“Alas for those girls who’ve refused the truth: the sweetest tongue has the sharpest tooth.”
—Jack Zipes Little Red Riding Hood and Other Classic French Fairy Tales
I’ve been lost in the writing woods for a few months, hence the lack of blog posts or tangible proof that I’m a writer. For the last hour, I’ve been jotting down lines for this little ditty and then immediately deleting them. I stare at the screen. Make a list of things I think I want to say. Crunch through a cup of ice (which feels really productive even if it is bad for my teeth). Stare at the screen. Read a chapter of a book. Write a line. Delete it. I keep reminding myself that this is a single blog entry and not the opening lines to a novel I hope will win a Pulitzer Prize, but still, the words won’t come. Z will be home in three hours and I have zero faith that this post—let alone an essay I’m trying to finish and ship off—will be done before his key is in the door.
Even eating the last remaining strip of Easter Marshmallow Peeps has failed to get the juices flowing.
Last fall while Mom was visiting Seattle, we were at a fabric store because the elastic on a skirt I wanted to wear had gone rogue. While I was supposed to be finding the necessary repair tools, what I found instead in the kid section was the most delightful Red Riding Hood material. A more sophisticated woman might see it and think it would look nice in someone’s nursery, but I saw it and felt certain that my life would not be complete until I had it whipped up into some curtains to hang in my writing studio.
When I showed the material to Mom and asked her if she thought it would be hard for me to make into curtains, we both knew that what I really meant was, “Could you do this for me, pretty please?”
Poor Mom. I can’t tell you how many of my hair-brained projects she has gotten roped into because I have great faith in both her skills and her love for me. Could you just paint my bedroom that perfect shade of blue? Could you just make me a mirror out of flattened out soda cans? Could you just design, carve a linoleum block, and hand print all of my wedding invitations, even if it gives you temporary carpal tunnel? The fact that she never says no to me is testament to what an excellent (long-suffering) mother she is. Were our roles reversed, I’d probably say something like, “Honey, why don’t you find a YouTube video that will show you how to do it yourself?”
Thus, my favorite Christmas present of the year from Mom was a bank of café curtains that have transformed my little writing studio.
I grew up on fairy tales, both the sanitized Disney and the grimmer versions where badly behaved step-sisters were inclined to get their eyes plucked out. Though I liked the ones that ended with princes and castles, Little Red Riding Hood was always my favorite. As an introverted only child who tried hard to follow the rules, I loved Red’s solitary walk through the forest, her purposeful journey to get to her destination with a basket of treats for her ailing grandmother, her stylish outerwear. Though admittedly, I could never imagine my over-protective mother sending me out into the woods on my own when she knew there were sinister forces lurking behind trees.
A lot of the time when I’m writing, I feel like Red, trudging through the forest, hoping to stay on the path, attempting to avoid wolfish distractions. Often, I fail. It seems only fitting that she should be there with me in my writing studio, while I try to stick to a plan.
When I would teach a fairy tale unit in my composition class, we’d often end up talking about Red Riding Hood and the various endings that befall her depending on the teller of the story. With most other folk tales, I’m always keen to know the oldest, most original version because I see that as the “true” one. But with Red Riding Hood, I don’t care how it ends. It doesn’t matter to me whether she is eaten whole by the wolf and either digested or rescued by a woodsman and his sharp ax just as she begins simmering in gastic juices. I don’t even really care if she saves herself. (Okay, okay. I hope she saves herself.) For me the real crux of the story is that moment when she must choose between following the rules given to her by her mother (“never talk to strangers” and “stick to the known path”) or whether she will follow what I always believed was a Midwestern cultural imperative to be polite. On the surface, the wolf demonstrates no savage tendencies, and in most versions he isn’t even trying to get her to leave the path. Instead, he offers to accompany her once he knows where she’s heading, and it is very difficult for a girl to say, “No thanks” without feeling rude. Even so, when I read the story, I want to shout at her, “Ignore him! Tell him nothing!”
It occurs to me now, that pre-Z, this might explain why my dating life was so abysmal. On multiple occasions the most benign of men might say hello to me or ask me a question as a sort of opening line, and instead of being flirtatious in return, I could see only wolfishness in the eyes, a salacious sheen on the teeth, and I would run—sometimes literally—the other way. I have no doubt, the “danger” was all in my head. Often I give Z a hard time that he made me pursue him for so long before he was willing to admit we belonged together, but the truth is if he had seemed even the least big eager, I’d have zipped away at lightening speed. Well played, Z. Well played.
Monday I went down to the International District to sit in the waiting room of a doctor’s office while Z was inside getting some results from a routine doctor’s visit. It’s not our neighborhood and not a doctor we are familiar with. Though the receptionist and nurse were friendly to me while I sat there, I felt out of my element. It was just me sitting across from a fish tank that appeared not to have as single fish in it, reading the signs plastered on the walls in English and then trying to find meaning in the Chinese characters beneath the English letters, as if I were finding a pattern to crack the Enigma Code.
A tall, older guy came in, moaning and dragging his leg behind him. Oh no, I thought. Drama. I hate public drama and there is too much of it in the city. He dragged himself up to the window and said something to the receptionist and they both started laughing. Tension broken. He wasn’t really in pain—he was waiting for test results too—and he’d just been trying to add a little levity to the day. He sat down across from me and waited. I poked around on my cell phone.
He sort of relaxed against the wall and started singing low and sultry like Barry White: Girl, come on back to my place. You know we’ll have a good time. Girl, come on back to my place….
Sexy as I was there in my green fleece hoody, un-brushed hair and big middle aged Midwestern body, I felt fairly confident that he wasn’t singing to me. And even if the amazing Z hadn’t been on the other side of that door, I wouldn’t have been inclined to follow this guy out into the concrete forest that is Seattle if he had been making up this song just for my ears. There was a certain confidence he emanated that seemed related to his belief that his dulcet tones would stir something up in the women of the International District, and that confidence annoyed me.
I stared at my phone like I was cramming for an exam, like I was deaf and couldn’t hear this serenade that filled the small room. (Never has an article about global warming been so mesmerizing.) I could not allow myself to look up. I could not do what I normally do in a doctor’s office and smile at the person sitting across from me before quickly looking elsewhere lest I see overly interested in what might be ailing them. It felt dangerous. The guy sang several more choruses—all with similar lyrics—before letting out a big yawn and then asking the receptionist to be let into the back to use the restroom. My sense when I heard the yawn was that he found my response uptight and boring, though in all likelihood this entire storyline was unfolding in my head only. Even so, when Z came out, I nearly leapt into his arms.
This is why I need to brave the forest in my mind, sit at the desk, get the words in my head out onto the page. Because if I leave those words inside for too long, it just gets weird.