by Pamela Painter
I’m in the passenger seat cause my husband says I don’t drive fast enough for his ‘haste.’ Automatically, my mind replaces “haste” with “taste,” but I let it go, where once I might have found it amusing, once I might have smiled. Suze and Jimmy are in the back squabbling over goldfish, throwing things out the window, and generally reacting to the tension in the front seat . My husband is telling me once again that I live too much in my head. I could tell him it’s more interesting in there by far, but I’m not yet ready to move the kids and me to a squalid apartment with no grass, swings or playground in sight, the washer and dryer ten floors below in a dangerous basement, and me doing check-out at Stop and Shop. We’re on our way to spend a week at my mother’s home, one hundred yards back from a cliff overlooking Lake Erie’s rocky beaches and treacherous tides. My parents never learned to swim. I never learned to swim, so how I’m expected to get the kids back-stroking or treading water is a mystery to me. We’ll only stay three, maybe four days and leave early, like we always do. My mother will wave, dry-eyed, beside her cottage because she wishes I’d married someone else. She doesn’t have any other man in mind, just not the man who is driving us too fast to her place right now. I was young and he swore that after Suze was born we’d enroll in community college together. He said he’d carry my books. It’s a conversation he refuses to remember. When I bring it up he recalls how my long legs looked in the moonlight, how you can’t get high grade weed these days. My husband wants to talk but he doesn’t have anything to talk about except how the muffler business is going to the hogs. ‘Hogs’ is on purpose and I’m supposed to laugh or at least smile, like when he says ‘where there’s smoke there’s another sire.’ He hasn’t said that for a while, ever since I hauled the family photograph album. Jimmy is the spitting image of my father, but you try and tell that to my husband. And here it comes “You’re living in your head again,” he says, right on time.
But this time I’m ready. I consult my tiny black moleskin notebook like Hemingway was said to use. Just this morning I made a list of things to talk about: Suze’s teacher’s classroom menagerie, Jimmy’s front teeth, a new recipe for turkey stuffing, mice in the walls, my A paper in my lit class at Community, which when the time comes I decide to skip, just like I ignore my more important, though unwritten list with items like graduation, custody, and divorce, instead I tell him and the kids to look, look at the gloriously garish colors of the fall trees zipping by. “Garish” he says, like it’s a bitter—and here I do smile—a bitter hill.
PAMELA PAINTER has written two story collections, the award-winning Getting to Know the Weather and The Long and Short of It, and is co-author of What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers. Her stories have appeared in The Atlantic, Harper’s, Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, Quick Fiction, Sudden Fiction, Flash Fiction, and Microfiction, among others. She has won three Pushcart Prizes, an NEA, and Agni Review’s John Cheever Award for Fiction. Painter teaches in the MFA Program at Emerson College in Boston. Her new collection of very short stories, Wouldn’t You Like to Know, was published by Carnegie Mellon in 2010.
“You’re living in [his/her] head again.” Sounds a bit to me like something a writing teacher might say to a student. We want to be in the heads of our characters, but then again, spend too much time writing thought and we’ll lose our hold on the story, its physical movement. How did you think about balancing thought and everything else, all that other matter, while you were writing “In My Head”? You are right, a story has to have showing and telling. And one of the special things about fiction as an art form is that the reader can know what a character is thinking–the telling. This isn’t quite true of music, art, dance. In one of his TED lectures, the psychologist Stephen Pinker asks “How do we know what it means to be human?” His answer: “Anthropology, biology, psychology and fiction.” In the case of my story, the wife prefers living in her head rather than dealing with a failing marriage. And she “tells” the reader just that.