Between a ROCK and a HARD PLACE WRITE/LEFT@CENTER LITERARY PROJECT
Using the prompt “Between a Rock and a Hard Place,” writers were invited to submit essays developed around the ideas surrounding the exhibition Aggregate: Art and Architecture – a Brutalist Remix, curated by Westport Arts Center Director of Visual Arts, Terri C. Smith. The three award-winning essays explore situations that at first seemed especially bleak, but were somehow transformed into stories of unexpected beauty and hope.
Makeover By Megan Smith-Harris The entire east coast was in the throes of post-traumatic holiday stress disorder. Under the mall’s unforgiving fluorescent lights, everyone – teens, babies, career women, me – looked pasty and unwell, like extras from Night of the Living Dead. We were sick of winter. I wanted to shout, “Come on you guys – let’s hop on the next flight to Cabo. We’ll be sipping mango daiquiris by sunset!” But I didn’t. Instead, I crossed the threshold of Victoria’s Secret to return a crotch-grazing fuchsia satin nightgown – a misguided but wellintentioned Christmas gift from my sister-in-law. The salesclerk’s eyes swept over my no-longer “hot” (just barely lukewarm) body, dismissed me as unworthy of a leopard thong and matching pushup demi-bra and turned to a much younger customer. I slunk out, defeated. I needed cheering up. Maybe I’d buy myself a little something? I hopped on the nearest escalator and was delivered to the velvety interior of Saks. The air was rife with commingling scents – citrus, musk, ambergris, gardenia. I glanced at the perfume bottles arranged alluringly on a silver tray. The labels seemed to neatly encapsulate the cycle of life: “DNA,” “Beautiful,” “Passion,” “Amour Amour,” “Eternity,” “Revenge” and “Escape.” Only a matter of time, I thought, before some marketing genius cre1 0 4 I S S U E 4 0 . 2 010
ated “Dumpy,” “Whore-moan-al” and “Corpse.” I looked up and came face-to-face with a bag lady. What on earth was a bag lady doing in Saks? I took in the dun-colored coat, greasy hair, sallow complexion and empty eyes. Defeat clung to her like a bad smell. Where was security? I smiled. She smiled back. I blinked. So did she. In one terrifying moment of clarity, I realized that I wasn’t staring at a bag lady – I was staring at my own reflection. Good God. “Would you like a makeover?” asked a disembodied female voice. I stood paralyzed on the dove-gray carpet. “Going somewhere special tonight?” the voice persisted. “Yes … yes, I am,” I lied. “What color outfit are you wearing?” I turned slowly. Where was the person that belonged to that voice? There were so many mirrors, so much glass… I couldn’t determine her location. “A pale green blouse and a black suede skirt,” I lied again. “With black boots,” I added unnecessarily. “Nice.” Finally, I found her, standing in front of the Estée Lauder counter. Black Lycra pants (highlighting every gluteal divot), appeared to have been professionally upholstered to her ass; her ivory knit top, bedaz-
between a rock and a hard place zled with a giant turquoise butterfly, showcased impressive cleavage. Her nameplate read, “Marybeth.” She worked here? Marybeth’s blonde hair had been backcombed to Barberella proportions and her makeup was worthy of an aspiring drag queen, and yet, she looked inexplicably pretty. Once upon a time she must have been a knock-out. “Would you like a makeover?” The question hovered between us like a tiny hummingbird. Yes, I thought. I would like a makeover. I would like my face made over, my body made over, my marriage, house, and finances made over with maybe some career makeover tweakage thrown in as a bonus. “Yes. I would,” I said, surprising myself. “Terrific!” she replied and led me to her counter like a baby lamb to Jesus. “Have a seat here, Hon. We’ll fix you right up.” The concept of being “fixed up” was enticing. Since becoming a mother, I was so preoccupied that I rarely acknowledged my own pressing needs, like going to the bathroom and plucking stray chin hairs. Forget about bikini waxes and lingerie, my world was now firmly entrenched in Jockey for Her and elastic waist pants. How the mighty had fallen. Why did I put my face in the hands of a woman whose maquillage screamed “Barnum & Bailey” rather than whispering “Bobbie Brown?” I don’t know. I just did. After more than a decade of marriage and motherhood I wanted somebody to pamper me, to offer me sanctuary, even if it was a stranger at the Estée Lauder counter in a suburban mall. Or maybe I just wanted to fall in love with myself again? I parked my shopping bags and hoisted myself onto the black leatherette stool. While Marybeth busied herself assembling product, I pondered what I used to love about being me: the curve of my back, my bikini-worthy stomach, my cooking, comic timing, maddening optimism, perky breasts and yes, my intelligence. I used to feel smart. I used to be smart. Back in the day, I’d been a babe, a catch. If I’d been a guy I would definitely have wanted to date me. Now I just wanted to give myself spare change. The fact was I was no longer dating myself. No dinners out, no flowers. And when was the last time I made myself laugh? Bought a new outfit? Had sex? If I had stopped loving myself, did that mean everyone else had too? Had I been rendered officially unlovable? Ironically, I had no clue when the romance with myself ended. Clearly it hadn’t been a wrenching break-up but rather a slow, protracted deathby-obligation-to-others process. Was there still a microscopic flame of self-love deep within my soul? If so, could it be reignited? “We’re going to start with moisturizer,” said Marybeth, effectively
puncturing my flammable reverie. “Everybody’s complexion is dry this time of year and this Wrinkle Lifting Serum is fantastic for mature skin.” Mature skin? Wielding a rubber-tipped dropper, she applied five amber drops of fluid to my face. “This stuff is liquid gold,” she enthused, rubbing it in briskly with her fingertips. “It has restructuring peptides.” I had no idea what peptides were but the “restructuring” part was appealing. “At a certain age,” she continued confidentially, “the collagen starts to flow out of your face faster than cheap champagne at an Italian wedding. This serum begins rebuilding collagen in just two hours! See? Your skin already looks fresher!” I peered into the mirror hopefully. “Really?” “Really.” My need for reassurance was now bordering on pathetic. “What’s your name, Hon?” “Claire,” I replied, lying inexplicably for the third time. (I just always loved that name.) “A green blouse, right, Claire?” Marybeth stood in front of me displaying a gold case with a full complement of verdant eye shadows. “Um … yeah. But I don’t really wear any color like that. I prefer …” Nothing, I thought, I prefer nothing. “Neutrals?” “Yes!” “Lilac tones would really bring out the blue in your eyes – make ‘em pop.” “Well…”
I would like my face made over, my body made over, my marriage, house, and finances made over with maybe some career makeover tweakage thrown in as a bonus.
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“No point in getting a makeover unless you zazz things up. Am I right?” A new palette of violet, plum and aubergine appeared in her hand as if by magic. I hesitated. There was a good chance I’d end up looking like I’d lost the world heavy weight title. But Marybeth was right. I did need to “zazz” up my life – I’d just forgotten how. Maybe purple eye shadow wasn’t the answer … but maybe it was? “Fantastic!” she said, interpreting my vacillation as consent. “You’re going to love it. Now, some primer,” she said reaching for a glossy tube, “or ‘spackle’ as I like to think of it.”
Marybeth laughed at her bon mot whilst dabbing my forehead, cheeks and chin with the miracle compound. It felt good to be touched so gently, to have someone single-mindedly focused on my wellbeing. “Close your eyes. Relax. You’re going to look beautiful.” I closed my eyes and tilted my face up like an obliging child. She applied foundation in long feathery strokes and nattered on about her Christmas – a feuding family, incontinent dog, alcoholic boyfriend. It was incredibly soothing. My mind wandered. I thought about an obituary I read that morning concerning a woman who died of a stroke at 47. Fortyseven! I was three years older… essentially one foot in the grave… foot… feet… were my feet as wrinkled as my face? Would the Wrinkle Lifting Serum make my toes more youthful? Did people ever get their toes injected with Botox? Ugh. That would be crazy… right up there with “vaginal rejuvenation” – another wack-a-doodle concept being marketed to women to make them feel worse about themselves… market… I still had to go… what should I make for dinner? “Open your eyes!” said Marybeth. I opened my eyes and looked in the mirror. Staring back at me was an attractive woman with brilliant blue eyes. She wasn’t 17, but she wasn’t pushing a rusty shopping cart overflowing with garbage bags and soda cans either. Hunh. The purple eye-shadow really did make my eyes pop. “What do you think?” “I think,” I said, admiring myself, “that I’ll buy that Wrinkle Lifting Serum.” “Terrific!” said Marybeth. I handed her my credit card. “And throw in the eye-shadow too.” “Sure thing.” “Marybeth?” “Yes, Hon?” “Thanks.” She smiled and handed me my small bag of hope. I glanced at my watch – still plenty of time to get my hair done, buy a new outfit and take myself out for an exquisite dinner. It was going to be one fabulous date. Megan Smith-Harris’ career encompasses documentary, television, film, theater and radio. She is the Executive Producer/Director of SURROGATE STORIES, a two-hour documentary special about surrogate mothers and their intended parents that will air on the Women’s Entertainment Network in 2010. Megan is writing a satirical novel, BENEFIT, set in the imaginary town of New Stanwich, Connecticut.
SomeTrees By Christine Pakkala When my sister Kathy and I were young girls growing up in Idaho and Washington, we lived in houses surrounded by trees. We got to know many trees because we were always moving, first because our parents divorced, and then because our stepfather could not make
the house payments. Each house was a little smaller, a little colder and darker. But the trees were always grand, as if our stepfather’s situation could not touch them. The fourth house was even on a street named for trees—Elm Street. All that changed the spring I turned seven, and Kathy eight. My stepfather couldn’t make the rent on the Elm Street house. We moved for the fifth time—in the middle of the night—piling our five dogs and our belongings in the back of his round-top pick-up truck—to a little town called Asotin, in a trailer park. There, the trees seemed to agree that our family truly was destitute. The trailer park was set into the side of a barren hillside rising up from the river canyon. There nothing but scrub grew—sagebrush, small prickly pear cactus, yellow star thistle, cheat grass. Farther up, there was pine, and down below, by the creek bottom, there were willows and cottonwoods. But where we were, there was nothing to obstruct our view. We could look across the Snake River and see Idaho, where our real Dad lived with his new wife Rita, and that gave us a thrill, almost like going home.
between a rock and a hard place Even though we no longer enjoyed the shade of leafy trees, trees still offered us an indirect sort of protection, in the form of the lumber mill in Lewiston, where Neal sometimes got work. When he did, he drove back down the river road wedged between the Snake and a cliff of rock. There was a sign on the road, bluntly saying “Falling Rock.” Kathy and I wished for a boulder to flatten Neal’s truck, the way a thumb casually wipes away a gnat. It would have been a simple solution to his unwanted attention to my sister, his nightly visits to our room, where he pulled her from the top bunk. It would have put an end to the beatings he dealt out when he didn’t like my behavior, like when I drew pictures of Barbie and Ken with red loops between their legs. If Kathy told Mom, he would do it to me, he said to her. If I drew that again, I’d be beaten buckle-end of the belt. We wished for boulders, but he came home unscathed, smelling of
manager into calling the police about our dogs that roamed the trailer court. They came and arrested Mom, right in front of us. Neal, who had been hiding behind a neighbor’s tool shed, came out. After the police took Mom, he put his sons, our stepbrothers, in his pick-up and he left. I do not know who called him, but our real Dad came to get us. Dad’s wife Rita, whom he had married just a few months before, scooped us up at the door, one in each arm. She bathed us and put us in clean clothes. She fed us quantities of food she placed on a Lazy Susan, so that we could spin it and take another apple muffin, another slice of cake. In those first few days, we could not stop eating. We ate things we had never before tasted, like oranges and lettuce. We brushed our teeth. At night Rita tucked us in, and, when Kathy screamed us awake, she brought us into her bed. There, she soothed us with stories about her childhood in Boston, about how she loved strawberries so much that for one year, she only ate strawberries. She spoke with a Boston accent that was wonderful to us, as if we had traveled to a foreign country and could magically speak the language. Galls, put on your shots, we’re going to the library. Several months later, at a time when mothers were almost always granted custody, Idaho Family Court said we could live with Dad and Rita forever. We never had to go back to Mom. We were safe. Rita convinced Dad to hang a tire swing on a giant branch of the weeping willow in our new backyard on Warner Avenue. Underneath the tree, Rita gave us ideas for pageants. We were Egyptians once, with black lines extending from the corners of our eyes. She gave us pita sandwiches filled with cottage cheese and slices of peach, from another tree she had planted in the yard. I drew a picture of Rita and me, holding hands under a full green tree full of circular red apples, even though we didn’t have an apple tree. I suppose it was my way of telling her I loved her because I knew how much she loved the yard and her trees. When Rita died of a heart condition the summer I turned seventeen, it made sense to have her memorial service in the backyard, a place that she loved so much, underneath the weeping willow, beside the peach tree. Now, I am far from the trees of my girlhood. The scrubby pines of my years with Mom, their branches sometimes exposed on the desolate hillside. I think now that Kathy and I were like those trees. We were tough, and we could survive lack of nurturing and a bleak climate. But we weren’t thriving; we weren’t trees for bearing fruit. It took Rita for that. It was Rita who showed us how a peach tree could give up its fruit, and it was Rita who showed us that we, too, had special talents, gifts that we could offer the world. She tended to us, keeping harm away, and hunger and thirst. Rita was with us just long enough to root us firmly and give us a direction to grow. Here in Westport, it’s time to plant a tree for her. A fruit tree, I think, is what she would have liked.
Grabbing Mom by the hoop earrings, he yanked them out. oil and cigarettes, lining his work boots at the door and picking up his guitar, motioning for Kathy to come stand beside him. While he was gone, Kathy and I and our two younger stepbrothers—as well as our five dogs—spent most of our summer days on that desert-like hillside. Inside, Mom smoked cigarettes and entertained our stepfather’s brother, Uncle Pat, a Vietnam Vet newly released from prison. Our stepfather didn’t seem to notice how close Mom and Pat were becoming, nor the gentle swell of her stomach. In that sparsely treed landscape, we played among the tumbleweed, shielding our eyes from gusts of dirt blowing up suddenly. Out there, I burned, my redhead’s fair skin first peeling off in giant sheets, then freckling. My sister’s blonde hair whitened and her skin turned the color of honey drizzled on wheat bread. The sun beat on our heads and made us thirsty. But we knew better than to interrupt Mom and Uncle Pat inside the trailer. Instead we fastened our lips to the nozzle of the hose and we sucked down water until it felt as if we were drowning. We stole canned fruit from the neighbor’s shed and ate the peaches and cherries in the grass, taking turns drinking the liquid. We wiped our sticky fingers on the tall grass, and Kathy tossed the empty Mason jars far down the hill. But Neal couldn’t be away forever. Eventually Neal discovered what Mom and his brother were doing. He came home one night, banging open the screen door, screaming. Grabbing Mom by the hoop earrings, he yanked them out. The blood was on her, on me, as I held onto her legs. Kathy pulled me away, forced me out the fire escape door. We leapt into the darkness and tumbled down the hill, collecting cheat grass in our polyester princess nightgowns. We watched Neal leave. He didn’t come home. A few days later, Neal got his revenge. He goaded the trailer court 1 0 8 I S S U E 4 0 . 2 010
Christine Pakkala is a graduate of The University of Idaho, and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she earned an M.F.A. in Poetry in 1993. The author is currently at work on a memoir, “Stepmother Country.”
Diminuendo By Emily Lutringer The spotlight froze me like a deer. My ingrown toenails pulsed as the blood rushed to my toes; my decaying Vans sneakers stuck to the pavement. The light enveloped me, or perhaps I was shrinking; dread numbing my mind, reducing me to nothingness in this fluorescent white world. Like ghosts, faces hovered inches from mine, features gradually materializing, silhouetted against the light. “We know it was you,” a hefty, confident voice said, coming from the face to my left. Something touched my arm—like seaweed dragging me under, I was caught, suffocating, the light growing distant as the waters closed above my head. “What?” My own voice speaking suddenly brought everything into focus. Policemen, three of them, were surrounding me. One of them was taking my arm to cuff me. “What did I do?” “We know it was you,” the man repeated. “We have a video tape of you at the station.” I retreated into myself, pulling back my arm and holding it to my chest as if it was wounded. I took a step backwards, but one of them was behind me too. For the first time in my life, I felt claustrophobic. “What did I do? What video tape?” I was pleading like a freshly trained puppy at the front door. I disgusted myself, but that was the least of my concerns. Panic throbbed in my throat. “You tell us. You know what you did,” he replied, lips barely moving, his face like a wax figurine. Another officer—younger and squatter— chimed in. “We have it on tape. You were vandalizing cars in this lot.” Despite an irritated glance from the older officer, he continued. “Keying cars, slashing tires, breaking the windows… and stealing whatever was inside. Numerous reports.” He nodded curtly. I snarled. The last four months of my life had been spent trolling this parking lot. It was my home. They knew no one would care if they got me off the street and into jail. For a brief moment the thought was tempting. Free food, bed, heat, books. Freedom could be found from within, in small things, like forbidden rooftops and dumpstered bagels. The world was already a prison. A physical prison would have made me into a billionaire. But, alas, my pride intervened.
I no longer felt helpless. I was the gazelle in the front of the pack, knowing the lions would nab the stragglers. I knew they were lying. I hadn’t done anything of the sort. What’s more, with all the time I spent in this parking lot, I knew no one else had done it either. Whatever tape they claimed they had was a sham. “I didn’t do anything. You’re plain lying, you fat, bored, miserable wastes of life. You can’t arrest me until you show me that tape. You don’t got any proof, so get the hell away from me, you f—-ing pigs!” They moved in closer, menacingly. “We can bring you in just for talking to us like that, you stupid whore.” One of them tinged his fingernail against his cuffs.
between a rock and a hard place They reached for me. I ducked and skipped sideways, somehow finding an opening, and dashed towards the street. I saw a car, too close —I bit my lip and blinded my mind, running, running, running. I am the lead gazelle. Don’t look back. Run. The car shrilled like a banshee and swerved behind me, and then somehow, I was over the curb. I scrambled down the embankment and crouched in the shadows, the skin of my cheek against the skin of a tree, epidermis to epidermis. I willed myself invisible. I didn’t exist, I was nothing. I was the tree, I was everything. I’m not here, I’m not here. Instead of taking chase as I expected, the policemen got back into their cars and drove off. In silence, heart galloping, I waited an hour before venturing back across the lot towards the train station. Even the predator had abandoned me.
I leaned against the tiled wall of the tunnel under the station, bending over to dig a cigarette butt (already been smoked, stomped, rained on and forgotten for a year) out of a crevasse in the concrete walkway. A skitter echoed in the tunnel. A skateboard slid, upside-down, towards my feet. I helped it turn right ways up again, like a tortoise, and nudged it on its way back to the boy flat on his back, grimacing and groaning. He glanced at me and sprung to his feet, grabbing the board, giggling gleefully as if he had never felt pain. He sighed as he flicked his lighter over and over, trying to light my miserable cigarette. We slumped to the ground and ignored the stampede of polished black dress shoes tripping over us – which made it 6:37 PM, according to the tattered schedule that I had read countless times. We took turns coaxing the lighter, petting it, talking to it, praising fire gods and demons and spirits and promising it glory and riches, but to no avail. Our nonsensical incantations had inadvertently summoned our nemesis, the god of rain, as we set out on foot. We climbed up to the train platform, but of course, it was empty now. We walked down to the end, where a lone elderly woman sat on a bench, her chin nuzzled to her chest, a section of today’s New York Times over her lap. I turned my head sideways to catch a quick read. “Mahathir Tells Islam To Embrace Technology,” was the headline. I pushed my palm towards the woman’s face. She stared at my wrist, wrapped like a mummy with bits of found cloth tied together, safety pins, rubber bands, scars still pink and tender, and then looked up at me, startled, disgusted. She was expecting me to beg for money. I formed my hand to hold an imaginary ball, and smiled at her as I offered it to her. “Would you like an orange, ma’am? It’s free.” Confused, she took my vaporous orange and nodded, mumbling, “Yes, yes, thank you.” The boy had already jumped off the end of the platform and was giggling hysterically at my antics as he stepped onto the tracks. I leaped off after him and exploded into laughter mid-air, darting ahead as I hit
the ground, both of us snickering and tugging at each other playfully. The sky was thick and heavy, and as the tracks elongated endlessly behind us, we ceased to silence. The safety of the tunnel and my parking lot were now an hour or two back. I fingered my pocket hoard to lull myself along—a feather, a blue string, an unidentified plastic thing, an anonymous eightyear-old girl’s school portrait. My clothes stuck to me in the rain; I was self-conscious about my breasts being so defined. I lagged behind the boy, not wanting him to look at me. I wanted to be alone. He glanced back at me and winked a sepia eye as he veered off the tracks towards Main Street, probably to our favorite public bathroom with clean floors and with a drive-thru outside, which we ventured to at closing time to ask for leftover coffee and bagels. I, instead, headed towards the woods on the north side of the tracks where I could go delirious with the scent of pines in the darkness. I was chilled and weary, possibly bordering on hypothermic. These were the times that you envisioned all the families inside their houses, fires blazing, lounging on couches, smiling and playing checkers or watching TV all together. So warm, so comforted, loved and belonging. The impenetrable uterus of the living room. Feasts deserving of kings digesting in their miles of intestines, how they take
I am the lead gazelle. Don’t look back. Run.
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it for granted! How I once did too. And yet, out here in the suburban savannah, lightning resounded in my every cell. The docile world of men was no place for a beast like me. I am the humble, noble snail, picking up the debris that others left behind in their race to create a surreal collapsible world. I pull my musty blanket from the branches and nuzzle into the earth. A lone bird’s chirrups become audible as rush hour sighs to a close. Like diamonds we all are, innumerable shimmering possibilities for existence contained in each of us. By becoming microcosmic, one attainment of my infinite true potentials resonates in the heartbeat of the universe. I am nothing, but I am alive, every atom tingling with song! The darkness grows bolder, sheathing me, or perhaps I am shrinking. I watch the stars sear the clouds. I know that soon I will expand into a different existence, and yet, this is where I have always been, in some reincarnation or another. I am in the wilderness, ecstatic. ❉ Westport native Emily Lutringer attended Naropa University in Boulder, CO, and studied at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics there.
She graduated with a self-designed
major of Cultural Sustainability, combining Anthropology, Religious Studies, Environmental Studies, and Green Construction.
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