Wordy Wednesday: This Is a Love Story

Okay, so I’m writing this Tuesday night because over the course of the next two days I have a short story, film review, and midterm paper all due and I haven’t begun any of them yet. And, you know, who doesn’t love to procrastinate.

The reason I haven’t begun anything yet is because I spent my entire weekend sleeping and reading and watching movies/the Oscars, because I am SO FREAKING TIRED and it needs to be spring break. But here we go: Survive these next two days, and I get a whole week off from school.

This week’s Wordy Wednesday is a short story I wrote for class, fall semester 2013. It was one of the weaker stories of the semester, but I still think it’s cute, so figured it was worth the share.

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We were stumped. The entire 100-level Classic Literature class just stared at Professor Robinson while the question hung in the dry classroom air: Had she really just asked us to rewrite Romeo and Juliet minus the dying part? Or Pride and Prejudice without Mr. Darcy being a total d-bag for ninety percent of the book? Or The Notebook sans shirtless Ryan Gosling?
“Come on, people,” Professor Robinson said. “It’s not that hard. Which part of the love story is the most important? How do you know which is which? How can you tell what part is the most significant until long after the entire thing is over, the lovers dead and gone and no longer important to anyone at all? Which parts aren’t necessary to weave a good tale? A writer can’t talk about literally every moment in a relationship, so how do they decide which ones to catalogue and describe? How do you tell a love story?”
I leaned forward with my chin propped on my fist and watched the girl in front of me take duck-face pictures on her webcam. The boy beside me had fallen asleep about five minutes before, and was snoring to the tune of what I assume was Star Wars. The girl on the other side of him was in an intense staring contest with the clock above the white board.
“Renee?” Professor Robinson’s tone was hopeful.
I jumped and shook my head. “Sorry, Professor. This time I’ve got nothing.”
She sighed. “Fine. Anyone else?” She glanced at the clock. We still had another twenty minutes, but the loudest noise in the room was the Star Wars theme a la Nose Whistle, so she closed her eyes and took a deep breath and said the two words every college student lives to hear: “Class dismissed.”

That was three days ago. Since then it has rained twice, and the sun has set and risen three times, and I have sat just as quietly as I did in that classroom, only in the front passenger seat of my mom’s minivan as we battled traffic all the way back to the little town of Miller, Wisconsin, because I promised Trish before I left for Northwestern that I would come home for the Homecoming game no matter what, even though coming home for Homecoming means coming home to all the problems I left behind.
And all this time I’ve thought about Professor Robinson’s question of what makes a good love story, but I haven’t been able to come up with a single idea. Until this very instant. The instant that I’m thinking all of this.
Because in this instant, someone is tapping me on the shoulder while I wait in the concession line at the Miller High School Homecoming game, and I’m turning around with my heart already in my throat, and Max Barton is standing behind me with one arm outstretched, the other tucked in the pocket of his faded Miller High Matterhorns hoodie, and a smile stretched across his lips. His brown eyes light up like I don’t have dog hair on my skirt or mascara smudged above my left cheek. He is exactly as tall as I remember—five foot eleven, the perfect height for me to tilt my head up to meet his gaze.
Professor Robinson, I promise I will write this down when I get home, because I can answer your question: A love story is a touch.
“Renee.”
A love story is a name.
“Hey.” I can’t get enough of the crisp September air in my lungs, and my sweater is both too heavy and not warm enough, and I haven’t seen Max Barton in months, but suddenly he is standing right behind me. “Long time no see.”
His smile broadens and he runs a hand back through his straight chocolate brown hair. “How are you? How’s Northwestern?” He has the voice of an old-time movie star, deep and lilting. The stadium lights make the freckles spread across his nose and cheeks stand out from the rest of his skin like one of the constellations just popping into existence above us as the sun sets over the parking lot.
“I’m good. It’s good.” I force a shrug. “How are you, Max? How’s the University of Wisconsin?”
He copies my movement. “It’s nice. It’s also nice to be home for the weekend, though. I missed everybody.” He takes in my rumpled sweater and frizzy chestnut ponytail; the scuffs across the toe of my right combat boot.
When I’m nervous, I dig my right foot into the ground. I’m doing it right now.
“You look beautiful, Renee.”
The temperature in my cheeks rises by a hundred degrees. I cross my arms and stare down at the trampled yellow grass, then swing my toe into the mangled strands again and watch as some of them break free. I close my eyes.
The truth about love stories is that you aren’t telling the reader about the relationship in general. You’re telling them about a specific moment that defines not just the relationship, but the characters themselves. Like a children’s book, a love story teaches a lesson. And maybe that lesson is Kissing Is Great rather than Stealing Is Wrong, but it’s still a lesson well-learned.
So I could tell you about the day I met Max Barton, when we were in the ninth grade and I was new to Miller and he said I could eat lunch at his table even though I’d just met him five minutes before at the end of fourth period geometry; I could tell you about a hundred dates, and all the times his fingers curled around mine on the walk home from track practice, and how I was never cold as long as his arm was around my shoulders. I could tell you about our first kiss, and our last, and all the jokes and fights and stories in between.
But instead I will tell you about right now. This moment. When my cheeks are burning up while my sweater is too cold, and Max tells me I look beautiful even though I don’t, and he smiles down at me with his freckles and hair and eyes all exactly as I remember. And I simply step away, say, “Thank you,” and turn to the concession stand to place my order.
Because if all love stories have one thing in common, it’s this: They end. And the love story of Max Barton and Renee Smith is already long gone.
I slide a five dollar bill across the counter to the booster parent scooping my popcorn, and accept the overstuffed bag she hands me with a grin. I slip the wallet back into my purse and tell her to keep the change.
“Have a nice evening, sweetie.”
I nod. “Thanks. You too.”
I wave at Max as I walk back to my seat beside Trish in the stands, but I don’t let my eyes linger on the way his hands are shoved haphazardly into his hoodie pocket or the breeze makes his hair dance across his forehead like a modern day Clark Kent’s. I don’t pay attention to the sound of his deep, lilting goodbye or the half a second his stare catches on my figure or the way his eyes slide so easily away from my retreating form as he approaches the concession stand himself.
I don’t pay attention to the fact that this moment is not a love story, but just an echo of one already told, no longer important to anything but my memories.
I squeeze onto the bench beside Trish and offer her my popcorn.
She raises her eyebrows, but takes a handful anyway. “Was that Max?”
“Yeah, but it’s okay.” I shrug and turn to watch the game. “We’re okay.”
“Good.” She nudges me with her shoulder, and I nudge her back. Out the corner of my eye, I see her grin. She grabs another handful of popcorn. “I’m glad to hear it.”
“Me too.”
A love story is a lesson, and the lesson of my story is this: Not all love stories are between two people. Sometimes they’re between your past and your future, trying to figure out the present. Sometimes a love story is about yourself.
It’s deciding whether or not to move on—whether or not it’s okay to be happy again after something crappy has happened; after someone has broken your heart.
A love story is told through the moments that matter. And in mine, this is the one that does: Seeing Max Barton again, and wanting nothing more than to ride off into the sunset without him. Seeing Max Barton again, and loving myself enough not to love him.

**********

Thanks for reading!

~Julia

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Wordy Wednesday: Write Yourself, But Different

I’m having a kind of bad day. It’s not even that bad, it’s just that things have been so good lately that anything at all negative happening feels like a punch to the gut. Primarily: I went in to donate blood for the first time today and they rejected me.

This might not seem like a big deal, except that I’ve never weighed enough to donate blood before, but due to my love of Christmas cookies this holiday season, I finally hit a hundred pounds, so after years and years of waiting, I signed up to donate at the university’s next blood battle. I spent the past few weeks trying to keep my weight up, taking iron supplements, staying hydrated, etc.

Today I went in, read over all the warnings and rules, waited a half hour, then finally got my interview to make sure I was eligible. And the lady rejected me. Because apparently, according to the American Red Cross, I HAVE CANCER.

Please note: I do not have cancer. Right now I don’t even have pre-cancer. But because I’ve had dysplastic moles removed in the past few months (the most recent surgery being a couple weeks ago), the lady interviewing me decided that I was so cancer-ridden I couldn’t donate. Try again in a few months. You know, as long as I haven’t died between now and then.

Nothing against the American Red Cross. I get it. You don’t want me sending Melanoma-laden blood to some poor, unsuspecting soul. But I don’t have Melanoma. I’ve never had Melanoma. THE ENTIRE POINT OF HAVING THOSE MOLES REMOVED WAS SO THAT I WOULD NOT GET MELANOMA.

I thanked the lady for her time (the full thirty seconds it took for her to reject me), walked outside, called my mom, and promptly burst into tears.

So yeah. That’s how my day’s been going.

Anyway, though, this week’s Wordy Wednesday is a writing process post.

I used to be really careful about making sure the protagonists of my stories were super different from me. They’d have different interests, personalities; they’d go through situations vaguely similar to ones I’d experienced, but still different enough that no one could claim they were at all autobiographical.

Then I started taking creative writing classes, and started needing to produce a billion and one short stories a semester, and I ran out of stuff that Wasn’t Me to write about. Pieces of me crept into my characters and plots more and more, until finally last semester I gave up and started writing basically literally about my life: A girl and her friends study abroad over a summer at Magdalen College, Oxford; a girl longs to move to Europe; a girl has to say goodbye to her high school theatre company. And this semester it’s gotten even worse: a girl deals with (of all things) the potential of getting Melanoma and dying; a girl is depressed and doesn’t know how to handle it or get better*.

What all this has taught me is that it’s much easier to write about yourself than people who are vastly different from you, and the stories that have significant elements of yourself in them (at least for me) generally turn out better, because they’re personal. Theatre was my life in high school, and I couldn’t imagine my life without it, so graduating was scary and difficult. I’m terrified of getting cancer, but that’s something I don’t like to focus on; writing that story gave me an outlet for my fears in the midst of several surgeries on my arm to remove moles that had become dysplastic out of nowhere.

But at the same time, where I started out writing these stories with the goal of writing pieces of myself, I realized as I went that these characters were also, still, vastly different from me. Their own people with their own problems and histories and futures. The girl in the theatre story has no idea what to do with the rest of her life, when her entire life up until this point has been theatre. (I did have a pretty solid idea of what I’d be doing after high school. Because while theatre defined so much of me, writing did just as much.) The girl in the cancer story is half-Mexican (I’m supes Caucasian) and dreams of going to Julliard for violin (I tried violin once; pretty sure half of Michigan is still recovering).

These stories are better for how they’re different from my life. They let me explore these other identities, helped me see the world beyond myself, and in turn led to a much more interesting portfolio.

All this to say: Write yourself, but different. You learn, and your stories benefit, from both the parts that reflect you and the parts that open a window into other people’s lives.

After all, we are defined by both the parts that are the same as everyone else and the parts that are different. And we–and our characters–deserve to have both.

Thanks for reading!

~Julia

*For the record: I’m fine. I was in a pretty, you know, not-so-nice place this time last year. But I’m fine now.