Driving at night, especially when it’s raining, terrifies me. My eyesight isn’t great to begin with, and usually by the time night rolls around my contacts have started to dry out. But the thing that bothers me the most about nighttime driving is other people’s headlights. I’m convinced that everyone but me drives with their brights on constantly.
What irritates me most is the light reflected in my rear-view mirror. If the car behind me is close enough, I have a hard time gauging just how far behind me they are. It spikes my anxiety, especially if we’re on a single-lane road and I can’t somehow get them to pass me. Often, I start to feel as if I’m being followed.
What should one do if they’re being followed by a strange vehicle? Try to let them pass? Outrun them? Outmaneuver them? You can’t go home, as that’s completely giving up your safe space. You might get stuck, perpetually followed, until you decide on how it should end.
This story was borne from those feelings. Back when I played hockey at a certain rink I had to drive down Route 476 all the time, often after dark. The lanes on that road between Springfield and Norristown vacillate between two and three, before settling on two as you pass the tolls toward the Lehigh Valley. It struck me how terrifying it would be to look in my rear-view mirror to see nothing but headlights. To be followed, with no recourse, and no hope.
I hope the story makes raises your blood pressure a bit the next time you see headlights in your rear-view.
Last week I watched a panel discussion between Ta-Nehisi Coates, Ibram X. Kendi, and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, hosted by the National Book Foundation and moderated by Franklin Leonard on “A New Black Politics?” In the course of their discussion (which you should watch in the link provided), Franklin Leonard and Ibram X. Kendi broached the topic of identity politics. I was struck by something said by Keenanga-Yamahtta Taylor starting around the 31 minute mark:
“Identity politics as a framework that was coined by the women of the Combahee River Collective in their 1977 statement was about politics. It wasn’t just about identity. The premise was that because the vast majority of black women were at the bottom of society, that they had a particular political viewpoint that made them empathic towards the struggles of other people on the bottom. They saw themselves in solidarity with colored women around the world. That was the basis of their politics. So, it wasn’t just identity unto itself. It was their identification as black women who were particularly oppressed, particularly exploited, that gave them a particular political insight. I think that that has obviously gotten lost, where people think that identity alone is enough to conjure a political connection.”
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, “The New Black Politics?”
The line that I bolded and italicized struck me particularly hard, perhaps because this week I’ve also been reading deep dive articles on toxic masculinity over at Jezebel. This article, in particular, discusses how the language and beliefs of Men’s Rights Activists (those who feel that their identity as men is being infringed on by feminism) and the far right movement, which has now evolved past the Tea Party to things like Qanon, have steadily entered mainstream politics.
Keeanga’s discussion of identity politics and the articles at Jezebel made me think about power structures, and how over and over again we see those structures reinforced by exploiting our innate sense of identity–or the promise that you’ll be included in upper end of the social hierarchy by betraying your identity, thereby maintaining the status quo.
What I think we’ve seen recently (although this is hardly a new phenomenon–it’s just become less subtle over time) is the adoption of racist and sexist rhetoric by mainstream politicians in order to hold onto power. The dog whistles of Trump, the hiding behind “being a mother” for Amy Coney Barrett, or the questionable decision-making of Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron in the Breonna Taylor case. In each of these cases, we see explicit or implicit racism and sexism (or both) as a way to gain or hold onto power.
We’re hard-wired to want power, as power essentially guarantees our safety. When we were hunter/gatherers living in small groups that was simple. In order to survive, we only had to prove ourselves more powerful than the other group that might be hunting and gathering on the same tract of land. Now, in a society where we’ve become so connected that we can’t realistically conceive of the number of other people we’re connected with, we seek to return to those small groups. Those who covet power exploit that need for their own gain.
And I think that’s what important to remember–the people using identity politics as part of their platform have no actual interest in those identities. To them, identity is a means to an end. We’re the ones that hold onto whatever our identities are so hard that they can become weapons. This means that we also have the power to change the narrative and no longer allow disingenuous politicians to use identity for their own gain.
As Keeanga notes, there are times when identify is important to the physical and spiritual survival of a group. That’s not a political issue–it’s a human one. For the benefit of everyone, we shouldn’t lose sight of that.
I don’t remember when I first read Heart Transplant by Ray Bradbury. I remember buying the short story collection that contains it. There was a book sale at my local library in South Buffalo, and I grabbed it because I had read a story from The Martian Chronicles as part of a writer’s group I was in at the time, so I recognized Bradbury’s name. Little did I know that the collection I bought, One More for the Road, would make me a lifelong Bradbury fan.
Bradbury built his brand on bottled nostalgia. His words are able to conjure images of magic, of subtle emotion, of horror, of awe. Heart Transplant is a story that combines all of these things into a perfect short story–contained, lyrical, and deep. I won’t try to dissect the technical aspects of the story. What’s the point if it makes me feel something so strongly? Instead, here are the reasons why I love it.
Begins in Media Res
The first line of the story is dialogue: “Would I what?”
It’s said by a man, kept generic (at least I believe) for the reader to become. We’re immediately sucked in–we want to know what he’s referencing.
Bradbury draws it out. Not a lot, just enough to get you to lean more closely, like someone that wants to tell you a secret. Meanwhile, he’s setting the tone with his descriptions, “…holding his hand, but staring rather than looking at that ceiling, as if there were something there that she was trying to see.”
And then he reveals the thrust of the story.
An Imaginative, Emotional Plot
“… if you could fall in love with your wife again… would you?”
Ah, so they’re lovers. But one of them is wondering whether or not it’s possible to feel like she did for her husband before. We can tell quickly that she’s trying to convince herself that it’s possible, while the man is resistant to the idea. She talks of how her husband has acted “better” lately. The man, hesitant to make her feel guilty in any way, says that his wife has, too. We don’t know right away, but that’s a lie.
Later, she explains her plan, “… what if, just before we go to sleep, what if we made a kind of mutual wish, me for you, you for me?”
After an initial reaction of disbelief and mild mocking, he agrees. He loves this woman enough to make a wish that she were with someone else, all because he knows that is where her true happiness is. Aside from that, he can see the writing on the wall. His wish doesn’t matter. She’s already gone. How can he not let her go?
Since I first read the story all those years ago, this has been my favorite passage:
He awoke for no reason except that he had had a dream that the earth had shrugged, or an earthquake had happened ten thousand miles away that no one felt, or that there had been a second Annunciation but everyone was deaf, or perhaps it was only that the moon had come into the room during the night and changed the shape of the room and changed the looks on their faces and the flesh on their bones and now had stopped so abruptly that the quick silence had stirred his eyes wide. In the moment of opening, he knew the streets were dry, there had been no rain. Only, perhaps, some sort of crying.
Ray Bradbury, heart transplant
This description, in its uncertainty, in its metaphor, places me within the man’s emotions. I understand him in this moment. How the world is different now than when he closed his eyes, but in an abstract way. A way that’s monumental, but only for him. The map of his heart has changed without his wanting it to and he’s the only person that knows. It’s heartbreaking.
The story feels fantastical. It’s about wishes, after all, and as far as the woman is concerned hers came true. The man says his did, too, but it’s a lie. It was always a lie. Because he loves her.
“Because both of us believed,” he said, quietly. “I wished very hard, for you.”
Ray bradbury, heart transplant
At the end, when his lover leaves to go back to her husband, excited to feel new again, the man stays behind. He assured her that he would call his wife right after she left, that her wish for him had also come true. Instead, he sacrifices his happiness in service of hers.
And he turned and lay back down in the bed and put one hand out to touch that empty pillow there.
Ray bradbury, heart transplant
It’s clear that the woman believes him. Not because he’s convincing in his lies, but because she needs to believe him in order to hold onto her newfound happiness.
To me, the story is a perfect vignette. In only 2,000 words (if that) Bradbury manages to capture high emotion, long history, and uncertain future. Those types of heights are what I strive for in my own writing. With enough practice, and enough re-reads of Bradbury, maybe one day I’ll reach them.
Sunday night I couldn’t sleep. The day before I had read my novella out loud, making edits in preparation for next steps, and as I did that I kept returning to the same thought: This would really work as a screenplay.
The idea for the novella, sort of a Haruki Murakami-type story about two people exploring the weird crevices of their city, was originally meant as a noir screenplay. I first wrote it as a short story a few years ago, and then (having sort of given up on screenwriting), expanded it to a novella last year. I’ve revisited it from time-to-time since, always with an eye toward self-publishing, and it has always occurred to me that it might make a fun little indie film, but that’s not realistic. Movies are too big, too complex, too collaborative, and too expensive to just do. I spent nearly ten years learning that between Buffalo and DC.
Still, the simplicity of the dialogue-driven story. The rotating locations. The potential for actors to sink their teeth into these characters…
Sunday night I found myself fantasizing about self-funding the film, going home to Buffalo, gathering up the old crew, and shooting it. I lay in bed working out logistics, trying to figure out what sort of budget I’d need, thinking of locations, picturing the set-ups. It was bad. Really bad.
So, where I’m at is trying to adapt my own work. I’ve done this before, with my novel (which started as a screenplay), but I think it’s a bit easier to expand on ideas than the opposite.
This doesn’t change any of my short term plans surrounding the short story collection, or even self-publishing the novella. If, and it’s a big if, I were to seriously consider self-funding this film, it’d take a couple of years to get off the ground. It’s a lot of risk with very little chance of return. I’d really just be squandering away my family’s savings for a passion project that I’ve not demonstrated the talent to bring to fruition.
But there is something to be said about that giddy feeling of excitement I get when I think about it. I wish I felt that sort of passion about sitting in an office 8-10 hours per day.
Craig Gusmann is a writer currently stationed in PA with his wife and two cats. Sent from the future in a clear homage to The Terminator, he wanted to get a head start on perfecting his use of words. Feel free to let him know how he’s doing.