“Oh. He’s dead,” K. said. She announced this after I asked her how her father was.
“What?” I asked. The two of them traveled together every summer and this was the summer we’d graduated high school. I’d traveled with them a few years before. She wasn’t crying or wavering. “He died in the hotel room. In Kansas City,” she said.
“That’s terrible. I’m sorry.”
I could almost hear her shrug on the other end of the phone. “It’s okay. How are you?”
“Well, I’m fine. K., who’s with you?” I asked.
Like me, her parents were divorced and she lived with her dad. I think that is why we first became friends. We were the only girls we knew who lived alone with our fathers. “My mom’s here,” she said.
I didn’t know what to say. “You still want to go to the movie?” I’d asked her at the beginning of the conversation if she wanted to go see The Dark Crystal with my mom and me. “Of course,” she said. “Why wouldn’t I?”
K. wasn’t like any girl I knew. She didn’t talk about boys. Ever. Or clothes. Or periods. She talked about horses, birds, and stars. She wrote story after story about horses and she talked about these horses as if they were real. And when I spent the night at her house, we didn’t sleep in the same room. I slept in the guest room with the door shut in a bed next to the Christmas tree that was never taken down.
Her father would move the tree from the guest room to the living room for Christmas. The dust that coated it he said was snow. When I stayed over he stayed in his room in his bed with his television on. The windows in his room were hidden by furniture so the only light was from a bedside lamp and the TV.
The two of them lived in a three-bedroom house with four beat up Cadillacs in the driveway and he was building an upstairs room for K.’s plastic horse collection. A whole room just for her horses. He did all the chores. She couldn’t even turn on the washing machine.
Finally I got her to tell me about what happened to her in Kansas City. Or some of the story anyway. The ambulance took her father’s body from the hotel and she was left with the police. They put her on a plane to Chicago where she stayed alone for a few days while the military took care of her father’s funeral arrangements. Then they flew her to DC for his funeral. Then she met up with her mother.
Listening to her was like listening to someone recount a trip to the grocery store. She stayed blank. “That must’ve been awful,” I said. “Oh, no,” she said. “It was fine. I liked it.”
I could never shake the feeling that she didn’t care her father was dead.
In fiction, I’ve got to understand my characters better than I understand real people. Right? If K. were a character in my novel, I could make her feel anything I wanted. I could make her father any kind of man I wanted him to me. I don’t, however, use real people in my novels.
But if I did, I could explain why K. got cold and silent if I talked about boys. I could explain why she spent hours writing stories about a horse. I could explain why she seemed to relish wearing the most unflattering clothes.
My characters need motivation. They need the explanations they give and the explanations that are real. In fiction, I like to make what my characters say not match what they feel. I can’t decide if in my real life that makes me read meanings into what people say that aren’t there. What do they really mean by that?
How do your fictional creations affect how you see real people?