly.) I knew his love for flowers—roses, jasmine, violets—was a reflection of this big heart, and an attachment to romance.

“What do you have to lose by going to Mexico City?” he asked.

“About $1000,” I said.

“Just charge it then.”

“And my dignity, if I contact that beautiful young man.”

“Your dignity?”

“Yeah,” I say, taking the screaming kettle off the burner. “Once he sees what I actually look like in the flesh, he’ll run for the hills.”

“You underestimate how beautiful you are,” he says.

“So do you,” I say.

“You’re better looking than I am,” he says.

“You just have low self-esteem.”

“I’m serious,” he says. “You need to own it.”

I want to tell him that I only feel beautiful when I put eyedrops in my eyes, when I haven’t eaten very much, when someone I love looks at me and I can see myself through his eyes. Or when I am dancing. But I don’t dare. I don’t want him to want him to feel this kind of sorrow yet. I feel protective of him.

“Oh, I know sorrow,” he says, reading my mind. “I stayed home and took care of our dying mother, remember?”

He’s right, of course. Back then I didn’t have the mindfulness I have now. I didn’t have the vocabulary or the lifelong friendships to talk my way through a bad day, a big worry, or the tug of grief when it came in waves. I have options now; I have the freedom to make my own choices.

“If I meet him in Mexico City,” I say, “it’s probably just going to be a sexual thing. Nothing more.”

“Sounds good to me,” he says. “It’s only $366 round trip if you buy the ticket today.

We look at each other for a moment, and then he just smiles that big white smile. I want to smack him, but I also want to thank him. Instead, I just smile back.

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Feline Intuition March 25, 2019

The prompt this time was “Pet’s Tell the Story,” which is a POV exercise in which you write in the voice of a pet you are familiar with (your own or someone else’s). For a detailed description of this prompt, see this link.

I’m more of a dog person, but I’ve met quite a few cats in my life whom I’ve loved, and one in particular who made me realize that some cats are sweet and affectionate (and possibly wise). The memory of that special cat inspired the piece below.

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Those voices can only mean one thing: the boys are here. I can practically taste the testosterone. Bitter, it is, but not all bad. And I’ve learned by now that whatever nap I had going is over now; these guys will be smoking and laughing and banging cabinets in the kitchen, so I might as well join them.

When I get to the landing, I can hear their voices clearly, and I pause when I hear Marcus. He’s my favorite. The only one who never pushes me off his lap: ever. Kieran, whom I’ve known since he was a little boy, doesn’t treat me with the the tenderness that Marcus has for me. Some humans just get it and some humans don’t, you know?

I take my time coming down, because for some stupid reason they toss their stinky tennis shoes at the bottom of the steps, and I’ve tripped over them before. Don’t worry: I always land on all fours.

I round the corner cautiously. The kitchen is filled with sunlight, and all five of them are crowded together on the L-shaped yellow bench beneath the windows. Everyone loves that kitchen booth.

“Kieran,” Marcus asks, “what time is your mom coming home?”

Kieran’s at the counter, the cabinets in front of him are open wide. He’s stretching to reach a bag of cookies; his long limbs are just the right length for high places.

“Not until 6:00,” he says, his shirt hiking up a bit to reveal a light dusting of dark brown fur and that flat, unnerving navel that humans have. I look at Marcus and watch his deep-set brown eyes slide from Kieran’s bright, bright blues to his flat stomach, then back up again to his face.

One of the guys lights a joint and opens the window.

“Hey! There’s that cat!” the blonde says for the 100th time.

“His name is Mr. Boots, dumb ass!” Marcus says, faking annoyance. And everyone says, “Ooooh!”

“Pass him the joint first,” Kieran says. “He’s testy.” He plops the bag of Keebler Fudge Stripes down on the table. I have no interest in human cookies, but everyone else grabs a few and starts chomping away. Marcus selects one, looks at it carefully, and then looks up at Kieran. “I love these,” he says, and Kieran smiles.

I leap onto the closest lap and walk my way toward Marcus. His hand knows just where to go—that spot between my ears and my neck—and I can’t help myself: my motor starts running.

“You guys going to Pinky’s tomorrow night after the game?” Kieran asks. “Buy one large pizza and get a pitcher of Coke free.”

“I got to study for a Trig test,” Marcus says. His hand is traveling down my back now, all the way to the tail. Then he lifts off and goes back to my head. This kid knows what he’s doing.

“On a Saturday?” Kieran asks.

“Just cheat in Wignot’s class, like everyone else,” the blonde says.

“I do,” Marcus says, “and I’m still getting a D.”

“I can help you study on Sunday,” Kieran says. There’s an uncomfortable silence. “I mean, I’m pretty good at math.”

I can feel Marcus’ heartbeat pick up a bit. He wants to tell Kieran something, wants to tell him that he’s in pain, some sort of grief, though I don’t know what it is exactly. He’s silent. Then the conversation turns to girls: who’s foxy, who’s got big boobs. I thought Tomcats were bad! These guys are like dogs.

I decide to sit on the window ledge to soak in some of the sunlight, but I stay right behind Marcus. He remains silent while the guys— Kieran too— go on and on about girls. So I stay close to him. Real close. I can feel his loneliness, but he knows I’m right there.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Girl Talk January 28, 2019

Sometimes in the workshops, we return to characters we’ve written about before.  

I sometimes write in the voice of a character named Sheila. Sheila is 15 years old, and was adopted by her uncle and his partner, whom she considers her two dads.

The prompt this time was the Five Word Free Write. For a detailed explanation of this prompt, see an earlier post here. 

The five words were:  1. Wild Geese (I know that’s two words)          2. Pomegranates   3. Red   4. Rain   5. Longing

What I wrote is below.

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So my dads were like, “It’s not a choice, Sheila. You’re coming. You’re only 15; staying home alone is not an option.” And I was like, WTF? I’m practically a grown woman now. And they were like, “No way. You’re coming to the showcase with us.”

Whatever.

It’s times like these that I want to pull the adoption card and say something mean, like, You’re not even my real parents, but I don’t, because they like, legally adopted me a few years ago and Uncle Bob is my blood relative, and my real parents suck, so like, I would never say that. But sometimes I want to. I swear I do.

So I tried the intellectual approach.

“I’m almost 16 now,” I said, “I’m supposed to be individuating.” (I totally learned that term in my Psych class with Ms. Frasier, who’s like, the coolest lipstick lesbian EVER!). “It’s a right of passage,” I said, borrowing Papa Jimmy’s term. He just gave me that look and said, “Bring a sweater.”

Whatever. It wasn’t even cold outside. What am I? Like five years old? God.

So anyways, off we went to their stupid Alma Mater where they met like 500 years ago, that hippie-dippie college in Amherst to see the f-ing showcase of like, all one womyn shows (that’s womyn a “y” you know), and all I can think is Capital B: Boring.

But you know, some of it was sorta good. Most of the performers had like, good projection and all. And one girl—er, womyn—was like, a total freak, with like a rainbow pixie haircut and purple lipstick. Her whole piece was about the vagina, like, vagina pride, and I was like, okay. This is interesting. She got my attention, I guess.

She spread her legs, and THANK GOD, she was wearing tights under her skirt, and then she like magically produced a pomegranate from like, nowhere, and she ripped it open with her bare hands, and juice went everywhere. And she had this, I don’t know, instructional speech about the fruit of her womynhood and the beauty of menstrual blood, and, GROSS, right? But I kind of admired her, really, for like, going there. I was like, having a moment of girl power bonding right there in the audience remembering how like, embarrassed both of my dads were when I started my period, and how embarrassed I felt too.

That sucked.

And it’s like, totally natural, you know?

Anyway, Ms. Rainbow Head was pretty cool. All Uncle Bob had to say afterward was, “She really made a mess on that stage.”

God, I swear, sometimes men are so clueless. Totally. They really, really are.

 

Happiness October 4, 2018

Filed under: Aging,Grief,Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher P. DeLorenzo @ 5:44 pm
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The prompt this time was to list things you love.

My list included the following:  

Fat babies

Puppy breath

A good diner

Ice Cream

Reading in bed

Orgasms

What I wrote is below.

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“This little piggy went to the market,” he said out loud, once he was back in the car.  He had just exchanged his new 32 inch waist pants for a pair of 34’s. He often spoke to himself in the car, laughing at his own jokes, unintended rhymes, or on-the-spot limericks. Occasionally, he’d catch a pedestrian staring at him and think, Ah, well. Maybe I am a little crazy. But he wasn’t concerned. Certainly he was more sane than 25% of the country who voted for you know who in the last presidential election. Happy? That was another story.

Did he have a middle class life, complete with a dependable Japanese car and a good health insurance policy? Yes. Plenty of food to eat (obviously). A safe, quiet place to live, vermin free, with hummingbird visitors and at least one kind neighbor. Yes. He was creeping toward chronic singledom, but he was still healthy and desirable enough to get hit on at a bar; he even had repeat gentlemen callers, albeit married or much younger. Life was mostly good. So why the sullen grey afternoons and the lonely Sunday mornings? Well, it was all bad news on the air: suicide bombers and air raids, all those horrible videos of racially motivated police violence, and the beautiful, golden city of Aleppo now a pile of rubble. Every day his heart was broken.

And yet, there were heroes too: young, bright scientists finding new ways to cure cancer; religious leaders shifting gears and discovering what tolerance and love really mean; people building homes for the homeless, or the victims of natural disasters. The Pacific Gyre was a swirling plastic dump the size of Texas, but in Southern Mexico, human volunteers were helping baby Sea Turtles make it down the beach and into the surf. In Kenya, grown men slept with orphan baby elephants to ease their nightmares, and a boy from Nepal, who lost both his parents at 16, created a non-profit to build schools in the isolated rural village where he grew up, because he said, going to school in Katmandu had changed his life, but he had been too far away from his parents.

Life, like happiness, is not a destination. He learned that from Ralph Waldo Emerson (or was it a Hallmark card?). Happiness doesn’t always feel like a choice either, but sometimes you have to let it in. It might be the sweet, wet-nosed greeting from the skinny old pit bull in apartment 10, even though the guy on the other end of the leash rarely says hello. Or the baby in line at the grocery store who sees right inside you and knows you are kind. Sometimes, it’s a good book late at night in bed, a hot bath, the perfect slice of chocolate cake, a thank you card in your mailbox, or a long, lazy, silent walk on a breezy day. In this world so filled with pain and longing, sometimes you’ll run into happiness. When you do, you have to remember to let it in.

 

 

A Detour on This Dead End Street June 11, 2018

Filed under: Aging,Poems,Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher P. DeLorenzo @ 10:04 am
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I don’t usually write a lead-in to my blog posts. I usually begin with the prompts, and then simply follow up with what I wrote. But this prompt, and these times we are living through, require a little more context. And it feels especially important during Pride month, when beyond the parties and parades we are encouraged to remember that many people fought for human rights during Gay Liberation. People fought—and are still fighting all over the world—for basic human rights, and the right to love one another openly.

The prompt was the poem below, written by the now deceased Iranian poet, Ahmad Shamu. I cannot remember where I found it, but it haunted me in a beautiful way for months, and I was careful to choose when to present it to my workshop participants. I was careful, because although we sometimes talk and write about current events together, I know those 2.5 hours a week are a respite for most of us, especially from our worries about world peace, and human rights struggles, and I want to preserve that space as much as possible.

I feel before you read my response to the poem that I should offer a caveat: what I wrote below is not an attempt to sugarcoat how worried I am about the world, nor do I think gratitude lists and a positive attitude are going to save democracy and promote human rights. But I guess I also want to say, it can’t hurt. And if nothing else, I hope it will remind some of you how safe you are, and how free.

 

In This Dead-End Street                       

by Ahmad Shamu (Iranian Poet, 1925-2000)

In this dead-end street

they smell your breath

lest, God forbid,

you’ve said I love you.

They sniff at your heart—

these are strange times, my dear

—and they flog love

by the side of the road at the barrier.

Love must be hidden in the closet.

In this crooked dead-end street, twisted with cold

they fuel their bonfire

with poems and songs.

Danger! Don’t dare think.

These are strange times, my dear.

The knock on the door in the night

is someone who’s come to snuff out the light.

Light must be hidden at home in the closet.

Butchers, with their bloody clubs and cleavers,

are posted at the crossing.

These are strange times, my dear.

They remove smiles from lips, and songs from mouths,

by surgery.

Happiness must be hidden at home in the closet.

Songbird kebab

roasts over flames of lily and jasmine.

These are strange times, my dear.

The devil, drunk on victory, feasts at our funeral.

God must be hidden at home in the closet.

 

What I wrote in response is below.

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On the train heading downtown, a homeless man with no shoes—only filthy white socks—shuffles into the car and then shuffles out, and our little protagonist exhales. The stench of a body unbathed, layered with piss and shit and vomit. A body coated with a thick layer of hopelessness: it hangs there in the car.

He’s sick, our protagonist thinks. Cracked open, ill. He’s snapped. So many people on the street suffering, and yet the sigh of relief: It isn’t me. And also the inhalation, the catch breath of fear. There before the grace of God go I. How many paychecks away are you? There’s $170 in his savings account. How much is in yours?

Later, on the near empty street, tall buildings on all sides, he waits, our little protagonist, for a group of friends. They’re meeting for an overpriced dinner at a trendy oyster bar and grill. The walls and tables and curtainless windows—all those hard surfaces—they bounce the loud voices. It hurts his ears. Packed, the little restaurant is, with too many people. The whole planet is overpopulated, he thinks, we’re like insects. A human swarm of 8 billion and counting.

Down the street, at outdoor tables under heat lamps, young men in rolled up jeans and loafers talk tech over Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand. Lap dogs and a crowded entryway. “Are you on the list? Do you have a reservation?” Everyone so busy trying to look important, hip, well-groomed. He finds it all so meaningless.

And yet, after his friends arrive, a bottle of pink champagne, fried oysters on deviled eggs, crab salad on toast, a tiny cup of french fries, and for dessert, mocha mousse and Hungarian dessert wine. He’s one of them now, the people laughing at the table inside a warm, dimly lit restaurant. He’s become one of them.

The next day he catches himself complaining: the hectic grocery store, the difficulty parking, the men in the gym crowding the sinks, primping. He catches himself complaining about privilege: a clean grocery; fresh food at his fingertips; a safe, warm car; a community in which men openly love one another, kiss goodbye on the street, flirt openly at a health club with clean showers and toilets, large windows.

On the radio, news from refugee camps with 1000’s of displaced people, people with no home, no running water, in limbo in a foreign country where no one understands their language or culture. He catches himself complaining, our little protagonist, and he feels his cheeks burn with shame.

 

 

Ready for a Change April 12, 2018

The prompts this time were “nonsensical sentences.” Everyone in the group generates them, we read them around, and then write in response. The result is often some bizarre, playful, surprising prose. (My piece turned out to be a silly character.) 

Here are a few examples:

 “Don’t think about the mouse in the house, said the wheat cracker. “Just look around and step on the little white lines.”

 The chocolate pudding was in love with the dog’s leash, and all the baby yellow-jackets sang a good morning hymn.

 The ballerina decided a barber shave would be a better choice for the hot toddy on rye.

 What I wrote is below.

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Today I considered painting my toenails blue and adopting a Chihuahua. It’s sandal weather after all, and so many dogs need a good home. Of course, I’d have to quit my job at the ice cream shop and stay home to care for little Lulu, but Craigslist is full of “work from home” job listings. I could sell my homemade kombucha door to door if I needed to, with my canine companion right by my side.

Or how about selling those new extreme pressure cookers? I saw an infomercial for one that has about 20 push button options and cooks everything from pot roast to lasagna. Chicken poured right out of the removable, non-stick, dishwasher safe insert, and right onto a platter of rice with a gravy so beautiful and glossy, it was hard to believe the whole process only took fifteen minutes. It was just a matter of adding the ingredients and locking the lid nice and tight. I am seriously excited about this product. I think I could sell it, I really do.

All of this angst might have something to do with turning 26: I could be having my quarter life crisis. I found a grey hair the other day, and am seriously considering just going platinum blonde to avoid seeing more of it. But silver hair and blue toes? Is that too matchy matchy? Well, I want to give it a try. I’m too young to be old.

Maybe Martin planted this seed. He’s a very cute trans male who is traveling the country in a green Nissan Cube with his skinny Irish Wolfhound, Ace. Martin is connecting with other transmen from Ohio to Washington State and chronicling the whole adventure on Instagram. I met Martin here in Portland two weeks ago. We were smiling at each other across the back patio at the Rainbow Cattle Ranch Cocktail Bar. He eventually came over and introduced himself. He’s about my height, but muscular, with big, bushy eyebrows. When I first saw him I thought, He’s so pretty for a CIS male. What a wonderfully surprising world we live in, huh?

Martin and I talked for a while; I was impressed by his mission out there on the road, his positive attitude, and his biceps. When we exchanged contact info, he took my phone and entered his number quite deftly; he has beautiful hands. And when he hugged me goodbye, I got the sense that he was a top, and I wanted to know more about that. He was sweet and smart and cute, and he didn’t have a lot of hair on his arms, which I like. His dog liked me too. Maybe we’ll meet in Omaha for a microbrew at the Old Market, or dance together on the sand in South Beach while Deadmaus spins his holy beats.

Anything’s better that what I’ve got going now: a sore elbow from scooping ice cream and a lot of lonely nights spent with a prison full of lesbians on Netflix. I love those gals, but I think I’m ready for a real relationship. I’m definitely ready for a change.

*Photo above is famous model Ben Melzer

 

Second Home October 25, 2017

Filed under: Grief,Travel,Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher P. DeLorenzo @ 5:26 pm
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The prompt this time was the 5 x 5 prompt. Click here to read how to do that. What I wrote is below.

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Paris and Rome hold memories and regret, a longing for past lovers, a deep loneliness. I love those other cities, but I feel lost in them too. But in Berlin, if I had to help you get from Tegel Airport to the Hauptbahnhoff, I could navigate those bright yellow subway cars, and a few major bus lines too. I know how to get around. I know how to work the bread slicing machines in the grocery stores, how to order kuchen at a café (sit down first, order a drink, then peruse the case). I’m free in Berlin like I am nowhere else.  

Berlin is the only place I don’t feel guilty or haunted. In Rome, I got stood up by a lover who was supposed to hop over from Paris, and I cried into my gelato in the Piazza Navona. In Paris I sometimes felt sad, knowing how Mama had wanted to visit, but never had the chance. I’ve walked the streets of Paris and Rome feeling guilty and sad about who I’ve left behind, but never in Berlin. And it feels good not being haunted for once.

There are things Mama wouldn’t have liked about Berlin: too gritty, too dark in the winter, too hot and crowded in the summer. But she would have loved the Turkish market, the cosmetic section of the Bio store on Bergmannstrasse, and Museum Isle. I can imagine her laughing with me at the Bode Museum café under the dome upstairs, flirting with the Iraqi waiter, like I did, while enjoying a cup of black tea with milk and sugar.

Berlin is the city that rose from the ashes to meet me that first time in May. The peach sky at sunset in Tiergarten, my strong legs pumping the pedals. I had just turned forty and suffered a broken heart, but Berlin reminded me how we remake ourselves again and again in this lifetime, how we heal and mend, how we forgive and try to learn from even the worst mistakes. Berlin reminds me that good actually prevails over evil; it’s not just a nice old saying.

Berlin is the place I allow my tongue to twist out the number of beers I want to order in German, while I bat my eyelashes at the furry bartender from Armenia. It’s where I shed my clothes in a dingy bar because the heat is on too high, where I let myself sleep in, finally wandering out at 4:30 p.m., or ride a bike in the snow, in the pouring rain, or home from a club at 5:00 in the morning, past the Landwehr Canal, swans floating on the surface, their heads tucked under their wings in sleep. Berlin is the place I went to a New Year’s Eve party even though I didn’t know a soul, where I smoked cigarettes and drank warm vodka in Roses Bar sitting in front of a framed image from Madonna’s Sex book, her legs splayed open, the head of a leather biker nestled between them.

Berlin is the place I cried at the Jewish Museum when I saw the map of concentration camps—the enormous, overwhelming number of them in Poland alone—or read the Pink Triangle memorial at Nollendorfplatz and realized that hundreds, probably thousands, of gay and lesbian people were forced to board trains right there at that station, trains bound for concentration camps, trains that sent them to their deaths.

But can you see the neighborhood now? Gay clubs and sleek cafes, hip clothing stores. See all the young gay men living here again, finally free after fleeing countries like Chechnya and Egypt? Here is a neighborhood brought back to life, vital and elegant, a microcosm of the city itself. City of rebirth, artistic expression, freedom of thought. A place that’s been vilified, feared, and attacked, beaten to the edge of life. Look at it now, vibrant, teeming with life, healthy and strong again. A place to live out loud.