WHO WANTS TO READ LONG SHORT STORIES WITH ME?

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Although Princeton — where I live — is a university town, it doesn’t just educate the young.  It also offers at least three varieties of learning for the non-young.  The university itself permits auditors in some of its undergraduate courses; you can’t speak or ask questions, but you don’t have to do the papers and exams or even the assigned reading, either — although skipping the reading makes it all kind of beside the point. The university also schedules one or two courses per semester taught by its professors but reserved for auditors only; there, of course, you can ask all the questions you want. These auditors-only courses have many more seats available but, in my experience, are with only a couple of exceptions rarely as rigorous as those for students in the degree programs.

The Evergreen Forum, located at the Princeton Senior Resource Center, offers four-, six- and eight-week courses twice a year in a variety of subjects; these are taught without pay, presumably for the joy of it, by emeritus professors from various institutions of higher learning in the area (Princeton, College of New Jersey, Rutgers) — and by others with some expertise, or professed expertise, in the subjects they teach.   The student body here is, by definition, “senior” — which has its good points and a few not so good that I won’t go into, as that might be construed as the pot calling the kettle black.  Most Evergreen courses are oversubscribed, so seats are awarded by lottery.  Bill and I were lucky enough this semester to win seats in an eight-week course taught by Lee Harrod, an emeritus Joyce specialist from the College of New Jersey, in which course, for the third or fourth time in my life, I will try to tackle and get through Ulysses. [Wish me luck on that one. Maybe there's another post there, but not yet.]

And then there’s Princeton Adult School (“PAS”), which runs Tuesday and Thursday evenings in the Princeton High School.  Some of the PAS courses are somewhat tacky and others aren’t.  You can begin to learn Arabic, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian, and conversational Japanese.  You can sometimes find a Princeton professor doing a six- or eight-week class on Beethoven piano sonatas or the quartets. Or one from Westminster Choir College doing ten weeks on Chopin. You can also sign up for yoga or group piano lessons, or watch an instructor have a Skype interview with Philip Roth about Everyman. You can learn how to use your iPhone or how to set up a website.  (I took the website class last fall and look what happened! First a “Learning to Blog” blog, and now this!)

However, not everything PAS lists in its offerings actually gets off the ground. Because its instructors are paid (although not a whole lot, I’ve heard), PAS can’t run classes for one or two students. Although there are usually twenty to thirty places available for each class, depending on the subject, not every class fills up by the first day of the semester.  Classes with less than five enrollments are cancelled.  This semester I enrolled in a six-week PAS course captioned “The Long Short Story.”  I hadn’t read any of the stories in the curriculum, the weekly assignments sounded manageable — even in tandem with Ulysses — and the instructor was Jean Hollander.

I have become snobbish, in my old age, about whom I will seek out to “teach” me. But here, in Ms. Hollander, was someone I couldn’t resist — a celebrated poet who has won many awards and whose verse translation (with her husband, Robert Hollander) of Dante has been praised as the translation for our time. [She was even awarded the Gold Medal from the City of Florence (Italy) for the translation of Paradiso last year.

] According to her PAS bio, she has also taught literature and writing at Princeton University, Brooklyn College, Columbia University, and the College of New Jersey, where she was director of Writers Conferences for twenty-three years.

Surely a course like this, taught by a woman like that, would fill up!  I paid the tuition, acquired the books containing the long short stories on the course list, and waited.  The course is supposed to begin Thursday, October 2.  As of today, September 29, only one other person beside me has signed up.  If three more don’t join us in the remaining two days, I fear “The Long Short Story” at Princeton High School is not going to happen and I will get a refund.

But I think I’m going to do the reading anyway, with or without the course.  And it would be much more fun if some of you would do it, too.  Then we could exchange ideas about each story, and it would be almost like a seminar.  And if the course actually does run, I could tell you what went on in each class, and you could comment back.

This is what you’d have to read. (I copied it from the syllabus attached to the course offering in the PAS catalogue.)

Week 1: Anton Chekov — “Misery” and “The Lady with the Dog” (Please read for the first class)

Week 2: Fyodor Dostoevsky — “Notes from Underground”

Week 3: Joseph Conrad — “The Lagoon”

Week 4: Thomas Mann — “Tonio Kröger”

Week 5: William Faulkner — “The Bear”

Week 6: Carlos Fuentes — “The Prisoner of Las Lomas”

NOTE: All these selections are available online or in various anthologies.

Is anyone up for it?  If at least three of you speak up in the comment section that you’re game to do the reading and participate in a discussion, I’ll start with the two Chekhov stories. We don’t have to do it once a week; we can make it every other week if that’s easier, and pick a date to begin that’s convenient for all participants. [October 12, which is a Sunday, is just a suggestion.]  And if you can’t find all the stories online, I’m sure your public library will have them. I have no idea how it will go.  I’ve never done anything like this before.  So saying you’ve never done anything like this before isn’t a good enough excuse. If you’re tempted, don’t toe the sand.  Speak!  Commit!  Let’s do it!

READINGS FROM MY LAWYERS CUP

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I cannot swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about lawyering  because the truth is that I’m ambivalent. For one thing, the most interesting men I met but didn’t marry were lawyers. I met them in private life, though — and not in their professional capacities. Also, becoming a lawyer myself changed my life in late twentieth-century America for the better in so many ways it would take a whole essay to tell you about it.  However, most of these changes were attributable to (1) the law school curriculum, which taught me how the world really works, which my liberal arts education, however valuable in other perhaps more lasting ways, did not; (2) the social status attached to professional identification as a big firm lawyer rather than as a single middle-aged woman who dabbled in writing when she wasn’t just being a mother; and (3) the independence that comes from being beholden to no one because you earn your own comfortable living, with enough left over to give your children the good education they deserve, start putting something away for old age, and then indulge once in a while in nice clothes, season tickets to whatever pleases you, travel anywhere without having to ask anyone else.

That was the good stuff about lawyering. There was also what we actually had to do on a daily basis in what is referred to among lawyers as private practice. [I cannot speak for the life of in-house counsel -- who I have heard actually get to go home before 7 p.m. -- or of lawyers in "the public sector."] We had to work, or be available to work, twenty-four seven. We had to represent huge corporations with big bad problems that had no easy solutions, for which said corporations were willing to pay the huge hourly fees — deductible from corporate taxes — of the armies of lawyers toiling at their behest. In the Litigation Department, we had to stall, delay. [Often for years.] File motions to remove, to dismiss, to continue. ["Continue" means to put off.] Torture the other side, and be tortured in turn, with discovery requests for roomfuls of boxed documents.  Really enjoyable work. Without end.

No wonder at least some of us reached the point where what was called “life-work balance” tipped too far to one side to be called “balance” at all, irrespective of the personal benefits that flowed from the really nice money, and had to sever our “commitment to the Firm.” (I still love those euphemisms.) In other words, had to flee.

That was how I came into possession of my Lawyers Cup. It belonged to S., a relatively young partner who had an office on the same floor I did.  S., who I hardly knew except by sight and to nod at in the halls, must have been doing his quiet suffering for some time, because you couldn’t just up and go. Even if you were asked to leave, you were given plenty of time in the 1980’s and 1990’s to look for another job while pretending to be still devoted to the one you had just been ejected from. Probably not so true anymore. Young lawyers may be looking back and sighing, “Ah, those were the days!”

Then, what do you know, S. announced at the weekly Department meeting — attendance mandatory but not billable –that he had accepted a position as Environmental Director of a corporation he’d been representing as a lawyer in some tangle with the EPA (federal Environmental Protection Agency)… and would be leaving in two weeks!  Alligator congratulations all around! The Firm threw him a farewell party in one of the bigger conference rooms! Lawyers from many other departments tore themselves away from their desks and telephones to gather around platters of large shrimp on toothpicks, slices of London broil, imported cheeses on imported crackers, and to imbibe at least one plastic glassful of free-flowing New York state champagne.  The Department Head made a happy-sounding speech. Was it because everyone was so overjoyed S. had managed to emancipate himself with honor from the Firm?  Well, maybe.  Or was it because everyone hoped S. would think back favorably on the Firm in his new role as the one choosing the law firm to represent his employer when it found itself in legal doo-doo?  One hand usually washes the other, doesn’t it?

Two weeks later S. was gone and his office vacant, except for a few empty file folders on the bookcase shelves and the large yellow cup which had held his pens and pencils.  I guess he felt he didn’t need it anymore. I can’t say he gave it to me as a parting gift. I can’t even say he told me to go take it when he circled the floor to say goodbye. I just did. I went right to his vacated office, took the cup, washed it out and kept it. I probably don’t need it anymore either.  But I don’t at the moment know anyone who does. So it stays in our kitchen cabinet, alongside Bill’s Freud cup, and a third cup with sunflowers on it that I made while visiting a paint-your-own-cup workshop with two of my young grandchildren and their parents.

Since the cup serves no particular purpose at the moment, unless a single person comes over for coffee, in which case the guest gets the sunflowers and I take the Lawyers cup, I might as well share some of what it says with you. It’s fairly bitter, like black coffee. Which is, I know, how many people do feel about lawyers. I just wish they could remember that lawyers are people, like everyone else. That “justice” is intangible and unknowable. And that in civil court disputes, nobody wins. But if the cup speaks to you, be my guest. And if it doesn’t, it may give you a few smiles, anyway.

  • Only painters and lawyers can change white to black.
  • A jury consists of twelve persons chosen to decide who has the better lawyer.
  • It is the trade of lawyers to question everything, yield nothing, and to talk by the hour. (Thomas Jefferson)
  • Castles in the air are the only property you can own without the intervention of lawyers. Unfortunately, there are no title deeds to them.
  • The sharp employ the sharp. Verily, a man may be known by his attorney.
  • Lawyers earn their living by the sweat of their browbeating.
  • When you have no basis for an argument, abuse the plaintiff. (Cicero.)
  • It is hard to say whether the doctors of law or the doctors of divinity have made the greater advances in the lucrative business of mystery.
  • There are two kinds of lawyers: those who know the law and those who know the judge.
  • A small town that can’t support one lawyer can always support two.
  • Money talks, but big money doesn’t: it hires a staff of lawyers.
  • Litigant (n.): A person about to give up his skin for the hope of retaining his bones. (Ambrose Bierce.)
  • There’s no better way of exercising the imagination as the study of law. No poet ever interpreted nature as freely as a lawyer interprets truth. (Jean Giradoux.)
  • Every business has its own best season. That is why they say that June is the best month of the year for preachers. Lawyers have the other eleven.
  • Lawyers: Persons who write a 10,000 word document and call it a brief.
  • He is no lawyer who cannot take two sides. (Charles Lamb.)

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We’ll hear from the defense another time.  My lawyer skills are too rusty right now.

TUESDAY AFTERNOON IN THE BIG APPLE

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I was born in New York City, lived all but seven of the first forty-seven years of my life there, and always yearned to come back — not only during the seven years I was away, but also for many of the years after I left for what turned out to be the final time. I knew all the songs from “On the Town” and “Wonderful Town.”  I could warble (badly):  “I’ll take Manhattan, the Bronx and Sta-ten Island, too.” While I lived there, I was so proud to be a New Yorker, whatever that meant. I think it’s probably just that I had an intimate knowledge of Manhattan geography, skill with elbowing my way through crowds and with hailing taxis  —  and diction that gave me away every time. Even today, no one who hears me speak would ever imagine I’m the out-of-towner I’ve been for thirty-five years.

Nonetheless, the times they are a-changin’ — both for me and the Big A. Yesterday, a glorious early fall day, Bill and I came in to the city from our leafy Eden in New Jersey because he is a medical snob and will only undergo necessary medical procedures at the hands of renowned Big City M.D.’s.  The procedure yesterday was cutting the stitches after a minor operation last week at HSS (Hospital for Special Surgery) for carpal tunnel in his right hand.  Don’t ask how he got it.  He neither types nor performs any repetitive motions with that hand, and never has. (He’s left-handed.) But as D. Rumsfeld, one of our unlamented former Secretaries of Defense, once remarked, “Stuff happens.”

My presence was from a medical point of view unnecessary.  But Bill is unfamiliar with either the layout or rhythm of New York, has no sense of direction whatsoever, walks with a cane and would be a pushover for any unscrupulous taxi driver looking to run up the meter by taking the longest, slowest way around Manhattan to get to the surgeon’s office on East 72nd Street, where the stitches were going to be snipped. So I came along, to hold the unbandaged hand, run interference through crowds, serve as human GPS and speak with the inimitable New York accent that alerts said unscrupulous taxi drivers not to mess with me.

We came in by bus, not my preferred mode of transport to New York but Bill hates, hates, hates (admittedly crowded) Penn Station, where the train would have smoothly brought us after seventy minutes or so. He feels arriving at the New York Port Authority after nearly two hours of bumping along by bus is a less traumatic experience. The Port Authority is at Eighth Avenue and 42nd Street; Dr. A’s office is at  523 East 72nd Street, between FDR Drive and York. That’s 30 blocks going north, and 8 1/2 blocks going east.

Twenty New York blocks is roughly a mile, but the east-west blocks are longer than the north-south ones, so let’s be generous and say it was a two and a half mile trip each way.  The meters on New York taxis run on time as well as distance.  We took a taxi because an out-of-town man in his mid-eighties with a cane, no matter how sharp from the neck up, would not do well taking the 42nd Street crosstown bus  — crowded, lurching and v-e-r-y slow — and then waiting for the uptown York Avenue bus, which normally runs infrequently and is also pretty slow. After that, there would be a longish walk to FDR Drive anyway.  (Longish for Bill with his cane, that is.)

The snipping of the stitches took fifteen minutes, which time also included a steroid shot for tendonitis of the wrist.  Despite this blog’s name, I don’t normally mention these sorts of accompaniments to getting old. The blog is for the most part about living our allegedly golden years, not qvetching about the tarnish on them. I note what happened in Dr. A.’s office not to dwell on it but to compare the time it took for these two brief medical events with the time it took to get there, and then the time it took to get us back to the Port Authority (where we only had to wait an additional twenty minutes for the next bus to Princeton).

The two and a half mile trip northeast consumed forty-five minutes and cost $26.00.  The two and a half mile trip back was fifty minutes and cost $28.00.  In each instance, I’ve included a $2.50 tip in those amounts, which is only 10% of the total and makes me, in my own mind, a cheapskate. I used to tip 18-20%, because driving in New York traffic is not a barrel of laughs, but we can’t do that any more because we are, as they say, “old” and have no more earned income stream. We also hope to last as long as possible, for which we need to conserve what funds we have. But we do what we can. Also, I digress.

Why did driving two and a half miles in New York City on a Tuesday afternoon take forty-five minutes, the return two and a half miles take fifty minutes and the whole damn thing cost $54?  Let me show you.  Consider it a preview tour of Manhattan, if you’re thinking of coming yourself.

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Nearing Sixth Avenue on 48th Street.

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Note congestion — aka “traffic” — at bottom of photo. To avoid staring at it in frustration from inside your cab, the only place to look is up.

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Our driver is trying to turn north on Sixth Avenue here. Operative word is “trying.” They renamed it “Avenue of the Americas” when I was young, but the old name refused to go away. Now the street signs have both names on them. Since I’m old school, I still call it Sixth Avenue. That doesn’t make the traffic disappear, though.

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You could try to meditate, I guess. But it doesn’t really help. If you didn’t already know what “gridlock” looks like, now you do.

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I’ll stop commenting and look out the windows for a while. There’s a TV monitor in front of the back seat, but it only shows garbage, so we always turn it off.

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Glamorous, isn’t it?

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See, it’s not really faster by bus.

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When you get tired of the gridlock, you can always look up again. Different building.

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In case you didn’t know, this is why taxis are known in New York as yellow cabs.

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You can look at your watch and fume. Or look at the meter and fume. Or tell yourself not to get an ulcer; it will all be over by the end of the day. Maybe.

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Oh, I think we’re moving. A little bit.

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This is not the destination. But enough already. We did get there eventually. Two and a half miles, as I believe I already mentioned. $26.00, as I believe I already mentioned.

After the fifteen minutes of snipping and needlework at the incomparable hands of Dr. A., we had to get back.  When we had come in the week before for the actual surgery, our driver had tried to return us to the Port Authority by going south on Park Avenue.  Not a wise decision:

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Everyone who explained to us that it was particularly bad yesterday because the UN is in session was full of it. It was also particularly bad last week, when the UN was not yet in session.

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Approaching Grand Central on Park Avenue. These buildings are “older” — probably pre-World War II “older,” or built just afterwards.

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Looks Kafka-esque, doesn’t it? (Yes, this is still Park Avenue, in the high 40’s.)

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While we were stalled in the street below, people were actually working, getting things done. See the lights?

So going south on Park Avenue was not such a good idea. Yesterday, our driver tried Fifth. As the young might say: “OMG!”

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See what I mean?

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Scenic, isn’t it?

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Relax. Go with the flow. (What flow?)

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I bet the view overlooking Central Park from one of those (extremely expensive) apartments must be lovely.

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The view down here is less lovely. At least now you know where to phone for Eli (Zabar)’s bread.

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We’ve moved about a block and a half since I began this photographic journey with you.

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Trapped! Trapped in a New York taxi! The only way out is to walk! But even if we were hale and fit and young enough to do it, the sidewalks are pretty crowded, too, because it’s such a beautiful day! (I refer to the weather, of course.)

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A bus? Don’t even think about it!

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Lift your eyes up and pray.

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Yes, dear readers, we — who had pulled out of our driveway at 10:40 a.m. to be on time for the 11 a.m. Coach USA bus to New York — did eventually get home to Princeton again.  At 6 p.m. But there’s an upside to all this angst-in-a-taxi. I discovered something. The Big Apple may still be a helluva town, but it’s a different sort of hell.  I no longer yearn to live there — a relatively new development in my life.  You see? There’s no upper limit at all to the age at which you can learn and grow.

I’m so happy we live here instead:

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It’s good to be home.

SOPHIE BEFORE FEMINISM

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[A Story.]

When Sophie was twenty-two and still living at home in Los Angeles, a white elephant lived there too. Her boyfriend Clark actually rented a furnished studio opposite the Paramount lot. But he was nine years older than Sophie, divorced, and had four children, plus alimony and child support obligations. His job as a university instructor  paid nearly nothing. He drove a broken-down ’37 Plymouth coupe and spent all his spare time writing unmarketable novels. The silent parental disapproval was palpable.

On the other hand, he wore a tweed jacket and had an MFA from Yale, initially major attractions for Sophie in this cultural wasteland to which her parents had moved her from the East a year ago. During the time she’d been with him in his pull-out Murphy bed, he’d also taught her quite a lot about what men like.  Still, her parents were probably right. There was no future in it.  He worked the summer session to make ends meet and spent August in Texas, where his children lived with their mother. All he could provide were modest weekend suppers, which Sophie cooked on his two-burner hotplate, and the diversions to be found in the Murphy, now becoming routine. He wasn’t even apologetic. “We’re made for each other,” he crowed. She would smile, falsely. She hated scenes, fled from conflict, chose the easy way. Also, there was no one else on the horizon.

And it wasn’t as if that were her only problem. At USC, where she was now a graduate student in the English Department thanks to a teaching assistantship which had come to her through Clark’s recommendation, she was just beginning to feel her way. She made sure to wear elegant suits with narrow skirts, handkerchief linen blouses, nylons with seams marching smartly up the back of her calves, and neat low-heeled pumps from Bonwit Teller – so no one could mistake her for a coed. But was it really all right to be teaching how literature illumined the meaning of life by sitting on the desk with her legs crossed, like Lauren Bacall on Harry Truman’s piano? Should she be reading aloud from The Catcher in the Rye to a Freshman Lit class of tanned eighteen-year-olds, plus a front row of vets newly returned from Korea and nine members of the freshman football team slouched against the back wall? Would someone from the Department come round to check?

Then there was British History 340 (MWF 2:00-2:50), unwelcome but necessary. No undergraduate English History survey course, no graduate English degree. It was surprisingly hard. And the thirty other students, male and fanned out mostly towards the rear of the auditorium, were – for her purposes — useless. They almost all looked too young. A somewhat older fellow with bad skin, up front on the left, nodded hopefully in her direction each time she slid into her seat up front on the right. But she always pretended not to see. There were also two other older ones, halfway back behind her, sitting together on their spines like her freshman football players. Returning GIs? Neither ever paid attention when she sailed past.

At the end of October, the professor concluded the hour by slapping the blue books containing the five-week exam answers on the first seat in front of the podium. 25% of the final grade right there. Sophie was nervous. Would a B jeopardize her assistantship? The class line snaked forward towards the diminishing pile of booklets. She took a deep breath, flipped through the top ones and recognized her name. In the upper corner of the cover: a large A-minus.   New questions quickly trumped relief. Was grading on the curve? Had anyone done better?

A voice with a distinctive crack disputed a grade. The owner of the voice waved his blue book in the air; it was clearly marked with another large A minus. Indignation rose sour in Sophie’s throat. A-minus wasn’t good enough? He was arguing? And actually getting an A? As she watched, the professor crossed out the large A-minus, remarked it A, and altered the record of the grade in his grade book. The owner of the new A turned with a smile of triumph to the room at large. She recognized him. The taller of the two who sat on their spines halfway back behind her. His achievement clouded her weekend.

How fortunate he was expounding crap as she came down the aisle on Monday. “I’ve come to the conclusion the Jansenists were right,” she heard as she approached. “The world is evil and damned. And I’m evil and damned, too. There’s no hope for me. So what can I be but a Jansenist?”

Such an opportunity! Sophie turned partially towards the speaker, the better to show the curve of her hip and relative flatness of her girdled stomach, and inquired sweetly: “But why call yourself a Jansenist? This is the twentieth century! If you just eliminate God from your Jansenism, you could say you’re an Existentialist. Haven’t you read Sartre?” Sometimes even she was impressed by the nonsense that could emerge from her mouth when needed. He regarded her with interest. His dark eyes had a downward tilt at the outer corners which gave him an amused look.  “Hm,” he said. “I’ll think about it. Since you say so.”

“Do.” And down the aisle she went, feeling much better about her A minus.

He was lounging against the banister of the stairwell when she came out after class. She had a key to the elevator. The preliminary repartee was predictable. It got him into the elevator with her. Their trip to the lobby was brief and silent. He looked at her. She looked at him. He was tall, with thick rough features, a dark crew cut that was growing out, and those amused eyes. He needed a shave. He wore a heavy purple sweater with a large white HC on it. Bad color for him. Made him too pale. But none of that mattered. Too soon the elevator door opened. “Well, thanks,” he said. “It was a pleasure. See you Wednesday.” Sophie so much didn’t want to forget any part of this encounter that she wrote it all down as soon as she got home.

On Wednesday he had shaved. He was very polite. He gestured to the empty seats next to her: “Anyone sitting here?”   She smiled, shaking her head. He left one seat between them. The lecture began almost at once. They both took very careful notes. Sophie couldn’t have repeated a single thing she wrote.

They rode the elevator in silence again. Outside he asked if she would like a cup of coffee. They walked on slabs of sidewalk between borders of grass. It was as if she were in a movie. Although early November, the mid-afternoon sun was shining. He offered to carry her books. No, no she said, she could manage. He insisted on taking them anyway. No one had ever carried her books before. She knew they were talking about something, but the actual words didn’t count. Another something, very powerful, was pulsing between them. They reached Commons. The other teaching assistants from the English Department were sitting together at two tables and saw him carrying her books. She suggested they go sit with them but he said no, they should go downstairs. So the other teaching assistants also saw them go down to The Hole, where only undergraduates hung out. But what did it matter? Sophie’s real life was beginning at last.

They found an empty booth. He slid in opposite her. She ordered her coffee black with saccharin. (She was counting calories in those days, so as to look good naked.) He poured lots of cream and sugar in his and put away a big slice of blueberry pie while he told her about himself. She was so preoccupied with leaning her chin on her hand and hanging on every word she forgot to ask his name until he suddenly said he had to go. It was Yates. Like the poet’s, only spelled differently. And his first name was William, also like the poet’s. Will, he said. The middle name was Benedict, not Butler, but at least the initial was B. She loved it that someone who looked so tough had a poet’s name. Well, nearly a poet’s name.

On Friday, when they went for their second coffee, a buddy of his caught up with them, so Will sat next to Sophie. Maybe to show the buddy she was his. Although the buddy seemed to know about her already, whatever there was to know. He soon left for a date with a girl who was helping him with his German. After he was gone Will explained that it wasn’t a date, exactly. The girl the buddy was meeting was a prostitute from Germany and he had to pay for the sex; only the help with German was free. The idea that she had just met someone who paid women to let him inside their bodies was so astonishing to Sophie she couldn’t think of anything clever to say, so she just tried to look amused and knowing, and asked instead if he was a really good friend. Then Will hesitated a bit before saying they had only had a couple of classes together. But the buddy – casual acquaintance or no — brought them closer together. For their third and fourth coffees, on the following Monday and Wednesday, they went on sitting side by side. Although Sophie did notice that Will was still being very careful no part of him touched any part of her. She wasn’t sure why. Even though going slow was supposed to be a sign of respect, he must know, she thought, that she knew neither of them were playing games.

However, before the third coffee came a weekend. That Friday evening in the pull-out Murphy bed, Clark toiled without success between Sophie’s thighs. His head conveniently out of sight, she could go on thinking about how Will had grown up in a place in Boston called Southie, which she understood to be a poor neighborhood or maybe even a slum because he’d said he used to hang out with street gangs. He had enlisted at sixteen by lying about his age. (He was actually only two years older than she was. Perfect!) But the war in Europe was over by the time he’d finished basic training, so they’d shipped him to the Pacific. Fortunately, he missed the bad parts, like Iwo Jima, because MacArthur picked him to be in his Honor Guard instead. (The Honor Guard was all tall white guys, he explained.) And after discharge he’d eventually gotten his high school diploma and gone to the Cross on the GI Bill. (She would have to find out what, and where, the Cross was.) He’d also told her how once, during football practice, he scored the perfect touchdown. It didn’t count, he said, because he was only the third string quarterback and the Cross was mainly a basketball school anyway, but he didn’t care, because he had done it and he knew he had done it.

Clark looked up at Sophie over her stomach and asked how she was doing. She apologized for taking so long. Then she thought about how Will had finally walked out of the Cross one semester before graduation because he’d become disillusioned with the hypocrisy of the Church. (Which was the reason he was finishing up his last year out here; he’d started in February and now was nearly done.) That was so principled and brave of him there was just no way she was going to be able to come, no matter how long poor Clark kept at it. It didn’t occur to her to fake it. (Expedient fakery would be an acquisition of her thirties.) And in fact she was getting sore. So she encouraged him to forget it and finish up for himself. “I must be catching something,” she explained. On Saturday night, she said her period had arrived unexpectedly. She put the diaphragm back in its case in his bathroom cabinet, and they went to the movies instead. By then, Sophie could hardly bear to hold Clark’s hand. She wondered if she should try to feel guilty, or at least selfish, but all she really felt was glorious anticipation.

Will was unhappy at their Monday coffee. He said he hated his life and especially hated having to work after class selling Hoover vacuum cleaners door-to-door to ladies who already had an okay vacuum cleaner and didn’t need a new one. He really wanted to stay longer in their booth in the Hole. He wished they could stay there forever. On Wednesday he even walked Sophie from Commons to the faculty parking lot and seemed to have difficulty leaving. She considered this a promising development and wondered when he would ask her out. He was certainly taking his time. One thing she did know: absolutely no more weekends in the Murphy bed.

Clark had a late afternoon class on Wednesday. Sophie drove to his studio immediately after leaving campus, let herself in with the key he’d given her, stealthily removed her diaphragm from his bathroom and tiptoed out, locking the door behind her. She would have to keep the diaphragm case at the bottom of her purse because she couldn’t leave it at home, her mother looked everywhere. But it was a big purse, there was room.

On Friday Will was apologetic. He had to go right after class. He was sorry. So sorry. Coffee would have to wait until Monday. She telephoned Clark to say she was ill, had skipped history class and gone right home. Fever of 103. If she were better on Saturday, she’d let him know, but she felt awful and it didn’t look good. She was sorry. So sorry. She spent the weekend douching in the bathtub to clean every trace of him out of herself. Her mother kept asking through the door if anything was wrong. Between baths, she studied British History because it reminded her of Will.

Sophie’s first Freshman English section met at 9 a.m. on Monday. She was there five minutes early, in suit, pumps and makeup — looking pretty good, she thought.   The students drifted in. Just as she was closing the classroom door to begin, Clark’s face, red-eyed and distraught, appeared through the glass panels. The students strained to see what was going on. “You’ve left me,” Clark sobbed, not quietly. She heard a suppressed giggle from somewhere behind her. “Ssh,” she hissed to Clark. “I’m teaching now.” Couldn’t he just slink away and lick his wounds by himself? “You took your diaphragm!” he exclaimed in strangled grief. A freshman football player trying to enter the room around him did a second take and smirked.  “You’ve left me for someone else!”

“And?” Sophie closed the door on him, turned to her class and shrugged. They laughed. She knew she should have handled it better, and managed not to smile back. Then she took attendance, still chewing the inside of her mouth to keep the corners from turning up. Everyone was unusually attentive. It was a rewarding class.

She was afraid Clark would reappear at any moment during the rest of the day, but he kept his distance. Now and then she thought how awful he must be feeling, but that made her feel awful herself. She tried to reason herself out of it. Didn’t he understand that they couldn’t have gone on endlessly, with her just providing the sex in his financially constricted life but getting nothing else out of it? Didn’t he have any remorse for his exploitation of her youthful optimism, her good nature? It had to stop. She was entitled to a life, too.

Then she was at last in the Hole again, sitting side by side with Will. His bare right forearm lay on the formica table parallel to and no more than a quarter inch away from her bare left forearm. Sophie looked at the two arms, so close together. The skin on his was paler than the skin on hers, as if he hadn’t been in the sun at all, even last summer. And it had fewer hairs on it than Clark’s or her father’s. It was foreign flesh. Pale muscular foreign flesh, sparsely dark-haired. So different. So exciting.

“I want to go to bed with you,” he said.

She went on looking at their arms. Well, of course. Wasn’t that what she wanted, too? How honest he was!  “You have to understand,” she said carefully. “I don’t just do that. With this person and then that person. When I go with someone, it has to mean that we’re together, really together.” She stopped short of mentioning love. She wanted him to say it first.

“I do understand,” he said solemnly.

Now she had to say yes or no. If she said no not yet, would that mean she wasn’t the sophisticated woman he took her for?   She didn’t think she could say no. “All right then,” she agreed. “If you really mean it.”

“ I really mean it. Let’s go.” He started out of the booth.

“Wait! Go where?” This was all happening very fast.

“I’ll find somewhere.” Up the stairs he went, to the public phones on the street level.

His car was a green ’51 Pontiac. He put their books in the trunk, next to some spare Hoover vacuum cleaner parts, and they screeched out of the student parking lot. Sophie had to ask where they were going. He said he’d called friends in Covina who were willing to take in an early movie. Their key would be under the mat. Then he didn’t say anything else. He just drove, both hands on the wheel, eyes fixed straight ahead — with focus and speed appropriate to the driver of a getaway car. Maybe she was making a mistake.

“Considering what we’re about to do,” she said after a while, “you might be a little friendlier.” The car lurched to the curb, she heard him jerk the hand brake, he grabbed her like a starving man, his mouth opened on hers, her heart dropped, they kissed and kissed, she dissolved next to a hydrant on North Puente, and long afterwards she could still tremble when she remembered.

The rest of the ride was better. Will found a Thrifty Drug, where Sophie bought spermicidal jelly and he bought fortified port wine. After they got back into the car, he took her hand while he drove with the other. “Tell me,” he asked, “do you always carry your diaphragm around with you?”

It was nearly dark when they arrived. There were two rooms. They tiptoed through the first, which had bookshelves, but that’s all Sophie could see, because of course she had her glasses off. The second was the bedroom. He was clumsy at finding her buttons and hooks so she quickly undressed herself while he pulled off his sweater, shirt and pants and kicked off his shoes. Next she went to the bathroom. Sitting on someone else’s toilet squeezing jelly into the rubber cap, she reflected that this wasn’t as romantic as she might have liked. But it was much too soon for babies. After she emerged they drank some of the port out of the bottle (Sophie took only a sip because of the calories), and kissed again. Then his erection got in the way of more really close kissing so they went to bed, he climbed on top of her and came very soon. “That’s okay,” he said, putting his arm around her. “There’s lots more where that came from. Once I came seven times in one night.” She did like the arm around her.

The second time she managed to get a pillow underneath herself before he mounted, but it didn’t help much. She wondered if it was because his penis was rather slender, compared to Clark’s, but decided that was probably not it, since it was long enough and hard enough, and certainly energetic enough. More likely, it was just that he seemed not to know what to do with it except come as quickly as possible. He didn’t even seem very concerned that she hadn’t. She would have to give lessons. Very delicately. Generously, she forgave him. How could he have learned about lovemaking given his rough and difficult life? He might have been mostly with whores, like his buddy. Maybe she was his first real girl.

The third time Sophie suggested she get on top – which was apparently such a novelty to him that again he came almost at once. Instead of apologizing, he beamed. Finally, out of desperation, she offered to go down on him, to try to empty him out a bit.  But just as he was about to come rapidly a fourth time, there was the sound of a key in the lock. All she could remember after that is cowering naked and scared under the sheet while Will pulled on his pants and went to the front door for some whispered negotiations. They had ten minutes to wipe up, make the bed and get out of there.

He was hungry. At a drive-in near the university he ordered a double cheeseburger, extra large fries and a malted. Sophie held off, lit a cigarette and tenderly watched him put away his food. Men were really just little boys, weren’t they? But after he had finished the last crumbs, he remarked only that they’d better be getting back to the faculty lot for her car. Was that all he had to say? She looked away through the side window, so he shouldn’t see her disappointment. He did ask for her phone number, though, and memorized it right there. He didn’t have a phone himself, he said, but he’d find a way to call. He nodded twice when he said it, for emphasis, and repeated her number out loud afterwards, to show that now he really knew it.   He also leaned over and gave her a little kiss, on the lips, when they reached her car. The next morning she slipped Clark’s key into an addressed envelope and dropped it in a mailbox on the way to school.

The phone rang Wednesday evening as Sophie was finishing dinner with her parents. It was Will. He had some free time. Could she come out with him in about ten minutes? They did some fooling around in the green Pontiac before he explained that he hadn’t been able to find a place for them to go. Would it be all right if they just had a bite and wandered around? Silly boy. Did he really think it wouldn’t be? He drove to a restaurant on Hollywood Boulevard where she watched him put away half a large roast chicken and mashed potatoes with gravy, a dish of cooked sliced carrots glazed with honey (he said he liked carrots very much) and two ice-cream-soda-sized glasses of chocolate milk. He spread a pat of butter on each of the two white rolls that came with the chicken and wolfed them both down for dessert. “How can you eat so much and not gain weight?” she asked. “I use a lot of energy,” he said. “Can’t you tell?” She guessed she was supposed to giggle at this, so she did.

They strolled out of the restaurant hand in hand and went to Pickwick’s, where they gazed at the shelves in the literature section and Sophie talked about Proust, which she had read most of and he hadn’t, while her curled fingers slid up and down his thumb. His good night kiss at her front door seemed almost reverent. She felt they were going to be together forever.

On Thursday he sauntered into the Department office and up to the open door of her cubicle unannounced while she was in conference with a Korean War vet from one of her sections who was seeking guidance (he said) with setting up his courses for next semester. Will and the vet eyed each other suspiciously. It was wonderful. When the conference was over, Sophie and Will went out into the late afternoon. She had a graduate seminar on Dryden and Pope in half-hour but didn’t mention it. They stopped to watch a football practice. The field was walled on the side near the sidewalk so that she couldn’t quite see over, even on tiptoe. Will noticed. He put down her books and lifted her so her head was level with his and they could look together. She had no idea what she was watching or what it meant, but for those few moments that his arms held her up with her feet off the ground, how could she not be happy?

He took her to a studio apartment much like Clark’s but closer to the university. “Whose place is this?” she asked. “Don’t worry,” he responded soothingly. “We can use it all afternoon.” That didn’t answer the question, but she didn’t press it. She had another problem. Now her period really was here. She told him as he was lowering the Murphy bed from the wall. He said it didn’t matter, he didn’t care.

He did care about not making a mess, though. With a thick layer of old newspaper crackling under her naked behind every time she moved, and toilet paper and her last unopened Tampax within reach on the floor next to her side of the bed, the afternoon began to seem more about keeping the bed clean than abandoning herself to the transports of love. Did she dare turn over? Was her ass covered with newsprint? Was now the time to pull the plug and let him in? Sophie groped for the little white string with one hand, but it was slippery and wet and impossible to yank. Then she wrapped a thick wad of toilet paper around it, and gave mighty tugs with the thumbs and forefingers of both hands until finally out came the used and swollen tampon, hot from her body and soaked dark. “Wait!” she cried, holding him off with elbow and knee while she wrapped the detritus of her innards in more and more toilet paper until she could see no more seepage. Predictably (and mercifully), he came fast, at which point she pushed him off — lovingly, she hoped — so she could insert the last clean Tampax before there was damage to the sheets. That pretty much ended the promise of the afternoon for her. She wondered if she wouldn’t have been better off at the Pope and Dryden seminar.

His cleanup was thorough. Bed carefully remade and folded away. Roll of remaining toilet paper replaced in the bathroom. Stained newspaper, soiled toilet paper (with its contents), and Sophie’s three cigarette butts into a garbage bag. Ashtray wiped down. And then out — holding the garbage bag, to dispose of elsewhere — after checking that nothing was left behind. As he locked the outside door, she peered at the name next to the bell. “Yates.”

“Then this is your apartment!” she said.  “No, “ he replied. “But it used to be.” As if that were an answer. He hurried her into the car.

She thought she would see him the next day, but when she arrived at the English Department Friday morning she discovered a teaching assistant meeting had been scheduled for two that afternoon, so she had to cut History. Two cut classes in as many days; her life was going out of control. At the meeting, another teaching assistant who was her best friend in the Department whispered that Clark had called to ask for a date and she had said yes. Since Sophie had broken up with him she thought it would be all right. They were going out Saturday night. Sophie knew he would try to get her into bed. Not because she was so gorgeous but to get even.  Would she yield? On the first date? She was still a virgin. (Unless she was lying.) But he was very skillful. Should Sophie warn her? Maybe she wanted to be deflowered. Maybe she’d been secretly jealous of Sophie this whole semester. We never know the real truth about anyone, do we? The Department Head was discussing the last composition unit of the fall Freshman English semester. Did he actually believe you could teach anyone to write? Afterwards Sophie walked over to Commons with the best friend to show no hard feelings, and they had coffee with the others who’d been at the meeting and were jabbering about what the Department Head had said. She kept her eyes on the door but never saw Will come in looking for her.

She didn’t hear from him all weekend. She tried not to think about the apartment with his name next to the bell or what he might be doing when he wasn’t in school or selling Hoovers door to door, and thought instead about what Clark and the so-called best friend might be up to.

On Monday, Sophie cornered her. “So? How was it?” “Fine.” “Going to see him again?” “Don’t know yet.” She didn’t look particularly glowing or fulfilled, but maybe she was simply distracted; she had a class in five minutes. What did ‘fulfilled’ look like anyway?

Two o’clock finally arrived. There was no time to ask Will about his weekend. After the lecture, he carried her books again, though. And the sun — she would always remember the sun was still shining and they sat on a bench for a while to enjoy it. “Thank goodness next Thursday is Thanksgiving,” she began. “A four-day break. We’ll have some real time together.” He looked uncomfortable. “Well, no,” he said. “We won’t. I can’t see you then. My mother’s here.”

He’d never mentioned a mother before. Should she suggest he introduce them to each other? No, the thought should come from him. “You won’t have to spend all that time with her, will you? Thanksgiving dinner on Thursday, of course. But all four days?”

He nodded, sadly.

“But Will, why? Doesn’t she understand you have a life? I mean, it’s not as if you were married!”

He took a deep breath. “Actually,” he said, “I am.”

His wife was seventeen. He’d knocked her up on the beach at Santa Monica the previous May. She’d been a virgin. Catholic, too. So how could he walk away? The wedding had been in August, before it really showed. Her family was helping them, until he got his degree. In fact he was living with them. Sophie couldn’t process it fast enough. Seventeen? It was those cashmere sweaters, he said. All the coeds in their cashmere sweaters. After the Cross, it drove him crazy. And she was pretty. Smart, too. She wanted to be an electrical engineer. So once he got her panties off.…

“But if you were married,” Sophie cried, “what did you think you were doing with me?” He looked down at the ground. After a while he said quietly, “I thought I could have a wife and mistress both.” Mistress? Hadn’t he understood what she’d been offering? What did he think this was? Some kind of Victorian novel?

“Can I still go on seeing you?” he asked.

She couldn’t give him up now, just like that. Temporize, she told herself. Play for time. Cry later.

He looked happier when she said yes.

They walked to Commons. His mother really had come for Thanksgiving. She was staying in the apartment with “Yates” on the doorbell; he had kept it after the wedding to have a place to escape to. She was also job-hunting, she might move out from the East, he was her only child. Sophie nodded. And nodded. What could she say? He went on, suddenly a fountain of information. The new Mrs. Yates was called Bridget, she’d had to give up school this year because of the baby, she was a good sport ….

They sat thigh by thigh in the Hole. The buddy who was learning German from a prostitute passed their booth and waved. He must have known all along. Sophie felt dirty.

“I wish we could run away to Alaska together,” Will said.

“I wish it had been you I met last May,” he said.

“I wish I were a better person,” he said.

That’s about as contrite as he got.

He called on Thanksgiving, around ten o’clock, from a phone booth on the corner near his in-laws. “I had to get out for some air,” he said. She was ready to meet him, but he had to go back. They both got A on the History ten-week. She wondered how he’d managed, with so much going on in his life. She’d had to really study for hers. The week after Thanksgiving break he came to the house to pick her up. A theological student who was out of town had lent him a key to his room. It was a narrow sliver of space containing a single cot with black blanket, a metal desk piled high with religious texts, one folding chair, and a dark prie-dieu. On the disapproving walls were several crucifixes in various sizes. They sat on the austere black blanket and tried to kiss. Then they hung their clothing over the back of the single chair and did what they had come to do. It was all very sad, although Will seemed to be in good working order in spite of their situation. Afterwards, they lay on top of the black blanket while he stroked Sophie’s arm. She told him he would love the baby when it was born. It was going to be his baby, a part of him. She thought she ought to say these things to sound wise and warm, and to make him feel better, although she had no idea if they were going to be true. He looked doubtful. “But I don’t want to be married,” he said. “The baby will make everything all right,” she murmured reassuringly, hating Little Miss Pure who couldn’t hang on to her underpants. She was dying for a cigarette. The theological student had no ashtray. “Let’s get out of here,” she said.

They went to Milani’s French Dip on Santa Monica near Highland. Plenty of ashtrays there. Their booth had a little box on it labeled “Swami Says.” For a penny, inserted in the appropriate slot, you could ask Swami any question answerable with yes or no. “Do we have a future together?” Sophie asked Swami. Swami said no.

She fished another penny out of her change purse. “Will we at least see each other until the baby comes?” Swami said no.

She counted out more pennies. “Will we go on being friends?” Swami said no.

“Is there anything we can do to change your mind?” Swami said no.

“All it can say is no!”

Will dropped her last penny into the slot. “Will the baby be a girl?” he asked. Swami said yes. Will smiled.

And then it simply unraveled. Will began to look for another job for when his classes would be over and had to hurry away after History to go on interviews. The week before Christmas vacation, they went a last time to the Hole. He seemed resigned to what would be. Sophie tried to memorize his face. “Time was just out of joint for us from the beginning,” she said. “I guess,” he said. The buddy who was learning German from a prostitute came by and Will invited him to sit with us. They talked about the baby coming, and the job market, and it was almost as if Sophie weren’t there at all. At the end of the last History class, Will said he had to go. He was still wearing his purple sweater. Sophie was getting fond of it, now that she would probably never see it again. He put out his hand half way and then took it back and gave a little wave goodbye instead. She nodded and turned quickly, before he did. She wasn’t going to stand there and watch him walk away from her. He must have taken the final with a different proctor because she didn’t see him in the exam room to which she was assigned. She got an A in the course and assumed Will did too. Although what difference did it make, now that he was out of school and about to become a father?

Clark soon re-insinuated himself into her life. The business with the best friend had never gotten off the ground. He forgave Sophie her trespasses. (Although he didn’t forget them.) All was (almost) as before. Except she did hear from Will once more. He phoned from a booth in the hospital one evening in February. The baby was a girl. He was naming her Miranda, after Prospero’s daughter in The Tempest, because he wanted to protect her from the corrupt and evil world. “I had to call,” he said, “to say you were right. As soon as I saw her, I loved her. I wanted you to know.”

The following Christmas he also sent a card, without a return address, wishing her the joys of the season and enclosing a snapshot of a baby girl with dark curls clinging to the bars of a playpen. The line drawing on the front of the card showed a naked showgirl sitting in a giant champagne glass full of bubbly with her legs and arms in the air. Sophie sat looking at it for a long time, trying to make it feel less hurtful. But she couldn’t. At last she tucked it in a file folder discreetly marked WBY, together with her notes of their first meeting and the Thrifty Drug sales slip for spermicidal jelly and port wine from that time they had driven to Covina.

Eventually Clark’s ex-wife found a new husband, the alimony payments slipped from his shoulders, and he proposed. He should have known better, but apparently he didn’t. For her part, Sophie was by now nearly twenty-four, only a year from old-maidhood. Fate had already dealt her what she thought of as a tragic blow in the true love department. So it seemed best to put away lingering thoughts of William Benedict Yates and accept what was offered.

Maybe it would work out.

COMING ATTRACTION: A STORY ALMOST EVERYONE WILL HATE!

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Men will hate it because from their point of view the main character — I hesitate to call her the heroine — is a manipulative bitch.  (Although they might want to consider what made her one.)

Women who (unrealistically) want happy endings will hate it because it doesn’t have one.

Anyone who actually enjoys reading about manipulative bitches hoist on their own petards  (the biter bit, as it were) will probably hate it because it’s long, long, longer than any blog post — even one tagged WP Longform — has a right to be. You can’t possibly take it to the john for a quick read on your iPad.  6,000+ words? You’re kidding, right?

So if you’re one of the two or three people who actually plan on looking for this hateful story in your Reader or e-mail, just be aware you’re going to have to sit down somewhere comfortable and devote real time to reading it, as if you found it in a high-class literary journal.

Which is where I initially planned for it to be found.  But although the members of a writing group who read it several years ago all thought it was a page-turner (when it was on real pages, and not a screen), the much younger fiction editors of those high-class literary journals where it has been slowly — oh so very slowly — making the rounds have not been similarly enthusiastic.  Printed form rejection slips. Not even a kind penciled word.

I’m getting too old for that sort of old-fashioned nonsense, even if you can now submit [to most of them] online.  While there’s a saving on postage stamps, the online processing fee balances things out. And the waiting-around afterwards doesn’t get any quicker. Art may be long, but life is short, believe me.

And I have a blog.

Yes, it’s a real story.  In the third person. Not just “Getting Old” me nattering on.  But it takes place at a time when I was young. So please don’t try to find out if the manipulative bitch was me.  My policy with “fiction” has always been, “You don’t ask,  I don’t tell.” In any event, the best thing to think, whatever else you think, is “She does write well, though.”

Look for it tomorrow!  “Sophie Before Feminism!”

Bet you can hardly wait.

AFTER SUMMER COMES THE FALL

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Attentive readers may recall that on July 10 I took a leave of absence from “Getting Old” to clean up the manuscript of a book I had abandoned unfinished ten years ago. I was returning to the book because a literary agent had asked to see it, and I needed to not embarrass myself by sending it off without fussing over it and thereby blowing what looked like a once-in-a-writer’s-lifetime event: an actual solicitation from an agent.

When I returned, I promised to let you know when I heard from the agent.  Friends, that time has come. You can guess the result from the title of this post.

Here’s his letter:

Dear Nina Mishkin,

I am old enough to remember dropping in on the only White Castle burger place in Greenwich Village for a bag of mini burgers after a late night on the town. They were greasy and unescapable.

I am sorry to have kept you waiting for this response, but I was away on holiday when your manuscript arrived.

I wish I had better news for you, but I do not see a viable market with publishers for “Eating Behind Closed Doors.” You write well and manage to create the times, 50 years ago when eating disorders were mostly unknown except to shrinks or dietitians. This may make an interesting article in one of the national magazines, but it’s more nostalgic than hopeful.

Since this is a subjective reading, another agency may have a different opinion. I’ve been wrong before.

Regretfully,

/s/

P.S. I am returning your manuscript in the hopes that you can reuse it with other agents.

One should never burn one’s bridges.  [And I chose to believe the "regretfully."]  So I e-mailed him back this morning:

Dear ____________,

You write a gracious rejection letter.

To be candid, I’m not surprised you don’t see a market for this kind of thing. You’re right that the part you read is not “hopeful,” in the sense that it appears to be a “misery” memoir without a clearly happy ending.  And hope or happiness, I suppose, is what the market demands.

On the other hand, I am not now — and have not been for quite some time — fat or even overweight. So I suppose there was, eventually, light at the end of the tunnel. But as you must realize if you’re old enough to remember White Castle burgers, getting to know, like and live with oneself is, for some of us, a long slow process, and another story entirely — one which isn’t really marketable either, even if I were inclined to write it.

I don’t know yet what I’m going to do about finishing “Eating” and pursuing publication with other agents. But I do very much appreciate your interest, the time you took to read however much you read of it, and your kind regrets.

All my best wishes,

/s/

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Truthfully, and despite all your good wishes for a contrary result, I wasn’t surprised at this rejection.  As I reported when I finished my edit, I thought what I had done was uneven, not in its writing but in its interest level, and had mixed feelings about going on with it. So I really don’t need consoling.  What I need now is to sort out my thoughts about what to do next.  And you can all help with that.

If I don’t put it away again — always an option — and do pursue the agent’s implied suggestion that I try with other agents, I will need to finish the manuscript first.  (Only already published authors go to market with unfinished work.)  Although you can send an agent a synopsis and the first fifty pages, if there’s a nibble you’ve got to be able to send the whole thing.  I have the synopsis and 173 relatively polished pages, but not the rest of it. I’m not even entirely sure what “the rest of it” would contain.  [I rarely know what I think till I see what I write.]  However, finishing would mean quite a lot more work, on subject matter no longer dear to my heart, in quest of an uncertain future.

I could also finish it and try to publish it myself, as at least one of you has suggested.  Believe it or not, while I was drafting this post, the agent answered my thank-you email.  [It seems we're now on a first-name basis.] His timing was impeccable:

Dear Nina,

In this new ebook world, many writers are finding an audience for their work by self-publishing through Amazon. Why don’t you explore this possibility, before abandoning the book. Yours is better written than most.

Good luck,

Nat

So now, dear readers, you can help me decide whether to grit my teeth, finish writing the manuscript and then try to find it an audience, either through an agent or by self-publishing. Is there in fact a paying audience for a book like this?  Here’s the two-page synopsis I sent along with the manuscript.  Would you be interested in buying such a book or ebook to read it in full?

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Unfinished First Draft of “Eating Behind Closed Doors: A Memoir”

This book recounts the development of the author’s nearly life-long binge eating disorder, beginning during her four years as an almost full scholarship student at prestigious, expensive Sarah Lawrence College between 1948 and 1952.The tone is wry, dispassionate and occasionally tender.  Because much of it takes place so long ago, the book necessarily also describes by implication a world thankfully now gone where societal expectations for even educated girls were limited and confining, which should make it interesting to feminists and other young women as well as to readers more narrowly focused on its confessional aspects.

SYNOPSIS

 Author’s Preface: A three-page explanation of what the book is, and is not about, and why the author has written it. (Perhaps dispensable.)

Section I: Six pages graphically plunging the reader into the author’s secret life of night binge eating in 1986, when she was 55 and beginning a mid-life career as a lawyer – taken in part from contemporaneous notes made to record her shame and disgust at what she was still doing to herself after so many years.

Section II : The author prepares for college by rigorous dieting to begin her new life looking like the slender models in Seventeen Magazine. The new life proves stressful. A scholarship student, she’s uncomfortable with wealthy classmates from private day schools, finds the unconventional educational methods at Sarah Lawrence unsettling, and can’t maintain 1000 calories a day on mid-twentieth century institutional meals. A blind date for a football weekend at Princeton proves disastrous, and a first binge ensues, memorable as a template for future escapes from pain. Although she has a boyfriend at the University of Chicago, twenty-five hours away by train, the author gradually slips into wildly aberrational eating habits that pile on the pounds during the long snowy winter. The slippage soon includes intensifying self-contempt as well as lies to mother and boyfriend. During the summer she first tries psychotherapy, unsuccessfully.

In her second year, she meets J.D. Salinger (age 33), Marguerite Yourcenar and, in Paris, a hungry not-yet-known Larry Rivers. The year features in-the-trenches sexual battle a la 1950 with the boyfriend, pouring peroxide over her brown hair to change herself, increasing tension with her mother, growing dependence on secret binging for a “fix,” and a student bicycle tour of Europe (temporarily abandoned for the dubious joys of Paris patisseries) during which she encounters the strong anti-American feeling still obtaining in Bavaria five years after the end of war, and perhaps lingering anti-semitism as well. During her last two college years, she steals (both food and money). She also experiences bitter resentment at the loss of a friend to an in-the-closet lesbian relationship, and the momentary but illusory hope of romance with a faculty member. She graduates in June 1952, having done commendable and serious academic work in which she had almost no interest, without boyfriend or job prospects and realizing that in all aspects important to her, she has failed.

Section III: Expecting unrealistically to leave binging behind, the author moves to Los Angeles with her parents. [To be continued: This section, not yet written, could contain – at a minimum -- discussion of the author’s disorder at its later worst; its physical and emotional effect on her over the years; how at the age of 68 she eventually managed to reach a somewhat even keel; her experience with Overeaters Anonymous (and its offshoot, Grey Sheet); her views on psychotherapy (of which she’s had a lot) as both helpful and not helpful in resolution of her disorder; and some concluding thoughts.]

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Now here I stand at the crossroads. Do I chalk the whole summer up to experience, or go on?  I’m quite serious in asking the level of your interest, and won’t be at all offended — possibly even relieved — if I learn from your comments that I should put what agent Nat called “nostalgic” behind me and forget it.  What do you think? Does “Eating” have any kind of a future? Don’t wait for someone else to say something. And don’t be nice.  Be honest.

TIM KREIDER AND HIS CAT

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Tim Kreider is a satirical cartoonist based in Baltimore, Maryland who gradually moved into writing essays. By now he may be mainly writing them, but that’s neither here nor there.  In August of this year, The New York Times published a Kreider piece on its Opinion Pages called “A Man and His Cat” that, as the co-owner of two cats, I thought so good I saved it to read again and again. No cat photo. No cat cartoon. Just Kreider words on the page.

Kreider is in his mid-forties and apparently, as he implies in his piece, divorced. Images on the web show him looking like what used to be my type, when I was young enough to have a type. But that’s also neither here nor there, and has not in any way influenced my opinion of “A Man and His Cat.” I had the opinion before I went hunting up the images. I acknowledge I am shirking my duties as a blogger by giving over a whole post to the words of another, words which have already appeared in print for an immeasurably larger audience than I could ever dream of reaching.  Call me lazy, or incredibly generous. I should probably also add that if you hate or even dislike cats, or are allergic to them, maybe you should leave now and come back tomorrow or the next day. The rest of you: here’s almost all of it.  Enjoy.

A Man and His Cat by Tim Kreider. August 1, 2014.

I lived with the same cat for 19 years — by far the longest relationship of my adult life.  Under common law, this cat was my wife. I fell asleep at night with the warm, pleasant weight of the cat on my chest. The first thing I saw on most mornings was the foreshortened paw of the cat retreating slowly from my face and her baleful crescent glare informing me that it was Cat Food Time….

The cat was jealous of my attention; she liked to sit on whatever I was reading, walked back and forth and back and forth in front of my laptop’s screen while I worked, and unsubtly interpolated herself between me and any woman I may have had over. She and my ex Kati Jo, who was temperamentally not dissimilar to the cat, instantly sized each other up as enemies. When I was physically intimate with a woman, the cat did not discreetly absent herself but sat on the edge of the bed with her back to me, facing rather pointedly away from the scene of debauch, quietly exuding disapproval, like your grandmother’s ghost.

I realize that people who talk at length about their pets are tedious at best, and often pitiful or repulsive. They post photos of their pets online, tell little stories about them, speak to them in disturbing falsettos, dress them in elaborate costumes and carry them around in handbags and Baby Bjorns, have professional portraits taken of them and retouched to look like old master oil paintings.  When people over the age of 10 invite you to a cat birthday party or a funeral for a dog, you need to execute a very deft etiquette maneuver, the equivalent of an Immelmann turn or triple axel, in order to decline without acknowledging that they are, in this area, insane.

This is especially true of childless people, like me, who tend to become emotionally overinvested in their animals and to dote on them in a way that gives onlookers the creeps. Often the pet seems to be a surrogate child, a desperate focus or joint project for a relationship that’s lost any other raison d’être…. When such couples finally have a child their cats or dogs are often bewildered to find themselves unceremoniously demoted to the status of pet; instead of licking the dinner plates clean and piling into bed with Mommy and Daddy, they’re given bowls of actual dog food and tied to a metal stake in a circle of dirt.

I looked up how much Americans spend on pets annually and have concluded that you do not want to know. I could tell you what I spent on my own cat’s special kidney health cat food and kidney and thyroid medication, and periodic blood tests that cost $300 and always came back normal, but I never calculated my own annual spending, lest I be forced to confront some uncomfortable facts about me. What our mass spending on products to pamper animals who seem happiest while rolling in feces or eating the guts out of rodents — who don’t, in fact, seem significantly less happy if they lose half their limbs — tells us about ourselves as a nation is probably also something we don’t want to know. But it occurs to me that it may be symptomatic of the same chronic deprivation as are the billion-dollar industries in romance novels and porn.

I’ve speculated that people have a certain reservoir of affection that they need to express, and in the absence of any more appropriate object — a child or a lover, a parent or a friend — they will lavish that same devotion on a pug or a Manx or a cockatiel, even on something neurologically incapable of reciprocating that emotion, like a monitor lizard or a day trader or an aloe plant. Konrad Lorenz confirms this suspicion in his book “On Aggression,” in which he describes how, in the absence of the appropriate triggering stimulus for an instinct, the threshold of stimulus for that instinct is gradually lowered; for instance, a male dove deprived of female doves will attempt to initiate mating with a stuffed pigeon, a rolled-up cloth or any vaguely bird-shaped object, and, eventually, with an empty corner of its cage.

Although I can clearly see this syndrome as pathological in others, I was its medical textbook illustration, the Elephant Man of the condition. I did not post photographs of my cat online or talk about her to people who couldn’t be expected to care, but at home, alone with the cat, I behaved like some sort of deranged arch-fop…..There was a litany I recited aloud to her every morning, a sort of daily exhortation that began, “Who knows, Miss Cat, what fantastical adventures the two of us will have today? I had a song I sang to her when I was about to vacuum, a brassy Vegas showstopper called “That Thing You Hate (Is Happening Again). We collaborated on my foot-pedal pump organ to produce The Hideous Cat Music, in which she walked back and forth at her discretion on the keyboard while I worked the pedals. The Hideous Cat Music resembled the work of the Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti, with aleatory passages and unnervingly sustained tone clusters.

I never meant to become this person. My own cat turned up as a stray at my cabin on the Chesapeake Bay when I was sitting out on the deck eating leftover crabs. She was only a couple of months old then….She appeared from underneath the porch, piteously mewling, and I gave her some cold white crab meat. I did not know then that feeding a stray cat is effectively adopting that cat.

For a few weeks I was in denial about having a cat. My life at that time was not structured to accommodate the responsibility of returning home once every 24 hours to feed an animal. I posted fliers in the post office and grocery store with a drawing of the cat, hoping its owner would reclaim it. It seems significant in retrospect that I never entertained the possibility of taking the cat to the pound.

When I left for a long weekend for a wedding in another state, my friend Gabe explained to me that the cat clearly belonged to me now. I protested. This was a strictly temporary situation until I could locate a new home for the cat, I explained. I was not going to turn into some Cat Guy.

“How would you feel,” he asked me, “if you were to get home from this weekend and the cat was gone?”

I moaned and writhed in the passenger seat.

“You’re Cat Guy,” he said in disgust.

It’s amusing now to remember the strict limits I’d originally intended to place on the cat. One of the boundaries I meant to set was that the cat would not be allowed upstairs, where I slept. That edict was short-lived. It was not long before I became wounded when the cat declined to sleep with me.

“You’re in love with that cat!” my then-girlfriend Margot once accused me. To be fair, she was a very attractive cat. People would comment on it. My friend Ken described her as “a supermodel cat,” with green eyes dramatically outlined in what he called “cat mascara” and bright pink “nose leather.” Her fur, even at age 19, was rich and soft and pleasant to touch.

Biologists call cats “exploitative captives,” an evocative phrase that might be used to describe a lot of relationships, not all of them interspecies. I made the mistake, early on, of feeding the cat first thing in the morning, forgetting that the cat could control when I woke up — by meowing politely, sitting on my chest and staring at me, nudging me insistently with her face, or placing a single claw on my lip. She refused to drink water from a bowl, coveting what she believed was the superior-quality water I drank from a glass. I attempted to demonstrate to the cat that the water we drank was the very same water by pouring it from my glass into her bowl right in front of her, but she was utterly unmoved, like a birther being shown Obama’s long-form Hawaiian birth certificate. In the end I gave in and began serving her water in a glass tumbler, which she had to stick her whole face into to drink from.

Sometimes it would strike me that an animal was living in my house, and it seemed as surreal as if I had a raccoon or a kinkajou running loose in my house. Yet that animal and I learned, on some level, to understand each other. Although I loved to bury my nose in her fur when she came in from a winter day and inhale deeply of the Coldcat Smell, the cat did not like this one bit, and fled.  For awhile I would chase her around the house, yelling, “Gimme a little whiff!” and she would hide behind the couch from my hateful touch. Eventually I realized that this was wrong of me. I would instead let her in and pretend to have no interest whatsoever in smelling her, and, after not more than a minute or so the cat would approach me and deign to be smelled. I should really be no less impressed by this accord than if I’d successfully communicated with a Papuan tribesman, or decoded a message from the stars.

Whenever I felt embarrassed about factoring a house pet’s desires into major life decisions, some grown-up-sounding part of me told myself, it’s just a cat. It’s generally believed that animals lack what we call consciousness, although we can’t quite agree on what exactly this is, and how we can pretend to any certainty about what goes on in an animal’s head has never been made clear to me. To anyone who has spent time with an animal, the notion that they have no interior lives seems so counterintuitive, such an obdurate denial of the empathetically self-evident, as to be almost psychotic. I suspect that some of those same psychological mechanisms must have allowed people to rationalize owning other people.

Another part of me, perhaps more sentimental but also more truthful, had to acknowledge that the cat was undeniably another being in the world, experiencing her one chance at being alive, as I was…. [I]t was funny — and funny often means disquieting and true — to remind myself that there really was another ego in the room with me, with her own likes and dislikes and idiosyncrasies and exasperatingly wrongheaded notions about whose water is better….

I admit that loving a cat is a lot less complicated than loving a human being. Because animals can’t ruin our fantasies about them by talking, they’re even more helplessly susceptible to our projections than other humans. Though of course there’s a good deal of naked projection and self-delusion involved in loving other human beings, too.

I once read in a book about feng shui that keeping a pet can maintain the chi of your house or apartment when you’re not there; the very presence of an animal enlivens and charges the space. Although I suspect feng shui is high-end hooey, I learned when my cat was temporarily put up elsewhere that a house without a cat in it feels very different from a house with one. It feels truly empty, dead. Those moments gave me some foreboding of how my life would feel after she was gone.

We don’t know what goes on inside an animal’s head; we may doubt whether they have anything we’d call consciousness, and we can’t know how much they understand or what their emotions feel like. I will never know what, if anything, the cat thought of me. But I can tell you this: A man who is in a room with a cat — whatever else we might say about that man — is not alone.

Tim Kreider’s first book of essays is called “We Learn Nothing: Essays and Cartoons.” It went on my new Kindle after I finished my second reading about his cat. If you haven’t got a Kindle, it’s also available in paperback.  Just saying….