poor me: a brief dip in the pool of self pity

(still from the movie Fight Club)

I’ve never entered a writing contest before, mostly because usually they charge a fee (which makes the whole thing seem like a racket) but also because I am a really, really lousy loser.  My husband won’t play pool with me anymore, not since I spanked him with a cue for trouncing me. For me, there is no such thing as a “friendly game,” a term as oxymoronic as “constructive criticism,”  “good grief,” or “routine surgery.”  See, if I don’t win, I want to argue about it, I want to get up in your face and shake my fist and change your mind with my bare hands if I have to.  I’m that ballplayer who goes to fisticuffs with the ump or that sad politician whining for a recount.

Losing brings out the absolute worst in me. 

But for this contest, there was no entry fee and the prize was a Kindle—the perfect birthday gift for my daughter, a kid who reads faster than any pharmaceutical disclaimer, a girl who falls asleep pinned under a heavy book every night, so I thought of her and ignored my better judgment when I entered the contest.  The rules were that the story had to be exactly 500 words long and had to start with the sentence “the poor bastard never saw it coming.”  What the hell, I thought.  I have nothing to lose.

Except my pride, of course.  I forgot about that. That’s right. I “almost won.”  My story was “awfully good” and you might call it a “partial success,” but I lost, goddamnit.  Now, what can I punch?

So, while I’m off in the corner head-butting the wall and beating myself up (picture that office scene in Fight Club when the main character beats himself bloody), here’s the story I wrote. I call it Happiness Is.

*

“The poor bastard never saw it coming.”

He spoke these words sitting on the curb with his head in his hands.  I didn’t know what to tell him.

I’d been watching all along. I was at the sink rinsing my coffee cup when he left at 7:30, as usual. And as soon as the garage door closed, I saw their curtains disappear.

Well, that caught my eye.  She was ripping them down. I knew then something was wrong, this being mid-December and no time for spring cleaning. I stood for awhile, peering between the blinds.  I like to know what’s going on in my neighborhood.

She stood at the bare window for a minute or two, staring wide-eyed at the neglected lawn, naked trees, and the cement-colored sky.  I raised my hand up just in case she looked but she didn’t–she saw the dog, his dog, big stupid thing licking himself on the front lawn like it was the only thing to do.

She took the things he never liked: the pillow she’d embroidered with the words “Happiness Is…”, the gloomy family portrait from the mantel, the one they had taken at the mall just after the baby was born.  He said only morons say cheese, and why do we need a picture when we own a camera?  She never answered.  I saw her throw her clothes and the boy’s into bags.  She packed up the blankets and pillows but she left the sheets looking gray and wrinkled, strangely flat.

In the kitchen, she grabbed the coffee maker and the frying pan and threw the ivy-patterned china into a box. I saw her put the food from the refrigerator into a cooler and drag it to the garage.  She left the dog food, though.  The boy sat at the kitchen table eating cereal.  When she ripped the clock off the wall he even didn’t look up, just kept lifting the spoon to his mouth like it was the meaning of life.  A lot like his dad, that one.

I made myself a sandwich and ate over the sink, remembering when they moved in seven years ago.  I brought them a casserole: tuna surprise.  I was the welcome wagon, figured I might as well get acquainted, seeing as our houses were so close.  Nobody else minding things around here; somebody’s got to do it.

That in mind, I pulled up the blinds just in time to wave as the loaded minivan took off, but they didn’t notice.  I stood for a long time watching those windows like empty sockets, hours before he pulled in.  He stood in the dark kitchen like he didn’t know how to turn on the light.  And when his car tore out of the garage, the dog yelped once and flew.

I opened the door.  He bent over his dog.  He said, “The poor bastard never saw it coming!”  He covered his eyes.

Maybe it’s easier seeing things through windows. Maybe it’s better not to see.

*

So there it is.  Now that I’m done slapping some sense into myself, I realize several things:

#1: Contests are just not my thing. My ego is a delicate flower, a delicate bloodthirsty flower with teeth, and it’s better just not to go there.

#2:  People like funny. This story is a bit of a downer; I should have written something funny. The fellow blogger who put on the contest is a very funny guy and I probably should have taken his style into consideration before I submitted. The story that won was one about a guy who gets his finger bitten off by a moray eel and takes his revenge at a sushi bar. It was very funny, very catchy.

#3: The exercise was not a complete waste of time. It was quite a challenge to pare what began as a much longer story down to bare bones.  While I was writing, my brain felt the same way it does when I play scrabble or chess: it took extraordinary amount of control and concentration to tell a complicated tale (with backstory, multiple characters, and depth) and stay true to my own style but make short and snappy. Every ounce of fat and fluff had to be discarded. I think this practice makes for a better story, so it’s something I’ll try to remember.

So, friends, if I ever talk about entering a contest again, would you please punch me in the stomach and get it over with?  Thanks!

About girl in the hat

aka Anna Fonté, writer of novels, short stories, personal essays, and bits about the neighborhood crows. The things I write want you to look at them.

19 comments

  1. I hate contests too, though I think you made a really strong entry and as you say, likely learned a ton from writing it.

    I disagree with you on the funny part, however. Of course it’s good to take a contest’s source into consideration when sending in an entry (everything’s subjective; funny blog probably does mean funny entries get more love), but I absolutely do not think you “should have” written something funnier. Just because the winning story was funny doesn’t mean yours should have been; your entry should have been the best story you could write, period, comparisons be damned. I’m a poor loser as well, but this is the other reason I hate contests: they pit you, an original and individual artist, against other original and individual artists, on the faulty assumption that there is any way to prove superiority of one over the rest. The broader message is that we are all in competition with each other in life, and there can only be a few winners there too. As far as I’m concerned both assumptions are impossible. Not winning a contest doesn’t say anything about your skill or your appeal, except that one person (or a panel of persons), given a certain set of guidelines, happened to prefer someone else’s approach. That’s all. And if you’ve written a story you’re proud of, and learned skills that serve you, then that’s a win for you in the life path that is yours exclusively and incomparably.

    • It’s true, the whole one-winner-only set-up is a painful construct. But actually, I’m over the whole thing now and no one got hurt ;) Had a lovely day in the sun with my family. Writing this bit got it off my chest, thank goodness. I’d like to believe my writing is not affected by what others think, but I’m not so sure that is true– I guess that’s a theme that has been coming up lately, an idea I’ve been grappling with.

  2. Sheesh, Anna: “I spanked him with a cue”? I mean, it was enjoyable to read, but, if I ever date a woman sometime before the sun explodes, I’ll try not to put MY foreplay details in my blog. ;)

    Seriously, though, great story–I don’t think a day could be much worse than to have your spouse leave you and then run over your own dog.

    • What?! Nonono, if it was foreplay, then he’d still want to play pool, right? I see what you mean, but “smacked” him with a cue didn’t sound quite as good– sounds too mean. “Whacked” sounds too mafiosa and “hit” just lacks panache. “Spanked” is much funnier, so I’m afraid I’ll have to risk it and leave the wording as-is.

      • I don’t like not winning either, and yesterday was a “non-winner” for me, including my forays on the internet. That first part of my earlier comment was just my attempt at pure silliness–I apologize.

  3. I read the “winning” story the other day and my jaw dropped. I didn’t get it at all. I did appreciate the obviously not stupid wordplay, but I really thought it was too, how do I say it –smart-alecky?– for its own good. I went back and read it again, and then realized that the smart alecky-ness got in the way of the story. What won this contest was show-offy, like a magician closing herself up in a box and daring an audience member to dismember her with a sword. Yours was a REAL story.

    I guess you can tell that I’m mad, too. Because I was blown away by your story, and probably because I would have tried to write a real one, too, if I had entered, and then been horribly let down. And I also hate to lose. When I do, I try to be polite and all that (I guess that’s just my way) but you’d be amazed at how much anger and grudginess a pacifist can harbor– at least before she reassumes the lotus position, and struggles back to oneness with the universe.

    Contests suck. But I’m still, stupidly, going to enter one I found for a children’s story. I friggin need the prize money. I know, I know.

    • Okay–if I’m ever in the ring again, I want you in my corner, for sure! You said all the things I shouldn’t. :)

      And it was just silly to have put myself in a place where these negative feelings come up. I’d much rather read and appreciate things for what they are rather than compete (and compare and criticize).

      And oh god, you’re gonna do it too? Well, I appreciate the allure. I mean, there are not many ways in this world to be rewarded for one’s writing skill. So go, you!!!

  4. Eva

    I think the only way to enter a contest and not be miserable is to expect to lose. Yea, not easy advice and I’m not good at taking it either, but if you can manage it you won’t be let down and you might be pleasantly surprised.

    In this case I think you deserved to win. That was an amazing story, very understated and well condensed.

    • You’re right about the expecting to lose–it would certainly make losing easier!
      But if I expected to lose, then why would I enter the contest?
      (Wait– I can answer that–because it was fun to write the story. And that is true. So I guess what I won was my own story, which is not a bad prize after all. But a Kindle would have been better. ;) )
      Thank you for reading and commenting!

      • Eva

        LOL, I wouldn’t have actually said you won your story (it’s a good prize, mind you!). In creative contests I generally think of the point of the contest as challenging myself. It’s a motivation to complete something that is outside my comfort zone that I normally wouldn’t push myself to do, like the length restriction you were under. I grow and learn because I force myself to accept that challenge and push through. :)

  5. I liked the story. Fantastic ambiguous twist at the ending, and I’m a dog lover (so I cringed a little). You made me go whoa, now I have to write about it and you in my writing journal!

    “…blogger who put on the contest is a very funny guy and I probably should have taken his style into consideration before I submitted.”

    Not sure how I feel about that, writing for your target audience. Makes sense in a capitalistic way but not artistically. Writing is an art, all the greats wrote for themselves first. It can be a necessary evil I guess but I think it’s better to write for yourself and edit for your target audience. If that makes any sense.

    • Of course you’re right. And I do grapple with this issue, how I can write for myself and for others. Do capitalist and artistic concerns have to be mutually exclusive? Probably. But then does my desire to one day earn something with my writing make me less than an artist? Many of the greats had patrons, academies, supporters, editors, agents, etc. or became famous posthumously. Do I have the patience, inclination, or optimism to wait for that?
      But still, you’re right.
      Thank you for reading!!!

  6. blackwatertown

    Good work.
    I really liked the twist – saved up up right till the end – with the dog as the proxy bloke. Quite cruel and cutting – which is good.
    So what about not being all funny ha ha.

  7. There’s an expression you hear a lot in the UK’s current climate of non-competitive egg & spoon races that I hate – ‘ It’s not the winning but the taking part that counts ‘ – so glad that the competitive spirit is alive & kicking in the US & you are pissed that you didn’t win! I loved your story & even though I haven’t read any of the others, you get my vote.

  8. I thought the spanking with the pool cue might have served to make your husband want to play with you even more.

    The story for the contest made me sad. Thinking about why makes me sadder, so I am stopping.

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