I love short stories. I love the way writers draw a little piece of a picture, and if they've done a good job, the reader will be able to infer the whole drawing. I relish in the ambivalence this allows for the reader and the creativity needed from the writer.
Over the holidays I picked up a copy of the 2003 edition of the Best American Short Stories, and I am elated to report that I have finally finished it. It took me 10 weeks because the guest editor, Walter Mosley, selected shorts that address the extreme of human emotion. When I read the introduction, I hoped reading stories about death and the grieving process would be a good exercise for me. In some ways it was, I always appreciate knowing that other people have gone through similar experiences, even if it is fiction. Before starting each story, I prepped myself by reading the few paragraphs hidden in the back of the book written by the author about the scope of their story. This usually seemed benign, and I would tear into another short story with high hopes.
Unfortunately, with end of each story I became more sad and frustrated. Written words have always been my best means of communication. For those of you who knew my mother, she didn't leave much room for others to talk, and I grew up as a very quiet and introspective little girl. It was hard for me to envision that in the middle of my book I'd slam it down on the bed next to me and wonder who the hell thought it was a good idea to let the kind and altruistic son die. It's ludicrous! Where is the poetic justice? Now this blind, poor father has to continue his life as a shell collector without company. Sometimes I'd gleam a tiny morsel of a lesson but it lasted brief seconds, and it was not worth an hour of reading.
My ire had reached a new level with literature through this book. With the end of each story, I never wanted to start the next but felt hopeful that the new one would make me feel different. When I'd reached the final story, I wasn't looking forward to redemption but now this book became a challenge. It was a battle of wills and I couldn't back down. I had to finish it. I told my Aunt Polly about the contents of these stories, and she agreed that it might be a good opportunity to help me grieve but that I shouldn't be masochistic. As I sat in a nail salon with my head hung over the book in my lap, I read the description of a mother on her deathbed from the vantage point of her two daughters. "Maggie!" my aunt shouted across the room. "What are you reading?" knowing well enough what I was reading. I gave her a solid stare and tried to turn the corners of my mouth up. "You look so sad."
I put the book down for that day, but after a good night's rest I was enjoying an early morning by myself in Starbucks. I feverishly combed through each sentence. It was wrong for the author to describe a woman in such a state while depicting the tension shared between her children. These things are immensely personal. I felt like I was reading about my own mother's death and the stress put on my family. I would never write about them in such a forward way, and it was dragging out all the emotions tied to this event. How could anyone do this? It was torture. Nonetheless, I kept reading, knowing that it would all be over soon enough.
That's when that guy sat down. I'm within paragraphs of closing this book and that guy wearing a brightly colored Dr. Huxtable sweater asked to share my table. Over the course of 5 minutes, I learned that he continually hurts himself seeking adrenaline, he is going through his second divorce (his first wife took his money and children, the second took his heart, but he will fall in love again because he likes to hurt himself), he works third shift at a grocery store, that guy has bunions, and he is 42. He extracted my age and insisted that the difference was comparable to that with his second ex-wife, although she was older. That guy liked being significantly younger than his partner because, well, he liked being a boy toy. That guy giggled, and shrugged his shoulders as he contemplated a younger partner. Somehow I managed to not punch him and made my way to the bagel shop down the street.
I sat as far away from anyone as I could at a table with only one chair. I sipped orange juice and bit into a delicious bagel. As I read tears ran down my cheeks, one hand gripped the edge of my chair and the other squeezed a snotty napkin. My knuckles were white. Air passed through my teeth when I finally closed the book. I jumped up, wet cheeks and all, and ran out of the shop, inadvertently scowling at the other customers.
Now I can put this book on the bookshelf. The feeling that I desired when I read it, that feeling of being free of sadness, the craving to let life continue, has come back to me. Finally.