ORIGINS: “A First Time for Everything” by Michelle Reale

In today’s ORIGINS, Michelle Reale discusses the origin of her story “A First Time for Everything,” which appeared in the Word Riot last year.

It was no secret in our neighborhood that my mother loved her polka music.

We lived in a twin home in a largely ethnic neighborhood, and my mother would play those records and smoke her cigarettes and get me and try to coax me to dance with her. I was too shy, but I secretly loved the polka. I was a real shy kid, and I was enthralled with the live party recordings and would sit and stare at the covers of the chest-barreled men and their blonde, red-lipsticked women in costume.

I started thinking of writing a story about a woman who loved music and I began to think of my mother and how I inherited my love of it from her. Sundays were the days my mother would be most likely to break out the records and there was a reason for it. We had our main meal at 2pm on Sundays , in keeping with the European tradition. My father would leave the house and tell us he would be back to eat. If the pot of water was boiling and the maccaroni was ready to be dropped into it and my father wasn’t home yet, on went the polka music.

My father HATED the polka.

But, it never failed. He’d return as soon as my mother started playing her records. We’d watch for my father out the window and sure enough, he’d be rounding the corner either on foot or in the old Chevy.

But the point is, he always came home.

I always wondered if maybe despite the Beer Barrel Polka or the happy strains of Pennsylvania Polka, he failed to show, what would be do then? And it worried me sick. I’d be so excited when my mother put on the records, I couldn’t bear it.

So I tried to imagine a scene of interminable waiting. And why would the father always be going off anyway? Throw in a little benign neglect and I found a nice, little storm.

I’ll address the smoking, since I am often asked why it appears so frequently in my stories. I have never smoked, ever, but am fascinated by those who do. I think it is a good bit of business to give a character, but I could be wrong. I grew up with smokers all around me. Parents puffed away while holding infants, the parish priest was never without his Marlboros, and it was a rite of passage for most fifth graders, but I wasn’t one of them.

In my mind’s eye, I had these two sisters on a lazy Sunday, the kind that seemed so lonely and interminable to me as a kid. The older one is kind of bored, loves her kid sister, but just wants to break the monotony (or worry) of waiting. Of the day. Of her life, in general.

The mother is kind of in her own , disconnected world, adding to the feeling that everything is coming apart. Of course, we don’t see what came before, or what comes after, do we? We rarely do in a story of this length. It’s not important anyway. Most of my stories hinge on a moment. Sometimes that moment only happens in my mind, but it propels the story forward, nevertheless. Sometimes it comes out whole, the way I want it to on the page. I knew that when that mother exhausted herself form dancing and smoking and waiting, and those two sisters lay down to look at that road atlas, I had my turning point. The waiting was over.


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