As I Draft: Choosing One Story (but Writing Two)

In Kuwait I got massage from a Filipino woman named ­Charo. (Her name is not Charo). In our time together she told me stories about arriving to Kuwait, working for an abusive family, finding placement in salons, learning massage, supporting her family back home. For a few years I thought about how to make a story of that story. I was naked. She was clothed. Something about that dynamic – the physical reversal of constructed authority (me, a white woman in the hands of brown woman in a country where racism was daily apparent) and Charo’s interruption of the usual relationship between masseuse and client, her filling all the silence with her story so that I had to listen – something about that dynamic is powerful.

I began to draft the story and yesterday I thought there should be something else happening to the narrator too. Like Charo’s story is a contrast or complement to another narrative. Many of my stories are like this: two or three lines to trace through. One of the stories I submitted to winter workshop is about a woman looking for the hottest water at a public bath in Budapest. But inside that story is another, of the trauma she carries around. Because that is how it works to be a person: we walk through good and terrible days carrying a bunch of good and terrible things.

And events or emotions entangle. I appreciate and examine the complication. There was a year when I wanted to have an affair. That same year a friend’s infant died. When I think of one, I often think of the other. Or when I remember traveling to Australia, I go my grandfather. We were at the gate when I saw my mother’s email. When I think of Australia, I think of a twinned narrative: that I might have canceled a plan and gone home to Wisconsin winter instead. When I think of Australia, I am seven, balancing on the crossbar of Grandpa’s ten-speed, racing down the hill. There was wind and his perspiration and the command not to fidget.

So yesterday I thought about what to add to this Charo story. Give the narrator a separate experience. Entwine the two. But I wonder if the better story is to understate the narrator’s separate life: it is there, given in a few lucid details, but not brought forward.

I consider who is telling the story. And whose story am I telling. The narrator is a white woman like me. I want her to listen like I listened to Charo. How do I write to make the narrator listen, to let the reader hear too? I think now this story is still an entanglement of two: listening is its own story.

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