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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Auntie’s Lament August 7, 2019

This character piece came from a writing prompt titled, “Breaking the Rules.” Each writer made a list of unspoken rules of social etiquette, then we read them around and wrote about one of them. I chose, “Don’t talk with your mouth full.”

What I wrote is below.

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Well, frankly, I don’t know what she sees in him, I really don’t. I mean, sure, he’s tall and handsome, I suppose, if you like big muscles. Personally, I find them unattractive. All those veins?! He does have good skin, but otherwise, I’m at a loss here, I really am.

I mean, he dresses in baggy shorts and oversized t-shirts; I’ve never seen him in anything but tennis shoes—high-tops, I think they call them—he rarely makes eye contact, and perhaps worst of all: he talks with his mouth full.

“Great lasagna, Andrea,” he said, with a globby first mouthful of a meat, cheese and noodle so huge, I was surprised to see that there was still some food left on his plate.

“As I told you before, dear,” I said, smiling at him, “all the kids call me, Auntie.”

“My bad,” he said, “Auntie.” And then he smiled a tomato sauce smile, and I cringed, I tell you, I cringed.

“I think he’s going to propose,” Sarah told me later, when we were alone together in the kitchen. I was wearing my red and white hibiscus muumuu and only rinsing dishes, but I was still sweating like a little piglet, I tell you, what with the summer storm building up outside the window, and now this awful news! My blood pressure skyrocketed, it really did.

“What makes you say that dear?” I asked, handing her a plate. She loaded the dishwasher beautifully: there’s an order to it, you know.

“Well,” she said dreamily, “we’ve been talking about it a lot lately. We both want a bunch of kids.”

In this mixed up world? I wanted to say, but I bit my tongue.

“Well, there’s no hurry, dear,” I said. “You’re only twenty-two—”

You already had two babies when you were twenty-two!” she interrupted, giggling.

Precisely,I thought, and look at me now! Living on Henry’s pension—God rest his soul—and a great-great Auntie left and right. Oh, why are we so fertile in this family?

“Well,” I said, “keep me posted, dear,” and I winked at her. I wanted to say, Please use birth control. But I have never spoken to any of my nieces or nephews about sex, a rule I am reconsidering now, since they all seem to be popping out offspring like rabbits.

“Time for ice cream!” he said, his large frame filling the doorway.

“Grab a spoon, ” Sarah said. “You can get started on the Kona Coffee Crunch; Auntie and I prefer Coconut.”

“Okay,” he shrugged. And—would you believe it?—he grabbed a dirty spoon right out of the dishwasher, opened the freezer, popped of the top, and dug right into the pint. I kid you not!

“Mmmm,” he moaned, his mouth full of coffee cream. “It’s dericious.”

And I thought I would drop dead right then and there, I really did.

 

Wonder/Full July 18, 2019

Filed under: Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher P. DeLorenzo @ 2:21 pm
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The prompt this time was the Five Word Free Write. For a detailed description of this prompt, click here.

The five words this time were: Seagulls, Green, Apples, Clouds, and Falling.

What I wrote is below.                                                 

 

A sense of wonder. That’s what he’s seeking. The lovely surprise of seeds sprouting into seedlings, the little green hands reaching for the sun. Or a Monarch—bursting out of its chrysalis—that struggle to come back to life, the wet, crumpled wings, those new unfamiliar legs. He wants to hold onto it—the wonder—to stop fearing the unknown, to be naive, to let the not knowing be divine somehow, not a slap in the face, not a letter grade or an eye roll. to let the expression, “I don’t know,” be an opening. So teach me. Tell me more. Or an invitation. Will you show me?

 

When, he wonders, did he begin to think he had to know everything, the way his friend snapped one day, saying, “You ask so many questions!” nearly pleading. “And I don’t know all the answers.” Who raised these two boys to think that was what it meant to be an adult? Why did it matter so much to know all of the answers?

 

He could study Spanish and Italian verbs every day, but could he ever be fluent? He was so busy comparing himself to his Polyglot friends. One friend speaks nine languages, “But,” his friend once said, “only seven fluently.” Instead of comparing that to his attempts to speak Spanish, why not learn more about his friend? The way Gallic and Gaelic are different forms of the language of ancient, friendly tribes? Why not revel in the discovery that the double L in Portuguese does not carry the Y sound, as it does in Spanish? Why focus on knowing so often, and not discovering? 

 

To discover: such a lovely infinitive. A whole world there on the other side. An entire universe.

 

A Brilliant Idea May 3, 2019

This time the prompt was a tried and true one: “5 x 5,” which uses a list exercise to generate five lists of five words. The words are then used to fill in the blanks in this phrase:  ________________is/are like _____________________. (To see a detailed explanation of this prompt, see an earlier post here.)

My phrase was “Puppies are like ice cream.” What I wrote is below.

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He got a business license, an LLC, because he was sure he had an idea that would make him rich: a puppy farm with scheduled visits. For $25, each person would get ten minutes to lie on the soft green grass and be overrun by a litter of puppies.

“That’s amazing!” his nephew said. “It’s a classic example of how to sell childlike joy.”

They were brunching at a new San Francisco eatery after waiting forty minutes in a line that wrapped around the block. His nephew’s fiancé, however, a bottle blonde from Hayward—whom he detested, if he could be totally honest—didn’t agree.

“Aren’t there going to be some serious liability issues?” she asked, sipping her decaf macha cashew milk latte. “I mean, the puppies could get hurt.” His nephew took a gigantic blood orange vegan biscuit out of the ceramic bowl in the center of the table and looked around for the ramekin of olallieberry coconut spread.

“You can get liability insurance to cover that kind of stuff, can’t you?” his nephew asked, mercifully.

“I would do that, of course,” he said, nodding toward his nephew. “And I’d have monitors to protect the puppies at all times.”

“Monitors?”

“Yes, Bri-ANNE. I would have human monitors specifically hired to protect the pups.”

“And what about vaccinations?” Brianne added. “Aren’t puppies supposed to limit their exposure to humans until they’ve had a series of vaccinations?”

He frowned.

“Dude,” his nephew said to Brianne, “you’re kinda raining on his parade.”

The uncomfortable silence was broken by the waiter, who was just a little too cheerful. He arrived with steaming plates of micro-servings and called out each item. “Okaaaay,” he said, swinging his head to one side so his long bangs flipped over and then fell promptly back into his eyes. “You have the red and yellow kale hash with wild duck yolks, and the chickpea and green marmalade pancakes for you, sir.”

He hated being called “sir.” Did he really look that old? “They’re just being respectful,” his colleagues counter-argued when he complained about students on campus doing this. He also complained about them holding the door for him and letting him pass in front of them. “You complain when they’re rude, you complain when they’re polite—”

“I can get the damn door myself!” he snapped. “Do I look like I’m ninety-years-old? Am I shuffling?” His colleagues usually just clucked in response.

Now the three of them sat in silence again, eating joylessly. Finally, Brianne said, “I didn’t mean to sound so discouraging. I actually think it sounds like a lot of fun, your puppy farm idea. It sounds joyful.”

“Thank you.”

“Once you work out all the kinks and everything—”

“Uncle Bob,” his nephew interrupted, “you could totally make a living doing this. It’s fucking brilliant.”

He wanted to believe them both, he really did, but he was full of self-doubt now. These kids could spoil all your dreams. That’s what you get when you have Generation Xers for parents: cynicism. But he didn’t say anything. He just smiled his tight-lipped smile, sipped his purple Rooibos lavender tea, and imagined being under a pile of squirming puppies.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

For Merijane February 28, 2019

Filed under: Aging,Grief,Poems,Teaching,Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher P. DeLorenzo @ 5:57 pm
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The prompt this time was the poem, “Corrida,” by Elizabeth Haukass       

(See the poem below what I wrote).

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Girl, you are such a good teacher. Remember the day I asked, “Someone recently told me that after surgery you’re never the same. Do you think that’s true?” I was still sore from having those long ports slid deep between my ribs, and you said, “I prefer to say, ‘After surgery, you’re simply different.'”

You always had a way with words.

And you knew about surgery too, your back like a zipper with the metal cage there just under the skin, the little holes where they took out your ovaries, the terrible surgery on your palate, and of course, the flat space where your breast used to be, where your whole, long journey really began.

Today, while meditating, I thought about your acupuncturist, how you always wanted to introduce us. You said he had a beautiful soul. A healer. I imagined meeting him and saying, “She loved you so much.” The knowledge that he had brought you pain relief made me cry.

Crying silent tears while meditating is so strange, because you’re invited to sit still, to not wipe them away, and I really felt them. I really felt how much I love you. Marianne Williamson once said that relationships never end, they just change form, so that’s how I think of us now. You still come around sometimes, though your body has been in the ground for two years.

When I saw you the night before you died, you couldn’t open your eyes, and the darkness in your mouth frightened me, but you were trying so hard to tell me something. It was my first time that close to death. Your hair was wild on the pillowcase, and your hand was cool and rubbery. I told you that you didn’t have to speak. I could read your thoughts: You loved me; you didn’t want to stay, but you felt sad leaving us. That lesson you taught me was like a bright summer day. So clear. And I knew I had to give you permission to let go when I couldn’t bear the thought of this world without you.

“You are a great teacher,” you once wrote to me, after coming home from one of the many nights that we wrote together. It was a midnight email; we were night owls, staying up late at sleepovers, like two school girls on your bed, watching a movie or talking about lost love.

Who can I be melancholy with now? Everyone just wants to comfort me, but you knew how to let me be sad, to just sit with the sadness and the longing. “You are MY teacher!” you wrote next. A two line email. One I treasure. Oh, girl! You’re my teacher too. Even now, writing this, I can imagine you here, just letting me be sad.

 

Corrida

… all stories if continued far enough end in death…
-Ernest Hemingway

It was for the novilladas, the beginners,
The matador, the flourishes,
And the backs turned on death
That I begged my father to take me to the bullfight
The summer we spent in Ciudad de Mexico
As far from the influences of drugs and sex
As he could remove me when I was seventeen
The last summer before I got pregnant.
He went with me everywhere: to the plaza
Bargaining for the silver trinkets for my sister and mother
To the bodega for the cigarettes
He let me smoke in front of him
To the pool where he sat upright, reading,
In hard shoes in the shade as I sunned myself, bored.
For the corrida we had sombra seats, the best,
Sparsely filled. As the sun’s orange deepened
Town boys from the gradas came down,
Sat around us, sometimes reaching out
To touch my gringo hair. In the ring, I expected
The pirouettes with the muleta, color against dust.
Not the other red, cascading down the beast’s black flanks —
To see the splattered velvets, matador, and hide,
To smell the pinkish foam, the bull’s droplets mixed with sweat
When he shook his enormous neck,
The banderillas sinking deep, lodging in muscle,
fluttering vibrantly — I didn’t expect.
One of the boys put an arm around me: No mires, no mires
He whispered into the air. My father stood
Scattering the boys like pigeons.
He smoothed the creases in his pants, appeared to stretch his legs,
Sat again, closer in the swelter,
Draped his arm across my shoulders.
The bull, front legs collapsed, shimmered,
Silenced, as my father and I were,
By the merciful, now, puntilla.
My father refused to let me accept an amputated ear,
Still warm, held up first to me, then to him,
The gesture for bravery, for not looking away

-by Elizabeth Haukaas, from Leap

 

 

 

 

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.