Wednesday, September 26, 2012

SPE: "Ethelred The Unready"

[For the Scriptic prompt exchange this week, Jester Queen gave me this prompt: "The narrow world exploded with colors." I gave Diane this prompt: ' "Then it comes to be that the soothing light at the end of your tunnel/ Was just a freight train coming your way-" Metallica, "No Leaf Clover" ']

I was laying down across the back seat, staring out the window on the driver's side, watching the world whip by. When I was little, I remember a similar view on long rides. I used to pretend that I was in a submarine, exploring the ocean floor. Brown utility poles and silver streetlights were the tentacles of enormous undersea beasts I had to steer around, and buildings were coral reefs where even more exotic creatures lurked. Back then, with my head at one end, I could barely reach across the seat to touch the other door. Now, I have to curl myself into a pretzel to fit in the same space.

My father, brown eyed, bearded, and firm in his convictions, had tried to engage me in conversation as the ride began, asking me questions I had already answered and telling me stories I had already heard, until my mother stopped her knitting long enough to finally cut in.

"Let her sleep, Jonathan," she said calmly. "We have hours to kill."

He lapsed into silence, finally giving up and starting an audiobook about English history. My father was the sort of person who turned anything into a chance to learn something, a trait as admirable as it was obnoxious. Relieved, I curled into a ball, pulling an afghan my mother made around me. I listened to stories of Ethelred the Unready, soothed by the metronomic clicking of my mother's needles, and stared out the window as the countryside passed by.

We had risen with the dawn, another of my father's less desirable traits, so early I just pulled my hair back and left without showering. It was remarkable how little space I took up- everything I would need for months, taking up the back of one SUV. I felt insignificant, curled up in my little biosphere, rolling along. I had brought headphones, and my own music, and magazines, but the hypnotic rhythm of the road thumping underneath us lulled me into a Zen stillness, staring, not sleeping, just being.

I had done all the things you were supposed to do, and signed all the things you were supposed to sign. It was all pretend now, answering the question "aren't you excited?" with the only possible answer, "Oh yeah!". The whole process was going on of its own accord, making me view my own life at a remove. I was going because that's what you do, because that's what my mother did, because that's what you need to do. Everyone says so. It was easier to just go along, a stick thrown into the stream.

I closed my eyes, listening to the change in tone as we took a long, slow curve onto a larger highway. The thoughts still came, unbidden and unwanted. What was I doing? I didn't want to go live with a bunch of women I didn't know. I didn't want to do anything. I just wanted everything to slow down, to let me examine my options and decide which one I really preferred. Everything suddenly got complicated, with real world consequences of your decisions that I didn't feel worthy of considering. I wanted to be asked what I wanted in a world that was determined to tell me what to do.

I stretched the afghan taut, pulling my knees apart, one up towards the roof, one pointed towards the front. My mother had been delightfully clueless about my social life, making sure I knew everything an obstetrician would before I was entirely positive I knew what boys were. She tried hard, which I appreciated, but she never knew what was happening, which was deliberate. There were things I couldn't say, thoughts that I knew weren't wrong but were too private, too internal, too real to be shared. I know they whispered about me. I know my mother and my aunts wondered why I never mooned over boys, didn't go to the prom, never flirted at the mall. I never told anyone what I was feeling, what I wanted, what I needed, because the answer was usually nothing.

I read articles all the time about silent privacy codes between roommates, about bolder girls having sex while their roommates slept. Older sisters told breathless stories about drunken hookups with boys, or even with other girls, about emergency trips to the Health Center for diseases or something worse. I didn't know if those things really happened, or if they were just a social exaggeration, like those stories about girls getting pregnant after sitting on public toilets. I found it hard to imagine how I would cope with all that.

I didn't feel like dealing with anything. When we visited campus last spring, the work seemed impossibly hard, the women impossibly long legged and tan, the boys so many different flavors of cute. I couldn't see those people as peers. They were gods, moving through but not among mortals, capable and strong, whip smart and comfortable anywhere. I thought hard about the boys, how they were no more than a couple of years older than the clods who used to sit next to me in US History, but they were so different as to be another species. I wanted to feel like I was one of them, to know their secrets, to understand what they laughed about, to feel the weight of their gaze, their overwhelming need.  

I must have fallen asleep, because suddenly the narrow world outside the window exploded with colors. There were trees near the entrance, green and brown and a few leaves already golden, then grass, broad green expanses being carefully tended by tan men wearing ear protection and dingy t shirts. Then buildings, red brick and deep brown wood, and cars, green and yellow and black and white, Kias and Porches and Fords and BMWs. My eyes popped wide open and I sat up, the taste of panic rising in the back of my throat.

My father was muttering at the insanity of the traffic pattern, or lack of one, as he tried to figure out which of the roads led to my building. My hands immediately went to my hair, undoing and redoing my pony tail, immediately regretting my clothes and my shoes and my unshowered self. I wanted out, back to my old room with its smells and sounds and the flecks of paint from where I put posters up. I wanted everything to be simple again, where the most complicated problem you had was how to be at two different birthday parties on the same Saturday.

My father pulled into a spot, then shut off the engine.

"You ready for a new adventure, kiddo?," he said.

"Sure am," I said.


  1. This was great, Michael. While I was reading I felt like I was seeing it in my head like a movie. Will you be writing more about this girl?

  2. Oh I LOVE that. This girl felt so real to me. She's terrified and not ready, and the prompt fit into the story so seamlessly. Her college world is going to be filled with color when she is used to and indeed very comfortable with black and white.


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