I wrote this short story several years ago, for a Creative Writing class. It was inspired by a young woman I watched, sitting in a hallway of an academic building, waiting for her (presumably) boyfriend. I love the story, others have enjoyed it, but I doubt it'll ever get published. So, I'm posting it here, for Sarah, who thinks she might be beige. (She's not.)
Chapter 1 – Women’s Studies
She’s waiting in a hallway for some guy she barely knows, but maybe ought to marry. Idly, she flips open the textbook in her lap, A History of Women. She’s a senior in college, beige and without a clue. After five years in an institution of higher knowledge, she’s still not sure what she’s learned. She can write an essay on the importance of women’s history to literature and she can order a meal using beginner French. She can schedule her life into semesters, meeting every requirement and deadline. She can fake her way through algebra, but she doesn’t want to bluff her way through life. With 133 credits, she’s eligible for graduation into her adult life.
Once, she had big dreams. She dreamed of dancing on the stage, while wearing red shoes. People applauded and called out her name. In her dreams, she was one of the fabulously exciting people doing fabulously exciting things. She was a star, baby. In her dreams, she was a star. She lived her life in the dreams of infinite possibility.
Now, though, she waits in a hallway for some guy she barely knows, but maybe, ought to marry.
Chapter 2 – Women & Work: The Sky’s the Limit
“When did I become beige?” she wonders, staring at her reflection in the airplane
window. “Once, I knew how to fly.”
Now, her wings are an embroidered symbol printed on the cloth scarf she’s
required to wear around her neck. Dressed in her sexless corporate issue uniform of tan faux-silk blouse complimented by taupe polyester slacks, she travels constantly across the country, serving the needs of unappreciative airline passengers.
“I used to be a Valkyrie,” she thinks. “I used to carry a sword in one hand and a shield in the other. I could travel between the worlds of the living and the dead with one sweep of my powerful arms, carrying messages and passengers without fear. I was bold. I was brave.” Now, she is a chooser of the slain only if she uses her imagination when picking up the empty cups and unwanted meals, when handing out tiny pillows and too thin blankets.
She sits for a moment in the jump seat behind First Class. If she leans forward, she can see the red lights at the end of the airplane wing, blinking on, blinking off.
Chapter 3 – Women In the Home
She’s learned to live without color, especially red. Red sets him off like a raging bull in a Hemingway story. She stays away from red. Of course, her lip bleeds red, cracks from where he’s hit her again in the last week. Trying to heal, it cracks and bleeds. This sets him off, too. Must be the red of her lips.
Chapter 4 – Politics of Women’s Reproduction
The doctor’s eyes are kind over his mask. “This will just take a minute, “ he says.
“Let me know if there is too much pain.”
She wants to scream. Too much pain. Are you kidding me? It’s too painful to
discover a pregnancy that isn’t a possibility, she wants to say. It’s too painful to inform the unwanted father of his unwanted child. It’s too painful to make the doctor’s appointment and then too painful to walk past the pro and con life signs outside the doctor‘s office. In too much pain, she’d pulled her sweatshirt hood up over her head, shrinking inside for cover against the angry words. Beige cotton is no defense against hate.
She closes her eyes, hoping to chase away the red haze of fear and pain that clouds her vision.
Chapter 5 – Global Feminism, Past
My thin legs are weak with the motion from the ship that carried me here. I am just a girl, yet I am stripped bare for all to see. I stand here in the beige dust of the busy marketplace, wrists bound behind my back with coarse rope. It’s humid here, this place they call Carolina. I don’t understand the language these strange pale people speak. The jabbing laughter of the men frightens me. Their faces blur together as they poke at me with sticks and more laughter as I try to move away. The rope that binds me to the others pulls me up short. The skeletal man with the merciless smile pokes at the joining of my legs with the end of his cane. There is nowhere to hide, so I conceal my eyes. He forces my legs apart, striking my right thigh so forcefully that I moan in pain. I twist forward, into the sting. That’s when I see the blood dripping down my legs. My moon has begun.
Softly, I hear my grandmother’s voice in the distance, across six weeks of ocean,
explaining the mysteries of my upcoming womanhood ceremony. “Women bleed into
the earth that is their home,” she is saying, holding the dust of Africa in her palm. Unhurriedly, the red blood now drips, carrying my past and my present and my future into the dust at my feet.
I begin to cry.
Chapter 6 – Global Feminism, Present
One by one, she plants the tulip bulbs. Methodically, she places each bulb into an exactly dug six inch hole. One thousand strong red tulips will bloom in the spring, one flower for each day of her marriage.
She carried tulips at her wedding two years and seven months ago, just before he was shipped out. Where the hell is Afghanistan, anyway?
Chapter 7 – Women in Action
The desert is cold at night. Damn wind never stops blowing, or so it seems. The air smells like chalk with all this blowing dust. Caliche, they call it. Beige dust, thank you very much. And the sky, lightening with the coming morning, is just too big. It’s only the red-tinted shadows of the nearby mountains that define this vast and desolate space. Gives me the creeps. And in my thirty years of traveling the earth, I have learned creeps.
Here I am, in the middle of the Nevada desert, standing by a cattle-crossing barrier. The grate rattles when stepped on and whistles hauntingly in the wind. Barbed wire fencing is attached to a simple iron gate, outlining the borders of the hazard zone. There’s a bit of rotting rag caught on a tine of the fence, near where I stand. I am one of forty odd other women, from all over the world. We look very small in comparison to those dawn-reddening mountains in the distance. We’re used to looking small, almost as inconsequential as the small brown bat that joined us in our welcome circle this past afternoon. There we were, passing fruit and water amongst each other, sharing water with each other, swapping stories from our homeland fights against nuclear power, when this little creature flew into our center. It hovered near every one of us. One woman from Romania, brave, let it rest in her open palm. The bat visited for ten minutes or so, then flew away. Bizarre, seeing a bat travel in the day time.
Unnerving it is, to stand at this cattle guard, knowing that nuclear tests have been performed less than twenty miles away. We are standing on unholy ground. Ground that, no matter how much time passes, will remain poison. We’ve been here all night, drumming softly, chanting, holding vigil in protest of the upcoming weapons test. I’ll be glad when the sun comes up over those mountains, chasing away the shadows.
And relieved, to leave this desert wind that forever blows, sending fearful beige dust flying everywhere.
Chapter 8 – Women’s Liberation
Since she was 26, she’s had red cowboy boots on her list of “138 Things To Do Before I Die.” She has magazine clippings saved from throughout the years, dozens of pictures, all of red cowboy boots. Some are plain ole Justin boots, fire-engine red. Some boots are wildly embroidered with butterflies or flowers or fabulous paisley patterns. A few pictures show boots that are hand sewn from very expensive leather. Some have spiky heels, made for dancing. Some are western cut, made perfectly for walking. Some are simply made for kicking the shit out of life.
When she knows which red boots are made for her, she’ll buy them.
Chapter 9 – Feminism in Waves
Suffrage, that’s what they called the women’s movement once. She remembers reading about a parade of women, marching with hundreds of other women, asserting for the right to vote. Nineteen amendments it took, to get a constitution that addressed the honor of all its citizens. The address is wrong, however, and the check’s lost in the mail.
She bends to pick up the tarnished coin. Biting it, she can taste the copper. The penny is as old as she is, and as carelessly tossed away, ignored as unimportant. She places the change in the outside pocket of her faded brown winter coat, and nods her head. “Seventy eight more of these and I’ll have earned what a woman makes an hour in comparison to a man.”
The sufferage continues.
Chapter 10 & 11 – Culture vs: Nature
There’s little light shining in the window at the end of the corridor, just enough illumination to muddy up the brown paint trim of the enclosing bars. The walls are beige. The floor tiles are beige. The thin blanket on the cot is so faded that it could be beige, if it had a color at all.
“This prison ain’t got no soul,” she thinks. “Just the blank space of a waiting room.” She has thirteen more years to wait before she has any hope at all of getting out. Drugs is what got her here. No excuse for it. She was so high, she can’t remember her daughter’s birth. The baby girl exists only in a worn out crayon coloring now. Big, boldly drawn bright red lips, with “I Love U This Much, Mama!”, written in a shaky five year old’s hand. She keeps this paper treasure tacked on the wall across from her cot. First thing she sees in the morning and the last thing she sees at night, she misses that baby girl like a drug.
She did a special favor to get the birthday present for her baby girl. Earned her
some tiny little red rubber bands for her daughter’s braids. Every girl, every woman needs red in her life. Gotta have more than beige to look forward to.
Chapter 12 – Women Aging Gracefully
Nothing’s where it used to be. Not my breasts or my butt or even my smile. I’m fifty. I’m not that old. Am I?
He traded me in a month after my birthday. ASSHOLE, all one word, capital
letters. Now, what karma will he get for that?
I lost my beautiful home and my steady bank account. I lost my husband of twenty-one years. And, now, I’ve lost my fear.
Now, I can walk in four-inch red heels, if I want. Now, I can show that I’m taller and stronger and better than he. Now, I’m not in his shadow. Am I?
Chapter 13 – Women With Choice
She can’t forget the red shoes. They’re shoved way in the back of her closet, trying to forget those dreams of the stage, the ambitions for her life. The dream of dancing in the red shoes once gave her the possibility to move, to be limitless, uncontrolled, uninhibited. Her creativity, her passion, her strength could flow through her feet, igniting her world with spirit and experience. She could travel with purpose, slowly or wildly, gracefully or leaping with joy. With the red shoes, she was free to dream. With the red shoes on her dancing feet, she was alive and facing every future opportunity, with a world of color before her.
She snaps A History of Women closed, her decision final. Perhaps, she really doesn’t need a college degree to know that she wants more out of life than waiting in a hallway for a man she barely knows, and, maybe, ought not to marry.