by Laryssa Wirstiuk
“I promise I’m not always like this,” said the professor.
At the front of the classroom, she was lying in corpse pose on the linoleum tile. The eight of us, all fresh-faced graduate students, were sitting at our desks arranged in a semi-circle like interns in an operating theatre. But where was the doctor?
“I’m just not well.”
We ended workshop early that day, and the incident became a grad school myth, one whispered at dive bars in Columbia Heights after MFA readings. In fact, the professor turned out to be one of my favorite writing teachers and my thesis advisor. I was always impressed by her ability to prescribe narrative, pulling from her filing cabinet a short story to fulfill any need.
On that weekday afternoon, I never imagined I would also one day stand at the front of a classroom, but in the fall of 2010, I was presented with an opportunity to teach my first class: Introduction to Creative Writing at Rutgers University. Though excited by my new job, I was also crippled by anxiety, a condition that has chased me since my teens. To compound the anxiety, I was living with my more-anxious Grandma, who was so dependent on Valium that doctors feared cutting off her prescription; I was leaving a full-time job with health benefits to pursue a part-time job as a semester-to-semester contract worker; and I was living in an apartment with a young married couple who fought constantly. Even worse, I had a crippling fear of saying or doing something stupid in front of my students. The last thing I wanted was to end up supine on the cold floor, assuring my students that “I’m not always like this.”
Thanks to practice and experience, I’m no longer limited by teaching anxiety, and sometimes I’ll even share my doubts and insecurities with students. During a recent meeting of an intermediate fiction class, I revealed another one of my fears to 15 undergraduates. We had just finished discussing an article about why reading fiction is “good for you.” In the piece, cognitive psychology professor and novelist Keith Oatley argues that fiction “measurably enhances our abilities to empathize with other people and connect with something larger than ourselves.” I confessed that reading literary fiction has made me feel as if I’ve lived thousands of unhealthy relationships and marriages and that, as a result, I am wary of romantic commitment.
Never married and a child of two parents in a healthy, happy, and lasting relationship, I’ve nonetheless dragged myself through divorce, infidelity, unrequited love, unmet expectations, and deception. I’ve seen how people can destroy one another in ways they never intended, and I mine fiction for answers to questions I have about the relationships I observe. For example, why were my married roommates arguing all the time, making me feel like a small child whose parents are on the verge of divorce? An independent young adult, I’d come home from work to my apartment, where I’d hide in my bedroom because my roommates, “mommy and daddy,” were fighting again. I’d sit on my bed and read until one or the other would storm out of the apartment.
In retrospect, I’m surprised that none of my students, like my quarreling roommates, ran out of the room crying that day. I swear I wasn’t trying to scare them. I just wanted them to understand that both reading and writing fiction can encourage a person to challenge long-held beliefs. Fiction is about more than just making up stories; it’s about sharing wisdom with readers, showing them truths they might not be able to access through their own lived experiences. Additionally, having fears and being able to sit with them, both while reading and writing, is a sign of personal and intellectual growth. In some undergraduate studies, the student can separate the intellectual from the personal. For example, learning chemistry probably won’t impact how a student interacts with his or her roommates later that day. As a creative writing teacher, I’m both fortunate and challenged; yes, my goal is to teach students craft and help them develop their writing skills. But writing and reading require so much confrontation of the self that it’s impossible not to get personal in a creative writing class.
Since my sophomore year of college, when I first began seriously studying contemporary literary fiction in a course taught by writer John Rowell, I have found that many of the most celebrated stories are about failing relationships. Like drivers who brake to better observe a horrific accident, I devoured these stories. A poet at heart, I found that modeling them helped me overcome my tendency to write plotless stories with pages of self-indulgent description. Yes, I learned how to write stories, but I was also forced to examine all the ways that humans can fail one another.
Especially during my undergraduate years, I felt the need to make up for time I had lost reading standard, high-school-English-class texts, so I immersed myself in texts by late-20th-century literary fiction writers. At the same time, I jumpstarted my evolution from a young woman who was convinced she’d marry her college boyfriend to someone who isn’t sure she wants to get married at all. From those formative years to the present I haven’t been able to shake 10 particular stories from my memory because they’ve shaped my understanding about what it means to engage in a romantic relationship. I return to these stories, all published during my lifetime, regularly because they both rattle and reassure me. Without them, I wouldn’t be able to believe that I, like my favorite writing professor, won’t always be “like this” – in my case: tentative and mystified.
In 1985, the year of my birth, Playboy ran Haruki Murakami’s story “The Second Bakery Attack,” about two newlyweds who wake in the middle of the night with an insatiable hunger and an empty refrigerator. The wife says, “I’ve never been this hungry in my whole life…I wonder if it has anything to do with being married.” I needed, and still need, to know why marriage would make someone so hungry. Once young, broke, and in need of bread, the husband had been involved in a “bakery attack,” and the wife wants to reenact it; she reminds him they have a shotgun and ski masks in the car. Instead of a bakery, they hold up a McDonald’s, asking not for money but for 30 Big Macs. Together, the husband and wife eat 10 of the Big Macs and finally quell their hunger, a sensation that unnerves me because it communicates in such overbearing ways, such ferocious growls. ”Married life is weird, I felt,” says the husband, and I agree with him. It must be weird, if Murakami can only use surrealism to describe it. For Murakami, realism cannot communicate the delicate negotiations that occur in the beginning stages of marriage, and, reading this story, I enjoy the journey of trying to understand by immersing myself in the author’s chosen metaphors.
A poet first, I enjoy Murakami for his memorable imagery, use of hyperbole, and love of the peculiar circumstance, but I’m a realist at heart. I admire writers like Lorrie Moore, a master of her own brand of realism, slightly exaggerated by her dark humor. Moore’s signature character is a female, mid-career academic who is disappointed by relationships with non-intellectual men. In addition, all the stories in Moore’s most recent collection Bark (Vintage, 2014) somehow concern themselves with divorce. Moore herself divorced her ex-husband, a divorce lawyer, and in an interview with Guardian in 2008, she said, “My husband is actually an asshole.” In part I read Moore’s stories because I want to understand how a person can spend years loving someone and then one day, like her, realize her partner’s an “asshole.”
In 1989, The New Yorker published Moore’s “You’re Ugly, Too,” which in part explores the pressure that time puts on relationships. Zoe Hendricks is an American history professor at a small liberal arts college in rural Illinois. She visits her sister Evan in Manhattan, where she lives with her boyfriend Charlie, and the sisters describe what I’ve decided is the long-term relationship of my worst nightmares.
“This is how he gets out of bed at night.” Evan stood up to demonstrate. “He whips all his clothes off, and when he gets to his underwear he lets it drop to one ankle. Then he kicks up his leg and flips the underwear in the air and catches it. I, of course, watch from the bed. There’s nothing else. There’s just that.”
“Maybe you should just get it over with and get married.”
Evan announces that she and Charlie will, in fact, be getting married. I’m afraid of submitting to habit and becoming one half of two people who have given up on trying to impress one another. Later in the story, Zoe immediately tries to envision a future with a man she meets at a costume party thrown by her sister. Moore writes, “Often, when she spoke to men at parties, she rushed things in her mind. As the man politely blathered on, she would fall in love, marry, then find herself in a bitter custody battle with him for the kids…” Like Zoe, I spend too much time fabricating an endless amount of “forevers,” many of which consist of unending catastrophe, but I think if I could train myself to remain present, I would stop disqualifying men who are presently good for me.
Let’s say I do meet the right person, the one man for whom I’ll throw aside my fears. That doesn’t mean I also can’t imagine, like Zoe, the complications of passing time. Alice Munro’s “The Bear Came over the Mountain” (The New Yorker, 1999) is not only a story about losing one’s mind (a fear for another essay) but a story about being dropped from a loved one’s memory altogether. Fiona and Grant are a married couple in their 70s, but Fiona must be moved to a facility called Meadowlake because she suffers from dementia. When Grant visits Fiona for the first time at Meadowlake, she doesn’t remember him: “She treated him with a distracted, social sort of kindness that was successful in keeping him from asking the most obvious, the most necessary question: did she remember him as her husband of nearly fifty years?” Even worse, she has made a new special friend named Aubrey. Fiona and Aubrey are inseparable until the day that Aubrey’s wife comes to retrieve him. Heartbroken, Fiona denies food.
What compels me about this story is the way it demonstrates how two people can spend entire lives together and be each other’s witnesses until one person, beyond his or her control, loses memory. At that point, the entire relationship seems null and void. I can’t imagine what it would be like to gaze upon my beloved and realize that he may not recognize the person he sees. Reading this story, I’m moved and inspired by the way Grant shows Fiona his love, but I’m not sure I would be courageous enough to face a similar situation. As a reader, I feel grateful for the chance to explore the possibility in a safe way.
Andrew Holleran’s “In September the Light Changes” was first published in 2000, in a collection of the same name. An introvert, the protagonist remains at Fire Island the day after Labor Day, after all the vacationers have left for the season. Some of his only neighbors are a handsome and stylish gay couple who also enjoy the quiet of September. We’ve all met this couple: “…neither seemed interested in anyone but his lover. When you saw them, you felt a certain aesthetic propriety had been achieved: two men as handsome, as meaty, as stylish, as sensuous as these two deserved each other.” Understandably, the protagonist is in awe of the couple, but their contentedness makes him feel more lonely than usual. At the same time, he tries to convince himself that he neither needs nor wants a similar relationship.
An unending storm pelts the island with wind and rain. Finally, suffering from cabin fever, the protagonist decides to leave his house and visit the couple, on the pretense that he needs to borrow cooking oil. When he realizes they aren’t going to ask him to stay, he feels deflated and completely baffled by their self-sufficiency. Reading this story for the first time, I was also bewildered by the couple. Their presence represents the nagging doubts we have about ourselves, the feeling that we aren’t good enough. A fiercely independent individual, I don’t want to ever be a member of such a couple, to be so entangled in the other person’s life that I can’t see beyond it. I don’t want to create an island with another person, and, as a result, I can relate to the protagonist’s need to “catch the first boat back to the mainland” once the storm has passed.
Like Murakami, Israeli writer Etgar Keret relies on surrealism to communicate complex, unsayable situations. In Keret’s flash fiction story “Crazy Glue” (LA Weekly, 2001), a man is curious about his wife’s recent purchase of special glue, and the tension between the two characters is immediately apparent in the first few lines:
“There’s nothing that needs gluing,” I snapped. “I can’t understand why you buy all this crap.”
“The same reason I married you,” she shot back, “to kill time.”
Soon, the reader learns the husband has been having an affair, and his wife suspects it. One evening, he comes home to find that his wife has glued all the furniture in place. Then, he notices his wife hanging upside-down with her feet glued to the ceiling. He approaches her by standing on a stack of books. To his surprise, he finds her pretty in a new way, and he kisses her as the books fall away, leaving him hanging from her lips. Though I love Keret’s imagery, I’m frightened by the story’s extremes. Why must the wife go to such great lengths to win back her husband’s attention? I would like for my lover to always see me with fresh eyes, but novelty must fade after years with one person. Would I really have to do something as drastic as adhering myself to a ceiling in order to make someone notice me? I wouldn’t even know where to find such a glue, but now I feel I should look for it.
Perhaps supine isn’t the worst position; both Keret’s narrator and the protagonist in Kevin Brockmeier’s story “The Ceiling” (McSweeney’s 2002) find they are forced to raise their gazes. In “The Ceiling,” the narrator begins at his son’s birthday party, where he and his wife are socializing with other parents. After the party, the two of them are drinking in their backyard when he notices a strange square in the sky, and she admits, “My life is a mess.” As the rift between the couple grows more vast, and the wife seems to become more and more depressed, the strange object in the sky expands, growing large enough “to eclipse the full moon.” Next the birds and insects disappear, and the newspapers begin to call the object “the ceiling.” When the narrator discovers his wife getting a little too close to another man, the town’s water tower collapses. Soon, the weight of the ceiling becomes nearly unbearable.
Brockmeier never reveals whether the size of the ceiling directly correlates with the demise of the marriage, but I believe the two are closely related. The ceiling is so memorable and menacing because it impacts not only the narrator but the whole town, which must suffer because the wife is depressed and in love with another man. As I observed when living with quarrelling roommates, the conflicts in a relationship are never completely private and sometimes impact other people. I wish my issues and interpersonal conflicts could live on an island during the off season, like in “In September the Light Changes,” but Brockmeier shows that’s just not possible.
Of the stories I’ve discussed thus far, Kelly Link’s “Stone Animals” (Conjunctions, 2004) is by far the most disturbing. A young family searches for a home in the suburbs, outside the congested city, and they settle on a house with stone rabbits that flank both sides of the front door. The new home, once the family settles into it, exacerbates the rift that already exists between Henry and his wife Catherine. Now farther away from his job and demanding boss in the city, Henry must spend more time at work and commuting, and he neglects his duties as husband and father. Eager to make the new house a home, Catherine spends every waking hour painting walls, unsatisfied. Meanwhile, a plague of rabbits invades the family’s yard.
“Stone Animals” bears resemblance to “Crazy Glue” in that both the female characters desperately seek attention from their partners. The reader learns that Catherine has faked an affair in order to regain her husband’s attention. As Link writes, “If she did something dramatic enough, if she fucked up badly enough, it would save her marriage.” When Henry stops paying attention to her once again, she can’t possibly top her first lie. Using spectacle to gain attention is immature yet understandable. In my dream relationship, I would want to be completely honest with my partner, to let the person know if I don’t feel appreciated. However, I can imagine how circumstances might eventually drive an otherwise honest person to lie. What I don’t understand is how those circumstances develop and escalate, and I want to become self aware enough to identify small fissures that others might deny.
I’m sure that, in my own way, I’ve gone to great lengths to win someone’s favor; at the very least, I’ve spent countless hours just hoping a special person would notice me or simply appear. The protagonist in “Balloon Night” by Tom Barbash (One Story, 2007) would understand. He hosts his annual Thanksgiving Eve party at his apartment, located in the Upper West Side neighborhood where the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloons are inflated. His wife has left him, but he’s too ashamed to admit the truth and instead tells all his guests that she’s traveling for business. In the meantime, strangers arrive from off the street, and he keeps hoping to see his wife walking through the door.
I know exactly what it’s like to want the person you covet, with a will of his own, to suddenly enter the room, even though you know he’s never going to arrive. If only for a moment, every person who walks through the door looks like him. Soon, you realize that you’ve spent the whole party not paying attention because you’ve been imagining passionate reunions. But Barbash magnifies the situation: how does one explain such a disappearance, such a departure to friends and family members, at an event of that scale? I don’t know how I’d handle such a situation and admit my loss, but for those few pages I’m invited to practice under pressure.
Though I read fiction for guidance, I admit that I rarely ever find it. However, I particularly trust author Jonathan Safran Foer; his memoir Eating Animals inspired me to make one of biggest life changes I’ve made – to stop eating meat. I hope to experience similar revelations when reading his fiction. In his story “Here We Aren’t, So Quickly,” (The New Yorker, June 14 and 21, 2014) Foer sweeps us through a marriage in just two pages. He employs short sentences, alternating between the first and second person perspectives. The husband is the “I,” who describes habits and tendencies within the marriage. As promised by the title, the story moves quickly, at an almost-frightening pace.
When the narrator confesses, “I did nothing but look for you for twenty-seven years,” I feel he’s captured the way that I, and probably most people, feel about relationships, which is that we are continually trying to understand the other person. How can we really know a partner outside of his or her habits and reactions? What astounds me is the idea of spending years with someone and then waking up one morning and realizing how little one can know about that person. Later, the narrator wonders, “Everything else happened – why not the things that could have?” After reading this story, I’m convinced that the prospect of two people falling in love and promising to spend a life together has more to do with chance than intention. Furthermore, perhaps the odds that a union will succeed are just as great as the odds that it will fail, no matter how hard two people try. Outside influences can trump devotion.
The youngest story on my list is the title novella in Bonnie ZoBell’s collection What Happened Here (Press 53, 2014). The narrator is trying to emotionally support a husband who suffers from periods of severe depression. In the hospital, she has an illuminating conversation with the nurse who’s been taking care of her husband.
“I guess I’m afraid of being alone,” I told her.
“You’re alone now, honey. From what you’ve told me, you’ve always been alone.”
For some reason this shocked me. It played inside like a rim shot, the unstable metal hiss shrieking on and on, reverberating throughout me.
I have a tendency to be attracted to brooding men who, although interesting, can also potentially leave their partners feeling alienated and emotionally unfulfilled. Reading this story, I was moved by the way the narrator describes loneliness. In the moment, she is only expressing her concern about returning home for the night to an empty house, while the nurse understands that the narrator has been alone in the relationship for longer than she’s realized. What, then, is the point of sharing time and space with someone who inspires loneliness? I fear my own affinities.
As Oatley writes, “fiction is about possible selves in possible worlds,” and I have, at some point, imagined myself in all the worlds I’ve described, for better or for worse. Though I’m very serious about my fear of commitment, I do not feel hopeless about it. I continue to read and write in an effort to explore my fear, so that one day, armed with knowledge and self awareness, I’ll be able to confront and possibly overcome it.
I’d also like my students to know they shouldn’t discard stories that make them feel afraid or uncomfortable. Those are the stories to study, not only with the hope that studying them will make one a better writer but also a more thoughtful and deliberate person, someone who’s prepared for every possible challenge. When a professor is lying supine on the cold, linoleum floor, promising she’s “not always like this,” believe her. But if she stops making those promises, just be sure to call for help.
Laryssa Wirstiuk lives in Jersey City, NJ with her miniature dachshund Charlotte Moo. She teaches creative writing and writing for digital media at Rutgers University. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Crab Fat, Gargoyle Magazine, East Coast Literary Review, and Up the Staircase Quarterly. You can view all her work here: http://www.laryssawirstiuk.com.