Saturday, January 11, 2014

What We Do in the Ladies' Room

This morning I went to the CSUN campus to take an essay test. It's called the UDWPE, and it's a degree requirement for undergraduates at CSUN (and I think in the Cal State system entire, because a friend who's a professor at CSULA has to grade them, the poor guy). It's also a requirement for admission to the master's program, and even though that's still pretty far away for me, I thought I might as well get the test over with now instead of later. The GRE is still to come. I read the samples and signed up for the 8 AM test time and this morning, I dutifully went and waited in line behind the most fidgety human being I have ever seen, not excluding toddlers. Dude could not. stand. still.

Anyway, I was finished with my essay (for better or worse) when there was still a half-hour left, and we weren't allowed to leave early or read or do anything but work on the essay or stare at the wall until time was up. The testing room had a raft of old maps bolted to the wall above the blackboard, and one of them, about a quarter pulled out and stuck there, its bottom dowel tucked behind the newer pull-down screen for the projector, was in German. I looked at the maps for a while and thought about teachers who had to use them and students who had to learn from them; how frustrating to the school's budget that borders changed so often; why was this one in German?

I raised my hand, the proctor took my exam temporarily, and I went to the bathroom. Two women were inside. One was in extremis of some kind. The other chattered nervously.

"I'm sure she'll let you out, I'll just tell her."


"It'll be fine, don't worry, I'll just explain."

(murmur) "I don't..." (murmur)

"I'll tell her the whole thing and she'll let you go."

I flushed and went out. The one woman rubbed a paper towel between her hands slowly. Her eyes were frightened and threatening to spill. Liquid of some kind spattered her shirt. Although I don't know what her voice ordinarily sounded like, I knew this was not it. She talked as if through mud.

The other woman had darker skin and black, slightly greasy hair. She kept up with the reassurance, detailing in what direction she would walk into the room and describing the clothes of the person she would speak to after she left the ladies' and, presumably, went back to a testing cell.

I waited until there was a pause and then asked the woman with the full eyes the questions I'd rehearsed in my bathroom stall. "Are you all right? Do you need help?"

"I should be fine now," she said, glancing down at her shirt.

"All right," I said, smiled at her, and left.

I wanted her to need help. I didn't know what ailed her, but twenty more minutes of staring at the maps over the blackboard was all that awaited me in the classroom, and I wanted something to do that was more interesting and urgent than that. And I very much wanted to help someone who was so plainly distressed.

She probably threw up, I thought on the way back. Maybe a stomach bug. Or just nervousness. Or something else more severely wrong, although I hope not.

With nothing else to occupy my mind, I marveled again at how little real humans in trouble resemble actors in trouble. When there's something wrong with someone near you, it's apparent, and not from the histrionics you see in movies but from the cast of a complexion or the strange animal quality in a pair of eyes. People always act differently than you think they will - I believe this may be a truism of life in general - and laughter within grief or sudden calm in the face of horror makes far more sense in the moment than it does in fiction.

One of the things that I'm concerned with in my writing is bringing the influence of fiction on us humans into sharp relief. My characters are often preoccupied with what would happen in a fiction when something "real" happens to them.
I'm looking at this knife, and I'm thinking, oh, come on, this isn't really happening, someone come and tell me I've been Punk'd. <-- from my first published story, written, oh, 2003ish. 
In the movies, they always say It isn’t what you think or It wasn’t like that, both sentences I might have said when my mother caught us, me and Ariana Daly, tangled together in heat on the couch. <-- from a story I wrote this spring. 
The tale of the woman in the bathroom is barely a footnote to my life, but I could make it into a big thing if I wrote a story about it. I could make her me, or I could make her my best friend, or I could make her a stranger upon whom a great deal hinges. But I couldn't replicate her sludgy voice and the off-right color of her skin, both of which I'd have to exaggerate or explicate in different ways to make it clear to the reader that Something Is Wrong. It's little detail that the lizard brain in us locks onto in order to make sense of our families and our predators and our situations. But that stuff is too small, too instinctual, to make sense in fiction.

It's a shame. That was a real scene in there.


Bret Hays said...

I can relate to a lot of what you wrote about, but the one comment I want to make is that I love it when writers throw in little things or short, gripping scenes that don't make sense and don't connect back to the main plot. It's a great way to keep the audience off balance and on their toes; to add or reinforce themes or moods; and to make the story feel more real because, as you related so well, that's exactly the way real life is.

Katharine Coldiron said...

I tend to like it when everything connects up perfectly, but I agree with you that a few well-placed details can really bring a world to life.