Sample of “Mental” by Marie K Johnston, for Prospective Literary Fiction Agents

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“You can search throughout the universe for someone who is more deserving of your love and affection than you are yourself, and that person is not to be found anywhere. You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.”    –Buddha

 
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Chapter Two

 

Eve and I are “identical” twin sisters. Made from the same sperm and the same egg, easily confusing people we’ve just met, growing up in the same room in the same house. But, we are not the same people. She and I still have many different experiences, and still see things we’ve experienced together in very different ways.

 

If I could pluck them out of us and hold them in my hand, those differences would be almost as shocking to me as the difference between life and death. That is why I am writing this about her, about me. I have to understand her to understand myself, and understand myself to understand her. The simple differences are too complicated to tease out any other way.

You know, I’m just gonna confess up front. This isn’t all my work, and you would have figured it out had I pretended it was. You see, when my sister is out, I snoop around. One day, I found a bunch of her journals, and I have been borrowing from them ever since. But you’re okay with this sort of thing, right?

One night, at the beginning of last semester, Chloe, my sister’s best friend, and Eve had thrown this huge party at Chloe’s place. By the time she showed up, late as usual, my sister was the last in our group of friends to arrive. Eve had tried to back out of going at all, but Chloe had held firm that Eve had to at least make an obligatory appearance since she was a co-host, even if she was sick.

So, Eve got out of her car, stepped out into the darkness and the wind. She double-checked that her doors were locked before crossing the street and walking toward the loud music and the shrieks and giggles that was the party she was co-hosting. She was alone, but her boyfriend, two best friends and friends from college were in there somewhere, making noise.  

She stopped to double-check her appearance, looked down at her faded jeans, the ones she had worn through high school and college, the ones with the rip in the left knee and the frayed bottoms and the hole in the butt which she had patched when she was 20. She had just recently started wearing those jeans again, had just recently been able to put them on again. Her shirt, too, was old and faded. Familiar with it’s tired brown cotton, it’s lazy too long sleeves, it’s soft overwashed feel. She reached up her hands and felt her hair, so short now, barely enough to get messed up now.  

She felt about as ready as she was going to feel, and started walking again toward the sounds and the beer and the promise of vomit and pot.

People hung in groups in front of the apartment, talking and making racket. She scanned them for familiar faces, for recognition. Some of them were not old enough to drink, were probably still underclassmen, were too dressed up, too stiff, too concerned with looking cool–probably still striding the fence between going Greek and doing their own things.  

The ones dressed like war victims, with dirty hair and sunburned skin—those were the people she knew, her friends that were still in school. They did things like drop acid and read poetry to each other, or started bands with names like “Lobster Bisque and the Nihilists” that never played any gigs but did have promotional bumper stickers, or spent the summer gutting fish in an Alaskan cannery, just for kicks.  

They saved up money to go camping for a month in South Dakota, or learned Spanish just to be able to buy drugs at Mexican prices when they backpacked through Monterrey. They still brought kites along with them for an all-day picnic/ Frisbee fest at Zilker Park. They still thought that listening to music was preferable to watching it, even though they had been weaned on MTV.

They hadn’t made their minds up about how they felt about their childhoods, the concept of marriage, and had spent even less time paying attention to how much it costs to buy a house and a car and support babies.

They were a bit on the geeky side, talking about welfare and grad school, politics and art, but without ever thinking they knew what they were talking about. They were ambivalent about getting their degrees or contributing to a society that they had fundamental disagreements with, even though they weren’t sure just yet what all those disagreements were.

They were giving themselves time. They were interesting.   

“Hey, is that Eve? It is…how the hell have you been, girl?” said a slightly drunk guy who wore old army surplus shorts that were too big, dusty sandals and a faded red thrift store tee-shirt. He was clutching one of those refillable 64 ounce cups that say “The Hog” on them from like 1988 that some people still have that was all cracked and hard to read and spilling over with cheap keg beer.

He walked toward her with a huge grin. She recognized him as Martin, friend from the dorms and also a freshman history class, ex-boyfriend of a few of her friends, known to some as king of the water bong. She hadn’t seen him since two years before she graduated, and that meant about 3 years.

“Martin—“she hugged him, “what the hell!?”  They laughed. He held her at arm’s’ length, squinting.

“I almost didn’t recognize you…cut all your hair off, eh?  How’s post-college life been treating you?”

“How’s the five-year plan going?”  she asked, hoping that he’d catch her bait.

“More like 6, it looks like. Hey, go grab a beer—the keg’s around back. Aaron and Steve and Mike are in there somewhere, too. And Chloe just introduced me to Sam—good for you, a grad student. Maybe we’ll start seeing more of you now,  huh?”

“Yeah…good to see you again, man. Later.”

Eve headed for the front door, smiling at strange, drunk faces and trying to seem festive. She felt out of place, and tired. She felt sad about this. She smiled anyway.  

The tiny apartment was stuffed with bodies that huddled together on the couch, or pressed up against the refrigerator in the kitchen to watch other bodies take shots of tequila, or sat on the stairs talking and inadvertently preventing other bodies from climbing the stairs to the bathroom or to Chloe’s bedroom, which had almost surely been taken over by the potheads by now.

Too many bodies filled the two couches that Eve and Chloe had dumpster-dove for when Chloe got this place last year. And, even with the air-conditioner on, the combination of overcapacity and square footage always produced the feeling that they were throwing a party during August in hell. It was almost eleven, and things were really starting to roll.

Eve wanted to get stoned. Drunk first, then stoned. She knew that Sam did not

approve of this; she would try to sneak around him, but knew that he’d still know and be a little confused and disappointed. It was the same with her cigarettes, she thought, as she lit one and inhaled and stood in the doorway. He didn’t understand why she had to do these things. She told him once that it was because she couldn’t think of a good enough reason not to, but he had gotten upset over that just like the time that she told him to make sure that she was cremated, instead of buried, in case anything ever happened to her.

Someone cranked up the stereo in the living room, and Eve watched people get up to dance. There wasn’t much room to dance, but they moved as much furniture out of the way as they could to make room for the flailing and stomping and tribal movements they were looking forward to. They seemed so absorbed and oblivious, so happy to move, that it made Eve feel a little lighter. She would join them when she was drunk; she headed for the kitchen to find something to drink.

Drink. Drink. Drink, she thought to herself.  Need a drink. In the kitchen, she made her way past arms and legs and heads and torsos to the cabinet, got a glass, and excused herself to open the refrigerator to find her signature drink. She and Chloe liked to kid that they were addicted to screwdrivers; each girl kept a pitcher of the drink in her fridge at all times.  

“Thanks, girl.” she said aloud to a Chloe who wasn’t there, but probably was two steps away from passing out in her bedroom. Chloe said that drama queens always needed plenty of two things to smooth out the rough edges: screwdrivers and pot.  

She took a big gulp, closed her eyes. She remembered what her friend Jacob said to her recently when she told him that she hated herself now because she didn’t think she had any morals.  

He had said that she should stop beating herself up over cheating on Sam.

“It’s just one mistake. Everyone messes up.  You can’t build your identity around one mistake. Just try to find out why you did it, why you thought it was okay at the time to do it. Because you are a good person, and you do have morals. You proved that to me enough over the years, and I know that there is a good reason to explain why you did this. Try to ask yourself why.”   

“How will finding out why I cheated on Sam help me?” she had asked, not getting it, but thinking it might be worth trying because Jacob, her high school boyfriend and now other best friend, always seemed to have such a calmer, more successful approach to managing his own life.

Why? Why? Why? She asks herself in the kitchen. Nothing comes to her.  

“So, this Chinese couple are on their honeymoon,” a drunk teenager tells her friends while Eve listens. “And they’re really conservative and haven’t had sex yet ever, and so the husband says to his wife, ‘Tell me what you want…I want to please you.’ And the wife asks, ‘Anything?’ And the Chinese man says, ‘Anything.’  So the wife giggles and says, ‘I’d like to try a 69.’ And the husband looks confused and says, ‘Beef and broccoli?’”

Everyone within earshot laughs. Eve laughs.  She decides to leave the kitchen and find Chloe, and maybe get stoned with her.

Time out, you as the reader say. What is the point of this story? You are tired of waiting for a point. I guess, as the author, I owe you some sort of explanation. Here goes nothing…

So, Eve is a young woman who has just recently had a breakdown, which her friends and family and new therapist have attributed to her career as a high school English teacher.  She has major doubts about this because her grandmother and uncle on her dad’s side committed suicide, and her grandfather and mother are alcoholics. She is afraid she is a suicidal alcoholic.  

She has been diagnosed with Major Depression, and takes Prozac. She sees her therapist regularly, but lies to her so that she can feel better about herself. But the problem is, she doesn’t feel better about herself for long. She thinks about death too much. She also hates herself, but I think I told you about that already.

You might be wondering what caused the breakdown. Me, too.

 

 

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Chapter Fifteen

Sun shines amber through her hair;

and her tender eyes glow,

as the infinite ocean’s air

imparts to her what it knows:

 

“When I first saw, my eyes did see

only my own clear water’s leighs;

then upon the shore I crashed,

all horizon being ash.

 

“Eons passed, shore and I as one;

living beings around us, none.

But from our union there conceived

a single spark from which Life weaved.

 

“Burst from our love were sun and star,

soaring above us, to afar;

from my arms, our miracle shone

into human form, flesh and bone.

 

“Descendant of the sea and shore,

who also owns a mortal core:

inhale each moment, confident

that you will see all Life has meant.”

 

The sea’s breath whispers from a distance,

slipping into her ears;

and she decides that not a hindrance

will invade her living years.

 

She found herself upon her balcony, and scooping up her soft crinkly skirt from the near-ground and up to her knees, she settled back in a chair and crossed her legs. The finicky weather had turned breezy, and it softly pushed at her page. Wondering where Virginia Woolf had written The Voyage Out, Eve imagined her profiled against the sea in a wooden lounging chair, with the gulls above and the sandy shore standing monument to her burning brilliance. Eve tasted a salty brine in her throat, wishing in the back of her mind for Virginia’s voice to explain life and death and longing to her.

Pen and page connected Eve to the cycle of continuous energy that connected the flower petals and tree bark and falling leaves. She began to use places in her mind that were reserved for things her present body had not known, the windows allowing in experiences greater than those that were hers alone.  

She slipped comfortably into this state, became all that she had been and was and might be in a drawn sequence that once realized would dissipate back into the air around her with a snap of unseen fingers.  

She would recall a feeling of weightlessness that afternoon—a kind of weightlessness that brought happiness into her eyes. It was so satisfying to write, she thought to herself, so thoroughly satisfying.

She was trying to work out in her journal why she sometimes felt so happy and then other times felt the same intensity of emotion, but it was sadness. She couldn’t understand why, even though she thought of herself as a hopeful person, she could still travel so far beneath the earth’s crust and wallow there in the hot darkness.

Darkness was falling. The air was becoming diffused with a deep violet that lingered above the sidewalk, muffling footsteps, dilating gas lamps. Eve flipped her wrist to catch the time; then remembering that she wasn’t wearing her watch today, she smiled. Catherine walked out onto Evelyn’s balcony with an apron tossed over her shoulder, and forced the humidity-expanded door to lock. She pulled two long and swinging earrings from her front pocket, and with a tilted face she walked towards her next-door neighbor, assembling one crimson glass ornament and then the other.

“Milady Eve…where have you gone?” she said, snapping her fingers. The wind had blown Eve’s hair and ashed her forgotten cigarette, turning her into a twilight statue.

“I figured you had lost track of time, so I came over to get you. We’ll be late–did you forget about seeing Lee tonight?”

“No, I was just thinking…Do you think that we’re happy?” Eve lit another cigarette and exhaled as she leaned back in her chair.

Catherine sat down next to her, and put her face in her hands, thinking. “Yeah, for the most part, I am.”

“So am I…but do you ever get sad?”

“What do you mean, sad?”

“Oh, I don’t know—I mean, like awful feeling, for like, no discernible reason…And, I’ve started having these absolutely terrifying nightmares and they’re always about my father, for some strange reason. I want to be someone else, sometimes, and I don’t know why that is or how to stop it. You know, maybe I’m just disappointed in my life for some reason,or something, and it’s making me…” she trailed off, tired from thinking of these things.

Catherine noticed the energy beneath Eve’s  brows, there was such a lost, childlikeness in her that probably led Catherine to feel sorry for her friend.

“Not really, but I understand what you’re saying, I think…But, that doesn’t happen to me. Now I’m really worried about you, Eve–are you okay?”

Eve knew that she and Catherine did not see things, see life, in the same way. “Oh, yeah, I’m fine, really…I didn’t have to work today, which was great.

“Maybe I’ve just gotten restless lately, like I’ve outgrown something or like there’s something on the tip on my tongue but I can’t remember it, you know, that’s making me feel so out of sorts…”

 

 

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Chapter Forty-Two

I decided recently that I only want one thing in life—to enjoy it. This means, I am pretty sure, that I have to give up on the idea that life is only good when it conforms to preconceived ideas about situations, people and events. When the good is no longer just the time before your father raped you so long ago, but really is in the present and the future.

I decided this at an intersection by my apartment that I have to go through almost every day. It’s 6th and Lamar, and has all of these really highbrow salons and gift shops around it that I can’t even afford to think about going into.

Well, at this intersection there are also always homeless people on all sides. But, if you’re coming up 6th headed toward downtown and in the left hand turn lane, there are special homeless people who sell a newspaper they make themselves with corporate donations called “The Homeless Advocate.” They take the proceeds and help other homeless people get medical care, food and clothing. I once asked if I could write for that paper, but they turned me down because I wasn’t homeless.

The most unusual homeless person here is a guy who is missing teeth, sunburnt, with ragged clothes–but, he is always smiling. No matter what, day after day, he is always smiling. And it’s not because he’s a nutjob– it’s because he chooses to smile, he told me last spring.

One recent day, the day I decided to try and enjoy life regardless of anything after talking with him once again at the red light, he had said to me, “You know, I’m so glad you always smile back at me. No one in their cars ever smiles at me.

“I stand here all day, and sometimes I even try and do funny things, but people still just grit their teeth and clench their jaws and never smile at me.”

This was after I had explained that I couldn’t buy their paper because I was unemployed, and he had said something like he knew things would turn around for me, and that I shouldn’t worry too much about it. Something about things having a way of working themselves out, or something like that.

He went on to say, “You know, it makes me sad to see well-fed people in expensive cars who have forgotten how to smile. If I can smile, how come they can’t?”

I’m glad that traffic light is so long, and I’m glad I was there, and I’m glad we talked and I had the opportunity to listen to such a wise, happy spirit.

It was a turning point for me, a chance to see that I was in control of my own happiness, and that I knew suddenly that I was ready to do something about it.

I realized, on that afternoon, that I was ready to save myself. I was a free-thinking, creative, crazy girl who found out I also wanted to come to my senses, too. At least mostly, anyway.

When I really thought about it, I realized I knew a lot about letting go of my past the “right” way, and that I was ready to complete the job.

It had take my heart a long time to catch up to my brain, and vice versa. But, now they were at last, in sync, maybe for the first real time in my life–I wasn’t gonna waste my chance to be happy in this, my adult life.

Abnegation eventually leads to acceptance of the realities of your life, which leads to growth. I didn’t realize I had been doing this all along, so I inadvertently made the abnegation part longer and more painful than it needed to be. Letting this process work each time makes it go faster. The steps pass faster, less disastrously. You get to do more of the meaningful part, the growth part.

Understanding this about myself, I mean about being alive and living life, seemed like something I already knew once I wrote it down. I had lived that way, really, and so had everybody else I knew, too, when I really thought about it. We had been doing this all along. The difference was that before it had seemed sad, cruel, even pointless, to me because I so wanted a better answer, a better explanation for what had ailed me. A better solution. Now, it seemed, however, that the truth of what happened to me that night in high school during my parents’ divorce was just the only answer there was. But, that this answer could also bring me solace and contentment. Peace. If I simply let it go.

This really was the best solution–the happiest, kindest, most meaningful one–if I chose it to be.

People say we all come full circle, but I don’t think we ever really do. Time is really the biggest thing there is, and it has us for good or ill. I know that I’ve spent so much time fighting against myself, fighting for an image of myself that wasn’t really me anymore, when I should have been fighting for the things I loved.

Existentialism is alright for awhile, but hollow. I wanted a seamless connection with everything–I wanted to flow.

It’s like this old hippie said to me on the Guadalupe River last week, when Chloe and I took some friends down there to celebrate the fact that she was moving away to New York City to go be a professional artist.

My inner tube was too big for me, and it was hard for me to paddle in it. But, I was paddling frantically to avoid colliding with a tree that was growing in the middle of that river.

“Don’t fight the current. You won’t hit that tree,” this strange, wise woman called down to me from the side of the riverbank.

She smiled. She was calm. She brushed her long gray hair out of her face with her hand, nodding to me confidently.

Of course, she already knew that the water would flow around the tree and so would I. That I’d be safe, even though it didn’t seem that way a second before it happened.

Now I know, too.

 

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http://www.MarieKJohnston.com

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