The Commuter

A short story by Meg Sorick.

There were five of them in the car as far as I could tell. Three squished in the back seat and two up front. I could hear the music blasting through the open windows. They all were singing along. Only teenagers could be that happy stuck in rush hour traffic. Lucky dogs.

We inched forward a little and I thought back to the summer between my junior and senior year of college. I had two jobs —both part time, both of them waitressing gigs— but it hadn’t prevented me from going out every night of the week. All my friends were doing the same kind of thing —working our summer jobs, sharing cheap apartments, surviving on Ramen noodles and thrift store clothes, so we had beer money instead. It might possibly have been the happiest time of my life.

In the car in front of me, the song changed and the kids sang louder. The old Chevy positively shook as they danced in their seats. I sighed. Where had the years gone?

Finally, thirty minutes later, the log jam broke and traffic started moving. I changed lanes and passed the concert on wheels. Stealing a glance over, I saw a snapshot of the past. Five carefree souls not worrying about a thing. Just you wait, my little darlings. Life is about to smack you in the face. Student loans, credit scores, mortgages, car payments, insurance, utilities, taxes…

I pulled in the driveway an hour and fifteen minutes after I left work. This commute was killing me. As I dropped my keys on the hall table and kicked off my shoes, I smelled the scent of tomatoes and garlic wafting from the kitchen. I followed my nose. My husband looked up from the stove when I entered. “Hey,” he said with a smile. “Kiss the cook?”

I kissed him, but I was distracted by the scene on the television in the corner. The news was on.

“Accident on the Schuylkill. Quite a mess,” my husband said.

The scene on TV was shot from a circling news helicopter. A crash. Two exits before mine.

“Lucky you were past it already,” he said. “Or you’d have been even later.”

I recognized the old Chevy. Life is about to smack you in the face…

(Header image thanks to Philly.com)

Perspectives

Over the last 5 years of steady writing, I find that I’m most comfortable writing from the first person perspective. That can be a good or a bad thing, depending on the kind of story I’m telling. I always sound like “me” when I write in first person. I try very hard to adapt to my vision of the character, but inevitably that character is some version of my own self. Maybe not exactly, but I guarantee that anyone who knows me well would recognize aspects of my personality shining brightly through.

Ok, so that’s fine if I’m telling a contemporary story about a white, educated, married but childless, female who lives in the Northeastern United States. But what do I do if I want to write from the perspective of a male character, or an elderly person or someone from a different race or culture? There are those who feel that everyone should stay in their own cultural lane but that’s a much bigger discussion so let’s just set it aside for a moment.

When we find ourselves developing a character very different from ourselves, often we can only use information we have either read or observed. This is unfortunately, an aspect of writing where things can go horribly wrong. I think the writer needs to tread carefully and do more than guess or assume how it feels to be someone else. Be humble enough to ask for help. Interview people of that group to ask what their experiences are. And if you don’t know anyone of a particular group well enough to ask for feedback then you probably shouldn’t be trying to write from that point of view. Let’s assume you do. Have someone like your character read a little of the story and comment on what you got right and what you got wrong. Make changes based on their feedback.

As for keeping your writing within your own cultural boundaries, I have mixed feelings on this. On one hand, I think it’s wonderful to include characters from different backgrounds in your stories, especially if that is part of your real life experience. We are creators after all, meant to be using our imaginations. On the other hand, if you get this wrong, your writing can be offensive to the people you are writing about. Now I realize that in today’s world everyone seems to be hypersensitive about everything, so it can be intimidating to write about another culture. But having a purposefully diverse cast of characters can also end up seeming patronizing. If it’s not happening naturally, don’t force it.

I think it is one of the wonderful aspects of writing: pretending to be someone else. We create whole new worlds and people them with characters developed from our creative minds. These characters deserve to be the best, most authentic versions of themselves and not stereotypes or caricatures. Which is why we, their creators, need to be certain of their perspectives.

*Header image via Pixabay

Suburban Station

Written in response to Angela’s photo prompt for Tell the Story Challenge. Her beautiful poetry can be found at Heartbreathings. As I’m in the midst of, and bogged down on both my works in progress, I was happy to attempt this piece of short fiction as an alternative. So based on the photo below, here is my story: Suburban Station.

I was a pop superstar. I had an agent and a stage name. I got discovered at age 16 when I made the cut for Next American Star and spent most of my twenties either in the studio or on the road. I was a household name. I had all the girls I could want but I never fell in love. I had a house in California and an apartment in New York. I owned three sports cars before I even got my driver’s license.

You know what comes with that kind of life. It’s a cliche, really. Late nights, parties, booze, drugs and then other drugs the next day just so you can get up to do it all over again. And of course, the inevitable hangers-on, the leeches that form your entourage, managing your affairs so you can concentrate on being creative while they suck away your fortunes. I still have some of mine. I guess I was lucky.

It’s been two years. I’m thirty-one now but I look a lot older than that. The drugs and the pills and everything else have taken a toll. One morning, I woke up and didn’t know where I was. A hotel, yes, but what city? I had stumbled to the bathroom and puked, only to find, when I pulled my head out of the toilet, some dude sleeping in the bathtub. I didn’t recognize him. Nor did I know any of the other partiers passed out in the room. Was it even my room? I checked the closet. Yeah, those were my clothes. I had to get out of here.

I left the hotel room, found out I was in Miami, and vaguely recalled playing Hard Rock Stadium the night before. I took a cab to the airport. Tour canceled, the star is unwell. That concert was my last. I fired my manager, I sold both my homes, all my cars and hoarded what was left of my wealth.

I went home to Philadelphia and bought a small townhouse. I go by my given name. At rush hour I take my guitar to Suburban Station and play for the passengers boarding the trains. Sometimes people look at me funny –like maybe I seem familiar or something. Nobody’s ever asked. The rest of the time I volunteer to teach music in after school programs for inner city kids. That’s where I met my girlfriend, Jill. She’s a teacher, too. And she’s the only one who knows my secret. I’m not sure how long my money will hold out, but for the first time in my life I am happy.

***