Nebraska

My Inaugural Attempt at a Short Story

For hours each night, a yellow and wilting Nebraska stared at her.

Without wane or want – in the manner that only a water stain is able – it thrived by the light of the moon. She began to count on its awakening, awaiting the secrecy of still and silence to revel in its beauty. From the darkness of her bedroom she would listen. When the television no longer peeled at her ears, and her mother’s bottles of the night had been collected and abandoned in the trash, she would turn delicately, carefully – savoring the silence – and bask in the warmth of her thoughts. The brush of the moon’s glow would paint on her wall silvers and blues as pure as sea glass. The curves of her Nebraska would glisten, gazing fixedly and intensely at her until finally, peacefully, she would close her eyes. A golden breeze would begin to lace along her eyelids. Car horns outside and drunken shouts down the street – the sounds of her world – would fade. When she would open her eyes, it was as if her world was never there. Fields of grain that ebbed and swirled would carry her mind toward an ocher horizon. A house, alone and undetected, surveyed this sea of gold: she would pass it every time. Immersed in a honeyed content light, she would look to the sky and inhale the buoyancy of her dream.

For hours each night, a yellow and wilting Nebraska would take her away. It would take her away from obligations, away from the weight of the breathless bedroom down the hall where memories, cuff-links and cologne no longer worn, were pressed into an untouched closet. It would take her away from responsibilities, away from the tinged words of her mother, away from the cold and keen emptiness that reigned within her being. She would cascade into sleep in the middle of her warm and lucid escape every night.

But every day she would wake up. Engines staggering down the street mocked her. The old man who lived upstairs – who did nothing but sit in his rocking chair and smoke his pipe all day – creaked on in somber sarcasm.

Trains poised to head west beckoned to her. The bus took her past the yard twice each day. At sunrise, the trains – dark and stoic metallic mysteries – were little more than shimmering reflections of the sun’s admiration; a new and amber light surrounded them. In the evenings, as the sun was setting and her senses lulled back and forth with the grumbling of the bus, the train cars were heroic silhouettes standing boldly in the foreground of the the plush watercolor that marked the end of the sun’s soliloquy. Watching the cars depart brought her a quiet joy. Many of them were empty; spaces for a body passed her one after another. Each was perfect, each the  key for which she had waited so long. Her heart was magnetized.

In the silky coolness of fall nights her mind ached and longed for deliverance. Nebraska shone in the silent air as never before, radiant and beautiful. Soon it was too much for her. She was overcome by desire for flight. Restless, her mind often denied her the comfort of her bed. Four walls that housed her life all at once seemed to shun her. The harrowing ruminations of the still night surrounded her and, like cupped hands, enveloped her sanity.

The peaceful midnight air of her doorstep welcomed her before she knew it. It was as in a dream. Onward she strode; the sidewalk was not felt under her two feet – which for the first time within her memory moved not against her heart, but with it. She was flowing, each breath a blanket of warm velvet inside her. Past rows of haggard homes she walked; they loomed over her with the wrinkled sagacity of thick, old oaks.

She was alone and undetected, entranced by the escape that was now really and truly within her reach. Three, four, five corners she turned – the way was inside her.

Swirling and spinning came to a halt as she approached the wire fence of the train yard. Just past it, a beautiful sight, held still by a fog as palpable as cotton, laid peacefully before her eyes. Lights orange and glowing kissed the ground under them with a felt radiance. The westbound trains hid in the shadows. She could not see them, but – like a note she could not range to sing – she knew they were there. Her future in the burden-less fields of golden Nebraska depended on them. She knew herself; she was ready.

Her fingers curled around the fence.

In an instant, her eyes clasped shut – she felt the sting of icy reality charging through her veins.

Fingers tightened and strained around the wire. Reeling back and forth she was taken into a trance – held captive by the force of inhibitions, of home, of what she knew and would know forever. Behind undulating eyelids she saw a picture frame, a little girl perched on the back of her father. Her nostrils twinged with the smell of morning coffee, black and rich, before work and school. She felt the musky embrace of an old grey suit, and as her senses surged around her the deep blue eyes no longer shared with anyone welled with silent, sentient tears.

Languished and limp, her fingers left the fence.

The sun rose the next morning, casting a new and amber light on the train yard. The trains would leave soon.

Engines staggering down the street: the first sounds of her new consciousness. A glance in the sober light showed no sign of the stain at all. It had become a name long forgotten, a town visited decades ago. The wall was a pale, empty hue. The old man upstairs – sitting and smoking and doing nothing at all – creaked on.

Rippling Reflections

Rippling Reflections

If by some miracle or act of the almighty I became skilled with a paintbrush, I know exactly what I would paint.

Shapes once rigid break from their silhouettes to babble and curve. The hues of life are both softened and amplified. The Sun’s light dances – skipping like stones – in the rippling reflections of the world’s creeks and streams.

Maybe I could wish upon a shooting star for a Freaky Friday incident with someone more advanced, artistically, than I (past avant-garde stickfiguring).

Something like this painting, by Norwegian Impressionist Frits Thaulow in 1901, would be my inaugural artistic work. I first saw Thaulow’s work at the Philadelphia Art Museum, when Water Mill was on display. The water born from the tip of his brush seemed to be from a different dimension than the structures which laid in its reflection. The thought of it today in class inspired many a doodle in my notebook, but none could quite capture the beauty I sought, If only, if only…

A High School Museical

High school, for the most part, is not at all like what the movies would have you believe. For this, I am eternally grateful.

The differences between the real and the reel are not hard to pick out. Not once in my high school career did I participate in a spontaneous musical number that involved, quite rebelliously, both the closet cellists and the basketball stars. What a choreographic nightmare that would have been. Not once was I ever harassed, or even aware, of the bible club. Not once, thankfully, did any of my friends or my enemies (even more thankfully) turn into a werewolf. All jokes and musical numbers aside, there is one characteristic of those harrowing high schools to which I, thankfully, could never relate. From High School Musical to The Breakfast Club, all television and cinema depictions of life in high school are built around assumptions and, consequently, social cliques. It would appear that the interactions within and between cliques is an integral part of any high school experience – but for mine it was not.

People got along fairly well in my high school. Social boundaries that may have defined the lines in other schools were, although not invisible, easy to circumvent. In the midst of all the other ridiculous things that occur during those times, it seemed as if no one had time for cliques – they were often pushed aside.

For a while, I took pride in this. When I met people from other towns, I would discover how lucky I was to be able to sit comfortably at lunch with whomever I desired. I learned through a girl from North Carolina that the unwritten rules of other schools were consistent with those of the movies, and that in her school, as in many others, fissures formed. They separated students who could have gotten along: dividing athletes from musicians from academics, and appallingly creating a cleavage between students of differing social class. After hearing of a few other high school horror stories to the same, cliquey extent, I felt far from all of it. I told myself, with an introverted confidence, that I would never be one who was sensitive to social boundaries and the assumptions about others which create them. It simply wasn’t me.

It is all too easy to tell ourselves things – to brush our insecurities aside – in order to ease our fear of what the truth may be.

That truth came into the light of my inward vision within my first few days in college. My roommate, with whom I had conversed sparsely for a week or two, seemed like a good guy. I get along with most people, so there was little doubt in my mind that he and I would be perfectly alright for nine measly months. Sure enough, after a few hours, we discovered some uncanny similarities. Our senses of humor, along with our feelings toward dirty laundry, the finest microwavable cuisine, and a plethora of other college-kid topics, were increasingly more the same than they were different. I liked my roommate – he could have fit right in with my friend group back home. But, for reasons that I at first did not understand, I felt a sensation of surprise that he and I had connected past a head nod in the hallway at all.

As I went to bed that night, I began to understand why my roommate’s friendliness caught me off guard. Remembering a conversation of ours prior to actually meeting him, I had an embarrassing epiphany – one that I could not believe I was having. Weeks ago, my roommate told me that he was preparing for football camp. Subconscious as they were, assumptions had clearly been made by me about my roommate before I had known him in the slightest. In an awkward moment, I realized that I was not above the clique culture: my assumptions were perpetuating the very thing that had disgusted me throughout high school.

I was channeling my inner Ashley Tisdale. It had to stop. The fact that there was, apparently, an Ashley Tisdale within me at all was an urgent and uneasy warning.

So here we are with this story of mine. The setting, the conflict, the rising action, the climax – all significant, all in their places. As time goes on, and my roommate and I connect more and more over characteristics which I assumed could never be found in someone like him, I am starting to discover the final piece of the story. I am starting to find a resolution.

In a world where assumptions are so often inaccurate, there should never have been a “someone like him” at all. Not when, in my unknowing eyes, “he” was nothing more than a collection of small talk snippets and Facebook fragments. I had assumed that a football player and I would have little on which we could connect, but I had also assumed that I was above assumptions. My mind had acted in ways that were wrong and could have been hurtful, and as someone who has seen others hurting, I knew that a better person within me had to emerge. Sorry Ashley. When our assumptions are wrong as often as mine are, it is best not to assume you know others – or especially that you know yourself – before you really and truly do.

Pancakes and Syrup and Power in Silence

My father is a wonderful man. As a tax attorney for almost 40 years, he has dealt with dozens of grieving and often broken families, easing them through burdensome decisions and reconciling the solidarity that brought them into his office in the first place. As a dad, he has had at least one child in the house for 42 years and, surprisingly, still has the patience and wit to put up with all of them. With hungry eyes, hungrier grandchildren, and a raunchiness that pushes ubiquity, they appear at his table for dinner. He greets them with a rib-shaking, forehead-veined laugh every time. Fortunately for both his sanity and his poor, overused forehead vein (it’s an Olson thing), that 42 year streak will come to an end this fall, as I settle in as a college student and my parents try and spread their wings as empty-nesters. As is the case with any time of change, the advent of this new chapter in both of our lives marks the end of the previous one. That chapter – for as far back as my memory will serve me – has been characterized by our Sunday mornings and, more importantly, the silence that inhabits them.

My father is a man of routine. Every Sunday morning, while my mom was working and my friends were sleeping, my dad would wake me up at the same time with the same coo with the same pancakes with the same NPR. Everything was always the same, and the predictability, the seeming constancy of all that went on those mornings, was truly beautiful. Sundays were our time, and as sure as the comics were certain to be colorful and Will Shortz was certain to be puzzling, my father was certain to be silent. We would sit and eat together, occasionally offer another pancake, and smile. Talk was limited to things of true importance: baseball, books I was reading, and, of course, the never-ending imbecility that was our little dog, Maisy. Far more important than things said, however, were the moments of content when nothing was said at all. I don’t mean to paint my dad as a verbal recluse, he is just exceptionally reserved. He could have been more talkative with me, but – in the most sincere and cherished part of our relationship – he did not need to be.

One of my favorite quotes from the movie Pulp Fiction would apply, crudely, here. It comes from when Vincent takes Mia out to dinner and the two of them find they are both equally demure. “That’s when you know you’ve found someone special”, says Mia, “when you can just shut the fuck up for a minute and comfortably enjoy the silence.” I love my father immeasurably, he is perhaps more special to me than anything, and I would agree with Mia completely. This morning was our last Sunday morning before I have to move away for college, and as I sat, predictably, eating pancakes and listening to NPR, I looked at my dad and realized that silence, when underlined by content, is such a powerful thing.

Mastering the art of silence, as my father has, is a difficult thing to do. The time in between involved conversation makes most people immensely ill at ease – it takes a very special relationship for the art to thrive. When casual silence is able to grow, however, it can blossom into an intimate tool to express care, respect, and love. With a kind gesture or a pat on the knee, it has expressed as much and more to me for 18 years.

Silence, underlined by content and with Puzzlemaster in the background, is the most comfortable thing in my world.