The flash story below is a lesson for me in submitting and revising, and revising again. I worked on this story off and on – kept tinkering with it, sending it out, getting rejected, tinkering further… and so it goes. One day, though, I found Henry Gray’s Anatomy of the Human Body online as a free download and which is fascinating to read – no lie – Looking through the different of that book, I thought of this piece and suddenly had a better trajectory for it. Adding the bits from that book, along with a couple of other changes gave it a reason – a struggle as well as a reason why this morning needs to be told for the couple in the story. I talk about this a lot with my students – why this story now? – What makes this day different for the characters than any other day in their lives? Before Anatomy, my story was about two people who aren’t as together as they used to be, but the medical book and the addition of the sections organized it around an event in their lives that happened the day before the morning I was writing about. I rewrote and reorganized, liked it better – titled it “Saturday” sent it out and this time it was quickly accepted to a small poetry journal. You can see the poem that was accepted if you go to the “Published Work” page. (The journal is now defunct – so I posted the story as it appeared there in 2016)
I was really happy with my story as it was at the time – and wished I’d tried for a bigger publication. But, now, looking at it again I see all sorts of things I want to change to make it tighter, to soften what now feels like a kind of melodramatic arrangement of lines. And, maybe more importantly, to vary the way each of the sentences start in the piece. There were a lot of pronouns at the beginning of my sentences in my earlier piece. Now, it is more varied and less choppy sounding. It sounds a lot better when I read it aloud to myself. Is it better – yep – I think it is anyway. Is it perfect? That’s a different question –
In an essay by Jhumpa Lahiri called “My Life’s Sentences” she writes, “Even printed, on pages that are bound, sentences remain unsettled organisms. Years later, I can always reach out to smooth a stray hair.” I’ve heard anecdotal stories about authors who go to bookstores, find their own publications and change sentences with sharpies. I don’t know if this is true – but I certainly understand the impulse. I’m glad I published this story in that journal – but I also wish I’d put it in a drawer, let it sit a while and come back to it later. Then again, if I’d done that, I may never have sent it out – even now, as I prepare to hit publish on this post, I’m seeing things I think I should change…
The muscular structure of the heart consists of bands of fibers, which present an exceedingly intricate interlacement.
– Henry Gray: Anatomy of the Human Body
In my dream we are still in New York, still young. Your hair still curls at your shirt collar and I feel the weight of my own long-gone hair on my shoulders, against my back. We wait for the uptown A; you hold my hand. You and I are the only ones on the platform and there is no noise other than our breath and blood. Candy wrappers, cigarette cellophane, movie tickets, swirl at our feet like dried leaves.
I wake and realize you, too, are not asleep.
Because I know you so well, I know you are thinking about what the fourth expert said yesterday, which was the same thing the three others said, the thing my own training told me months ago. I won’t go see the fifth, and you don’t want me to capitulate.
Not even the birds are up yet. You turn on the radio, because that’s what we do when neither of us can sleep, and we listen to an unworried voice on NPR discuss the eighteen years of war in Afghanistan while we wait for the birds to sing.
But, it is difficult for me to lie beside you – my legs ache, deep: the ache of bones and blood cells and marrow being forced by the Neupogen to renew. My head and hands are very cold. Sitting up I swing grieving legs over the side of the bed, disturb the dog who jumps to the floor. She shakes, sends silver fur in a brief suspension.
You grasp my wrist. “Don’t, yet,” pull me back to bed. Relieved, I put my head on your chest, kiss your neck, move my hand, down. But instead you say, “no, I can’t. Just – stay.”
I force myself to lie in your arms, feel the weight of your hand on my back and listen to the strength of your heart. “How long?” you say, wanting quantity not quality. Your heart echoes: how long, how long, how long.
But I have a looser grip on time. In it, I float suspended like pollen. “I don’t know,” I say, and then because I’m tired and still somewhat shrouded in that dream, I add, “As long as it takes.”
Which sounds a little mean, so you release me.
The dog and I go downstairs to sit outside. It is still fairly dark though there is a crack of light at the edge between horizon and sky. Our dog circles twice, lies down, rolls her back onto my cold feet. She whole-lung sighs.
The day knew I’d marry you:
I sat on a stack of medical books; my fourth year. Bored, you flipped through the Times. The library was organized around an atrium and I could see rain spatter the glass roof. From a floor above, a group of undergraduates dropped a storm of papers and streamers. Loudly, they cried, “We are all Iraqis,” to protest that first Gulf War. We looked up at the same time. At the same time we said, “We are – ”
Bound, bind, unbind. I am bound to unbind my self from my body, my skin, my you.
Finally: the sun is up. The birds begin their riot. I look out over the yard. The crocuses are done; bluets have taken over. In a month it’ll be all violets and patchy prickly grass. My dog’s body twitches through a dream.
When I was a child, I thought memories were only dreams. That nothing in my life had actually happened, and I thought I could create a different past by dreaming it again. But now, sitting on the porch, my dog asleep, the sun just about up, I see it was all just moments unremembered, so many small cold sleeps.
Soon you will get out of bed, come outside. Your hair will be flat on one side, punk rock on the other. You will sit in this lawn chair and stare out at the yard and I’ll leave you there. I’ll get up, go inside and do the quiet chores that mark the beginning of every one of my days: feed the dog, make some breakfast, pour us both some coffee.