what i meant to say was merry christmas

“BIG UP TO YOUR MAN,” said one US Post Office client to the other. “Thank you,” the other client responded from beneath the awnings of her black monkish raincoat. Her voice was gentle and yet restrained and I could see that she had yellow hair and blue eyes, and clean, unmanicured hands, but that’s all I could see. “Yeah, I saw that in The New Yorker‘s ‘Must See’ last week,” said the first one. When she dropped The New Yorker  just like that, before these eyes, I did move closer, to bask at arm’s length in such radiant cosmopolitan awe-some-nim-i-ty. She was a lean client, toward the end of the first half of her projected lifespan, I guessed. American in accent, Anglo in features,  in figure, in husband. Curly in hair. She wore black rubber boots that had a smidgen of tan mud on them. “Nigel’s English, you know,” she said,  “so we’re planning on having a traditional English Christmas out here before we go back to Manhattan.”

She fumbled with her USPO package, troubled by the flaps, the creases, and I offered to help her, but what I really wanted to say was, “You read The New Yorker and know people who appear in it, who are spending their holiday right here, in this town? Why, I’d love to be in The New Yorker, too. A must see. I’ve got some great manuscripts at home, and you know, I’m big in Estonia.” “Estonia?” “That’s right, they just love me over there. Well, some of them at least. Anyway, introduce me to your society friends, I need a book contract, right now. Got ’em all pipelined up — Montreal Demons. Christelle. My Estonia 3. That Italian book I’ve been tinkering with for years. Look, you’ve got to help me. I’m getting spent out of this town. Heh. So is everybody else who isn’t ultra-ri … Oh, excuse me, I didn’t mean that at all, what I meant to say was, Merry Christmas. Do you know Gay Talese?”

Actually, what I said was, “Can I help you with your package?” And she said, “No, thanks, it wouldn’t be much help anyway. I have about ten more to send. Ha ha.” And I said, “Ha ha,” too. That was all. I guess I looked as local as she looked unlocal. The messy stubbly unshaven face, the tan jacket with the dirt on it from crawling beneath the Christmas tree before I sawed it down, the frayed cuffs of my aged jeans. I looked about as ready to greet New Yorker society as I did to greet the pilgrims on Saint Peter’s Square. I looked like one of the old timers who hang out here in the country store and swap stories about wild turkeys and deer. You know, the ones who live here all year round. So I got my packages from the postal worker and was on my way. “Oh well,” I thought and sighed as I stepped out the door. “File under ‘Missed Opportunities.'”

after midnight

"Now I know why Sylvia Plath put her head in a toaster."
“Now I know why Sylvia Plath put her head in a toaster.”

THE FIRST BEFORE MOVIE I saw was Before Sunset, and then I went back and watched Before Sunrise, and cringed at how young Ethan Hawke looked in it, and remembered him in White Fang, which was four years before that. I also cringed because I thought that Julie Delpy was so beautiful in both films, and how easily I fell like a sucker for her French “Celine,” the “European girl in transit.” Then — wait a minute, what the? — I did fall for the “European girl in transit” — And I am married to her, just as Ethan Hawke’s “Jesse” is now.

I confess that I wanted to see the latest film in the trilogy Before Midnight was because I had read early reviews that mentioned painful topics like middle age and transatlantic living, and, oh, how I yearned for that cold realism after all of those sun-tinged memories of romantic yearnings and recalling of baroque alleyway discussions and emotional self immolation of what could have or might have been. Jesse and Celine. They followed their hearts and it led here, to a hotel room in Greece, where they are about to argue about everything and be very mean to each other and threaten to destroy everything in the name of their discontent, as the married often do.

Celine is ever more voluptuous and incisive and weary-euro-trashy-eyed and Jesse looks like those 40-something zombie hipsters I saw at the monkey forest in Bali in April, with the tattered ironic t-shirts and deep grooves in their foreheads and children with pleasant, retro names {“Now, Hank! Now, Cora!”} crawling up their limbs. When I saw the Monkey Forest Hipsters, staring off into the nothingness like jungle wraiths, my only thought was, Oh my God, that’s what I am going to look like in 10 years.

But there were even more suspect parallels in the film. Jesse has written two books about his romance with Celine. I have written two books about those first years with my “European girl in transit” in Estonia, and then someone at the hotel in Greece pulls out their copies of the local translations of Jesse’s This Time and That Time and asks Celine to autograph them,and she demurs and says, “Oh, that’s not really me in there,” {and it isn’t, I know, and at the same time it kind of is} and in their ensuing total conflict Jesse recalls how he promises to never use her likeness or their children’s in his work and at the same time quips, “That’s a good line, I’m going to use it,” when Celine nails him with one. Meantime, he’s taking a leak and arguing at the same time and I am cringing and cringing and cringing more because I have seen it all before …

I also saw in Celine’s character the obsidian residue of the women’s movements of the seventies and the eighties, and what it’s done to the brains of the women of our generation. To comply with Jesse’s wishes is to be subservient. To be subservient, is to violate one’s feminist principles. More than once, Celine mocks this role to Jesse. And he’s trapped, because the same seventies/eighties pseudo-psychological rubble and debris has left him all mopey-eyed, hovering over his 14-year-old son, considering a move to Chicago, because he must do his best to be a good father and these are crucial years, and  in the meantime, the son doesn’t seem that interested in him, and is more excited because he had a teenage fling with a local Greek girl, making it the true “best summer of his life.” Double-you, tee-eff, indeed!

So this conflict is, in some ways, just as much between Celine and Jesse as it is between who Celine and Jesse feel obliged to be. Who we feel compelled to be. Women raised to think that they don’t need men, and yet, they still wind up living with a man. Men raised to think that they must be perfect fathers, to the point that this epic attempt at parental mastery becomes self harm, because — uh, oh/oh, no — nobody is perfect. So what do we do with ourselves then? We can’t undo our paths or the ideas that time has bred into us or the bigger choices that we have made. We’re all sort of like Celine sitting alone along the water in Greece. You could still turn away from it, but toward what, and for what?

I watched this film in the early morning hours on the North Fork, with the wind making the wood of the house bend and creak and hurt. At the end of it, the European girl in transit on the couch across from me said that she didn’t care for the slow pace of its beginning, but that the second half, the argument half, was very good. I was restraining the tears of catharsis and cringing some more at my emotions. Then I went to sleep and slept well and dreamed about the dialogue and situations. It was good to watch a film together. It is so infrequent in these busy days of life’s big demands that we have any time to do simple things like that.

foreign and far away

A short story of mine, “Pretty, Jittery Indian Girls,” was selected for inclusion in Writers Abroad’s 2013 anthology Foreign and Far Away. It’s the story of a lonely businessman who gets in big, big trouble when he meets and falls for a poor Native American woman he meets at a bus stop in North Vancouver. To me, it addresses the still complex relationships between Europeans and Native Americans and the fine line between pity and affection.