Exercise 9: “Write a story that involves a photo booth.”

It wasn’t really lying to say she was attached. Over the past year and a half, her Facebook status had gone from Married to In a civil union (they were, after all, being civil to each other at least), to separated, to divorced. After a time, to shut people up, she changed her status to Widowed. A few months after the divorce, when she and Buster were lying on the sofa together on a quiet Saturday night, she logged on and changed her status to In a relationship. Buster was her true love, anyway. He was loyal and cuddly and he never shouted or made her cry. They spent every waking hour together. Every sleeping hour, too. Buster snored in his sleep, and while she’d hated this about her ex, it endeared her to Buster. She rubbed his chin when he tilted his wide head to look back at her with his irresistible eyes. She was overwhelmed by love, but there were days, she admitted, when she missed having a man around, too. She changed her status to say It’s complicated.

The old strip mall nearby had hardly any stores. There was a discount grocery store, a variety store, the liquor store, Half Price Books, a hairdresser, a couple international bazaar shops, and a diner. Mostly the mall was a hangout for old people who had nothing else to do. After their perms or out for an airing, they sat at the tables situated in the middle of the mall and drank diner coffee in thick white mugs.

On Sundays most of the stores and all the offices were closed but the mall was still open because the variety shop and the diner were open. The seniors populated the tables as usual, dressed in church clothes. But otherwise the mall was empty, Musak echoing.

She knew all this because she still often went to the mall for the half-price books. She and her ex used to fill grocery bags with literary treasures. But also there was an old photo booth in the mall, down past the liquor store, in the strip where there were only offices and by the entrance no one used on Sundays. When they were first married, they’d fill their pockets with quarters and fool around in that booth, taking pictures of them kissing, him making crazy faces and feeling her up under her sweater, until soon he was bare chested and she was only in her bra. They kept quiet, their laughter sounding like gasps, even when they had a quickie in there, he daring her, she demurring at first, then sitting on his lap. Those photos show only the back of her head and some of her back, mostly, except for his hands in her hair. She has them still in a shoebox. Proof of the good old days.

That Sunday she looked at Buster and he looked at her and she said, “You wanna go for a walk? Eh, buddy? You want a walk?” Buster’s ears pricked up and he jumped off the couch on his short stubby legs. “Where’re your boots,” she said. “Go get your boots on.” Buster snorted.

Standing at the mall door with Buster on his leash, she wondered if anyone would say anything if she just walked in with him. Who would they tell? She decided she’d walk purposely, as if she was supposed to be there, as though Buster came to the mall all the time.

She levelled her gaze as she passed the old folks in sensible shoes and raincoats, but one of them said, “Excuse me, miss,” and she turned, not wanting to be rude. “I have a bulldog, too,” said a well-coiffed elderly woman. “How old is yours?”

“He’s five,” she said, not without a sense of pride. “His name is Buster.”

“He’s lovely,” said the elderly woman. “C’mere, Buster, ohhh, you’re a special little boy, aren’t you?” Buster wagged his bum and snorted, his tongue peeking out between his teeth.

They continued down the middle of the mall and turned the corner. She stopped in front of the photo booth, pausing a moment, feeling the chill of memory. She looked down at Buster, who looked up at her.

“Ready?” she said. “It’s me and you this time.”

She opened the curtain, lifted Buster, and set him down on the bench. She stepped in and closed the curtain.

“Smile, sweetheart,” she said, and she put her arm around Buster and kissed his jowls as the first light flashed.

Exercise 8: “Write a scene that uses the word ‘unicorn’. Someone has to say, ‘I thought so.’”

[Note: This is a second story using this prompt. I'm working on another that won't be posted here.]

Lucy stood in the kitchen alone. She closed her eyes and took three deep breaths. She smoothed her skirt. She tried a smile. Then she picked up the pie with one hand, the dessert plates and pie cutter with the other, and went out to the living room.

Joe and Todd had settled there with their glasses of wine, slouching on a couch. Neil lay on the floor on his left side, a hand propping his head, another on his stomach.  Renée and Charlotte had risen to help clear the table earlier but Lucy had told them to never mind, to go into the living room too.

“Who wants pie?” said Lucy cheerfully. She set it carefully down on the coffee table.

Neil groaned. “God,” he said, “that smells so good. But I don’t know if I can stuff any more in.”

“Just a little piece, then,” said Lucy.

Todd leaned forward and rubbed her shoulders as she set down the dessert plates and pie cutter. His way of telling her to relax.

“Just a sec, the forks,” said Lucy, and she shrugged off Todd’s hands and rose and went back to the kitchen.

Charlotte followed her in, a glass of red in her hand. “Okay, what’s wrong?” she asked.

“I’m fine,” said Lucy.

“You’re not fine. Come on, Luce. Seriously. As if I can’t tell.”

Lucy looked at Charlotte. She smiled thinly. “Never mind,” she said. “I’m fine.” She pulled the silver forks from their places in the velvet-lined box she’d inherited from her mother-in-law and counted out six.

Charlotte raised an eyebrow, took a sip of wine, and put a hand on Lucy’s shoulder as Lucy made to pass.

“I’m not letting you go out there before you tell me what the problem is.”

Lucy inhaled and deliberately put down the six forks on the butcher block. She moved to flick on the kettle.

“Nice top,” she said finally. “It’s from Unicorn Boutique, isn’t it.”

“Um, yes,” said Charlotte.

“Mmm. I thought so.” Lucy rummaged through a drawer for paper napkins. “You know I’ve always wanted that top, right? That’s kind of my top, in fact. I emailed the link to you, along with a few others. I’ve been talking about wanting it for weeks. Did you seriously think I wouldn’t recognize it? I swear, it’s like…every time I love something and tell you about it, you have to go out and get it first. It’s so irritating.”

“Lucy,” said Charlotte.

“Where are those forks?” Joe called.

“Coming!” said Lucy, and then, “What. It’s true. You’ve done it since grade ten. It really pisses me off.”

Renée peeked her head around the door frame. “What am I missing?”

“Nothing,” said Lucy and Charlotte.

“Doesn’t sound like nothing.”

“Just sorting out a little misunderstanding,” said Charlotte.

“There is no misunderstanding,” said Lucy.

“Oh, about the top?” asked Renée.

“How do you know?”

“Well, yeah. Lucy’s only been on about that shirt for weeks.”

“See?” Lucy couldn’t help saying it. The kettle clicked off.

“So, what? You want me to take it back to Montreal now?” asked Charlotte.

“What’s going on in here?” asked Joe.

“Nothing,” said Lucy, Charlotte, and Renée.

“Okay. So where are those forks?”

“I thought Neil said he was stuffed.”

“Yeah, well, that’s Neil. And by the time I cut it he’ll probably be fine. We want to get at that pie before it’s cold. Forks?”

Lucy pointed. Joe took the forks and made to leave the kitchen.

“Wait, there’s ice cream,” said Lucy. She took a carton of French Vanilla from the freezer and passed it to Joe.

“So now what?” asked Charlotte. “Because really, I’m not driving all the way back to Montreal to return this.”

Lucy turned to fill the teapot and collect six mugs.

“No, you’re not,” said Renée. “Char, you’re going to apologize. And get your own damn wardrobe. Lucy, you’re going to stop emailing Char the clothes you like. Why you keep doing it, I don’t know. Just stop and this won’t happen. Okay? We’re all going to go out there and stuff ourselves on pie and ice cream and get along and live happily ever after.”

Charlotte looked at Lucy. Lucy smiled.

“You’re such a bossypants,” they said to Renée.

“And you guys are such children. Now kiss and make up.”

“I’m sorry,” said Charlotte to Lucy.

“I get to borrow that top whenever I want,” said Lucy.

“Fine.”

“And a bunch of other stuff you have that I wanted.”

“Whatever,” said Charlotte, smiling and rolling her eyes.

“Now kiss,” said Neil, standing in the doorway of the kitchen.

Exercise 7: “Write a short story about diving”

Kelly hated babysitting. After that one kid, the creepy seven-year-old boy who kept wanting to do wrestling moves on her on a mattress in the family’s rec room, she’d decided that was it. Before that, she’d been caught at another job with her boyfriend, who had brought his friend over, too. While his friend sat there watching TV, her boyfriend lay with her on the sofa and tried to feel her up and French kissed her roughly till she almost choked. Later, when the parents came home, she stumbled on the explanation for the boys standing behind her, and when they called her at home to ask if she’d lost an earring, which they’d found in between the sofa cushions, she’d lied.

No more babysitting.

But this position was different. This was more like being an assistant, only to a mom who’d just had a baby and didn’t want to stop working. So Kelly would be helping with the baby and also the two-year-old boy at the house, and then she’d look after the baby at the salon the mother owned.

The mother hired her because they went to the same church, not because Kelly knew anything about taking care of an 8-week-old baby. Ida was Italian, with a crew cut, in her mid-twenties. She wore jean overalls and white tee-shirts, and smoked Benson & Hedges Menthols from a tall blue pack, and her salon sold only MAC makeup. A whole wall of it. When Kelly had gone with her to the salon for the first time, all she could think about was how great it would be to have MAC in her makeup bag.

Every day she was dropped off at Ida’s house and Ida taught her how to cook things like seaweed and how to chop carrots and celery on an angle because that made them taste sweeter. They ate gluten-free, even the two-year-old, things Kelly had never heard of before, like quinoa.

Sometimes she took the two-year-old for a stroll. She helped him on the potty, even though he made a fuss and didn’t want to go. Then she and Ida took him to daycare and drove all the way to Vaughn, forty-five minutes away, to the salon. Ida talked about her husband, Joe, about how he wanted sex all the time and how he was obsessed with her breasts because they were so full, but she didn’t want him to touch her, especially because she was sore from breastfeeding. Kelly never knew what to say. She wondered if she’d ever one day tell her husband not to touch her. She couldn’t imagine it.

In the afternoons, while Ida waxed eyebrows and chins and massaged Italian housewives’ swollen feet with essential oils, the baby would fuss and Kelly would put her in the carseat on the drier and turn the drier on. Usually the baby went to sleep. But when that didn’t work, Kelly would take her outside the salon and sit on the grass by the road and cradle her. The baby would want to nurse, and the mewling and sucking noises made Kelly uncomfortable. It was hard work taking care of someone else’s baby. Once, she sneaked a lipstick and an eyeshadow into her purse to make her feel it was all worth it.

One morning, Ida said they weren’t going to the salon and instead she wanted to drive to her friend’s cottage on Lake Ontario. She said she would still pay Kelly even though they weren’t going to work. The friend had an indoor pool, and after a while Ida told Kelly she could go swimming. The friend lent her a swimsuit and Kelly, who loved to swim but especially loved to dive, climbed the high diving board.

It was so high it almost looked as though she wouldn’t land in the pool if she jumped off. But she’d dived a million times before. She took a step forward, breathed deeply, and launched herself off that high diving board head first.

At first she wasn’t sure what had happened, but then she realized, even though she’d never broken anything before, that she’d just broken her hand, landing in the shallow end. She’d dived out too far and now her right hand was broken, throbbing with pain in the water.

Cradling her hand, Kelly walked up the shallow end steps and out of the pool and outside where her boss and her boss’s friend, Grace, lounged on deck chairs by the water. The baby was lying on a blanket in the grass.

“I think I broke my hand,” said Kelly. “I dove and hit the shallow end.”

Ida expelled cigarette smoke and shaded her eyes with her hand to look at Kelly. “Oh, god,” she said. “You’re fucking kidding me, right?”

“I don’t think so,” said Kelly.

“Shit,” said Ida. The friend said she had some Tylenol 3s and she’d get some ice to put on Kelly’s hand.

“I should probably go to the hospital,” said Kelly.

“Fuck,” said Ida. She took another drag on her cigarette. “Listen,” she said. “You can’t tell anyone you were here, okay? You can’t say it happened here.”

Kelly said nothing.

“No, seriously. I mean, please don’t sue, okay?”

Kelly thought she might laugh, but her hand, which was swelling so much she couldn’t straighten it, hurt much more now that it wasn’t under water. It was turning purple. “Okay,” she said between gritted teeth.

“Phew. Great. Okay, thanks. Um, you want a cigarette?” Ida fumbled in the pocket at the front of her overalls for her Benson & Hedges. “Seriously, have one. It might help.”

Kelly didn’t smoke but she took the cigarette anyway and let Ida hold the lighter to it. “You’ll be fine,” Ida told her. Kelly nodded. Her hand throbbed.

“Here,” Grace said, handing Kelly a glass of water and two Tylenol 3s.

“Should she take two of those?” asked Ida. Grace shrugged. “It’s broken, right?”

Kelly popped one pill in her mouth and washed it down with water. She kept the other one for later.

After two hours, Ida was ready to leave and she drove Kelly to the hospital. Kelly’s hand was so puffy it looked as though someone had blown into it to inflate it. Her head ached from the cigarette and she felt strange from the Tylenol 3. No one had offered her any food at the cottage.

Ida sat beside her in the waiting room and nursed the baby. She wasn’t shy about it. Kelly turned her head and leaned back against the wall.

“What are you going to tell your parents?” Ida asked her.

Kelly shrugged. “Just that I dove too deep and hit the bottom,” she said.

“Okay,” said Ida. “Good.” She shifted the baby, whose mouth came loose from Ida’s nipple with a pop. Ida latched her on again. “The diving board was probably out too far, or it shouldn’t have been so high.”

“It’s okay,” said Kelly.

“I’m sorry,” Ida said.

I’ll bet you are, thought Kelly.

Five hours and some x-rays later, it was confirmed that Kelly had broken her hand. She got a cast. All the way to Kelly’s house, Ida freaked out and made Kelly promise not to get her and Grace in trouble. Then she told Kelly she wouldn’t need her to help out anymore.

Kelly’s dad was in the garage when they drove up. Ida stayed in the car and drove off when Kelly got out. “What did you do this time?” her dad asked, smiling at the cast.

Kelly shrugged. “Ida took me to her friend’s cottage instead of going to work and they had an indoor pool and when I dove off the high diving board, I hit the bottom and broke my hand.”

“Good thing it was only your hand,” her dad said.

In her basement bedroom with the door closed, Kelly took out her makeup bag and dumped its contents on her bed. She sorted through the MAC lipsticks, eyeliners, eye shadows, and polishes she’d lifted from the salon when Ida wasn’t looking. If Ida hadn’t taken her along to that cottage, Kelly never would have broken her hand, or lost her job. She picked up one of the lipsticks and popped off the lid with her left hand. She smelled it, smeared it on her lips, smiled.

Exercise 6: “Write a scene that uses the words smitten, Carter, and waffle.”

His wife poured orange juice into small glasses as she talked, slopping a little onto the tablecloth when she raised the jug to gesticulate. The frozen waffles he’d stuck in the toaster popped up.

“I’ll get them! Sit,” said his wife. She swung the jug to the counter but did not put it down, grabbed the waffles with one hand and tossed them to his plate. “Ouch. Hot.”

Before he could get up, his wife pivoted to the counter again, swiped the butter, pushed the glass container to him across the table. “So!” she said.

This “so!” this tiny word, made his heart sink. It was the way she said it. As though she wanted something from him he was not going to like.

“Will Ferrell has a new movie out! I want to see it.”

Ah. He spread a little too much butter across his waffles, watched the divots in them fill, felt briefly rebellious about it. Will Ferrell. Always with Mr. Ferrell. His wife was smitten with this man, an actor whose squinty eyes he found beady, whose pasty body made him want to punch the man’s gut. He flipped open the cap on the Aunt Jemima.

“Yes,” his wife was saying, cutting enthusiastically into her egg. “It’s called Everything Must Go, and it’s based on a short story by that guy you like so much, the guy who always writes about drinking whiskey. Every story! You know the one…Carter.”

“Carver,” he said, his mouth full.

“Hmm? Yes, that’s what I said. Carter. Anyway, you could take me. You can read the story and take me. I’m sure you’ll like it.”

In the den after breakfast, he pulled a volume of Ray’s stories from the shelf. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. He knew the story she meant, he saw the preview for the film at Teddy’s. They were watching the ballgame, drinking a couple of beers. Teddy flicked through the channels when a commercial came on. He stopped to watch the ad for the movie. Teddy said, “That Will Ferrell, he’s the one Gloria likes, isn’t he?”

He sank into the leather sofa and set the book on his lap while he lit a cigarette. He opened the book to the first story. “Why Don’t You Dance?” It was a strange title. He would have called it something else.

It was short all right, that story. How they could make a whole film out of it was beyond him. But they had, and Gloria wanted him to take her, so he could watch her eyes light up when Mr Ferrell came on screen, those lights that faded again on the drive home. He was sad about it. He imagined Gloria leaving him, all the stuff in the house ending up in the front yard, like in the story. Everything except the Will Ferrell DVDs. He imagined getting drunk on the lawn. He’d drink a whole bottle of whiskey, maybe.

The one thing he would not do was dance.

 

 

Exercise 5: “Write a scene that involves bird feathers.”

He knows that bang with a pang in his heart. He hears it, winces to hear it again, only not so hard, and hastens from the kitchen table to the picture window in the living room. Yes. There is the small oily imprint of a bird, wings spread, on the glass. Down feathers swirl in the October wind like Christmas snowflakes, away from the window and into the garden. The dog stares at something he can’t yet see but she tells him instantly what he needs to know.

Seconds it takes him, to register everything and burst out the door in bare feet, onto the cold, wet grass and to the garden. A female house sparrow sits on the brick ledge, resting her belly on her feet, dazed and thus unperturbed by his proximity. He edges closer, he deliberates, as he always does: will he give her a heart attack if he attempts to help her, or should he bring her down to the ground, give her warmth?

Her eyes slowly close. “Stay with me. Please don’t die,” he says. This happens often enough, has happened all his life—as kids, his brother and he rescued stunned birds and put them in shoeboxes lined with dishtowels—and yet each time is new and plagued with uncertainty. He reaches, lifts the bird gingerly, goes and sits on the porch, cups his hands around her in his lap. Her feathers are so soft, she so weightless he barely feels her. He sets her on the cement beside him.

Such a delicate thing; he thinks that at any moment she may keel over. He prods her because she’s leaning to one side. “Listen,” he whispers. “Hear those other birds out there? They’re like you. They’re calling to you. Stay awake. You’re okay, you’re okay, you will be okay.” The dog watches intently from behind the screen door; she sniffles. The sparrow’s eyes grow small.

Another sparrow, flying close, catches her attention. She opens her chestnut brown eyes and swivels her neck. Within seconds she becomes alert. He marvels at how close he can be now, how he can study her details. He moves to touch a wayward feather.

And then there is a hop, a lopsided attempt at flight. She waits as though catching her balance, her breath, hops again. And suddenly she is gone, indiscernable from the others. He looks to her imprint on the window.

Exercise 4: “Write it in the second person”

Toronto

You should be sleeping. It’s only your second morning in Toronto and already you look and feel like a spent hooker coming down. Your body aches, your throat is parched, your head pounds. You sit up in bed—where you have slept alone because you’re visiting your sister and she is sleeping on the couch in the living room—and reach for your immune booster pills. There are three different ones. Including your digestive enzymes and your homeopathic tinctures, this is as close to a druggy as you’ll ever get.

Your sister and you are close, even though you are the oldest and she is the youngest of four girls. Growing up, you got along best, perhaps because she was the only one who seemed then to share and be receptive to your profound love of books and stories. Never mind paper dolls; you and she used to lie on her bed or the floor and you read to her from Dickens.

Somewhere along the way, however, you became delicate, neurotic, afraid, self-deprecating, judgmental, whereas she blossomed into a young confident women, slender and intelligent, not afraid to live among trannies and damaged men who with crazed eyes solicit sex in such a way that makes you throw up in your mouth and almost run with palpitating heart to hide.

You feel old and embarrassed. Every time you come here you act like a tourist and vocalize everything you feel and smell. The city affronts your senses. You feel overstimulated but not in a good way. Your pupils dilate. You smell feces and breath and strong perfume and a million different foods. It makes you nauseated.

But there is beauty in the city, it is not lost on you. You are just too goddamn tired to fully appreciate it, to let it override the overwhelming crowds of people, the wearisome fact that you feel as though simply being polite and considerate, quieter and not aggressive, not frantic, not so fashion conscious or appearance proud, not a coffee drinker, has set you apart as the country bumpkin. You are alien here. You cannot fathom how people can harden themselves enough to choose this place as home.

In Hart House you and your sister sit for long hours on fold-out chairs and listen to panelists debate current affairs and authors read from their good books. You take note as they assume their Reading Voice, watch as they adjust or peer over the top of their trendy eyeglass frames, as they sip water at the exact right time in the text; you notice what they wear, memorize what they choose to read, how they choose to read it. You judge.

And then you picture yourself up there, seasoned and not nervous, enjoying yourself as you read aloud from your own book marked with torn strips of Post It notes, as you introduce the story. They laugh, they appreciate. You are good at this.

You look around you at the sea of black attire, the stylish hair, trendy quality shoes and mostly red handbags, cashmere scarves around those educated necks. You feel as though you are watching a runway show as they walk by and find a seat, you keenly aware of how normal this is to them, how utterly abnormal to you to see citizens in something other than cheap clothes from Wal-Mart, clutching PVC purses and reeking like cigarette smoke. The Converse shoes you thought you wanted are so plentiful here you’ve decided you don’t want them anymore.

All your eight years in Belleville on the Bay of Quinte, in that relatively quiet town of 46,000, you’ve wanted to get away. You long for class and intelligent people, you long for educated discussions on books and art and theology, you wish for cafés and vegetarian restaurants, for outdoor markets and shops where you can find quality accessories, stylish clothing, petite pants that fit. Most of all you long for inspiration, and you are crushed, troubled, disturbed to find that it is in this city you find characters and stories with every step. It is here, in this mishmash of faces and odours, this conglomeration of cultures, that you understand why writers live in cities. The stench, the squeezing panic of so many bodies in one place, is a fair tradeoff for the ideas, the stories that flood your mind. A well-suited black man in front of Negroni on College, which you naively, romantically, imagine is a black jazz bar but is in fact an Italian panini shop, transports you with his amber eyes to 1930s Berlin; in that split second as you pass by, you imagine soulfully played jazz, feet tapping in a haze of cigarette smoke in the room at the bottom of the stairs at the back of the shop. Shit only a white person would think, it occurs to you, and you turn from your daydream, embarrassed.

You are naive about the city, about its workings. You confuse Nathan Phillips Square with Madison Square Gardens, you gape at and feel threatened by skyscrapers, you fumble your change on the tram after panicking about crossing lanes of traffic to get on. You are afraid of getting lost, of wandering psychiatric patients, of not knowing how exactly one must conduct themselves at a hip café. To fit in, you must buy a newspaper, your shoes must not be from Payless, and you must carry a handbag worthy of recognition. Perhaps you should take up smoking Benson & Hedges and drinking venti non-fat, lactose-free (even though you’re not), half-caff, sugar-free hazelnut latte, hold the foam, and cinnamon on top.

But you don’t want to fit in; you want to go home. You want to go back to the town you actually hate, because there at least are familiar faces, old loves, things you can afford. There at least your handbag looks expensive. There you don’t say stupid things, because you are more educated than the average person. There it smells of water and frogs and green and you can at least avoid the dirty slobs who piss on library chairs—whereas in the city it’s difficult to avoid anyone—and instead sit in your backyard and goodnaturedly curse the squirrels eating your tulips. You don’t belong there, either, for various reasons, but until you determine who you are and what you want, you will not ever know for sure where you can comfortably call home.

 

 

Exercise 3: “Write a scene in which a character teaches someone how to do something”

What he wanted was to show her how to properly play baseball, his favourite, but he knew she wouldn’t allow it. Ella was fiercely proud of her fielding skills, even though all it meant was running back and forth across the grass to catch his fly balls. She’d made some spectacular catches, he admitted, but her batting needed work.

Ella told him she wanted him to teach her how to play golf. He was an encyclopaedia of sports and he spent a great deal of time watching them on TV. He could teach her, he knew, even though he’d played only a couple of times. But he also knew that her determination to be instantly great at everything was going to set her back. He’d been through this before.

On Saturday, he took her to their high school football field, armed with a 3-iron, a pitching wedge, and a few balls. And a couple cans of beer he’d thrown last minute into his bookbag, for fortitude. Or to celebrate, depending.

Ella was dressed in a hoodie and track pants. She’d pulled back her dirty blond hair into a high ponytail. He set a tee in the ground and placed a ball on top. She moved to take a club.

“Wait,” he said, holding her arm. “You want to choose the right iron for your shot. Each one has a specific purpose.”

“Right. Okay. So?”

“So first we start with what each club is for. We’ll start with these two because that’s all I could find.” He held up the 3-iron and pointed to the number on the sole of the club. “This is a 3-iron, and you know because it tells you.”

Ella nodded, crossing her arms and shifting her weight to one leg. He picked up the pace. “A 3-iron is basically for when you want to hit the ball far, like 150 yards.”

“I don’t know what that is,” said Ella.

“Okay, like from here to that post over there,” he said. “Now. Technically, you should be starting with a shorter iron because it’s easier—”

“Give me that thing,” Ella said, taking it from his hand. “I just want to hit the ball.” She swung the club as though swinging a baseball bat, and then stepped up beside the tee. He kept his mouth shut.

Ella swung hard at the ball and missed. “Fuck,” she said, and quickly set up to try again. He stepped forward and she put out a hand to stop him. She pressed her lips together. He knew that look and retreated. She swung again and hit the ball but it didn’t go very far.

“Stop trying to clobber it. It’s the same as baseball. Don’t worry about sending it far, just focus on hitting it right. Like with baseball, you want to focus on your swing. Where you hit the ball determines where it goes. The iron helps you with that, too.” He kept his tone gentle. He didn’t want to get too technical. She wasn’t even listening.

Ella swung again, with no better luck. He watched her breathe deeply and suck in her lips and tuck a loose strand of hair behind her ear. This was her on the brink. He’d seen her lose her temper when she failed at something. It wasn’t pretty, but he knew how to handle it.

“Can I ask you something?” he said, sitting on the grass. Already he could crack open that beer.

“What?” She didn’t look up.

“Why golf? Why anything? Why do you ask me to teach you and then you don’t want to actually learn?”

Ella said nothing. She took another practice shot and stepped up to the tee. They had only three balls and this was the last one before she’d have to run to retrieve them. She shifted her weight back and forth on her feet. He watched her hips and found himself wanting to put his hands on them. Ella made the swing count. He smiled. This happened every time, whatever it was he was “teaching” her; it was as though she had suddenly instinctively known the biomechanics of the swing. Her form wasn’t bad and he hadn’t even got to that part. The ball soared into the air.

“Nice,” he said. She turned to him, pleased.

“Luck,” he said, as he always did. She stuck out her tongue at him and ran to get the balls.

It was fall and though the air was fresh, the sun warmed his back and he stretched out his legs on the grass, propping himself up on his arms. He watched Ella jog, her ponytail swinging back and forth. He loved her, that much he had figured out. But while they were always together, she letting him practise his pitching on her, he testing her limits, watching her rage with frustration then making her laugh, she coming to his hockey games, sleeping over in his overheated waterbed on the nights she was locked out of her house while he slept on the floor, her hand flung over the edge of the bed, lightly, absent-mindedly scratching the back of his neck as though to put herself to sleep, he had no idea how she felt.

Ella stood in front of him, the sun in her face.

“What,” he said.

“Stop being lazy. Get up.  Tell me what this other club is for.”

“It’s extra,” he said. “For beating you when you miss a shot. It’s to keep you in line when you start getting all frustrated.”

“Har har. Very funny,” she said.

He grinned. “Wanna beer?”

“No.”

“What do you want?”

“I want you to tell me what this club is for.”

“No,” he said, feeling his heart begin to pound. “I mean, what do you really want?”

Ella crossed her arms over her chest. “What are you getting at, Will?”

He looked up at her, wanting to catch her hand and pull her down to sit with him. He wanted to say, “Do you love me,” or “I love you, Ella.” He wanted to kiss those stubborn, determined lips and in that kiss feel that same drive with which she did everything. But it was a bad idea.

“Nothing,” he said. “C’mon, pull me up.” He extended his hand. She grabbed it and yanked him to his feet.

“Are you going to teach me or what?”

He didn’t answer at first. Then he said, “Only if you promise to listen.”

Exercise 2: “Write from the point of view of a dog in an apartment”

What the Dog Saw

It’s not an ideal view for a dog, out this window, across from another building decorated with rusty fire escapes. There are no trees, no birds, there is no grass on which she could wish to roll around. But staring out the window is what dogs do, so she does this, day after day while Lily is at work and she is alone in their apartment. There is a cat who sits in a distant window, looking her way as if taunting her, but she is tired of him now. She lets her eyes close.

That morning, as she did every morning, Lily had patted her head and slipped her ears through her hands and said, “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do, okay?” and then, “I’ll be back, sweetie, I’ll be back.” Lily always looks her straight in the eyes when she says this, making sure Lucy understands. When the door had closed, Lucy had turned around and hopped up on the couch, as usual, where she spent most of the day, either staring out the window or sleeping.

A noise wakes her, her ears prick up, she opens her eyes and lifts her head from the arm of the couch. The curtains are usually closed in the window across from theirs a storey above, but today they are open. Ambient noise from the busy street close by, horns, a yell, the general swoosh of vehicles. But there was something else, she had heard it.

Then she sees it, or something else, another thing. A shoe flies out the window, bangs its way down the fire escape, stops upside down on a landing. Someone is screaming but being a dog she doesn’t know what the person is saying. She knows rage, though, when she hears it. She remembers it from before this life.

She continues to watch the window, her ears lying back and flat, as more objects are jettisoned: a picture frame, a keyboard, an alarm clock, things she does not know but recognizes—a shirt flutters its way to the littered pavement below. Still she sees no one. And there is only one voice, a high-pitched female voice, obviously unhappy.

Lucy does nothing. What can she do but watch? She understands only that someone is angry, that the violent banging frightens her, that something is not right. This causes her to shake slightly and begin to pant. She can sense the emotion. But there is nothing she can say, no one she could tell anyway.

A lamp crashes on the metal ladder across the way. A heavy, unzipped duffle bag lets loose its guts on the way down. And suddenly a head, long hair framing a red face looking down. Lucy’s ears prick up again, but the woman makes no sound. There is a shadow behind her and her head disappears. In its place is the torso of another woman, leaning on the window ledge. She too looks down. Lucy sees her face is wet.

Later, when Lily comes home from work, Lucy is glad to see her. She twists her body back and forth and grunts happily, sidestepping towards her. Lily dumps her bags and scratches Lucy’s rump and lets her lick her chin and says, “Hi baby! How was your day, sweets? Anything exciting happen while I was gone? Eh? Anything you want to tell me about?”

Exercise 1: “Write a scene in which someone is kissed for the first time”

[Steph: Or two scenes, perhaps straying a little from the prompt, and one in which someone is almost kissed for the first time.]

Boy

She is his first girlfriend. In the morning, he showers longer than he used to, plans his clothes with better care, turning up the collars of his golf shirt, spritzing on cologne. He remembers to brush his teeth after breakfast.

At school he holds the door, her books, her lunch, her hand. He sits beside her in the caf, arm casually around her shoulder, just so, conscious of how he looks, how she looks, pert breasts pushing against her tight tee-shirt, how she smells like strawberry lip gloss and cotton candy perfume—

In the dark, all pretence gone, he relaxes, fumbles, kisses her shyly, says in her ear what he thinks she’d like to hear. He is sweet, and she will remember this.

The Thing Is

You lean in to kiss her and just as she closes her eyes you think better of it and sit back. Everyone kisses on impulse and you know too many people who regret it. The thing is, this doesn’t have to be a romance. It’s just expected in some way by the unseen watching your story unfold. It’s not unlikely you might fall in love but it’s not only too soon, it’s cliché, and if there’s anything you’ve learned about living out a story, it’s that clichés may be long-lasting but they quickly become uninteresting and naturally predictable, even if the endless variations on a theme continue to impress those who think they’re art. This is real life, not some romantic comedy in which characters profess their love for each other, actually using the word love, after a mere afternoon of fun. No, you decide, today your lips are sealed.

She opens her eyes and you grab her hand. Let’s go out, you say.