Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Writers That Made a Difference

Just saw this meme on Murderati , and decided to do my list of 25 writers who've blown my mind:

1. Judy Blume - periods, premarital sex, Jewish girls?! Are You There God, It's Me Margaret, Forever and Wifey changed my literary life.

2. V.C. Andrews - creepy settings and situations between siblings and diabolical aunts. Flowers in the Attic was my first but not the last. I still have my paperback from my teenage years.

3. Jackie Collins - fabulousness and sex and Los Angeles and gangsters. Lucky Santeangelo was a pretty badazz heroine. Lucky and Lady Boss were my faves. But then there were Hollywood Wives and Hollywood Husbands. Didn't know about cocaine until I read these pieces of candy.

4. Toni Morrison - between the anguish of a slave mother in Beloved and a confused little Black girl in The Bluest Eye, and the sassiness of Sula, Ms. Morrison was the first to show me that 'we' had something to say.

5. Stephen King - don't even know where to begin with King. It? The Stand? The Shining? Carrie? Pet Sematary? Pennywhistle scared the bejeebus out of me, but Mother Abigail offered hope. Cujo made me - to this day - look at dogs twice and prepped to run at a moment's notice. I had a cat that I loved but would I want her to come back from the grave? Unforgettable characters, great writing.

6. Michael Crichton - he's my lesser King but still: Juraissic Park, Sphere, The Andromeda Strain. He made me interested in science. Oh, and E.R. - his creation - gave me George Clooney.

7. John Krakauer - how can something be true and incredibly fascinating? I've read Into Thin Air about three times, and got totally lost in Under the Banner of Heaven and Into the Wild.

8. Fyodor Dostoevsky - my first Russian-lit love. So different than America. I remember being obnoxious after reading Crime and Punishment, and then The Brothers Karamazov. Even if I didn't get all the subtext.

9. Franz Kafka - German bougeoisie and giant bugs. Being on trial and not knowing why. America became like a Kafka story in some ways. The Castle and the short story "Metamorphosis" are must reads.

10. Terry McMillan - there are such creatures as Black contemporary women with problems? Waiting to Exhale - even if it wasn't my direct experience - validated my existence, and also told me that I didn't have to write about the South and slavery.

11. Alice Walker - not that the South and slavery are bad, or done with, or solved. The Color Purple... someone other than Celie actually wrote that?

12. Beverly Cleary - my first book purchases were books in the Ramona series. The book fair would come to town, and I'd clutch my $10 and go to the library. Ramona was awesome.

13. William Shakespeare - of course, right?

14. F. Scott Fitzgerald - rich white folks got some problems, y'all. The Great Gatsby and The Last Tycoon gave me glimpses into the lives of people I'll never meet.

15. Harper Lee - books can entertain and have a message? To Kill a Mockingbird told me that they could.

16. Tom Wolfe - Bonfire of the Vanities, Man in Full and The Right Stuff were big, bodacious books with great characters and awesome humor.

17. Richard Wright - being black in America... wow, The Invisible Man.

18. Anne Rice - felt so wrong reading about sexy vampires like Lestat, but damn entertaining. Interview with a Vampire. I still don't see Tom Cruise as Lestat.

19. Tom Clancy - Before I found the flaming liberal in me, I consumed his books like water. Big, strong military men with square jaws, a love of country, and big... guns? That's what girls like...

20. H.G. Wells - and it can happen again... His science fiction is timeless. Just read War of the Worlds again and it's incredible. Guess why they keep making movies from it.

21. Herman Melville - Moby Dick was great but I enjoyed his short stories even more. "Bartleby the Scrivener" can be read today and you wouldn't know it was written more than 100 years ago.

22. D.H. Lawrence - as close to Jane Austen as I could get. Lady Chatterly's Lover and Sons and Lovers - something like broccoli with caramel sprinkled atop of it. You feel righteous for reading it, but you know, in its own 1920's English kind of way, that it's a bit naughty.

23. Gabriel Garcia Marquez - what sentences! what paragraphs! what romance! One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera.

24. Cormac McCarthy - man, oh, man. The Road jacked me up - now that I have a daughter, I couldn't imagine... And No Country for Old Men was just great story-telling with unforgettable characters.

25. Dan Brown - don't laugh. I'm serious. Mr. Brown did something many have tried to do. Make religion a breathless subject. I read The Da Vinci Code in two days, and Angels and Demons in three. Addicted, I read all the rest: Digital Fortress and Deception Point.

What books made you say, "Damn, that was good"?

Like Crosswords?

Publishers Weekly reports that Simon & Schuster has developed a crossword puzzle iPhone app. For $4.99.

This may be one of the few apps I'll purchase.

Monday, February 23, 2009

What Agents Think

Earlier, I linked an article from Poets & Writers featuring four editors. Here is an earlier interview with four literary agents.

What Editors Think

Poets & Writers has a great interview with four editors. What they like. What inspires them to acquire a book. Debunking the myth that editors no longer edit. Their thoughts on paper-made books in a Kindle world. This is something that resonated with me:

GARGAGLIANO: If it comes alive for you, and you can hear it in your head, and it sort of lives inside you, that's when I feel like a writer has a voice. That's when I'll keep going back to something again and again. One of my favorite writers when I was falling in love with literature was Jeanette Winterson. It was just about her voice. I kept loving her books even when the stories themselves started to fall apart. I just wanted to hear that voice in my head. For me, with her, it stopped being about the storytelling, which is unusual. I love story. I want plots in my books.

I love voice. It's what draws me to Stephen King, John Krakauer, Danyel Smith and Tayari Jones.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Sometimes Scenes Just Write Themselves...

Folks wonder how writers come up with scenes. Scenes that strike them as scarily accurate, touching, disturbing.

We don't pull those moments from a vacuum. We get them from you. If there's a writer in the room, know that you're being watched. For instance:

Last night, we took Maya to Macaroni Grill for her 5th birthday. As we waited, a 40-ish year old man and his 15-year old daughter and 8-year old son sat on the bench across from us. Within seconds, each had pulled out their cell-phones - the girl a pink Razr, the boy a cheapie black block, and dad, an iPhone. Fingers flying, no conversation until Mom walks in (guess she came straight from work). She looks at her family, each lost in their cell-worlds, and says, "Is this what we're gonna do all through dinner?"

INSTANT CONFLICT. Where it gets interesting. Where a writer's ears perk up - and mine did.

From there, mom asks about her son's day, congratulates her daughter on the B+ she received on her chemistry test, and on and on.

Now. A writer may not want such a great conclusion. Maybe the dad was pissed off, and tired of her nagging about the phone. Maybe the boy wasn't supposed to have his phone since he had been punished. Maybe the girl was sexting some perv in Norway and the mom caught her since dad wasn't paying attention since he was texting his mistress who is also his sister-in-law.

The point is this: every interaction in a novel is derived from something a writer has observed. Maybe she changes 80 percent of what happens, but inspiration comes from you. And thank you so much for being so interesting.

What real-life moment have you observed that would be a great scene in a novel?

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The View from Here - Chapter 3

And this will be the last chapter I post. For real.


Sunbeams pushed through the usual June gloom, and my bedroom blazed bright with morning light. I glanced at the clock on the nightstand—a little past eight o’clock. I should’ve been zooming off my freeway exit by now, but sandbags had weighed down my arms and legs, and I struggled to leave the bed. Couldn’t tell whether Truman had slept beside me or not—the sheets twisted around me, and the comforter had been kicked to foot of the bed frame.

Morning sunshine filled the kitchen. Weird: Los Angeles never saw sun in June until late-afternoons.

Truman had cooked himself breakfast, the stink of eggs and burnt butter clues of his presence.

As I reached to open the refrigerator, I noticed that Truman had used words from my magnetic poetry journal to leave a message on the door.

Diamond goddess soars
Frantic turtle dreams
I worship magic
You twirl in purple
Use my sausage

Silliness as a peace offering.


Right before Truman had left Los Angeles to climb Everest, I had contemplated divorce. Not the kind of divorce with screaming and shrieking, and calling each other vulgar names. Not the kind with the destruction of expensive suits and the torching of vinyl record collections. No. The 25 percent of me that wanted a divorce desired the kind of separation where Truman and I continued to sleep together; saw movies together on Sunday afternoons; gossiped and goofed around. We would remain friends, and any man or woman that tried to come between us would have hell to pay because we were the loves of each other’s life. We just couldn’t be married anymore.

I blamed his crazy schedule and his constant flaking on my divorce imaginations. More than work, I blamed his resistance to having a baby. It seemed that his body, along with his mind, had refused to even entertain the thought, and after five months of late-night gropings and early-morning quickies, and close to $600.00 spent on pregnancy tests, ovulation prediction kits, incense and lingerie, I still couldn’t get pregnant.

Not that five months of trying and nothing happening was a great span of time.

Not that Truman knew I was trying in the first place.

On month five, day twenty-three of my conception adventure, Monica said, “You’re insane.”

“I’m not,” I said. “I’m as barren as the Arctic.”

Monica shot me a frustrated glance, then rolled her eyes. “You must not be doing it right, then.”

“What do you know?” I snapped.

“My momma had five kids,” she said. “And she didn’t consult no calendar, or scrutinize her cervix or none of that. Idiots have babies every day.”

“Something’s wrong,” I said. “Either I have bad eggs, or Truman has lazy sperm. I bet it’s because of all his extreme sporting. He probably sprained a testes or something. Maybe if he went to see the doctor, and squooshed a little puddle of himself in a cup—”

“But then you’d have to confess that you’ve been trying to get pregnant on the d.l.” Monica pointed out. “You’re freaking out, Nic. You read too much, that’s your problem. You always think that something’s wrong with you.”

In the past, I have self-diagnosed scabies, Legionnaire’s Disease and a hernia. In reality, I had a heat rash, a wicked virus, and a pinched nerve.

The baby dance reminded me of seventh-grade P.E., with the cool kids choosing teams for dodge ball. I never got to be captain. Hell, I never got to throw. As bait, I stood in the middle of the court with knobby, ashy knees, wearing too-small gym shorts, ducking a rubber ball rocketing through the air at 55 miles per hour. Most times, the ball would hit me in my face, breaking my glasses. The other kids would laugh at me, and I would retreat to the bench in tears.

Twenty-five years later, my eggs represented the seventh-grade me I had longed to be. Except that sperm had replaced rubber balls. My eggs dodged those throws. Stupid eggs. They needed to get hit to win.

“It’s not like I’m 25 anymore,” I explained to Truman in a rare moment of censored honesty. “All eggs have expiration dates. Keep something for ten years, it comes back in style. Keep it for 20, it’s a classic. Keep it for 29? Antique.”

“I just want us to do everything we dreamed of doing before the kids come,” Truman reasoned.

By ‘us’ he meant ‘him.’ By ‘we’ he meant ‘him.’ And then he drove to Beverly Hills BMW and traded his Audi sedan for a Z3. Babies couldn’t ride in two-seat sports cars. They rode in Volvos, Saabs and Fords. Didn’t matter. Truman loved his Z3 (and then, the Z4). Who needed a kid when you had a BMW and a great career with a crazy salary?

Back then, I had respected my husband’s decision to wait, and enjoyed our last-minute trips to Santa Barbara and Las Vegas. We’d talk, laugh and hold hands all the way. I’d gaze at him, and think, I could do this forever. Drive around the country with the car’s top down, my hair blowing in the wind, listening to Earth, Wind and Fire, eating meals cooked in a kitchen by a chef and not by a teenager with a deep-fryer and catsup packages. And I liked my quiet, clean apartment, and I enjoyed buying designer handbags and six types of gourmet cheese instead of diapers and onesies.

Because the alternative sucked. My friends and co-workers with children were miserable people. Madison always had an ear infection or diarrhea. Connor’s teeth were always coming in or falling out. They couldn’t see a movie. They couldn’t go out for dinner. They were too tired. Too poor. Too everything.

Truman and I—we had each other… Until he found other people to hang out with.

The more he climbed, jumped and explored, the stronger my desire to buy diapers and paint the guest room pink and yellow. I envied my neighbors as they walked their kids up the hill to the reservoir. Would they go out for Italian later? Or would they drive to Target for toilet cleaner and paper towels, leaving the store sharing an Icee and a bag of popcorn? My gaze lingered after them, and I coveted the intimacy I had experienced with my parents for only three years.

One morning, I ‘forgot’ to take the Pill.

I ‘forgot’ that next morning, too. And the next.

Before his departure to Nepal, Truman told me, “I’d be content if it was just you and me for the rest of our lives.” Then, he kissed me, slipped his hand up my skirt, and ordered another pitcher of sangria.

A month later, Truman returned to the States, and we pounded each other as though two years had passed. Those moments in bed (and in the shower and on the patio) had lacked an agenda. I wanted to be with the man I loved more than anyone in the world.

And then it happened.

Or didn’t happen.

No period.


On the way home from work, I stopped at the village market at the base of the canyon to buy another pregnancy test. Just to be sure. I also grabbed a bag of barbecued potato chips, five Slim Jims, and a six-pack of Diet Cherry Coke. Just to be greedy.

“Hey, Nic.”

I glanced over my shoulder.

Jacob Huston, my neighbor, towered over me.

“Hey.” I threw a National Enquirer over the pregnancy test, and smiled. “You’re home early.”

Jake’s whiskey-brown eyes flicked to my shopping cart. “Have time to go next door for coffee?”

I shook my head and inched closer to the check-out counter. “We’re supposed to be going to dinner tonight.” A lie.

Jake grinned, and the corners of his eyes crinkled. “Who? You and Truman? Really?”

My cheeks burned. “Don’t sound so surprised. We’re going to a new place over by the studio.”

“And he’ll show up tonight?”

“Be nice, Jacob.”

“You and I have had more meals together than you and your husband.”

“Lucky, lucky you,” I said. “Unless you’re complaining.”

He held my gaze, and said nothing.

My heart fluttered like it did each time I saw him. “I should go. Have to gussy up.”

He bowed and stepped aside. “Please. Gussy away. Call you tomorrow?”

“Yep.” I placed my basket on the conveyer belt, but didn’t empty it until he had wandered towards DAIRY.

A clerk with spiky gelled hair and pudgy skin as pale as rice paper rang up my items. “Arnib” lifted an eyebrow and smirked as he scanned the pregnancy test. Another young Black girl in trouble after having wild, drunken sex with a rapper.

After Truman’s return, sex had been wild and sometimes drunken, but he was far from a rapper. He folded his socks, brushed and flossed his teeth with disturbing zeal, and had never fired a gun. I didn’t tell “Arnib” this. Maybe he disapproved of my other purchases. Five Slim Jims combined with that much Coca-Cola couldn’t be good for anybody.

At home, I dashed up the stairs to the master bathroom. I pried open the box, and read instructions I knew by heart:

1. Aim stick under urine flow.
2. Hold stick in steady stream for three seconds.
3. Place stick on flat surface for two minutes.

Two minutes later... A blue plus sign. Light-light blue like the other six tests, but blue.

I drank another cherry Coke and four glasses of water. Sat in the kitchen and pretended to watch Judge Judy on the plasma television set bolted above the sink.

How about Jack for a boy and Zoƫ for a girl?

What’s CelluTech’s Family Leave policy?

Should Mo or Lei be the godmother?

My bladder filled again, and I raced to the bathroom to pee on the bonus stick.

Another blue plus sign. Light-light blue but blue.

I slipped the positive pregnancy tests back in the box and stashed the box in the back of my lingerie drawer.

Lei should be the god-mother.

And Zoe. Definitely Zoe.

Last Week's Digested Read

John Crace digests The Associate by John Grisham:

"I know that," Detective Wright laughed. "Do you really think a Grisham hero could be a suspected rapist? But if you can't accept the possibility as a reasonable premise then we haven't got a story. And, by the way, I'm not with the police. I'm with a shadowy international organisation that has tentacles in all echelons of American life."

Brain. Dead. Awrhghwh.

So. Tired. Zombie bit me. Am slowly turning. Into... undead.

Seriously, though? My brain is a bit oogy. I finished my WIP (and thanks if you've read the first two chapters I posted here), and just had a birthday party for my daughter and finished kindergarten applications and then there's all this rain and cold. Motivation is at a zero.

What's a writer to do when the brain hurts and you're too tired to care?


And already, I've gone astray from the list I posted earlier. I'm currently reading Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith. I've always been a little fascinated with Russian or Russian-related literature. Actually took a course in college.

Back to the theme, though, of zombies. If you like zombies, read Max Brooks' World War Z. It's like a documentary on the page.

If you haven't heard, some enterprising writer is publishing Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Jane Austen with Zombies. Published in May. That's how I like my classics.

What do you do when your brain is as soft as poi?

Monday, February 9, 2009

The View from Here - Chapter 2

Date Night

I’m not a science writer by training—I earned my degree in English and American Literature. As I reached my late-20s, though, my questions about life and love required answers that couldn’t be gleaned from poems or novels. I applied for the job at CelluTech, 50 miles north of Los Angeles, and happily accepted the position because science never lied and never wavered. A molecule did this, and genes, even defective ones, did that. Sure: science often reinvented itself. For instance, quantum physics contradicts traditional physics; and some researchers believe that cancer stem cells exist while other researchers didn’t. But even in this chaos, science still followed hard-and-fast rules.

More than its certainty, science always anticipated the discovery of a better life and a better cure. And psychically, I needed to join this effort that offered hope to the world. Even though my parents didn’t die from cancer or diabetes, I didn’t want children being left alone because their moms and dads had.

As I left Dr. Tremaine’s office, though, I didn’t drive back to work, nor did I think about stem cells or renewed hope or sick mothers.

I had purchased tickets (third row, center) for Truman and me to see Wicked at the Pantages. I had made reservations at Providence for dinner afterwards, and over lobster risotto for me and a rib-eye for him, we would talk to one another instead of throw words in the air in hopes that the other person captured them in their intended order and spirit. Because sentences like, “Will you pull in the trash cans after the trash man empties them?” became interpreted as, “You don’t pull in the trash cans after the trash man empties them.”

In the soft golden candlelight of a restaurant, Truman would remember falling in love with me 13 years ago. He would realize that he was damn lucky to still be married to me even though we no longer went out dancing or gave each other backrubs (how I missed his shoulders); or ate barbecued ribs like we used to every Monday night; even though the showers we used to take together had become solo endeavors. He used to tuck me in bed. We used to make love before he left the room. I used to fall asleep afterwards, not waking until the morning.

If anything was haunting our house, it was the Ghost of Used To.

We couldn’t blame ear infections, or PTA meetings or soccer practices for our inability to communicate.

We didn’t have children. We didn’t own a dog. Our bickering resulted from our failures to talk and listen to each other, husband to wife.

Now, instead of taking walks to the reservoir, cooking tacos together, or battling each other in rounds of Guitar Hero, I retreated alone to the upstairs den to watch The Simpsons. I’d sit there, in a worn-out state of unease, and wait to hear the security panel ping and Truman shout, “Hey, babe! It’s me.” On many nights, The Simpsons melted into Jeopardy. Since his promotion to Executive Vice-President, Jeopardy melted into Lost or C.S.I. and then, the ten o’clock rerun of Seinfeld.

We had argued about his insane hours, and he had apologized, and he would come home and eat tacos and watch American Idol.

Until the next week.


I slipped a Jill Scott CD into the stereo, and sang as I showered, dressed and primped. I ignored the pipe’s strange rumblings as I pulled on a crimson silk dress that clung to my hips, caressed my thighs and boosted my cleavage. I looked hot. Smoking hot. The woman I used to be 15 years ago.

Hotness reclaimed, I sat at the dining room table, still and stiff to avoid shiny face, flat hair and sweaty underarms. I wanted to pop a Paxil, but I couldn’t. Not anymore. So, I stared at the vase of white lilies in the table’s center, fantasized about eating lobster risotto and chocolate ganache cake, then standing in the lobby of the Pantages with a program book in my hand and my husband on my arm.

I glanced at the clock in the telephone’s display: 7:33. The theater’s curtain rose at eight o’clock.

Where’s Truman?

He hadn’t called, hadn’t e-mailed, hadn’t text-messaged.

I dialed his cell-phone number.

No answer.

I stomped to the living room and jabbed the stereo power button—Jill, then no Jill. I dialed his number again.

No answer.

I stomped to the kitchen and peered out the window to the driveway.

Just my Volvo.

Where was he? What was he doing? Are those his headlights zooming around the bend?

At 7:40, I stopped keeping watch at the window, and started pacing. Did he get in an accident? Did he get pulled over by the police? The telephone chirped and caller I.D. droned Baxter, Truman, Baxter, Truman. I grabbed the receiver, and shouted, “Where are you?”

“I’m still at the pool,” Truman said. “Trying to get in some extra dive time. I didn’t realize how late it was.”

I rubbed my temples—anger headache. “The show starts at eight.”

“I know, babe,” he said. “I should’ve called earlier—”

“Yes, you should’ve.” I lurched to the living room. A tear rolled down my cheek, and my fingers picked at my lips, drying beneath coats of lipstick.

“I didn’t realize how late it was. When I got off work, we rushed down to the pool—”


“Penelope and me,” he said.

Penelope Villagrana worked with Truman at ESPN, and partnered with him on climbs, dives and jumps. She was single, had the body of an Amazon, and was rumored to be as adventurous in the bedroom as she was on the mountaintop.

“We got here late, and Flex was pissed. You know how he is. He doesn’t care about anything else, and he doesn’t want his students to care about anything else, either. When you dive, you’re supposed to focus on being under.

“Plus, my allergies were bothering me, and my eyes were a little scratchy, and I couldn’t take a Sudafed, and so my mind was just…” He sighed, then said, “This was the first time I glanced at a clock. You—”

“Are you coming or not?”

Truman paused, then said, “I can’t, Nic. I’m sorry. I just… I don’t want anything to go wrong when I’m a hundred feet under next week. And I know you don’t want that, either, right?”

I didn’t speak, angry that he had exploited my fears to justify his selfishness.

“I’ll make it up to you,” he said. “I promise.”

“I’ll add it to the list,” I said, hoping that he sensed my dissatisfaction.

He laughed, not sensing anything. “I’ll call when I’m on my way home. Love you.”

A dial tone told me that he had hung up.

I threw the telephone at the fireplace, but it didn’t shatter into billions of tiny pieces like I wanted. Instead, the phone hit the brick with a thud, and landed on the floor with a crack. Anger unquenched, I buzzed around the room. My heart pounded so hard, I thought it would explode. My ears rang, and then, I couldn’t hear my heart anymore. It worked, though—knife blades were stabbing at it like freshly-sharpened Henckels in a rump roast. I grabbed my left arm and sipped air. Couldn’t breathe. Pain in my chest. I was suffocating and having a heart attack at the same time.

I squeezed my eyes shut, and took deep breaths. One… Two… Three… Breathe.

Penelope Villagrana.

I tore the covers off Vanity Fair, Entertainment Weekly and Consumer Reports, then kicked the coffee table. I yelped and tears burned in my eyes as fire blazed from my toes up my calf.

The house laughed–I swear it laughed. Not the low groans of a settling foundation, but high-pitched pings. Hee. Hee. Hee.

If I didn’t leave, I would hurt myself again and I would destroy items more precious than magazines and telephones. Like the porcelain bowl from Paris. Or the delicate crystal picture frames from Tiffany. Or the black clay vase from Mazatlan. Exquisite, throwable things.

I limped to the breakfast bar and grabbed for my keys beneath the fruit bowl.

No keys.

I always kept my keys beneath the fruit bowl. I checked the countertops and sink, and then the dining room table, the couch in the den, and the table in the foyer.

No keys.

I sprinted back to the kitchen, and spotted the Volvo fob beneath the fruit bowl. Okay, I’m blind now. I grabbed my purse from the pantry and stomped to the car.

Dark sky and distant stars hid behind thin, wispy clouds. Misty rain had thickened the musty smell of burnt chaparral, and in seconds, my hair lost all curl and lay flat against my head. My eyelashes clumped, and mascara liquefied into a thick, gooey paste. Melting. I’m melting. What a world, what a world.

I climbed into the car, and at the base of the hill, I grabbed my cell-phone and called Truman’s sister,
Leilani. “I need to talk or… or…”

Leilani sighed, and said, “What did he do this time?”

“He…” I bit my lip, not ready to cry.

“Did you eat?” she asked.


“And I didn’t cook,” she said. “Let’s meet at Dan Tana’s. I’ll call Mo.”


Truman didn’t play sports in high school or in college. He was a math geek, and after graduation, he accepted an analyst’s position in ESPN’s marketing department. Ten years and four promotions later, he was now the Executive Vice-President of Content for the network, overseeing development, design and production of programs for television and the Internet. He had also taken an interest in spelunking, diving and climbing.

I had joined Truman on his earlier excursions to lesser mountains and to tourist-trap caves—not to climb or spelunk beside him, but to enjoy a novel, the hotel and the hotel spa. I stopped tagging along after reading a C.D.C. advisory before his first true cave exploration–bat rabies at Moaning Cavern. What the hell? He left without me, and promised to run from the first bat he saw. Then, days before his first ascent up a “real” mountain, I read a news article about a climber who had slipped off a mountain’s slope and died. We argued, and he promised that if the climb got too rough, he’d turn around.

I know: I worried too much. Each adventure spoke to his unwavering determination. Each journey symbolized the Black Man’s Struggle in the World. Moaning Cavern would be his last spelunk, and Mount Whitney would be his last climb… I thought. But Mount Kilimanjaro followed (19,340 feet high and in Tanzania), and then a larger, more dangerous cave in Peru. We took fewer vacations together since he now allocated most of his salary and off-time to climb, crawl and jump.

“Not only is all of this expensive,” I had complained, “it’s also dangerous. You can get infected with something, or break a limb or… You could die, Truman. What would you do then?”

“Nothing,” he had said. “I’d be dead.” He had smiled and squeezed my hand. “If I wanna climb the ladder at work, I gotta do more than play company softball. It’s what they do, Nic, and if I’m with them, I’m right there when they decide to promote somebody. We were about to jump off that bridge near San Luis Obispo when Keith offered me the E.V.P. slot, remember?”

“I understand the importance of networking and schmoozing,” I had said, “but we shouldn’t hang from bridges since they just stopped hanging us from trees.”

Truman had rolled his eyes.

“I’m not overreacting,” I had shrieked. “And stop looking at me all crazy like that. How many climbers died in avalanches last year? How many hikers froze to death in the woods? How many so-called good swimmers drowned during white-water rafting trips?”

Truman had nodded. “You’re right. It is dangerous. I’ll be more careful.”

And then, one late night, he called me from work. “You won’t believe the idea I just had.”

For a year, a camera crew would follow a quartet of ESPNers (including Truman) as they prepared for a climb up Mount Everest. Then, they would telecast the climbers’ attempt to summit. Truman’s bosses had loved the plan, but I had loathed the scheme, and had refused to talk to him about it. Because I had read Into Thin Air four times. Since 1922, 210 climbers had met their fates 29,000 feet above sea level. Who’s to say Truman…?

Truman left for Nepal on the first of May. I didn’t sleep much in anticipation of late-night or early-morning phone calls that would announce his death. I hated that telephone now. Its ring pin-balled and echoed throughout our cavernous house, striking bare walls and Mexican tile floors, only stopping once I picked it up—another reminder that I lived there alone until my husband, God willing, returned to the States.

Fear (of robbers, of rapists, of everything) also kept me awake. Since we were anti-gun, Truman had bought a 22-inch machete as a weapon, and I slept with it beneath the mattress. The television played all night, and every light in the house burned bright, and I never (not once) watched news stories about young women being raped, stabbed, and murdered in parking lots, in garages, in their beds.

On nights when the wind shrieked beneath the house’s eaves and the neighborhood dogs barked nonstop, and I glimpsed phantoms out of the corner of my eye everywhere I turned and dread pressed against my chest like an anchor, I checked into a room at the Sunset Marquis.

Truman reached Everest’s peak, only suffering from a frost-bitten pinky toe. He returned to the States three weeks later, enervated by his success, convinced of his immortality.

And soon, he would show our friends the “behind the scenes” climb DVD. He would see awe in their eyes, and hear them say, Dude, I can’t believe you did that. He would be seduced by his image on that recording, and would remember the cold and the coughing, and the sound of tents flapping in thin wind.
He would remember the thrill of it all, and I knew he would seek to recapture it. He would return to Everest, or worse: climb Alaska’s Denali, where nighttime temperatures dropped to 40 degrees below.


“This better be important,” Monica warned as I slid into the red leather booth. “I’m working on the Hertzberg bat mitzvah, and—”

“Mo, please,” Leilani said, fluffing ginger-colored hair that coiled past her shoulders. “Nic needs to talk and we need to listen.” Then, she winked at the very-married sitcom star seated two tables across from us.

Twenty-five years ago, Leilani Baxter and I had shared a dorm room during our freshman year at U. C. Santa Cruz. The Baxters were upper class Pentecostals from Cerritos, California. Douglas Baxter owned a construction company, and his wife Cassandra was his wife. Truman had forsaken the church for a math degree at M.I.T., and Leilani… Leilani was pretty. After graduation, she moved back into her parents’ home and had planned to earn a Masters in Social Work; but her ambition waned. Tuna casserole and Salisbury-steak dinners had become her Kryptonite.

Monica had also attended U.C. Santa Cruz, and lived in the dorm room next door. Monica, a Watts Ghetto B.A.P., wore a long, golden weave and giant doorknocker earrings. She matched her tennis shoes to her tracksuits, and drove her boyfriend’s purple Z28 until the repo man came for it during spring semester.

After Leilani ordered her third lemon drop martini, Monica dished about the spoiled Hertzberg girl and her secretly-bankrupt-hedge-fund-king daddy. Distracted, I stared at the backs of my hands, marred by yellowed scars made by Aunt Beryl’s cats. I had the strangest desire to tear at my hands, wolf-like, and my heart pounded harder as the urge to self-cannibalize grew.

Leilani bragged about her latest acquisitions—D-cup breast implants—and all the clothes she had to buy to accommodate them, including the hot pink halter dress she now wore that also showed off bronzed skin from a Barbados trip with Sam, a mortgage banker with a wife and twin girls.

“Wait a minute,” Monica said, turning back to me. “Weren’t y’all supposed to be at the Pantages tonight?”

I nodded, then pushed my fork through the mound of creamed spinach.

Leilani sighed, then fluffed out her hair again. “He flaked on you, right?”

I grunted, and forced a forkful of spinach into my mouth.

Monica glared at her steak. Leilani, eyebrows crumpled, considered me with silent pity.

Near tears, I reached for the red string tied around my sister-in-law’s left wrist, and said, “So what’s this for?”

Leilani slapped my hand away. “It’s a Red String.”

“I see that it’s red and that it’s a string.”

“Ain’t that a Kabbalah whatchamajig?” Monica asked.

“Yeah,” Leilani said.

“So what’s it for?” Monica asked.

“It protects me from the influence of the evil eye,” Leilani said in all seriousness. “Other people’s negativity keeps me from realizing my full potential. There’s some other stuff about Rachel the matriarch but…” She shrugged. “I don’t know all that much about it. Way too much stuff to read. And then they want you to go to all these classes and crap...”

“Amazing that you actually tied the string around your wrist,” I said. “Seems easier if you would’ve just kept it in your cheek.”

“Ain’t all this Jewish?” Monica asked.

Leilani nodded, then nibbled on a scalloped potato.

“But you believe in Jesus,” I said.

“Minor detail,” Leilani said.

“Our Lord and Savior is a minor detail?” I asked, eyebrows lifted. “Is this the same woman who told me back in college that I was going to Hell coz I listened to Prince, and wore jeans, and that this was a Christian country and we Americans shouldn’t have to learn anything about Ramadan or listen to some heathen rant about some false god that lives in some rice paddy in the jungles of east Asia?”

“Lei, you did say all of that,” Monica said.

“I’m an adult now,” Leilani said. “And I believe in what I wanna believe in coz I wanna do it.” Then, she turned to me, and added, “Maybe if you wore one of these, you wouldn’t need to pop Paxil and Valium.”

Monica smirked. “So this Red String is helping you with your… you know?” She sniffed with exaggeration, then swiped at her nose.

“That’s for recreational use,” Leilani explained. “Not for psychological issues. And I don’t need drugs to function. I can stop whenever I want.”

Monica rolled her eyes. “Spoken like a true crack-head.”

“Stop talking like that,” Leilani said. “It demeans us all.” She turned to me. “Why aren’t you drinking?”

I shrugged. “Don’t feel like it.”

“Bullshit,” Leilani said.

“Uh, negative energy,” Monica said.

“I’m not stupid,” Leilani told me. “You drink more than I do. And with everything that’s going on between you and Truman…” She tilted her head as though someone had whispered in her ear. “You’re pregnant.”

I sipped from my water glass. “You’re nuts.”

Leilani beamed. “You are!” She turned to Monica. “She is, isn’t she?”

Monica futzed with a napkin.

Leilani slapped my hand. “You’re gonna have a baby! Does Tru know?”

My eyes welled with tears.

Leilani’s smile dimmed. “What’s wrong?”

“She was planning on telling him tonight,” Monica said.

Leilani frowned. “You knew she was pregnant?”

Monica said, “Umm…”

“Lei, you can’t keep a secret,” I said with a forced smile.

Leilani arched an eyebrow. “Fine. Keep your little secrets. I don’t care.”

I touched my friend’s wrist. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you.”

Leilani grunted. Less enthusiastic, she asked, “When is Secret Baby Baxter due?”

“Don’t know,” I said. “I took two of those ClearBlue Easy pregnancy tests a few days ago, and I’m going to the doctor on Friday to confirm. I was totally excited about it; but now, after tonight’s wackness…”

Sympathy returned to Leilani’s eyes. “A baby’s gonna end the stupidity.”

I shook my head. “Wait until you see the latest stupidity at his party on Saturday night. Then, we’ll talk. Prepare yourself, though, and promise that you won’t act amazed by what you see on the DVD. That’ll only encourage him to parachute from the space shuttle or something.”

“Does he have a death wish?” Leilani said, as she slid the bill over to Monica. “Daddy died from a heart attack. Granddaddy died from a heart attack, but here Truman is, climbing up mountains in Timbuktu.”

Leilani was right: what was Truman trying to prove? That he was strong? That he was fearless? That he’d live forever?


Truman climbed out of his car as I pulled into the driveway. We didn’t speak as we entered the kitchen. We didn’t touch. Didn’t kiss. Strangers sharing the mortgage payment.

The house was quiet and cold. The living room smelled of my perfume and from the vase of Casablanca lilies sitting on the dining room table.

I retreated upstairs to the bedroom as Truman checked the locks and armed the security panel. I kicked off my heels, pulled off my dress, then grabbed shorts and a tank top from the drawer. In the bathroom, I scrubbed my face free of makeup, then wrapped my hair in a scarf—a nonverbal cue that I had no interest in “making up.”

Truman sat at the foot of the bed, staring at the hardwood floor. He looked pale sitting there, gazing at his blue Vans.

I hesitated in the bathroom doorway. “You okay?”

He didn’t answer at first, and continued to stare at the floor. “Tired,” he finally mumbled. “Been a long day.” He glanced at me, his brown eyes dark and troubled. Then, he stood, an abrupt and noisy motion in the quiet. “I have some work to do. You shouldn’t wait up.”

Alone again, I stood at the window and pushed aside the crimson curtains. I rested my forehead against the cold pane. Darkness and fog kept me from seeing much, and I glimpsed the meaty, red petals of my peonies on the edges of our stamp-sized back yard. Somewhere in the neighborhood, a German shepherd howled, ruining the quiet. I hated that dog, but his barks kept my mind from sifting through the tatters of the day.

I stared at my engagement ring—an oval cut diamond embraced by ruby and sapphire side stones. We had been sitting on the Hollywood Bowl Lawn when Truman slipped on my finger, and said, I want to spend the rest of my life with you. The Philharmonic had played America the Beautiful as red, white and blue fireworks burst in the dark skies above the city.


I glanced over my shoulder.

Truman stood in the doorway.

I crossed my arms. “Yes?”

“Where were you?” he asked. “Before you drove back home, I mean.”

I smirked, then said, “Out.”

His shoulders hunched at his ears. He clenched his fists and his nostrils flared. He was ready for 12 rounds of boxing. “Who were you out with?” he asked.

“Why does it matter?” I shot. “I wasn’t out with you like I was supposed to be.”

Truman glared at me, and said nothing.

My skin crawled, and I turned to stare at the television screen.

Outside, the German Shepard’s barks turned shrill—at war with a raccoon.

“Who were you with?” he asked again.

I snorted, then placed my hands on my hips. “I had dinner with your sister and Mo. Is that okay with you? Wanna call them to confirm?” I had told him the truth. Still, my legs wobbled, and the room swayed like a pendulum, and the walls sucked in as though a black hole had formed on the patio. It was panic. I knew that state so well.

Truman gave a half-nod—he didn’t believe me even though he had to. “See you in the morning,” he said, then stomped back down the hallway.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Craptastic Crap

This morning, Bookslut had a link to some Awesomeness from The Kansas City Pitch called Studies in Crap.

Each week, the writer features a published book so bad, it's... still bad but awesomely so. This week: Killinger: The Rainbow/Seagreen Case by P.K. Palmer. And yes, there is a slash in the title.

Here's a taste:

"Killinger hung up quickly to cut off complaints and because Marja-Liisa had moved his hand to her golden grove and had begun quivering against his fingers and her sighs had become deep."


"The man looked at the long splendid legs before him. He looked up past them and past the glorious rounds of the breasts at a wondrous face and long tawny hair. He rose to introduce himself.
'My name is Jeddediah Killinger the Third.'"


Stepping back a bit, he put his hand under chin and lifted it. 'Say ... prunes.'
With the word, her lips went into a lovely bee-sting pout. 'Prunes ...'
Killinger kissed her tenderly.

This is now a must-read column for me.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

The View from Here

Hi, all!

Just finished the major re-write of my WIP, The View from Here, and I thought I'd share the first chapter with you. Hope you like it!

A Conversation about the House

In Los Angeles, we avoid looking at people we don’t know, or aren’t attracted to. “Making eye contact” means inviting a stranger to talk to you, or to ask you for help. No one has time for that, now that rush hour traffic has crept from five o’clock to three. And who wants to talk to an unqualified stranger parroting quack advice picked up from episodes of Dr. Phil? In a city that boasts armies of ministers, lawyers and shrinks, all willing to lend a qualified ear, we don’t have to entertain advice from amateurs.

And so I did not acknowledge the seven other patients sitting in the waiting room of Orleigh Tremaine Newman – a Whole Person Corporation. I gazed at Angelina Jolie’s picture in People magazine and waited my turn.

I glanced at the blonde sitting across the room—Dr. Blanche Clark had also referred her to Dr. Tremaine. I didn’t know the blonde’s name. Didn’t want to. Asking names led to discussions about kids, husbands, jobs… Just like that: enmeshed in someone else’s messy life. Had enough of my own mess, so I kept my eyes glued to the slick pages of People like I did every week while the blonde tore at a napkin until tiny bits of paper settled at her feet like snowflakes—another reason not to chat—like she did every week.

A morbidly-obese pink-skinned man rocked back and forth in his chair. Not sure if he was a patient of Dr. Clark’s. I didn’t know his problem, but I’m sure eating played a role.

Another woman—a redhead—sat next to the fat man. She rubbed a blue satiny square cut from an old baby blanket. Freak.

And me? Just an ordinary, always-anxious Black girl wearing antiqued Levis and Gucci loafers. I had a house, a husband, a Volvo, and a job writing about groundbreaking drug therapies developed by CelluTech, one of the leading biotechnology firms in the country. A drama-free life in some other universe.

I never thought that at 37 years old, I would still need therapy. Doctors Daniels, Handler and Grinstein had fixed me. Sure: each had suggested that I continue seeing a psychiatrist for the rest of my life; but those were just “suggestions.” I’d suggest that all women consult a personal dietician and a genetics counselor, and to hire a maid. No harm if they didn’t. Merely a suggestion. And I considered therapy like that—an elective like Metals or Home Ec class.

During the spring of my fifth grade year, my great-aunt Beryl had noticed that I had “retreated inside” myself. “Your momma and daddy been dead for eight years,” she had said. “Why you actin’ all strange now?”

I had shrugged, then retreated to the pages of Anne of Green Gables. Strange? I had never talked much. Had always picked at my food. Preferred the company of fictional characters in books and on television over Aunt Beryl and her nosy church friends.

Once a week, I saw Nick Daniels, Ph.D. During our half hour together, I expressed my anguish through journal entries, word searches and collages made of cut-out pictures from Ebony magazine.

After Session 10, Aunt Beryl had marched into Dr. Daniels’ office to say, “You still ain’t fixed her.”

Dr. Daniels had cast a worried glance at me, then said, “Miss Porter, she’s lost both of her parents. That’s a painful ordeal, even for adults. And grief has no time-table. It doesn't show up like the Number 3 bus, rumbling at each stop—anger, denial, acceptance—until it reaches the terminal at the end of the day.”

Aunt Beryl had clucked her tongue and hoisted her purse onto her lap.

“Nicole’s bus has just taken an eight-year journey,” Dr. Daniels had explained. “It may be years before she reaches the end. She needs your patience and understanding. You are the only person she has left in the world.”

Aunt Beryl had glanced at me, her brown eyes—Dad’s eyes, my eyes—softer.

“You’ll be fine,” Dr. Daniels had assured me. To Aunt Beryl, he said, “She’s young. She’ll bounce back.”

I stopped seeing psychiatrists during college because college women often resisted advice from people with wrinkles and W-4 forms. We ignored The Man and embraced Oppression, stumbled around campus hung-over from weed or vodka, zoning out during French Lit and rushing back to the dorm for General Hospital. Angry, moody and high for four years—who had the time or the desire to see a shrink?

But two years ago, I couldn’t shake bouts of unbearable anxiety and insomnia. I didn’t perform a comprehensive search for a psychiatrist. Instead, I called my HMO’s customer service line, and asked for an African-American woman who specialized in death and grief. Gayle Clark, M.D., a wee Black woman with a small gray Afro, made pots of hot peppermint tea at each of our sessions. She had listened, nodded and prodded me about my parents, my aunt, about my renewed feelings of despair and abandonment, and how all of this was affecting my marriage to Truman Baxter. She had also prescribed Paxil to combat my anxiety, and Valium to help me sleep.

Truman knew about Dr. Clark, but he never asked what we talked about. Instead, he said, “Glad you’re talking to someone,” then returned to playing “World of Warcraft.”

“Someone” used to be him.

One afternoon, after discussing Truman’s late nights at work, and my sense of being ignored, Dr. Clark announced her departure. Her husband, an Adventist pastor, had agreed to build a church in Bolivia. Dr. Clark would follow him and provide family counseling for the soon-to-be-converted.

I hadn’t reached the “breakthrough” and “acceptance” regarding my marriage and life with my aunt like I had with my parents’ deaths, and took Dr. Clark’s news like I did every time someone left me: stony silence, my mind racing for things to do to keep them there.

Dr. Clark had already selected my rebound relationship. “Her name’s Lori Tremaine,” she had said. “And she is a jewel. A wonderful, warm human being.”

I found Dr. Tremaine’s profile on Find-a-Therapist, Inc. The white woman in the picture didn’t smile too broadly as she posed with a golden retriever beneath a giant oak. Her long red hair sat piled atop her head like autumn leaves. Do you feel detached from you life, from who you are? Does confusion and dread haunt you day-to-day? Are you exhausted by the secrets you keep? I can help you find inner peace.

Sitting here now, I doubted the woman’s wonder-working power. Her waiting room stank of old coffee, onions and the napkin-tearing blonde’s lavender perfume. The receptionist—a Goth girl named Piper—sat at a messy desk and polished her nails shiny black as the ringing telephone rolled to voice-mail. Boxes of copy paper and toner towered near a dusty, plastic ficus. A crumpled Burger King bag sat atop an abandoned computer monitor.

Nothing like Dr. Clark’s clean, bright and clutter-free waiting room. There, Kimmy, Dr. Clark’s receptionist, answered the telephone after the first ring and never ate obnoxious foods at her desk. She had remembered each patient’s name and most important, each of our prescription needs.

I wondered: did Bolivian missions use web-cams?


Lori Tremaine stood from her high-backed leather chair to shake my hand. “Nice to meet you, Nicole. Glad you could come.”

I forced a smile and assessed the woman’s handshake: limp. And: glad you could come?
As though she was hosting a Tupperware party. Or a wake.

She sported an auburn pixie haircut now, and wore a denim Be-Dazzled blouse separated from the denim skirt by a wide snakeskin belt the color of mangoes. Her hazel eyes, rimmed with green liner, sparkled as though she had just finished a bottle of white Zinfandel. She looked more like Reba McEntire than a member of the American Psychiatric Association.

Her office smelled of cinnamon and chocolate-scented candles. A large cup of coffee sat near the computer keyboard, coral lipstick prints around its rim. Every flat surface hid beneath stacks of papers, elephant figurines and pictures of the doctor and her life-partner on their sailboat. There were no chaises like you see in movies and television sitcoms. Just regular leather chairs placed before her massive, bleached wood desk.

I settled into a guest chair.

Dr. Tremaine said, “Water?”

“No, thank you.” Out the picture window, I glimpsed a blue ribbon of ocean—Marina del Rey—twinkling with sunshine.

“So, Nicole,” Dr. Tremaine said, sitting behind her desk. She opened a manila folder that contained two sheets of paper, then, glanced at me. “Why are we here today?”

“Well,” I said. “Umm… I thought Dr. Clark… You know… Did she, like, forward my file?”

“Let’s see...” The psychiatrist returned her attention to the folder’s contents. She pulled out the second sheet, then slipped on a pair of emerald-colored reading glasses. “It says here…” She read in silence for a few moments, then said, “Nothing much. Just a note that says, Talk about the house.” She peered at me over the top of her frames. “Does that mean anything to you?”

I shivered, then offered a curt nod.

Dr. Tremaine closed the folder, and said, “Don’t feel pressured to talk about that, though. We can discuss other issues first to become better acquainted. Tell me about your family life.”

“I’m here because of my family life.” I paused, then added, “Kind of. And it’s related to the house.” I scratched my nose and stared at the wrinkled lip prints on Dr. Tremaine’s cup. “Not just my family life now, but also my childhood… Not that my life now isn’t affected. Because it is. But my life then—that’s not the primary reason I’m here. Although…” Lost and nervous, my right foot bobbed up and down as though it generated electricity for the lights and computer.

“Okay.” The woman slipped off her glasses, then sat back in her chair.

She wasn’t taking notes. Why wasn’t she taking notes?

“Well, then,” she said. “We can talk about whatever you want.” She reached for her coffee cup and sipped.

“I’m not much for chatter,” I said, fighting the desire to slap the cup from the shrink’s hand because people in need of help don’t like seeing their care providers taking it easy like retirees on a Carnival cruise. “So, if you don’t mind, I’d like to start on the house. If you don’t mind.”

“I don’t mind at—” Dr. Tremaine took another sip of coffee, but didn’t place the cup back on the desk. She smiled at me with coffee-stained teeth and lips uneven with color. “You start then.”

I nodded, then shifted my leg so that the other foot could pump. “This will sound weird out of context, but…” I swallowed, then said, “My house is haunted... I think.”


I think.

As though those two words of uncertainty negated the heretical “house is haunted.” Because hadn’t I learned in church? The dead can’t haunt. They lay in their graves, awaiting the return of Christ so that they could either be caught up in the clouds or banished to Hell. For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing. Nada. Zilch.

Truman and I had visited a so-called “haunted house”—an antebellum Victorian wasting away in the bayous of Louisiana. We had listened to the Cajun tour guide whisper about the souls of runaway slaves trapped there, and about cold spots and mysterious crying, about pictures that, when developed, came out as blurry spots. “Ghosts,” the Cajun had said with a certain nod. And we had shivered in those cold spots and had heard the crying of tortured slaves and had taken pictures of creepy Spanish moss hanging from moaning oaks and had glimpsed the empty bedrooms where little white children and their mothers had died from consumption and we had our film developed and saw the blurry spots in each shot.

“They’s ghosts,” Truman had said in a Southern accent. Then, we had laughed and had placed those photographs in our travel diary alongside pictures of the Eiffel Tower and the Mayan ruins.

Saying “haunted” to Dr. Tremaine discounted everything I religiously believed. Aunt Beryl had never wavered from her strict understanding about the Dead’s state, never telling me once that my Mom and Dad were watching over me in Heaven—even though the Heaven story could’ve offered a lonely child comfort, and kept her from visiting the dungeons of her imaginations. But my aunt didn’t play that. She had scolded me the time I joked, “My mom is rolling over in her grave.” And now, to utter this “haunted” heresy aloud, and to a stranger?

Aunt Beryl was probably rolling over in her grave.

As a science writer, I showed restraint in the words I chose. Sorenifib may help prevent some kinds of kidney cancer. Because my writing had to remain hyperbole-free, my natural inclination to over-exaggerate and overstate eked out in other ways.

My house is haunted.

Not My house is noisy.

Not My house is too cold and makes strange sounds.

Again: not that I believed (religiously) in “haunted” anything. And no one had died in our house. The previous owners had suffered a huge loss once their fortune dwindled and the bank foreclosed. Their American Dream had died, but Carl didn’t hang himself from a ceiling beam in the living room; and Yvette didn’t slit her wrists in the master bathroom’s sunken tub. They had moved to Miami to teach graphic design to senior citizens.

But there was something… off and abnormal about the house. I must have been possessed the moment I told Truman, “This is the house I wanna buy.”

Once we moved in, I realized that it was too big, and had too many hallways, doors and walls. My voice echoed in the quiet on one day, and on the next, it didn’t carry at all. The stale stink of cigarettes inhabited the guest bedroom even though neither Yvette nor Carl had smoked. Long shadows in the living room threatened to swallow me if I wandered too close. And the grumble of the foundation steadying itself on the hill sounded too deep—as though construction had commenced in Hell.

Just a month after moving in, I walked back from the village coffee shop at the base of the canyon and stood before it. My skin crawled. Not that the house resembled a jack-o-lantern or evil incarnate like Shirley Jackson’s Hill House. Perched on a hillside in Beachwood Canyon, my house was a two-story Mediterranean, the facade partly covered with pink bougainvillea. It had a flagstone walkway that meandered from the street to the front door, and bushes of fragrant wild rosemary.
“Newsflash: houses make sounds and sometimes, they even smell weird,” Truman (a son of the suburbs) had said. “You’re used to living in apartments.”

He was right about that. After my parents’ deaths, I had moved into Aunt Beryl’s three-bedroom apartment condo in Culver City. Her house was never quiet. She owned 10 cats: Moonlight, Phinneas, LaLuz, Cooper, Sheldon, Olive, Peanut, Benito, Rambo and Orson Welles. Constant movement, constant mewing, the ever-present glow of amber-colored cat eyes in the dark.

Then, Truman and I married, and moved into apartments where our neighbors blasted Wu Tang Clan at one-thirty in the morning; where the aromas of bok choi and garlic spirited through the corridors; with carpeted floors bearing the footprints of people we would never meet.

In the canyons of the Hollywood Hills, the howls of coyotes and wind rustling through chaparral drowned out a woman’s screams. The earth overpowered all man-made smells with its rotting sweetness, and I held my breath every time I stepped outside. Smelled like someone had dumped a hooker out there in the coarse grass. That stink just didn’t seem normal. Also not normal: opalescent mist creeping across the canyon’s face from sunrise to sunset. The thick scent of evergreen sap drying on the asphalt, and in the bottoms of your soles. Sharp wild sage scorched by past fires. Wildflowers that smelled like cinnamon, cheese and peppermint combined—nothing like their domesticated cousins in shops and stands, flowers that smelled like…flowers. The canyon’s version of nature seemed heavy and aggressive, primal.

Never feeling at home (and for most of my life, I’ve never felt home anywhere), I had left most of the moving boxes packed and stacked in the guest bedroom. I restricted my living to my bedroom and the upstairs den. The house didn’t want me there, just as Aunt Beryl hadn’t wanted my books and pens and childhood all over her (and the cats’) condo.

“What do you wanna do?” Truman had asked once. “Move?”

My cheeks had burned because that’s what I had wanted. Yes, let’s get something smaller, something less isolated, I longed to say. But moving would have been impossible. The bank had given us the last honest home loan in Los Angeles, and we would have had to sell at a tremendous loss. And Truman doesn't lose. Also, I could not scientifically prove to my husband why the house gave me the heebie-jeebies. Not that I needed to produce a vat of phosphorescent ectoplasm, but it would’ve helped.

With nowhere to go, I swallowed my anxieties about the drafty cupola at the end of the hallway that shrank if I peeked out its window. I ignored my bedroom ceiling lowering an inch every night and the slow-spinning ceiling fan that would, one day, chop me up as I slept. I reasoned away the weird scratching at the window screens, and disregarded the strange flashes of prismatic light in the sky right above the hilltop. I ignored all of this (unsuccessfully) because lint and spontaneous combustion, open metal cans and lockjaw also freaked me out. I ignored all of this because my earliest childhood memories featured me nightmaring every night, the Boogeyman, Satan and Dracula hiding beneath my bed, perching on my shoulder, and tapping at my window.

A country mouse (in this case, a city mouse) unaccustomed to uninhabited bedrooms and chirping crickets and settling foundations and bubbling hot water tanks and the dark-dark night. And the cold. So cold in the canyon. So cold in the house.

The anxieties of a city girl. That’s all.


I think hung in the air, a cartoon arrow pointing at me, the woman God should strike dead. My left eye twitched so much that I had to close both of them. My heart—an organ or a mini-rhinoceros ramming at my chest wall—boomboomboomed, and as I struggled to breathe, my eyes filled with tears. One drop, and then another, and then countless drops slipped down my cheeks. “Holy crap.”

Dr. Tremaine gasped and sat up in her chair: I was a premature ejaculator, and needed no foreplay to get worked up.

Embarrassed, I diverted my gaze to the walnut-sized jade elephant near the psychiatrist’s penholder. I swiped at my wet face, catching mucus and melting dignity in the palm of my hand. “May I have some tissue?” My stomach twisted, pissed that I had to ask, and also because I didn’t see a box of tissue anywhere. Weren’t all shrinks required to sit a box of tissue on their desks next to the Rorschach blots, the Rubik’s cube, and the dish of peppermints?

“Umm…” Dr. Tremaine gaped at her desk as though it had transformed into a rotisserie. “Just… Hold on.” She darted out of her office, and returned a moment later with a handful of paper towels.

Paper towels.

Not tissue.

I dabbed my face with the paper towels (industrial brand, and so it felt like bark scraping against my face) and pretended to pull myself together. I’d never talk to this woman about my life now. Not ever.

Over those remaining 45 minutes, I didn’t mention my haunted house again, or about
growing up with 10 cats and Dracula at my window. Instead, I told the psychiatrist a fable about my mother Claire and my father Clifford. Before their deaths, Mom had practiced law, and Dad had delivered babies. Mom had favored rayon pantsuits. Dad had enjoyed chocolate pudding pops. They had loved each other, and had competed in ballroom-dance competitions to keep that love alive. While they were out fox-trotting, I stayed with the Evans Family, our warm-hearted next-door neighbors.

Four minutes to three o’clock, Dr. Tremaine plucked a prescription pad from her desk drawer. “I’m glad to have context for our appointment next week. Did Dr. Clark give you some kind of activity to do between your chats?”


I said, “I kept a journal.” And I had stopped writing after entry four. “She never read it. It was just to, you know… Get all my feelings out, I guess.”

Dr. Tremaine said, “Paxil and Valium, right?” She offered me two prescription slips and said, “I write in a journal, too. It’s a safe place to admit my fears, to open up and be honest with myself. I can write about things I could never say to anyone else. Not even my closest friends.”

I nodded, and slipped the prescriptions into my purse. Whatever, lady.

Dr. Tremaine stood from her desk. “So, same time next Wednesday?”

I smiled, and said, “Of course.”

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Sorry 'Bout That

I haven't posted in a few days - life's been happening and my mind filled with school applications, birthday parties and my WIP.

I'm almost through the gauntlet, though.

Oh, Snap! No He Di'int!

I think Stephen King is one of the best writers EVER. Before you say, "Eek, he's a horror writer," remember stories like Misery, Stand by Me, The Green Mile, various essays on writing, and on and on.


In this exclusive interview with USA Today, he talks about today's most popular, contemporary writers. He says:

Both [J.K.]Rowling and [Stephanie]Meyer, they’re speaking directly to young people. ... The real difference is that Jo Rowling is a terrific writer and Stephenie Meyer can’t write worth a darn. She’s not very good.


What do you think? Does style matter over substance? Do you believe that 'any book that gets kids to read' is a good thing? What are some of your favorite King books?