Laura Tanenbaum

I.

No one stupider than a tourist. I walk in museums with colored construction paper. The people around me open Mariefountain pads of paper with gridded lines; they write with fountain pens. They sit in class changing the cartridges and it’s so impossible.

Final exam question: discuss the relationship between movement de baroque and movement du baroque. Score a 3 out of 20. Vous n’avez pas encore un niveau de francais sufficient. You’ve tried to dissolve your body and the doctor helpfully says, you don’t yet have the ability to do that.

Dinner of endives in cream and hard-boiled eggs. Parties where everyone is over seventy and asks you what you think about the death penalty. Walks to a cathedral with the girl who says, I feel good in my body, looking at the old woman about to undertake a long climb up the stairs, with uncertain results. How terrible, I say, that we look at them so we can feel better about ourselves. But old people are so kind, she says, they don’t mind at all.

II.

A summer in a small Connecticut town we decide is redneck. I spend my time my time with an intern from Stanford who everyone dislikes and may or may not be a compulsive liar. I decide I dislike him too, but that this is also a good reason to cultivate his friendship: a useful exercise.

He tells me he stole manuscripts from his university’s library, that he lost his virginity to his parents’ maid, that she was the one who seduced him, and something about the guy at his school who’s dating Chelsea Clinton. After each possible lie, he says with great seriousness, but you can’t tell anyone and I say back, who would I tell, by which I mean, who would believe you. He says he’s going to give in to his parents’ arranged marriage in just a few years. Doing something so backwards is almost like being radical.

It doesn’t bother me when he says this, and I don’t tell him what I think of the idea. Not being bothered and not saying what I think is something different. I decide I like how it feels. It doesn’t bother when he says, of his future arranged-marriage wife, that he’ll treat her badly but not as badly as someone else would, so he’d be doing the world a good turn. Maybe he’d even go down on her once a year. Maybe on her birthday. It doesn’t bother me when he asks me to read a law school application essay full of righteous indignation on behalf of battered women and says, I’m sure they’ll eat this crap up.

The only thing that bothers me is this. One afternoon when we’re in line at a drive through and right after he orders a Blizzard with extra M&Ms he says, apropos of nothing, I’m very impressed by your intelligence. I don’t say anything so he explains. It’s really something. For a chick. Then comes the one thing that bothered me, which was this: a lie that is all my own. Barely enough words to be a lie, but still, more untruthful than anything he’d thought to invent: I say thank you.
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III.

Back in the country of my stupidity, I sit on stools next to the girl from the cathedral. She speaks better than me, but I speak more. Men come up to us. They ask questions. I respond, she says nothing. Weeks later I see them walking around, her and one or another of these men, and I keep my distance but I can see that now she has something to say, after all. ***********************************************************************************

IV.

“I don’t believe in those kinds of sentences,” I tell J., this dear and beautiful friend. Immediately I regret it.

“What do you mean sentences? It’s a beautiful evening, you’ve come across the country to see me and you’re complaining about sentences?”

But she knows the kind I mean. “You know. Sentences that go, Men. Dot dot semicolon. Women. Dot dot dot.” I tell her that if had my way, all the ink in every article that said such a thing would dissolve as soon as you read them, staining your hands and leaving plenty of time while you scrubbed them to ponder just what men and women are not really like. Nevertheless sometimes there is a not wholly dissimilar sentence I will listen to; the kind of sentences comes from the pages of certain books, from certain people who demand your attention, even when they write these kinds of sentences.

And sometimes when I am upset, when I am not thinking, when there is no line and no correctness to my thoughts, the sentences have no shape at all. They sneak in to an ear or some other opening and they are just the thing they are about. I am telling J. about those sentences I don’t believe in, but I am also talking about this other thing so she looks at me kindly and says, “We fall in love with men; they fall in love with the way we make them feel.” And there it is: roast chicken and wine on a west coast balcony, her daughter’s voice calling to us from inside the house, a semicolon between two worlds, the snap of a thought when it breaks in two.

 
 
 


Laura Tanenbaum teachs composition, literature, and creative writing at LaGuardia Community College, City University of New York. Her fiction has previously appeared in failbetter, Steel City Review and SmokeLong Quarterly, and her reviews appear semi-regularly in Open Letters Monthly.