My oldest sister is gifted. When things break, she fixes them. Though often they still don’t work, our parents beam with pride. Sometimes our gifted sister breaks things just to fix them. And our parents beam with pride even more, except when she breaks things like my father’s electric razor or my mother’s hand mixer or blow dryer. Our gifted sister causes glasses to spill their juice on my other sister and myself. We are not gifted, but we know when we’re thirsty and wet.
There are mysteries we don’t understand like why our pet turtle now has a crack in its shell, but the shell still holds together even though the turtle has “fallen asleep”; why we found a trail of tiny slivers of glass sparkling in the carpet; and why our gifted sister smashed our pet plastic amphibians against the linoleum tiles. “Don’t worry,” she said with great confidence. “I’m taking them to my hospital; they’ll need surgery.” “What hospital?” we asked. “Shh,” she said. “Do you want Mom and Dad to find out?”
Sometimes, for no good reason, our gifted sister hurls a candy dish or a plate against the wall and runs into her room, slamming the door. Then our mother stops our father from going after her. “Wait until the storm dies down,” she says. “Then talk to her.” Nor do we understand why our gifted sister screams at our father behind a closed door while our father says harshly something that sounds like “Now look…” and then, after much commotion, they come back to the living room together, our gifted sister, still with tears bright in her eyes, kissing everyone on the cheek. Our mother smiles at us with thin, tight lips as if she expects us to smile and swallow at the same time, as if we are all in on the secret of how difficult it must feel to be gifted.
Her father rescued the owl, nearly dead, tail feathers mutilated. He lived permanently in her backyard in a homemade cage, so tame he was nearly a sibling, so timid about the world he wouldn’t go away even when let out. He perched on the fence and stared at her in a way that no boy had ever done. She knew her father watched over her as if she were also wounded— too vulnerable to leave the house or the yard, even though she was restless and always looking out a window or over the fence at the other houses. He confined her, so she talked to the owl. “It’s our secret,” she said, knowing her father would not allow it— if he actually heard what she said and saw the love in the owl’s eyes. And sometimes the owl glanced at her as if to take hold of her body, as if he saw the fragile bones hidden inside her rough wings, as if he could breathe the delicate air in which she lived.
The End of Her Blue Period
When she picks up blue man from a dance rehearsal, she invites him to stay and offers him supper. “I’ll pop over to Safeway for red,” he says, and he always buys bargain flowers at the register. When he returns, he’s holding a bottle of wine without a label and some blue irises that have probably been stolen from someone’s garden. “Here, you take these,” he says, “and I’ll put on some music,” and it’s just at that moment, she realizes that his blue eyes are not really blue, and his wan face reminds her of cold oatmeal. Still, the room brightens from his irises. She lives in a gray apartment building sandwiched between two smelly parking lots. She painted her walls off-white, but the off-white has turned grayish with the smoke and fumes coming in the windows from the parking lots. She would keep them shut, but her stuffy apartment needs air to circulate. As always, in the evening after dinner, the blue man streams the blues, closing his eyes and singing the words to “You Put a Spell on Me.” But now she’s no longer sure what’s going to come next. “I might even love you,” she whispers to blue man while he sleeps, his hair nesting in the hollow of her rose-colored pillowcase. She says it to the back of his unconscious head, lips dangerously close to his ear, “You’re part of my blue period.” And then, it’s not a dream anymore. One day she wakes up and finds her feelings can be painted blue. When she tells him goodbye, she memorizes the pinkness of his skin under the blue.
Image: “Spill” by Josh Parrish, licensed under CC 2.0.
Jeff Friedman on writing with Meg Pokrass:
Meg and I started out by sending prompts to each other based on our own stories and meeting on Zoom every Tuesday to chat. The prompts and our giddy conversations led us to the idea of writing a book together. At that point, we had no idea how we might proceed (though now we have several approaches to writing together). Meg asked if she could do a version of my piece “Bear Fight,” from Floating Tales. I, in turn, wanted to do a version of a micro story of hers from The Dog Seated Next to Me. “Bear Fight” is about someone in love with someone who is in love with a bear. Before I could even make up the steps, Meg had written a version of this piece that introduced an ex-lover and a secret affair with a moose at a costume party. Then I wrote a version of her version of my piece, and in turn she wrote another version of my version of her version of my piece. All of a sudden we were rolling in new micro stories, some longer than others. In a short time, we developed several techniques for writing each piece from scratch together. We have been having such fun making up our own collaborative writing exercises. We see this as not very distant to the idea of improvisational theater. So much of this process is about trusting the other writer, learning to take risks and to let go of control.