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NEW-CUE, Inc. is a non-profit, environmental education organization founded primarily to assist writers and educators who are dedicated to enhancing the public's awareness of environmental issues.
Sarah E. Smith
I never imagined that I would study in Louisiana. Had someone told me two years ago that I would live in a small city called Lake Charles where mosquitoes rule, gumbo flows all year round, and banana trees and live oaks never droop from heat, I would’ve surely said, “Tell me, where’s that place again?” Now I find myself having lived in the way-down South for a year and a half. I’ve survived two hurricanes and know how to make spicy smothered potatoes, thanks to my Cajun friends.
But my journey began in Lynchburg where I took my first creative writing course with Geraldine Cannon at Central Virginia Community College. I was in a transitional period in my undergraduate course work. I began at Virginia Tech but I wanted to transfer to a liberal arts college. During my year at Virginia Tech, I spent a lot of free time writing and drawing as an outlet for my creativity that seemed in jeopardy at such a large, technical university. I decided to spend a year at a community college to obtain credit hours while deciding where to finish my education. I signed up for the obligatory calculus, biology, and English classes, and I was very relieved to discover a creative writing course available. I had no idea what to expect from a writing course that did not focus on composition. Not only did the class welcome all genres from poems to children’s books to screenplays, but my classmates were anywhere from nineteen to sixty. I have yet to have a workshop experience with as much diversity as Geraldine’s.
Since all of her students recommended the class, Geraldine’s first creative writing course generated a great deal of interest, and the college offered Creative Writing II for the spring. Many of my classmates took the second class and our small community of writers remained intact. I was exposed to many different artists and styles, and most importantly, to different drives. We all wrote for individual reasons but we needed the same support. By the close of that second semester, I made a decision to study Creative Writing at UNC-Wilmington. I have no doubt that without Geraldine’s guidance and friendship I would not have chosen what some would consider a risky major.
With each move I’ve made, I have become more immersed within the literary field. Wilmington has a unique program because it is completely separate from the English department and receives a lot of support from the university. This allows the program to sponsor Writer’s Week, which brings highly talented writers to the university to give lectures and readings. During my two years at Wilmington, I worked as an office assistant in the creative writing department, and because of this job, I was fortunate to meet many of the writers and be involved in the MFA program. During the semesters, anyone from Mark Doty to Donna Tartt would come through the office. One of my fondest memories is seeing Robert Creeley walk through the hallways headed toward his temporary office. His oxygen tank always trailed him. I will never forget his final reading during Writer’s Week.
Needless to say, my undergraduate education was a rare experience. Attending a university at the beach meant there was always sand in the hallways and barefoot students in class, but this provided a relaxed atmosphere to study writing. My grades were determined by creativity, analytical ability, and communication skills. The writers at Wilmington were personable, available, and talented. My fellow students were passionate and dedicated. We held workshops at each other’s houses and our social lives revolved around readings and art. It is a family I still miss.
As graduation approached, I set up an internship with an advertising agency that I met at a career fair. I had been in a workshop setting for three years, two of which I was around an MFA program. My professors urged me to wait a few years before pursuing another degree. In a conference with George Singleton, he told me to definitely go to a writing program but to give it a few years. And I agreed. I had romantic notions about working tedious jobs and writing to stay sane. I wanted to make money and work on my writing alone. Advertising seemed like a tedious option worth following.
Less than a month before my graduation, I was working at the creative writing office in the late afternoon. It was a middle of the week day. The halls were quiet. My supervisor came into the office where I was reading a book at the front desk. She told me to head downstairs to a reading because, and I quote, “They need warm bodies.” I was usually aware of all the readings scheduled, but for some reason I had missed this one even though there were fliers on the doors and in the hallways.
I had never walked into an empty reading before. The auditorium could seat a couple hundred people, but only three seats were filled. One was taken by the reader, another by my poetry professor, and the third was taken by a student. They all three looked at me as I walked down the aisle, and it felt like time had taken a temporary break. I offered to go into the halls and recruit an audience, but when I tried, there was no one to be found. Granted, it was a weekday and late afternoon, but the halls were not commonly empty. I saw no one.
When I returned, the reader, Neil Connelly, was a good sport and offered to give us a very intimate reading regardless. He read a section of his second novel which is set in Wilmington. I had never heard a style like his before. Afterwards, we all ate the provided refreshments and talked about fiction and poetry, what art is, and Neil’s MFA program where he conducts the fiction workshop. Since I was the only other fiction writer in the group, he and I had a long conversation about the genre. He suggested I apply to his program, but I explained my desire to work and write outside of the academic setting. He had pursued advertising as well and told me when I was frustrated with that world to please remember his program. He grabbed my attention. I walked him to his car and our conversation continued to be easy and relaxed. Walking back into Morton Hall, I remember feeling as if I had met him before and the connection felt much like my connection with Geraldine: familial. I sent him two short stories. No more than two weeks later he offered me an assistantship at McNeese and I agreed on the condition that I could visit before giving a definitive answer. As my graduation trip, a friend and I went to New Orleans for a while and then drove to Southwest Louisiana to attend the MFA graduate reading. Within eight hours, I met my professors, was impressed by the poets, and at midnight, found the apartment I still live in. The universe felt aligned, so I made my answer definitive. The summer before I moved to Louisiana, I completed my advertising internship, and I feel as if I’ve saved myself a lot of time.
Currently my life consists of reading, writing, and teaching. My program requires us to take so many literature courses that I receive an MA in English along with the MFA. I also teach two sections of composition and work on my novel. I am busy. Although sometimes I feel as if I will not be able to survive three years, I always re-discover my desire to be here and it re-energizes my creativity. The MFA is more strenuous than any course work I have completed thus far, but it is also the most rewarding.
I often think about Geraldine and the year at CVCC. Our class was her first creative writing course after completing an MFA in poetry at Arkansas. I am nearing the end of my program and I am able to relate to her jitters and excitement more than I could have then. I know now that she was fortunate to teach creative writing and not just composition, and as students, we were fortunate to have an energetic and patient writer to guide us. I can only hope for an opportunity of this kind with students who will cite me as an influence and keep in touch many years later.
The following is an excerpt from a novel in progress
by Sarah E. Smith
Not so long ago, I would’ve never left the door to my balcony open long enough for bugs to get in, let alone lizards, and here I am, glass jar in hand, about to catch one. I was outside sunning my body, thinking back, when I noticed the flick of its tale at the window. If the window wasn’t painted shut, I would’ve simply opened it and let the lizard out. But I can’t. As gently as possible, I place the jar in front of the lizard and touch the tail. It shoots in. I cup the jar with my free hand and take it outside. At eye level, the lizard’s nose is touching the glass and it stares at me. It’s probably wondering what I’m about to do with it. In the past, I would’ve killed it with a broom and said it was the lizard’s dumb luck to be trapped in my place.
I take it outside. Over the summer, a banana tree grew tall enough to reach the floor of my balcony. Knowing the lizard will find where it belongs, I put the jar next to a leaf and wait for it to scurry away.
Inside, as I walk to the back of my apartment where I’ll return the jar to the kitchen, I catch a glimpse of myself in a mirror. It’s one of my dressing mirrors, long and narrow, just enough space to reflect my body. I stop and face myself. My hand slides over my buzzed hair and again, I feel a burn in the back of my throat, a need to cry. I miss my long brown hair. I do. I miss it braided and I miss it released, draped around my shoulders. I thought I might miss my hair when I buzzed it, but I didn’t know how attached I really was.
I think if the sun will only tan the chalk white scalp, I won’t feel as naked, as ugly. I’ve told myself numerous times that it’s just hair, that it will grow back, and I’ve reminded myself that my hair isn’t what makes me beautiful. But it still hurts a little.
I let my gaze linger on my face, which now seems larger, wider with exaggerated lips and eyes. My face in the mirror smiles back at me. Green eyes are greener still, and there’s light within them, light I’ve never seen before. Down my long neck and to my full breasts, my eyes scan the woman before me and I tell myself again and again that this body houses me. I look at the light blonde hairs protecting the skin on my arms and thighs. I pull my white linen dress tight and look at the outline of my hips. My gaze falls down my legs and stops with long feet planted on the hardwood floor.
I just turned twenty-seven and have hardly noticed my body before.
But I’ve let men notice it, many times, and I’ve put thousands of dollars worth of clothes on my body to make men and women notice. Only two months ago, I was in New York City doing just that, and I can’t say that I’ve changed. I don’t believe it’s possible to change. Awareness, however, is different. I’m aware that my hair made me feel beautiful, and I’m aware that it only made me feel beautiful because I had nothing else to compensate.
My kombucha mushroom finished fermenting in the black tea earlier today, and now it is ready to drink. I stare at the light brown liquid, trying not to doubt its magical powers. Not magic in the witchy sense. Magical in that Chinese Medicine has used the concoction since 250 B.C. The elixir of immortality. Best known for preventing and curing cancer. So it is magical, sort of. If nature is magic.
Drinking it detoxifies the body. I’ll start with an ounce a day and build up to a cup, hopefully. I pour the tea into a shot glass with the Empire State Building on it, grab a bottle of spring water, and walk back out to the balcony. I set the drinks on the table next to my rocking chair and prop my feet up on the wooden rail.
There isn’t a cloud in the sky. As I look out from my apartment on the second floor of this old house, I can see the tops of live oaks and magnolia trees. Below I can hear cars and trucks hustle by. I see a cardinal perched on a telephone pole, stark red against the vast blue behind him.
I sip my cold tea. It sparkles on my tongue and tastes a little sweet and a lot like cider.
As it coats my mouth, I imagine Virginia, the Blue Ridge. I see myself on top of Buffalo Mountain, alone this time, with mountaintops rolling in the distance, in every direction, like deep ocean water after it has been disturbed. Clouds fill the valleys and the wind is gentle, cool. And there I am, sitting with my palms to the earth, my fingers buried into the dirt, holding on…
A squeal of grinding brakes brings me back to the balcony, to my tea. I finish the second sip, and almost expect for the impurities to explode from the pores of my skin. Of course they don’t. And I know it will be a long process, requiring a great deal of patience I’ve never had.
I put the empty shot glass on the small table beside me and drink as much of the bottled water as I can to help the cleansing process. When I start to feel bloated, I empty the rest of the bottle onto my Aloe Vera plant. It is the only plant in my entire life I haven’t killed, and only because it requires very little attention.
Beside it, I have cups of water ready to soak the seeds I brought back from the mountains. The cups have been ready for the past week, ever since I returned from the summer.
Never before have I planted anything from seed, and I’m afraid once I soak them and put them in the dirt, they won’t grow.
I’ve brought out a pair of nail clippers and a file. In my rocking chair, I stare at my hands, my long fingers, and the white tips of my nails. As a child, my mother kept my nails long. “Beautiful hands are the sign of a lady,” she’d say. Without my nails, I’d be gross, unacceptable, perhaps like a man, but certainly not a lady. Eventually she didn’t have to remind me about the importance of keeping clean nails. I loved them.
Before I clamp down on the first pinky nail, I bring the tips of my fingers to my mouth and kiss them. I shudder when the first nail drops. But I keep going until every nail is even with the tips of my skin. I file them once. I touch my face, my thighs. Phantom nails. I imagine it is what an amputee feels when a limb is lost. I can’t look at them.
Below my balcony, I hear my neighbors shut their front door. I stand up and rest my hands on the railing. Melinda and her young daughter Betts who is seven, maybe eight, walk out to their truck. In the bed, I see a few shovels, a garden hose, and some small plants.
“Hello, Melinda,” I say.
She looks around and then looks up with one hand over her eyes to shade the sun. Rarely have I spoken to her in the year that I’ve lived above them, but she waves to me regardless and says, “Hey there, Eliza.”
“How are you?” I say.
“We’re fine,” Melinda replies. She signs and mouths to Betts who then looks up to the balcony. Her blonde hair is hidden underneath a pink floppy hat and she has a fake kitten in the front pocket of her overalls. Betts smiles and waves to me. “Well…see you later,” Melinda says.
“Have a good time.”
I sit back down in my rocking chair and pick up the brown packets of seeds. The smell of Juno’s green house—wet soil, honeyed petals—still lingers. I know the seeds must begin. After each is untied, I pull out a tiny seed from every packet. I look down to make sure Melinda and Betts are gone. Then I unite my palms and pray to the four winds that at least one will sprout. South winds bring warmth, North winds stand off, East winds bring wisdom, West winds bring strength. Pinching the sides of each packet, I let the seeds slide into different cups, then close my eyes to visualize them softening, absorbing, just like Juno said to.
Walking through the gates of Green Soul Gardening, I pass by a young couple leaving. I turn and watch the little boy, who is strapped to the husband, play with his father’s blonde curls. The wife rolls a metal crate beside them. Pots, soil, hand shovels, various plants—everything to start a patio garden. She stumbles, lightly, over a crack in the sidewalk, and he reaches to steady her. He kisses her forehead and offers his hand to roll the crate through the gravel parking lot perhaps. Smiling at her husband and at her son, she continues to pull the crate.
I’ve stared too long. Inside the nursery, I find a crate waiting for me by the herb and vegetable tables. Someone left an orchid on the crate to wilt in the sun. It found me, I suppose, so I decide to take the plant with me. I’ll take her home.
But I didn’t come for plants. I need suitable soil, manure, some lumber to create a raised bed. Behind my house there is a small plot of land where I’ll sow the soaking seeds. Days ago, I dug a hole into the earth there and checked the soil. I broke it in my hands, tasted for whether it’s bitter or sweet. It’s sandy, with some clay, and terribly bitter.
A teenage boy in a green vest walks by with a hose in hand. I stop him.
“Where would I find packaged soil?” I ask.
He puts the ring of hose on his shoulder and points in the distance, past the potted trees, bushes, and flowers. “Next to the fountains and stuff,” he says and flashes his braces before walking away to a greenhouse.
Out of the canopied section and into the August sun, I go towards the back of the nursery with the crate rolling its rusty wheels behind me. The orchid and I move down the aisle of trees. After I run the crate into a wooden platform, I look back to make sure my plant is still upright. She hasn’t fallen, and her stalk is tall, stabilized by a stick and tie. Her white blossom hangs open, and bounces as if she’s nodding.
Everything I need is one place when I reach the back of the nursery. I stroll past the selections of soil. I need three bags of the All Purpose Miracle Earth. There’s dry chicken manure as well, so I slide one off the stack and drop it on the crate.
Having never been to the Green Soul before, I wasn’t sure I’d find lumber cut in different sizes, but I do. I look around for someone to help me load the red square logs onto my crate. There are a lot of plants between the front of the nursery and me, but there are no people. I roll the crate next to the stack of logs. I slide the end of the first log onto the crate and it’s heavy. I move behind the stack to push the other end of the log toward the crate. When I push, the crate slams into a concrete fountain behind it and the orchid falls to the ground. I roll my eyes and say, “Damn,” since no one’s around. On the concrete bottom of the fountain, the orchid’s roots are separate from the pot, and its white petals are bent.
I sit on the fountain and lift the orchid to put her back in the pot. She looks crippled. I hear, “Do you some need help, Miss?” from behind me. I am unsure of where he came from, but I am glad he did.
“Yes, I think I do, Jordan” I say after glancing at his nametag. His face is round, soft, but his brown eyes seem old.
He says, “Next time, just ask for help. There’s always someone in that greenhouse.” He points away from us, but I don’t look. He and I keep eye contact for only a second longer before he asks how many logs I need.
“Four,” I say. I reach to shift my hair over one shoulder. I feel my bare neck and pause before I slide my palm down the back of my head. I stop looking at him and ask if I can help.
“No,” he says without looking up. “I’m pretty sure I’ve got it, Miss.”
When he’s finished putting the last log on, I tell him I’ll carry the orchid if he’ll wheel the cart to the check out for me. “I’ll help you load your car,” he says and leads me to the front of the nursery.
I place the orchid on the counter so I can retrieve my money. The cashier picks up my orchid and asks, “You want to buy this?”
I nod and hand her a hundred. She returns my change. Jordan wheels my supplies out to the parking lot. I open up the back of my Volvo. He loads the logs, the soil, the manure, and when he’s finished, he tells me to have a nice day. With that, he’s gone.
The orchid looks a little pathetic and tired. I put her in the passenger’s seat and turn the car on to drive home. Al Green sings “Let’s Stay Together” in his relaxed, nothing-could-upset-me way. I pull away from the gardening center ready to wait out the noonday traffic.
Short cuts helped me circumvent the lunchtime traffic, and I’m pulling into my driveway much sooner than I had expected. The last place I want to be is in the car. I park next to Melinda’s truck, a little too close. Before getting out, I shut my door again to make sure I didn’t put a noticeable dent in her passenger side door. The last first conversation I want to have with her is about something like that. I get out carefully this time and wonder where my patience had just gone. Breathe in, Breathe out, I tell myself with my eyes closed and my back leaning against the car. I repeat once, twice…there’s a tug on my dress. When I look down, Betts is staring up in pink star sunglasses and she smiles, revealing a few missing teeth. Her tiny fist reaches out to me, so I open mine and she drops white crepe myrtle petals onto my palm. I close my hand and smile back at her, but in her small face I see Summit, his face even smaller, but with the same white blonde hair. He gave me a wild lily the day I arrived in those mountains, and I miss him like I miss Jasmine, maybe more.
Betts lets go of my dress and runs away, disappearing into the shade on the side of the house. I decide not to follow her when Melinda appears from the same place.
She asks, “Is everything all right, Eliza?” from a fair distance. Betts is behind her.
I say, “Yes, Melinda…Betts gave me a flower.”
“Oh,” Melinda says and with a smile, looks down at Betts who is hugging her leg. “She saw you pull in, I guess.”
“I suppose so.”
“I had to chase her new kitten from under a bush in the front. When I looked back, she was gone.”
“She found me,” I say.
Melinda stares up at the gnarled limbs of a live oak, or at the empty blue sky. “I was so scared,” she says. Betts steps in front of her and pushes on her belly. Melinda repeats what she told me as she signs to Betts. When Melinda is through, she drops her hands. Betts looks at me as if she’s sorry or guilty, I can’t tell really.
Melinda turns to go, but she stops to say, “Sorry we bothered you.”
I am not bothered at all, and I feel bad she feels obligated to say this. Whenever she used to see me, I guess I seemed too busy.
“Actually, Melinda,” I say and she faces me again with one hand holding Betts’ shoulder. “I need some help unloading my car.” She waits. “You think you might be able to help me?”
“Sure,” she says and leads Betts over to me. As she comes closer, I see how young her face looks, and I am positive we are around the same age. She has always seemed older to me from a distance. “What’ve you got in there?” she asks as she looks through the rear window.
“Just some gardening stuff,” I say as I unlatch the door. “But the logs are heavy.”
“Wonderful,” she says and signs to Betts quickly. “Betts and I work on a garden at the community deaf center.”
“That’s very nice,” I say. I unload the bags of soil that are on top of the logs. “How do you want to do this?” I ask her.
She looks inside the car for a second and then goes around to the passenger side door. “Ill push from up here, and you pull as I do it. Then we can drag them wherever you want to put them.”
It isn’t as hard as I thought it would be, and after twenty minutes three logs are behind the house. We go back for the fourth log, which Betts is sitting on.
“No free rides for you,” Melinda says. Betts gets up and follows us as we pull the last log. Melinda says, “Hard work’s healthy.” I nod my head.
When everything is put where it needs to be, Melinda checks the sun and wipes off her brow. “I guess it’s time for supper,” she says. “If you’d like to join us, you’re welcome anytime.”
“Not tonight,” I say. I tell her that I have my dinner planned out already, but I thank her anyway. “Maybe another time.” I wave goodbye to Betts.
I turn to bring the bags of soil over by the logs, and Melinda says, “Oh, Eliza. I’ve been meaning to tell you. UPS left a package for you at my door a few weeks back, but you hadn’t been around for a while. I’m so sorry. I guess I just forgot…let me go get it.” I want to follow her when she takes Betts inside just to see their place, but I finish transporting bags and wait. I am sure my mother sent a care package.
Melinda returns with a brown box in her hands. She heads back inside after apologizing one more time. The package is from Manhattan, from Dubravko Lakos. This I did not expect. I close the back of my car, fetch the orchid and place her on top of the box. Then I carry it all up the wooden steps and into my apartment.
The best place for my new orchid is on the kitchen table for now. I place the package on the ground in the sitting room, next to the chaise lounge, and return to the kitchen to prepare my dinner. From the fridge, I pull out a package of tofu, sliced carrots, a bunch of green onions, and a banana pepper. My special rasberry ginger soy sauce concoction is in the side door and I bring it out to compliment the stir-fry. I place these on the counter next to the rice cooker. I fill the cooker with enough water and jasmine rice to feed two people, so that I may have leftovers. The glass top of the rice cooker fogs with steam and I begin to chop the onion as finely as possible. I imagine what Duby’s package could possibly contain. It is filled with dried red rose petals, handmade soaps made of sandalwood and frankencince, a bracelet, nothing extravagant, and perhaps a book. I revise my recipe and retrieve a ginger root from the metal hanging basket next to my stove. With a pearing knife, I peel it and grate the pink flesh on top of the pile of onion pieces. It comes out in strings, interconnected and hard to separate. I shake the ginger from my fingers before I open the package of tofu and pull it out, wet and on the constant verge of falling apart. As the tofu slices cleanly, I know what Duby sent is no care package, of course I know this, I do—but, even after it all, after dissapointed expectations, to receive gifts would make me happy, I think. The peppers falls away from itself in bright yellow rings, and the green onions look smarter in pieces. I bring out the wok to blend them all into one lovely whole. The ingredients sizzle in the sweet sauce and look pretty on a mound of rice, aromatic as lilacs.
I place my plate on the table, and the orchid joins me for dinner. Slowly, I eat, and forget the package. I open the Bhagavad-Gita to read and listen to Krishna speak of the grand Self as if he has joined the orchid and me for dinner and is the most engaging orator of us all. Let go of action and rewards, only function in the present moment, he tells me. Bring yourself away from the past, away from the future, and to Me. Act out of the moment’s necessity. I’ve heard it all before from him, many times, and I listen as attentively as I can, hoping the food slipping through my body will nourish it and aid in the cleansing process.
Having finished my meal, I close the book, place the dishes in the sink, and pour myself a cup of kambucha tea. I bring the orchid with me and put her on the table next to the green velvet lounge chair. I slip off my shoes and my feet hold each other. With the package in my lap, I trace the address label with my bare finger and begin to tap the box, wondering if I actually need to open it. I begin to put the package back on the floor, or in the closet perhaps, but I can’t force myself to let it be. I use the sharpened pencil on the table to puncture the tape and run it through the top of the box. A swift yank separates the flaps and there is a layer of tough brown paper. A care package would have tissue paper, pink or white. I remove it and toss it to the floor next to my bare feet.
There’s a note, but I put that aside. On top of my beige cordorroy hat, there is a ticket stub and pamphlet from the Body’s Exhibition I visited while I was in New York. There’s the ring I thought I had lost at the club in the Meat Packing District. I giggle when I see that he did send a book, two actually, Girl Talk, the one that accompanied me during my days alone, and the art book he bought for me from MOMA. A return package. Fitting.