As a reminder, May is not only Short Story Month – a month I have neglected to celebrate appropriately – but also Mental Health Awareness Month. As such, I’d like to touch on both topics. Short stories were where I started my creative writing endeavors. I thought I was beginning novels, but my teachers and mentors recognized the pacing of a short story when they read it. Of course, as a new author (and teenager), I didn’t know much about pacing or psychic distance. I was just beginning to discover how the craft unfolds. And to be honest, for me, it unfolded like a map. At first, neatly, along creases, but then, messily, in a large, cumbersome, sprawling sort of thing. I don’t write as many short stories as I used to; mainly because my ideas grow wild and unkempt, and I can’t prune them to short story length.
But oh, how I wish I could sometimes. I miss writing succinct, tidy, little, packages stories. I think of the thick anthology of short stories my mentor gave me, with beer labels adhering to pages as bookmarks. They were never stories as tidy as a sitcom, but the stories I read in that volume taught me so much about voice, about dialogue, about writing styles. I’ve developed my own style by reading so much. The purpose of this post is trifold. One: I’d like to share with you a few of my favorite short stories, two: I’d like to share with you a short story of my own, and three: I’d like to share a couple of quotes about mental health.
The first short story I’d like to mention is Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”. The Gutenberg Project makes it as a free available download on their site here. I remember reading this story when I was very young, and it read like a horror story to me. I shuddered and squirmed as Gilman described the horrors of being a hysterical woman. As she described the heroine of the story scrutinizing the four walls that surrounded her, I was horrified. It spelled madness to me. Desperation and madness.
Strangely enough, when I was 25 and pregnant with my first son (and dehydrated), I remember lying in bed, a sheet haphazardly thrown over the window to filter out the sunlight, studying the paisley patterns swirled across the bedsheet. Though they were meaningless patterns, I began to outline them in my mind and see fairies in the fabric. I grabbed my nearest notebook and drew exactly what I had seen, though no one else seemed to discover the fairies in the paisley.
Was I just as riddled with insanity as Gilman’s heroine? It was a harrowing thought.
Another short story that lingered in my mind for long after I read it was D.H. Lawrence’s “The Rocking-Horse Winner”, available to read for free at Classic Shorts’ website here. This was another glimpse into obsession and madness.
I remembered that story bewitching me, and as I read, I held my breath nervously. Stories became an exit from reality for me, and I stepped into another person’s life. My mentor underscored short story titles in the anthology he gave me, going so far as putting an asterisk next to the really important ones. It was a book by he had used during his undergraduate degree, so it came annotated with his notes. I spent hours immersed in these stories, searching for the hidden meanings.
The final short story I’m going to mention isn’t a short story at all, but rather, it is a collection of short stories. When I was fifteen and focused on honing my skills as a writer, finally willing to put in the hard work, a good friend showed me a book, The World and Other Places, by Jeanette Winterson
She compared my writing to Winterson’s, and so as I read her short stories, I noticed little similarities – the repetition, the cautiously selected words, the short fragments of sentences mixed with long, flowing sentences. She was a poet who wrote fiction. I was dazzled.
By now, I’m sure you’re ready to read a short story of mine. Though I have written several in the past, this is a special one for the last few days of May.
Sparkle & Rush: a Short Story
“Can’t we go back in time, Puck?” she begged, her face sagging in disappointment as she wound her fingers through mine. I loved that she called me Puck; she had told me once with my shaggy, blonde hair and the sprinkling of freckles across my face, I reminded her of a mischievous fairy. I don’t think she had ever called me by my real name since I met her. The glimmer in her eyes was soft. Hopeful. She smelled like those hard candies you suck on until eventually, they become thin wafers and dissolve.
I had heard her ask the question before, but still I asked, “Why would you want to go back in time, Day?” I had memorized her answer like I had memorized the flaring silver spokes around her pupils before evaporating into blues the color of an unstirred ocean. I called her Day because when we had met, she told me Saturday was her favorite day of the week.
She had said something about freedom. About no responsibilities on Saturdays. And she sounded so young, so innocent when she had said that, like it was before she realized for some people, Saturday was just another day of the week. But that wasn’t this moment.
I needed to hold onto this moment.
“Why do you want to go back in time?” I asked again, dropping my voice. Her finger trembled on a cigarette she had lit, and I swear her eyes sparkled with tears. “Hey now,” I murmured, brushing the tear from her eye, “nothing to cry about.”
She forced herself to laugh. “I’m not crying,” she insisted, “damn wind blew smoke into my eyes.” But when she looked back at me, her eyes were red and bleary. She was so beautiful. Damn it, this was never easy.
“I want to go back in time,” she whispered, her voice husky and yet small, “so I can meet you first.”
It was an answer I’d memorized. The way her vowels rose and fell. I even knew the way she’d blow her cinnamon brown hair from her eyes and stamp out her cigarette.
“You know,” I said, my voice soft, “I haven’t seen you in six years.”
She nodded, but I could tell she wasn’t listening.
“You couldn’t have died that day, Puck!” Her voice vehement on the boardwalk. “You shouldn’t have died.” Softer, with syllables breaking.
I had explained to her so many times that I didn’t know how to swim, but she refused to believe me.
“Day,” I whispered, curling my fingers around a strand of her hair, “you have to move on. You have to move forward.”
She stared at me, still quiet teardrops falling. Day wasn’t an ugly crier. She looked strong, but I knew her heart was breaking.
“I held on as long as I could, Day,” I murmured, “I didn’t want to let go. I didn’t want to lose you.”
“Lose me before you had me?” She scoffed, sounding wounded. I tried not to bristle at the comment. It wasn’t my fault Mouse had found me first. I tried my best to love Mouse. She was beautiful.
A pilly sweater.
None of the things Day could have offered me. One night, while Mouse was at work, Day painted. She named each color as she did like a proud mother cat names her kittens: cyan, cerulean, crimson, mustard, titanium white. I listened to the litany. It was like poetry. I touched her softly, standing behind her, as she mixed the thick acrylic paints.
It never would have been easy. We could have ruined one another in the most beautiful ways. Poisoned one another with love. Instead, I drank too much bourbon, walked into a lake, my pockets heavy with stones, and never came back.
Day was riding in a convertible with the top down.
A haunted house.
A broken easel.
A sequins halter top and a pair of hot pants.
The surprise flavor of sea salt crusted on chocolate chip cookies.
I told myself it was a death like that author she loved.
“I can only note that the past is beautiful because one never realises an emotion at the time.”
“When you consider things like the stars, our affairs don’t seem to matter very much, do they?“
She had said those words centuries ago, and Day loved to repeat them like they were lyrics to a favorite song. Like words in a book she had underscored with soft graphite.
I couldn’t swim. This was a fact. When Day needed me, I needed her more. I know everyone says that going into the water that night was selfish. But I thought of that singer who drowned in a harbor. When his friends saw him last, he was swimming on his back, still singing.
We all need one another.
“Catch your breath when you remember my touch. Hear my voice in our songs. I see you daily. I will never not love you. You will always be a part of me. We could have had real potential to ruin each other in beautiful ways that neither of us could have resisted.” That’s what I would have told Day if my lungs weren’t filled with brackish water. That’s what I would have told Day if my skin hadn’t tinted blue.
“the sick notion that suffering is the ultimate expression of this life.
Not dance, not making love, but sacrifice.
That’s some evil shit.”
But Day wanted forever and no one has forever. Not even the saints. I guess the least I could have done is say goodbye because the ink on my suicide note bled, and Day deserved better than that.
“Life should sparkle and rush, burn with fire hot like melting steel, like freeze-burn from a comet.”
I wouldn’t sparkle or rush. I buried my pockets with stones and slipped away, swimming on my back, still singing.