Sub-I, re-worked for publication submission -- thoughts?

An Essay By Sarah Bethany // 3/12/2017

I jumped up and slammed my feet into my sneakers. "Wait." I ran out the back door and called his name. Called it to the gloom. "Wait, I want to go with you!"

But the street was empty. I stood on the cracked cement, the ember-blue air swaying around me. The street lights were turned on and a siren wailed in the distance. I could smell frying grease somewhere.

So I returned to the kitchen and sat down on the bench. Nibbled on my thumb.

I got up. I looked inside his cabinet. In neat but not perfect rows, there was cinnamon, spaghetti, olive oil, chocolate. Walnuts, turmeric pills, oatmeal. An unopened six ounces of Shiraz, from months ago. Cream of Wheat because I told him I had not eaten it since childhood.

I sat down again and chewed.

In fifteen minutes I heard the jangle of the door knob, and everything made sense again. He walked in, holding two Styrofoam boxes. "I got myself tortellini, too," he said.

I opened my box on the table. "Oh, yes!" It was a mound of fries, mealy and glistening.

My boyfriend, a med student, sat on the bench next to me, and I slid over to make room. His hip touched mine, and he hooked a finger in my belt loop. He pressed his mouth into the curve of my neck. His lips were hot.

"I love fries," I munched.

He drew his mouth away. "Do you want some of my tortellini?" he asked. "They're pumpkin."

"I don't like tortellini," I said. "But thank you."

"What in the world is happening," he whispered.

"I don't know." I suddenly leaned into him. "This all feels surreal."

"That is exactly what it feels like."

I tucked my head under his chin. "Like we've been staggering around in a dream. Are we making this happen, or is it happening?" His hand on my back was soft. But I was staring at a knot in the pinewood table. “Actually, can I have one of your tortellini?"

"Take as many as you want. They're pumpkin," he repeated. He dropped his hands between his legs. "I'm going to pass out soon."

It was my boyfriend's first day off in thirty days. Called a "sub-I" at the hospital, the clinical rotation required that he work frequent overnight shifts, usually for thirteen hours, with only one break to eat for twenty minutes. He carried nuts and chocolate in his pocket so he wouldn't faint from hunger. I mailed him a thick love letter, telling him his future family would be grateful for his hard work. But because of the sub-I, we passed over my birthday with a "happy birthday" text. Because of the sub-I, we squeezed out only five minutes on the phone per week. And somehow – on the day we had been looking forward to for a month – we had quarreled. Ferociously. He called me comfort-seeking and weak-willed, and then curled up into a ball and silently cried. He said he was finished with everything, beaten-down by school. I held him and felt finished, too. But my only response was to kiss a constellation across his back.

When we finally untangled ourselves, he asked me what I wanted.

French fries, I had said.

"Let me get you a fork.”

"Oh, no. No, thanks. But I think I'm going to eat all your tortellini." I pinched another pasta-cushion with my fingers. "Look, I already am."

"You're like William Carlos Williams," he murmured.

"Who?"

"William Carlos Williams." His voice became fulgent. "Wait. Have I never mentioned him to you before?"

"I don't think so. I mean, I know who he is –"

"But have I ever told you how personally important he is to me?"

"Actually, no, I don't know who he is. Didn't he write Alice in Wonderland? No, that was Lewis Carroll."

I was thinking rapidly now, because I knew something was happening. We had stepped into literary territory: a world I revolved in privately. I needed to prove myself on this ground, because I had always felt dwarfed by his scientific brilliance, his photographic memory.

"He was a poet," my boyfriend said. "He wrote 'The Red Wheelbarrow'."

"Oh, yes. Right." I dove for the words in my mind.

But he began before I was ready. "So much depends / upon --"

" – a red wheel / barrow," I scooped, almost stumbled.

"Glazed with rain / water / beside the –"

"White chickens!" I exploded. I lost all sense of competition in a landslide of unity. "Yes! How do you know that? That's one of those elitist poems, which is ridiculous. But I still think it's beautiful."

"I took a literature class once in undergrad." He crossed the kitchen and took a fork out of a drawer.

"Oh, no, I'm done, thanks." Euphoria was ringing in my ears. "Because he just paints a verbal picture. And I do feel like so much depends on being able to see that image clearly. The red color, the chickens, the glaze."

He returned the fork. Leaned quietly against the counter.

"How have we never talked literature before?" I banged the table with my hands. "That poem is exactly what I want to accomplish with my stories. To give that picture for the readers –"

"– but still let them think and feel about the images whatever they want."

"You understand." I looked at the sleety angle of his body. His stretched-out legs. "It's almost like giving the readers room to live with the images.”

Slate-bone ankles.

"But I'm going to keep prattling,” I said. “And you're all lit-up. So tell me why he's important to you."

"Well, I share this with anyone who is important to me."

I drew my legs up to my heart and hugged my knees. "Do you?"

"It's a conversation with a capital C. And I don't think it could have come at a better time. But it's kind of late." He looked at the microwave clock. "It's ten past nine already."

"We have time," I said, "for this."

"Okay." Then he pushed himself up from the counter. "William Carlos Williams was a poet. But he was also a medical doctor.”

And Williams needed medicine for his poetry, my boyfriend said. Medicine was his raw material. He would often take out a typewriter and bang off a sentence after the patient left the room. When the office closed, he composed late into the night, using the “half-spoken words” of his patients.

"He was a witness to the most intimate aspects of their lives. That's why he loved his job." My boyfriend was pacing. "Growing up, I knew if there was a job that would pay me to go into people's houses and listen to their stories, I would do it."

"And that's how you decided to become a doctor?" I looked up. "After reading a poet?"

"I just realized that medicine came the closest to my dream."

His eyes were green as dragonflies.

"How did I not know this about you?" I was gleaming. "And how did we get onto the topic of poetry?"

"Because I had remembered a note he left his wife on their refrigerator. Or rather their ice box. When you said you ate all my tortellini."

"I think I know that one, too! Can you recite it?"

His smiled deepened. He touched his chin. "Of course I can."

He began.

"I have eaten
the plums"

"Yes!"

"that were in
the icebox"

I tipped my head back and closed my eyes, still hugging my knees. The refrigerator was next to me.

"and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast"

He was cumbering the words on purpose, the sounds sepia. His voice was senescent. He thumped down the lines -- dwelt in strange places – as if the poem was well-known. Even his own.

And before he spoke the words, I remembered the last stanza.

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

"Forgive me," my boyfriend continued, his voice getting beneath the collar of my shirt, "they were delicious" – bumping down my spine – "so sweet," turning a sharp pirouette on my coccyx, "and so cold"; finally passing the plum from his mouth to mine.

I lowered my head and opened my eyes. "I tasted it," I said. "I'm swooning."

I was losing my breath. I was in a 1930's kitchen by an icebox. I was in love with a poet and a doctor. I was the woman saving her plums, blue-black. And he had eaten them, fogged.

I wanted to kiss him. To get up and cross the kitchen. And put the icy plums back in his mouth.

My boyfriend suddenly leaned against the counter. He never sagged. But his hands gripped the counter ledge, and I couldn't read his expression.

I stayed on the bench.

Comments

DO IT!!!! This is so well

DO IT!!!! This is so well done. Perfection. <3

Damaris Ann | Wed, 03/15/2017

I am an overcomer through Christ alone, for the glory of God alone.

<3 <3

THANK YOU!!! I'm not letting myself re-read for another 24 hours because I've stared at it so much the past week... but I was wondering -- you notice how I added the story of why William Carlos Williams was important? I left that out before. Do you think it was good that I added it? I was worried about detracting/distracting from the over-all flow.

Sarah Bethany | Wed, 03/15/2017

No no, I think it's perfect

No no, I think it's perfect with the addition. It highlights your boyfriend's thoughts so well. It adds to the beauty of your thoughts.

Damaris Ann | Thu, 03/16/2017

I am an overcomer through Christ alone, for the glory of God alone.

Oh, perfect!! Thank you for

Oh, perfect!! Thank you for your insight!! <3

Sarah Bethany | Thu, 03/16/2017

:)

I wish I had time to really look over this more and give more of a comment, but I echo Damaris's "do it!" :)

Kyleigh | Thu, 03/16/2017

Thanks, Kyleigh, for the

Thanks, Kyleigh, for the cheerleading!!

Sarah Bethany | Thu, 03/16/2017

Okay. I'm going to do the

Okay. I'm going to do the unthinkable/impossible and actually try to CRITIQUE because that seems to be what you're wanting! Although rest assured that it is an extremely difficult process, and necessitates that I'm extremely nit-picky. Also it's kind of daunting, since this is for publication, but ANYWAY. Agh.

So--the beginning. I just really love "slammed my feet into my sneakers." There's something about that combination of words and the choice of verb that just paints this really visceral picture--I can feel your hurry. But also, because I'm an oddball, I've been trying to think of a way that this could begin differently. I love this line so much, I'm just not sure that it's the best way to start off this piece. And so I went back to the chapter this is pulled from, and found the place, and the paragraph before it.

It's just my personal opinion, but I think that this may be your starting place, if you really want the reader to be thrown into this. I just love these two sentences, anyway--they're lovely, and they immediately connect you with your boyfriend, not only to the idea but to the concrete, imagined, physical being of him if that makes sense:

And I found I could only think: his warm body was stepping somewhere on the cement, lightly pressing, and the sky was a dreadful blue above him. And I didn't know if his hands were in his pockets.

If you feel the 'and' is too abrupt, then you could take that out. But I also like it, stylistically, because I feel like we've just been thrown into this moment. Someone's concealed train of thoughts, and suddenly they open up to us and they're in the middle of them, but we can make sense of it. It's slightly exhilarating, at least to me as a reader.

Okay. Suggestion #1! LOL! I seriously am trying, augh! I hope you don't mind. And if you're really sold on your beginning, that's absolutely fine. It's a lovely way to start it, I just feel that plunging the reader in a few moments before could be slightly more compelling. I also think this may be a too "telling" way to start the story, but I'm partial to "thoughts" versus "action", if that makes any sense.

Number 2! So I love the bit about the cabinet, but for whatever reason, the beginning of the sentence is tripping me up:

In neat but not perfect rows, there was cinnamon, spaghetti, olive oil, chocolate

I think my mind automatically wants to skim over the 'but not perfect'--I think you could condense that down, maybe just to a word describing it. "Haphazard" or "Staggering". Then you'll have the juxtaposition of the words--how can something be "neat" and "haphazard"?!--which is interesting, at least to me, and it paints a good picture.

If you decide to go with the latter, I also might change the 'but' to an 'eand'. I think I get so into the flow of the sentence that I'm interrupted by that word--but--and it takes me out of the description. If you go with 'haphazard', for example--

"In neat but haphazard rows"

vs.

"In neat and haphazard rows"

Oh my gosh, don't laugh!!! I'm being SO PICKY. Augh. This is literally the only way I can ever provide any critique--to point to very specific, very small, mostly insignificant things and absolutely pulling them apart. hahah! It's almost comical. It's such a trivial thing. Anyway!

Okay. I'm going to submit this first beast of a comment and continue. Onward--

NVM--it's later than I thought. lol. Rest to come tomorrow, hopefully!!! hahah! :) Sarah I'm SO GLAD you are considering this for submission...it was always one of my favorite chapters. Just the description and this beautiful flowering word choice combined with everything at work here...AUGH. Love.

Madeline | Thu, 03/16/2017

everything was better when/you would call and I'd be like/yeah babe, no way

I'm glowing!!!!!!!!!!

OH MY GOSH, YOU WENT BACK TO THE ORIGINAL CHAPTER. Talk about dedication!!!!
If I wasn't running out the door to a car appt, I would take the time to respond more. Instead I will sit there waiting for my car to be fixed and ruminate over this. :P I can't say how touched I am that you actually went back to the original. And I loved that paragraph that you picked out, too -- and it was the first to go when a professor critiqued it hahahaha. SO THANK YOU. I will consider that. It's interesting, thoughts vs. actions. It's actually like pulling teeth to have myself insert thoughts these days, and I'm trying to get better at it.

...And it's not trivial at ALL -- that's actually *exactly* (cannot emphasize enough) how I like to go over pieces with another person (because that's how I write -- I literally sit there for hours and go, "And? Or But?"), and someone else pointed out that sentence to me: "in neat but not perfect", but her idea was to change it to "neat but imperfect". I guess my "neat but not perfect" was to describe the boyfriend a bit. He's close to perfect, very organized, very neat, but not quite perfection itself (as none of us are). He's not haphazard or sloppy, though, so choosing a concrete adjective denoting messiness didn't seem quite right. I'm open to suggestions, though, because when two people point out the same thing I know I'm in trouble hahaha.

ALSO, while I have your attention -- :P I am going to impede on your generosity and ask for a particular opinion on something (and anyone else's who happens to see this). I have put-in and taken-out and put-in and taken-out the phrase "break up" in this piece. It's there in the original. It's such a loaded phrases that I wondered if it was too heavy for the shortened piece... or if it would add gravity in a good way, and make the ending more poignant. ANYWAY, what do you think of an addition like this? -- (I was playing with these ideas last night)

------

"I love fries," I munched.
He drew his mouth away. "Do you want some of my tortellini?" he asked. "They're pumpkin."
"I don't like tortellini," I said. "But thank you."
"What in the world is happening," he whispered.
"I don't know." I suddenly leaned into him. "This all feels surreal."
"That is exactly what it feels like."
I tucked my head under his chin. "Like we've been staggering around in a dream." His hand on my back was soft, but I was staring at a knot in the pinewood table. "And like I want to push for something to happen, that maybe doesn't need to happen."
"What exactly?" he asked.
"I don't know."
"Hazard a guess please."
The knot turned into a hornet. "A kind of conclusion."
"Breaking up?"
"No!" I swallowed a mashed fry. "I can't believe those words were said. But I don't know. Actually, can I have one of your tortellini?"
"Take as many as you want." He dropped his hands between his legs. "I'm going to pass out soon."
It was my boyfriend's first day off in thirty days.
Called a "sub-I" at the hospital, the clinical rotation required that he work frequent overnight shifts, usually for thirteen hours, with only one break to eat for twenty minutes. He carried nuts and chocolate in his pocket so he wouldn't faint from hunger. I had mailed him a love letter, telling him his future family would be grateful for his hard work. But because of the sub-I, we passed over my birthday with a "happy birthday" text. Because of the sub-I, we squeezed out only five minutes on the phone per week. And somehow – on this day we had been looking forward to for a month – we had quarreled. Ferociously. He had called me comfort-seeking and weak-willed, and I packed my backpack. He asked me to stay – and then curled up into a ball and cried. I held him, and we lay together until the sun set. He said he was through with everything, beaten down by school. I felt finished, too. But my only answer was to kiss a constellation between his shoulders.
When we untangled ourselves, he asked me what I wanted.
French fries, I had said. For dinner.

---

Sarah Bethany | Sun, 03/19/2017

.....Okay, instead of putting

.....Okay, I added to the paragraph about the Sub-I, mentioning that we both felt finished. And I worked in the new dialogue. I'm actually going to post a new page altogether, to make it easier.

Sarah Bethany | Mon, 03/20/2017

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