After I finished reading that day’s papers, I sat in the Starbucks on 7th Avenue in Park Slope, Brooklyn, sipping my tall skim latte—skim, because I’m just one more guy trying to watch his weight—and thinking Big Thoughts. I forget now what they were, but these thoughts seemed to make me remember something I loved about Celexa, an antidepressant I’d been taking. It seemed to help me concentrate on large concepts and let me ignore trivial details.
I finished my coffee and headed in the direction of Barnes & Noble. There, I first went to the latest-hardcover-fiction area, and then to the portion of the store that contained the featured paperback fiction. I had noticed that recently many of these books were representative examples of the chick lit genre. These books typically had sexy covers that were often pink. They were usually sardonically narrated by female protagonists in their late twenties or early thirties who were in slightly interesting but fundamentally unsatisfying jobs and who dated a series of often mean, boring, disgusting and clueless men. These books might take place in New York, London, Seattle or elsewhere, but they all were variations on the same formula.
But just as when I go to the movies I like chick flicks, I like these books. Perhaps that’s a bit unusual for a straight man, but I’m a sucker for stylized drama. So I picked out a few and brought them to the Barnes & Noble in-house Starbucks, where I ordered, for the second time in less than half an hour, a tall skim latté. I took my coffee and the books and sat down at an empty table.
Before I started reading, I couldn’t help but focus on my concern that I had wasted my life. The Celexa usually helped me avoid obsessing over this concern most of the time, but not always. Even on such a sunny, spring Saturday, I still had moments of despair. I wasn’t sure what I thought I should have accomplished, but whatever it was, I certainly hadn’t done it. After a few minutes of staring off into space, I willed myself to stop being so gloomy and get on with things.
I began leafing through A Room with a Jew, a novel by a writer, new to me, named Sarah Marx. The novel’s heroine, a thirty-one-year-old corporate publicist, lived in a broken-down one-room apartment on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Her name was Karen Kaufman. She paid $2200 per month for rent. Her great-grandmother, who had arrived in New York a century before, had paid about $22 per month for a two-bedroom apartment on the same block.
I skimmed the first fifty pages for about ten minutes. This Karen worked hard. She met a lot of people through her work, mostly deeply-flawed men a bit older than she was. Some were married, some not. Karen seemed to spend most of her non-working time in the apartment, watching HBO and eating meals of takeout salad, Diet Coke and a variety of flavors of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. While eating, drinking and watching TV, she tended to daydream about meeting her perfect mate. But she couldn’t figure out what he would look like, what kind of job he would have, or whether he had to be, as she was, Jewish.
My reading was interrupted by a tall, thin, attractive woman in her mid-thirties with dark, curly hair and coal-black eyes. “Is this seat taken?” she asked, pointing to the empty chair at my table.
“It’s all yours,” I said with a smile.
She placed her coffee cup and five or six books on the table and sat down. Looking at the books out of the corner of my eye, it appeared to me that they were all hardcover novels. She had been sitting for less than a minute when she said, “I can’t believe it. You’re reading my book.”
“You’re Sarah Marx?”
“I sure am,” she said.
“That’s amazing. Do you live near here?”
“On 2nd Street. How about you?”
“I live on Lincoln Place,” I said.
“Wow. A named street. Pretty impressive.”
“Maybe. But it’s not in the P.S. 321 school district, which is more desirable.”
“Is that a problem? Do you have kids?”
“Nope,” I said, as I checked out the naked ring finger on Sarah’s left hand. “How about you?”
“No husband, no kids, no pets. Not even any houseplants,” she said.
“Oh. Have you written any other books?”
“I have one that I’ve finished. It’ll be published in the fall. I’m working on a third, but I’m not too far along yet. How did you hear of my book?
“I just picked it up.”
“Why that book rather than a thousand others?”
“I loved the title,” I said. “And I liked the cover.” The cover had a simple drawing of a tall woman with dark, curly hair in a black mini-skirt, black top and heels in a tiny room with a bed in one corner and a table in the opposite corner. The woman was sitting at the table eating ice cream out of a cylindrical carton.
“So. What do you think?”
“Well, I’ve only been skimming it quickly. But I like it.”
“What do you like about it?” she asked.
“I like the main character, Karen. She’s kind of pathetic, but also endearing.”
“I guess it’s sort of autobiographical. But I think Karen’s a lot more endearing than I am.” Sarah’s dark eyes looked down at her lap as she said this.
“My name’s Russ,” I said, grabbing her hand and shaking it a little too vigorously. I found her now somewhat-embarrassed smile to be fetching. “To what extent does the writing add up to earning a living?” I suddenly asked. I was immediately annoyed with myself for this question that seemed to be prying.
“It doesn’t,” said Sarah, apparently not taking offense. “But I’m teaching writing at Borough of Manhattan Community College and I also do some writing workshops. So it works out. What do you do?”
“I work for an environmental group. I plan and help run campaigns on environmental issues in several states around the country.”
“That sounds great. What precisely does it entail?”
“I go to various states and figure out what the big environmental issues are in each one. Then I figure out which environmental groups in the state are good at doing what. I put them together in various configurations and connect them to issue experts in Washington. Then I teach them to whine and complain to anyone who’ll listen. And I help them figure out how to get quoted with pithy statements to the press.”
“And you get paid for that?” asked Sarah with mock incredulity.
“Well, there’s more to it than meets the eye.”
“I guess there must be,” she said, just a bit sarcastically. While only a few minutes earlier I had thought Sarah fetching, now I found her cheeky. But I liked that just as much. Maybe more.
Then Sarah asked, “What kind of training do you need for a job like that?”
“Well, I’m a lawyer. But you certainly don’t need to be a lawyer to do this job. And I like to read newspapers, so that helps me coach them on how to work with the media. Being able to turn a phrase helps. So does understanding something about politics. But there really isn’t an established credentialing system to do this kind of work.”
“Being able to turn a phrase helps in my business, too,” said Sarah. “But people who are hardly even literate seem to become successful writers, at least financially. So, who knows?”
“Why do you think some writers who are awful make it and others who are quite good never do?” I asked.
“I don’t know. It’s kind of frustrating.”
“I’ve always been interested in writing fiction,” I said. “But I’ve never written anything except a few fragments.”
“I’m always looking for students for my writing workshop,” said Sarah. “And I’m especially interested in people who aren’t coming straight from some English program.”
“How do you work it?” I asked.
“I lead a group. The students are mostly alienated Park Slope men.”
“I guess I’d fit right in,” I said. “But I’m a little concerned I’d be kind of a cliché.”
“Hey, most of my students have the same feeling. And, sure, some might be right,” she said. “Do you have any work you can show me?”
“Like I said, they’re really just fragments. Do you really want me to send them to you?”
“Sure. E-mail them.”
“Give me your address,” I said. I pulled out one of my business cards and slid it with my pen across the table in front of Sarah. She wrote her e-mail on the back of the card and handed it back to me.
“Thanks,” I said. “I’ll send them to you. But don’t be too harsh.”
“Don’t worry,” she said.
“Hey, would you autograph my copy of your book?” I placed A Room with a Jew on the table in front of Sarah and put the pen on top of the book.
Sarah opened it up and wrote something. She closed the book and slid it in front of me.
To Russ, From one aspiring writer to another. Keep in touch.
I looked at the inscription for several long seconds. “Thanks.” I said. “But why do you describe yourself as ‘aspiring’?”
“I’m really not satisfied with anything I’ve written. By the time the book came out, I was half ashamed of it. I like my new book better, but I’m obsessing over the weak points in it. I’m still trying to get to the point where I’m really proud of something I’ve written.”
“What does ‘half ashamed’ mean? You weren’t so ashamed that you avoided mentioning that you wrote the book I was reading.”
“Good point. Although I was so shocked that I didn’t even think before I told you I wrote it.”
“But you’re not so ashamed that you refuse to let people know that you’re a writer.”
“No. If I didn’t let people know I was a writer, I have no idea how I would describe myself to people I meet. And my mother would consider me a complete failure.”
“Has she read your book?”
“Yeah, but we’ve never really discussed it. She’s not really the kind to have an actual conversation. When you ask her how she likes a movie, she’ll say things like ‘It was delicious.’”
“But she thinks you’re a success?”
“She has something to tell her friends when they ask what I do. That’s important. And being a writer sounds significant, so it makes up to some extent for the fact that I’m not married and haven’t produced any grandchildren.”
“Hey, it sounds like you might be a cliché, too. It seems like most of the single women I know have the same problem with their mothers. In fact, your character Karen Kaufman has a mother like that.”
“Well, they say you should write about what you know.”
I silently drank the last sip of coffee. Sarah did the same. She looked at her watch. “I have to get going,” she said. “But make sure and send me whatever you’ve written.”
“OK. It’s been nice talking with you.” I stuck out my hand and she shook it. She left all of her books on the table and quickly walked toward the store exit. I waited at the table for a few more minutes. Then I took A Room With a Jew to the cash register, and began walking north on 7th Avenue.
It was a quarter to one. I decided I should be hungry. I stopped into the local pizza parlor. “I’d like a slice.”
“What would you like to drink?” asked the pizza parlor guy.
“Nothing. Just the slice.”
I have largely eschewed soda since an LSD-inspired revelation at the age of 18. At that time, while under the influence, I went into a pizza parlor and ordered a slice and a Coke. I was able to eat the slice, but I kept thinking that if I drank the Coke, the Coke would become a part of me. Forever. I didn’t much like the idea. Ever since, my consumption of soda has been very limited. I know this makes very little sense, since I’m perfectly willing to put all sorts of other things into my body and turn those things into parts of me. And although the slice right now was neither better nor worse than slices that could be bought at similar pizza parlors throughout the city, it was to me at this moment, as Sarah’s mother rated movies, “delicious”.
I went home, took off my shoes and sat at the computer. I took the card with Sarah’s e-mail address out of my shirt pocket and typed it into the appropriate box. Then I sat, thinking, for what seemed like a very long time. I couldn’t figure out what to say.
Finally, I put “Story Fragments” in the subject box. Then I attached each of the four fragments. The longest was four pages. I clicked back to the still-blank message. I started typing.
It was nice to meet you today. Here are the story fragments I told you about. This is all the fiction writing that I’ve done. It’s a very small body of work, but they say the same thing about J.D. Salinger and Harper Lee. Let me know what you think.
Then I hit Send.
It was 2 PM. I considered my options. I had a date that night with Judy, a fellow Brooklynite I’d been seeing for about two months.
We were supposed to see a movie at the Angelika theater in Manhattan and then have dinner. I wasn’t really all that interested in Judy. She seemed perfectly nice, but I was unable to get enthusiastic about her. And now that I had met Sarah, I was starkly aware of just how unenthusiastic I was. In any event, I had five more hours before Judy and I were scheduled to meet.
I felt that I had probably digested enough of the pizza to go to the gym, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to. I could keep looking at various sites on the Internet, but that didn’t seem like it would be very interesting. I could watch TV, but I figured that it was unlikely that anything would capture my interest.
I could read. I do read very widely—fiction, history, politics, sometimes even poetry. I always have several books going simultaneously. I was in the middle of a book about Ataturk, because, in the wake of September 11, I had become interested in the idea of the founding of a militantly secular country like Turkey in which the overwhelming majority of the population was Muslim. Suddenly I also liked the idea of reading it while drinking Wild Turkey. Unfortunately, I often had a problem with reading—I tended to fall asleep. This time, I thought I would run out of steam after just a few pages, with or without the whiskey.
I could make phone calls. But I had already spoken to Jim, my friend from childhood, earlier that day. I could call my brother. Or my mother. Maybe later. I didn’t feel like talking to either of them. Then I thought about Sarah. I could work on my fiction. Good idea.
I opened up the folder entitled “Fiction” and the file “Guess Who I Heard From”. Then I read the first fragment.
“Guess who I heard from,” said Jim.
“Eddie Batson?” asked Russ. Eddie Batson had gone to high school with Russ and Jim. Several years after graduation, he had frozen to death in his car after having combined too much alcohol with too many Quaaludes.
“Not quite,” said Jim. “Stan Steinberg.”
“You’re kidding.” Russ and Jim had gone to high school with Stan almost thirty years before. Russ hadn’t seen him since shortly after graduation. As far as he knew, neither had Jim. “Is he still in L.A.?”
“Yeah. He said he’s going to be in New York at Christmas and wants to get together.”
That was it. Not very compelling, I thought. It didn’t even seem to make up in quality what it lacked in quantity. And I couldn’t even come up with fictitious names for the only two characters with any dialogue. At least, I thought, I’ve made up new names for the other two characters, even if one of them is dead.
Almost motionless, I stared at the computer screen for half an hour without writing a word. I finally gave up. By now it was 3 PM. I decided to go to the gym.
Even before the Park Slope Sports Club opened, I became a member. I had been especially pleased that the club did not open on the scheduled date. I had felt virtuous. I had joined the club, but it wasn’t yet open for business. So, I convinced myself, I wanted to get lots of exercise, but the delay in the opening date of the club prevented me from doing so, so if I didn’t go to the gym, it wasn’t my fault.
Finally, the club did actually open. I surprised myself by going there on a regular basis. I used the recumbent bicycle and often also used some of the weight machines. When I went in the morning, I brought the newspapers and read them while using the stationary bicycle. If I went later in the day, I brought a book. I was about to bring the Ataturk biography, but then I remembered that I had just bought Sarah’s book, so I brought that.
I did a half-hour on the bicycle. I learned a bit more about the life of Karen Kaufman. I liked her. She seemed to face a lot of adversity in her job and her love life and she seemed to triumph over much of it. And it was funny.
I put the book in my locker and went to the weight room. I worked on several of the machines that were designed to build up my arms and upper body muscles. Like most men who not quite secure about their masculinity (which I think includes most men), my weights-workout routine overemphasized my arms and chest and almost completely ignored my legs. I figured the bicycle portion of the workout was good enough for my legs, but I wasn’t really sure. When I finished, I collected A Room With a Jew from my locker, walked home, took a shower and changed into my usual get-up—jeans and a pocket T-shirt.
As I dressed, I was wondering what Sarah would think of my style of dressing. That is, if she ever had any occasion to think about it at all. Because I knew I still dressed the same way I did when I was sixteen. For a left-winger, I was awfully conservative. Was I in some kind of a rut, or did I just find a uniform I liked and stick with it? I wasn’t sure. But I definitely liked having a pocket, because I was pretty obsessive about always carrying a pen. You never know when you’ll need to write something down.
It was 4:30. I sat down at the computer and checked my e-mail. Mostly spam. I walked over to the couch, lay down, picked up the Ataturk biography from the coffee table, opened it up, closed it again, placed it back on the coffee table and took a nap.
When I woke up and looked at my watch, it was 5:30. I decided to leave for Manhattan and walk around for a little while before the movie. I found my worn-out faded green sweatshirt, very similar to one I had been so attached to when I was sixteen. I tied it around my waist and, carrying my Ataturk book, walked to the subway.
When I got off at Grand Street in Manhattan, I walked north to Houston Street and then west, until I got to the Angelika. I bought two tickets for the 7:20 show.
It was now 6:15. Judy was supposed to meet me at 7:00. I decided to spend the next 45 minutes reading about Ataturk. I had brought along the biography instead of Sarah’s book because it somehow seemed unfair to Judy that I should be reading Sarah’s book while waiting for Judy.
When Judy arrived, I couldn’t help but notice that the way she looked didn’t stack up so well to Sarah. Not that there was really anything wrong with how she looked, just nothing special to me. I looked at her and decided that Sarah was more appealing. Much more appealing.
Judy and I perfunctorily kissed each other. “I think they’re already seating people,” I said. “Let’s go in.” Judy bought popcorn while I found seats. We didn’t say much to each other before the movie and then we settled down to watch it.
After the movie, I said to Judy, “Did you like it?”
“Me too.” Quite the impressive critical discussion, I thought—maybe we could get on TV as movie critics.
We walked to Jerry’s, a restaurant on Prince Street west of Mercer. Jerry’s, which is now gone, had been around long enough to be something of a SoHo landmark. It had diner-like booths in the front, with a bar and tables in the back. Judy and I were greeted by the hostess, an impossibly thin, six-foot-tall dark-haired beauty in a short black dress. Manhattan has an endless supply of models and actresses working as hostesses, I thought. I wondered if she’d be successful. If not, I figured she would certainly find someone to marry her. Would it last? I guessed I wasn’t really thinking about the hostess’s future, but my own. Whether or not I saw Sarah again, I knew I was probably on my last date with Judy. We sat in a booth in front.
Judy ordered a martini. I followed suit. Despite my general preference for Wild Turkey, I thought ordering the same drink as Judy would indicate that I was attempting to bond with her. We sipped our drinks in silence.
While waiting for our salads, we finished our martinis. The waitress came by to ask if we wanted another. We both declined. Instead, Judy ordered a glass of white wine and I ordered a Bass Ale. My interest in looking like I was trying to bond with Judy lost out when it competed with the appropriate beverage for a warm evening in June.
“What’s new at work?” I asked. It was the first attempt at conversation either of us had made since we sat down to dinner. I wasn’t expecting an interesting answer, and I didn’t get one. In fact, although Judy was perfectly nice, there wasn’t anything all that interesting about her. I had met her at a party in Brooklyn Heights about three months earlier. A friend of mine, an environmental lawyer, and his wife, a director of a not-for-profit anti-poverty group, may even have been fixing us up. I wasn’t quite sure.
Whether they were or not, Judy and I spent a good portion of the party talking to each other. About her job. About mine. About movies and about music. I can do that sort of thing. But whenever I do, I always feel there’s something phony about it all.
I know I’m depressed. But I also know that she was a bit desperate. Maybe she was looking for a marriageable Jewish man of roughly the right age and professional status. And I fit the bill. We had carried on a perfectly friendly conversation. Even a bit flirty. But I knew even then she wasn’t really for me.
It didn’t matter. I asked her out for the following weekend. I went through the motions and that seemed like enough for her. We had gone out for dinner in Park Slope and then back to her place where we spent the night. It was fun, I guess, but I certainly didn’t feel that we had much of a connection. We weren’t exactly soul-mates. But we had continued to see each other since then.
Our salads arrived. So did the beer and wine. We began eating in silence. “How is it?” I finally asked.
“Good. How’s yours?”
“Great.” I had another idea. Maybe we could also star in a TV show in which we were completely undiscerning and inarticulate restaurant critics.
When the check arrived, Judy made a show of attempting to pay for half, but I paid for the whole thing. “What now?” I asked.
“Let’s stay at my place,” said Judy. “I’m tired. I think we should take a cab.”
The cab drove to Brooklyn as Judy and I silently held hands. I spent most of the ride wondering whether I would really try to join Sarah’s writing group. When we got to Judy’s apartment, she made tea. We settled in, adjacent to each other on a couch. We sipped our tea and held hands some more. “What’s wrong?” asked Judy.
“Nothing,” I said, as emphatically as I could.
“You seem distant,” she said.
“Maybe you’re right,” I said. “We just don’t seem to have much of a connection.” I surprised myself by being so direct. I’m not usually very direct about such things, to say the least. In fact, if I want to end a relationship, I’m likely just to act sullen until my partner takes the initiative. Was this the Celexa working its magic, or was the fact that I had just met Sarah leading me to take matters into my own hands?
“What do you mean?”
“Everything’s pleasant enough. But there’s no strong feeling. No real passion.”
“Maybe that’s why the sex hasn’t really been any good,” Judy said.
“It hasn’t?” I asked. It was one thing to have no feeling and no passion. But to hear Judy say that the sex wasn’t good seemed to be an attack on my manhood.
“It’s all just mechanical.”
“I don’t think so,” I said, even though I completely agreed with her.
“Well, that’s how it feels to me,” she said.
We sipped in silence for what was probably two or three minutes, but seemed much longer to me. “I guess I should go,” I said.
“No. It’s late. You can stay.”
“OK,” I said, knowing that staying over was probably a big mistake.
We washed up and got into bed. As if by prior agreement, we arranged our bodies to be as far away from each other as possible. Despite my skill as a sleeper, I didn’t sleep much that night. At seven, which seemed to me to be the earliest that I could politely leave, I got out of bed, went to the bathroom, washed up and put on my clothes.
Judy appeared to be asleep. I gently touched her shoulder to rouse her. “I’m leaving,” I said.
“Now I’m really mad,” said Judy.
“I’ll call you,” I said, though I knew I wasn’t going to.
I let myself out. I walked to the newsstand at 7th Avenue and 9th Street, bought the Times, the Post and the News and then walked into the nearest diner. I ordered breakfast and then started reading the Sunday papers—I’d had this comforting, almost transcendent, experience before when previous relationships ended, of burying myself in breakfasts and newspapers.
When I got back to my place, I made a pot of coffee. While waiting for it to brew, I sat down at the computer. Nothing new at the Times site. I scanned the Washington Post site for a little while, but it didn’t seem to have any news that was much different from the Times. I got up and poured myself a mugful and had a first, soothing sip. With the coffee mug in hand, I walked back to the computer to open up my e-mail. I had twelve new messages. But, really, the only one that interested me was the one from Sarah Marx. Even so, I deliberately delayed opening it. Although I knew it was extremely unlikely, I was worried that she would reject my fragments of fiction as worthless. That was part of my motivation for delay. The other part was that I wanted to save the best for last. When, a full five minutes later, I finally did open the message from Sarah, “Re: story fragments”, I noticed that it was sent at 10:49 PM. I guessed that she didn’t go out the night before. Maybe she’s not seeing anyone. That was good.
It was very nice to meet you, Russ. I rarely run into anyone who has read my book, let alone someone who has it open and is reading it. You’re right. Yours is a small body of work. So far, it’s a bit too small for me to be able to evaluate how much promise you have. But if you really want to write, you should try it. Give me a call so we can discuss.
Wow, I thought, as I looked at her phone number at the end of the message. Amazing. Could this really be about joining her writing group, or was it just a way of arranging to get together? I decided I didn’t know. Either way, though, I was glad. I wanted to see Sarah again, and I was also intrigued by the idea of writing fiction.
I went to the kitchen and poured myself another mug of coffee. I came back to the computer where I checked out several other sites—the LA Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Wall Street Journal.
I walked away from the computer and turned on the TV. The Sunday morning talk shows were going full blast. Politicians were ducking questions left and right. Highly partisan political pundits and newspaper columnists whose fame came largely from television appearances were yelling at each other. I turned it off.
What next, I wondered. The Ataturk book didn’t seem very enticing. Neither did the gym. It looked like a nice day out. I decided to go to Barnes & Noble. I tried to suppress my excitement at the possibility of running into Sarah there again, although it struck me that it was a fairly slim possibility. My repertoire of things to do, like going to Barnes and Noble, was very limited. Sarah seemed like a much more well-rounded person. She probably had other things to fill her time.
No new books had appeared on their front tables since the previous day. I took a few of the political magazines from the magazine rack, walked to the café portion of the store, ordered a skim latté. I sat down, drinking and reading. Of course, I looked around for Sarah, but she didn’t seem to be there. Then I rebuked myself for not realizing what I obviously should be doing, going back to my place and reading Sarah’s book.
I quickly finished my coffee and left. I walked north on 7th Avenue. I stopped in at the pizza parlor for a slice, wolfed it down and, suddenly energized at the thought of getting to know Sarah better through her written words, returned home. The dedication page of A Room With a Jew read “For my parents”. Interesting, I thought, given what she had said about her mother. Maybe she was just being politic. Or maybe she thought more highly of her father than she did of her mother. She hadn’t even mentioned him during the conversation the previous day.
I read the same fifty pages which I had only skimmed the previous day. Soon I decided that I actually liked the book. The novel was narrated in the first person by the protagonist, Karen. She was always insecure but also always optimistic. Neither her career nor her love life was going anywhere good, but she still had great hopes for both.
It was now after two o’clock. I was getting tired. Time for a nap, I thought. I was very good at sleeping, regardless of how much coffee I consumed. I made myself comfortable on the couch and drifted off.
I was awakened by the telephone. It was my mother. She couldn’t tell from my sleepy “Hello” that she had awakened me and I couldn’t think of a reason to tell her that.
“What’s new?” she asked.
“How come you always say ‘nothing’? You don’t tell anything.”
“Well, nothing is really new.”
“Are you traveling this week?” My mother always wanted to know whether I was traveling. She seemed to think I went to very exotic places. She rarely left Long Island except to see a play or go to a museum in Manhattan or to visit friends and relatives in Brooklyn and Queens. Despite having had many opportunities to travel since the death of my father fifteen years earlier, she had virtually never ventured north of Boston or south of Washington.
“I have to go to Ohio,” I told her.
“Wow. Ohio! What are you doing there?”
“I’m working with a couple of environmental groups to help them fashion their message to the editorial boards of newspapers in the state. They need to do a good job of talking about the dangers of air pollution from power plants.”
“That’s very exciting. I’m proud of you. You know, we used to have relatives in Youngstown. Are you going there?”
“No,” I answered. I was vaguely aware that I had distant cousins who had moved from Youngstown to Southern California in the early sixties. “Just Cleveland and Columbus. How are you feeling?”
“Perfect,” she said, in an enthusiastic tone that, if someone didn’t know her, would lead the listener to believe she actually was in perfect shape. In fact, as I knew, she had a wide variety of ailments, some real and some, I suspected, imagined. But it was very important for her to seem brave, chipper and energetic to the outside world. I knew this, and had long ago stopped asking probing questions designed to determine my mother’s actual physical and mental state. If she said she was “perfect”, I would leave it at that.
“That’s good,” I said.
“Russ, have you spoken to your brother?” My brother Dean lived outside Philadelphia. We spoke several times a month, but our mother seemed to believe that we should speak every day.
“Not for about a week,” I said.
“You should call him.”
“I talk to him all the time.”
Well, you should call him more often. You’re the only person he really talks to.” She paused. “Except for his mother, of course.”
This was ridiculous. As far as I could tell, Dean had a perfectly good relationship with his wife, had several close friends, and, in fact, studiously avoided ever talking to my mother about any topic that had even a scintilla of emotional significance. But I had decided long ago that it wasn’t worth arguing with her about this topic or almost any other topic. “Fine,” I answered. “I’ll call him soon.”
“Good. Well, have a wonderful trip to Ohio.”
“I’ll do my best,” I answered. We said our goodbyes and ended what was a fairly typical weekly call.
I went back to the computer to re-read Sarah’s message. She said I should call her. I fretted; was I too shy to do that? Almost, but, in the end, no. Even better, she didn’t pick up when I called, so I left her a message to call back. Which meant I actually had something to look forward to.
fiction poetry "fact" photography