Thursday, March 13, 2008

Friday Snippets 35

Crystal woke slowly, the soporific sound of an overworked heater blowing its hot breath into an already over warm room encroached upon the warm, lulling dream of floating gently in a heated pool. She sank slowly into consciousness, her open eyes trying to focus on the pale wavy shapes gliding by them. With a lethargic sleep-logged arm she pushed back perspiration-damp sheets.

Motel room. The word’s fog-horned inside her head. I’m in a motel room. But who…? She searched frantically for a name, a face, for the person she had shared this room with last night. For it was certain sure she had not paid for it. She sat up loggily, breathing deep as if coming up for air. She pushed herself to her feet and with swim-like motions she padded towards the bathroom pushing a path through the dense air with her left hand, reaching out for things to hang onto with her right: a chair, the wall, the heater. Turn it off! She gasped for breath as the hot air buffeted her face then sighed deeply when it stopped.

Crystal aimed her body at the bathroom once again and upon reaching the approximate location of its door, dove through it.

Hung over. Again. What was it last night? Just booze? She couldn’t remember.

The odors that assaulted her as she entered the bathroom almost knocked her back out the door. Vomit. Urine. Beer.

It must have been some party. If only she could remember it. Damn if you’re not thinking like a bad novel, she admonished her reflection in the mirror. Damn if you don’t look like you belong in one. Crystal attempted a mischievous grin at the image in the mirror but the apparition only sneered back. "Girl you look older than your mother." she hissed at it.

She turned on the cold water tap in the basin anticipating the feel of cool water splashed on her hot face, but the liquid that gushed out of the faucet was tepid. We got us another scorcher brewing out there, she thought screwing up her face in disgust. She leaned over the basin in hopes that it would get cooler as the water from the buried pipes began to reach her. It did. A bit. But no one would ever mistake it for glacier run-off.

Crystal sighed heavily as she placed the stopper in the drain and began splashing it on her face and even on her grimy t-shirt, drenching it so that it was plastered to her chest and belly, almost chilly in its effect. The figure revealed by the wet t-shirt belied the ravaged appearance of her face. It was the figure of a girl just barely entered into pubescence, with just a suggestion of breasts above the corrugation of her rib-cage.

When the water was deep enough she dunked her whole head into it and held it under while she very slowly let out her breath. And then a few beats longer as her lungs screamed for relief. When she finally lifter her head she had to gulp frantically for air for several moments before she could duck under once again. She repeated the ritual several times in the next few minutes until she began to feel better, almost invigorated by the shock and the hyperventilation. Although her head still pounded fiercely she could almost think now. And it was time to start thinking.

The one thing Crystal had learned well in the last few weeks was that the nights came on fast, rushing towards her like a tsunami from the first moment she opened her eyes in the morning. The days were filled with the frantic search for a secure place to spend the nights which were then lost in the oblivion of exhausted, sometimes drunken or drugged sleep, the morning returning irresistibly as on the undertow of the retreating wave.

Hunger too was a force to be reckoned with but its insistent, primal cry for her attention was often drowned out by the need to feel safe during the dark-flooded hours. The aimless wandering of the streets in daylight was accomplished with the daring and arrogance born of anger which, ferocious as it was, could not sustain her through the night.

She had not been prepared for the terror she had experienced the first time she had not found shelter before dark. It had not occurred to her that it could actually be worse than the terror she had felt each night of her life since age five, laying in her bed waiting--waiting to see if this night would be one of those times when he chose to visit her. The actual physical reality of locked doors and windows, the security of the four walls of her room, which had closed out the night if not him, had seemed insignificant in comparison to the fear which had flooded her each night, to the inundation of whispers that swallowed her will on those nights.

The memory of her room at home loomed large every night now, a temptation to return which she had to strenuously resist for she knew it to be illusory sanctuary. If night on the streets held its own terror at least it was a terror which she had some power over, which responded to acts of will on her part. Decisions made and followed through on and consequences following upon them naturally, diluted the terror of being totally alone and vulnerable to barely guessed at dangers. She could not, she would not go back now.

Surfacing a final time Crystal appraised her reflection once more. Better. But now, with her tangled hair plastered to her skull and the remnants of yesterday’s make-up and last night’s drugged sleep cleansed from her face she almost resembled the fifteen year old who had left home a month ago. Except for a certain set to the mouth and a certain cast to the eyes that expressed a weary cynicism, it was the same face that had appeared in last summer’s family photos taken around the backyard pool.

She tried to run her fingers through her snarled hair but it was no use. The tangles were dense, impenetrable. Probably not even a comb would help much. It was going to take hours of patient work, unweaving strand by strand and undoing knot by knot. Only her mother had ever had the patience for that. Nostalgic tears mingled with the water streaming down her face for all those hundreds of hours over the years that she had sat at her mother’s feet watching TV, as those gentle hands worked to undo the damage of an afternoon of rough and tumble play; never complaining, never admonishing for that had been part of the pact that she had made with her seven-year-old daughter.

Crystal could still remember that day as vividly as if it had happened last week. Tearfully impatient after an interminable half-hour of working with her tangled baby-fine hair, she had been about to chop a fist-sized snarl out with the scissors when her mother had walked in. there had ensued an angry quarrel between mother and daughter which Crystal had won with a child’s simple logic. "I don’t want to take care of it anymore. Anyway it’s your hair, not mine because you’re the one who wants it long, not me." So they had made the pact. If Crystal would promise not to cut her hair before she was sixteen, her mother would care for it as if it were her own.

There were six months to go on that pact but it began to seem inevitable that she would have to break it. She hadn’t the patience or time to care for it properly and looking like this it was becoming a liability. For that was the second thing she had learned well. Appearance and attitude were a currency on the streets. In the last couple of weeks as she put less and less effort into looking pretty and acting confident the places she spent the night and the people she spent them with became proportionately sleazier.

This place was the worst yet. She doubted they could get much worse than this. The mildew-stained grout in the shower gave off a stultifying odor and the sight of it made her skin crawl. The ceiling seemed to have erupted in a rusty rash and the wall behind the toilet was leprous with moisture-swollen blisters of paint and plaster.


This was the beginning of a story I started to write while in my mid twenties. Half a lifetime ago. I still remember the story I meant to tell. The character Crystal was inspired by a young girl I saw hanging out with Marines on weekend passes in the Oceanside, CA motel Ed and I were living in shortly after we were married; where I did housework and laundry in exchange for our room. She had baby-fine hair that was long and hopelessly tangled and she looked no older than my own 14 year old sister. Memory of her haunted me as I contemplated what could have led her to prefer the kind of nights and days I witnessed glimpses of rather than the home she must have run away from.

My own sheltered life previous to those months living in that motel had not given me much for my imagination to work with. Those months were a crash course in the coarseness, desperation and depravity many lives are lived in. I was wakened to the knowledge that my sheltered childhood and loving home was not necessarily the most common. "Crystal" still haunts me. She would be in her forties now. If she survived that year, that is.

And that's my last snippet unless I find something in the messy NaNo or sweaty Sven files that I can clean up. That is a big IF. Those files are in worse shape than Crystal's hair.

Several have asked in comments what the books I listed in my TT yesterday were for. I guess the easiest way to answer that is to update the TT. The short answer is that much of it was research for stories.

5 tell me a story:

IanT 3/14/2008 7:06 AM  

Again, a really strong start.

It's a shame you stopped work on it.

It's a shame she never escaped.

Ann 3/14/2008 5:09 PM  

It's a great beginning, do you remember where you were going to take it? Maybe you could work on her story. I read the notes you added to your Thursday Thirteen, very interesting. I'm reading a book you might be interested in, Memo to the President Elect by Madeleine Albright: fascinating reading her take on some of the things the next president is going to have to do.

Anonymous,  3/15/2008 9:45 PM  

I agree, very strong start. You don't just tell us this fifteen year old is in trouble, you SHOW us--and the steps she took to get there, and why she can't walk away from it. Very cool.

Anonymous,  3/17/2008 6:06 PM  

I can see why Crystal still haunts you, and I hope you help her escape some day!

Elizabeth Bauterfly 6/22/2008 3:04 PM  

Hey Joy,
I have been really wondering about this story ever since you told me about it and so I came and read the first today. I have had to deal with this same type of situation before in my own friend so don't worry about content. I love you.

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