Inspiration is like the alleged hidden picture in one of those ambiguous posters. The harder you try to focus, the further it is from reach. I should know, as I sit here, straining for grasp, as my deadline brings all the colors and lines of my mind into undesirably sharp relief. I need to anti-focus, blur my vision. With my eyes unfocused, my mind open, anything is free to stumble into my creative field of vision.
Suddenly, Mrs. Moore interrupts my useless reverie by walking over and peering over my shoulder at what I have written, or haven't. Of course she does. Silence drives her absolutely insane. Not that it is completely silent, thanks to the television that has been emitting a ridiculous amount of white noise all semester. It sounds a bit like waves crashing on sand if I close my eyes and forget I'm sitting behind a malfunctioning TV in a moderately dysfunctional English class. So really, it's not the silence, but the lack of words that drives Mrs. Moore crazy, which is probably why she is an English teacher. As she speaks, the edges of the hidden picture of inspiration fall away, and the deadline obscures my vision.
"How's it coming, Margaret?" she inquires, leaning against the neighboring desk and making a dance of slipping her feet in and out of her heels like she always does when situation forces her to stand still. The question is redundant; clearly she can see that my notebook is full of verbal doodles.
"It's not. My muses are on an extended leave of absence, and their flight out of oblivion just got cancelled," I explain, oddly enjoying giving her a response she does not expect from her star student: the diction, perhaps, but not the content.
She laughs in that loud, unrestrained way that rarely survives past seventeen, and a chain of reactions explodes around the silent room. Several experts at feigning productivity look up from their notebooks and glare, and the entire back row awakes with a collective start and wipes drool from their pages. "I understand completely," she says with an ironic grin. "A couple of mine went on a trip to Florida ten years ago, and I have not heard from them since, not that I blame them. Well, make sure when they get back from their trip they are aware they have a story to write for Monday." She then leaves me alone to struggle some more with my rebellious thoughts, forehead resting against the cool paper. White is such an unforgiving color.
A single, staccato ring of Mrs. Moore's phone punctuates my uninspired musings, and I instinctively glance up. My senses are oddly heightened in the awkward silence of the room and my story. The brush of the receiver makes the faintest rustle as she picks up the phone, an uncharacteristic carefulness coming from the same person who never learned to reign in her unruly laughter.
"Hello," she answers in her variation of a quiet voice, which carries to the corners of the room like a stage whisper. There is a pause dramatized by the utter blankness of the surroundings.
Then, "Oh, hello!" Her tone changes completely and no longer resembles a whisper in any way. Her smile cleaves her face in two. I cannot define exactly why, but there is something wrong about that smile. It is so wide it pulls her eyes into an involuntary squint, compressed by the gravity of her smile. It is dramatic enough to be distorted, wide enough to be a smile or a grimace or perhaps both simultaneously. It's all in the interpretation. Her face must hurt from housing that smile.
It is at this point that all the people who are still pretending to be productive give Mrs. Moore and her phone a unison glare. Her voice drops. "Listen, can I call you back? I have students-" The person on the other line says something, and she laughs loudly enough to contradict her whisper. It is even louder than usual, too loud. It is a laugh meant to mask with its sheer canned volume. A woman could convince herself that she is happy against all evidence with a laugh like that. The receiver clicks like a secret being locked away, and Mrs. Moore exhales audibly.
The regained silence restores me to reality, and I mentally scold myself for my habitual overanalyzing. I know people do not deserve to be picked to pieces because I can't find a story in myself, but that doesn't stop me. A character's voice suddenly comes into me, filling my mind with ironic laughter. Sustained by Mrs. Moore's borrowed quirks, she limps into existence, promising she is someone else entirely. However, as her wispy voice begs me to take dictation, I feel an unspecific guilt jabbing at the corners of my consciousness. But nonetheless, I begin to write because it's there.
There is a lot my husband doesn't know: that I don't always smile because I am happy, that love is not routine, that he doesn't know anything at all about me, that he should. If he really knew me, he would notice the way I start when the phone rings, the way my heart starts beating faster when I carefully pick up the precious poison of a forbidden voice. If he could hear my heart, he would hear that. If he knew anything, he would notice that after three months of running for the phone, I may not be happy, may be crazed, guilty, and hopelessly lost, but I'm alive. Now someone hears me. But I guess my husband can't know my secret if he doesn't know me.
"It is essential to create sympathy for your narrator or central character," Mrs. Moore tells the class, shuffling the stack of our stories absentmindedly with a manicured finger. "If the reader does not feel something towards your character, be it irritation, pity, or admiration, it is easy for them to become detached from your story. Even when they're not apathetic, readers often misconstrue characters." She smiles wryly. "We are all human, Mr. Stevens." The slacker next to me starts, caught in the act of turning his pants into an art gallery with a sharpie, as usual. It's probably a clever excuse to give tours. I wouldn't be shocked to see that blonde in the front row with a face snowed in with makeup become the first of the exhibit's gushing clientele. Perhaps he deserves a lot more credit than I've previously given him for his admirable intellectual planning, despite the involuntary string of lines he just scrawled across the mural on his kneecap. The class laughs as he sheepishly fumbles for his notes.
"Well, now that we have safely settled that we're all human, we know that we all have our own unique perspectives. We're easily swayed by our preconceived notions of people, so unfortunately, characters aren't much different." Without seeming to know what she is doing, she removes her glasses and begins gesturing vividly with the frames protruding from a hand. "So it's imperative the reader at least understands your character and where they are coming from." With that, she swiftly scoops up Picasso's notebook and smiles at the caricature of her whose face cuts through the heading entitled: "Character Development."
She gestures ostentatiously at it. "Flaws help."
There is some awkward laughter, and I wonder if anyone else has caught the irony. I doubt it. I raise my hand to point it out, but Mrs. Moore continues talking. "Now, I would like you to write a self-portrait of sorts, a character sketch of yourself. Clearly, here you're a bit biased, but try to make it real. Avoid a flawless portrait, but don't exaggerate your own flaws." She gestures at Picasso's notebook. "This may be a little excessive… Is this my nose?" She points, and he looks like at this moment, he could erase himself and enjoy it. "Fascinating, Mr. Stevens… though I'm not sure it turns up that much, you certainly have a good start." She grins like she's the one who just defied authority. "Now, get working or sleeping or texting or whatever it is you do when I stop talking."
She crosses the room, wobbling slightly on her ridiculous heels, sits down at her desk, and switches on some music. It's loud music, the kind with the bass that strikes you across the heart on every downbeat. "God, it's hot in here," she says, fanning herself with the edges of her unbuttoned blazer in an exaggerated gesture. There is a ripple of agreement and some embarrassed beeping of phones hidden beneath desks. Mrs. Moore always dresses in nice blazers and slacks, but she looks like she does not quite belong in them. She wriggles out of her well-made suit jackets; she kicks off her shoes. She simultaneously explicates a sonnet and paces and fidgets her hair out of its neat bob. She pulls her glasses down her nose, into her hand, and into the other then stares at them like she doesn't quite know how they got there.
I don't know how she can work with that music all but shaking the room; I certainly can't. She sits at her desk and pulls a story off the burgeoning pile. I recognize it is mine immediately based on its sheer size. Since I can't focus, I watch out of the corner of my eye. I love to see people's expressions when they read my writing. Mrs. Moore smiles absently, and then her eyes reach the end of the first page and go as wide as a theatrical ingénue's. The smile drops away like an actor through a trapdoor. All the color drains from her face. Without preamble, she drops my story back on her desk and walks to the door, holding herself with an uncharacteristic rigidness. The habitual motion and animation is gone from this still, pale stranger, moving away in a stiff line. Strange…
The rest of the class texts and gossips and sleeps on, so it almost appears seamless when the English teacher from across the hall comes in and tells us Mrs. Moore has gone home with one of her infamous migraines. That's exactly how she says it, too. "Hello class, Mrs. Moore has gone home with one of her infamous migraines" because she's an English teacher, and she can get away with it.
However, as it turns out, if you're a sixteen-year-old girl, you can't. The person you're talking to will inevitably say, "In-fame-us? What does that mean?" and stare at you like you've just crash-landed here from another planet in a dictionary-shaped mothership. That's her first thought. The second is how to push you off this one without breaking a nail. The third is to turn back to her friend and wax poetic about yesterday's episode of "Lost." I think back to how the debate coach once praised my "communication skills," and inwardly roll my eyes.
"In-fame-us?" What does that mean?" giggles Emily Everett from in front of me, tossing her synthetic blond mane, as if her Maybelline vocabulary is something to be proud of. However, she doesn't speculate about when Miss Langley is going to return to the Merriam Webster space cruiser. As I said before, she's an English teacher. She can call migraines "infamous" and pepper her sentences with the word "indeed" like it's punctuation, if she damn well wants to.
Emily's weekly amorous wad of muscle tissue, Brad, chooses this moment to show us all that, contrary to popular belief, he has mastered the ability to speak. "Em, yur mom is an in-fame-us," he grunts, which actually would have been funny if it had been the right part of speech. He struts across the room to Emily, who giggles and opens her glossy mouth. Here it comes. I count to three.
1…2…"Shut up, Brad, or I'll tell everyone how tiny your in-fame-us is." Ah, there it is: the mandatory bad sexual innuendo.
"Ya know what, Em?"
Suddenly, we all know what as Brad and Emily forsake language in favor of unadulterated hormones. Brad's meaty hands swallow Emily's wrists, and they grapple with each other, laughing. Emily's elbow flies out, missing its target, but striking the tottering stack of stories on Mrs. Moore's desk.
They land right at my feet. Mine is on top, with a purple pen mark trailing down the right margin and off the page like a scar, or an ellipsis. So, it was my story Mrs. Moore was reading before she left in such a hurry. I worry fleetingly about its quality, hoping this won't be one of those papers where my ability runs headlong into expectation, and everyone less talented is there to point it out.
Meanwhile, Miss Langely is doing major overtime on her subbing job by trying to convince the couple of infamey to get back to work and off each other with a variety of extremely wordy, empty threats. Of course, wordy is probably the only way to go when you're in the throes of preventing the onslaught of literary anarchy.
I have two words: too late.
Mrs. Moore is back. Allegedly. When we enter the room, she's writing an assignment on the board, back turned to us. Even from that angle, I can see that every unruly hair brushing her stiff neck is subdued perfectly into place. Her blouse and skirt are fitted and immaculate. Even her nomadic glasses perch severely on her nose, chastised. It doesn't suit her at all. Without a word, she turns on her heel and begins mechanically passing back papers. Her shoes make neat, metronomic clicks on the floor. I try to start working but am surprised to realize that I miss her abrasive music. Time languishes self-consciously.
Then finally, Emily and her sheep do exactly what they always do when they're uncomfortable. They bleat.
"Omigod, so I went to Nick's party, and it was so tight..."
"…Omigod, he said that? He's so—"
"Emily," Mrs. Moore says sharply. "Be quiet." The harshness of her tone is so uncharacteristic, even the perpetual crashing static of the television in the corner obeys. Emily and her flock regard Mrs. Moore wide-eyed, and it's clear they are all paying attention for the first time this semester. The silence is stifling enough to be tangible, fog we could cut with a knife, if anyone dared. Most disconcerting of all is that Mrs. Moore doesn't seem to care.
She drops my story on my desk with a thud that makes way too loud of a sound. I flip it over, more curious than anything. An ugly red B glares back at me. "Unrealistic," it says beside it. I've never gotten less than an A on an English paper in my life. The bell rings like an alarm, and the class scatters. Shock is soon replaced by pure argumentative anger, as I immediately approach Mrs. Moore's desk, where she sits, face deadpan, staring down the computer screen.
"Mrs. Moore, I just don't think this is fair. I mean, I never get B's. I feel like you're grading me so much harder than anyone else because I'm intelligent, and that makes no sense that I should be punished for having complexity in my plots and a more extensive vocabulary than—"
"Margaret, did you bother to read why I gave you that grade?" Her voice is either calm or flat; it's impossible to tell.
"You said it was unrealistic," I parrot, "but I disagree. I made my character sympathetic as an antihero. She's flawed and having an affair, but you understand her perspective."
"No," counters Mrs. Moore. "You don't. She's defined solely based on her conflict. But maybe there's more to her than that. She has a life of her own. She's not just some malfunctioning appendage of her husband. As a character, she should not just be a cheating wife, a label that prevents you from looking any further." She catches her breath. "What I mean is, your character needs substance and development in her own right. She should not be a residual piece of conflict, defined by actions alone. She needs a voice."
I don't know what is going on with Mrs. Moore. She actually sounds angry, tinged with regret, but I don't care now because I'm angry too.
"But I do give her depth. Her husband doesn't love her, and she's tired of him being unfair to her. And I just don't understand what you think is wrong with how I portrayed that. I--" I take a breath to back another protest when she cuts in.
She bristles with the kind of uncharacteristic irritation she usually reserves for when no one gets the symbolism, except multiplied by at least five John Steinbeck novellas. "Maybe that's not how it feels. Maybe it's more like…" she pauses, almost thoughtful, "being in two places at once." Then she stands abruptly, as if just realizing what she has said. Not noticing her feet are on either side of the desk leg, she almost trips, grabbing the edge of the filing cabinet. She busies herself with thumbing through one of drawers, back to me. Behind her, there are pictures on the classroom wall of places she's probably never been: Paris, London, Rome.
There is an uncomfortable, yet loaded silence. It makes me remember a lecture Mrs. Moore gave earlier this week. Don't underestimate the force of a concise sentence… Then the implications of her words finally hit me. Oh shit. With all my splendid vocabulary, only expletives remain when I need the words to protect me, but they all run away in fear. She is not talking about any story now; that's for certain. I have an awful feeling that I am facing the writer's favorite guilty dream and worst nightmare. I struck truth and didn't even know it. Now I am watching what I have written come true.
It only makes sense that there are no words for situations where you need them, and the more you have at your command, the more difficult it is to find the right one. Still, there is never any word that makes everything all right. "Mrs. Moore—I…" I hate my voice when I'm nervous, breathy and high-strung. "It was a fictional story. I drew from real life, but still. I'm sorry if—I don't know. I—"
"Of course you don't know," she murmurs, almost to herself, as she sits back down at her desk. Her face is so open, I want to turn away. There is a long silence. Mrs. Moore stares into her computer monitor like she is looking for something there. I'm almost afraid to look at the paper in my hand. When she turns back to me, her face is slightly more collected. "I know how subjective writing is, not to mention reality itself." Her lips twitch slightly, exhaustedly. "So I am willing to reconsider your grade, Margaret."
"I can rewrite it," I interject quickly. How I wish I could.
"Yes, you can," she says softly, but we both know what's written cannot be unwritten. It doesn't matter that we both want it to be. We know that from the trail of irreparable damage the words have already left behind, but the expectation is that I try. We can't write off reality when we find it, but we can always pretend.
I positively run back to my seat to collect my bag, in a hurry to forget the inerasable words of my story and of this unsettling confrontation. A thought occurs to me like an echo, and I stop abruptly, torn.
"Was she real?"
It takes her a minute to realize I am talking about my character.
"Yes," she says so quietly I can barely hear her. A mockery of a smile flits across her face, scrawling a satire with its blunt sadness. "She is very real."
Of all the damage the words I wrote and spoke did, the ones unspoken leave the deepest scar. Too real, I think, as reality bleeds its way into the empty spaces between us, in defiance of its tourniquet.
I expect the noise of the hallway to be a welcome refuge from the tense silence of Mrs. Moore's room, but as I practically fall into the hallway, all the noise seems too much. The fragments of sharp, achingly real conversations jab at my eardrums with their jagged edges, escalating into a veritable roar. I realize how much of the world I must tune out on a regular basis. I am painfully aware of all the voices, all the eyes. Do I look as flustered as I feel; am I blushing? To hear everyone's voices would make me insane, but I'm sharply aware that they can all see me, hear my voice just by looking.
I turn around then and see the source of my subconscious discomfort. Picasso leans against a locker like he has nowhere else to go, giving a giggling blond girl an ink tattoo across her impossibly delicate forearm. He's staring over his chattering still life at me. He sees me looking and his gaze swerves slightly beneath his eyelids, but still, I feel like he could paint a portrait with a look like that. I don't know why this makes me feel so invaded.
As his muse flutters away with a gait I liken to bubbly feminine handwriting in pink pen and is dotted with hearts, Picasso pulls up his own sleeve. I don't understand how he can be so occupied with his skin canvas as lockers slam and students scatter to their next classes. He's going to be late; he must know that.
Clearly thinking I'm not looking, his stare returns shyly, but this time I snap. I don't want to be studied in detail in my moment of agitated weakness. I storm over.
"Why don't you just get a piece of paper already like a normal person?" My tone sounds incongruously angry, even to my own ears.
Picasso starts. A blush creeps up his marble-colored skin, his hand paused over the pen spider webs that encircle his arm. "Whoa," he mumbles simply, looking at his shoes.
I'm so surprised, I almost apologize; after all, no one expects a poster boy troublemaker to be soft-spoken. But it's been such an awful day, my mouth runs away with my discomfort. "Why were you staring at me anyway?"
"You just looked really freaked-out," he stumbles awkwardly in his quiet voice. "And well…" He extends his arm, as if to shake my hand, and he flushes scarlet to his colorless hair. Amid his doodles, I recognize a pair of pursed lips and big, frowning eyes because every morning, the mirror tells me that's how I must look. From him, however, I have no idea how to take it: the detail, the accuracy.
"Oh," I mutter, in a rare personal display of wordlessness. We look guiltily at each other's faces in the self-conscious pause that follows.
I almost thank him for breaking it with, "You're Margaret, right?" Awkward conversation beats awkward silence any day, in my book.
"Meg," I supply. "My friends call me Meg." I'm not sure why I'm telling him this. I guess I'm trying to be friendly. I'm bad at it.
"Well…" he says haltingly. He talks very slowly, enough that I realize I must sound like a shrill, rapidly chattering bird in comparison. "I guess it's just easier to draw on people than on paper." I don't remember I even asked my rude question until I realize he's answering it. "I mean, they're there."
The truth of the statement hits me between the eyes as I think of Mrs. Moore and my story. I feel something that reminds me of the prelude to a sob, tight in my throat. As with any unflattering truth, I immediately want to disprove it, discredit it. A thousand arguments form in my mind, but they don't make it to my pursed lips. I'm so tired, and I know he is right. If he wasn't his words couldn't hurt me.
He notices I'm not saying anything and laughs uncomfortably, fingering a rash on his wrist. "The ink poisoning's a bitch, though." He looks with some consternation in the direction the blond mural disappeared in and shrugs helplessly.
And as I fall into step with Dave Stevens, I nod and say softly, slowly, "Yeah, it's kind of like that."
The look I give him could be considered a smile or a grimace. It's distorted enough to be either, distorted as the truth.