Category Archives: Written Life

An Interior Design

So, I just finished my draft for my Fiction class. Not too excited about it, hoping to get some feedback in class tomorrow. Maybe y’all here can give me some suggestions as well. Otherwise, enjoy!

Interior Design by Liz Van Buren

Morning peeked its head through the yellow cotton curtains. The reflection it created enhanced the sun’s rays against the stark white walls of my bedroom. But what woke me is the low drone of the television, left on from the previous night, now playing a rerun of I Love Lucy. In bed, I tumbled over myself, curling into an inhuman ball of limbs. At seven a.m., I was not yet ready to face the day.

A soft breeze filtered through the propped window and underneath the golden cloth, so that the yellow illumination danced across the wall with each small gust. My deep shadow seemed abrasive against the egg yolk wallpaper, cracking and peeling from years of unattended water damage. With a prolonged stretch of stiff muscles and tired bones, I finally rose to greet the morning. An impression of Pete’s slumber lay next to me on my right. He never cared to sleep on the other side. In the beginning, Pete would rather I be awake when he wakes up, but now he would leave me sleeping as he crept out to go to work.

I worked from home, so I had a lot of alone time, most of which was consumed by weekly chores. When I was recovering from my injury three years ago, I was unable to go to work. Pete wouldn’t allow for it anyway. It’s not like I was handicapped or anything, but he worried about me going out in my condition. He really cared. Now, even though I was fully recovered and cleared to get any job I could, I still worked from home as Pete’s secretary of his furniture company. At this point, I was just used to it. At first, I would stay home and answer the phones all day, but these days Pete and I did a lot of shopping in town for lumber and fabrics.

I changed out of my pajamas – one of Pete’s once-white T-shirts, now discolored by time and sweat – and began excavating our neglected house in search of empty beer cans and overflowing ashtrays. I then washed the sun-dust off the windows with the tired cotton rags. Mopping the tiled kitchen floor involved several attempts, for our footprints were conserved with dirt; you could trace our journeys over the week through the house. The last task was always to vacuum the combination of a week’s worth of food crumbs, wood chips from the bottom of Pete’s boots, and the dust that collected on our raspberry carpets during my cleaning.

The tedium of cleaning often seemed to be of no use, because our deserted flat was five miles outside the nearest town. There was nothing to see, and nobody with whom to bask in this nothingness, except for Pete of course. But even still, he was never happy if the house was messy, and since I owed him my life, a little cleaning was insignificant in the grander scheme of things.

After wiping the remaining streak marks from the high windows, my gaze fell upon the outside world. I almost forgot what it looked like out there. In spring, the irises swallowed our home, opening themselves to the world and consequently closing us in from it. But now, in the winter, the naked branches stood like corpses, mummified by the snow.

Pete and I had been together for about four years, but I moved in with him right after my accident. When I met him I knew that there would be nothing to separate us, except for a five-year age difference. Though the accident and my consequential shock left me with only vague flashes of unpolished memories, I did know that a negligent driver hit me during one of the town’s heaviest hurricanes. Authorities told Pete that my car must have swerved sharply off the road, driving through the guardrail and down the steep shoulder, wrapping itself around a thick redwood trunk, an unfortunately common occurrence for teenagers. When I saw Pete in the waiting room the morning I was discharged, I knew I just had to stay with him.

 

Just like clockwork, he returned home every Friday at six p.m. Weekends were our time to spend together, free of his labors of running a business. For the first few years we were together, his need for relaxation resulted in us staying inside most weekends. I didn’t have many friends, and Pete was always happier to have me around the house when he came home. But just recently, we started driving into town every Friday for a walk around the block and lunch in his favorite café. I had to admit, it was nice to be outside.

It was the first weekend of January, so the streets were still sprinkled with the remnants of the New Year festivities – crumpled noisemakers under sidewalk benches, streamers imprinted with the bottom of snow boots, broken novelty sunglasses and crowns. As we walked, Pete’s hand gripping my hip towards his, I remembered hearing faint cheering from behind the full forest of empty trees at that stroke of midnight. When Pete shook me out of my memory, I couldn’t help but see a teenage boy – only a few years younger than I was – staring at me from across the street, like my eyes were drawn to him. He was sitting on a bench, legs and arms akimbo. He looked purposeful, like a watchman. Though his stare was not menacing, it was obvious he was thinking about something, which was still unnerving. As Pete and I continued on the slushy path, he followed us with his eyes, still thinking. He watched and watched until we turned the corner and he was out of sight. In my last moments in his line of vision, I looked back. I realized at that moment that he was looking at me like he knew me. Only he didn’t know how, so he was trying to figure it out. I never mentioned it to Pete. He was always a little territorial of me because he cared so much. I squished my body tighter against Pete’s for protection.

I forgot all about that incident until our next walk the following week.

Pete had to buy more cigarettes, so we stopped in the gas station two stores down from the café. He didn’t want me standing alone outside, though I never liked the awkward looks I got from the clerks. My eyes were focused on a pile of crumbling snow outside while he searched for his favorite brand. So I didn’t notice her approaching from across the street, and I wasn’t aware of the nervous look in her eye.

“Abby?” Her head was cocked to the right and her brows were pinching the top of her nose as though forced together with a needle. She stood there like a tree stump, frozen, beneath layers of winter garb. Her eyes bulged with delirium. She was standing in the doorjamb.

“Abby!” She called to me again. I had no choice but to respond, as she was now right in front of me.

“No ma’am I think you have the wrong per– ”

“But…oh but it has to be you, Abbs. It just has to be!” She was processing my body with her eyes – down to my toes, up to my hair, and back down again. It was as if she were trying to make sense of me. She went to touch my hand but Pete made sure that didn’t happen.

“No seriously, lady! You’ve got the wrong girl. ‘Scuse me.” He ignored the insistent expression on her face and pulled me out of the store, pushing across the strange woman’s body angrily.

But she didn’t stop. She followed us outside and though I wasn’t looking at her, I could hear that her voice was several steps behind us. She must have stopped.

“I would recognize her face anywhere,” she called out. This piqued my interest, so in spite of Pete, I turned around. “Don’t you remember? You’re my daughter!”

 

The bright spotlights shining through the translucent curtains gave the illusion of midday at midnight. I nudged my face against the front door window but all I remember is a white orb of light stinging my eyes all the way into my brain. I was blind to everything in front of me. I heard the cocking of weapons so I imagined the SWAT team raised their arms to their faces when they saw mine through the filthy window. I hadn’t cleaned the house at all that week.

In an instant, even through the light of emergency vehicles and blinding spotlights, I started to see everything clearly. I knew I recognized the boy on the bench. He had my eyes, and it was like I was staring at myself. It was Michael. But most importantly, I saw my mother. Not as she was that night, standing outside my once-home anxious to have me on the other side of the door; nor as she was that day outside the gas station, jittery, disoriented. No, I saw her as she was on my sixteenth birthday, calm, performing spatula arts in the kitchen as she prepared my favorite meal. She greeted me with a smile that morning, and a gift – a hand-decorated journal. Of course, it was the day I disappeared.

Yes, I saw it now. There was no accident. Flashing, cryptic images were slowly fitting themselves together. I walked to school that morning. I turned the corner. It was the path leading to the back entrance of the building. My friends, they stood at that entrance just before homeroom everyday, sharing a pack of Newports stolen from Kim’s mother’s carton. Before I arrived, before I could smell the familiar hint of nicotine, I was pulled by my hair, my face forced into a napkin of a toxic liquid. The last thing I can recall – faintly, however – was my leg being broken in what I think was the backseat of a van.

Now though, Pete was behind me, tugging at the tattered flannel shirt he had me wear and muttering some helpless plea, crazed just as my mother was that afternoon last week. From his eyes, I gathered he was begging me to stay, but I couldn’t hear him over the booming sounds of a man’s voice projected into a megaphone, carefully instructing me to come outside.

 

Returning home after being kidnapped has been difficult. It’s been challenging putting the pieces altogether, readjusting to my family, and my bedroom. When Pete took me, we stayed relatively close by; he thought it would throw everyone off. But he kept me inside for so long that everything seemed unrecognizable. If my brother hadn’t seen me in the park that day I’d still be with Pete. To be honest, there are days when I miss him. He never allowed us to have pictures in the house, but I have a distinct memory of his face: the harsh curl of his eyebrows, his jowls like a bloodhound. It’s the only memory that’s truly been mine in the last five years.

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Filed under Fiction, Short stories, Written Life

musings on a feather

Another hidden gem: circa 2008, Creative Writing 1.

Musings on a Feather by Liz Van Buren

I stare. I observe its fragile beauty and the careful way it rests on the table, almost levitating. I note its elegance as the wind carelessly carries it across the counter, hairs aflutter. But beyond its mannerisms – beyond the way these hairs dance like tiny hands when my breath escapes me – I see something else, something more. I find peace in the way something so fragile can stand on its own – in the way it can be detached from everything native,
drift

to

the

ground,
and yet survive, independent, after suffering a lifetime of hiding behind others. Once alive, it is now battered with the harshness of time, yet still floats on. I am actually inspired by this resilience.

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Filed under Everyday Life, Non-fiction, Observations, Written Life

harriet the spy + why i write

So here I am, sitting in a cold, damp, deserted-dorm-room-turned-night-host-office and, instead of doing my homework, I am sifting through my Craft of Nonfiction portfolio compiled last Fall and came across this. I forgot I wrote this and it made me smile. Enjoy, and have sweet dreams as I sit here freezing my ears off.

Harriet the Spy and Other Reasons I Write by Liz Van Buren

It all started with Harriet the Spy. I was about seven when the movie came out, and the thought of there being an eleven year old spy exhilarated me. This was still around that time when I thought “anything was possible” and didn’t see anything wrong with that scenario. She traveled the dangerous streets of the city in her oversized yellow trench coat with all her “gear” tucked gently into coat pockets and the waistband of her pants. She also carried a composition notebook, personally decorated, which kept all of her observations and personal thoughts and speculations about all of the people she encountered in her travels. Harriet M. Welsch was the coolest girl alive to me, and I wanted to be a spy just like her.

Since the closest thing I had to a trench coat was a plastic Barbie raincoat, and my parents didn’t let me any farther than the front lobby, I settled on spying on people from my bedroom window, up on the sixth floor of an apartment complex mostly inhabited by Jewish seniors. This and my faulty binoculars did not stop me from believing I was going to achieve greatness as a seven-year old spy on my block. On my first day, I sat and scouted the building across the street, window by window, until I finally spotted someone moving on the third floor. I scrambled for my notebook – spiral not composition, and only decorated with the word “PRIVATE” in bubble letters – and began taking notes.

This lasted a total of fifteen minutes, until I realized that nothing interesting will come of a stay-at-home mom vacuuming and cleaning windows. Disappointed day after day with such poor results, I began to contrive my own observations – as a product of an overheated imagination. One night, I saw an adult male walk through his bedroom, look around for something, and then leave. He returned, looked out the window, and then shut the curtains. Though he probably saw the seven-year old Peeping Tom across the street and wanted some privacy, I imagined that he had some poor, innocent victim tied to a chair, ready to be sliced apart. He seemed like that kind of person. Because surely, a professional spy such as myself could read his facial expression accurately enough to make such a deduction from a hundred feet away.

But I suppose I am getting a little off-track.

Why do you write? I was once asked this very same question at a week-long writer’s workshop about four years ago. Many of the other impressionable young writers in my group spoke of family members, of being the first generation in their family to strive for education and success. Others said they hope to be published someday, and one kid even included that he often writes to calm himself from the paranoid feelings he gets while high on marijuana. We were a very eclectic bunch, I’d say. But the only problem is I don’t actually remember what I said. I remember it being some grandiose statement about something like “the awakening of my soul,” or a “cathartic release of emotion,” and perhaps “inspiration.” Ah, yes, I remember there being lots of inspiration.

Though I mock the sixteen-year old me, I’m almost ashamed to admit that those statements aren’t too far from the truth, as it stands now. I am now twenty years old, and essentially, I write to blow off steam. I write down my thoughts when, for whatever reason, I cannot verbalize them. I write when my friends piss me off, or when some asshole breaks my heart, or when my family hovers and overprotects me and treats me like an irresponsible, incapable invalid who can’t take care of herself. I write when I’m stressed about school, or afraid of the future. I write to escape the pain and distress of all of this. And sure, I suppose I write when I’m feeling rather jaded, hoping that maybe a word, or a phrase, or even the feeling of pen to paper will spark something exciting in my soul.

But I suppose that isn’t all there is to it. Lately, I also write because I am obsessed with the English language, and have been since the eleventh grade when Mr. Vicari introduced me to its many complexities and quirks. In eleventh grade English, he taught us to analyze a work until you could no longer read its original text, only the hundreds of notes you’ve taken in the margins and between the lines; not only did he heighten my awareness to intricate metaphors and imagery, but he also taught us to take note of every punctuation mark, when an author capitalizes words, and other seemingly minute details. These methods of reading also taught me to enhance my writing; I remember wanting to someday be so talented as to write something that could be so carefully scrutinized by the students of Mr. Vicari’s eleventh grade English classes.

Now, far beyond the eleventh grade, I use this almost-newfound love of words as something didactic. I challenge myself every time I write something, and I push my words to be something far better than they’ve ever been. Writing is almost like a puzzle for me – like a challenge or – ha! – a word problem. I’m like a “soccer mom” to my thoughts, obsessed with their performance.

If I were to concisely recapitulate what I’ve just said (which I often find a grueling task) I could say that the reasons behind why I write are ever-changing; it really depends on the day.

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lists schmists

Do you have any words that just kill you? Make you want to throw up in your mouth or all over the person next to you on the bus? Or how about those words that just make your friggin’ day, and you have no idea why, whether it be the way the letters just dance on your tongue, or how exc ited you get when you can actually use that word in a sentence, or in a term paper?

I figured since I’m a writer and an English major, it’s only natural that one (or two) of my lists be about one of my favorite things ever – words. Obviously there are thousands if not MILLIONS of words in the English language, and if I went through the entire dictionary it would take forever for me to comprise these lists. So here are abridged versions of my favorite and least favorite words, based on a) the way they sound/feel to say, b) what they mean/represent, and c) just general opinion lacking any true reason. Warning: some are vulgar.

Words I hate:

The C Word – an obvious starting point

MOIST – see above.

Torn, ruptured, detached, or anything of the like in regards to body parts

Squeamish/queezy

Ointment – stopstopstopstop

Gangrene

Loin

Faggot

Curdled – is it bad that I can smell this word?

Goiter

Clitoris – this word just makes me angry, no real reason why

Maggot – it invokes awful images in my brain

Toot – Just stop.

Any slang word to describe male or female sexy parts

Titillating

Spleen

Pus – why?

Panties – MY LEAST FAVORITE WORD, EVER

Words I love:

Juxtaposition – I try to use it in every English paper I write

Blasé, Passé, Résumé, and any other word that automatically is accented in MS Word

Flabbergasted

Willy-nilly

Wishy-washy

Cerulean – love the color and the word

Scrumtrulescent – I had to

Oblivion

Synecdoche – not only is it fun/difficult to say, but it’s one of my favorite literary devices

Ejercicio – not in English, but still a very delightful word to say

Superfluous

Cornucopia

Colloquial

Xi – especially on a triple word score in Scrabble

Tempestuous

Cantankerous – though I never know when/how to use it

Antidisestablishmentarianism – I was reminded about this word by my uncle; never used it in my life

Plethora

I’d be curious to hear about the words that make you squeamish or fill you with a cornucopia of delight! :)

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listing my neuroses, i mean…fears

So. In an attempt to allow my readers to learn a little more about me – note the empty About the Author page – I’ve decided to compile a few lists in the next couple of days. Because who doesn’t like a good list every now and again? In my eyes, neurotic list-making is about as American as obesity and reality TV. Let’s go!

My Top 5 Strangest/Funniest Fears (in no particular order):

1. Electricity: Yep, you heard me. Anyone who knows me at all has probably been asked by yours truly to plug any major appliance into a wall socket, international converter, or surge protector (the word “protector” means nothing to me) at least once in their life. Ironically, the smaller/”dinkier” the plug, the less afraid I am of getting electrocuted. It’s those dang 3-prong suckers that freak me out. Will it kill me? Unless I’m blow-drying my hair in the bathtub, probably not. And yet I dry my hands 10 times before even walking near a plug, I don’t wear slippers on carpet, and sometimes I stand for 20 minutes, holding the plug, staring at the socket, and pep-talking/praying before actually proceeding.

I tried searching Yahoo! Answers for common cures to this incredibly inconvenient and slightly embarrassing phobia, or at least validation that others share this fear and I’m not insane. To my surprise, someone else actually had this same fear! However, upon further reading, I saw all the answers had been something along the lines of, “Go stick a fork in your toaster.” If I needed any proof of how foolish I am for being afraid of electricity, that certainly took care of it. (But seriously, if anyone has any advice more helpful than that, it would be greatly appreciated.)

2. Eyes: Not in the paranoid, Rockwell’s “Somebody’s Watching Me” kind of way, but more in the “Is than an Xray of my eye? I thought it was an alien fetus” kind of way. Anything having to do with eyes – touching, poking, scratching, slicing, bulging – makes me squeamish (so does the word “squeamish,” but that’s a whole different barrel of monkeys). I refused to wear contacts until I was 15 because I was perturbed by the thought of me having to touch my own eyeball. When my mother told me she had to have cataract surgery, and when she told me she was going to be awake for the procedure, and then when she started recounting the procedure to me, I thought I would die. I can’t stand looking at bloodshot eyes, because my own eyes force me to zoom in on those little clusters of stringy red veins. And if you have a popped blood vessel in your eye, back away now. Because if you think looking like a child accidentally colored in the wrong place with a red crayon is bad enough, try having me vomit in your face. Seriously.

Needless to say, this video will forever haunt my dreams: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jxHQ1zMWSEk&feature=related

3. The Dark: If you’re ever in my room and you happen to see a little pink lamp on my stereo, yeah, that’s my nightlight. Maybe it’s a step up from a traditional My Little Pony or Barney nightlight, but the concept is still the same: can’t sleep in the dark. It’s not a fear only assigned to nighttime, and it’s not so much the fear that the Boogie Man will jump out at me, unannounced, and tear my face open or whatever it is that he does; it’s more the general fear of not knowing what’s in front of- or around me, at any time of the day (but mostly at night, let’s face it).

4. Fire: Or should I say, starting fires. Years ago, when I was home alone, I tried lighting a match for one of my candles. When I lit it, I got freaked out by the thought of burning my finger off, and without any thought, I threw the match to the floor. Still lit. On the carpet. With that little stroke of genius, I could’ve burnt the whole apartment down, giving me more of a reason to be afraid of fire. But thankfully, it went out before hitting the floor. Either way, I’m sure my mother loved reading that little nugget.

Between lighting matches or using lighters, I guess I’m just afraid of the idea of fire being so close to my hand. As if the match is going to burn out in .4 second, giving me no time to do anything but stand there and watch my finger crumble into a pile of ash like someone standing too close to dynamite in a cartoon. Or maybe it’s a fear that subconsciously arose from years of being told that my brother almost burned his nose off from blowing out the candles on his 3rd birthday.

5. Mezzanine seating in a theater/stadium: Okay, so this stems from a larger, more mainstream fear of heights. But something about the height and the depth combination of nosebleed seats sends me running for the hills (the non-steep hills). If a nosebleed is the worst thing to happen to me here, then I can’t complain. Logically, I know it’s no less safe than floor seating. However, in my twisted, worst-case-scenario mentality, I envision myself, oh I don’t know, somehow defying gravity and somersaulting over ten rows of seats and then, unable to stop myself, being hurled over the railing and going kersplat all the way down in orchestra seating. Do I really think that will happen? No, but tell that to my trembling knees when I arrive in Section 507 Row Q.

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the door

I miss the sound of her doorbell, if you could believe it. How when I pushed my finger onto that small white orb it vibrated through my fingertip, almost reaching into my body like an electric shock. It was loud, and the accent fell on the second, deeper note, which incidentally lingered in the air for what felt like hours. Though the same each time, its intensity always jolted through me with surprise. It was always a treat for us, to be chosen to ring that doorbell, to be the one of us to offset that melody. But when you’re young, everything is exciting.

This reverberating start to each visit was followed by a methodical anticipation: hearing her exclamation – usually, “Coming!” – and listening as my grandmother’s footsteps inched closer on the opposite side of the door, louder, until we heard the energetic crack, pop of the locks and the scratchy sound the door made as it swept against the rough carpet. In spite of the friction, she always opened that door with excitement, because on the other side stood her grandchildren.

Eventually her footsteps aged, more time between each step. But for children naïve to reality, this only increased the suspense. Then, the noise of a louder television masked the sounds of her footsteps, overpowering, and a click, roll of a walker was introduced to the cacophony. Sometimes, even, we would have to ring twice, which turned our anticipation into restlessness. The opening of the door began to lack its usual excitement, but rather emphasized resistance, exertion, exhaustion, often with a complimentary groan.

These days, there is no doorbell. There is no anticipation – on either end of the door – for I open the door myself as my grandmother sits idly in her chair, emotionally exhausted. No reverberating melody, no vibrating fingertips, just that harsh snap of the locks – like breaking bones – and an exhausted thrust of the door – a result of shoddy measurements, I bet. While that door once swung open with joy, I now swing it open with grief, out of fear – not excitement – at what I’ll find on the other side of that door.

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Filed under Non-fiction