R A C H E L A. L E V I N E
CREATIVE WRITER & Visual Artist
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T h e S t o r y o f M y L i f e
I am the person who knows the truth about literature, but I hope you don't think it was easy. I spent my eleventh year in the biggest library in Brooklyn reading volumes as dense as the pumpernickel from Schwartz' kosher bakery. All my books were greasy from the butter on my bread as I discovered Li Po and Basho. Oh that Haiku! All those mountains, flowers and snails fooled me at first, but I learned the truth: underneath it all everything ever written is about loss.
I have read stories that made a damned fool out of me, and some that handed my life back to me with an extra piece I didn't know what to do with. But I figured it out. Oh, I know, my type of person is as old as God. I come with a flotilla of opinions and everyone knows me. Even you know me: I am too serious, I am short-wasted, I always think I am right. People like me usually write drippy novels drenched in the puddles of their past. But not me. Why bother? It's all about loss anyway so why go on and on? One good character is all it should take. For example, my father. If I were to write a novel I would have a character based on him. This character would attempt suicide and leave four suicide notes. One for each of his kids and one for their mother. But what would his motive be? It would have to be guilt. Guilt that nipped at his heels all his life. Guilt that made his pee stink with misery.
For most of you, you will ask, what happened then? But what does it matter? I've always said plot is pure contrivance. Well anyway, he left his family and then the woman he left his family for left him. But then, as it turned out, he lived. The four suicide notes were destroyed by the mother. She ran downstairs to the apartment where her recently divorced husband was lying, banged on the door, got no answer, called the police. And then? And then the police came and kicked in the door. The character who played me (at the age of say, nine) would be hiding behind the upstairs banister, afraid of the noise, and tapping the small metal milk box, hearing the empty milk bottles clink together like chimes.
The Haiku version of my first chapter would go like this and it would be enough:
Four suicide notes...
The specter of death makes her father
The problem with loss is that everyone experiences it, so what is left to say? Come on, even you will lose your wallet, a tooth, a puppy. Maybe more: you will lose a glove and tomorrow you will spot a different glove flattened in the gutter. This is a Zen moment of loss.
Or, you might lose: The Person You Love The Most. Like your wallet, it might get returned to you. Most likely you will only dream it. And the dream will be complete with a song you had forgotten. You will get up and take a shower and hum that song innocently enough before you realize that this song is the ticket stub you need to return to your dream of loss.
Dreams and snapshots reveal loss better than a novel and they don't take so long to get through. Here is the snapshot of my second chapter:
The character who plays me is sitting on the stoop of the rented house in Queens, on a freshly swept street of Ozone Park. Her drunken step-father has come home from work at the print plant. He is crying and seems to be begging her to tell her mother not to throw him out. She is eating those Bar-B-Cue potato chips that turn her fingers all orange, and reading Archie comics. She thinks there is nothing worse to be than to be her: a chubby, frizzy-haired, sensitive eleven year-old girl. The skein of confusion of her life is all she can hold on to.
What the snapshot reveals, of course, is that it is far worse to be the drunken step-father, sitting on a stoop, crying to a chubby, frizzy-haired, sensitive eleven year-old girl. Or, perhaps, to be the father, (though he isn't seen in the photo) writing a suicide note to a chubby, frizzy-haired, sensitive eleven year-old girl. Looking closer, the viewer can see some fat, greasy books stacked on the stoop near her. The viewer tries to make out the titles, can barely discern one, The Tale Of Oublieta.
Oublieta is a character in a children's novel. She forgets everything each night upon falling asleep. Each dawn is her first. We are supposed to feel pity for Oublieta. We want to warn her! To protect her against the villains of her past who are soon to become the villains of her short-lived present, and her predictable future. Who, in fact, know of her condition and simply pull the same fiendish pranks on her day after day.
But what about the rest? Oublieta has been blessed! When she loves, it is expansive, without the heavy terror of loss, or the memories of loss, or the snapshot that was taken to test a new camera and caught a look in your lover's eyes you'd never seen before. He is staring over the picture-taker, beyond the camera, his arm only loosely slung over your shoulder. Looking at the picture, you know he is ready to leave, has been ready for some time. Remembering that day, you also remember how his too-sharp cologne hung on everything he touched, lingered even after he left.
But Oublieta will never suffer the pain brought on by the odor of loss. Or suffer us, like Proust, to read one million words, not one of which can comfort us.
In the third (and final) chapter of my novel the odor of loss will be the small neighborhood pharmacy where the scent of baby powder mixes with the crispness of fresh birthday cards and Ben Gay. Where the character who is based on me (say, age seven) unfolds her chubby fist, revealing to the bespectacled pharmacist all the money she owns and wonders if it will be enough to buy that Little Golden Book she has been eyeing: the one that smells like morning in the country and whose spine is as straight and stiff as the ballerinas inside.
Later that evening, the odor of loss is the Noxema on her grandmother's face, and the Bazooka gum, redolent, yielding in her mouth. The bubble gum comic she will sniff later, at bed-time, while she listens to the children's voices in the late summer night and remembers the long slanted sunlight of dusk. And how soon it was taken away - how soon it all went wrong. And how nothing can make it right again, turn back the clock, make it come back.
And so, why bother? Everything ever written is about loss, including everything you've ever written and everything I'd probably write if I ever bothered.
Copyright 2018 Rachel A Levine