Since January, I’ve been noodling around with an online MIT OpenCourseware class called Reading and Writing Short Stories. It’s been a lot of fun; I love reading short stories, and I thought it might be fun to try writing some because I haven’t done that since high school.
This was a short exercise, one where I didn’t take a lot of time on the actual writing. The goal was to show how things that happened in your life could be changed and used as story ideas. Although there were so many incidents I could have drawn from, this one from when I was very young was the first thing that popped into my head.
My problem was trying to use it in a fictional scene. It took a while, but I decided to go with karaoke because that was sort of close to me and my brother using a microphone as kids. I threw in a person with hearing loss because I always like it when I read fiction and there’s a character with hearing loss … it doesn’t happen often, so it’s a nice surprise for me. Since the scene was supposed to convey strong emotion, I had the fictional character react in a completely different way than I would (which was kind of fun to write). I had her react with the same level of out-of-proportion anger and indignation that I felt as a six year old.
Here’s the exercise: Think about an event early in your life that is still powerful for you – that made you cry, or afraid, or angry, or triumphant with revenge. Sketch it out – focus on the emotional power. Now – make it fiction. Change something. Change character, change ages, change place, gender – see how this changes the center of the story.
My nonfiction and fiction scenes:
It’s 1970, and we’re in the living room — my dad, my brother Joey, and I. I’m six and Joey is four, and we’re taking turns speaking and singing into the microphone attached to the hi-fi. My dad was so proud of this system, and we kids loved watching the amplifier needle jump whenever we used the microphone.
We’re all sitting on the couch, which is nearly the same shade of brown as the paneled walls. I’ve got my feet propped up on the coffee table, slouching back against the cushions, waiting for my turn at the mic. Finally, I get to sing. I belt a rousing rendition of Susy Snowflake, making sure to hold that last note for as long as possible. I begrudgingly hand the microphone over to Joey, and my dad ‘interviews’ him.
“What do you want for Christmas, Joey?”
“I want a gowbidge truck!”
“A what?” My dad grins, knowing the real answer, playing dumb to give Joey a chance to mispronounce garbage again.
“A GOWBIDGE truck! A big one!”
The interview ends and Joey starts to sing a song he learned in preschool. I am apoplectic. “But it’s MY turn! He already got to talk!”
My dad, always calm in the face of my youthful rage, tells me that I’ll get my chance soon – just let Joey finish his song. But I am furious – it’s so unfair! I feel they always favor Joey because he’s the baby of the family.
I stand up in a huff, ready to stomp off to my bedroom, where I can slam my door and pull all the sheets off my bed and expend all the rage inside of me. As I walk between the couch and the coffee table, my dad’s foot slips out just enough to catch mine as I walk past. I trip and fall to my knees.
“You TRIPPED me!” I wail, and then the tears come. I sob and sob, feeling unloved and unwanted, as my dad tries to cover his smile, telling me it was an accident. He didn’t do it on purpose.
I argue with him for a minute, because I am absolutely 100% certain it was not an accident. It was intentional. But there is no swaying him, and finally I get to slam my bedroom door, fling myself onto my bed, and rail at the injustice. Every sound, every word, is captured for posterity on the cassette tape in the deck. Over the years, I could never listen to that tape without my face burning hot with embarrassment.
Becca leaned forward and shouted in my direction. I watched her lips move, but couldn’t understand a word over the background noise of the bar. “What?” I shouted, fighting off a wave of irritation. I turned my hearing aid up a little more, which just made the clamor louder.
This time she leaned sideways, aiming her mouth at my ear. I reared back, pulling my ear out of her reach. For someone who’s known me most of my life, she should really know better. Talking into my ear is completely useless; I need to see her face, so I can read her lips. I twisted around to face her and leaned forward. “Say it again, Becca. I didn’t catch it the first time.”
Exaggerating the movement of her mouth, she yelled slowly, “I. Signed. You. Up.”
“What does that mean? Did I hear you right – did you sign me up for something?”
“Yes! Well, I signed ME up too, but we’re both on the list now.”
I shook my head, sure that I was misunderstanding. “The list? What list?”
“Karaoke!” she grinned, raising her glass. I just stared at her, stubbornly anchoring my glass to the bar. There was no way I was toasting this insane idea.
Why would Becca, my friend who watched me suffer through years of music class in elementary school, silently mouthing the words to songs so my classmates couldn’t hear my tone-deaf voice, sign me up to sing in front of a bunch of drunk strangers?
“Are you pissed at me for something? Is there some reason you want to deliberately humiliate me?” I realized I was shouting. I couldn’t hear myself very well, but I could see heads swiveling in our direction. Ignoring them, I continued. “Of all the things in the world, singing in front of people is my worst nightmare. And you KNOW that. What the hell, Becca?”
Becca looked stunned. And a little drunk. Frowning, she said, “I’m SORRY, I never thought you’d be upset. I didn’t do it on purpose. I just thought it would be fun!”
“Bullshit!” I yelled, grabbing my purse off the bar. “I can see you trying not to laugh. Go ahead, see how funny it is when you’re trying to get home tonight!” I waved the car keys at her as I stood up to leave, fighting back tears.
If she protested, if she tried to apologize some more, I never heard her because I never looked back. Slinging my purse over my shoulder, I headed straight to the parking lot. All I wanted was the safety and the quiet of my car.
- – - – -
If you like to write, it’s a fun exercise to try. Give it a shot!
February has been a month of dental visits so far – first Dave, then me, and Dave goes again next week. To say that neither of us enjoys a trip to the dentist would be an understatement, but Dave is much more stoic about it than I am.
He’s been waging a dental war for years, dealing with teeth and gums that have been adversely affected by the chemo and steroids (to help with graft versus host disease from his bone marrow transplant) that he got when he had leukemia in 1993. He’ll get a filling just to have it fall out a month later. Over the 16 years I’ve known him, he’s gotten crowns and had teeth pulled, gotten a bridge replaced, gotten countless fillings (and had them replaced over and over when they fall out) … he’s just basically had to deal with the same issues over and over. Because of the chemo and GVH, his gums have receded and his teeth have gotten weak.
Over the past couple of years, he’s been on a quest to get dentures to replace his bottom teeth. He’s had so many teeth pulled on the bottom already, and the bridge (also on the bottom) is anchored to teeth that are no longer strong enough. Every dentist he’s visited, though, either refuses to pull his teeth or tries to talk him out of dentures. Some say that the roots of his teeth are too long; some just refuse to pull a tooth unless he agrees to get an implant in its place (which we can’t afford).
Way back in the day we had dental insurance, a plan that covered the whole family that I purchased on my own, since I was self-employed. That was okay; Dave always maxed out the yearly coverage (usually $1,000) but it was nice to have cleanings for me and the kids covered at either no charge or a very minimal charge. It didn’t take long, though, for them to start raising our monthly premiums in a BIG way. Eventually they just flat out dropped us, which I didn’t even know they could do. I guess we used the insurance too much for their liking; it wasn’t like we ever skipped a premium payment or gave them a hard time about anything. They just dropped us for no reason.
At that point, the kids were on the state medical plan and they got their dental coverage for free. Dave and I did a lot of research and realized just about all the dental insurance plans had an 18 month wait before they’d cover the procedures Dave needed, and the monthly premiums were now way out of our price range. We took a chance and went with a dental plan rather than dental insurance, one of those deals where you pay a yearly fee and then get a discount on your dental procedures when you go to a participating dentist. You don’t have to wait for them to cover anything.
Our current dentist didn’t participate in the plan, so we had to find a new dentist. Things were going well; it was weird to pay for cleanings and x-rays, but the yearly fee plus what I paid for cleanings was less than a year’s worth of the monthly premiums I had been paying for actual dental insurance (WAY less) and I was pleased. Dave was getting frustrated, though, because this new dentist was also resisting his pleas to just pull his rotten teeth so he could get dentures.
Dave gets his medical care through the VA, but he doesn’t get any dental coverage because his disability isn’t service-connected. Up until this year, he was able to go to the VA emergency room when he was in bad pain from his teeth; they would pull the teeth for him, no problem. Lately, though, he’s been in a lot of pain where he has the bridge. He thought the front tooth it was anchored to was cracked, so he went to the VA with the hope that they’d pull the tooth. Once he got there, though, he was turned away; now they will not do any dental procedures at ALL unless you fit certain criteria (and he fits none of them, since he’s not diabetic and his cancer is not currently active).
He was really despairing, and finally decided to try our county health department. We couldn’t figure out if we fit the income guidelines for the urgent dental care clinic, so he called and they told him that he did qualify. After a missed appointment (thanks to one of our many snow storms in Illinois) he finally got in last week.
He went off with our documents and I took a seat in the main waiting room. After a while, I went in search of a bathroom. As an aside, this is the kind of thing I used to be too scared to do; I hated asking directions or for information from people on the off chance that I wouldn’t hear or understand their response. It sounds crazy, but it was so cool to just get up, walk casually past the intake ladies, have one of them call out and ask if she could help me, and then get directions to the bathroom (while I stood quite a distance away) and understand her. It’s the little things, isn’t it?!
I took the elevator downstairs, did my business, and when I came out, I noticed a sign down the hallway that said ‘Dental Clinic.’ There was Dave, standing at the desk. I walked up next to him and freaked him out, since he expected me to be upstairs. So we sat down together, and he explained that we actually don’t meet the income guidelines (I wasn’t surprised; we usually don’t qualify for any kind of medical assistance even though our income is fairly low). They still sent him downstairs, though, and the people there were much more laid back. Because he was in pain, they were still going to examine him.
I was sitting there reading The Snow Child on my Nook (great story, by the way) when I realized the lady at the desk was talking to me. I looked up, and from the desk she said, “You can take his prescription to Meijer and it will be free because it’s an antibiotic.” Again, with the hearing – it’s so cool, seriously! I realized then that Dave was out of the exam room and standing behind her, talking to one of the dentists. Then he pointed at me, and I realized they were talking about me.
I walked up just as Dave was explaining about my cochlear implants. I guess the dentist made a big deal about Dave’s hearing loss (in a good way) and kept talking into the ear that doesn’t have a hearing aid. When they got to the check out desk, Dave told the girl he was deaf in that ear; the dentist started laughing and said, “THAT’S why you kept turning your head the other way! I thought that was your good ear so I kept talking to you on that side.” When I walked up, we started talking about CIs and another dentist walked up and asked if we watched ‘Switched At Birth.’ (I had a hard time picturing him watching that show, but he was a big fan – as are we.) So we started talking about sign language and how, when I went deaf in 2008, I didn’t know sign language and got by with just lip reading. It was a fun conversation and they were really nice people, very interested in how we communicated and how my CIs work.
It turned out that Dave had an abscess under the bridge, and he was feeling referred pain in that front tooth. Now he’s on an antibiotic for 10 days, and he goes back to the clinic on Valentine’s Day to get two teeth pulled. They referred him to a local dental college that will do dentures for half price, so after he heals up, that will be his next step. FINALLY! I’m so glad they stepped in and helped Dave even though we didn’t technically qualify, and I’m glad Dave got to talk to a professional who gave him unbiased advice. (He recommended a partial denture for the bottom instead of a full denture.)
After Dave went through all of this, I had to face my own fear of the dentist. All I needed was a cleaning, but I was way, WAY overdue because I kept psyching myself out about how much it might hurt. I finally decided if Dave can go through all of this, I can certainly handle a cleaning. My dentist had an opening for the same day, so I didn’t even have a chance to fret – the appointment was made in the morning, and three hours later I was in the chair.
Going to the dentist with bilateral cochlear implants has been a serious challenge. Because they recline the chair so much, my processors fall off my ears and the magnet headpiece gets knocked off repeatedly. I’ve tried headbands and scarves to no avail, but this time I tried a knit cap. It worked! The headpiece lost connection a couple times but it would re-connect on its own; a couple of times I had to reach up and re-seat the processor on my ear, but the hat kept it from actually falling off. So I can highly recommend a knit cap if you wear BTE processors like I do.
After I reassured them that bitewing x-rays were okay with my cochlear implants, I got x-rays done and then they handed me these dark plastic glasses. I realized why a few seconds later, when the dentist started aiming a stream of water at my teeth while her assistant blew cold air into my mouth (at least I think that’s what it was). A spray of water hit my face, and I gripped the arms of the chair when I felt the cold air and water on my sensitive teeth. I was really anticipating some pain at that point, but my teeth got used to the sensation and it never really did hurt – it was just briefly uncomfortable a couple of times. This seemed to replace the majority of the scraping they usually do; there was still a little bit of scraping, but not much.
I was walking out within 15 minutes, feeling immense relief at having this dreaded visit behind me. I got a thumbs up from the dentist, no issues that I have to deal with. Hopefully it won’t take me so long to get the courage the next time I have to go. And I’m definitely wearing a hat!
Last night, I started back to work at my last out-of-the-house place of employment. In my dreams, that is.
I have this dream every few months, and it’s always alarming and stressful. I find myself back at my old job, with no clue who any of my co-workers are or what my job now entails. There were some new twists in last night’s dream, though. Initially, I realized I was very late for work – it was around 9:15 and I was supposed to start at 8 am or so. I was completely panicked because I couldn’t remember my boss’s old phone number so I could call to let her know I was still coming in. (It was my first day, you see.)
Then the dream changed and I was at work, but hadn’t seen my boss yet and I still had to explain that I’d been late. Then I got the bright idea to just walk into her office and look at the phone number on her phone. So I got the number, and somehow I needed to use my computer to call her (I know this makes no sense – do dreams ever make much sense?!) … but I realized my son had installed some kind of software that completely changed how my computer worked. Everything I clicked brought up some kind of menu or performed an action that just left me clueless, and I was getting more and more frustrated with every click. (This last bit cracks me up because he really is always light years ahead of me in terms of apps and computer stuff.)
This dream seems to have replaced the high school dreams, as far as stress-related dreams go – you know, the ones where you have an exam you never studied for, can’t remember your locker combination, can’t remember how to get to class, etc. Now I dream that I have to go back to this job I haven’t performed since early 2001, re-connect with all the people that worked there and/or meet new co-workers, try to remember how to do everything, plus catch up with all the ways things have changed since I left. I’m glad I don’t have these dreams very often!
I’m not feeling stressed in real life at all these days, so I’m not even sure where this is coming from.
I’ve talked about recurring dreams before, but there’s one ‘theme’ I’m pretty sure I’ve never mentioned: the ‘can’t go to the bathroom’ dreams. (Maybe I’m the only one that has them.)
I’ll have a dream that I have to pee (sorry, there’s just no other way to say it) and either I can’t find a bathroom or, when I do find one, I can’t actually use it. It might be some kind of public bathroom – all the toilets next to each other in one big room, or maybe the only unoccupied toilet in a public bathroom is one that has no door. There’s always some reason I can’t actually use the toilet, and most often it’s because they are all occupied or there’s no privacy in some way. I know what’s happening here – my body is stopping me from, well, wetting the bed. (No, I’ve never had a bed-wetting problem in my life, but I definitely have had to wake up in the middle of the night to go.) Isn’t that weird, though? I don’t wake up right away and just go use the facilities … instead, I incorporate it into my dream and torture myself for a while. So fun!
Casually veering toward a less TMI topic, I’ve also had recurring dreams about our indoor cats (the former-feral ones) getting outside. This is guaranteed to get me worked up because we can’t pick these cats up, so if they really do get outside somehow it’s not like I can go scoop them back up and bring them in, like I can with Sabrina. The dream I had earlier this week, though, changed things up a bit.
In this situation, Dave and I were at some kind of medical appointment having to do with our respective hearing losses. (I suspect this came from a visit we had earlier that day from a Caption Call rep, who needed us to fill out forms verifying our hearing loss in order to keep our caption phone.) We were in a medical building, sort of like a hospital. And I was carrying Maxie, our former-feral mom cat, in my arms.
As we walked around, I realized I was getting some looks from people. Maxie was kind of squirming around and I had to keep talking to her to calm her down. Finally I told Dave, “You know, we probably shouldn’t be in here with her – I think someone’s going to ask us to leave. We should probably go home.” So Dave took us out a side door (to get us out of the building right away), but we were nowhere near the parking lot we’d parked in. We had to walk and walk, forever it seemed, along a road. Maxie got agitated every time we passed any kind of animal outside, and I was getting more and more worried that she would leap out of my arms. The stress finally woke me up (and then I was so relieved to realize it was just a dream).
Hopefully tonight will bring a stress-free slumber, and I will not be worrying about our cats getting loose at my old place of employment, while crossing my legs and hopping around, trying to find a free (private) toilet. Sweet dreams!