Continuing the series of writing exercises inspired by Susan Breen’s The Fiction Class, today we are moving on to revision. For more information on the book and this series of posts, please check out the original book review here.
Revision: This is an exercise in learning to find creative solutions or how to write yourself out of a corner. There is a man sitting in a tree, and he is wearing a tutu. What happened?*
A Tutu, Interrupted
He was sitting in a tree. In a tutu. With his arms crossed.
“Come down from there.”
“I will not.”
“John, stop being ridiculous, you look like an idiot, please come down from that tree so we can talk about this…”
Amanda’s weary voice carried easily through the crisp night air. She had been trying to persuade her husband to climb out of the tree for the past forty-seven minutes, and her patience – never thick at the best of times – was worn to a whisper-thin patina that barely managed to cover her unraveling temper. At this point, only her abiding love – and increasing concern for her husband’s mental health – kept her from losing the last thread of said temper altogether.
John refolded his arms over the baby-pink tutu and, sighing, turned his head away. Away from Amanda and her temper, which he knew she would not be able to hold in check for much longer. Away from the house and its three sleeping inhabitants, whose schedules, events, classes, games, recitals, rehearsals, costumes, uniforms, equipment, and shoes (oh god, especially the shoes!) were responsible for the tutu, if not the tree. Away from the responsibilities and obligations and covenants and contracts that had been threatening to overwhelm him ever since she talked him into moving to this stupid town.
He knew he was being childish. Despite what he may have looked like, John was in fact not an idiot. He knew it was ridiculous to refuse to talk to his wife about how he was feeling. He should have told her long ago how this was all more than he had bargained for, how he couldn’t spend the rest of his life trying to live up to the Joneses. Actually, around here it was more likely to be the Van der Geldens or the Smythe-Findleys or some other inane combination of syllables – there was nothing so prosaic as a “Jones” within fifty miles, John was sure of it.
If there had been a Jones or a Smith or a Brown, a regular family full of regular people who didn’t spend all their time obsessing about the right clothes or car, the proper activities or lessons, or whether their child was wait-listed for the best college when they were only six damn years old, well then he probably wouldn’t be sitting in this tree at all. No sir, then he’d be laying in his bed beside the wife he adored, hitting the snooze button a few more times before they both had to get up to get their regular kids ready for public school. They’d be whispering about who was going to make the peanut butter sandwiches, whether Molly, their youngest, would insist on taking her blanky to kindergarten again today, whether Kevin, their oldest, would decide to try out for varsity soccer this year or play another year of J.V., and whether Emily, the middle child, would stay this serious about ballet forever or if it was just a passing fancy based on frilly pink tutus.
Instead, here he was in a damn tutu. In a damn tree. Pitching a fit worthy of the most obnoxious five-year old he could imagine. Here he sat, harrumphing into his daughter’s tutu – a seventy-six dollar mountain of pale pink ruffles that he was now going to have to replace, because his middle-aged dad belly was decidedly not made to the same proportions as his seven-year old daughter’s.
John knew it was foolish to blame Amanda for this mess. She didn’t really “talk him into” anything – at least not anything he wasn’t willing to be talked into. When her oldest sister moved to Barrow, Massachusetts, Amanda was so taken by the descriptions of the quaint old-money town – hell, they both were – that they had to visit. To be fair, they had both fallen a little bit in love with the cobblestone streets and the brick townhouses. True, Amanda fell more than a little bit, but John had let her sweep him along in her fantasy about life in a good old-fashioned northern town readily enough. He was already working from home three days a week; it didn’t take much to talk his boss into letting him make the switch to full-time home-office employment. And his new location put him that much closer to one of the firm’s largest accounts in Boston. So the whole Barrow thing really wasn’t Amanda’s fault.
It wasn’t her fault the kids wanted to get involved in everything either. It was natural, new town, new school. They needed ways to meet people, and getting involved seemed the perfect opportunity to find new friends. And if John and Amanda didn’t entirely realize what “getting involved” meant in a “good, old-fashioned northern town like Barrow, well, they certainly learned quickly enough.
This was not the only lesson they learned quickly. Oh no, not by a long shot. They also learned about the importance of the color and texture of their grass, the shape and density of their hedges, and the proper alignment of a car in a driveway. Speaking of cars, they also learned that old cars really needed to be garaged during the day, and that new cars needed to be washed and waxed on a regular (translation: bi-weekly) basis. Other important lessons on the proper way to live in Barrow addressed the cut and color of blue jeans (blue jeans!), tread of bicycle tires, cleat height and material for soccer shoes (excuse me, turf shoes), weight of cotton t-shirts, hour of yardwork, way to call your children in for dinner (no yelling, please, the neighborhood really prefers that you use a bell or designated special sound), and – above all – the proper etiquette for delivering your children to their back-to-back lessons, games, and rehearsals.
It was this last bit that really pushed John over the edge and led to the tutu-tree incident. He was fine with the procedure, really he was, he just wanted to see his little girl dance. Just one day. So he walked his Emily inside, as per usual, and then sat down. In the dance studio. The land of mothers. As he settled his dad-butt into the unbelievably uncomfortable molded plastic chairs he should have realized that they were obviously not designed for dad butts. But John was a man on a mission, and his mission was to watch his daughter and nothing so simple as a pinching plastic chair was going to stop him. The class was milling about, slipping off designer tennis shoes (no sneakers for these girls, no sirree!) and Ugg boots and pulling on obscenely expensive frail pink ballet slippers. John figured it would take the girls another few minutes to get going, so he pulled out his iPad and settled in to get a few emails off and a few to-do list items completed before the class.
And then it began.
The coughing, the shuffling, the uncomfortable awkward noise-then-silence of twelve perfectly coiffed, attired, and postured mothers. They would never be so gouche as to whisper or, saints forfend!, say anything to John’s face. They didn’t have to. Their chilly almost-smiles that didn’t come within a mile of their wrinkle-free eyes said more than enough. And in case John missed this wordless messages, there were plenty of twitchy leg crossings and re-crossings, fluttery hand movements, forced half-smiles and just-this-side-of-disapproving glances at his iPad to accompany them. It was the most uncomfortable hour John had ever spent in the company of women. At the conclusion of the lesson, as he collected his little girl and carried her bag to the car, he heard the plaintive voice of Harper, one of the other girls in Emily’s class, as she asked her mummy what Emily’s daddy was doing there. Her mummy (Preston – seriously, who named these people?) replied in a voice that would make liquid nitrogen look warm, “I do NOT know, but really, what could he have been thinking? How inappropriate, to be a grown man watching young women dance.”
John’s daughter Emily, one of the “young women” at issue, was seven.
When John got home that evening, he was mad. Mad that he had let the remark go unremarked upon. Mad that anyone considered it “inappropriate” for a father to want to watch his little girl do something she loved. Mad that he was expected to spend his time ferrying children to activities that he was supposed to pay for but never witness. Mad that he lived in a place peopled by Prestons and Shaws. Mad that everything about Barrow was different than he had expected. Mad that he worked night and day to buy the right things and meet the ridiculous standards of the community and that he was still judged lacking and made to feel uncomfortable by the members of said community. And so he gave Amanda an earful.
Amanda, having suffered her own indignities at the hands of the mummy crowd more than once, did not have a lot of patience for John’s anger. She too had found Barrow to be both a little more and a little less than she had bargained for, but after all of the changes and efforts that had been made to relocate and resettle her family, she was not about to admit this to John. Admission would be tantamount to defeat, and Amanda was not prepared to let these people in this town win. Not yet. Still, she was not entirely happy there. In fact, the only reason she had been brave-facing it quite as strongly as she had, was because she thought John and the kids were happy. Hearing John’s tirade about all of the things that had been grating on her own nerves should have made her smile and brought the couple to a shared realization that maybe this move had not worked out, and maybe they should consider doing something about that fact. Instead, however, it poked at Amanda’s own rough-edged nerves. And so she did something she almost never did. She snapped.
“Oh for pete’s sake, John, let it go. If you can’t handle driving Emily to dance, I’ll do it. It’s not all about you or the tutus you know… Just go outside and walk it off.”
And then, well, John snapped.
He stormed upstairs, Emily’s dance bag still in his hand. And then stormed right back downstairs, wearing said tutu. “Maybe it IS all about me and the tutus,” he fumed. And with that he did go outside. He tried to walk it off, but just got angrier and angrier as each turn of his walk brought him face-to-face with another neighbor’s house. John knew that if he had to look at one more Muffy, Buffy, or Chad home, he could not be held accountable for his actions. So he went to the one place in the yard that he knew would offer an obstructed view and a place to cool down. The kids’ tree house, conveniently located in the large oak tree that sat just to the left of the house.
The tree he was sitting in still. In a tutu. With his arms crossed. With no idea on earth what he would do next…
*Note that this started out as a short writing exercise, and turned into an almost 2000 word story. No wonder I can’t finish a book – I keep getting side-tracked!