“This week’s writing challenge: Tell us about a character in your life. It could be your best friend, your partner, your child, or even your third grade teacher. With as much detail as possible, make this person real for us. Tell us more than what they look like or how you met. Let us know what their laugh sounds like, or that oddball quirk that makes this person so unique.”
Hmm… bringing characters to life is not my strong suit, which is maybe why it took me two whole books to do a decent job of representing the easiest character of all: myself. But in honor of this week’s holiday, let me try and do a brief sketch of my Valentine.
She didn’t like what I wrote about her in my first book.
“You do a better job of writing every other girl you’ve ever been with. When it comes to me, the writing is shallow and glib! You only talk about my circumstances… I know you know me well – better than anyone maybe – why didn’t you write about me?”
She’s not the type to complain or take me to task very often, so I knew she meant what she was saying and felt it deeply. And I knew she was right. Looking into her troubled face, right into the depths of her almond eyes, I apologized. I can do better, I told her, and I will.
Fortunately, the manuscript hadn’t gone to press yet, so I still had time to rewrite.
“I know,” I wrote, “how lucky I am to have this vibrant, strong, supportive woman in my life.”
It wasn’t enough. Not nearly.
“She belches and curses like a sailor and I love her for it,” I wrote.
Not nearly enough.
What I wanted to convey was her passion and her fortitude… her deep pain at living here in the Midwest, so far away from her mother, brother, aunts, cousins, and friends back in Brooklyn… and the profound, playful joy which she exudes when she’s with her daughters, which she instills in them and fuels them with. She’ll roll on the floor with her eight-year-old like a woman half her age. She’ll walk three miles in the cold to meet her sixteen-year-old when she gets off work, so the kid doesn’t have to walk home alone in the dark.
I tried to find a way to make my readers know how simultaneously sincere and hilarious she is, how she sets her pretty jaw in the face of hardship, making ends meet through sheer will and ingenuity. She cleans like a fiend, rearranges the furniture weekly, and brushes her teeth several times a day, yet she can be mellow as a turtle too. She reads the Bible and prays her heart out and attends a different church every Sunday, it seems.
She left me one winter, just after the holidays. She was at a despondent low over being apart from her family and I was no substitute. I missed her awfully, and her girls, but soldiered on. When she showed up at my job a couple of months later, it was like dark clouds breaking to let the sun shine through. She wanted me back! She’d done a little online dating, and the men she’d met had made her miss me.
“One of them lived with his mother,” she told me, her full voice brimming with mirth, “and another one stopped in the street while we were walking, picked up a cigarette butt and put it in his pocket for later!”
I thanked my lucky stars for her misfortunes in trying to replace me, and invited her over for dinner. She wore a summer dress that evening, even though it was early spring. We had fat steaks and dry red wine and the conversation flowed easily, and I felt so in love with her that I wanted to laugh out loud, or cry.
There’s plenty more: how brave she is to be back in school – it’s been twenty years since she last sat in a classroom; how she revels in nature, letting her thick, dark hair down and taking off her shoes so she can feel the grass and leaves and good dirt on her feet; the song she made up to teach her children about God (God is black, God is white, God is a little beam of light…); the journals she keeps; the silly little voices she does that somehow melt all tension and can turn a long, hard day into a picnic.
All this and then some, I wanted to write, but couldn’t find a way. “She’s a Puerto Rican powerhouse” was all I could think to say. I did manage to make mention of how much easier it is to talk to her than it ever has been with another woman. And how being with her makes me feel alive. But those things are about me, not her.
Oh well, there’s always the next book. Life is long, and loving Victoria makes it all worthwhile.