Monday, February 22, 2016

What Had Happened Was...

Some people are sick of me telling this story. But some people still haven't heard it. So, people in the second group, here it is. The Night Gabe Proposed.

It was before dinner on New Year's Ever, my second favorite holiday (after the Fourth of July), and Gabe and I sat on the screened porch in Mom's big square armchair. (To make room for the Christmas tree, Mom's chair gets relocated every December.)

"Do you still wanna do fireworks tonight?" Gabe asked.

"Definitely. Just us?"

"Mm. Yeah. What would be more Meaningful to you, before or after midnight?"

I thought. "After," I said. "That'll be easier if we want it to be just us. We can just wait for everyone to leave."

"True. Okay."

Dinner was spectacularly good. Pork chops, mashed potatoes, corn casserole, iced tea...

Every year for New Year's Eve, we get all dressed up. And go nowhere. Sarah and I invite a couple of close friends and we all eat snacks and watch The Twilight Zone and play games and generally have the funnest New Year's Eves ever.

This was Gabe's and my fourth New Year's Eve together. Actually, now that I think about it, he is the ONLY one who has ALWAYS come.

True to tradition, Gabe, Cassidy, James, Sarah, my parents, and I played Monopoly and Ticket to Ride. We took a break and visited Jesse at Taco Bell who sadly had to work that night.

11:50pm arrived and we gathered in the living room to watch the ball drop in New York. Five minutes later it was 11:55 and we passed around the glasses of sparkling cider. Four minutes and fifty seconds later, we began chanting the countdown.

Ten, nine, eight... I looked at Gabe. I never used to be a sappy person, but I can't even tell you how excited I was to have my first real New Years Kiss.

Seven, six, five... "At zero?" Gabe asked me. I nodded.

Four, three, two...

One. Add "Real New Years Kiss" to my list of experiences.

We all drank our sparkling cider and walked around clinking glasses. I felt really good. Especially good. I felt sort of giddy and floaty, like liquid sunshine was sloshing around inside me. 2016 had a great ring to it.

I had just gone to sit with Cass on the couch when Gabe announced, "All right. Let's go shoot off fireworks." Everyone looked excited.

I stared at him. Oh. Guess it wasn't going to be just us after all.

I said as much, clearly put off by the change in plans, but went to get my coat. Gabe followed me, completely confused.

I glared at him. "You can't announce fireworks at a party if you don't want everyone to go!" I said to him in the hall. "I wanted it to be just us too, but now everyone has to come. It is ridiculously rude for the two of us to go wandering off by ourselves at a party!"

"I'm sorry!" he said. "No, it's just us. It's just gonna be us."

He just didn't get it. "I don't care if that's what you want too," I said. "At this point, it is rude for us not to include everyone."

Mom walked by. "What's wrong?" I explained. "Oh. Well, Sarah's still carsick [from the hot, cramped drive to visit Jesse], so I doubt she wants to go anyway. James will probably stay with her."

"Let's just us go," Gabe said again. "Please. Come on."

Eventually I relented. Boys can be so oblivious though, am I right?

We started the walk down to the lake, through the trails in the woods. Normally, it's a really pretty, fun short walk. But it was midnight and pitch black. Oh, and it had been raining for like the past two weeks. One step off the sidewalk and onto the trail and my new boots squished down into that Carolina red clay.

"Wow, I did not think about it being muddy," I said. "I would've worn my hiking boots."

Gabe glanced over his shoulder as we continued. "I mean...do you want to go back and change?"

"Yeah, kind of," I said. Gabe said okay, and we turned to head back. But then I was hit with a flood of sheepishness. Could I just cut the poor guy some slack? First I chewed him out about excluding people, now I was being all prissy about my shoes... "Actually, no, it's fine. Thanks though."

We continued on.

We stopped at the clearing with the picnic shelter, just before the dock slopes down by the lake. The big open gravel space was the perfect spot for shooting off some massive fireworks.

I stood several yards back. Gabe lit the first firework and ran towards me. The firework whistled into the sky and exploded loudly just as he reached my side. A huge smile lit up my face. So loud. So exciting. So pretty. We both laughed.

"Another one?" he said.

"Yes!"

We lit and ran.

Despite the perfection of everything, a shard of sadness suddenly pierced my heart, as had become routine in beautiful moments. You see, I was really looking forward to moving in with my best friend Cassidy after graduation. But at the same time...I wanted more from this man I loved. We used to talk about getting married. Our relationship used to feel like a slow, steady progression toward doing life together forever. But lately that felt farther away than ever. He'd been gone for Christmas, which put more of a strain on my soul than I'd expected. Being apart from him at school was beginning to feel less and less like something all couples did, and more and more like something that was really Wrong for us.

We ran from another whizzing firework, and an icy tear slid down my cheek. Stop it! I sharply rebuked myself. This is an amazing night. Stop being so miserable about everything and appreciate what he's doing.

I wiped away the stupid sadness and smiled. We lit a third firework and ran.

"Another?" he asked again.

I really smiled. "Yes."

He put his hand in his sweatshirt pocket to get the next one ready. In the dark, he struggled with it. "Can you get your flashlight? he asked.

"Sure." I pulled out my phone, turned the flashlight on, and shined it on his hands.

He was not holding a firework. He was holding something tiny and sparkly.

"Wh--"

He dropped to one knee and my whole world exploded into a dreamlike blur. My knees buckled and I knelt with him, then immediately remembered that I should be standing for this. I popped back up.

Somewhere through the haziness, I heard his voice:  "Stephanie Bailey, will you marry me?"

"Are you serious?" flew out of my mouth.

He laughed. "Yes."

"Yes!" I said. "Yes! Are you serious?"

Everything was blurry and blotchy and shaky. Somehow I ended up facing the other way, in his arms, my face in his shoulder, shaking and still asking if he was serious. I had had so many dreams about him proposing. So many times I had become engaged only to wake up.

Finally he became good-naturedly sarcastic. "No, this is just the cruelest joke ever played," he said.

I laughed, and at that moment it became real. Tearless sobs escaped my mouth.

"Let's see if this ring fits," he said, feigning impatience. I had all but forgotten that there would be a ring involved, and it was still in his hand.

He slid it on my finger, and I gasped. "It's beautiful..." Of course, I couldn't really see it in the darkness, but I saw enough to know it was perfect.

Eventually, we walked back to the house. I stopped several times on the way, completely unsure of how to contain the joy in my body, much less interact with other people. Gabe, always the calm rock, guided me back, bursting with happiness himself.

When we came through the front door, I realized that everyone had known. Mom, Daddy, Sarah, Cassidy, James. They all slowly approached with huge smiles, and a few tears. I broke into happy tears again and hugged everyone.

I have never felt joy that complete in my whole life. Everything about the night was absolutely perfect. Gabe did so, so well. I could not be happier to plan and live a life with him. What an incredible partner he will be! I hope I can make him feel just as lucky and loved as he makes me :)

~Stephanie

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Why I Freaked Out (Today)

Well. I was sitting in class, listening to the professor wrap up our discussion on Lee Smith. I was thinking about how different Fair and Tender Ladies' plot is, and how different the plot of our next book--A Death in the Family--is from the plots of all my stories. Fair and Tender spans the character's whole life, flowing and falling over the moments she chooses to capture in letters to people she loves. There isn't exactly a climax. There aren't any real plot twists or sudden stretches of intense action. But it's wonderful.

A Death in the Family takes place mostly within a couple of days. The characters sit around and wait and talk and think. You get into their minds in stunningly real ways. The way the children think rings so sweet and true and naturally childlike that it's impossible to imagine a grown man writing the story. But nothing much really happens. As in Fair and Tender, the story's beauty and heart lie in the gentle, raw, realness of it all. The people are real not just because they're "complex," but because we Meet Them.

Lots of books have great characters, characters that seem original and believable, and--until now--that's all I'd ever thought a "well-written character" needed to be. But it occurs to me now that there is a difference between Believing a character and Meeting Them, leaving the book and feeling like you've just had a conversation with someone very old who lives in the mountains, or a little child who wants you to help him understand the world.

Until JUST now, I assumed that one feels like she has "met" a character only if the story is written in first person; otherwise the character is just believable and well-written. But A Death in the Family Introduces you to the characters without ever slipping into first-person narration.

But this doesn't explain why I "freaked out" in class. I freaked out because...I don't know how to write characters like that. I might be flattering myself, but I think I can write believable characters, characters that are at least somewhat original. But writing characters that the reader truly Meets is an entirely new animal, an animal I didn't even know existed much less know how to catch.

I think it has something to do with the type of story, which really fueled my panic. I think it has to do with the stories relying not so much on plot, but on characters. Ivy just recounts her life, in a simple yet poetic way, and the reader followers her as she grows up. Fair and Tender Ladies is crudely lovely, a classic. A Death in the Family conveys Real People and Real Feelings more by observing a family for forty-eight hours than by exploding into a dynamic story arc. The story is gripping and fantastically good.

And then you have my stories.

Girl, Boy, Magic Mirror, Other World. Secret Family, Language Barriers, Epic Journey. Big Decision, Twist Ending.

Evil Lord, Six MCs, Dramatic Escape. Rescue for World, Love Triangle, Complex Culture.

Ancient Civilization, Laws with Unintended Consequences, Resistant Love. Big Realization, Thought-Provoking Moral.

I think my stories could be good. I think I could maybe write them well and maybe get them published and maybe people would read them and like them. But I am afraid they won't ever be Great in the way the books I read for school are Great.

In my wildest, wildest, silliest dreams, I could be in the category of J. K. Rowling--and I would be absolutely floored and honored and ecstatic and lucky if I were.

But...there's such a difference between the outstandingly successful Harry Potter series and the writings of Lee Smith, James Agee...Shakespeare, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, and all the things I read for my classes.

What do you have to do to be Great? What is it that these authors have?

And how can I get it?

Can I ever get it? Am I "that kind" of writer? Do I want to be? Or do I want to be J. K. Rowling? (What writer WOULDN'T want to be J. K. Rowling...?)

I don't know the answer to any of these questions. And for a girl who has always assumed she would one day be a writer, that causes a freak out.

~Stephanie