After two and a half years of disciplined writing, I have completed the first draft of my novel, entitled Bum-bye. At 59,412 words, this quasi-memoir has both healed and wrenched me beyond expectation. In fact, if I had known how painful it would be to unearth key parts of the story, I would have never started the work. But somehow during my first MFA semester at Pacific University, under the wing of author John Rember, I abandoned a complicated piece of speculative fiction about a toxic stream and dove into what Rember claimed would be “…something people will want to read.”
In previous blog entries, I have posted a couple of snippets from Bum-bye and was pleased with the sparse but encouraging comments that came back to me (let it be known that writing is a lonely business, and getting feedback, even critical feedback, affirms that we are indeed being read by someone out there somewhere). Other artists—like potters and painters—have the benefit of being able to show off their work upon its completion. They don’t have to tell inquisitive onlookers to wait just a few more years to get a glimpse of their most recent creations. This is the rub we pen-wielders must endure.
So to celebrate (quietly), I am going to post the ninth chapter, one of my favorites, from Bum-bye.
I make it to my Wines and Foods of the World class ten minutes late and frazzled, but it doesn’t matter because the teacher isn’t here yet either. She’s a senior flight attendant with an undisclosed airline, so she’s been late a few times. She’s tough, too. I lost ten points for not spelling Cabernet Sauvignon and Gewurtztraminer correctly. Being Portuguese, I’ve been told that wine is in my blood. I believe it, but that doesn’t mean I’m a huge fan, especially if it’s cheap and tastes like dirty old wood. In fact, ever since I got plastered drunk in the eighth grade with a bunch of so-called friends, I’ve made an effort to steer away from alcohol.
What I remember from that nightmarish drinking experience are fragmented scenes. The new wild girl at my school named Gigi, whose dad was a popular TV news anchor, hired us a stretch limo to drive us to Skateway. In the limo, Gigi busted out six baby bottles and filled them up with Jack Daniels. She said, Ready, set, go! We sucked down our bottles, and I won, which meant they would have to pitch in and pay my way into the roller skating rink. Along came the chili cheese nachos, spinning around on the table where I tried to lace up my skates. Then in slow motion, when I stood up, took a few staggering strides on my skates, I lost my balance and grabbed onto the first thing I could find, which happened to be a towering guy wearing black spandex pants. Then there was vomit. Lots of vomit. All down the front of the spandex guy. Then blackness fading in and out—me propped up against the wall on the floor in a bathroom stall. More blackness. Then chilling wind slapping my face while riding in the back of a pick-up truck. Then a blurry bed. Then Gigi’s creepy dad. Then a head-crashing morning.
* * *
The class is an hour-and-a-half long, and I’m in the back of the room with my notebook. I open it to a blank page and start scribbling out random words in the margin.
I repeat these words to myself until it becomes a mantra. Broken. Missing. Absent. Locked. Tired. Hungry. Lonely. Clock. Broken. Missing. Absent. Locked…
The girl next to me nudges me awake when Ms. Senior Flight Attendant flounces into the room. She puts a small ice chest and a paper grocery bag on her desk and doesn’t apologize for being late. Instead, she projects on the screen a huge page of notes for us to copy, entitled, Cheese. Fromage. Queso.
Spread across the screen is a descriptive list of cheeses and their corresponding countries. Gouda—Holland. Brie, Camembert—France. Gorgonzola—Italy. Havarti—Holland. Feta—Greece. Swiss—United States (go figure). I copy the board, but it doesn’t register because all I can think about is what she’s got in that ice chest.
“Well,” our instructor says, “are you all ready for the tasting?”
The Asian guy on the other side of me says he’s lactose intolerant, and the gum-chewing girl says she hates cheese. Great, my stomach and I are agreeing, more for us.
The instructor bats her chunky false eyelashes as she tells us to line up behind the table, single file. With a flick of her wrist, she displays the gourmet crackers like a magician would display a deck of cards. She gives us ten small index cards with the names of the various cheeses on the table. We are to take a cracker and a slice of cheese and eat it, as she says, with contemplation. After each taste, we are to match the card with its corresponding cheese. I’m seventh in line, and I'm dizzy.
When I get to the first cheese, I put a piece on the cracker and my teeth sink into its butter-like softness. It must be Brie. The instructor reminds us to put our names on the back of our cards, so we can find out who gets the prize for labeling the most cheese samples correctly.
“What’s the prize?” I ask her.
“Cheese, of course,” she snaps at me like I’m a blazing idiot.
“How exquisite,” I say, batting my naked eyelashes.
She’s not impressed with me, and at this point, I could give a rip. I need to eat, but since I wasn’t paying much attention while I took notes, I’m going to go with my gut instinct and guess...with contemplation.
Each cheese has its own unique flavor, texture, and color. One is so smooth it tastes more like Velveeta, which cannot be possible at this fancy table. Another is brittle and tastes a hundred years old. The one I like most is smoky, like a bon fire. I’m in cheese heaven as I make my way to the last sample, which we’ve been warned is “strong.” When I bite into it, it bites back. Strong is an understatement. It’s more like demonic. I swallow it down anyway then take an extra handful of crackers with me to my desk.
The instructor is checking all of our cards, one by one, as we all sit around and chat. She turns to us and smiles like a tired flight attendant should smile.
“Well, I see we have a cheese connoisseur in the room. Let’s give a hand to Gabriella Johannon.” She pronounces my last name correctly, saying the J as a Y.
Everyone claps as I come up for my prize, which happens to be an assortment of all the cheeses we sampled, along with a box of those gourmet crackers.
“Gabriella guessed nine of the ten correctly,” she boasts. “I’m very impressed, Gabriella.”
“Thank you, Ms.…oh…crap. I forgot your name.”
“Pudenz. Inez Pudenz,” she says, emphasizing the second syllable of both names.
“Sorry, Ms. Pudenz. I’ve had a hard week,” I say to her in front of the class. Clutching the cheese and crackers to my chest, I force myself not to choke up. The gum-chewer girl stares at me like she’s watching a soap opera. After class, she catches up to me in the parking lot and says, “Is everything okay?”
“Yes,” I tell her. “Want some?”
“No thanks. Remember, I’m the one who hates cheese. I almost barfed when I tasted the last one.”
“Me too,” I say.
“Well, I’ll see you next week then?” she says as she’s getting into her car.
“Hope so.” I get into my car and bust out the cheese and crackers before I start up the engine. Pungent
vapors are wafting out of the sealed package of the demonic cheese. Gorgonzola. I’d throw it out if I knew where the next meal would come from.