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Brain Surgery, Music, Eroticism And Route 66

A brave woman from the San Francisco Bay area writes poignantly about her struggle to accept beauty after brain tumor surgery left half her face “drooping like a Bloodhound.”

A British lecturer in business studies in Sussex finds love in the most unlikely of places - a music shop in Greenwich Village, New York.

An international journalist in Munich tackles the sensitive question of naked beauty versus pornography.

A retired attorney tells a travel story about a chance meeting in a bar on Route 66 in New Mexico.

Such varied backgrounds and topics reflect the diversity of finalists in our recent ‘Wild Atlantic Writing Awards’ competition on the theme of ‘Beauty.’

Mother of three, KT Ryan, admits she has always wrestled with the concept of beauty, even more so when brain surgery in mid-life left her with a severe case of facial palsy.

Her story, ‘Chin Up,’ a finalist in the creative non-fiction category, reflects her difficulties and her ultimate triumph.

“I had to write about my struggle because I want all of us to take a moment to find those beautiful aspects of ourselves and embrace them,” said KT.

“I’d always wrestled with beauty growing up and at age forty-five, stricken with facial palsy, I realised I should have found myself beautiful all along. Why shouldn’t I find myself beautiful with facial palsy?”

KT said she owes the title of her story to her parents.

“With an Irish father and English mother, I was always told to keep my chin up, no matter what I was feeling,” she said. “Keeping my chin up after facial palsy was incredibly hard, especially when I had no tone in the right side of my face. I wanted to hide behind the curtain of my hair all the time. But that isn’t living. I had to figure out how to embrace what I do love about myself and go out into the world chin up. Writing about this struggle allowed me to process it more fully.”

As to being selected as a finalist, “I am thrilled, even if it feels overwhelming to know people are reading about my raw struggles with my face. Writing personal essays means exposing our own vulnerabilities and I’m ready to go there, to talk and write about the hard stuff.”

Chin Up

by KT Ryan

I remember the first time I thought I was ugly. My best friend made me stand shoulder-to-shoulder with her before a mirror. We were in middle school. In a sing-songy voice—as if it would take the sting out of her words—she pointed out everything that was wrong with my appearance: my nose was too bumpy, my cheeks were too round, and my skin was speckled with moles. I can still feel the chill of her fingers holding my ears flat against my head. Did I know that surgeons could pin my ears back? The carefree child in me evaporated.

I’d walked out of my friend’s house disgusted. Not at me, but at her. I was kind, smart, and determined. Wasn’t that enough?

More than three decades later, I woke up from brain tumor surgery with facial palsy. Lopsided, is what a hospital attendant called me while pointing to my face. And he was right. Half of my face sagged like a sock that had lost its elastic. My cheek spilled over my jaw and my eyebrow hung over lashes that could no longer close. That you’re-not-pretty-enough stab I’d felt all those years ago reared its knife.

Being out in public was brutal. Children gawked at my contorted face, unable to look away. Strangers offered me their “expertise” as I was surely someone who needed fixing. Had I tried acupuncture? Facial massage? Did I know I was funny looking? My stomach would churn, and I’d clutch my cheek. I soon developed a tic that jerked my blond hair forward over my facial palsy. I wondered whether I could parent my three children without ever having to leave the house again.

Through gritted teeth, I had to remember who I’d become: a damn good mother, friend, policy analyst, and athlete. I was sure as hell not going to shelve those parts of me because half my face drooped like a Bloodhound.

Then, a neighbor mocked my facial palsy while I stood next to my nine-year-old. I paused, dumbstruck. Slowly, I turned and made a funny face for my daughter, one that only facial palsy could amplify: a crooked smirk with a single eyebrow I wiggled up and down. We laughed through the moment, and I loved her for it. Though the truth was, I still hadn’t accepted my face. The neighbor’s cruelty had snagged at the barely-there threads of my self-confidence.

I owed my kids—and me—the opportunity to rewrite what it meant to be beautiful. It took work. I had to be willing to see myself through a new lens and find beauty in my face’s asymmetry. I began appreciating new parts of me, like the twinkle in my eyes, the resolve in my brow, and the tanned skin of a woman who won’t hide from what she has to offer the world.

Now, when I look in a mirror, I hold my chin up high.

After what he describes as “wasting thirty years travelling the world on business,” London-born Richard Avery abandoned his nomadic existence for the delights of the Sussex Downs.

Here he spends his waking hours pursuing fruitful activities such as writing - he has recently earned an MA in Creative Writing - teaching business, and hypnosis.

After being selected a finalist in the flash fiction category with the story ‘A Glance Through The Window,’ Richard said, “I felt like a five-year-old at Christmas. My path to writing has been long and difficult. I have not found it easy. Receiving recognition that I can write, means more to me than I could ever possibly explain.”

Richard has now written a novel, ‘Broken Wings,’ inspired by his childhood memories of The Beatles and a plethora of short stories.

As to the background of his WAWA story, “Many years ago, I discovered an old guitar shop in The Village in New York. Every time I passed, I would look through the window at the stunning and all-too expensive instruments inside. At the time I was only doing technical writing and had no idea how to create a story. When I retired from business, I tried my hand at writing fiction with little success, but as I started to learn my craft, I remembered the shop and made some notes about the idea of wanting to possess something so badly one is willing to sacrifice everything to obtain it.”

Richard said he wrote his story “in one sitting,” then “revised it 15 or 20 times over a period of about a month.” He said his most difficult challenge was “being brave enough to actually submit. There have been so many rejections recently, that I was not sure I could take another one.”

His original title was ‘Lust,’ but he said “that seemed rather boring especially as the title was one of the judging criteria. In the end I decided a simple story required a simple title and felt the first line described it perfectly.”

A Glance Through The Window

by Richard Avery

A glance through the window was all it took. An itch in my palms, a burning deep in my insides and the hit of adrenalin told me everything I needed to know. My burning face and droplets of sweat would make it clear to everyone else. I was hers for the taking.

The longest of necks joining seamlessly to her naked mahogany back, flowed smoothly into the slimmest of waists. She was perfect, I had never seen anything to equal her. If I was already hers, then I must make her mine.

As always, the doubts set in. Could I, I wondered?

‘No,’ said the angel on my shoulder. ‘She is out of your league. It would be pointless.’

‘Maybe, just maybe you might,’ his demon companion countered. And at that, joy flooded my soul.

Was she available? She must be, it was that sort of establishment. But why would anyone abandon a thing of such beauty in this tawdry den, lost amongst its bigger, red-lit neighbours. I had little experience of such places, you understand, but disregarding all good sense I walked inside anyway.

The sallow faced proprietor’s bloodshot eyes regarded me with suspicion as nodding in her direction I asked her price. Dressed in suit and tie, I was no doubt different from his regular clientele, but as she was unlike anything else here, he shouldn’t be surprised by my appearance. Was there something illicit about her that made him suspect me of laying a trap I wondered or, more likely, was I walking into one myself? I neither knew nor cared. My mind was filled with nothing beyond my desire for her.

Regarding me through a greasy fringe that hadn’t benefitted from shampoo in weeks, he finally came to a decision. Opening his mouth to reveal a graveyard of mossy broken teeth, his forty-a-day voice wheezed back, ‘Two grand and you can take her now.’

Two thousand. Every last cent I possessed and possibly more. Could such beauty really be worth that? Perhaps she was unaffordable after all. And so, I hesitated.

‘Don’t delay,’ whispered my demon trying to cement his victory, ‘supposing someone else takes her while you stand by indecisive.’ But even then, I had to be sure.

‘Just one touch?’ I asked, my embarrassed voice petering away into nothing.

‘If you must’ he snorted derisively, ‘but briefly, and then you pay.’

That one moment was enough, I couldn’t live another second without her. Sacrificing all I had was a small price to pay. Opening my wallet, I passed over everything, and she became mine.

Still terrified that she might slip away, I seized my beloved tight and caressing her oh so perfect neck, I whispered sweet nothings to her. Tracing my fingers down her flawless back, my arm encircled her enticing waist. Then pulling her to me, I strummed her six-strings and was lost in the sound of her perfection.

With a Masters in Journalism from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, Mariana Schroeder has worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Chicago, Charleston and Columbus, Ohio before moving to Munich.

Describing herself as “a journalist by profession, a grandmother by good fortune and a wife by conviction,” Mariana was a finalist in the flash fiction category with her story ‘The Box.’

After applying for a place on ‘Ireland Writing Retreat,’ Mariana saw details about the competition on the retreat website. “I thought it would be fun to try. I had never entered either a writing contest or a beauty contest before.”

As for the story idea itself, “I had an idea about how beauty has changed, or rather how our concept of beauty has changed through the ages. I decided to put that idea into fictional exchange between two people who were on the brink of becoming romantically and sexually involved.”

Admitting that she “usually spends a longer time thinking about a story than actually writing it,” Mariana said she completed her story “in one go and revised it once.”

As for being a finalist, “Pleasantly surprised and honored and grateful that you found some merit in my story.”

The Box

by Mariana Schroeder

The box found in the attic was silver, almost black with tarnish. A design of deep undulating arabesques covered the lid. It was lined with sandalwood and looked as if it had been made in India or Burma.

“It’s filled with photographs,” said Alasdair.” What you’d call erotic photographs. At least they were thought to be erotic around the turn of the century.”

Alasdair emptied the box and Leonora leaned closer to see. Two women, probably in their teens smiled at the camera. Their dark hair was piled up on their heads and they stared at the camera with dead eyes. Their breasts had the milky white quality of skin that had never seen the sun and a dark triangle of hair underlined their soft bellies.

“Women don’t have figures like that anymore,” said Leonora.

“They probably do but no one photographs them. Our concept of beauty has changed. We now prefer the anorexic and emaciated – or at least the fashion industry does.”

Alasdair spread the photos out on the table. The women simpered and posed in sepia tones, showing voluptuous bodies, round hips with dimpled posteriors.

“Beauty and sex have different ideals. Just look at the woman in Vogue and compare them to the women in Playboy,” said Leonora.

“You read Playboy?”

“Well, I know what’s in it – sex.”

“I thought we were talking about beauty.”

“Beauty and sex are interchangeable.”

“No. They’re very different.”

“But those photographs were made for sex, to excite men who were tired of their wives.”

Alasdair picked up one of the photos. “I think you’re being too harsh. Maybe the man who collected these was a connoisseur, someone who simply loved beautiful women.”

“No matter how you look at it, those women were victims.”

“Victims? Of the men who took the photos or of the men who bought them?”

“Neither. They were victims of their own beauty. Had they been ugly, they wouldn’t have had to take off their clothes. They would have become kitchen maids or farmers’ wives.”

“Why would that have been better?”

“Come on Alasdair. We’re talking 1900s here. What were their options?”

“Well, the Prince of Wales, also known as Edward the Caresser, was always on the lookout.”

“They were more likely to wind up on the street. Which means beauty isn’t aways a blessing.”

“Well at least we agree on that. I’d go even further. Beauty can be a curse.”

“What do you mean?”

“I knew a woman who was so beautiful, she could enter a room and fill it with light. She was perfect and she knew it. She needed nothing else. Beauty prevented her from learning anything useful. She tried modelling, got bored, married twice and gradually drifted through life until the first sign of age sent her spiralling into the world of Botox and plastic surgery.”

“God, Alastair. That sounds cynical. Who was she?”

“My ex-wife.”

After hearing about WAWA through a Facebook group called, ‘Old Women Who Write,’ Elena Fahey, a retired attorney in her mid-50s, remembered a travel adventure she experienced.

That became the basis for ‘One Night,’ a story that made her a finalist in the creative non-fiction category.

“My husband and I travel a lot so I've been writing about those adventures,” explained Elena, who was born in Wyoming, raised in Arizona and currently lives in New Jersey. “The trip I wrote about was a cross-country excursion in our small RV. Many things went wrong on that trip, but the experience was amazing anyway.”

As for the challenges writing her story, “It took over a month to write and it was only 250 words. I did many many revisions before I felt it was complete. The most difficult thing was deciding it was done.”

Her thoughts on being a finalist, “It feels amazing to be chosen. It's always affirming when an esteemed organisation says your writing is interesting and worth reading. I entered because I wanted to win a spot on one of the writing retreats.”

One Night

by Elena Fahey

We pulled into the junkyard where the garage/brewery sat along Route 66 in New Mexico. Tom parked the RV away from the scrap metal piles and dismantled cars as I stared out the windshield trying to temper my disappointment in our campsite. We had discovered the freezing temperatures had cracked our holding tank, leaving us with no running water four days into our three week adventure.

“One night,” I thought as we entered the makeshift bar only a thin wall from the car lifts and oil stains. The bartender poured us two ales as others trickled in: a younger couple on a Hinge date, the bartender's husband who worked on the reservation, then Joe the garage owner. Until all 12 stools were filled. Delicate snowflakes began to fall outside, as familiar tunes played and we all slowly revealed pieces of ourselves. With each tale, I relaxed into the evening’s spell and watched as the 9 pm closing time melted into something later.

Maybe it was the tilt of her head as she listened to her date describe his grandmother, maybe it was the bartender's laughter echoing through our conversations, or maybe it was the unexpected easy communion with strangers found in a remote setting along our route. But a kind of magic descended that evening, floating around us like fireflies on a summer night. For a few hours in a little bar at the end of a garage, I was adrift in the moment and it felt like joy.

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