* A dull-gray scarf hangs over her skeletal shoulders like dense fog shrouding jagged coastal rocks. She stops just inside, vacant eyes searching every corner of the nearly filled classroom. She clutches her fraying bag, appearing to momentarily consider a swift exit.
A tall, engaging woman at the head of the classroom directs her warm eyes to the newcomer, waving her in with a smile. “C’mon in!” she welcomes. “There’s still room here at this table.”
As the newcomer makes her way past other participants, she nears the empty chair. The instructor stretches out a strong, olive hand. “Amanda Walker,” she offers, shaking her hand. “But, just call me Mandy.”
The newcomer lifts her head, offering a hand in return. “Carmen,” she whispers, “… just Carmen.”
“Welcome, Carmen,” says Mandy. Carmen smiles vaguely. Absently. So this must be the woman who will lead this creative writing class she had signed up for. Carmen sits down quickly, keeping her eyes to herself.
Carmen had seen a colorful notice tucked between scraps of paper offering bikes for sale, rides to San Francisco, and “cheap” thesis editing on one of the only tangible bulletin boards left just outside her college cafeteria. Curious, she had reached for the paper with one simple word written across the top in calligraphy: Words
That had been enough to get her here—that one word, along with a description of a creative writing class, which would urge participants to explore regions of their soul which now lay buried.
Her soul, indeed! What was her soul? Carmen hadn’t let her thoughts take her too far into that uncharted territory, as it threatened to be a journey into darkness, pain and utter hopelessness. Her struggle these past years had already been pocked with therapy appointments, missed classes and the most visible blight of all: countless trips to the emergency room, barely surviving copious amounts of narcotics or severe loss of blood.
Why am I even here? she wonders, repressing the urge to run—run far away. What can a creative writing course do for her, much less for her mangled and mutilated soul? She nearly talks herself into making a hasty retreat—long before she would be called to bare any element of her tortured life in front of complete strangers. But her seat partner, a semi-sincere-looking girl by the name of Jade, intrigues her, appearing to be not a day past fourteen. Jade holds just enough magnetism to keep Carmen firmly rooted to her chair. Jade and Mandy, whose caramel voice seems hypnotic as she introduces this class.
“This is your time. You choose what to write and what not to write. There will be no grades. There are no rules about reading your work—unless someone dominates the time and leaves no room for others,” she grins.
Mandy’s words disarm. Quiet. Reassure. Carmen is not used to a safe invitation, and she wonders, briefly, whether she dares trust this person. But Mandy leaves her no time to continue engaging her distrustful thoughts.
“First, would any of you like to tell me what brought you here?” Mandy’s voice continues.
Momentarily uncomfortable silence.
“A piece of hot pink paper on the bulletin board,” a high-pitched voice ventures. Carmen turns slowly to see who else has been attracted by this unconventional invitation.
Mandy smiles. “Welcome.”
“Yeah, and I’ve heard lots of words, and I think I’m becoming those words. That scares me. I want to change the words.”
With each voice that speaks into this configuration of young, old, male, female, manicured and rumpled, Carmen’s anxiety is eased.
Carmen writes seven words the first class. Exactly seven. No more come. The next class, twenty-five; the following, eighteen. Shame drapes itself over her frame as she sits motionless on her chair after every other participant has disappeared.
Continued in Behind Each Face*
*Because this story appears in the recently published book, it is subject to restrictions as to where it can be posted in its entirety.
* revised and edited, 2015
© Julia Penner-Zook, Behind Each Face