NEW YORK, 1978: WRITING LESSON

This piece originally appeared in Room 34:3.

Twenty-four, and I’m beaten up by love, defeated, and so flee here, full of hormones and fury and myself. I need to learn to write.

Write what you know.

All the newspapers are on strike.

My father on the left coast of Canada has said he will die if I leave him alone. He’s seventy-four.

The night train from Montreal to Penn Station. Rising from the tracks to the nest of bagelries, shoe shines, and OTBs flush with dawn gamblers, outside to a city stunned and sultry with heat, and always the undertow of urine and subway exhalations, and the butt of my steamer trunk hangs out of the Checker cab to Charles Street–flat of a friend of a friend who sells tickets at the Bleecker Cinema–and a shop named Kiss My Cookies with a shirtless gay baker leaning into the sidewalk with a sheet of hot sugar. And in a New York minute, I’m sharing a pre-war on the Upper West side gazing out at a flock of squat water towers and listening to a car horn below blare “La Cucaracha.”

I go to school in name only; the city mentors.

“The Bronx is up and the Battery’s down,” and I’m agog and orgasmic in between.

Beginning, middle, end.

In the morning I float up upper Broadway composing a story about a lonely Canadian girl who works at her uncle’s gas station but it’s really an excuse to write about sex (the girl) and death (the grandmother). In the afternoon I’m buried at the Carnegie Cinema looking at the city I’m living in: Mean Streets. Sweet Smell of Success. The Eyes of Laura Mars. New York, New York. An Unmarried Woman. Serpico. Midnight Cowboy. Saturday Night Fever. Looking for Mr. Goodbar. Across the street at the Carnegie Deli, the thick green pickles in the bottles seem pleasantly obscene.

At night I dream left Coast Mountains on the other side of the Hudson River. Grouse, Cypress, and Seymour stand guard while staring down the Empire State. The zipper of lights in the sky like the fly on a man’s jeans.

Dreams are exposition in disguise.

The friends I meet: what they do. Girl Friday for Margaret Mead who is now topless in her Central Park West apartment, spilling soup down her breasts, and succumbing to cancer. Boy Friday writes letters for “Bern” Malamud whom I still intend to read. Fred, my pick-up from CBGB’s, cancels because he has to drive John and Yoko’s Mercedes to Florida.

Show not tell.

The Cuban sandwich shop with coffee that spikes heart rates. Srauss Park Café and quiche Lorraine. The dark Marlin for the jukebox with Meatloaf and the Clash. Two eggs scrambled on brown regular coffee at Tom’s. The West End. Croissants at the Hungarian Pastry Shop on Amsterdam Avenue. Max’s Kansas City. The Lone Star Café. Sardi’s, why not!

I fall in like with a Jewish classmate, Marx, from Jersey and teach him how to open a tin of chili. I fall in like with the Irish bloke, Mahoney, from Boston who skips workshop to master three card monte in Times Square. Together they are Woody Allen and JFK and I am suddenly Canadian Margot Kidder from Superman. We collectively fall in love with John Irving and Garp. We three fight about the Vietnam War, which I still haven’t forgotten or gotten over, and which was never on their radar. They apologize. Not to me, I say.

Rumours about a writer named Ann Beattie taking over The New Yorker from John Updike with younger Protestants and Pottery Barn prose.

Then this just in.

“All the news that’s fit to print.”

The newspapers publish, fat and full of themselves. Gross with fashion and Jordache jeans. Rich with films and readings. The Pope dies. Little Italy drapes itself in black crepe and my mouth is crammed full of cannoli. I. B. Singer wins the Nobel Prize for Literature and I see him in the neighbourhood at Zabar’s lining up to buy lox. Jonestown drinks the lethal Kool-Aid and an eternal slogan rises from Guyana.

You must take your reader by the hand.

My first manicure and the sensation of an older Hispanic woman massaging my arm from hand to elbow. My first silk blouse, blush-rose. My first knee-high leather boots pounding loudly on the IRT subway platform. My first film festival: Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer. First walk on Fifth Avenue and I buy my father a pen from my only visit to Tiffany’s. First trip to Lincoln Center and I buy my father a navy La Boheme tie at the Met.

Lists are exposition.

November 27, 1978: Snowfall. A jog past the snow-shouldered Joan of Arc and her bronze steed in Riverside at West 93rd. She rides in a premonition of cinders. Trekking from Orchard Street to the Bowery and passing a frozen but blazing tenement with crack addicts dancing on the fire escape. Hot chestnuts in a cheap bag in my pocket. Buy tickets to the Christmas Rockettes and baby Jesus in a manger.

Driving to New Jersey to meet Marx’s parents and score my first down jacket without state and city taxes, and behold: I’m a shiksa eating my first knish, blintz, kugel.

Repeat: lists = exposition.

Rumours about a writer from the west named Raymond Carver who will pin Ann Beattie to the mat on behalf of the reading middle class. Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?

The bookstores: literary trysts, I lose myself in lust. The Strand is Alexandria, Egypt, before the decimation: 18 Miles of Books.

Alcoholics make the best protagonists.

I fall in love with my future first husband grinding against him on the stage of the Mudd Club, diving to his knees as a faux lobster. He sucks off an earring. He tears the lobe when he stabs it back in, clicks the latch. After we make love, I hurt everywhere. I have forgotten so much. Hearing him read a poem about making love to an Isadora sort of dancer who grinds her own basil pesto, which I have never heard of.

We’re on Duke Ellington Boulevard and he’s walking with my panties wrapped around his head like a hairnet, which they are. His last girlfriend was the daughter of a psychiatrist and went to Sarah Lawrence. I am the daughter of a seventy-four year old mechanic who cashes in savings bonds and sends wire transfers to Chemical Bank, does not write letters.

After a workshop, the peer group catches the Express to Chambers Street, the World Trade Centre, to Windows on the World for a bottle of Soave Bolla and seasonal cheer. But it’s a mistake. Silent in the elevators, and spit up into the sky, we’ve abandoned Manhattan. We’re out of context. Years later, I’ll call the towers Mom and Dad, because I wake up to them every morning from my East Houston walk-up. We share a cab, me sitting on Mahoney’s bony lap, through Soho, Greenwich Village, past Penn, through Times Square, to West 43rd. We pour out at the Algonquin Hotel and slide into the Blue Bar and somebody is extolling Dorothy Parker, whom I claim, in my arrogance, is overrated.

Alcoholics make the best antagonists.

And this goes on, more or less, for eleven years until the divorce.

In 1989, it’s all north by northwest. I move back. I become a teacher.

Those who can, write. Those who can’t, teach.

My father dies, but not right away. It is a long and miserable operatic death, of which more later. This isn’t foreshadowing.

The slim book of short stories is published to equally narrow acclaim and does not include the piece about the passive Canadian girl working passively at the gas station while passive sex and passive death are thrust upon her and significant others.

Include at least two reversals of action.

Unexpectedly, suddenly, illogically, prematurely, unnecessarily, terrifyingly, and gratuitously tragically, my mother trips on a loge stair at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre–the Variety Club telethon, for God’s sake– incurs a head injury, and doesn’t survive two brain surgeries (movie-of-the-week) all on a rare and sunny Vancouver Sunday, a Valentine’s Day (cliché) afternoon reminiscent of any old cold winter day in New York.

At last alone, my elderly father and me. Except: we, me and the spouse, we procreate, if you will. We co-produce children.

At my father’s rest home, named after the battle of Blenheim, I tie a bib around the sweet Johnson’s powdered neck of my toddler son god, and Velcro a longer and distressed version on my ancient dad, begin spoonfeeding. I take turns pushing, one in the deluxe Peg Perego stroller, the other in a cheap wheelchair, back to my father’s slot: cot, drawers, television, the emergency string hanging down by the toilet, and a view of the parking lot. Toddler god passes out with his tummy full, so I climb into my father’s bed and take a nap, leaving him to watch over both of us. It is wrong and yet it is right. His library: books about shipwrecks and voyages, Henry Ford and enigmatic Adolf and expletive-deleted Nixon, the ghost towns of British Columbia. He really can’t read the fine print; it’s all fine print. His recordings: he can’t hear Puccini even when the yellow Walkman is virtually wired into his brain. Good-bye, La Boheme. Good-bye, Madame Butterfly. Good-bye, Flute. His life ebbs. He shrinks to the length of a bendable straw in a tin of plain Ensure. And then because it is too difficult to suck it up, I cut the straw. Shorter, shorter, until we’re far past the last straw and I want to become the bossy mother bird and beak, beak, beak him with the goods until they leak down his throat and stick to his stomach and the blood releases nutrients to the organs and tissues in their respective, polite, and solemn queues. He’s ninety pounds. When they ask about DNR, I say they have the wrong postal code. I am a Canadian woman writing the melodrama of my dying father and earning a simultaneous comeuppance in Alice Munro fashion. Oh, please don’t go there. Been there, done that.

Make it new.

Start in medias res.

Marx moves to Los Angeles, joins the writing room for Sabrina the Teen-Age Witch, and dies of a heart attack. At the funeral, his girlfriend has nipple rings I can see through her blouse and they poke when we embrace. I don’t know why her rings remind me of Marx not being able to use a can opener. Penn and Teller, I kid you not, are pallbearers. This is March 1998.

In April 1998, Ensure morphs to morphine, and more morphine, and more-phine, and that’s all she wrote. My father was ninety-four. I am late for his funeral.

An epiphany occurs when the meaning of the story explodes in the protagonist’s consciousness.

However, this is life. No fourth act, resolution, state of grace, reconciliation, resonating moment, convenient metaphor, weighted pause, literary reprieve, or dramatic beat.

The towers fall. We are not the centre and it couldn’t hold anyway. Yeats’ widening gyre, capitalism’s learning curve.

Don’t forget the falling action.

The towers.

Fall.

My children stand up, stagger, and walk, then run, away. In my delusion, they are twins, too, separated by a sinfully brief thirteen months.

The denouement is always a death or an epiphany, except there is no such.

The protagonist can move to a higher awareness and effect change, or become more aware and choose to remain the same, or become aware and refuse to change, and sink lower.

So what happened.

I moved back to the left coast of Canada and became a teacher who mothered my father.

Plot equals character.

Don’t malinger. Cut to the chase. I asked for more morphine, which is predictable.

In medias res, redux. Happily never after.

Mahoney disappears, or I disappear, take your pick.

Joni Mitchell went to Staten Island, Sharon, to buy herself a mandolin, so I did, too.

At the Donnell Library in midtown, Elizabeth Hardwick says, “Endings are like that slap when you feel the caress in it.” She seduced and stole the poet Robert Lowell away from that neglected queen of American short fiction, Jean Stafford.

Frederic Busch says, “A story is a war.”

My children write my life every day and I wrap myself in a white flag of blank paper and I surrender, I surrender, I surrender.

“Write what you don’t know about what you know,” says Grace Paley, God bless her.

In my dreams, which you may recall are only exposition, I am alone in the New York I no longer recognize, trying to find a place to live.

God is in the details. Who wrote that?

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