26 March 2011

Let me put on my rubber suit...

This is a memoir I wrote for my writing class. It's about a trip to San Antonio my husband, my dad and I took a few years ago to a writing workshop weekend sponsored by the Screenwriters Guild East. Afterward, we were written up in the New York Times!!

Skeptical, he rode the 12-passenger bus south with me, distancing himself from the other writers by his silence. We were all veterans, but he had an unpleasant metallic taste in his mouth by the time he left the Air Force. I could see the judgement on his face as he listened to one vet's Alabama twang, her jangling earrings dancing and the tiny jewels on her fingernails glittering in the sunlight filtered through the tinted window. When we were delivered to the hotel, deposited on the curving driveway and ushered through the revolving door into a lobby far more ornate than the ones we have stayed at on our infrequent road trips, his eyebrows lowered a bit and his lips parted their iron gates.

Mirrored elevators are always awkward. A moment suspended between floors, waiting for your stomach to lurch, waiting for the doors to open. Nothing to look at but him and the face I once knew. Once I could look at it and know what was there behind the crinkles beside his eyes, the arrow on the side of his smile, his mighty tower of a neck when he threw his head back to laugh. Now it is a shield of stone, roughly hewn into a blunt representation of who he has become.

I don't realize the difference until Saturday evening. We spent a long day in writing workshops and discussions of writing technique, plotting goals for our projects. I winded my way through the after-hours library, down the escalator to the lobby to meet him and my father, another vet who came to this weekend away. Tense, I realized my father wanted our company for dinner. Instead of merely walking around the city, choosing a restaurant, I was waiting. Waiting for the tantrum. Waiting for the other shoe to drop. Waiting for the muttered cursing, the glares demanding that I, who had no problem, solve it. It didn't come, and we sat at a small table. We ordered chunky guacamole and an order of steak fajitas to share. None of us was hungry but we didn't want the day to end yet.

I realized that he was neglecting his fajita to speak animatedly of his writing exercises and the feedback he received. After a full day spent soaking up the focused attention of talented screenwriters who fed his hungry ego, his face opened. The rocky lines had smoothed and his eyes were unfenced. I could see his energy, I could sense his excitement. Cautiously, I stared at his welcoming face, afraid that my intent gaze would alert him to the vulnerability he was showing. I tried to secretly bask in the openness and friendliness that I didn't realize I had missed so much.

When had he put on that mask of protection? When had he sealed up his emotions behind the solid jaw and the immovable, impassive flat dark lines that were his eyebrows? Did he stop shaving every day to enjoy life after the military, or was it to add that additional layer of prickles and pins between us? The callouses on his hands, softened from his tour at the Air Force's computer, had grown hard again in the Texas dirt and heat. His heart and his face hardened as well, a wall between us as the divide grew.

In the van headed north again on Sunday I could see the change come over him. With each exit passed, his laugh dissapated and his eyebrows grew stern. He began barking comments at the traffic and hissing his displeasure at me over the seat back. It was as if he was an actor pulling and tugging on a stiff rubber suit that didn't want to go on smoothly. I began to see again the now-familiar lines that protect him from the barbs and strikes of the world and I.

In the van with the beige seats and tinted windows, among the laughing vets and the northbound traffic, tears came to my eyes and I let them well, I didn't blink back their hotness in fear that they would spill down my cheeks and my hand, raised to wipe them quickly away, would draw his anger and their questions. I felt kinship with the wife of an Alzheimer's patient, who has enjoyed a few precious moments of clarity and shared memories only to see the life's partner slipping back into dementia again.

I'm honored that you would read New Mercy and I would love to hear from you through comments!Teresa (Tracy) Dear