I remember reading my first Ann Beattie story. I was sitting in my dorm room on a loft bed with a hard mattress. This was in North Carolina, at night. The dorm was a big stone structure with crenelated battlements that made me dream of castles. My room overlooked the main quad, and I often heard boozy students in the background, college kids stumbling from the buses as they made their way across the lawn and back to their rooms. I was reading from a paperback copy of Park City. I don’t recall much else. I was probably in sweats and an old tee that smelled like pot, lying on my bed, legs crossed with Beattie’s book upright on my chest. Since it was late, I had likely already eaten dinner—gluey pasta and mozzarella sticks delivered in foil pans. Maybe the door was locked. But what I do remember is this: the soft shiver that gathered at the back of my neck as I flipped through the final pages of “The Burning House” and, in the end, chilled me to my core.
After that first story, I kept reading. Aside from admiring her effortless, cool prose, I was drawn to Beattie’s gay characters. They were everywhere—“The Burning House,” “The Cinderella Waltz,” “Gravity”—and they were so different from the kinds of gay characters I was used to reading about. None of them were dying of AIDS or getting beat up or coming out to their parents. Instead, they drank Galliano by the bottle and ashed their joints in unusual places—a boiling pot of sauce, for instance. The same could be said for the other characters who populated Beattie’s fiction. Their problems were so … ordinary.
But if you lined me and Beattie’s characters up, I’d stick out like a sore thumb. Here’s the difference: Beattie’s boys and girls are Greenwich, Connecticut; I’m just a kid from Columbus, Ohio. They’re post-Woodstock; I’m post-Britney. Even though I’ve traveled with parents as far as Rome and the Red Sea, we don’t have a mountain home in Vermont. We don’t have friends who own an art gallery in SoHo.
My parents came to the United States in their late teens, abandoning Eritrea during the war for independence in order to go to school. At the time, my uncle on my mother’s side was a student at Ohio State University, so that’s where they went and that’s where we stayed. In old pictures they’re dressed up in the fashion of the time—or not the time, but a time, because it was always the wrong one. There’s a faded photo from the seventies where they’re standing side by side and clinging to each other, brown kids grinning at the camera, dressed like Sandy Olsson and Danny Zuko—a big frilly skirt and a leather jacket. When they first started out, old stuff was all they could afford; cheap hand-me-downs from the bottom of thrift-store bargain bins.
People look at me and expect big things from my writing. They see a black gay guy with immigrant parents and think, Here’s someone with something to say. For a long time, before I discovered Beattie, I thought so, too. I tried to write about gay hospital visitation and the Eritrean-Ethiopian war—admittedly, in the right hands, possibly great things to read about, but in my hands they were wrong. The characters fell flat—oh, they fell real hard—because they were merely vehicles for an agenda that wasn’t mine. Still, I knew I had something to say, but whenever I tried to locate that inner voice, I heard only silence.
And that’s when I read “The Burning House.” In it, Amy is making dinner for her husband and friends. She tells secrets to her gay brother-in-law who’s also her best friend, but she knows, in the end, his loyalty belongs to his brother. As the story unfolds, we discover the many other unspoken secrets that keep the house together. Her husband’s having an affair, but so is she. Her friend, a gallery owner in SoHo, “is obsessed with homosexuals,” but nobody would ever dare say that to his face. Her brother-in-law is always stoned and too afraid not to be. Still, the secrets don’t add up to intimacy. Amy says, “I’ve known these people for years … But all those moments, and all they meant was that I was fooled into thinking I knew these people because I knew the small things, the personal things.” She’s completely alone. That’s it. With neat, tidy brushstrokes, Beattie shows us Amy’s pain. And it’s absolutely ordinary.
In her stories, not going on a date can be just as heartbreaking as losing one’s mom; two lovers walking through the city can be as extraordinary as fleeing a country—which is what gave me the nerve to write. Despite my cultural upbringing, despite my coming out of the closet, my life feels too ordinary. My day starts and ends the same. I’ll eat a bowl of Kashi while watching a Real Housewives marathon on Bravo. Sometimes, I’ll go for a run. It’s not to say stolen kisses with drag queens don’t make their way into my fiction—or trips to the sandy shores of the Red Sea, for that matter—but those components are only as integral to the story as Fairfield County is to Beattie’s. It’s the quiet, domestic aches and pains that take center stage and soak up the light.
I used to obsessively search online for pictures of Ann Beattie, scouring them for clues on writing, on living, on the art of being cool. There’s a black-and-white picture of a young Ann Beattie that’s my favorite. On first glance you simply see a bored twenty-something holding a cigarette. She’s wearing a short-sleeve sweater and her hair looks as though it hasn’t been washed in days. Her eyes say it all: I could be writing. But look again. Beattie isn’t smoking. Her fingers are curled, but they’re curled around nothing. There should be a cigarette. Maybe she’s flicking her fingers. Maybe it’s a nervous habit of hers. But a cigarette would just make so much more sense. In recent photographs, the woman is warmer. She smiles. Her stories have shifted, too; that laconic, icy prose is gone, replaced by an even more sophisticated style I dream of emulating. Still, I can’t help returning to “The Burning House”—it’s the Beattie I feel in love with, the one that got to me first.
The spine on my copy of her collected stories is now broken, the pages bent at the edges and yellowed from too much sun—whenever I gently flip through it, it opens up to page 206, even when I don’t want it to. I read this story again and again when I’m writing and even when I’m not.
Thomas Gebremedhin studies fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His favorite Real Housewife is Nene Leakes.
Want more? Check out Ann Beattie’s short story “The Astonished Woodchopper” in our Summer issue, which is available online and in bookstores now. Or read her Art of Fiction interview from our Spring 2011 issue.