Short Fiction: Chapter 1

Chapter 1: Amber

The Atlantic is the deepest shade of blue I’ve ever seen. It always reminds me of the Titanic. That image of all those bodies floating in the blue fighting to stay warm, to live. The Atlantic is cold, rough, and full of seaweed. It’s a dark ocean and I always knew that’s where my life would begin and end. I’ve always wondered about the lives she took, the vessels she’s crushed and beaten into submission. The “lost” items that lay on her floor, crushed under her strength, and rendered motionless by her waves. She terrifies me. On more than one occasion she’s chewed me up and spat me back out. I remember tumbling under waves onto corse sand as a child. My lungs filled with saltwater, unable to cry or breathe. I just sat there on the shore, my swimsuit filled with grains of sand as if to render me motionless waiting to come back to life. I was bested by the ocean. Silenced. Or maybe she was saying it wasn’t my time yet. That I still had some onshore business to attend to. Desires and aspirations of the earth and the sun that would die underwater.

I stare out from a yellow-tinted window as the boat leaves the dock. I’ve traveled far to get here it feels like days. The smell of old hotdogs and rust wafts through the cabin. I’m alone, finally. I sit back and remember the days of hot cocoa and goldfish at the snack bar. The times when I was excited to be on a boat bound for a mystical island. I watch the land sink into the distance and flick through my iPod. It starts to rain. I spend most of my time alone these days wishing I was with someone or that I was someone else. I guess that would make me lonely. I always thought that older people were lonely, not twenty-six-year-olds. Twenty six-year-olds have lives and friends. We go to parties and move in with tons of people and pretend we’re still twenty-three because that’s the age where things were just starting to click. The age before problems became issues. I close my eyes trying to remember twenty-three but instead, I get a series of noises and smells none of which seem familiar to me. I hear the engines stop and the boat bounces off the rubber that covers the wooden dock. I hear the cars start their engines on the deck below. I put on my sunglasses, take a breath, and I walk to the exit.

Portset Island is grey and volatile. It reminded me off the moors in Wuthering Heights although I’ve never been there. The beaches are eroding and the concrete has cracks in it where weeds and other little flowers pop out. My sunglasses aren’t necessary, the sunny season is long gone but I keep them on anyway. I like to think it gives me an air of mystery. The ocean stays with me to my left a dark blue crashing violently onto the shore. I inhale the sea-spray mixed with the smell of rain and wet sand. To my right are the New England houses towering white and grey with their ornate decorations and empty porches. People pass by smiling, the brave ones say a passive greeting but I can’t muster up a response. It starts to drizzle and the wind picks up ripping through my loosely curled afro. I turn onto Lane street and reach into my purse for a cigarette. I don’t light it but I slip it behind my ear for good luck. I step off the curb without looking, cars don’t usually come down this street. With each step, the rain gets heavier.

Eventually, I fish out an umbrella from my bag about two minutes away from the house. It’s silent. All the other houses I pass creak in the wind and snap back as the rain pellets down. But this house, my house, seemed dead. In the growing darkness of the evening, it takes on a dark purple color very different from the vibrant white I remembered as a child. The paint on the porch is chipping away and the windows are covered in a heavy layer of dirt. There’s not a single piece of furniture on the porch. I drag my suitcase to the front door. I don’t need to knock. My footsteps have already awakened a cacophony of sound from inside. The lights flash on and in the doorway, a dark silhouette of a petite woman comes into view.

“Welcome home,” she says and stretches her small arms out to me. They were awkward and stiff as if it was something she was told to do. I don’t move. “Amber!” a slightly higher voice yells out. A child around eight pushes past the older woman and straight into my stomach squeezing her tiny arms around me. “They said you were coming tomorrow. We would’ve met you at the ferry,” she says as she squeezes. The older woman pulls her off me as gently as she can and smiles down at the girl.

“You know she likes to walk,” the woman says to the child. 

“I do. But I could’ve walked with you,” she reminds me of someone but I can’t put my finger on it. She has curly hair like her mother but the eyes of her father a gift and a curse as she’ll soon find out. 

“Let’s go inside,” the woman says gently.

“Good idea, I’ll make you some tea,” the little girl bounces into the house. I hand my suitcase to the woman and follow. It smells just like I remember it. Old and dusty with a slight tinge of mothballs. The floor creaks under me as I walk through the corridor towards the kitchen. The light hits me first and then some shapes come into view. I shake the lingering droplets from my hair. My oldest sister, Syd, is hunched over the stove assisting the little girl with a silver kettle. Mel is behind her at the sink helping another child wash their hands. I feel small in their presence and my hand itches for the cigarette behind my ear. The odd woman, from before, coughs loudly and Syd turns towards me. She looks like mom for a brief moment. Everything about her radiates warmth. Her hair seems longer than I remember it and there are lines on her face that seem deeper than before. But that smile, it’s exactly the same. She speaks but I don’t really hear her because Mel is towering over me. She could’ve been in the WNBA if she was a “team player” or just nice. 

“Take them sunglasses off in the house,” Mel says as she tears the glasses off my face. My cigarette magically stays in place but I now I can fully take in her face. Mel looked like my Uncle Henry. He was a mean drunk but had a gorgeous face. The face of a fallen angel is what my mother used to say. Mel was the same. Tragically beautiful, in a way that made even the most beautiful of women afraid. 

“Amber!” Syd says as she weasels her way between Mel and I, “How was your trip?” She hugs me awkwardly. She smells like cookies and perfume. It lasts a brief moment before Mel comes back and snatches the cigarette from behind my ear.

“And why do you have a cigarette behind your ear? You know we got children here.”

“I thought you were coming tomorrow,” Syd says as she dries my face with her kitchen towel.

“I told her Ma,” the little one screams from some unknown space. 

“Go help your brother,” Syd screams back. “Now, let me look at you,” Syd holds me at an arms distance as if she’s inspecting a painting. Every once in awhile Mel chips in with an exasperated sigh. I feel like I’m fourteen again on my way to my first date with Nick DeCanter. Syd tucks a piece of my hair behind my ear and pats my cheek. Her eyes swell up and in that moment I feel safe. It passes just as quickly as it began and she returns to the sink.

“You meet the Nanny?” she asks over the roar of the running water.

“Yeah, when did you get a Nanny?” I ask. 

“When I had another kid. There’s two of them now and I’m working. Selling my bread.”

“Ah! The bread,” I say.

Mel sits in the chair in the corner just staring at me. Her size seems to make the room feel smaller. Just behind her are the stairs that she pushed me down when I was eight. Two of my teeth fell out. Syd was the one who cleaned me up and told me I was lucky they came out when they did. To the right was the door to Ma’s room. I would sneak in there after dinner and sing to her and hang my pictures on the walls. The door’s painted purple now and the glass is grey and faded. Something rips through me. An emotion I don’t recognize. Mel sees it whatever it was and I do my best to suppress it.   

“Some of us have actual jobs you know,” Mel says. Without missing a beat Syd walks over to me and hands me a sandwich and a glass of water.

“Trust. This was not how I imagined my life,” she says.

“Not that any of us had much choice,” Mel adds. 

They speak in the way that only sisters could. The knowledge of unspoken concepts, rules, and dreams that I hadn’t thought about in nearly a decade.

The teapot hisses and the little girl flies in from the next room. She sloppily pours hot water into a cup, places in a tea bag, and places the cup on a saucer.

“She’s obsessed with tea at the moment. Making it and setting it on the table,” Syd says as she pats the child on the head with a kiss.

I sit down at the counter and the girl shakily brings me the tea as she smiles. I look for the first time at the kitchen, a place I always felt safe in. A place that seemed, bigger and brighter than the sun at some point, but now it echoes with the sound of rain. The countertops look faded and the blue finishing looks dull.

“You’re leaving after this right? After, the funeral,” Mel asks. 

“The girl just flew across the world, Mel. Let her rest,” Syd shoots Mel the ‘shut up and mind yo’ business look’ that only a woman with a certain level of wisdom and experience can wield correctly.

“Yeah,” the little girl pipped in.

“You too, leave the grown folk to talk grown folk business,” Syd says as she swats at the girl with the dishtowel. Syd sits down next to me. I love the way she looks at me. It’s like the past five years never happened like I’m just out of college, living in her basement, working at Macy’s again. Full of potential and possibilities.

“I’m glad you came back, Amber. It wasn’t the same without you.”

“Yeah, it was quieter.”

“It was different. I’m glad you made it home. Most girls your age come back for weddings or baby showers but you. This is something I never saw coming.”

She’s lying we all saw it coming. We were just too self-absorbed to care. My hand itches again for the cigarette I see in Mel’s hands and my mind starts to race. Weddings and baby showers were all reasons to come back but death is something that’s deemed inappropriate. Now, I remember why I hate it here. That judgment, the passive aggressiveness, the look on Syd’s face as she goes on to tell me about the funeral arrangements and where I’m expected to be at what time. This false sense of familiarity in a house I barely recognize. Where’s the music that used to fill every crevice of this house? What happened to the colors and the joy that used to live in this room? Even the sandwich looks sad and moldy compared to the food Ma used to make. Now, we talk in brief short sentences to each other with quiet hostility. Before there was adventure, wit, and love. You couldn’t be in the house for more than a second without the radiance of it confining you to its light. I feel my heart begin to race and I see my hands shake. I bolt off to the bathroom just around the corner and plunge my head into the toilet.

“She’s fucking high,” I hear Mel say when I come back up for air.

“She seemed alright to me.”

“From one addict to another.”

“That’s enough!” Syd whispers. The rest blurs into the background. I sit there on the floor feeling the tiles press into my thighs. I haven’t even said her name. Her laugh, her voice, her smile, all those things have been on a constant loop in my head since I found out she was gone but I haven’t said her name. My best friend. The only person who understood me when nothing else made sense and I’m not even brave enough to say her name. I wash my mouth out, splash some water on my face, and head back into the kitchen. I snatch my cigarette from Mel, walk onto the porch, and sit on the front steps staring at the rain and smoking hoping that this might bring something back.

Case Study: Grey’s Anatomy and the Voice of Women

This took longer than expected but here it is! This is the first in a series of a few that I’m doing in attempting to analyze dialogue from shows through a voice/ linguistic lens.

I was obsessed with Grey’s Anatomy in my teens. It was a new show (at the time) that came on just after Desperate Housewives and it made me want to be a surgeon. Not an actual surgeon but a surgeon on Grey’s Anatomy.

There are a plethora of things to talk about with this show but what I would like to focus on in this article is language and voice, specifically, how Grey’s Anatomy made the way women speak culturally significant. It’s long I went a bit overboard but hopefully, it’s enjoyable!

 

Shonda Rhimes has talked about how much she liked the show The West Wing. Now, I have to admit, I’ve never seen the show (I’ve just finished Orange is the New Black and Stranger Things so I’ve had a productive summer) but I have seen some of Aaron Sorkin’s other work (namely The Newsroom which I was obsessed with for a good part of 2013 and no I’m not going to base all of his work off of this one show I’ve seen a lot of his other stuff as well). He also pops up anytime I want to watch a video on youtube with that Masterclass commercial in which he says the following, “no one, ever in life, starts a sentence with dammit.”

This might seem like a throwaway joke but it’s crucial to understanding Shonda Rhimes and her writing on Grey’s Anatomy. A lot of writing (like acting) treads on that fine line between reality and fiction. You want to capture reality but in a stylistic way. If it’s too real it ends up more like reality T.V. and if it’s too stylized then you end up with characters speaking like David Harbour in Frankenstein Monster’s Monster, Frankenstein. (Yes, you should watch it and yes I watch a lot of T.V.) The balance of real and style is very important and also makes for really good comedy (when done right but that’s a subject for another post).

The speed or pace at which people speak is often a good way to employ this. The number one thing I often say to people in presentations or on stage is to slow down. This is because reality, unlike television, doesn’t have a rewind or a pause button. It also doesn’t come with subtitles (which is why I still have a job) but film and television are different. We can watch something over and over again, analyze them, and manipulate them so that we get things that we might not have seen the first time. It means characters can talk faster, mumble (which happens way too much), or speak at lower volumes and not worry so much about being understood. If the audience doesn’t get it they can always go back and try again.

There’s also this stereotype, within American society at least, that the more intellectual you are the faster you speak. (Yes, I know there is a big difference between being smart and being intellectual but for the sake of this let’s just use them interchangeably.) The underlying assumption being that smart people think faster and therefore speak faster, something we know in reality isn’t the case. (There’s also another really good point about East Coast bias and more specifically North East Coast which has more of a “posh” intellectualism attached to their accents, barring a few regionally specific accents. This is most likely fostered by and perpetuated by the sheer number of iconic writers that come from there but also the number of schools. Massachusetts has educated a lot of Americans.)

It’s become more increasingly prevalent in a lot of writing today. Take any scene from say The Newsroom and you’ll see this. People throw insults back and forth and complete other people’s sentences (sometimes even people they barely even know) with only half the information they need, all at lightning speed. It’s a great way to show that not only are these people smart they’re super smart. If you want a better example just watch Sherlock, who demonstrates his intelligence through both speed, wit, and a general sense of contempt for most of humanity (another common trope with genius). Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory also shares these qualities.  Now, we all know that the rate at which you speak doesn’t necessarily dictate how smart you are. But this is television not reality. We work with themes and tropes which works around reality, not through it.

Intellectualism, however,  isn’t the only thing conveyed by the rate at which you speak. There’s also a sense of manic behavior or loss of control that can be conveyed. When people get nervous or feel less secure they often speak faster. But there’s another large group of people who speak significantly fast. Young women.

In a fantastic article called, “The Totally ‘Destructive’ (Yet Oddly Instructive Speech Patterns of… Young Women?”, speed is claimed to be one of the more distinctive features of speech found in young women. We see this a lot in shows like Gilmore Girls which is famous for its quick wit, and sometimes, overwhelming dialogue speed. It also crops up in Greys Anatomy. Take for instance this scene between Meredith and George. They’re talking about their interns and whether or not they should address whatever issues they’re having. (The scene starts at 1.09-1.28)

Meredith: Can we shove them in a locker?

George: Guess we should just talk to them?

Meredith: No. We’re professionals and that’s clearly personal. Besides we’ll just waste time we’ll never get to see the solo surgery or the face transplant.

George: Oh, that’s a good point. I guess… well… we should just ignore it then.

Meredith: Yes, we just ignore it. That’s the professional thing to do.

George: Professionally ignoring them.

Now, there are two things that I love about this short scene. The first is that it’s between George and Meredith, not Meredith and say Christina her best friend. The reason this is important is that the scene reads as though it could be between two young women. They overlap each other in a way that almost seems like they’re the same person as if they’re sharing the same thoughts. You could easily take this scene and make it just Meredith talking to herself. This happens everywhere in Grey’s Anatomy but it’s not just limited to female characters, Meredith and Derek often talk in quick exchanges (it could be because he had a lot of sisters growing up and was used to it or it could be the East Coast bias again since his character is supposed to be from New York), as do Burke and Christina. These quick exchanges are similar to the ones seen in say The Newsroom or Sherlock and while they’re entertaining to watch (very Shakespearean in spirit, not in actuality like watching a Tennis match) they serve a bigger purpose. It shows the closeness and the intimacy of their relationships.

The second thing that I love about this scene is George’s use of the phrase “professionally ignoring them.” Now, this is important because Grey’s Anatomy has created quite a few phrases and words throughout it’s run. Some notable ones being, “my person,” “vajayjay,” and “McDreamy/ McSteamy.” While I don’t think “professionally ignoring them” tops the list (although I might incorporate that into my work now) it’s a great demonstration of how women create language and in doing so change it. Women are at the forefront of language change, in many ways that’s how we bond through creation. Men tend to name things in bonding they give each other nicknames or name a particular event that they’re going to. Watch any male bonding movie (there are a plethora of them to choose from) and one of the first things that tend to happen in the group (or in the narration of the film) is the naming of all the members of that group and the explanation of their names. (Women can give each other nicknames as well but for some reason, I’ve seen it happen quicker with men). Women (possibly because we are better at expressing ourselves verbally) bond through conversation but not just any kind of conversation, it’s creative. It’s learning about things that you have in common, shared experiences, and naming them or re-inventing them with language. It marks the moment that an event went from a man randomly stopping all contact with you after having been all up in your business for a significant amount of time to a word, ghosting, and that’s power.

There are lots of other features to talk about such as the use of filler words and paralinguistic utterances. The words: like, umm, uh which have been historically linked to women and historically deemed as “bad speech patterns” are sprinkled throughout Grey’s Anatomy’s dialogue. There’s pitch difference. Just have a listen to Sex in the City’s Carrie doing her “seriously all bad habits gone…” speech and then to Meredith’s “choose me, pick me, love me.” There’s a lot more creak happening with Meredith but her voice isn’t as high as Carrie’s. Sure they’re conveying slightly different circumstances but the message is the same. I could go on for a while about the infantilization of women in romantic narratives and how Grey’s Anatomy spins that as well but that’s a topic for another day. For now, I leave you with this, Grey’s Anatomy was the first time that I heard women on-screen speak the same way I did with my sister. It was the first time that I saw men mimicking women’s speech patterns and not get bullied or called out for it. It made me believe that I could write and more importantly that what I wrote could sound like the way I spoke and that it was good. Well, not just good, successful.

Titles and things

I’ve got a blog post coming out tomorrow about what I do and so forth tomorrow but I wanted to touch on two things before that came out. The first is the title of the blog. I stole it from a friend (well a friend of my sister’s whom I consider to be my sister so it’s family really). In one of those late-night conversations, about life (and of course tacos) we talked about what we would want the title of our biographies to be. I didn’t have one or at least one that was very good. My sister’s friend had “Various shades of chocolate” which I then appropriated into “Various shades of Cocoa” (that was to ease my guilt really). As I’ve traveled and explored the name has taken on a deeper meaning.

I spent the last month visiting family back home in the states. I also had the privilege of watching the Toni Morrison documentary, with my mother and grandmother called, Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am. So many discussions and questions were provoked from that film but I turned to my mother afterward and I confessed to her that I had always struggled with feeling as though I was enough. I never felt smart enough in school, or fast enough in gym. I wasn’t loud enough, funny enough, or talented enough and I definitely never felt black enough. This was so much so that I didn’t read a female black author until I was in high school. I was so afraid that the experiences they were having and sharing, I wouldn’t be able to relate to because I was missing something. I was missing an element of blackness and I was desperately afraid of being outed for it.

Now, this is just one part of a longer story one that hopefully I’ll have time to explore in a more delicate and detailed manner at some later time. There are all sorts of things to unpack here just starting with imposter syndrome and going on to womanhood and this complex idea of blackness. But what I really wanted to share today was the idea that I’ve lived in three different countries, attempted to speak three different languages, started a new career, finished a degree, and did it all while being black not despite it. That was something I wish younger me could’ve seen. Various Shades of Cocoa encompasses various things that bring me closer to being the human that I was born to be. They are elements of my heritage, lessons learned in books and through people, and, yes, they include experiences I’ve had as a black woman.  All of these things, identities, ideas, believes, and creations are bound by a physical form. A physical form that is a shade of cocoa with a mass of curly (or as my grandmother calls it untamed) hair on top.

I wanted to take the time to share that because it’s something that I think about a lot. I’m also aware that the title of the blog feels slightly like a porn title.  (Although in fairness anything said with the right cadence can sound like the title of a porno which I think says more about our society than it does about titles. Although maybe titles are an expression of society… no, they are an expression of society because words are. So it’s more about the context than anything else.) ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ End Rant.

I will be putting out some new fiction writing as well. It’s more than likely going to be out at the end of the week and will be a short fiction anthology…. hopefully. Anyway, enjoy the days, drink away the nights, and always remember that no matter who you are you are always enough.