A version of the below just won First Place in the Pennwriters’ “In Other Words” contest, during the association’s 30th Annual Pennwriters conference. It’s just been entered in the WOW Flash Fiction contest:
Moving Out With Barbie
I used to wish my parents would divorce, so my mother and I could have some peace.
We could barely afford school clothes as it was, so how much worse could it be without my father screaming like an outraged gangster in the middle of the night anyway?
As I nudged toward adulthood, it dawned on me that my parents could have lived totally different lives, separately. Instead of torturing each other for decades. Instead of inherently blaming the hypnotic vapor trail of a post-war society that told them divorce was B-A-D. Bad. But devout mothers didn’t leave their husbands, no matter what throes of insanity were unleashed.
One brawl cut through the 3:00 a.m., mid-seventies darkness and woke me out of bed. Mom threatened to run away. She sprinted through our wood-paneled hallway, yesterday’s make-up running grey trails down her cheekbones.
A Barbie carrying case the size of a mini-fridge sat in my closet, sturdy cardboard veneered with a layer of white vinyl as slim as typing paper. It held Barbie’s mod and glamorous ski apparel, gowns, tennis outfits, and plastic go-go boots, arranged in cardboard drawers and on orange hangers diminutive as paper clips.
I dumped the cloud of pink and yellow Barbie gear to the floor and stuffed the case with my less-appointed wardrobe, snapping closed its silver latch. Case in hand, I stationed myself at our front door.
Mom paced in the kitchen, left-over make-up swiped away, having transitioned into the next phase of the night’s argument. Never planning to attempt what she’d proposed. She stopped cold at the sight of me. “What are you doing?”
My grip tightened around the molded plastic handle.
Only my husband still remembers that when I was a teenager, I said I wanted to have six children. SIX. Also, recently my daughter and I asked each other what we thought we would be if we didn’t become writers. She told me she would have wanted to go into child care.
I believe that someone can only come to these kinds of conclusions when they have been born into a long heritage of absolutely wonderful mothers.
This is a true test.
I’ve since come to realize having an adept and caring mother is the most defining factor in a person’s life.
I didn’t go on to have six children, but that’s not the point. The point is I had such an outstanding mother that, if practicality had warranted, I thought I might have inherited the ability to mother more and more and more children… just keep ’em coming. And she’s the reason why. Because she was this amazing example, who to this day can make me feel be
tter just with the sound of her voice.
A lot of Mother’s Day messages talk about all the sacrifices and such that they acknowledge their mothers made, etc. Well, of course, my mother made sacrifices up the wazoo. But she never made it feel that way for a moment. She made it feel like she was just having the gosh-darn most rollicking fun time with us, even when we drove her crazy. I don’t know too many people who laughed more. And we still have fun.
– Skinny jeans
– The terms “BAE” and “Fleek”
– Breaking up with someone on Facebook
– Men with more expensive earrings than me
– “Teen Mom”
– Smart cars
– Music videos with naked people in them
– Fake eyelashes
– Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber
– Swiping left
– Ridiculously padded undergarments
Things I’m sad to be too old for:
– American Idol auditions
– Noah Syndergaard
– My size 3 black corduroys from 1987
– Making my kids’ Halloween costumes
– Ditto their birthday party favors
– Slam dancing
– A cute little two-piece swim suit
– Spiked heel platforms
– Summer break
– Day camp
– Bowie’s next birthday celebration
Things I’ll never be too old for:
– Harry Potter
– Disney parks
– The swingset in my backyard
– Chocolate anything
– Star Wars toys
– Perfume that smells like lemons
– Tossing my hair
– Eating only the frosting off the cupcake
– Clearasil, apparently
– Pink lip gloss
– Kraft Macaroni & Cheese
– Talking baby talk to the cats
– The Flintstones
– Dr. Seuss
Since becoming immersed in my latest work-in-progress, a new adult project, I find myself awash in the angst of the coming-of-age milieu.
This is when young women are set loose in the exhilarated world, while also at the same time being introduced to the inexorable weight of adulthood. I recall memories of the party-seeker on the cusp of realization, learning, gradually, that the more you chase thrills in lieu of happiness, the faster it evades you—and the more the delusion depletes you. In that light, I present song lyrics I’ve written and almost forgotten, which drape over my brain like a watermark pressed onto a page years ago:
MOST OF THE LIGHTS
Now and then I take my life in my hands.
Now it’s time for me to put my sandals on, let them scratch across the street.
They leave little scars like Jesus’s as they learn to settle on my feet.
And the people roll like traffic cars,
And they never look the same way twice.
A delivery boy hears me talk to myself.
Still he whispers I look nice.
Now and then I take my life in my hands.
So tomorrow I’ll meet a passing fool who is famous, or almost.
Flirt with nameless, light-eyed bartenders.
Swallow cool against my throat.
And it’s dark in here, but it’s atmosphere, and it’s everything to go.
I won’t blink—I can’t—I won’t miss anything.
For what it’s worth, I make the most of the lights.
I wander out of a neon crowd, meet the guy who played guitar.
And my ears are ringing in my driver’s seat.
I get robbed right in my car.
So I’m staring numb at this girl outside
Who has earrings longer than her skirt.
Got a ticket stub and a purse strap left.
I am silent.
I’m not hurt.
Now and then I take my life in my hands.
Garden balconies and men with tin cans.
Is it brighter here by day or by night?
I’m alone and I’m afraid and I’m tired.
Will this world take my life?
photo, Laureen Runkle
** Winner, Third Place, Poetry, Pennwriters 2017 “In Other Words” contest
I was challenged recently to post my choice of videos from the 1980s. Boy, did they pick the right girl. I thought I’d share my selections along with my commentary, for those of you who maintain a sense of nostalgia for the best decade in musical history. Enjoy.
Don’t be envious, Millennials. We’ll continue to share our sensibility with you.
The Police: King of Pain, 1983
To start us off, from The Police’s Synchronicity album, the above is some rare Australian video for this song, complete with a stuffed goat and a flaming dial telephone. This kind of eerie, Imagist camera work was considered artsy and cool at the time.
I went to the acutely famous concert promoting this album that took place at Shea Stadium, Flushing, NY, in the summer of 1983. I was 19 years-old. The LIE was transformed into a parking lot stretching across Queens, and I was twice rear-ended waiting in near-stop-dead traffic. We were so late to the event that we missed both opening bands, REM and Joan Jett, respectively. I didn’t even know who REM was yet.
According to Internet reports, it was after this one-night-only show that Sting decided to break up the band and go solo, because playing Shea Stadium (as did The Beatles) was a performance epitome for him, so he decided to move on to other pastures, where, say, the Blue Turtles roam.
Anyway, just listen…
Echo and the Bunnymen: Lips Like Sugar, 1987
Here is a quintessential ’80s dance song, although I don’t think I ever saw this video at the time. Remember, friends, there was no YouTube, and MTV had actually just emerged. Not everyone even got cable TV. So we mostly viewed these videos in the background as we danced at clubs. I hope the end of this one was supposed to be campy, because it’s as bad as some of the Godzilla films my son watches. However, the song is AWESOME, still. One other thing the rest of you ’80s people might experience: These guys all seemed so mature and intimidating at the time. Yet viewing them now, they look like babies. Oh my Lord, the perspective of a 22 year-old.
And dig that hair.
Talking Heads: Once in a Lifetime, 1980
Presenting the lead track to the movie of my life, and the theme song for my crew of girls in college. We made up a poster that had lyrics from the song magic-markered on it back in our dorm. We taped it to the ceiling, so that whenever one of us awoke on the rug the morning after a party, we’d see the lyrics staring down at us:
“And you may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?!”
David Byrne is a freaky-amazing genius and I adore him. He better not die any time soon, as losing David Bowie was enough of a blow.
Herbie Hancock: Rockit, 1983
This breaks out of my typical new wave mode, but still fits the technotronic synth-y club vibe we all grooved to at the time. I recently rediscovered this song and played it full blast, dancing through my house, remembering how wild it was with all its funky scratchiness and such.
Even my son, whose hobby is mixing “beats” all day on Mixcraft, leaned over our stair rail to ask, Hey what are you listening to?
This video was a gas in the ’80s and one of the earliest I remember seeing on MTV. The musical artist, Herbie Hancock, is funked-out fantastic. And the guy who put together these half-humanoid, half-obscene robots, a British artist and inventor named Jim Whiting, was quite The Bomb. I recall rumors at the time that the scene in “Blade Runner” where they visit the toy maker/android designer in his apartment, wherein life-size robotic toys wander aimlessly, was inspired by this guy. Although a current Internet search doesn’t back that up.
Not exactly Disney’s version of animatronics.
** I just learned I can’t post The Cure’s “Boys Don’t Cry” as an ’80s video as it was actually 1979. Dang it. Can’t use “Rock Lobster,” either. Same problem. Argh! ** Moving on …
Buster Poindexter (a.k.a. David Johansen): Hot, Hot, Hot, 1987
I’m going more late-’80s mainstream this time, although we didn’t know back then this song would become a wedding conga-line classic. Mostly I’m posting it because I have the real inside guff this time, as I was AN EXTRA in this precipitous piece of film making.
Left: Blonde in bustier. Top right, Sharon with long red curls. Orange arrow, head below Sharon with dark bangs: ME. I think.
Alas, hard as I try, I can barely see myself in it. Although refer to the arrows in the screen grab to the right. That’s us at the table in the indoor concert scene at the end. For four seconds. I see the exact table where we were sitting. I recognize the blonde woman in the black bustier dress who was sitting across from me. I see a fuzzy likeness of my friend Sharon who I dragged out to accompany me, and there’s my head below hers. The shot is nearly as grainy as a sonogram, but it’s us.
Here’s what happened: I was working at Columbia Pictures as a script researcher and had to call a club downtown, the Latin Quarter, to fact-check something for a script. The manager said, Hey, we’re having a party for David Johansen tomorrow night because he’s filming a new video. Why don’t you come down? I grabbed my buddy Sharon and we got painted up and trucked down to the place. I asked for the manager who had invited me.
An older gentleman in a bedazzled tuxedo coat met us at the door. He looked me up and down and said (and this was cute–not sure what he was expecting):
“Oh, sweetie — you’re much more attractive than I thought you’d be. Come with me!”
Next thing you know we were signing release contracts and he sat us against the stage. They filmed the end of the song repeatedly and shouted for us to dance, throw our hair, and scream. Which we did. It was a blast.
At the time, we thought it was some weird number that no one would ever hear of. Because frankly, it was David Johansen, former cross-dresser from the New York Dolls, in a 1950s pompadour hairdo and a formal suit singing a Latin song — not something you thought would become a major hit in punky 1987.
As it turns out, I’ve been able to tell this story at every wedding I’ve ever been to.
Tears For Fears, Everybody Wants To Rule the World, 1985
Screen grab from the Flock of Seagulls’ “I Ran” video. Tin-foiled camera visible in mirror behind keyboardist.
I’ll sign off with this one, because the video for The Clash’s “Rock the Casbah” in retrospect seems vaguely racist, and I can’t find the original video for that Thomas Dolby song. And the Flock of Seagulls video for “I Ran” is just too corny, with the cameras covered in aluminum foil, reflecting in all the spinning mirrored backdrops.
Soooo … I was studying a semester in England when I bought the album Song From The Big Chair on cassette, because all I had with me was a SONY Walkman. I’d hide away in the tiny basement of our flats and play this, and literally bounce off the cinder block walls. When I hear it, I’m re-infused with the excitement and fear and wonder and expectation of my life finally beginning. I turned 21 years-old in London. And for a few moments, in my little head, I really did Rule the World.
Notice I changed my banner on this blog. I replaced the slanted view of my living room with a pinky-orange fishnet placard that matches my Channillo.com short story series, “A Run in My Tights.” I also wanted to upgrade more from a middle grade to a “new adult” feel. More significantly, I changed the tagline from “Living Ironically” to:
“Chick With An Attitude.”
Time to own-up. At a recent GLVWG writer’s conference, I noticed a pattern.
Hint #1: As I explained my projects to a prominent branding consultant, she said to me, “You’re a handful aren’t you? I could tell from the questions you asked during the session.” Frankly, I felt like Little Miss Closed-Mouth at the session.
Hint #2: In a panel of literary agents/publishers, one of them said A) Barnes & Noble will likely no longer be around in 10 years, and B) print book sales are on the rise. I asked him, “So how do you reconcile that statement about increases in print sales with the fact that Barnes & Noble is going out of business?”
The crowd laughed. Like I caught him in a lie or something. I felt bad.
Honestly, I just wanted to know whether print books actually were back on the rise. (Note: He confirmed print sales are rising; Barnes & Noble’s predicted demise is a separate issue relative to its business model. Note: I apologized to him at lunch the next day.)
Hint #3: A volunteer from GLVWG read two pages of my waitress novel aloud during a critique session. In the scene, the inexperienced waitress is grilled by a potential employer. The session-reader caught me afterward. “Grrr,” she said, “I wanted to hear more of you in that story. I wanted to her tell that guy off!”
More of me? I don’t remember telling anyone off at this or any other event. However, I’m realizing that even in environments where I feel like Bashful the Dwarf, compared to the rest of the world, I’m a freaking steam roller.
Here’s the biggest tell-tale sign. Before starting the waitress story, I perused a stack of journals from my youth, and I noticed a distinct recurring theme:
. 1981: “Bobby says I have an attitude…”
. 1983: “PJ says I have an attitude.”
. 1987: “Danny thinks I have an attitude…”
. 1988: “Mike says I have an attitude, and I think he’s right.”
One other guy from this time frame—maybe a bit more of an intellectual problem-solver than the others—would calmly turn to me when I got uppity and say:
These were all formidable guys—the only type even remotely equipped to deal with me, apparently. Bobby was captain of the football team and drove a truck the relative size of Utah. PJ was a good-ole’ frat brother and avid Steelers fan. Danny was an Irish tough-guy from Queens. Mike was a law student who rode a motorcycle.
And the outright kicker?
One of the above guys, who lists counter-terrorism and military intelligence as professional interests on his LinkedIn page, broke up with me because he said I was “intimidating.”
Time to own up. I must be the scariest b-tch on the planet.
I suppose this is how I am able to thrive as a short-statured woman in an industry dominated by men. Large men. ADD/genius, entrepreneurial, C-level men. In the technology space.
Sometimes I wonder if I have any business hanging around with all these nice people in Pennsylvania. I fear that before long, someone will ask me to pack up and go back to New York.
Until that time comes, I’m going to take the advice of the above branding expert during our consultation (thanks SuzyQ). Just as I braced to be chastised for being too in-your-face, she said to me:
“No. I want you to run with this.”
So there you have it. I’ll embrace The Attitude. I’ll forgive myself for the journal episodes where more than one of these guys literally ran from me, sprinting up the cold cement steps of my basement apartment, while early-twenties Suzanne yelled things after them.
If I can’t get away from it, I might as well settle in.
I hope being The Scary Chick turns out to be marketable.
Aside: Note my flash fiction piece, Ex-smokers, which seems to pick up on this pattern….
Never go on your first date with a guy who asked your mother out first.
Especially if she has this near-psychic ability to pinpoint a person’s true character down to the bone within two minutes of meeting somebody. My mother was weird that way. Half the time she was mistaken for a giggly twenty-five year-old. She loved low-budget sci-fi movies from the 1950s and believed Bigfoot was out there. But when it came to a person’s character, she had your number the minute she saw you.
My buddy Marianne’s Sweet 16 party was at Pat and Jim’s restaurant in Patchogue, Long Island. The party ran long. Ma waited for me in the lobby, with her long Mediterranean-looking little-girl hair; as usual, smiling like a six year-old.
A D.J. named Domenick packed up his light board and cables in the front of the restaurant.
“Ey,” he said to Ma, unplugging things. “You missed the party!”
“Me?” she said. “I’m just a taxi service.”
* * *
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