I can’t believe how real life never lets you down.
I can’t understand why anyone would write fiction
when what actually happens is so amazing.
– Nora Ephron
They were pink cigars
Like an unexpected and unwelcome delivery of cries and screams, my sister is born. I am four years old in pre-school and presented with a box of pink bubblegum “cigars” to share with my fellow classmates. My mother affixes a metal button to my Strawberry Shortcake T-shirt of the “I’m a Big Sister” variety to wear at school.
A baby is now living with my mom, my dad and me. I am not amused.
Thank you for calling Jobs, Inc.
Around eight or nine years old, while my female classmates play house or school, I play office. My bedroom is transformed into a modest, low rent workspace with Berber carpeting, crayon scribbles on the walls, and horribly bad lighting. OSHA would most certainly not approve A tiny table becomes my desk. Paper, scissors, and pens lifted from our kitchen drawer serve as office supplies. An antique black rotary-dial phone becomes the sole connection to my client base (even though the phone lacks a dial tone and a cord).
“Thank you for calling Jobs, Inc.,” I say into the silent phone. “We help people find jobs.”
My work is simple: finding jobs for imaginary customers.
But my dolls and stuffed animals are put to good use; they become my secretaries.
The scar is still there
My sister, younger than me by nearly five years, chases me across our driveway with a running garden hose. The icy water sprays forth a powerful stream intended to do great harm, soaking me to the bone. I am upset, a bit of a “Miss Priss,” and don’t like getting dirty – or wet, for that matter.
Clumsiness claims my balance, sending me falling on a rusty grate. The result is a bloody gash, a blood-curdling scream, followed by a scar I wear well into my 30s.
But I get revenge on my sister years later: I slam her leg in a car door.
“Serves you right,” I say to myself.
I will never be able to cook
My mom purchases a “one-step,” oversized chocolate chip cookie from the grocery store. But rather than simply remove the cardboard from the aluminum pan, I remove the flat circle of cookie dough and place it directly on the oven grates, as if preparing a frozen pizza.
The cookie dough is burning as a thick gray plume of smoke rises from the oven door.
I now have a mess on my hands, the charred sticky mess like freshly poured asphalt steaming on a scorching summer afternoon. I will never be able to cook.
You’ve become a woman
In seventh grade I wear my first bra, and think such a change is coming much too fast.
Defying the onset of womanhood, I outright refuse to shave my legs. The dark hair on my legs grows and grows, and the kids in my Catholic school class tease and tease. I could care less.
By freshman year of high school, I have discovered just how nice my legs look when clean shaven. I borrow my mom’s razor, shaving cream, and never look back.
Writing is what I’m supposed to do, but boys still won’t like me
It is my senior year of high school. While selling advertising for my student newspaper, I develop the idea to study a generic form of “business” in college. A classmate doesn’t turn in an article for the next issue and I’m asked to fill in.
I write the article. The process of putting thoughts to paper and telling a story enchants me.
It becomes love at first write.
The next day I travel to the college registrar and change my major from business to journalism, floating on air while walking through the sun-soaked campus.
Senior prom grows near. Without a date and zero prospects, I commandeer space in our student newspaper to pen a column called “Nice Girls are Often Overlooked.” I end the column with a request for a date and later learn of my nomination to prom court.
I select a flowing gown from JC Penney, get my hair done, and smile while wearing the cheap, sparkly crown. I’m not named Prom Queen, but am still pleased with the outcome: people have read my column.
Writing is what I’m supposed to do, and boys still won’t like me … maybe
Within months of my freshman year of college I join the student newspaper. My very first story is on the new student directors of the marching band.
The story makes the front page, and I find myself literally in a state of rapture. Cloud 9 becomes home and feels quite comfortable.
While maintaining a mediocre grade point average, I spend an unhealthy number of hours working at the newspaper. I write five, six stories per issue, working my way up from staff writer, to news editor and, the following year, editor in chief.
The newspaper’s I.T. guy becomes a close friend. Long hours and late-night production certainly don’t hinder a blossoming first love.
“But you have a girlfriend,” I say, convinced the relationship will go nowhere.
Yet we keep our young romance a secret, until he leaves his girlfriend and our relationship is out in the open. The cat is flung from the proverbial bag when his shoes and wallet are left in the photographer’s darkroom one night.
We begin dating and eventually move in together. I leave the newspaper after an exceptionally bloated two-years of work and find myself exhausted.
He just doesn’t think it’s going to work out
My college newspaper romance evolves and he later becomes my fiancé. It’s a relatively unromantic story as far as proposals go: there isn’t one. We decide to wed and travel together to a local jewelry store to purchase my engagement ring: a lovely diamond set in white gold, its sparkle and fire brilliant as a shooting star.
We purchase the ring but make a deal with the saleswoman: if my dad objects to the marriage, the ring shall be returned for a full refund, no questions asked.
He visits my dad while I wait at my mom’s house. He returns with a grin; my dad said yes.
I slip on the ring and we spend the day at a friend’s wedding. It is a gorgeous and beautiful and perfect day.
“This will be us,” I whisper to my fiancé.
Months pass. We fight. I move home. He calls me on a Thursday.
“I just don’t think this is going to work out,” he says. I plead and cry and beg him to change his mind. He does not.
The next day I am sitting in a cramped cubicle. It’s the first day of my new job at a weekly newspaper. While slumped over my desk, tears drip from my eyes. For the first time in a long time, I realize, with great panic, that I have no plan.
It still stings
A boy I am dating wants to go farther than I’d care to. I resist. He quits calling.
Weeks pass. While lying on my mom’s couch, rivers of tears seep from my eyes. The tears are slick and wet, leaving salty tracks down my cheeks. I am heartbroken from a relationship that lasted just a few weeks. I don’t feel silly from such sadness after a short amount of time.
“But it still stings,” my mom says.
I find my voice
I graduate from college in the spring and need a full-time job. A reporting job opens at a weekly newspaper in a nearby town that fall.
I am the only female on an editorial staff of five men, working late and writing a lot. I conduct lengthy interviews with my subjects and couldn’t be more proud of the articles that are written.
I meet a family who adopted twin daughters and, 18 years later are reunited with the birth mother. The article is published in three sections and it earns me a statewide writing award.
I need more green
While I love my newspaper job, I am flat broke. A weekend job soon follows, answering the phone at a business that sells mobile homes – although they like to call them trailers.
Our office is in a trailer. It’s either too hot or too cold. The walls are paper-thin and the toilet is mere feet from my desk.
Customers regularly deposit a “No. 2” on their way out and the stench is absolutely unbearable and overwhelming, akin to a restroom whose sanitary status is abhorrently questionable. The job lasts about a year, but it feels much longer than that.
Maybe I won’t be a writer after all
Unless my editor is rolled out on a gurney, I will be stuck in this job forever.
I bite my fist, clench my jaw, and venture into the world of public relations. After unsuccessful attempts at landing a job at a daily newspaper, I realize it is my only option save moving out of Omaha.
After a year of uncomfortable job interviews, I land a job at a small public relations firm. On my first day I have absolutely no idea what to do, but hope ignorance is well hidden under a new suit, praying they don’t find out.
Listen to the heart
While attending a Jayhawks concert on a Thursday night, I run into some high school friends I vaguely know and they introduce me to their cousin.
I introduce myself briefly, and later pass along my phone number for their cousin, hoping he’ll call.
A few days later, he calls.
He is a wonderful cook (which I am not) and a voracious reader (which I am).
Our relationship advances and grows.
Less than a year later, over drinks in a dark bar, he suggests we move in together. I am reluctant at first, but I say yes. I don’t want to hurt his feelings.
Months pass. My interest in the relationship dwindles and someone new occupies my wandering attention.
He senses something is wrong and, hoping to fix it, goes shopping for engagement rings. When he tells me this, my stomach sinks. Marriage isn’t what I want. My attempt to end the relationship proves unsuccessful.
The other relationship continues. He reads my email and learns the secret I kept.
He moves out the next morning. Everything is my fault.
But about the new guy
Email messages are regularly exchanged with the new guy. Our relationship has deepened far more quickly than I anticipated and I become fearful of how far I’ve fallen for him.
A thought surfaces one afternoon as I read his name in my inbox: there is no way I can continue with my life without reading these emails.
It is the first time in my life I completely surrender my heart to someone else. He is unlike anyone I have ever met and I am perplexed why our relationship works. We are complete opposites in some ways, alike in others.
Nearly three years later, I quit questioning why it works and enjoy being happy.
This is what 30 looks like … I think
I turned 30 last December. Thirty. Saying it out loud still doesn’t make it any more plausible. The phrase “young woman” no longer applies here.
Yet my driver’s license is never far from reach as bouncers and bartenders demand proof. Angry requests quickly evolve to raised eyebrows and gentle grins when they read “1978” above my photo.
Despite the occasional punch in the gut, 30 is here. I am grateful that my 20s are almost over. My 20s were rough, full of hard lessons and tough love and too many jobs and too few close friendships.
In spite of the experiences and life-altering realizations, the writing has remained. The memories would not fully exist, could not fully live and breath, if not written about years later. Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote: “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forward.”
In the documentation of those memories, a little fiction has to exist. The memories would be empty without it, and the future may not fully develop.
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