PPRL: A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain, by Robert Olen Butler (winner, 1993)

The minute I finished A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain, I looked to see if Robert Olen Butler's email address is listed online. It is. I haven't written to him yet, but when I do, it will be to tell him which of his stories made me cry, and why. Not because they are sad, I'll say, but because they feature endings so cutting, so poignant and powerful I am left in awe and gratitude for the experience of reading them. So thank you. 

Or maybe I'll chicken out and just hope he stumbles across this.

A Good Scent is a collection of stories about Vietnamese immigrants who've resettled in Louisiana after the end of the Vietnam War (a location chosen for its similar climate). Cultural assimilation is of course a central theme of the collection but Butler delves much deeper, digging into the ways the social and cultural roots of America and Vietnam cross, and become entwined--or remain at odds. Loneliness. Nostalgia. Tribalism. Legacy. Huge concepts Butler injects effortlessly into short stories, peopled by the seemingly common. Only they're not that common. Not at all. They have outsized hearts, curious minds, and sorrowful souls. And you will love them. I definitely recommend this one.

And if I were to write a long-form analysis of something from A Good Scent, the natural choice would be "The American Couple", which is a colorful and wholly absorbing portrait of middle-age marriage. Two marriages, actually, brought under examination when a pair of game show-winning wives bring their husbands on the prize trip to Puerto Vallarta. One couple is Vietnamese; the other, American. Both husbands served in the Vietnam War.

Loads to dissect there, and I only wish I had a captive audience of high schoolers I could point at papers launched from the following line:

This is what's good about America. There is always some improvisation, something new, and when things get strained, you don't fall back on tradition but you make up something new.

greetings from the drawing board

The longer you stay away from something, the stranger it is to return to. Even if it's a thing you love. That's where I'm at with blogging. The pen is heavier when I pick it back up after so long an absence. I fumble with the cap. Not even sure the ink will flow.

But I came to a decision last week that has helped me refocus on priorities I've let slip. This blog is one of those priorities. I know that now. I haven't always known that. For a while, in fact, I've considered it an indulgence. I've felt that way about it for most of this year. Like it was a treat, an investment of time and energy I only deserved if I did all the other stuff I was supposed to do. But I was wrong. It's not an indulgence. It's meaningful, it's fulfilling, and it's vital to my sense of self. I'll circle back to this point in a bit, but right now, I'm going to suck it up and come as clean as I can about my recent failures.

So, where have I been?

In short: trying to figure out the rest of my life. But short isn't how Elliequent works. So if you're in the mood for a doozy of a tale, strap in.

I told you that I was the victim of a crime, and that I left my job. Well, after that things just kind of fell apart. I didn't know what to do next. I told you that my friends came to the rescue, propped me back up and got me moving again. And they did. But they didn't point me in the right direction. Which, of course, is not their fault. It is no one's job but my own to find my true north, and set off towards it. But all the drama of what went down twisted me up badly, and I was lost. So they did the best they could by me.

They said, Ok, so, you had this job as an assistant, and you were pretty good at it, right? 

And I said, I think so, yes.

And they said, Great. So let's get you another job as an assistant. An administrative assistant, or hey, an executive assistant! That guy you were working for was pretty high level, right? You did a lot of shit for him, right? Had a lot of responsibilities? 

And I said, Well, not really, actually--

And they said, Ok perfect! That's what you're going to do, then. Be an executive assistant. We'll help you doctor up a resume based on that. We'll lie for you. We'll be references. Easy peasy. Yes yes?

And I said, Ummm I'm not sure that I--

And they said, Brilliant. Here's your resume. Now go apply for jobs. Hurry up.

And so that's what I did.

Now, before you hork all over the screen in disgust, you should know that a good 2/3 of my resume was truthful. But the 1/3 that wasn't? It was pretty damn untruthful. And if you've never tried to apply for a position that you're wholly unqualified for, with a highly exaggerated resume that gnaws an ugly, guilty hole in your stomach, well, let me tell you. It is not fun. In fact it is awful. It is terrifying and stressful and nerve wracking and confusing. And ultimately, I would learn, a huge waste of time.

But I didn't know what else to do. I had a couple of very scary talks with one of my close friends, someone who truly has my best interests at heart but who doesn't really understand me, at the end of the day. And he put so much fear in me. So much fear. He said, basically, This is your only option. If you don't do this you are fucked. And I believed him. And then when I dragged my feet, when I procrastinated and had panic attacks, he got angry. He thought I was unmotivated and lazy and irresponsible.

Sometimes I am those things. But that is not what was happening here. I was just scared, because I knew I am not cut out to be an executive assistant, nor was I prepared to present myself as one.

But I didn't say that to him. I just said, Ok, I'm trying. I'll send out some applications tomorrow. I promise. And he said some heartbreakingly harsh things to me. He thought it was tough love I needed. What I needed, however, was to stop and think for five fucking minutes about what I want to do, what I'm actually good at.

But I didn't do that. I didn't stop to think for myself, about myself, and consequently, I wasted a lot of time, and a lot of money. I wrote killer cover letters, because (SPOILER ALERT) that is what I do. I went on interviews. I'm pretty sure I was about to get an offer from a medical institute, a place I realized after the interview I would hate, when I emailed to call them off from checking my references. That was the closest I came.

Then came the opportunity that split everything wide open.

I found a listing for something amazing. Tons of responsibilities, a massively intimidating list of requirements, but a really cool job. I agonized over my cover letter, because I knew it had to make up for a very flimsy resume. The position was intense, but I wanted it badly, because of the industry it was in. It just felt right for me. It was a huge outside shot, though. I was wildly under qualified, and I knew it. I sent in my application and forgot all about it.

Then I got an email request for a phone interview. And in spite of myself, in spite of the nerves that nearly had me puking up until the phone rang--I nailed it. The exec loved me. She said she'd gotten over a hundred applications, and that while my experience wasn't quite as strong as she'd like, she loved my cover letter (SHOCKER). And our conversation was just great. I'd prepared for it, hardcore. Learned everything I could about her, about the organization. We absolutely clicked. By the end of the call she admitted I was already one of top four applicants, in her mind. She was heading to New York the next day but wanted to meet with me in a week and a half when she got back.

I hung up the phone and nearly floated through the ceiling. And then I got busy. I decided I was going to get this job. No question. It was mine for the taking. I would be so well-prepared for my in-person interview (which the exec's assistant scheduled with me twenty minutes after my phone screen) that she wouldn't be able to say no to me. I was going to blow her away with my enthusiasm and passion.

I went nuts. I read more or less the industry manual, for that particular sector. A six hundred page book. I memorized the organization, top to bottom, inside and out. I'm talking flash cards. Staff members. (With their photos, so I'd know them on sight.) Resources. Programs. All of it. I listened to a year's worth of podcasts. I watched a dozen of the most recommended TED Talks for that industry. I sponged up everything I could. At some point my boyfriend (yep, that's what you call burying the lede...we'll circle back round to that, too) gently pointed out that it was all fine and good for me to learn the industry--but ultimately it was probably more important that I learn Outlook.

That was the first crack.

Maybe you can already see where this is going. It started to dawn on me what I was potentially getting myself into. My enthusiasm began to turn to anxiety. And by the morning of my interview, I was primed for an absolute melt down. I had spent the day prior with a friend inventing stories from whole cloth, about my supposed last job. Because I knew this interview was going to be a grilling. I knew there'd be tons of those "Tell me about a time when you...." type questions. So this friend and I constructed a whole fucking narrative for me. We came up with answers to all of those questions. And they were good.

But there I was, pulling my hair into a bun, rehearsing in my mind, twenty minutes away from leaving the house, when I started to fall apart. I felt absolutely sick to my stomach. The lies. All the lies. And more than that: the more I thought about the responsibilities of the position, the sicker I felt. Not only was I not qualified. I didn't want to fucking do those things. I wouldn't be good at those things. 

The straw that broke the camel's back? I realized I didn't have any good way to present my questions for the interview. She'd instructed me to bring questions, of which I had plenty (mostly written by my boyfriend, who has been unfuckingbelievable during this whole process, but we'll come back to that)...but I had no way of actually taking them there. Laptop? No. iPad? Weird. Phone? Out of the question. The only thing that would make sense would be a sharp, professional looking legal pad or organizer. You know, the sort of thing every executive assistant has. Because duh.

I started to laugh. I took a look at myself, at the situation I'd gotten myself into. Here I was about to go after a job where organization and details are of absolute singular importance...and I didn't even have a good pen or pad of paper.

What. A. Joke.

I sat down and I cried. I looked at the clock. I looked at myself in the mirror. I looked at my phone. I looked at the job description. I thought about what it would feel like, to walk into this woman's office and bullshit for an hour. To start a professional relationship with someone based on lies and bluffing. I thought about how my incompetencies could bring this organization to a grinding halt--or at least cause a lot of hassle for a lot of people. And I felt so ashamed of myself. And as the minutes ticked by, I thought about who I am, and who I want to be. I thought about my values and my character and my integrity. And I cried, knowing I was probably about to blow a huge opportunity. I knew in my heart I could get the job, if I wanted it. I knew she would love me even more in person. I knew my inexperience would be pardoned, I could already tell from our previous talk. But I knew I wouldn't be happy doing that job. It was too much. Way too much. I would be constantly stressed out, trying to catch up on skills I didn't have. Constantly fearing failure. Constantly fucking up. I can't even schedule my salon appointments without forgetting them. I have NO business taking control of the life of a busy executive.

I wrote one of the hardest, most embarrassing emails of my life (canceling the interview), and then I called my friends. I explained how wrongheaded everything had been. How I'd been pursuing something that was so, so wrong for me. I apologized for wasting their time. I thanked them for their support.

And then I wiped that slate clean and went back to the drawing board.

---

Okay, wow. This was exhausting to write. And I had started on a whole second section to talk about where things stand now, and to introduce you to my boyfriend--but I need to stop here tonight.

More soon.

forest story, Part II

The next move is obvious. Prescribed, even. Conceived by some bolder, more seductive version of herself lured from hiding by the intent eyes of a stranger in plaid.

But as she composes the message for his delivery boy, Riley questions her verve. Where is she going with this, anyway? Will she follow through? Does she even want to? The illicit thrill of committing mutiny with Baxter just inches away in the driver's seat is too delicious, though. She hits send.

Tell your boss I'll come drink his moonshine, but only if he does NOT sell my boss that trash can. 

Her heart thumps. Shots fired.

Ok will do, comes the reply at once. Would you like me to give him your number, or make him wait?

Another flutter of inspiration. The tenth muse is hovering close. The Muse of Modern Flirtation.

You can keep it as collateral for now. Give it to him on Friday...but only if he's nice to you for the rest of the week.

It's hard not to smile at the scene she knows she's just created. She can picture the laughter, the teasing that has doubtlessly erupted amongst the lumberyard crew. The proprietor's pleased grin. He's handsome, yes, but substantially older than his strapping--and also handsome--young assistants. Riley knows this will constitute a win for him. And she enjoys giving it to him.

After a pause during which she imagines the colorful exchange between employer and employee, an affirmation of her thrown-down gauntlet comes back: I like how you think.

Riley is barely aware of the ride back to the office.

---

Thursday, just after ten a.m. The optimistic ping! of an incoming text. Riley unlocks her phone.

He wanted me to send you these pictures and tell you he was up all night making moonshine for you.

A kitchen counter. Vials, rubber tubing. A gallon glass jug nearly full of yellowish fluid. Riley ignores all of it, honing in on other, much more interesting clues to this stranger's life. The clean, white subway tile backsplash. An expensive looking gas range. A vintage surfboard propped against a wood-paneled wall. And most curiously, a vase teeming with the elegant stalks of peach-pink peonies.

She stares. They're her absolute favorite. What are the chances? And why on earth? A single, straight man buying himself cut flowers? Riley decides to fish a little, when she does reply--but she waits until nearly 3pm to do so.

Tell him his flower arrangement is very pretty... But the intermediary doesn't pick up on her sarcastic implication.

Are you going to be there when I deliver the beams? I'm leaving here now to bring them.

I'm not, no. Riley wonders whether, if she were, there'd be something for her to receive as well as Baxter. Maybe it's the flowers, she thinks. Maybe they're for me? She decides to give the mystery moonshiner the benefit of the doubt. His advances were much too direct to be hiding a wife or girlfriend.

Impulsively, she continues: But tomorrow when you see him, tell him I just signed the lease on a new apartment, a 1920s building with what I believe are original hardwood floors. Tell him I could use his advice on how best to care for them. She sends a photo of her new place, the richly grained floor striking in the empty space. He might have to do the consultation in person, though. Oh, and he can have my number...as soon as he let you guys go home for the day.  

---

Friday, at the office. Riley's phone lights up with a unrecognized number. She swipes the screen.

The flowers are for you. I hope you like peonies.

She looks at the time. It isn't even noon. Has he really let his employees go a full half day early, just to get her number that much sooner?

I guess there's no point in not admitting that they're my favorite. 

Too bad you made me wait to get your number. They're a bit wilted now. And I only just today got the picture of your floors. If I'd had that sooner I'd have delivered them in person to your door once I tracked you down. That seemed a little stalkerish, though, so I figured I should wait to be invited in.

Well that's a bold claim. You really think based on a pic of my floor you could find me? Lots of old buildings in this city. Either way, here's a better shot. Though I won't be walking on them for a couple weeks yet. 

Riley, thoroughly enjoying herself, watches the phone as he types his reply. When it comes, however, her smile evaporates and her jaw drops, as she sees her street address pop up in the message window. Then, a second later, a link to the Craiglist ad for her very apartment. The one she'd just signed a lease on.

Are we really going to make me wait a couple more weeks? I'm a pretty popular guy walking around with all these flowers.

Gobsmacked, flattered, upended, and slightly nervous, Riley shakes her head. Okay I'm impressed.

By the way, I believe the floors are 3.25" face CVG Douglas Fir. Haphazardly replaced with a knotty pine. 

Okay, I'm *really* impressed.

Good. You're meant to be. Now, when are you free? You can come to Santa Monica tonight and drink my moonshine, or if you'd like, come with me to the forest tomorrow to look for wood.

The next move is obvious, too.

for your eyes only

Lovelies. Bit of news, and a call to action. If you're so inclined, that is. Elliequent is going private again. I know, I know. Most spaztastic blogger you've ever known. It might be temporary again, or it might be long-term. Trust that I have my reasons, some of which are even mildly valid.

So, if you want in, all you have to do is let me know, and I'll invite you. Just email me with whatever address you use to read blogs, and I'll send you an invitation.

All are welcome.

Ellie