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Sunflower Oil and Exes

I’d been in country for a year when my dad called me to tell me my grandmother had died. I was not close to his mother but I felt sad. Dad visited his mother once in 40 years but sent her money regularly. She visited us a few times, but when my step-mother got her to stop coming, dad didn’t complain–as far I ever knew. He wasn’t going to the funeral.

sunflowers in Bulgaria

sunflowers in Bulgaria

I had no money so i wouldn’t be leaving Bulgaria to be with him. Not that he asked me to. It was already a bad weekend. In my Peace Corps town was another volunteer, A. We were not friends, but we got along in the way that people do when they find themselves together far away from home. She’d invited a few other volunteers to stay with her that weekend my grandmother died. Her boyfriend, W. (both of them in their 50s), S., the greatest PCV source for gossip, and my former traveling companion and his fiance. “Of course,” A. said looking at me with a big smile, “you’ll be joining us for dinner, won’t you?”

Of course. If I said no, they’d all think it was because of him. I didn’t think he’d show anyway. Why would he? It was at least a five hour bus ride from their town to ours. Why would he want his future wife to sit at a table with me? But it was a bad weekend, and come they did.

My first year of teaching had ended the week before. The headmaster had started the year off offended when I ignored his offer to spend more time with me alone and he had brought the year to a close by telling my Bulgarian counterparts that if I stayed, one of them would be fired. He told Peace Corps how unprofessional I was and they put a letter in my file of his complaints. Peace Corps would be moving me to a new town in a month.

It was a beautiful, breezy June day. A. asked me to meet them all at her apartment at 4. I was on time but they weren’t there. I should’ve gone home, but I waited, pacing in the shadow of the building and fighting a desire to cry. By the time they arrived, bags of fresh fruit and vegetables from the market in hand, I was fine again.

Soccer was on the Russian TV channel. A. began cooking in her tiny kitchen and others took turns going in to help. I made small talk with the fiance. With him. Then my body decided it was going to cry. No. I kept chatting, knowing that I had minutes to get out of the apartment. In the bathroom I splashed cold water on my face and scolded myself for hysterics. But it was like there was a small animal inside my chest that was out of control.

“I need more sunflower oil,” A. said. “Can one of you go get some for me?”

Escape! “I will.” I grabbed my purse and bolted for the door.

“I’ll come with you,” my former traveling companion said. I didn’t have time to argue. He told his fiance to stay behind and she did as she was told. By the time I got to the stairwell landing, I was crying and trying to shove the tears back into my eyes. By the time I exited the building, the tears had a life of their own. He was right there beside me. I kept walking. Fast.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

As far as I was concerned, there were two girls standing there at the corner of the apartment bloc–me and this crazy, crying girl I didn’t know and wanted out of my life. We came to two benches. He sat on one. I sat on the other.

“What happened?” he asked. “Did something happen at your school? Did someone upset you?”

Nothing I said made sense. I was crazy girl throwing words around as if any words would do. But I was not that crazy–at no point did I mention him–and eventually crazy girl went away and we went and found the sunflower oil. Like normal people. Back at A.’s apartment no one asked us why it took an hour to buy a bottle of sunflower oil from the shop directly downstairs.

I was too empty to care about their assumptions. And too exhausted to care about the way he kissed his fiance when he walked back in and the way he ignored me the rest of the night.

Sometimes you open a closet door to peer inside only to hear a crash as all the junk tumbles forward and you can’t get the door shut again. Do you let the door go, watch the clutter spill at your feet, and then dig in to clear it out? Do you brace a shoulder against the door and use your foot to shove things back in just enough to slam the door shut?

Some thoughts are like relationships–you know you ought to let it go but you keep hanging around it anyway as if the idea or the memory will turn into the narrative you want. Stories are like that–for me anyway. Messy rushes of words that confuse and unsettle me until I get them right. The emotions of my characters stuck with me all day, taking me by surprise sometimes or getting in the way of how I want my life to be.

In the middle of writing a story that crazy girl shows up and I don’t know what to do with her or what she wants. On a good day I don’t care what everyone else in the room thinks of her.

7 thoughts on “Sunflower Oil and Exes

  1. “As far as I was concerned, there were two girls standing there at the corner of the apartment bloc–me and this crazy, crying girl I didn’t know and wanted out of my life. We came to two benches. ”

    This was THE coolest part of the story. I know two sentences followed in this paragraph, but this was where it stopped for me. Which bench did the crazy blubbering chick sit on and did it sink into the quicksand unnoticed? Or was it the You you wanted to be that sunk? Or one could ponder the possibility of which one of YOU went and sat with the Butt. I know Crazy Girl was there in all of her illustrious incoherence, but upon which bench did she press her derriere?

    I like the mess. Mess is real. You know how I feel about brutal honesty in writing, and honesty is nothing if not a big hot steaming cow pie served with a sterling silver dessert fork. Keep the mess. Crazy girls don’t really care what others think of them. And I should Know 😉

  2. Well, when crazy girl’s feelings are very normally crashing down from the closet in profuse confusion and she doesn’t know what to make of them, why do they have to be spelled out for or explained to the reader at all? The confusion itself is a great device for trusting the reader the make something of it. I’m still back fascinated by the Peace Corps and even more so by the urgent trip for sunflower oil, which I have never used in anything? What was it being used for that any other oil could not replace?

  3. What Sophie said. Personally, I kinda thought Real You sat on the bench and Crazy Girl just paced, wandered in circles, did anything at all as long as it wasn’t sitting. In a situation like this, it wouldn’t be unusual for Crazy Girl to end up resentful at RY, ostensibly for choosing to sit, just because RY was closer — within range — than the true target of her frustration and resentment. (Who seems so much more out of touch than the tactophobe that no single word could sum it up.)

    I’m so Clark Kentish (at least in my own eyes) that I’m not sure there’s a Crazy Guy inside. Well, strike that — I have come close to losing it, with anger/hurt/grief — but I’ve never to my knowledge let him drive the car so to speak, not when I’m writing. Which may be my weakness as a writer. When he shows up I just put Groucho glasses and big floppy bunny ears on him, and end up writing parody or horror.

  4. Querulous Squirrel, I could be completely wrong about it being sunflower oil. I avoid cooking as much as possible and I’ve no idea what oil is used in what. But Bulgaria has many sunflower fields and the seeds are extremely popular–people walk around and spit the shells on the sidewalk. But whatever oil it was, she really wanted some.

    JES, ha. I never thought of him as out of touch. I thought I was just missing something. That I was the one unable to figure things out. Who says Groucho glasses and buuny ears are wrong? Dress the crazy guy up and see what he does.

    Sophie, you make me laugh. I think crazy girl did her best to push me off the bench, but I’m for better or for worse I’m good at waiting crazy girl out.

  5. Marta, reading this and putting it in context with the others, I’m struck by your ability to reveal–as opposed to describing–vulnerability in a way that reaches out to so many of us among your readers. You don’t emote or over-dramatize it, rather you let it come forth in situation after situation, allowing us to respond through empathy rather than being hit over the head with it. And we do respond. At least, I do.

  6. Over-dramatizing! Girl! You have got to be kidding me! (You have sent me into my Bronx-girl head roll and finger waving attitude.) Oh no you di’n’t!

    You need to have faith in your voice. I was wrong. I can see voice. At least, I can see yours. Perhaps you are afraid you are over dramatizing because you are naturally low key. There’s nothing wrong with that, but you bring that low key subtlety to your writing. So what you see as over dramatizing is actually just-right-dramatizing, because you’re stretching your subtlety to dramatize the moments that need drama. Life has drama. It’s okay. You balance it out with the calm center of your writing.

    Have faith.

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