My school is calling for submissions for the literary magazine. I have always always wanted to do this, but either never found time (and by that, I mean forgot about it until it was too late), or had my artwork and poetry mysteriously disappear after I submitted it. So this year, my first year of college, I want to start anew and actually get something published. I didn’t want to rifle through all of my old stuff and pick something out, I wanted to create something new. So I wrote two new things, and decided to throw in one semi-old thing.
So here are three short stories-ish (I really don’t know if I’m defining them properly. Two are true, one is fiction. I don’t know, it doesn’t really matter, I guess). Don’t feel like you have to read them all. I feel like three is probably overkill. But posting them here will help me have them in one place, and then be able to narrow down my submission options. Technically, I’m allowed to submit all three. But I don’t really want to do that, because I also have two poems I’m thinking about throwing in there. Maybe I’ll post them in a few days.
Any advice, criticism, or feedback is very welcome!
Endless rustling, warm humidity, refreshing wind- words that probably didn’t occur to me to think as a ten-year-old. I was on my Uncle Stanley’s porch, standing in the only square foot of space left on his balcony. The rest was devoted to plants. Giant glazed pots of trees, vines cascading down to the floor from hanging planters above. I wish now that I knew all of their names. But in those moments, I could close my eyes with all of the emotion and freedom the ten-year-old me could possibly have, and exhale.
Exhaling and plants were always a recurring theme when I was with Uncle Stan. He smoked a lot. Indoors. Everything in his apartment retained the odor of his cigarettes. But I didn’t mind it at all. When I was very young, I used to sit on his bed and watch tapes of Winnie the Pooh. Once he let me snack on a giant can of redskin peanuts. He let me peel them and leave the skin on a pile on the floor. We didn’t talk very much, but it was a mutual quietness. A friendly quietness. We understood that we loved each other and got along without having to fill every silence with a conversation.
There were days when he, my Uncle Andrew, my Aunt Helen, my Granny, and I would squeeze into my Granny’s small car to make a trip to the store. She never ran the AC. Uncle Stan usually sat in the front seat, but this once I had the good fortune to be with him in the back. I told him in confidence and out of nowhere that he was the only normal one. He laughed heartily and flicked a cigarette butt out of the window. I don’t think he understood what I meant fully, though. He probably thought I meant he was the only non-crazy one out of his brother, sister, and mom. He probably thought I meant he was the most quiet, subdued, and intelligent of the bunch. And yes, that is partially what I meant. But I also meant that he was the only one I understood. The only one who understood me. The only one that didn’t make jokes about me being too quiet. The only one I felt really comfortable around. I wish I had clarified. But even in my own head, I don’t think I knew completely what I meant. I just felt it in my spirit. Maybe that’s what Uncle Stan and I were. Kindred spirits.
One day Uncle Stanley decided to send me quarters in the mail. It was when the state quarters were beginning to be minted. We were pen pals for a while. He’d send me the new state quarter in a little card, usually illustrated with butterflies or flowers. He’d then decorate the outside of the envelope with lady bug stickers, earning him the nickname “Uncle Tanny Bugs” from me. Or maybe it was a different occasion where I christened him. I don’t remember. But I definitely called him Uncle Tanny Bugs for a while. I thought it was clever. Anyway, I collected the quarters he sent me. I still have them in a big black portfolio with a map of the U.S. inside, all nestled into their proper state.
As I was too young to be told about the heartache of the world, I wasn’t told that Uncle Stanley had AIDS. He had been diagnosed some years before, I’m still not sure how old he was when he found out, or how long he lived with it. But I know he was pretty young, and I know the doctors told him he would probably only live for another 7 years. And I know that he lived for much, much longer. He took meticulous care of himself. He never missed a day of the endless pills he had to take. He ate well, he exercised in his free time. He was in great physical shape. In fact, I remember drawing his portrait once and giving him giant, comically large lumps on his arms- meant to be biceps. I don’t think I ever knew he was sick until I was thirteen or fourteen. I remember he had big blue eyes that kind of bugged out of his head. In a handsome way. And I never even thought of this until now, but he was the only one of his siblings with blue eyes. I’m the only one of my siblings with blue eyes, too. He had to use a magnifying glass to read, but I never thought anything of it.
Recently, about two years ago, he had some major health complications. He was hospitalized and had to receive a full-blood transfusion. Or something really complicated and scary sounding like that. We were told by the doctors that there was probably only a 30% he would survive the procedure. We all cried for a long time in the waiting room, even though it was a miracle that a doctor was even willing to work on him, to work with his blood, given his illness. We went in one by one to say our goodbyes to his unconscious self. I couldn’t go alone, so I went in with my sister. It was hard for me to speak. I knew if I opened my mouth to say everything I wanted to, I would choke. So I held his hand instead and sent my thoughts to him, positive that he could hear me. We really thought that it was over. But, of course, as if we could ever have doubted it, he survived, despite what the doctor predicted. One of the last pictures I have with him, he’s lifting up his shirt, showing off his deeply scarred chest, and smiling like his old self.
A few months later, he died. He hadn’t been rich, but he had paid for a plot in a graveyard, had paid for a casket. He picked it out himself. It was beautiful. Not even in a morbid way. It was a grayish navy blue, set with silver eagles evenly around the sides. It had something very nautical and royal about it. I had been to a few funerals before, and at neither one did I see so many flowers. Everyone knew about his love for plans, for beauty, and for life. At the end, before they filled his grave with earth, I went around to the bouquets and picked out several flowers I feel he would have liked best. I set them on his casket and told him once more I loved him, telepathically. I know he heard.
As I said, he wasn’t rich. He didn’t have much to give in his will. I don’t even know if he had a will. But my mom and his other siblings decided among them to visit his apartment and take whatever he may have wanted them to have. Things he himself probably would have given away to them at some point. It was a strange and difficult task for all of them, I’m sure. To go to his place, smell his smoky room, yet see it empty. My mom found old letters and drawings I had done for him. He had saved them all. She took an exotic looking tree from his back porch. We still have it in the yard outside. It’s beautiful. I’ve never seen anything like it. His name is Seymour. I don’t know if Uncle Stan had already named it that and shared the information with my mom, or if she named it that herself. Either way, I like it. Either way, I’m sure he would have approved. My mom gave me a bright pink teacup and saucer she found in his apartment. It’s beautiful and ornate. She also gave me a silver locket. I want to find a picture of him small enough to put inside. Until then, I won’t wear it.
Anyway, the point of all of this isn’t to make you sad. Or to make myself cry. I’ve already done that countless times. The point is to remember a man who was loved by so many people. To remember how precious life is, and to remember to always live it like my Uncle Stanley did. He valued life so much, as was apparent in his love of and connection with plants. He also never blamed anyone but himself for his condition. He owned up to his mistake, but never gave up on himself. He had spirit, a word I’ve come to understand since his passing. I feel his spirit with me always. Some months ago, my mom took my sister and I out to dinner. We were all having a great time catching up and filling each other in on our lives. My mom mentioned that she had a dream about Uncle Stan. She said in the dream, she got a call from him. She was aware of the fact that he was dead in the dream, so the call came as a shock. She asked him “Where are you? How are you?” He reassured her, “Just look at your phone, just look at your phone, Liz.” And he hung up. She did as he had told her, and looked at the screen on her phone. She saw a forest. Green and full of sunlight. She awoke with a start, her heart full of incredible sadness, but simultaneously knowing he was fine. Spirit. We all started crying at the restaurant. Our waiter came to the table, unaware at first, but left bewildered to get some water for our glasses. We were happy, I think. I can’t think about it without tearing up, but I’m glad my mom shared the dream with us.
One day recently, on one of the last days of glorious heat and sun before winter set in, I sat outside at a wrought iron table, reclining and turning my face to the warm sun. A song came on my iPod that I once had loved, but stopped listening to because it reminded me of Uncle Stan’s funeral. I had shoved my headphones deep into my ears in the car that day. I played that song for myself in hopes that I could stop the warm tide of tears threatening to break on the shore of the dark circles under my eyes. Ever since, I hadn’t wanted to revisit the song. But I let it play. I let it play and I felt the sun on my skin and I looked at the giant oak tree above me. I smiled. I knew Uncle Stanley was visiting me. And for that moment, all I thought, all I felt, all I knew was endless rustling, warm humidity, refreshing wind. I exhaled.
*NOTE: I have deleted the second story because I felt weird about it.*
“Go on,” the last words my dad said before he died. The words that made me realize I was alive.
I was the only one at the hospital with him when it happened. It was morning, and I’d just arrived. He died right there in front of me, his hand in my hands, perfectly neutral, like always. I just stood there, staring but not really seeing anything. I sighed and called my mom.
Two weeks later I was on a plane. I told everyone it was to get away for a while, but I knew I had no intention of coming back. You see, unlike everyone else, I wasn’t grieving. Yes, my dad died. No, I wasn’t sad about it. I had known it was coming even before we learned about his illness, so I had some time to prepare. When I was younger, some girl in my gym class read my palm and told me my life line was broken. “It stops abruptly. Which means death.” She told me. And somehow I always knew the “death” would be my dad.
I always felt like my dad somehow got me. Even though we talked relatively little all through my life, he’d always understood and never given me a hard time for the things that he knew hurt me, which is why his words “go on” struck me so much. They moved me- literally. A few years ago, I met this guy online, and really liked him. At the time I felt really messed up about it. Not because I thought it was weird, but because the situation was unfamiliar and strange to everyone else. He lives in Spain. Let’s just say that’s far from me. Very far. I hated having to explain that to people. I hated when they’d ask me “so you’ve never actually met him?” with judgmental looks on their faces.
I was the most afraid to tell my dad about it. And I didn’t tell him for a long time. When he finally found out about it, he never really said anything to me. I still don’t know what his opinion was, but I was grateful he never brought up such an awkward topic. But I think he knew it was important to me, and I think he knew the reasoning behind my choice (Who says your true love has to be here? In the dirty city you’ve been stuck in all your life? Chances are your perfect match isn’t going to be your next door neighbor or someone in your math class. Why would you ever want to spend your life with one of the superficial kids from your high school you always hated- the ones who never understood you?). So I chose to take those words “go on” to mean “live and love your life.” And I knew I couldn’t love life stuck in the same place I’ve been fighting to get out of since day one.
So when I got on the plane, I sat quietly and calmly with my eyes either closed or unfocused and gazing out of the window. I studied my hands and remembered the second part of my gym class palm reading. After revealing the inevitable death I would experience in my life, the girl continued, “but see, it comes back over here, almost like you will be reborn. It means you’ll go on.”