Snail Trails

I was reminded today of Patricia Highsmith’s distressing little story, The Snail-Watcher. I read that story in high school. That was just about 150 years ago, and yet that story has never left me. (Slight spoilers for the story follow, so you’ve been warned!)

The story was included in a small anthology of horror stories for kids. I bought the book in 8th or 9th grade from Scholastic, through one of those little pink-sepia newsprint sale sheets we’d get every month in school. That was how I bought a lot of books growing up: Judy Bloom’s Forever, Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth, Lisa Bright and Dark … 

I don’t remember what other books I purchased along with that creepy little anthology. I do remember that the first story I read was called “The Man Who Sold Rope to the Gnoles.” It wasn’t exactly my kind of story. I put the book away for a few years, finding my way back to it junior or senior year, when I fell into Highsmith’s story … I think I put the book away again after that.

My sister and I were roommates for a couple of years when we first moved to the city. (I should have stayed roommates for much longer than that, but I, foolishly, thought I should be living on my own. Alas.) We lived for a year in Washington Heights and then moved to Brooklyn, to the bottom half of a gorgeous house. The house was half again as wide as a brownstone. We had the ground and parlor floors, the basement and the backyard. Heaven. I pay more today for my medium-sized one-bedroom than we paid for that excellent two-bedroom duplex. Sigh.

The backyard was a patio and an increasingly overgrown planting of flowering and pine trees. This was the yard in which we had the surprise of seeing a pheasant one day. We stared from the windows of our sun porch (seriously, we should never have left that place!), watching him in silent fascination until he took off, long and lovely feathers flying out in the breeze behind him. Our Rose of Sharon tree bloomed well beyond what should have been its season. 

Along the left side of the yard, was a worn wooden stockade fence, and growing up and across the fence were grape vines. I found this entirely enchanting. Grapes growing in the backyard? What was there not to love about that?

Don’t ask those questions if you don’t want the answer. What was there that I didn’t love? Snails and slugs. (You were wondering what any of this had to do with Highsmith’s story, I know.) Whole colonies of snails lived in those vines and the patio was crisscrossed in shiny slime trails. 

The one time I picked grapes from the backyard, I brought them inside and, as I was rinsing them off, I noticed the tiniest of tiniest baby snails clinging to a stem. It was so small I should have missed it, so new it’s shell was still translucent … just like the new snails that spell the protagonist’s doom in Highsmith’s story. I think we ate one or two grapes, but we couldn’t shake the fear that we might eat a teenty baby snail or two with the fruit. That was the end of grape harvests in our yard.

I found Highsmith’s story online today and read it again. I’m surprised by how much of the story I remembered correctly, how much of it has sat whole in my brain all these years. It’s a bizarre bit of business, and I’m really not sure it belonged in that anthology. Like “The Man Who Sold Rope to the Gnoles,” it definitely wasn’t meant for kids. And now it’s in my head again, refreshed by today’s reading. Swell.

It’s the 16th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
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Three Years In

It’s officially three years since running into the wall of Covid. On March 11, 2020, my job announced that we’d be going remote in a week. There was a lot of scrambling around to figure out what exactly that would mean and how we could shift our twenty-four programs from in-person to remote just like that (snap of fingers). 

How is it already three years? How is it that I still don’t feel as if I’ve come out of quarantine? I mean, I’m definitely not on lockdown anymore, but I kind of am, too. I go to my office most days of the week. I don’t wear a mask every moment outside my house. I go to events (masked). I eat in restaurants sometimes. I’m not on lockdown, but I haven’t fully re-entered the world, either. 

I don’t like the truth of that, the reality of that. I’ve been calling my attention to it for a while now … but not actually taking dramatic steps to change it. I’ve planned more in-person meetups with friends … but “more” as an amount is deceptive when I was having exactly none for the longest time. I enjoy my own company and spending time in my apartment, but I’m not happy to have let my world get so small, so solitary.

I have plans for pushing past my boundaries – I have a couple of trips coming up (both are for work, but still), have taken on a monthly event-hosting gig, I’ve started making more dates with my friends. It’s a start. The steps to living more outside than in don’t necessarily have to be dramatic, but there have to be enough of them happening routinely enough that re-engagement/socializing/public life feels comfortable, feels like the norm, feels like me.

I know I’m not the only person still struggling to figure out how to navigate this reality, but I do often feel as if I’m the only person. 

Three years is such a long time to have wrapped myself in cotton wool and put myself away for safekeeping. It has kept me safe – my cardiologist almost fell off his chair when I told him I hadn’t had Covid – but I have no desire to be hidden away forever. Three years. Time to start peeling back more of my protective layers.

It’s the 16th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
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I really am aghast.

I loved MAD magazine as a kid. It gave me access to movies, for example, that I wouldn’t have been able to see in theaters as an average 9-, 10-, or 11-year-old. Okay, yes, that access meant I was an adult before I realized that almost my entire knowledge of movies from the 70s was bogus, based solely on reading the MAD version: Marathon Man, The New Centurians, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Sting … 

MAD didn’t just take on films, of course. They took songs and wrote new lyrics. There was one written to be sung to the tune of “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean,” all about the slow descent of a house built on unstable ground:

My house it was built on a landfill.
I bought it in late '63
The top floor is now in the basement.
Oh bring back my building to me.

My favorite was written to the theme song from Love Story. I loved the original song and loved having a joke song to sing in its place. Both were songs about things I knew absolutely nothing about: the movie song was about romantic love and heartbreak, and the MAD song was about acne. I had experienced neither, wouldn’t experience either until adulthood. 

Yes, both love and acne bypassed me in my adolescent and teen years. I had my first crash-and-burn with love in my mid-20s … and my first pimple not long after, a little before my 30th birthday. Which was when I discovered that the MAD song had stayed with me, resurfacing along with that pimple and the many that have followed.

Where do I begin
To tell the story of this acne on my skin,
Those big red blotches that start forming from within,
The tiny blackheads that are clinging to my skin?

Where do I start?
The big on one my nose
It’s like a basketball, at time I think it glows.
I hate it’s color ‘cause it clashes with my clothes.
Is there an expert that can make this acne go,
Oh go away?

I’ve tried the creams, and every special soap.
Each time it rains, my eyebrows up and foam.
[line I can’t remember]
But it’s still there.

I thought it was hysterical and didn’t have a whole lot of empathy for my friends in high school who had terrible experiences with acne. As an adult, I was annoyed by my acne – it was often quite painful. And, along with the pain, it often left scars – but I still found the song funny.

This morning, as I washed my face and felt the telltale soft bump of a soon-to-be full-blown pimple on my forehead, I thought of the last verse of the song and realized something about the lyrics. I thought the writer was just being silly, but of course, they were telling me something about themselves … and warning me of something that could (and would) be part of my own life in the future. And I was standing in that future as I looked in the mirror.

How long will it last?
I thought at middle-age, the acne would have passed.
But now I’m 55, I really am aghast
[another line here I can’t remember]
Yes, it’s still there.

Yes, exactly. Me and my adult-onset acne continue to do battle. I’m 60 years old, people! This shit should be decades behind me. And yet … it’s still there. Still marring and scarring my forehead, nose, chin, jawline. Ugh.

“Aghast” is, truly, an appropriate descriptor.

The comical part – aside from the forever-replay of that (far less nonsensical than I’d thought) song in my head – is that other people don’t seem to notice that my face is an ever-changing landscape of scars. People are always remarking on what a great complexion I have, and I cannot imagine what they think they’re seeing. It is for sure not what I’m seeing, not what’s really there.

This budding bump on my forehead isn’t alone. I’ve had a months-long breakout traveling over the lower half of my face, plaguing the right corner of my mouth, then under my chin, currently the area around my nose. My budding forehead bump has all the hallmarks of a painful, scar-leaving pimple. It’ll be the newest addition to the shifting dot map on my face, adding to the one that matured on my chin at the start of the year, the one on my right cheek that darkened into maturity a few weeks ago.

Yes, it’s still there.

It’s the 16th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
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Sally, Suddenly on My Mind

Every now and then, I’ll be reminded of Sally. Maybe I see a woman in a suit and heels who moves the way Sally did or cocks her head the way Sally would when she was listening closely to someone. Today it was a woman ahead of me in line at the coffee shop. She was too short to be Sally, but she looked very much like her, so much so that I had to stare at her for a while to convince myself that she couldn’t possibly be Sally.

I worked with Sally a couple of lifetimes ago at one of the worst jobs I’ve ever had. She had both a much better job than mine and an awful job at the same time. She was a salesperson at a wannabe ad agency where I was a customer service rep. Her job gave her a better salary, but it also meant she had to work with my boss, the buffoonish, boorish, pea-brained head of sales, a man she was infinitely smarter than, classier than, more skilled than, a man who couldn’t respect her as a salesperson because she was “just a working gal.” He must have driven her even crazier than he drove me.

She reminded me of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis (yes, I just really wanted to write all of those names out). She had a Jackie O quality, a Jackie O look. She had the same squared brow, the same sweep of hair – blond, not brown – up from her forehead and back. Even the same set to her jaw and the way she held her mouth. And she had style. She wasn’t flashy, but she was noticeable. Her face was striking to look at, and she had a commanding presence. She dressed well – conforming to the late 80s businesswoman style guide, but with her own spin.

Back then, Sally wasn’t the model I aspired to. But I paid attention because I wanted to understand her. She was clever and talented and that made so little sense in that place where we worked. I didn’t want to be her, but I wanted to know why she was in that shoddy office, that low-rent agency, why she put up with the fools who were her superiors.

Yes, of course. Sally, like everyone else, needed a job, needed to get the bills paid and food on the table. Sure. But it’s so hard to believe real ad agencies wouldn’t have snapped her right up if given the chance. If she could be a good salesperson when she was selling our crap ad space, she could have been amazing when working for a real company.

I felt that way about the two other saleswomen at that agency. They were smart and funny and had their shit together in ways the men around them could only pretend to. But I focused more particularly on Sally because she was separated from those women. Every salesperson had a big window with an office, but Sally was in a cubicle like mine. She didn’t take all the working lunches and business trips the others took. She was on the outside, and it wasn’t clear why.

I wonder if it was how fabulous she looked – sharp, pulled together, hair like a lion’s mane, but in a way that still somehow looked sleek, that Bouvier forehead. The men in the office were more than happy to watch her walk, to salivate behind her back, but none of them treated her as a partner, as an equal. They didn’t pull her into their brainstorming sessions and rarely invited her to client meetings.

And I’m not trying to play a tiny violin for the beautiful woman who wasn’t part of what was surely a fairly scummy clique – no one should have wanted to hang out with those terrible, oafish men. But the other two saleswomen were sometimes included, were sometimes consulted. And maybe it’s the island-unto-herself feeling I got from Sally that explains why she’s the one who filters up in my memory from time to time.

And it’s surely also because of what Sally represented. She was young, but not in her 20s like our little customer service crew. Maybe her mid-30s? She was young, single, living comfortably in Manhattan, dressing to the nines. She was the successful businesswoman, the idea we were all sort of trying to be or thinking we were supposed to want to be. More than the other saleswomen, one of whom had ambition but didn’t seem wedded to the idea of the job, the other was definitely a go-getter (ugh, I can’t believe I just wrote that!) but she couldn’t have come close to Sally’s glamorous style and flair. And, too, both of them were married, so they weren’t like us.

But the thing about Sally, and surely another reason she comes to mind all these years later, is that she didn’t seem even the least bit happy. Not at all.

That held a fascination for me. How could she be and have seemingly everything I was supposed to covet … and still have such a bored sadness in her eyes? The set of her face when she wasn’t “on” was melancholy.

I wasn’t friends with Sally. We never spent any time together socially, not even the occasional chat in the breakroom. I didn’t see myself as being in her league and never made an attempt at office friendship. Thinking of that now makes me sad about young me. I was so far from beginning to embrace myself, of course I couldn’t make room for whatever Sally’s story was. But how unfortunate. What, really, would it have taken to include her in our ridiculous jokes, invite her out to lunch or drinks with us? We probably wouldn’t have been friends, but maybe she would have been less of a puzzle to me, a conundrum that continues to hold its secrets all these decades later.

It’s the 16th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
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Poetry Prep

Yikes. It’s mid-March, and I haven’t even begun to think about what form I’ll be writing every day for April (National Poetry Month)!

Whenever my poetry muscles feel particularly atrophied, Japanese forms feel like a comfortable place to land. Something about those forms seems to fit my brain –  even as the forms challenge me.

The tanka remains my all-time favorite. It floated up from the deep reaches of my memory at the exact right moment and freed up my writing in a way that felt magical. I often wrote more than one poem a day that year, wrote well beyond the 30-day boundary of April. 

Here’s the tanka I wrote during my first poem-a-day challenge in 2009:

Tanka for One

I am missing love,
wanting that internal sigh.
I’m walking alone,
holding my breath in the dark,
my heart both closed and open.

(Interesting how full circle I’m feeling after these three Covid years.)

I chose the tanka because of a story I’d heard on NPR years earlier about young adults in Japan reviving that ancient form because the five lines of a tanka fit perfectly into the small screens of their early-days flip phones, and they started writing poems on their phones and sharing thrlem … texting each other in poetry. I loved the idea of that, the reality of young folks randomly choosing to speak to one another in poems. And the memory stayed with me until I was ready to step into writing daily poetry.

Will I turn to Japanese forms again? I’ve only written a few, and there are so many more to explore.

I could also go back to the arun, the form I created (was that 10 years ago already?). If I want it to take root, I’ve got to keep putting it out there right. There are a few Slice of Life writers who write a runs from time to time, which pleases me enormously, but I’ve only dedicated a single month to the form.* A revisit may well be in order.

Or is there another direction, another rhythm, repetition, or rhyme scheme that will better suit this year? 

Time to do some research.

* Correction and Revelation: I went back through the years to remind myself which forms I’ve written … and discovered that I wrote aruns for two Aprils. And — much more surprising — that I missed 2016 altogether! How did I write no April poetry that year? That was a pretty miserable year for me, healthwise, the worst of what I call the Seaon of Surgeries, but the truly awful part didn’t start until late spring or early summer..what was going on in April that would have kept me from writing? Ah, the great mysteries…

It’s the 16th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
Head on over to Two Writing Teachers
and see what the rest of this year’s slicers are up to!

Original Slicer - GirlGriot