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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Grist for the Mill » Kissing a smoker.

   
Author Topic: Kissing a smoker.
MattLeo
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Memory is a funny. The other day I was reading an anti-smoking screed on a liberal political blog, and it triggered a vivid memory I hadn't thought about in over thirty years.

It was around 1981, and I was a student living at MIT's "New House" -- a cluster of six small, semi-detached five story towers called "houses". One Saturday night my house was hosting an open party. I'm not in the least shy, but parties aren't my thing. Still, there are few unwritten rules at a place like MIT, things that you are expected to do to keep the place from becoming a joyless pressure cooker. When you study, you leave your door open unless you're under the gun. If somebody organizes a spades tournament, you join, even if you don't play cards. When the dorm gives a party, you attend and attempt the closest imitation of sociability you're capable of.

So that's how I found myself sitting on a couch in one of the dorm's cozy out-of-the-way lounges, chatting with this girl from off-campus. She was pretty enough, but she wasn't exactly beautiful in a conventional sense. She just had an extra helping of that un-self conscious grace all healthy and lively young people have. Her long, straight, light brown hair was pulled back in a ponytail and she was tall and slender, with high cheekbones, a slightly prominent forehead, and bright, somewhat overlarge eyes.

At the time I myself was at best a passable example of young masculinity -- not a chick magnet in anyone's book, but acceptable in herd of hard-core geeks. I suppose my most interesting feature was that I wanted to hear people's stories, even back then. And this girl was full of stories, very talkative and, I thought, a little bit spacey -- although I liked that in a girl. In retrospect I think it was that enthusiastic, far-reaching credulity that people of an artistic temperament sometimes display. That's something I respect, although it's utterly foreign to me. Back then I was cool-headed, analytical, temperate, polite and reserved -- all qualities that become an old man but are not so becoming in a young one. I was far from inexperienced, but for me the path to a first kiss was normally paved with cautious, respectful, and most importantly *retractable* moves. I was not in the habit of jumping off the deep end without dipping my toe in first.

When two people kiss for the first time, something happens that's an awful lot like telepathy. I wonder what it would look like to capture that moment on a high-speed camera. I suppose you make a microscopic move toward the girl. Then if she doesn't move away, if she makes her own microscopic move toward you and neither of your are total ignoramuses, you snap together like a pair of magnets. It's possible the racy stories she was telling about her adventures as an artist's model tipped me off on an unconscious level, but that's not how that leap of faith feels in the moment you take it. Suddenly and unexpectedly I knew that I wanted to kiss her, and was utterly certain that she wanted me to do it.

It was thrilling -- thrilling and revolting at the same time. I suppose all the things that make a passionate kiss wonderful are revolting if described in cold blood -- all the warm squishy and if truth be told sliminess of the thing. That's why we don't do it in cold blood. As a writer, I'm a student of intimacy; intimacy (or her harbinger, lust) reaches down into your brain and flicks a switch, and suddenly things that might have been repulsive become glorious. But there are limits to what even that magic switch can do. I should have expected what was coming; she'd been chain smoking as she talked and the smell of cigarettes clung to her clothes and hair. But I was unprepared for the chemical, creosote reek that coated her lips, teeth and tongue. The burning flavor permeated her saliva, so intense it lapped over the threshold of pain. My brain couldn't comprehend the experience; it was sickening. And it was wonderful. Like a slice of luscious chocolate cake someone had dumped an ashtray on.

And that was the end of it.

As vivid as the sensory memory is, I'm not sure exactly how we parted. I did not invite her back to my room (I'd certainly remember *that*). I think the brain-curdling stink of nicotine brought me back to my senses. It would never work. She was, I think, the kind of girl who took lovers and got involved in messy, complicated scenes involving anger and anguish and objects being thrown. I wasn't the kind of person who'd take part in those scenes; I was the kind of person she'd go to afterward for a sympathetic, non-judgmental ear. In other words I was too boring for her. Or more charitably, I was half-made. It's a bit silly for a twenty year-old to sit on the sidelines and play that kind of role, but as I've fallen into genial decrepitude I've grown into the part. If anyone out there needs someone to tell their heartaches to, I'm their man. I've got loads of experience, and despite being an onlooker by temperament I've managed to collect my own share of heartaches and regrets over the years.

The one thing I regret about that night is not asking the girl for her phone number. It's not that there was any future in it, but it seems, well, *rude* to kiss a girl passionately and then not even make a pretense of asking for her number. Here's a tip to any young men out there: if you kiss a girl, make her feel like it was the most incredible thing that ever happened to you. If you have any regrets be sure to pin them on something else, because if you don't, and you have any decency at all, you'll regret it later. Looking back, I'm mortified at my own behavior; it would have been far better to ask for the number and be turned down. But then she didn't ask *me* for *my* phone number. I suppose that under the circumstances my own performance might have left something to be desired. That would probably have been for the best.

Anyhow, it's remarkable at how this memory, dormant so long, came back so suddenly and vividly. If anything I have to write about is "grist for the mill", this is it. It's the kind of scene that you often encounter in stories, but it seldom has the ring of truth to me. Perhaps truth is stranger than fiction. It's certainly more surprising.

[ December 06, 2012, 12:02 AM: Message edited by: MattLeo ]

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Crystal Stevens
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Interesting story. I, personally, can't stand the smell of cigarettes, let alone from a single person. Yes, I'm a non smoker. My boss at work smokes. He's a very nice guy but firm in his duties. We've been friends for years and long before he became my boss. But there are times when he has to bend close to me to be heard over the machinery, and his tobacco breath is something else. I don't intend to ever say anything about it, and so far I can tolerate it.

I showed a horse for a single guy that I kissed several times. He didn't smoke but chewed Scoal. The wintergreen flavor didn't add to the kiss, I'll tell you that. I still like the taste of wintergreen mints... but not that wintergreen Scoal. It was awful.

Are you interested in hearing about romances that went wrong... or never happened? If this was the point of your story, I have a doozy to tell [Wink] .

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MattLeo
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quote:
Originally posted by Crystal Stevens:
Are you interested in hearing about romances that went wrong... or never happened? If this was the point of your story, I have a doozy to tell [Wink] .

OK Crystal, after saying that, you can't possibly *not* tell.

As for the point of my story, I wouldn't call it a "romance gone wrong"; it was just an emotionally charged moment shared between strangers. I wrote it to experiment with an older narrative voice looking back on ironies that his younger self couldn't see (e.g. that I was so full of myself, yet was intimidated by the girl's Bohemian mojo). But mainly I thought the kinds of details that stand out in a genuine memory are useful.

I've found the writers here at Hatrack to be uniformly very strong on grammar and usage, and usually quite solid on basic storytelling mechanics. The thing I've found wanting in most Hatracker's writing is close, telling observation; the stuff that makes your imagination sit up and say, "this feels real." Without those surprising, organic details, I think stories tend to feel a bit too "analytical", too constructed. The intention of the author sits plainly upon the story: settings are given only just the features they need to be a suitable platform for the planned actions to take place upon; characters are differentiated just enough to have an assigned role in the action. As a reader you can't fall in love with a place or a character which is just sufficient for the plot's needs.

What's missing for me is the sense that the characters and the setting are driving the story, rather than the hand of the author. This anecdote happened shortly before I started dating the woman I married. My life might have turned out differently had that girl in the scene not been a smoker. That was a small detail that derailed a whole universe of possibilities and opened up an alternate one. That's what life is like. Fiction is definitely *not* like that, but I don't think that should be apparent.

Even if romance isn't your cup of tea, the point still stands: you've got to know how an experience would feel write about it convincingly. If you're writing about a duel, you've got to develop some sense for the things that would impress themselves upon you in that situation.

quote:
Originally posted by Crystal Stevens:
I showed a horse for a single guy that I kissed several times.

That would be a terrific scene, because a romantic scene is all about modulating the distance between two people. I imagine a kind of elaborate pas de deux around the horse in which the pair brush closer together until the horse fades into the background. I actually wrote a similar scene in which two characters who have romantic tension work at cross purposes to saddle a horse, but since I've never been around horses myself the scene is not as good as it would have been if *you'd* written it.
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Crystal Stevens
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I totally agree with the too analytical approach. Some writers tend to really get bogged down in disecting every little part of their work and then lose the meaning of what they were writing in the first place. I like something that reads in a way that you "feel" you're actually there. Almost inside the POV experiencing the story firsthand. I love stories that read like that. The thing is it can be hard to try to imagine what certain situations "feel" like to the person they're happening to in a story when the author has never experienced them themselves. That's where superior writing skills come in play. Someone who can do that has a true gift.

But about that story I promised:

I started showing horses in my teens and thought more of horses than getting a boyfriend at the time. Noon break arrived at this particular show in the summertime at the saddle club I grew up with. The arena was open for practice, and I and many other participants were warming up our horse for the afternoon classes. I had my mare in a very easy canter and made a couple laps around the arena before coming down to a walk when I hear a horse come from behind me. The rider pulled his horse even with me and said, "Hi." I was floored that he'd been following me around the arena all this time. We talked for the rest of the break, riding our horses round the arena before everyone was asked to leave to begin the afternoon classes.

Somehow he found out when I'd be camping at the saddle club and other horse type events held there and eventually asked me out. We went to the local drive-in theatre. He had his arm around my shoulders with me leaning against him while we watched the show.

I'm showing my age, but the movie we saw was "A Man Called Horse" about an Englishman who became a member of an Indian tribe called Yellow Hand. Part of the tribe's induction into manhood was the Sundance ritual that had some very graphic scenes for movies of that time. Today's movie audiences would find it very tame, I'm sure.

So here I am watching this Sundance and my date says, "Gross." with all the revulsion he can muster behind it. I've never been one to hide how I feel about something and told him I thought it was fascinating. He hid his eyes with his hand, and I stayed rivited to the screen.

We stayed until the movie was over, and he took me home. No good night kiss, no nothing. The next time I saw him, he was with another girl. He was always polite to me... when we would occasionally see each other in passing... but he never showed me any interest at all. Maybe I should've shown revulsion at the movie too, but to be perfectly fair, if he couldn't take me for what I am, then we definitely didn't belong together. Though it did hurt after all the chasing he did to take me out on that first date.

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Grumpy old guy
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An interesting story, Crystal. My last girlfriend 'tested' me for suitability, in a manner of speaking. She was a crime journalist, and after our first date, she invited me in to her home. And not for what first comes to mind. We spent the next three hours looking a forensic photos of crime scenes on the internet.

If I'd been 'grossed out', I would have failed and we would never have moved in together.

I wish I'd thrown up that first night.

But, to get back on the topic of smelly smokers, I smoked for 40 years. I started when I was nine. Anywho, gave it up two years ago and the smell now makes me feel physically ill. I can keep the contents of my stomach, but boy do I feel sorry for all the people who had to put up with my smell.

Phil.

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