A Blank Piece of Paper (short Story – critique)

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  • #468
    Elle
    Participant

    So I am kicking things of. I have a couple of stories I want to submit around but not being English native I want to make sure there are no grammar or spelling mistakes. Plus I want to know if the story works as I experimenting a bit with format and POV.

    Thanks for letting me know what you think.

    —————-

    Sat in the backseat of Luke’s pick-up, your first relationship smelt of leather and cold tobacco. You were ditching last period, mouths pressed against each other when his tongue pushed your lips apart, straying inside you. The surprise opened your eyes wide, but you didn’t push him away. He kept his closed and didn’t slow down. It moved around, something alive and wet like a slug, exploring the roof of your mouth, twisting itself around your tongue. You went along despite the disturbing feeling of his saliva mixing with yours. You didn’t think you were ready but maybe he knew better. He was a senior.

    Nobody wanted a girlfriend who kissed with her mouth closed. The following day, everybody looked at you differently in the school hallway, you were one of those girls now.

    ***

    Nicholas was older and sophisticated. You met him at a party a friend dragged you along under the premise that you needed cheering up. From what, you weren’t sure. You didn’t know anybody, and she had disappeared on you shortly after getting drinks from the bar. You were sitting on an emerald velvet sofa with your uninteresting glass of coke when a blond woman collapsed in the empty space next to you.

    “Don’t you think Nicholas is a babe?” She asked you, over-sized earrings pulling at her earlobes. They were made out of several hard shapes of colourful plastic held together by small metallic rings. You found them simultaneously mesmerising and appalling. You needed someone to help you form an opinion on them.

    “Who’s Nicholas?” you asked.

    “Our host. Don’t you know him?” You shook your head. “You must meet him. Here he is. Nicholas!” She waved until she caught his eye, and he came to sit next to you.

    You were the last guest to leave the party, when Nicholas led you by the hand to the café around the corner the next morning for brunch.

    His hand always guided you, walking around tables at restaurants, crossing streets, navigating the rise and fall of his naked body. Under his instruction sex was an enjoyable; the eager student you were paying attention, eager to please.

    ***

    “Everybody loves Sam,” Ashley said as you got out of her car.

    Your fate was sealed with her words. If you wanted to be anybody then you had to love Sam too.

    Sam was too much: smiles, words, energy. Loving him was exhausting, like chasing a kite in a storm. You watched him skate on a strip of asphalt, a black ribbon against the white sand of the beach. Eyes squinting hard against the sun, you molested a piece of gum while you cheered him on. Sam found smoking deeply unattractive, so you gave up that part of you for him. He rewarded you with kisses, joked that finally your mouth didn’t taste like an astray. He helped you believe you were that girl.

    ***

    Sprawled on bed, phone wedged between your shoulder and your ear, you listened to the steady flow of Ashley’s words as she filled you in about her new boss.

    “I met someone,” you said when she asked what’s new with you.

    “Oh…”

    “What?” you asked, sitting up.

    “I just got you back and you’re ready to disappear inside a new relationship.”

    “I don’ understand…”

    “Every time you have a new guy, you just get so wrapped up you forget all about your friends,” Ashley said.

    The statement angered you. You dedicated yourself to each relationship to make a success of them. You tended to them like your grandmother had looked after her bonsai trees, with minutia and care.

    Spending your weekend, hiking with Sam or dining most night with Nicholas had not been an attempt to ignore your friends. Ashley should be supportive of your happiness, not jealous. It was not about her.

    “I’m committed to my relationships but never to the detriment of my friends,” you said, lighting on a cigarette the first one since Sam ended things.

    “Anyway, do you want to catch a movie this weekend? “Ashley asked.

    “I can’t, I’m going to a Yoga retreat with Tom.”

    ***

    “What are those?” Adam asked, opening one of the last boxes you brought over. He pulled out a couple of books about Tuscany and Australia.

    “Nothing, just books,” you replied.

    “I didn’t realise you were into travel.”

    You weren’t. He had just unearthed the last relics of your relationship with Quentin. You had held on to those to remember the girl you used to be, like the blender you used with Tom gathering dust in a kitchen cupboard, or the rollerblades that had belonged to the girl you were when dating Sam.

    ***

    Nicholas loved eating out, which helped you hide pretty well your under-developed cooking skills, but you would learn to develop those for Tom.

    “What’s good here?” you asked.

    “The salmon,” he answered, his eyes still riveted to his menu.

    You flinched inside. The slimy consistency of fish irked you, as if it was a food group not to be trusted. Seafood had its fair share of culpability in a lot of food poisoning incidents.

    “What will it be for you, Miss?”

    You fingered your menu jittery at his scrutiny and request for an answer.

    “The salmon,” you blurted out.

    ***

    Online dating was a one-time disaster. You typed the website name and click on the ‘Register’ button but never got past creating your profile. The cursor blinked at you like an expectant heartbeat, waiting for your answers. ‘Describe your hobbies’ — how were you supposed to know what the right answer was?

    ***

    Sam was impossible to satisfy, always throwing his arms in the air after you answered, ‘whatever you want, baby’.

    “Come on, can’t you make any decisions? Have opinions of your own? I need someone who’s their own person,” he told you, the night he packed his bags.

    Holding back the tears, you said, “Just tell me who that is, and I’ll be that person for you.”

    He never gave you an answer and just threw his arms up in the air.

    ***

    Steve knew what he wanted, and you hadn’t learned how to say no. You sat in a room full of shadows, watching the movie he had chosen while munching on his salted popcorn. He held your hand, let you wear his varsity jacket; showing you much he liked you.

    Now it was your turn to show your affection. Taking your hand, he placed it on his zipper. Your body stiffened but it stopped there, you were the girl who wanted to make Steve happy. The rough denim grated your fingertips with every stroke.

    “What if somebody sees us?”

    “Shush. It’s fine,” he answered.

    You believed him because you had no reason not too. Afterwards, he took you for chilli fries and coke at Denny’s and he paid.

    ***

    Everything told you that the world was built for two. Down the aisle of the supermarket, you picked up packs of two steaks, two chicken breasts, before dropping the lasagne and fish pie that served two. When single you froze the second piece of meat to stop it from going off, but they never left the freezer, turning the artic drawers into a cemetery dedicated to victims of your singleton status. Tom made you clean out all the ‘bodies’ when you started dating.

    “Let’s go to the cinema,” Tom said, kissing your stomach.

    “It’s so expensive.” You would rather stay on his bed and have him kiss your stomach all night.

    “It’s Wednesday two-for-one night.” Leaving you alone in bed, he picked up his jeans from the floor and got dressed. The end of his sentences never curved into questions. His decisiveness attracted you, nestling in it you relinquished all powers to him. The surrender slowed your breath.

    “What’s on?”

    His lips on you skin all evening quickly receded in her mind, so you held on to the last kiss he had left on your skin. You don’t search for the moment it was agreed that you were going to the cinema, instead you look for a dress to slip in.

    “The Rialto’s playing A Bout de Souffle.”

    Your mouth twisted at the French title, the edges of the words blunted by an American accent.

    “Sounds great,” you said, taking the hand he extended to you.

    ***

    You sat on your daddy’s lap, this was where you started.

    “Dad, look at my drawing,” you said, tugging at the sleeve of his shirt.

    But his attention was on the match on TV, on your brother’s little league games. So, you abandoned ballet, trading pas de deux and enter-chats for shin guards and the off-side rule. You missed the pirouettes and the outfits, but your father’s eyes on you dulled the ache.

    Your adopted love of football wasn’t enough to stop him from leaving. You were too small to do it all. You didn’t speak to your mother for a month.

    “It’s your fault he left,” you shouted at her. “You didn’t try hard enough. You didn’t even try to like football,” you added, slamming your bedroom door.

    ***

    You ate your peanut butter and jelly sandwich on a park bench. You were lost and had been single for the previous three months. The longest you had gone without a defining relationship.

    Across the path, an old couple sat, close together feeding breadcrumbs to pigeons. You looked at their similar lopsided smiles, the way they both wiped their hands on their lap after throwing the crumbs. Did they start out that way or did the year together blend their features and gestures, until they melted into one another?

    ***

    You were a blank piece of paper Tom knew the right words to pen on, translated the gibberish of your emotions, underlined your flaws. Like the day you told him you saw him over by Alfredo’s. You called but he didn’t hear you.

    “That’s wasn’t me.”

    “Are you sure? You were with a colleague that blonde girl who works in sales,” you said, uncorking a bottle of red. It made a pop, the sound of a good wine, Nicholas had taught you when we were still together.

    “What are you insinuating?” He gave you a look over that shrank your spine.

    “Nothing. I just thought you didn’t hear– “

    “Please drop it. It’s getting silly, it wasn’t me.”

    You hid in your glass of red wine. Tom was correct, you were being silly. He knew you better than you did. In the end he left you as you weren’t able to be the confident woman he needed.

    ***

    You were talking to Jessica during first period recess when Robbie marched over to you. He stood legs apart, fists on his hips.

    “We need a princess,” he said, his hand closing around your wrist as he dragged your away from Jess.

    “Okay, you’re the princess now.”

    “Sure,” you replied.

    He placed you on the chessboard of his childhood, a piece he instructed and moved you around. He gave you purpose; grateful you made sure to be the best princess in need of rescue.

    ***

    You sat on the edge of Steve’s bed, making out. Door closed, his mother cooking a pot roast downstairs. His kisses were strong, bending your spine until you collapsed onto the mattress. He made you fearless because that’s what he wanted.

    His hand stroked your thigh, hitching higher until it disappeared under your skirt, finding its way to the elastic of your underwear. Because you were his girl you didn’t stop him. You didn’t regret it until you were with Jeff because he loved you so much more and made everything special.

    ***

    You were running late for work, flying down the hallway when the reflection in the mirror caught your eye. The girl staring at you in the mirror looked familiar but who was she? Nicholas’ girlfriend, or was she Luke’s. The dark circles under her eyes suggested that she might have been Sam’s.

    No, she was a nobody, one of the many unremarkable single girls, populating the sidewalks and one-bedroom apartments in the city, who ate cereal for dinner, whose place was cluttered with the vestiges of old relationships, of whom she used to be.

    #500
    JaneShuff
    Participant

    Wow. I really enjoyed this Elle. And the second person worked very well for me. It didn’t feel at all self-conscious which I think it often does. It also reads as though it was written by an English native.

    A couple of very minor points:

    Sam throws up his arms a couple of times in swift succession which jarred for me.

    This bit – His lips on you skin all evening quickly receded in her mind, so you held on to the last kiss he had left on your skin. You don’t search for the moment it was agreed that you were going to the cinema, instead you look for a dress to slip in. – It doesn’t quite make sense. I think the ‘you’ should be ‘your’ and the ‘her’ should be ‘your’ too. And you’ve slipped into the present tense in the second sentence. Even with the corrections, there’s something not quite right about the first sentence.

    On first reading that was all I picked up on. I will try and read more closely later and see if I notice anything else.

    #506
    Daedalus
    Participant

    Hi Elle, thanks for posting this, I really enjoyed reading it. There were some lovely lines. I liked ‘The ends of his sentences never curved into questions’. I loved the structure and the slow reveal through the different episodes. As Jane said, I’d never have known it wasn’t written by a native English speaker. Part of my ‘day job’ is editing books written or translated by people whose first language is not English, and I’d still never bave known. There were only a few tiny grammatical things that might benefit from some tweaks.

    ‘You met him at a party a friend dragged you along’

    Might be better as ‘along to’, or possibly just ‘to’

    ‘the eager student you were paying attention, eager to please.’

    Doesn’t quite work for me, grammatically. Perhaps ‘ever the eager student, you were paying attention…’ – and I’d suggest not repeating ‘eager’ so soon. Would be easier to change the first eager for something else, enthusiastic or diligent maybe?

    ‘Sam found smoking deeply unattractive, so you gave up that part of you for him.’

    Substitute ‘yourself’ for second ‘you’?

    ‘You tended to them like your grandmother had looked after her bonsai trees, with minutia and care.’

    Is minutia the right word? I know what you mean though. Fastidiousness perhaps?

    ‘lighting on a cigarette the first one since Sam ended things.’

    No ‘on’ necessary, comma after ‘cigarette’

    ‘which helped you hide pretty well your under-developed cooking skills,’

    Would read a little more smoothly if it was ‘which helped you hide your under-developed cooking skills pretty well‘

    ‘turning the artic drawers’

    Should be ‘Arctic’

    Hope this is helpful

    #512
    Philippa East
    Participant

    Hi Elle / L.

    I like this, I think the use of “you” works, and I like how each section is a little vignette giving further insights into how she is in different relationships. I like how you cover not only the submission in the sexual / intimate side, but across the board – hobbies, food types, etc. It’s heartbreaking how she wants the “right” answer of how she should be, and is not able to simply be herself.

    I like how you also give insights into the defining experiences making her this way, specifically her Dad leaving, and her assumption that it was because her mother did not “change” herself enough to be like him.

    I think Daeds and Jane have caught the grammar etc.

    A few minor thoughts….

    Wonder if perhaps having so many vignettes gets repetitious? If you think of each vignette being a “point” in the “line of argument” you are developing in this story, it feels a bit like you end up making the same point (“she changes to fit with her boyfriend”) too many times? There was a point in the story where I thought, “yes, alright, I get that about her, I don’t need another vignette / example of it”.

    I think it was because we reach a sort of “turning point” in the phone call with Ashley, where Ashley exposes the problem with your protagonist’s way of being in relationships. This feels a key, and very effective shift in the direction of the story (a bit like a “mid point reversal”). However, we then go on to have more examples of the same relationship pattern you described at the start, and so I felt a bit like the narrative drive stalled.

    Incidentally, I wonder if the conversation with Ashley is a little “on the nose”? Both characters state their positions very clearly, almost “formally”, saying directly exactly what they mean. These lines especially: “Every time you have a new guy, you just get so wrapped up you forget all about your friends”; and “I’m committed to my relationships but never to the detriment of my friends”.

    As a writer, I think you are actually really good at subtext, and I think this conversation would have more power if each character was more oblique, so that the subtext really screams! I think if you even just cut out the two lines above, you’d be there.

    As always, all comments are only my thoughts, and can be disregarded if they don’t chime for you. I think it’s a very insightful portrayal if this sort of relationship dynamic where a person loses all sense of themselves in the other person, and what little self they started out with gradually becomes a complete ghost.

    Do you have somewhere in mind to submit this to?

    xx

    #519
    Kate
    Participant

    Thought provoking and intriguing as usual Elle. I very much enjoyed, but I’m with Philippa that, for me, there were perhaps too many vignettes. I thought at one point that you were moving us forward through time up until the telephone conversation, and then reversing us after that, because some of the names repeated, but then I realised it was just random. So perhaps you could structurally tweak a little to avoid a meandering feel.
    As Philippa commented, the telephone conversation is a type of turning point. Could the vignettes after that have a slightly different feel to the preceding ones? As if they’re being analysed with a different eye. Or could the father section, where we discover why this started, be placed for more impact. Maybe it could be the final section before she’s single. A reflection of beginning and end? Just a thought and as usual feel free to disregard. Another nice piece.

    #597
    Elle
    Participant

    Wow, thank you guys for taking the time to read and offer feedback and suggestions. It’s all very helpful and useful to me.


    @JaneShuff
    – thanks for pointing our that sentence to me I can see how it’s confusing and needs some work. And I will correct the pronoun and tense slip!


    @Daedalus
    – the editing feedback and suggestions are great, thank you so much for those and I’m glad you’ve enjoyed the story.

    @Philippa – thanks for your feedback. You confirmed by suspicion that the phone conversation was too on the nose. It’s been nagging me. It was one of the last additions and I’m started to think that I don’t need it. You are correct the whole story hinges on the loss of identity in relationship, and self-esteem issue where you end up defining yourself through others. I agree that I don’t want to over do it with the vignettes and lose the reader’s interest. There are a few competitions coming up so I send it to some of them.

    @Kate – Thanks for reading and for your feedback. I like your idea of moving the father vignette towards the end of the story. I am starting to think that maybe the piece would be better without the phone call and only having the different relationships.

    #913
    Philippa East
    Participant

    FWIW, I actually think the phonemail is a really key pivot point! I would recommend keeping this in, and building the structure of the piece as a whole around it, as Kate highlights.
    Remember, even though this story is built of a series of vignettes, it still needs to have a narrative arc. The phone call gives you a useful turning point, and the references to experiences with her father could work in the same way. Think of these a mini ‘revelations’ which take the narrative in new directions.

    #933
    Elle
    Participant

    Thanks Philippa, the good news is that I have kept it but hopefully I’ve made it more oblique. I’ve kept it where it is in the story and I have taken Kate’s suggestion and move the father vignette towards the end as a reveal to tie it all together.

    The new phone vignette is:

    Sprawled on bed, phone wedged between your shoulder and your ear, you listened to the steady flow of Ashley’s words as she filled you in about her new boss.

    “I met someone,” you said when she asked what’s new with you.

    “Oh… that’s great.”

    “What?” you asked, lighting a cigarette the first one since Sam ended things.

    “Nothing, I’m happy for you.” Silence hardened between you; she broke it first with a laugh. “I just hate sharing you.”

    The comment unnerved you, the long drag you took from your cigarette turned your cheeks hollow. You dedicated yourself to each relationship to make a success of them. You tended to them like your grandmother had looked after her bonsai trees – with meticulous care. Ashley should be supportive of your happiness. It was not about her.

    “Anyway, do you want to catch a movie this weekend? “Ashley asked.

    “I can’t, I’m going to a Yoga retreat with Tom.”

    #935
    Philippa East
    Participant

    Yes, definetly more oblique, great. I wonder if you might change the ‘I hate sharing you’ lime (which makes Ashley sounds possessive) to something like “it’s just… you know how you get.” In other words, have Ashley referring to the problem without quite naming it…

    #937
    Elle
    Participant

    Oh I like that suggestion, thanks for that!

    #941
    Philippa East
    Participant

    Good luck for when you sub! Xx

    #1397
    Seagreen
    Participant

    Hi Elle,
    Much too late to be of any use but I thought I’d stop by and tell you I enjoyed reading it. With the suggested tweaks you have this nailed!

    #1424
    Elle
    Participant

    Thanks Seagreen, I’m happy to hear that you’ve enjoyed the read.

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