On Writing Women, and Some Thoughts About Hyacinths
Oct 14 ● BY Alexis Kale
It is Spring and the rain won’t stop falling.
I am twenty-five and in my fourth semester of grad school. I am living alone in a South Austin studio apartment that is getting muggier with each storm, that I have attempted to transform into a sanctuary after the end of my last relationship—this means there are a lot of books and pillows and really an incredible amount of plants, plants I care for while I learn to take care of myself and things outside of myself that aren’t people. This also means that I have a dog. She is sleeping on the bed and the rain won’t stop falling. She snores, occasionally.
My orchids are thriving because of the rain (the secret is humidity and artificial light), so I have opened the windows and I am letting the outside in. The windowsill is getting wet. On the windowsill is a vase of hyacinths, a recent gift from my mother that I was originally thrilled to receive but, given the plant’s response, I learned I am not talented at caring for. The stems have begun to brown; the once-purple blooms have almost blackened. I don’t know what the secret to caring for hyacinths is, and for some reason I am refusing to Google it.
I decide the hyacinths are dead. They aren’t, not totally, but I am giving up. I remove them from their glass vase but immediately become intimidated by the mass of their roots and quickly dump the water in the sink. This is a mistake.
* * *
Other mistakes I have made:
A boy texted me the day before. Really, this boy had been texting me a lot, and a part of me appreciated this. But mainly his texts were about trivial parts of his day and excerpts from the novel he had been writing for the past six years. He was thirty, he told me, and this meant that he knew what he wanted. This meant that he had clarity. And I figured it was possible he did because I lack, and still lack, any experience of being thirty.
He wanted to bring me dinner. This was cute. He said, Let me bring you dinner and we can watch that movie I told you about.
I didn’t even remember what movie he was talking about. But not wanting to admit this, and being hungry, I said, Okay.
He showed up an hour later holding out take-out Chinese food like an offering. We sat down and he started to talk about his novel. I thought the plot was too clunky and I thought his sentences replicated that feeling, and I had no idea how to tell him this. In an attempt to change the subject, I told him to turn on this movie.
I’m thinking now of the number of times I have found myself in this exact situation. I am remembering all of the boys who have promised to show me the Greatest Movie of All Time and have left me feeling severely disappointed. This is how I have seen such movies as Mad Max (the remake, not the original), the Star Wars prequel trilogy (which still feels terribly misguided), and the first Lord of the Rings film (it is way, way too long). This is how I have spent at least one whole hour of my life watching a boy play Call of Duty because that was entertaining to him, and shouldn’t I agree, somehow? Before I left and never spoke to him again.
This is how I ended up watching The Fifth Element, on a Thursday night, in my studio apartment in South Austin with a guy I barely knew. I was thinking that I should know better by now. And by the time the first female character showed up on the screen—a woman who is given hardly any clothes, has an unexplained birth into a scientifically accelerated universe containing mainly Bruce Willis and a lot of fancy weaponry, is a woman who doesn’t speak a word of English but still somehow falls in love with Bruce Willis anyway—by that time, I realize I can’t put up with this any longer. And because I have always worn my emotions directly on my face like the world’s most ineffective mask or the world’s most useful window, he asks: What are you thinking about?
I tell him that he doesn’t want to know what I am thinking, because I am asking myself, What kind of man would watch this movie and consider it of high enough quality to show a woman he is interested in under the description of The Greatest Movie of All Time? I am thinking that it might not matter that he has sold his book to a publishing house and has some interest in art and has read a few books that I also find interesting. I am thinking that he is sweet, but I might be too smart for him. But I don’t say any of this. I say, instead, exactly what I think of the female character. I mention that there is only one female character, and is this the representation that I am expected to enjoy?
He says that he has never seen it this way before. He has watched this movie repeatedly since he was a child, but he has never seen it this way before. He apologizes. He tells me later, as he is leaving, that I am brilliant and one day I will write thirty-eight books but he won’t read any of them. Why not? I ask, and he says that he thinks we value different things.
* * *
The reason dumping the water out was a mistake is because it smells bad. It is the worst smell I have ever experienced. Several hours have passed and the smell is still stuck, it seems, in the pipes underneath my sink.
A problem with learning to care for myself? I often have to accomplish these tasks, tasks that I would normally consult a partner on, alone. I don’t know how to get rid of the stench. I’m not sure if that’s because I am twenty-five and therefore lack clarity and life experience, or because I am alone. The dog is very little help, and the plants (in this case) are the problem. I can’t walk into the kitchen without gagging. I am thinking that, because I have failed at caring for them, I truly hate hyacinths.
But when I do Google them, after spending this afternoon writing about my failure at caring for them, I realize that this was probably my fault. They were sitting in too much water. The water went sour. The plant died. And now my kitchen smells bad.
* * *
Female representation in fiction might be similar. At least, the way (some) men write women in fiction might be similar. It can’t be that hard to do. I often find myself reading female characters written by men and wondering if they have ever met a woman before. I find this even more disheartening when these men are my colleagues and I know they have met women before (because I am one of those women), but their female characters are flat or over-sexualized or they don’t speak the same language. As I read their workshop stories, sometimes I wonder if, when I flip the page, Bruce Willis will show up, guns blazing, storming in to save the day and effortlessly make this poor woman fall in love with him without doing very much at all.
It’s possible. Other things that are possible? That, one day, these men might read a book about actual women written by a woman and find something close to accurate representation. That, one day, this will be my book. That, when I scribble at the bottom of my letters in workshop: I would love to talk about this with you further, they might take me up on that offer, and we can have a civil conversation in which we might begin to learn about how women operate outside of the male gaze, outside of being fucked or rescued or mute.
It’s also possible, though, that at the end of this hypothetical conversation, they will tell me that we just value different things. And I will go home. And I will learn how to care for hyacinths.