Annie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” On the first of each month, Catching Days hosts a guest writer in the series, “How We Spend Our Days.” Today, please welcome writer ABBY FRUCHT.
Laurie and I returned home from our book tour on Sunday, she to Vermont and me to Wisconsin, where the ice on Lake Winnebago, which was solid when I left town a week ago is now black and honeycombed, mushy with snowpack and debris, and flecked with small thawed spots large enough for maybe one duck to swim in. The lake looks how I feel, or rather it looks how a certain essay will feel when I set out to try to revise it; a vast stretch of pocked, uncertainly thawing, no longer safely traversable ice. One step at a time I’ll fall through or slide, then climb out bruised and shivering, my coat torn from where the dog leapt in to save me. The dog knows it’s been too long since I’ve written anything but emails having to do with 1, being part of a three judge panel for the Pen Faulker Award in fiction this year, and 2, my and Laurie’s book tour. Have I minded this hiatus from creative work? Not a bit. But last week we named our five Faulkner finalists, and though I’d hoped to stride right into writing again once the book tour was over, the essay I put aside in August isn’t ready, it seems, to be looked at yet. For one thing, I can’t find it, can’t remember for the life of me by what name I filed it. Spider Bite? No. Spiderbite, then? I try a few variations like essay spider bite, first with no comma, then with, until finally I find it by just surfing around. It’s named: essay, through forest strewn with flowers we come home our hearts melting our teeth made of thorns.
Huh, I ask? What does that have to do with a spider bite? I’m afraid to click it open, afraid to start reading. I did once fall through the ice, while rescuing the dog after some early season ice shoves had settled into an illusion of walkable, goose-chasable water. Does my essay care to drown, or does it hope to go on living? With a hesitant click, I discover a list of notes on top:
- invasive carcinoma of left breast
- graves disease
- history of hemiparesis
- small bowel obstruction
- DVT (deep vein thrombosis)
- leiomyoma of uterus
What, I ask, is a leiomyoma? I scroll further down in hopes some line will send me into the zone I was in when I wrote it, and when that doesn’t happen I go downstairs to the kitchen, open the fridge, grab the ginger root that, bitch as I am, I’m shocked Chuck remembered to buy for me, peel it, lay it on a cutting board and thwack it with a mallet. Soon there’s only a pile of yellow fiber out of which it appears an immensely fragrant shawl might be woven, but since I don’t know how to weave, I throw it into a pot to boil for hours, as I was told by the waitress at Spice Saigon while on book tour in New York is essential if you want the perfect tea, a tea so bracing it might reveal to me the reason for the spider bite essay’s continued presence on this earth. Meanwhile there’s a knock at the door (somebody needing to pick up Chuck’s truck) and then a review of A Well-Made Bed appears on Shelf Awareness (“Framed like a classic hypothetical question, the novel explores how seemingly simple people can be swept up in dangerous schemes.”) It’s a good review but of the sort from which it’s difficult to pull a quote without changing the order of some of the words, which Laurie won’t allow. While she and I are chatting I remember it wasn’t a spider bite that prompted the essay at all, but a non-existent bat bite that had me driving to the emergency room at two in the morning in order for me to displace my terror of breast cancer, which when I was diagnosed with it six years earlier hadn’t scared me in the least, and never did, and still doesn’t.
Feeling hopeful about this I get off the phone with Laurie and read further down, past the part where the doctor, the nurses, and even the check-in clerk, who looked like the character Abby Sciuto, Chief Forensic Scientist on NCIS, tried to hide their suspicion that I was a hypochondriac even though all the ailments listed at the top of the essay actually DID happen to me, as they could see very well in my medical files. But no, I admitted, I had seen no bat. And no, I admitted, I had felt no bite. The doctor said the tooth marks looked like any old scrape and to go home and get some rest since it was 4 AM, which meant I had to walk back out and drive home through the roundabouts.
The roundabouts, I see, feature in the essay as a symbol of headstrong confusion or something. Still, why did I name it through forest strewn with flowers we come home our hearts melting our teeth made of thorns?
At which point I recall the whole truth of the thing, and then I sit here in a panic supposing I might have to actually write it. Chuck and I had had one of our terrible fights that evening before I drove myself to the emergency room, and though we don’t, and won’t ever, harm each other physically, we do harm each other, badly, emotionally. My essay wasn’t about a bat bite filling in for breast cancer so I would finally be afraid of it. Rather it was about–but can I even say it here?–a bat bite filling in for the fights I have with Chuck and all the bites that come with them. I was doing what they call “seeking help” that night, help for me and help for him and help for both of us together…and then I drove home without getting any. It wasn’t breast cancer or bats I was finally afraid of, but me and him and our name callings, our brawls, our bellowings.
I don’t know if I ever will write that essay, although I do love the title–which I all at once remember is a modified line from an old Tamil love poem–because our teeth are made of thorns. At last I go downstairs to my pot of boiling ginger and taste a spoonful. It tastes nothing like the tea I loved so much at Spice Saigon. Instead it tastes like pepper water. Of course it hasn’t been boiling for nearly as long as the waitress insisted, so I cover it back up again and sit at my desk to wait.
NOTE: The title of the essay (through forest strewn etc) is a modified version of an old Tamil love poem, “Nine on a Happy Reunion,” translated by A. K. Ramanujan, A K. Poems of Love and War: From the Eight Anthologies and the Ten Long Poems of Classical Tamil. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.
AND THOSE SAME 3 QUESTIONS…
1. What is the best book you’ve read in the last few months and how did you choose it?
I was one of a 3-judge panel for the Pen Faulkner award for fiction this past half year, so I will say that the best five books I’ve read this year are our five finalists, which were announced last week.
2. Would you give us one little piece of writing advice?
If you are stuck in interiority, force something into the piece from the outside, like a knock on the door or a speeding car or a lost child…and if you are stuck in exteriority, stop for a minute to let your character think and feel and just BE, for a while.
3. What is your strangest reading or writing habit?
I can’t stay seated at my desk for longer than say, twenty minutes at a time. I’m a jack in-the-box. Along with this propensity for motion comes the fact that when I am finally lying motionless in bed at night, falling asleep, and the solution to some writing puzzle comes to me, my body moves involuntarily; without thinking about it I flip right over.
By Abby Frucht: