Nearly A Woman
by VICTORIA HETHERINGTON
"Sarah's a woman, definitely," Joseph said, and immediately I pictured Sarah sitting in our class, her helmet-like hipster hair and pin-straight gaze. She was only a year older than me – twenty – but it felt like forever.
"How about Eliza?"
"Girl, definitely," Joseph said gravely.
"She’s a girl," Joseph decided, stroking his beard a little.
"How about Victoria?” someone else said. I don’t remember who was keeping this crap going – probably he was rattling on all by himself. My wine glass grew sweaty as I waited for his verdict. "Nearly a woman," he said, leaning back in his chair until it bumped, rather gently, against the grimy bar.
If this were to happen today, I’d probably suggest he refrain from this sexist bullshit in the future, and toss the rest of my wine on his lap. But of course, if this were today, I wouldn’t be hanging out with someone like Joseph. That’s the thing: no self-respecting twenty-nine-year-old woman would, so he preyed on the nineteen year olds in his shitty creative writing class. To my credit, I changed the subject.
"So what’re you writing for next week’s class?"
He nodded several times before responding. "Just, you know, short fiction. I’ll send it to you first."
At home that night, countering my wine-dizziness with drug-store chocolate, I refreshed and re-refreshed my inbox, and within a few hours I was reading "Breakables." The plot centered around a thirty-something husband and wife, Cameron and Melinda Givens, who dolefully drifted through a house that seemed rather beyond the means of, respectively, a poet and a flower-arranger, packed floor-to-ceiling with plot-device-y tchokches and photo albums. Typical of bad literary fiction, there was improbably gymnastic kitchen-sex; there was a broken-down grandfather clock that Cameron refused to fix – ("I don’t know when it stopped, but it won’t start again," he tells Melinda, meaningfully) – and there was a young writer, Virginia, who just couldn’t keep her hands off Cameron, despite his feeble attempts to resist. Virginia was a spunky, nineteen-year-old brunette – precocious and nubile and nearly a woman. Of course, I was flattered beyond belief. Even so, while I could tell that Cameron was supposed to be this total poetic genius, tragically hindered by existential languor and heartbreakingly wasted in a provincial family life – there was mention of children dousing their pasta in ketchup – something didn’t feel right. I realized much later that Joseph’s characters could only be as funny and as intelligent as he was, and as a result, they were neither. It’s also interesting to note that, despite the already dismal limitations on Cameron’s intelligence, neither Melinda nor Virginia could be as smart as him, because they were women. Subsequently, they said a lot of things like this:
“But what does it all mean?" Rachel shouts, her large eyes blinking back tears…
"Can you explain?" Virginia cries, her red lips falling open…
And so on – in fact, variations on this question comprise most of the stuff Rachel and Virginia say, allowing Cameron to drop poetic insights like this:
Why do the commitment-hungry forget, in a split second, the longest view?
and, my personal favorite:
For a while I felt like an abortionist, in the lightest sense of the word.
On my way to the creative writing class the next week, I decided that, despite the canonical immortalization of ‘Virginia’ the nineteen-year-old nymph, I didn’t like his story. What was I going to say? Did he expect me to fuck him now? My hands grew sweaty again as I cut through a park. It was almost November, and the leaves that still clung glowed golden throughout the woods.
I stopped abruptly: Joseph was sitting in his car, hanging out the window and blowing cigarette smoke up at the trees. He kept his cigarette in his mouth as he pulled his long black hair into a ponytail, still leaning several feet from the car, then rolled his sleeves higher on his thick arms. He spotted me and called me over, offering a ride.
"Why don’t you just get out to smoke?" I asked, getting in.
We sat in the car, and I smelled the hot close car smell and watched three ladybugs crawl over the rear-view mirror’s Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear text – their yellow pointed claw-feet doubled and tiny; the road curling back into light-bending trees. Something solidified in me then, a sort of cold and slippery feeling.
"So," he beard-stroked, "what did you think?"
All of a sudden, I wanted to devastate him. So I shrugged. "I dunno. It was nice."
He blushed and started the engine, and we drove in silence.
The classroom, when we got there, was almost empty and full of sunlight. "Look who’s here," Eliza sang, gripping the end of her long red braid with one hand and flashing us a dazzling smile, and Joseph nodded briskly at her. Eliza and Joan had both been ballerinas at one point, and it showed. Our instructor arrived, all leather jacket and grizzled energy, and started the class at once. I shouldn’t reveal who he was, but many Canadians have read at least one of his books.
When it was Joseph’s turn to share his piece, I tried to catch Sarah’s eye in solidarity, and felt my stomach pound with excitement: surely our instructor wouldn’t stand for this crap. My print-out of "Breakables" had grown nearly transparent with sweat.
But Joseph left his story in his bag and took out a small leather-bound book instead, leafing through it slowly. "This is a little unorthodox and spur-of-the moment," he said, "but, if I may, I’d like to share a poem." Our instructor nodded, and Joseph cleared his throat and read aloud:
So I guess you’re my husband
she whispered the morning after, considerately
bringing me complimentary coffee and newspaper
and underlining our names on the marriage license with her finger
("Oh man," our instructor murmured),
Words don’t lie but poets do – I’m thinking –
Is there some way outta this now?
("Mm, m-hmm," our instructor went),
I’m a man, yes, torn between two worlds
Born and powerful in my own respect,
Proper appendages in proper proportions
and so, I am enough.
He closed the book, and all heads swivelled toward our instructor, who was gnawing on his fingertips. "Great piece," he said, leaning toward Joseph. "Great energy. Your work has such tenderness. And your women, Joseph – I mean, let’s just say: you’re a very sensitive man."
Joseph stroked his beard, and they smiled at each other.
"I’m actually working on a collection of poems, so this feedback is great," Joseph said, then looked over at me. "Maybe fiction just isn’t my thing."
After class, as we shuffled our papers, Joan leaned over to Joseph. "So you’re writing a poetry collection too," she said.
"That’s the idea," he replied, chuckling. I wanted to throw something at his head.
"How long is it," she asked, cupping her face in one delicate hand.
"Right now? You know, I’m not too sure," he said. "It’s in Word. Haven’t counted in a while."
"If it was me, I’d know every page of it," Joan mused, rotating her cupped head toward me. This was the first time she’d ever looked at me directly. "It’s so exciting – like where does it come from? It’s like nature, just coming from itself."
Then Eliza said, "I write poetry."
"Is that so?" Joseph said, smiling a cryptic little smile. "I guess we all write poetry." He leaned back in his chair.
"I – I read your blog," Eliza continued. "I love the poem you submitted for that contest," she added. "I can’t believe it didn’t win – but I’m so glad you posted it anyway." She half-glanced at me, and Joan cupped her face in her other hand, her expression inscrutable. The three of them left together.
I spotted our instructor standing outside afterwards, smoking and watching a couple of ladybugs crawl across the stone walkway. "Lots of ladybugs around," I observed, and he nodded thoughtfully. "There’s nothing for them to eat," he said. "All the other bugs are gone."
Poor hungry bugs, I thought, who dies first? The big yellow angry hornets, their brain-chips ripped apart by the frost? What do they eat – ants? Do all the ants die first? I imagined millions of ant-bodies under the ground, frozen mid-business, curled stacked little husks. I imagined squirrels seeking the ant-crypts in winter, burrowing through the glass-hard ground – white-gray, then brown-black, then black-black, yielding open tunnels at last.
"You know, Victoria," he said, "I didn’t say this in class, but the short story you wrote for this week…when you think about it in terms of its genre, it shows great promise."
My heart leapt. "Yeah?"
"Yeah!" he said, smiling a huge and genuine smile. "I mean, it’s such a smart move – people can’t get enough of chick lit right now. There’s a huge market for it – it’s just exploding! They just can’t read it fast enough. Good for you for getting in there."
"Oh. Thanks," I said.
"Yeah!" he said, clapping me on the shoulder, still smiling. "You know, I think you’re gonna do well."
On his way to his car he stepped on two of those ladybugs. I still wonder if he noticed.
Victoria Hetherington is a contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Toronto. This is her first appearance in these pages. You can find her website here.
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