An excerpt from "Head Over Feet in Love," the first novel by Ann Arbor's Patti F. Smith
Patti F. Smith is the author of the history books "Images of America: Downtown Ann Arbor," "A People’s History of the People’s Food Co-op," and the forthcoming "Forgotten Ann Arbor" (spring 2019). (She's also a regular contributor to Pulp.) Her debut fiction novel, "Head Over Feet in Love," comes out as an ebook on November 14 and as a print edition in February 2019. Smith gives us some background on the book, followed by an excerpt from the novel.
The first draft featured protagonist Rebecca Slater as a famous author who got six-figure advances, whose book was being made into a movie, who employed several assistants to help her with fan mail. The second draft saw Becca as a famous author who got six-figure advances but no mention of movie deals or assistants. The third draft found Becca as an author with a cult following; she still made a living from it but no more talk of hefty advances or net worth. The fourth draft presented Becca as a teacher who wrote books on the side, making money but not enough to live on.
In the final version, Becca hasn’t even gotten published yet.
Many things changed in the years that I wrote and rewrote Head Over Feet in Love -- Becca and her friends went from flip phones to smartphones, DSL to wi-fi, having a million dollars in the bank to scraping by as a teacher. But through it all Becca lived with bipolar disorder and anxiety.
Just like me.
Becca is running away from a stay in a mental health facility, a writing career that never got off the ground, and a dying best friend. She has nowhere to go, but nothing can stop her -- until she crashes her car into a tree (possibly on purpose, but probably not). Without a cell phone and in a strange town, Becca starts knocking on doors looking for someone to help her. The only person who answers her knock is Mike Riley.
Becca is a lot of things -- feminist, teacher, wannabe author, a person with a bipolar condition, lover of all things Gen X -- but she has never been in love. Becca and Mike begin a friendship that neither realizes they need. Becca shares her unique life view with Mike, who becomes her friend, her muse, and the love of her life.
When Becca thinks Mike is dead she impulsively runs away again, this time to a place where she thinks no one will ever find her. She prepares for a life without her true love, committed to remaining mentally healthy and strong, continuing a story she now believes will have an unhappy ending.
Like other people with mental health issues, Becca struggles but also lives her life. She keeps moving forward no matter how many setbacks her brain deals, and that’s really the focus of her story: that mental health issues are part of your life, but not the sum total. You can still fall in love, have a great life, tell your story.
And have a happy ending.
An excerpt from Head Over Feet in Love:
Girl Meets Boy
I’m driving away. I’m driving away as fast and as far as I can. I’m never going back. I’m going to drive until I get so far up north that no one will ever find me. I’m going to—
Except that I’m not. I can’t leave home now. Not with my best friend in a coma, not with my parents tripped out, not with all that’s going on. Not with bipolar disorder and anxiety and everything else. I’m still driving away, mind you, but I’ll have to go back. As soon as the rain lets up, I’ll turn around and head back to US-23. It’s really pouring though, and I don’t like driving in the rain, so I might have to find a hotel and stay the night. I’ll have to call my parents, except I don’t have a phone anymore, and with Rick in the hospital, it all means—
It means that I have no way to call anyone when my car hits the tree.
Goddamn it! My air bag merrily pops out at me, and I start to cough as I inhale the powder that comes out with it. Without thinking about whether or not I might be hurt, I throw open the door and climb out of my Jeep.
As the rain soaks me, I look at my Jeep and let out a groan. Goddamn it. Steam pours out of the engine, and the car wheezes. Shit. Don’t cars sometimes explode in the movies when steam is rushing out of them? This could suck.
I grab my purse and Red Wings jersey out of the car, cautiously backing away. I reach for my cell phone before remembering that it had been with Rick when his canoe upended on the Huron River, and it changed everything. Shit.
Okay, Becca, don’t panic. Don’t panic. Think. Where are the nearest houses where you can—
The car burps, and smoke puffs from under the hood. I swear the Jeep looks mad. It belches again and then kinda rumbles at me. One headlight winks at me before it goes out. The Jeep makes a noise I have never heard it make before.
Okay, now we panic.
I turn and run up the nearest driveway. I pound on the door, but no one answers. “Help!” I call, before remembering the self-defense course my mom made me take in seventh grade, which had taught me that people respond well to shouts of “fire,” but not so well to shouts for “help.” “Fire!” I call helpfully.
“Well, screw you, too!” I say to the door before racing to the next house where again I pound and pound.
Finally, a voice says, “What do you want?”
I squint in through the window to see a tiny elderly man. “The phone!” I yelp.
“What do you want?” he repeats, as if I haven’t spoken.
“The—this!” I mimic a phone by putting my thumb to my ear and my pinky to my mouth. He still looks confused, so I start talking into my pinky like a fool. I remember an improv teacher saying that you shouldn’t imitate a phone that way lest people think you are talking into your finger like a dork, so I pretend that I have an old timey Star Trek communicator and start talking in a Captain Kirk voice.
The man shakes his head and says, “You don’t make any sense, girly. You go away now.”
I wonder if I really don’t make any sense, or if he’s just offended by my James T. Kirk impression. I walk off the porch and feel something hit my face. I look up and realize it’s hailing. Oh, nice. I put the Wings jersey on, because surely this will stop the ice from hitting me.
I race down the hill and up the block. It takes eons to reach the next driveway. I’m out of breath, but I start to race up toward the house on the hill. I climb and climb before I realize that I have, indeed, picked the steepest driveway. Because of course I did.
Damn, this hill is steep. I wish I hadn’t decided to run away. I wish Ricky had eaten better and hadn’t screwed up his heart. I wish I had my cell phone. I wish I could call my parents. I wish. I know, I know, if wishes were horses ... a saying I never really quite understood, but whatever.
The house on the hill enters my line of vision and I stand, contemplating it. Big, dark brick. Two stories, with black shutters on all eight windows. If I had gone into architecture instead of law, I would know the style. As it is, my brain can only conjure up images like the enormous land contract or mortgage on the house. Hell, if that shit had cropped up on the Bar, maybe I would have passed it.
My thoughts of property law flutter away when I notice a curtain move in the big bay window, as if someone inside has just peeked out. Oh yeah, baby—the doctor is in.
I take a breath and run up to the door. One sign reads, “No Peddlers or Solicitors”, because peddlers are really a thing these days. Another warns of “No Trespassing! This means YOU.”
“Bite me,” I mutter, and punch the bell. Come on, my man! If you rustle that curtain, you can open that door. “I need help! I crashed my Jeep down the hill there. I need a phone.”
Bzzz, bzzz, bzzz. The hail picks up and blows onto the porch, pummeling me. The more I get hit, the more I want to ram in through the bay window like the Kool-Aid Man. The more I get hit, the more depressed I become.
Suddenly, I stop ringing the bell, knowing that I am being ignored. “Seriously? Really?” I announce to the empty porch. I have become a walking first-world problem, and I hate everything.
My very best friend is in a medically induced coma following two heart attacks and a stroke. Two heart attacks and a stroke. I have to say it twice sometimes. Just because I have to. My parents go to the hospital every day, sitting, waiting, hoping. I have a year off from school, so I can write a book, but I can’t write a word. And now my beloved Jeep is in a strange neighborhood, making noises like the Candyman.
I sit on the porch swing. Pin pricks of ice, drops of cold rain, all at once. Passive-aggressive suicidal. That’s what a shrink called me once. Drives recklessly, drinks until black out, refuses to look both ways before crossing the road. Latent death wish. Blah blah blah blah blah. Why, yes. I do feel all of this now, because hashtag “first-world problems” I don’t have a phone.
The rain continues. It gets darker. I think about throwing out the pills, magically fixing the Jeep, and driving into something. Driving into a freeway concrete barrier. Driving into a river, like where my friend was when he had his two heart attacks and his stroke. His two heart attacks and a stroke. I see Rick’s face above me. He has no eyes. Jesus! I holler out so loudly that I wake myself up.
I look around, my heart pounding. Incredible. Freezing, wet, miserable–and I fall asleep. I truly amaze myself at times. I shake my head, like that will clear things up for me. Out of the corner of my eye, I see the curtain flicker again.
“Okay, asshole!” I call to it. “I’m cold, and I’m wet, and my car is dead! I need a phone! I need a phone now!” Because surely, the addition of the word “now” will get things on and popping. “Please?” I add.
Nothing. No flicker of movement. Nothing.
“Well, go to hell then!” I shout, and sit back down on the swing. What the hell is wrong with this neighborhood? I grew up in the best place on earth, where people at least it’s called. I sit with my knees to my chest, my head buried.
“Why are you here?”
I literally jump off the swing in utter terror. Naturally, I only land on my left foot, my right foot catching on the swing. I do a quick dance before falling onto my butt.
I keep my head lowered, crying and wanting to blame someone else for this mess. I start going through names in my head. I start with Melissa from first grade. She was a know-it-all brat. I can’t imagine what she’s like now.
A hand appears before my face. I take it and allow the stranger, now known as The Man Behind the Curtain, to pull me to my feet.
He repeats himself. “Why are you here? Did you come to get a report on me and turn it into local folklore?”
At first, I think he’s kidding. I look at him for the first time, but I can’t see his face. Dressed in a hooded rain coat and looking like Paddington the Bear and the Gorton fish stick guy’s bastard child, his features are hidden from me.
“My car—” My voice breaks. I clear my throat. “My car crashed. I crashed it. I think maybe on purpose.” I say this out loud for the first time, not knowing if it’s true.
Silence. Finally, he turns and walks back to the house, leaving me alone. Tears slip down my cheeks. He’s going to leave me out here to freeze, I realize.
But then he turns. “Aren’t you coming in?”
Patti F. Smith is a special education teacher and writer who lives in Ann Arbor with her husband.
Patti F. Smith's "Head Over Feet in Love" is available via Soul Mate Publishing.