May 15, 2013 | by Elisabeth Donnelly
“Would you wear this?” the Swede asked. His honey-colored hair flopped over one eye. He was in a much-loved ragged, red jacket that looked expensive on his lanky frame.
I wore my best-fitting jeans and my favorite shirt, a cowboy shirt with pearl-clasp buttons and that perfect stich in the chest pocket made for cigarettes or pens. My curly red hair was extra poofy, spiraling away from my head, thanks to some mousse applied by the Swede. The pièce de résistance of my outfit was this poncho-thing that could’ve been designed by Jennifer Beals in Flashdance for a Western-themed dance night, a beige sweatshirt stretched out into a boatneck collar, draping across my chest, festooned with fringe. I looked like a cowboy’s sidekick. I felt silly.
“I’ve never really worn fringe before,” I said. “I plead the fifth.”
It was my semester abroad. I was twenty years old and living in London. I had never been a particularly good liar, having been blessed with a round moon of a face that registered every thought. But as I assimilated among the English, a people with whom I assumed I’d get along very well, being of clearly similar native-of-Boston stock and having a love of nineties Britpop, it was becoming clear to me that I had a more pressing social problem: I did not know how to tell a white lie. I didn’t even have the grace to realize when you should tell a white lie. In my own well-meaning way, I was becoming a bit of an asshole. “I plead the fifth” was my catchphrase. In England. Read More »
May 2, 2013 | by Amie Barrodale and Clancy Martin
“I was trying to give him a little encouragement,” Clancy said.
“Well, you fucked us.”
The first restaurant we liked in Iowa City was the Bluebird. It’s also the only decent cappuccino in town. We’d go every morning, order our fried eggs, and get three cappuccinos each. The waitresses had to make the cappuccinos themselves. We ordered so many that some of them began to dislike us. One in particular, whom we called Lower East Side. But all of them tried to get away before we had a chance to say, Could we get another.
All, that is, except for a Swingers-looking guy, slightly pudgy, whom we were convinced was gay until Clancy complimented his signet ring. Read More »
April 22, 2013 | by Anna Wiener
It was October, and I was alone. I lived in Greenpoint with a close friend from college, but we were rarely home, and never home together. We floated in and out of each other’s lives. We left ourselves reminders that we had both been there: wet towels tossed over the shower curtain, mugs face down in the sink.
I was reading or writing or worrying; I can’t remember, but it hardly matters. The curtains were open, and the head of the plastic owl strapped to the ledge outside of the living room window was swirling. In retrospect, I should say “swirling ominously,” but this was not unusual: it was loose and spun wildly in light breeze. What I mean to say is I didn’t think twice about anything, certainly not about the lights flashing blue-red-blue-red-blue-red-blue against the wall, until I did.
I went downstairs to take a look.
Around the corner, an intersection was cordoned off with orange police tape. Two cruisers blocked traffic. A small van had stopped in the middle, and as I approached I saw that it was empty and the hood was crushed against the windshield. Read More »
April 10, 2013 | by Evan James
“I forgot my camera,” I said to Wayan, the tour guide on our bicycle trip. He had, moments earlier, announced “Kodak moment!” as we slowed for our first stop—a lookout point over a mist-filled valley of tiered rice terraces. Two Swedish girls, two Dutch girls, and an English girl posed at the precipice, photographing themselves with evidence of having been to a beautiful vista in northeastern Bali.
“Oh no,” said Wayan. “Well, you will keep it in your head.”
My head already resembled a home interior from the TV show Hoarders, more so now that the compulsive caretakers within had made it their mission to collect as many Indonesian words as possible. I knew the word for “beautiful,” but lacked the impulse to document beauty. If I had to build a new mental wing to house the active volcano Mount Batur, so be it.
Still, imagined disappointment from intimates ate at me. It seemed I could not cement a solid habit of picture-taking, and in this way I felt I failed the demands of our time at every picturesque turn, successful only in my failure to do the thing I should have, in retrospect, done—done for friends, for family, for Facebook.
The feeling left me as the day progressed. The Swedish girls took cheeky snapshots of themselves knee-deep in the mud of a rice paddy outside a small village. “Dirty feet!” they cried, flashing smiles.
“It’s like a spa treatment,” one joked, stepping out with wet muck on her calves.
“I used to help my father do this when I was a boy,” said Wayan. He crouched down to plant a few sprouted seedlings.
“It must be kind of fun for little kids to be in the mud and the water,” said one of the Swedes. “Like playing.”
When we stopped at a coffee plantation, the Dutch girls took pictures of a caged civet, whose digestion and excretion of raw beans is essential to the production of expensive, earthy kopi luwak. Pictures of old Balinese women in their family compounds chopping and peeling bamboo into usable strips. Pictures of a five-hundred-year-old banyan tree. I would later persuade my fellow tourists to e-mail me these pictures, so that I could pass them off as my own when I returned.
At a particularly stunning view of the volcano, the English girl said to me, “Bet you wish you’d brought your camera now.”
“There’s a lot of things I wish,” I said in my head, keeping that there as well.
“What do you do all day? Just sit around?” Read More »
April 4, 2013 | by Katherine Hill
The packet came in the mail. My first MFA workshop would be led by Lynne Sharon Schwartz. So I did what any good writing student does: I bought and read one of her books. I remember humming along through Disturbances in the Field, deeply engaged with Lydia, a Manhattan pianist who understands her life through the lessons of the great philosophers. “Heraclitus was right,” she says. “No sooner is a position established than it erodes. The solid earth under our feet melts into water, evaporates into air, and is consumed in fire. I moved from one family to another.” The mood is heady, the details exquisite. Here, I thought, is a novel unhampered by plot: a capacious, intelligent book about the endless trouble of being smart and a woman, of being with other people and alive. A book that showed me how to write sentences, and how to live a life of the mind. Twenty-three in Brooklyn, I took constant, exuberant notes.
But then, halfway through, like a guillotine, the plot falls into place. Something irreversible occurs in Lydia’s life, something devastating. And despite the book’s description, despite the many, many narrative clues, I was shocked. Suddenly, I had in my hands an entirely different book. The armor of ideas Lydia had been forging no longer fit the shape of the world; somehow, she’d have to recast it. Schwartz was even more masterful than I’d thought.
Mildly daunted, I made my way to Bennington, where I met the author herself: a small, dignified woman who clearly didn’t suffer fools. Somehow, I managed to call her Lynne. As a teacher, she turned out to be quite compatible with her book: broad-minded yet blunt, rigorous yet humane. Unsurprisingly, she’d read everything—because, as she often insisted, the only way to become a writer was to read and live and write. Like Lydia, she could always call up just the right book for any situation.
Lynne wasn’t the first writer I’d known, but she may have been the first with whom I kept up a regular correspondence. I learned recklessly from her recommendations, and from her own books, too. In her memoir of bibliophilia, Ruined By Reading, she cautions that “the writer is born of our fantasies. Reading her book, we fashion her image, which has a sort of existence, but never in the flesh of the person bearing her name.” And yet, I really did know this person, which had to count for something. We traded childhood stories, discovered a mutual affection for Daniel Deronda and Natalia Ginzburg, shared news of births and deaths. She was known as one of the bad cops at Bennington, famous for being tough on her students. Well, if this was bad, I wouldn’t waste my time with good. Read More »
April 2, 2013 | by Sadie Stein
Last Christmas, my brother, Charlie, gifted me with a piece of paper on which was scrawled, “Good for 1 tattoo.” This was perhaps a slight improvement over his gift of the year before (“Good for one dinner with Charlie. On you”) and arguably approaching his 2010 present-giving apex (autographed baby pictures of himself.) But it was still a pretty low-risk investment on his part; Charlie knew I was never going to break down and actually ink a permanent Dimples on my shoulder, something I’d flirted with through the years. “Just a small, classic Dimples,” I would explain to my mother. “A tribute!” And she would say, “Munnie would be appalled. And so would Yumma.”
As might be clear from the nomenclature, we have entered the Land of the WASP. Yumma, my grandmother (née Ruth Mary), was the daughter of Munnie (Margaret), whom I am said to, but do not, resemble. Munnie was a legendary figure, a mother of five who managed to render even the hardships of the Depression magical with her ingenuity, her creativity, her sense of fun. A hard worker who held things together after her husband died, she maintained a busy, cheerful existence until her death from cancer in her sixties.
Although Munnie died many years before I was born, she has always been a vivid presence to me, kept alive by Yumma’s stories of cream-puff swans and Halloween parties, and by the Scrapbook. The Scrapbook is a remarkable thing: two volumes in which Munnie hand-copied every scrap of correspondence she and my grandmother ever exchanged and bound them, with photographs and newsclippings and tracings of any drawings, into two large volumes, each 300 pages long. Munnie made one of these for each of her five children. My father calls the resulting tomes the Least Jewish Thing Ever Created. Read More »