Niki Holzapfel | 6 March 2017
“I wrote stories from the time I was a little girl, but I didn’t want to be a writer. I wanted to be an actress. I didn’t realize then that it’s the same impulse. It’s make-believe. It’s performance. The only difference being that a writer can do it all alone” -Joan Didion, The Paris Review, 1978
I was once in a class with someone who referred to Joan Didion lovingly as “Joan” and spoke of her with the utmost reverence. Rightfully so; the quote above—to me, at least—is brilliant. Writing creatively gives me narratives other than my own to consider. Not a unique conclusion, I realize, but one that makes the act of writing so attractive, so much more than a hobby to mock, so freeing.
The following piece was written when a number of narratives competed in my mind—when make-believe made the most sense.
“You almost done?”
She stuffed her big toe into the gap in the faucet’s spout, pushing until the metal scratched into her toenail. A few drops of water rolled down the back of her toe. She scrunched her nose when they tickled the inner curve of her foot, but tensing her forehead made the pulse behind her eyebrow quicken.
“Angie? You didn’t fall asleep did you?”
He drummed his fingers on the doorknob and then knocked on the wood of the door. The loud pounding made her shoulders jerk.
“Babe, you ok?”
She lifted her other leg from the water and watched the sheet of bubbles slip from her shin in one slow-moving mass. They hugged her calf until joining the other little mounds of bubbles, white as snowcaps. A small heap partially hid the scar on her ankle from pressing too hard the first time she shaved in middle school. Three perfectly straight lines, pinkish and pearly white.
“I hear you moving.” He exhaled. “Do you still have a headache? Need anything? Tylenol? Tea? I can go back to the store.”
The scars on her ankle turned whiter when she flexed her foot against the wall’s peeling paint. She smiled at how red her leg had gotten from turning the water up the hottest it would go. Red skin. The Redskins. Her mom had asked how their season was going. It was June, but Angie told her don’t worry, her favorite team still had fewer losses than the Patriots, and it made her mom smile.
“I’ll be out in a minute, ok?”
“You sure you’re ok?”
She rotated her wrist in the water, watching the black cursive of her mother’s name flicker in and out of view. Lucy. The signature was copied from a letter written ten years ago, before her mother signed the curves of the letters in shaky, illegible zigzags and before she quit writing altogether.
“Ok. I still have to hear how things went with your mom.”
How things went. “Went” made it sound like something moved, changed, developed. Today she heard, “Did you know the word of the day is felicitous?” Yesterday’s word of the day had also been felicitous and the day before that and all the days before it for years. Angie had quit checking what Merriam-Webster posted as its word of the day. The doctor said it was a harmless habit for her mother—Angie should only worry if she had fixated on one of the word’s antonyms.
With her pinkies she drew circles around the bubbles on her hipbones. Only start worrying if she chose a different word. Only then. She slid her pinkies across her stomach till they met at her belly button. “Always attached,” her mom had said. “Always my baby.”
She hadn’t showed her mom what now framed either side of her belly button. Three months old, the ink hadn’t begun fading. They were sketched to look like children’s drawings with only a few curves in the lines of their bodies and uneven triangular teeth and orange and pink coloring that went outside the lines. Three inches tall and a couple inches wide. Cartoon t-rexes. They never failed to make her smile.
She swirled the bubbles around the pink one. The 28th birthday present to herself. The one that hurt more than the other, for whatever reason.
The nursing home had smelled like urine, and lifeless figures were crumpled in armchairs by the entrance with arthritic hands folded over snotty Kleenexes. The receptionist, a high school student with bleached hair and black roots, never stopped smiling with her yellowing teeth and chipped front tooth.
Her mom had been sitting at the little wooden desk under the window in her room, staring out at the brick wall of the neighboring building through the sheer white curtains.
The second Angie opened the door, her mother started saying, “When you have kids, you have to teach them big words. Like felicitous! Start with that one. They can’t live their lives with nothing in their heads. Your grandma taught herself so many words. Stacks and stacks of books. I don’t want my grandbabies to be dumb.”
Angie had sat on the rough, pilled sheets of the twin-sized bed and stared out the window at a spot directly above her mother’s head.
Before she went to the doctor, she had the image in her mind of a mad scientist with giant rubber gloves and opaque goggles and frizzy gray hair standing on all ends. He would be hunched over her sliced-open abdomen, letting blood pool on the operation table. Blood dripping onto the floor would be the only thing she could see as he dug around in her organs, making exaggerated tying motions. Gene Wilder bellowing, “It’s alive!” in Young Frankenstein. Then Lady Macbeth yelling, “Unsex me here.”
She got her mom’s name tattooed on her wrist a day after she got the dinosaurs. A nod to the past generation and to the extinction of the future, all explicitly and permanently stated in ink.
In my mother’s words, I was her only child who actually wanted to see how the story ended. After earning degrees in English and creative writing, the same can be said today. I am most interested in considering how people tell their own stories in the controversial world of creative nonfiction.
Edited by Maria Elena Torres Quevedo and Kate Lewis Hood.
Didion, Joan. “Joan Didion, The Art of Fiction No. 71.” Interview by Linda Kuehl. Paris Review Fall 1978: n. pag. The Paris Review. Web. 06 Mar. 2017