Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Best First Sentence

Today I was reading Gawker’s (NSFW) list of The 50 Best First Sentences in Fiction. A lot of great books made the list, and several that I have never read pulled me in and made me want to pick up the book to get the rest of the story.
Any list like that should come with a disclaimer that includes who it was that put the books on the list, the fact that all of the books are in English, and why they completely ignored Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. (I mean, come on. “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife”? That should have been at the top of the list.) Actually, there’s no way anybody could collect the 50 best... anything in fiction. It’s like when someone says something silly like, “I don’t like people,” and their friend responds, “well that’s not fair; have you met all of them?” Nobody could read everything in the world. This list is more like “the 50 best first sentences in the fiction written in English that will probably be considered classic literature in another 50 years or so.”
It was an interesting list to read, and interesting to think about what it would be like to have written a sentence that made the list. For a while, I thought about what it would be like to see my name on a list like that. Then, I thought about what my sentence might be. Then, I thought about what kind of book I would write that would get the kind of attention to make any kind of “best” list. Then, I thought about the best sentences I’ve written so far. So I decided to go back and make my own list, featuring myself (no bias allowed). So, without further ado, I present: “The 5 Best First Sentences in Fiction Written by Patricia Livermore in the Last Year or So (compiled by Patricia Livermore).”

“It was 1 AM and I was walking down the middle of the street lopsided.” from Pumpkin-Carriageless, March 10, 2015

“It was the oldest story in the world: boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, for the sake of girl boy immediately dumps perfectly good girlfriend, perfectly good ex-girlfriend reveals her desire for revenge.” from Typical Love Story, November 18, 2014

“The strains of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s hit flowed from his back pocket as he knelt, looking up into her eyes, which had been slowly filling with happy tears.” from The Perfect Moment, October 7, 2014

“The Tower has always been here.” from The Changing of the Seasons, August 6, 2014

“A strange occurrence in downtown Lisbon last Friday had employees of a local electronics company assembling a human ladder to verify strange reports of a dragon in the area.” from Portuguese Dragons, January 15, 2014

This list was fun to put together! It’s always interesting to me to go back and read things I’ve written before, because I get to feel a fun mix of “wow, that’s ridiculous; why did I write that?” and “oh yeah, I forgot; I am hilarious!” After reading the first line, I would, of course, have to read the rest of the story, and then I would get to remember all the fun I had writing it: all the times I giggled to myself, made myself cry, or stayed up until the wee hours putting the finishing touches on it.
I love my job. I don’t get paid, but that’s okay. If none of my first sentences ever make it onto a “50 Best” list, I don’t care. Those things are usually rigged anyway, and it’s always easy to tell which ones are: the ones that leave out Jane Austen.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Monster Under the Bed

Of course I’d heard of Francis. Everyone had. Angie never shut up about him when we were kids. Every other thing out of her mouth was “my best friend Francis this,” or “my best friend Francis that.” It got a little wearing on those of us who considered ourselves her actual best friends, in the “actual, real person” sense. Angie stopped talking nonstop about Francis after Becca moved away during the summer after fourth grade. The three of us had been so close, but Becca only wrote to me a few times after she moved, and never mentioned or asked about Angie. Angie never got any letters.
I guess I should have suspected something, but I didn’t really think about it when Angie bought her parents’ old house after she graduated from college. I helped when her parents moved out, headed for a condo in Florida, and lugged in her couch when she moved in. I shrugged when Angie got a job in a big city and commuted an hour and a half each way every day; some people love their hometown and will do whatever they have to do to stay. And I failed to connect the dots when I was helping her renovate the kitchen and repaint the walls in the house and she freaked out when I suggested that we update the carpet.
No, I was completely oblivious until the night I stopped by to see how her date went. It was “the date.” She was sure that Mark was going to propose. I had helped her prepare, consulted about outfits, did her makeup, and even bought her a new pair of earrings just for the occasion.
When I got to her house, I tapped on the door and walked in, just as I always did. Angie was on the couch, sobbing. I immediately rushed over, sure that her long-anticipated romantic night had ended in a break up instead of a happily ever after.
“Mark asked me to marry him!” she burst out, as a fresh wave of tears made an appearance.
I paused, mid-comforting-shoulder-to-cry-on. “Uh… why are you upset?” I asked, dumbfounded.
Then came the confession. “Because of Francis!”
It was a name I hadn’t heard in years. “Your… imaginary friend from when we were little?” I said, still in a state of sublime confusion.
Angie sniffled. “He’s not imaginary,” she insisted, and a dozen memories flooded my head of all the other times I’d heard her say just that. Becca used to get so annoyed whenever Angie said that Francis was real, even going so far as to leave a birthday party sleepover once. We must have been in the same headspace, because Angie wailed, “it’s my fault Becca’s family moved away! I introduced her to Francis and she told her dad she wanted to move to California!”
It had been my understanding that Becca’s dad had a job offer; he’d never have moved his entire family to the other side of the country just because his daughter told him to. I shared this point of view with my distraught friend. “Please tell me you haven’t been blaming yourself for this for twenty years,” I added.
But a distressed, hopeful-bride-to-be is not easy to comfort. “Becca left after she met Francis, and Mark will too! What am I supposed to do? Francis is my best friend!”
I tried hard to keep the fact that I thought she was being ridiculous off of my face. “So, you’ll give Mark up if he doesn’t…” I paused to appreciate the nonsensicalness of what I was about to say, then continued: “if he doesn’t like Francis?”
“I’m scared that Mark will break up with me when he meets Francis!”
I patted her shoulder in what I hoped was a consoling way. “Is there any reason he needs to meet him?” I asked. “I mean, you haven’t told Mark about Francis yet, so why does he need to know?”
Angie let out a sigh of deepest persecution (no doubt summoned from her teenage years). “You don’t understand,” she moaned into her hands. “What if he wants to move away from here? I couldn’t leave Francis behind.”
“Okay…” I said, remembering how I used to feel as a kid when I got relegated to less-than-best by Francis. “I’m sorry, hon. I’m trying to understand, but I think I’m missing something.”
Angie was silent for a moment, then took a deep breath and started talking very fast. “When I was a kid, I used to have nightmares a lot. My dad used to sit up in the middle of the night with me trying to calm me down, and I remember one night I was having a really hard time, and my dad had to be up really early for something the next day so I just sat in bed, quietly scared to death of the monster under my bed. And that’s when Francis told me that there was a monster under my bed.”
I opened my mouth to ask several questions, but Angie was still talking.
“But he said that he wasn’t a scary monster, and that he was keeping the other monsters away. I started to have less nightmares after that, and eventually they went away. We’ve been best friends ever since.”
Silence filled the room.
“So Francis is the monster under your bed,” I clarified.
Angie nodded. “Becca freaked out when I introduced her to him. It was Francis’s idea. He thought there would be no need to fight anymore if I proved that I was right, and she knew he was real. But she just got scared and moved away. She didn’t understand.”
I didn’t understand.
“Mark won’t understand either, I’m sure of it,” Angie continued. “You’re right, I could just not tell him about Francis, but then what would I say if he wants to move to the city? I’d have to leave Francis behind, and whoever would buy the house would get rid of him! And I’ve told Francis so much about Mark that even if he did agree to live here, Francis would probably try to talk to him!” Angie wiped her eyes, then looked at a space on the floor by the fireplace and said, “Wouldn’t you?”
“Probably,” replied a husky voice.
I looked toward the source of the sound and fell off the back of the couch in surprise, narrowly missing splitting my head open on the corner of an end table.
Angie ignored my near escape from death and gestured toward the piece of carpet by the fireplace that had horns and eyes and said, “See?! This is exactly how Becca took it, too! She ran out of my room screaming! There’s no way Mark will be okay with this!”
“Nice to finally meet you, Laura,” Francis said. “I’ve always liked you. I wanted you to know that I completely agreed with you about Angie’s prom dress.”
“Um, okay, that’s weird,” I said as I peeked up over the edge of the couch.
“Chartreuse was the wrong color for her. I tried to tell her too, but you know how hard she is to convince when she thinks she’s right.”
“There’s a monster in the carpet,” I told Angie.
She seemed comforted by my reaction. “Maybe Mark won’t completely freak out,” she said.
“Of course he won’t,” said Francis. “If he loves you enough to marry you, he’ll accept your friends just the way they are.” I’m sure I would have said something similar if I hadn’t just been introduced to a carpet monster.
I climbed nimbly up onto the back of the couch, a shiver running down my back at the thought of having any further contact with the carpet. “So... let me get this straight. Francis, your imaginary friend, is real. He’s the monster under your bed, who saved you from nightmares when you were a kid. You don’t want to move away because that means leaving Francis behind. And it’s a bit scary introducing him to… anyone.” I nodded, pleased with my own summation. “Okay. I think I understand now.”
“Do you think Mark will understand, too?!” Angie asked, suddenly hopeful.
“I… think it will depend on how you tell him,” I admitted.
“Try something better than, ‘I hope you don’t mind if we have a roommate after we get married,’” Francis suggested.
“Do you think he’d be okay with getting married here? Like maybe on the balcony of the master bedroom? That way Francis could be there!”
“I wouldn’t get carried away,” I advised.
“It would be a lovely spot for the ceremony,” said Francis.
“I think…” I began, casting a wary look at the carpet monster in the corner. “I think it might be a better idea if you thought about what you would do if something happened to Francis. I mean, what if your house burned down? What if the whole county had to evacuate because of a… a hurricane or something and you had to leave him behind?”
Angie gasped in horror, but Francis murmured in agreement. “I’ve been saying this for years,” he said. “You should have left me behind long before you went to college. You should have let your parents sell the house. You should have moved to the city when you got that great job; you’re spending way too much time and money just to keep me around!”
“Francis!” Angie began to argue, then burst into tears again.
“Sweetheart,” said Francis, moving toward the couch in an unnerving fashion. “This is life. It moves on. Friendships end. People come and go. But you’ll still have memories that you can cherish. I won’t be around, but you’ll still have Laura, and you’ll have Mark. And if you get lonely when you wake up in the middle of the night, just remember what we used to talk about when you woke up from a nightmare when you were little. Don’t be sad. This is just the way life is.”
I began to feel like I was intruding. I considered sneaking out the front door, but couldn’t decide if stepping on the carpet would hurt Francis. Then Angie launched herself at me, apparently in need of a hug, and since I was the only friend present who possessed arms, the question of staying or going was settled for the moment.
“But I’ll miss you!” was Angie’s eventual rebuttal.
“I know,” said Francis. “But you’ll have a life. Your life.”
I stayed in the living room with Francis while Angie went out on the deck to call Mark.
“That’s going to be a story for their grandchildren,” Francis remarked. “‘Yes, I told your grandpa I’d marry him over the phone.’”
That’s the story you’re going with?” I said. “I would be more concerned about the one that goes, ‘grandma almost didn’t say yes when grandpa proposed, but then her best friend, the carpet monster under her bed, talked her into it.’”
Francis laughed. It was weird.
“That’s weird,” I told him.
“Thank you for always being there for Angie,” he said to me. “You’re a good friend to her, Laura.”
“Um, same to you, I guess,” I said.
“And thanks for the carpet suggestions when you helped her renovate. I think any of them would have looked really nice.”
“So… this might sound rude, but… what are you?”
Francis didn’t seem offended. “I’m a monster. Your typical ‘monster under the bed.’ When I came into Angie’s room way back when, it was my first trip here, to your world. I felt sorry for Angie when I heard her crying, so I decided to stay. I didn’t know if I’d be able to get back here if I left, and after Angie and I became friends, I didn’t want to go back.”
“Back?” I asked.
“To the land of monsters.”
“Right, of course.”
“And then Angie got older, and every time I felt like I should leave, she talked me out of it. She said she’d miss me, and that if I went back we might not ever be able to see each other again. That’s also the reason for not replacing this ugly carpet; we didn’t know if my being here was attached to it, or if I’d get booted back home if it was pulled up.”
“Sure, makes total sense,” I said to the face in the carpet.
“Mark’s coming over!” Angie announced as she came back inside. “He’s bringing my ring! Wait until you guys see it, it’s gorgeous.”
This was the part of the evening I had come for in the first place, but now I really felt like I should leave. “I think I’m gonna go, actually,” I said.
“Me too,” said Francis.
“What? No, you can’t!”
I wrinkled my nose. “But there will be kissing. And that’s gross.”
“Well,” Angie considered this. “I guess you can go, because I know you can come back, but you!” She stomped her foot in Francis’ direction. “Don’t try to sneak out of here! I want Mark to meet you! He won’t believe me otherwise!”
Francis and I exchanged a glance. It was weird.
“That’s weird,” I said.
If you can believe it, a piece of carpet rolling its eyes at you is even weirder than exchanging a glance with it.
“Angie,” Francis said gently, “I have to go sometime.”
“And you’ll never know if he can come back if he never leaves,” I pointed out helpfully, even though I was halfway to the front door.
“I’m getting engaged tonight!” Angie pointed out. “If you leave and can never come back, I’m going to remember that for the rest of my life!”
“Yes, you will,” said Francis.
I was about to chime in with my own opinion, but Angie shrieked. I couldn’t see what was happening because the couch was in the way, but I rushed over just in time to see Francis’ horns sinking into the carpet.
“No!” she shouted. “Francis! Come back!”
I did my best to calm Angie down before Mark arrived, and I was able to leave just as his car pulled into the driveway. I gave him a wave and started off down the street. At the end of the block, I turned to look back at the house. Then I shrugged and started for home. It had been a weird night, but at least I had the satisfaction of knowing that someone else agreed with me about that horrible prom dress.
A week later I was brushing my teeth before bed when I heard a voice say, “It turns out I can show up wherever I want.”
I jabbed the roof of my mouth pretty hard with the end of my toothbrush, but otherwise was glad, plus a little creeped out, to see Francis sticking up out of the bath mat. In retaliation, I lifted the mat off the floor and shook it, causing Francis to emit loud mirthful noises.
“Great, so now I have a giggling bath mat,” I said. “ Was it difficult to come back, or something? What took you so long? And have you told Angie yet?”
“Well, I’d been away from home a long time,” Francis replied. “Lots to do, old friends to see, you know how it is.”
“Of course I know how it is in Monster Land,” I said. “You know how happy Angie will be when she learns you can come back whenever. You should go see her right now.”
“I have a better idea,” he replied. “You could give her an area rug as a wedding gift, and I could be in it when she opens it!”
I shook the rug again. “She’s really sad, you know.”
“I know,” Francis said, and sighed. It was weird.
“That’s weird,” I said.
“I just want her to be able to have her own life. Her engagement, at least, should be Francis-free, don’t you think?”
“That’s up to you,” I told him, “but she should at least know that you can come back. You being gone forever is taking happiness away from one of the happiest times of her life.”
He was quiet for a moment. “Fine, but I want you to be there, so I have someone to back me up if she insists I stay.”
I rolled my eyes. “Sure, why not?”
“I’ve also got another idea,” he told me. “Let me know what you think…”
That evening I knocked on Angie’s door. She opened it, frowning, since I usually strolled inside after barely announcing my presence. “I got you an early wedding present,” I told her, as I held up my bath mat.
“Francis!” Angie yelled, as his face emerged from the fabric. “You’re back!” She grabbed the mat and hugged it, then pulled away with a protest of disgust. “Gross!” she declared, “this rug is disgusting, L! When was the last time you washed it?”
Washed it?” I considered, then ventured a guess: “n….ever?”
“I was going to say something, but I didn’t want to be rude,” Francis chimed in.
“Whatever, who cares about my bath mat?” I said, prying the rug away from her. “Know who else is back?”
Instead of the reaction I had expected, which was overwhelming interest in my information, we first had to take a few minutes to explain Francis’ return to Angie, and then I had to endure a lecture about the frequency of my linen laundering from both of them. Eventually, I was able to continue what I had started to say once Angie cuddled up on the living room floor next to Francis.
From the Writer's Relief facebook page
In between Angie’s excited exclamations, I was able to get my message across: “Becca came back to the area several years ago to go to school. She lives in the city now. She’s a professional wedding planner.”
“You should call her,” Francis suggested, looking at Angie.
I already did,” I informed them. “We’re meeting for lunch next week.” I looked at Angie. “Want to come?”
Angie’s wedding was perfect. Becca made sure of it. The couple stood on the balcony on the second floor of their home, while the guests sat in the yard under billowing canopies. Then everyone headed for the reception, where they danced the night away. Francis wasn’t able to dance, but from his position near the cake table, he made plenty of “cutting a rug” jokes.
I don’t see Francis much anymore, but he still visits occasionally. Apparently he’s become an important sort in Monster Land, after having spent so much time in our world. Angie is happily living her own life, with a wonderful husband and, of course, supportive friends.
Becca, Angie, and I are an inseparable trio once again, and enjoy many sleepovers on the new carpet in Angie’s living room. They’re more fun than sleepovers were when we were kids; for one thing, Becca and Angie don’t argue about the existence of Francis, and for another, there is wine.
Having her own kids is still something that Angie and Mark are considering for the future, but one thing is for sure: if she ever does have kids, they’ll definitely have a friendly monster under the bed.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Writing Prompt: The Pet Peeve

Some people have pet peeves. Some people have quirks. Some people don’t find out that they have pet peeves until their significant other has a quirk. Adorable or funny at first, a quirk can (apparently) quickly develop into a pet peeve, and you can find yourself screaming at the person you love across the dinner table and ending your relationship because of it… Apparently.
“I’m sorry,” said the text I sent. “I forgot. It’ll never happen again. I promise.” After three hours of waiting and trying to convince myself that she was probably just in a meeting and hadn’t had a chance to check her phone and respond to my text, I googled “local flower shops” and sent her favorite calla lillies.
Lillian informed me when we started dating that she had a pet peeve. “Just never, ever, ever do it, and we’ll be fine.” We meaning our relationship. She explained that her ex did it all the time. I pointed out delicately that her ex also cheated on her, stole cash out of the ‘someday vacation’ fund that she kept in a jar in the kitchen, and showed up incredibly drunk to the first meeting with her parents. Lillian shrugged. “You can forgive a lot when you really love someone. But there’s always a breaking point, and that was ours.” She froze me with a look. “So I just want you to know up front that I’m not going to tolerate it, so... Don’t do it.
The flower shop emailed me a delivery confirmation. I sent another text, reminding her again that I was sorry (really sorry!), but did not get a response. That evening, I took some strawberry rhubarb turnovers to her place to try to cool her anger with pastries. I knew she was still angry; it wasn’t just the ignored texts or the tone of her voice or the look on her face or the body language (arms crossed, impatient stance), it was that she opened the front door but not the storm door, as though I was on a mission to kindly tempt her out of her home to join one of her local religious institutions.
There’s a certain amount of security in a serious relationship. You become learn each other’s hopes and fears, become comfortable with one another, and start to imagine living the rest of your life next to this person whose company you treasure.
“I’m not trying to excuse what I did,” I told her, through the glass door that sat solidly closed between us. “I know how things ended between you and Sid, so I’m going to really try to remember not to do it again. I love you. Please, can’t you see that this is not something that we need to fight about? Don’t you know how silly it’s going to be if we have to tell our friends and your mother that we broke up because I put my elbows on the table after dinner?”
“You think this is silly?” she shouted, “you think I’m stupid?!”
Before I could even think the words, “That’s not what I said,” much less get them out of my mouth, Lillan had slammed the door in my face. When your girlfriend slams the door in your face because you put your elbows on the dinner table, there’s not much you can do but wait until she calms down (unless you want to go find a new girlfriend who only yells at you when you don’t put the mayo back in the correct spot in the refrigerator). But I decided right then and there that I didn’t want to wait. Lillian was worth anything it took to keep her around, even if my elbows never came in contact with a horizontal surface again.
I decided to take action. “I CAN BE SILLY TOO, LILLIAN!” I shouted maturely at the front door. “JUST WAIT AND SEE!”
The next day I started with flowers again. Then I hit the party store and had a few other things delivered to her office. Finally, I spent all afternoon making her favorite meal, texting her a picture of my progress every once in a while.
I figured that she would know I was coming to pick her up from work because of the pictures, but when I showed up at 4:30, the receptionist told me that Lillian had been pretty busy all day and wasn’t expecting me, but added, helpfully, that he hadn’t been asked to kick me out. He gave me a grin and pointed at the doorway of Lillian’s corner office, where I saw one of her co-workers stop short and stare.
“Uh, Lillian…?” she began to say.
The second I heard Lillian’s voice, I knew everything was going to be okay between us. Her tone was annoyed and tired, but not angry. “Yes, Rebecca,” she interrupted, “I am very well aware that I have a giant inflatable pony in my office.”
The receptionist stifled a chuckle and waved me past his desk. I weaved my way around the cubicles and took Rebecca’s place in Lillian’s doorway. “It’s a very rare breed,” I informed her. “He’s a Pajarito Mesa Pet Peeve Pony.”

Lillian looked up from the pile of work on her desk and gave me an amused glare. “Yes, he’s been very helpful today,” she said, sarcasm thick in her voice. “‘Pajarito Mesa?’”
“It’s in New Mexico. ‘Mesa’ means ‘table.’”
She rolled her eyes. “Does ‘pajarito’ mean ‘elbows?’”
“Not especially,” I admitted. Not wanting to allow the silence to get awkward, I charged ahead: “I made empanadas.”
She nodded. “I saw. I don’t know what time I’m going to be able to get out of here tonight.”
I shrugged. “I’ll keep them warm.”
After a moment, Lillian said, “I’m sorry I didn’t try the turnovers yesterday,” but I knew that what she really meant was, “I’m sorry about the fight.”
“They were delicious,” I said with a grin. She knew that what I really meant was, “I forgive you but I definitely already ate all the turnovers.”
She smiled back. “I’ll text you when I’m done here, and then come over. Will there be empanadas for me?”
“Baby, there will always be empanadas for you,” I said suavely, as she stood to give me a hug.
“Can you do me a favor?” she asked as I turned to leave.
“Take this stupid pony thing with you,” she said with a laugh.
The Pet Peeve Pony is a member of our family now. Since the Elbow Incident, his huge purple presence has been employed to prevent several fights. Lillian says that the effort it takes to inflate it usually tires her out so much she doesn’t feel like yelling, and that it’s easier to let me know that she’s annoyed when he’s sitting there, since he’s hard to miss. Instead of slamming a door in one another’s faces, we see the pony, smile and remember how silly fights can get, and then have a conversation about our conflicting opinions.
Some people have pet peeves. Some people have quirks. Some people have quirky pet peeve ponies.