False Start Friday: So Alive
My lovely friend Suze has a creative-writing project called False Start Fridays, in which one shares "material that sparked a beginning but stalled in its orbit." Whether it's a character sketch, the beginning of a short story, or just a descriptive passage that's especially pretty but went nowhere, this is the place for it. Participating writers share their excerpts on their own personal blogs — and in this case, the blog has been languishing even longer than the False Start: I have not updated here since 2008!
The False Start Friday is a brilliant idea, isn't it? Sad, forlorn bits of writing that have no other life to live have a place to go. Sort of like a convalescent home for words. If they are very lucky words, they might even be revived from their long stasis and given new life.
I am hoping that's the case with my own False Start, which I wrote in 2010. (Perhaps appropriately, it is titled "So Alive.") This is the beginning of a YA novel, and that's about all I remember of it. I do know I opted to take the characters and a few of the underlying events and turn them into a standard CWF novel. Which also stalled out, but after 60,000 words rather than the 1,200 I have here.
OK, enough prattling. Here's my False Start:
I found the newspaper clipping while we were unpacking from Switzerland. It showed a man kissing a girl, which seems un-newsworthy until you notice the man is the lead singer of The Lost and unbearably hot and rockstarlike, and he is kissing a girl who is both too young and too plain to be kissed by him for any normal reason. That girl is me, and because of how my face was turned you can’t see the bandages. If you had been able to see them, you might have been even more confused about why he’d be kissing me. Of course, if you could read German, the caption under the photo would have explained it.
“Holy shit. That really is Darius MacKirdy,” said my best friend Tara, taking the photo from my hand. “You weren’t lying.”
“I didn’t know my mom kept this,” I said. “God. How embarrassing.”
Tara looked at me. “Embarrassing? I’d be showing everyone who would stand still. I’d be like, ‘There’s me, with my man Darius, so suck it.’”
“Right,” I said, taking the paper back from her. I put it between the pages of one of Mom’s physics textbooks and dumped the book on the to-be-shelved pile.
It was August in Los Alamos, hot and dry and still. A huge thunderhead rose up out of the Sangre de Cristo mountains to the east, framed in my window. Only three days ago, I’d been in wet, green Europe. Coming back to the United State of New Mexico was a shock to the system, in more ways that one.
We’d gone to Switzerland for two reasons: the one we told people about was that Mom did a job trade with a Swiss physicist. He’d moved his family to our house for six months, Mom and I had stayed in their place near Zürich.
The other reason was that there was a surgeon in Zürich who specialized in facial reconstruction. That had sealed the deal for Mom. I had tried to joke that my face didn’t need reconstruction, it needed demolition. Haha.
Mom hadn’t laughed.
When I’d seen some of the other kids who’d gone through Dr. Urbach’s office, I’d felt temporarily grateful: All I had was a big scar going down the right side of my face, from the outside corner of my eye to the middle of my jaw: like a tear track. A ropy, red tear track. Some of the other kids in the office had stuff going on that made me almost do the gasp-and-stare thing, like people usually did to me. Hemangiomas, cancers, dog bites, fires: a lot of things can happen to a face. My gratitude evaporated when I was back in the real world though, with the staring kids and the questions and the boys flirting with everyone but me.
Tara took the book off the pile and pulled the clipping back out, studying it. “He looks like he means it, you know,” she said. “I think he dug you.”
I snorted. “He’s like thirty,” I said. “He has a kid.”
“No wife, though.”
“And he saw me and thought, why, there’s just the girl I’ve been dreaming of: Sixteen, American, boring, and ugly. I think I want her to raise my child!”
“Saskia, knock it off,” Tara said. “You’re as ugly as I am, and I’m fucking hot. So get used to it.”
Tara hadn’t written me the entire time I’d been in Switzerland: she’d been too pissed off at me for abandoning her. As if it had been my choice. But the second we got back to Los Alamos, she was over at my house, hugging me as if she could climb inside my skin. She hated and loved with equal passion. She held grudges over tiny things for years, then forgave them in an instant.
Moderation in all things, said some Greek. But Tara was Italian. Moderation was bullshit, she said. Suck the marrow out of life, live large, die young.
I heard a rumble of thunder and noticed the black-bottomed, white-tipped cloud filling more of the picture frame of my window. If the thunderhead was going to deliver, it would piss down with a fifteen-minute vengeance and then it would all evaporate back to the heavens, leaving us slightly stunned and only marginally less parched than before. This was how the New Mexican monsoon worked.
“Plus MacKirdy has got women — actual women — throwing themselves at him all the time, obviously,” I said, not knocking it off.
“Well, he’s only kissing you. Or did he kiss everyone there?”
“I was handy when the newspaper photographer came around,” I said. “It was just publicity.”
Of course if it had just been publicity he’d stick to regular rock-god publicity events, whatever those might be. Concerts, presumably. But Darius MacKirdy had a kid born with a cleft palate, so he was there to raise money for Face Forward, the foundation Dr. Urbach was involved with, whose mission was “to facilitate emotional, peer and social support for individuals with facial disfigurement.”
Bono did global debt relief, Michael Stipe did hunger relief, Sting did organic farming. MacKirdy did faces. Everyone did something. I’m told Dave Gahan did heroin, which seems less philanthropic somehow.
Dr. Urbach hadn’t given me a miracle, which is what I’d hoped for in spite of myself. Nothing could have changed my life the way I wanted it changed. Surgery couldn't bring my dad back.
I had asked for a more minor miracle instead. “Can you make me pretty?” I’d quirked my mouth so it might seem jokey.
“You already are,” he’d responded, not missing a beat, and I could tell he got that question a lot. For some reason this annoyed me.
He was a youngish doctor, cute, which sucked. It would have been easier to go under the knife of an old scary man. You just didn’t want a good-looking dude cutting on you. Seeing you unconscious with tubes in your throat and your freshly carved-up face swollen and blackened. But what can you do? You can’t pick your world experts.
So. No miracles: The doctor was as likely to make me gorgeous as he was to resurrect my father. All that could be done was to reduce the damage a little bit. I was ordinary looking before the crash, so ordinary was the best-case outcome of the surgery. If you translated his handsome-Swiss-surgeon speech to ordinary language, this is what he told us.
Now we were back in Los Alamos. It was August. Mom was back at the Lab, I was heading back to school in two weeks. Tara had graduated but was putting off college. She had acquired a relatively serious boyfriend while we’d been in Switzerland, which made one of the three of us who seemed capable of getting a date.
“Are you ready for the onslaught of male attention?” she said, apparently reading my mind. “Now that you’re all beautiful and stuff.”
“Give me a break,” I said. But my eyes slid over to the full-length mirror propped against the wall. It was slightly bowed inward, distorting my features. No help there.
“Greg says so,” she said. “He said he could hardly tell you even had a scar.” Greg was her boyfriend.
“There’s a difference between having a disguised scar and being actually beautiful,” I said. I could hear my own petulance, which made me even crankier. Tara shrugged and slid the newspaper clipping in to her pocket. I hadn't seen her sneak it out of the physics book.
“Fine, don’t take a compliment,” she said.
“What are you doing with that photo?”
“I want to show Greg. It’s too cool: my best friend and Dar—“
I tore it from her pocket. "You will not. Show this. To anyone," I hissed. Tara looked stunned.
"Ever," I added, and tore the clipping.