Not Now But Soon
In the four months since his fiancée’s death, it’s the small details, the tiny ironies that have remained the most vivid for Connor. The larger decisions he’s had to make – releasing or keeping her apartment, selling her things, or shipping them back to her parents in Mashhad – haven’t been nearly as calamitous as the minor things he keeps remembering about Afshan’s accident. In fact, it’s the things that made it an accident that he remembers every day. How easily her jacket slipped off. He still feels the swift, terrible vacancy of the jacket, too big on her, as her arms slipped out of it. As he grabbed the back of it to keep her from falling. And even then, she didn’t fall right away. He remembers that too, how she hit the ground on all fours, a small grunt coming out of her. Afshan’s weight, which hadn’t ever been enough to fill a twin bed, a desk chair, an airplane seat, was somehow enough to dissolve the earth underneath her at the Eastern Fells overlook. She fell then, headfirst. But for a split second, holding that jacket, he really thought he’d saved her. He thought, oh, nothing’s changed at all. It was just a scare.
His friends and family have all said, “Why are you doing this to yourself?” or “This isn’t going to bring her back.” And in the most literal sense, that’s true. No amount of digging back into the cogs of the accident is going to re-inflate her organs, repair her bones, make her spring back up out of the gorge. Literally rewinding the events is a positive feedback loop of reversals, each if only begetting another if only. He knows they’re all right, that every step he takes prompts one if only bigger and worse than the last, and it just makes the silent, unacknowledged coast back into routine – keeping appointments, answering the phone, making small talk – harder and more shameful. But remembering isn’t hurting him. For now at least, he seeks shelter in imagining her, even imagining her accident. When he thinks about her, visualizes the days when she was still alive, even the really bad ones, those are the times during which she’s still here, refracting into splinters that cut into him unexpectedly, each thought giving way to another, and another. It’s as if she’s coming back within him. He can almost hear her. He can almost feel her still here. She’s just somewhere that he can’t see. In another room. Downstairs. Just outside the door, and any second now, the knob will turn and she’ll walk in.
The rent for Afshan’s apartment is due today. This will be the third time he’s paid it since her death. As he leaves his apartment, his roommates, three Tufts graduate students who advertised the fourth bedroom on Craigslist, fall silent when he passes through the living room on the way to the front door. It’s gotten worse since she died, but even before that they all felt obligated to fall silent around one another, as if the reminder that none lived alone, while all wished to, was a disappointment too great to be mentioned. Afshan never stopped trying, greeting each housemate by name, asking about their days while looking them straight in the face. It had more to do with her thinking it was ridiculous not to be involved with the people with whom you lived, than with actual interest. Her courtesy always put Connor to shame. He told her she was just wasting her time. “You’re right. What you do is so much easier,” she said, leveling her gaze at him for exactly long enough, before looking away.
He’s never met her landlord, a distant friend of Afshan’s family. He can’t remember the name exactly; Amirapour something, maybe. Afshan liked him. She loved having someone with whom to speak Farsi and being able to pop downstairs for a new recipe for khoresht or tah-chin. Sometimes, if Connor was upstairs when she did, he’d hear them laughing. She’d return smelling of the clove cigarettes for which the landlord always managed to convince her to join him. But he had rules that made Connor nervous. Like paying rent only in cash. So he takes a stack of twenties, forty bills high, each month in an envelope. He likes the feeling of the money in his hand. He likes the density, the smell. Once he gets there, he stuffs it in the mailbox or under the door, no note, before darting away like a burglar. He doesn’t want to see him. He doesn’t want to listen to him mutter things in Farsi about Afshan. He doesn’t want to behold him accepting the money in the name of death. It’s why he goes so early. Today he’s running a little late. It’s already 7:15 AM. He has to hurry.
It’s freezing outside, the kind of cold that stings so badly it feels punitive. Afshan always talked about that, about how Boston was the most climatically inhospitable place she had ever lived. “It is oppressively cold for so long, and then, bang! It is oppressively hot. You live dreading the next extreme.” Connor loved that about her, all those stubborn expectations of a foreigner, bottom-lining it in a way that no native would. No one here would expect winter to last less than six months, or spring more than six weeks. Living with Boston weather—heat or frost, no matter—made you feel as if the best days of your life were coming right up, if you could just get through today.
The weather in Mashhad was ideal, she said. He can still hear her describing it in her schooled English, with her careful pronunciations and endearing formalities. It ranges from semiarid to subtropical, she would say. Never more than eighty-five in the summer, rarely falling below freezing in the winter, the weather in northwestern Iran was outrageously perfect. Each season bowed out and let the next take over. No one there ever walked around angry at the ruthless seasons, just as no one there had to acquiesce, grimly, that it was only a matter of time until the nice weather was gone.
From Not Now But Soon, Colorado Review
For April Fleming, winter in Cleveland is exquisitely insidious, a season so refined in its administration it feels like punishment. The snow persists even when there’s nowhere left for it to go. Driving and parking are astonishing endeavors. She feels the cold in her hair and her fingernails: tissue that isn’t even living. What does seem alive are the freezes that slither through the boards of houses. They seep through even the most confidently insulated walls and windows. They steal the warmth from coffee cups and bare feet resting on the floor. Tonight, April looks down at her feet, which are turning the shrunken white of retreating circulation. They are beginning to seem unlike her own. She cannot seem to keep them warm. She looks back up, away from the wave of self-pity that breaks against her ribs, to her mother-in-law, who is refusing to come away from the kitchen window.
“Marianne.” April thrusts out the robe, one Marianne chose from a children’s catalog, printed with purple hippos engaged in what looks like a waltz. “I mean it. Put this on.” The cat crouches beneath April and swats, mad-eyed, at the dangling robe ties.
The nightgown Marianne wears tonight is too big. Its sleeves flop to her knuckles and its hem drags on the floor. Her hair stands up in a thin gray cloud, and April sees her scalp underneath. When they’d first met, Marianne had been shaped like a teapot, reminiscent of the nursery rhyme. She now is no bigger than a preadolescent girl. She looks back. “Do we know each other?” she asks.
“Very well,” April tells her. She dangles the robe in front of her, and, compromising, Marianne stays where she is but raises her arms in a crucifix.
“Well,” Marianne says. She turns back to the window. “I don’t know how long you’ve lived here, but I’m a Clevelander through and through, and let me tell you—” she swivels to face April, pulling the ties out of her hands, “this storm is going to be a big one.” The pale sheerness of her skin is startling. Her bones seem too close to the surface. Her eyebrows and eyelashes are nearly invisible, which makes her face look anchorless. It isn’t that she seems younger with time, though she is only seventy-four, but her face has accrued a particular relaxed certainty that seems ageless. Her expressions are single pieces of paper pared down from a sheaf. “I’ll keep my car here, thank you very much. Winds at sixty miles an hour.” Marianne shakes her head and pads over to the kitchen table.
“Let me tie your robe for you,” April says, reaching. Marianne hasn’t had a car for five years.
“Sixty.” Marianne waves her away and looks sadly down at the front of her nightgown, decorated with some sort of stain from lunch. She licks her finger and rubs the spot. April gives up on the robe.
Whatever else Marianne has wrong, she’s right about the severity of the storm. Sunny is coming home for dinner tonight, driving from college in Pittsburgh, and now April’s worried. Sunny should have left earlier. She shouldn’t be coming at all. April decides she should call her, then decides she shouldn’t. She doesn’t want Sunny distracted and fumbling for her cell phone on the highway. April keeps looking out the window, hoping the sky will have cleared, or at least that the storm won’t begin in earnest until Sunny gets there, but the snow continues to come.
“That view isn’t changing tonight.” Marianne’s voice startles her. For a moment, April had forgotten she was there. Marianne has developed an uncanny new ability to become invisible in plain sight. Even more eerily, when she speaks, she often seems to be addressing April’s unspoken thought. It’s crossed April’s mind that she could be more aware than she’s letting on, but nothing telling lurks beneath her face. And how, April thinks as she watches Marianne primly settle herself in a chair, could someone whose own mind slips away from her more every day be able to read someone else’s?
From Cleveland, Blackbird
Mary Medlin’s work has appeared in Colorado Review, Blackbird, The Drum, and Confrontation, and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2011. She is the recipient of fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and the Ucross Foundation. She holds an MFA from Warren Wilson College and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
What are you currently working on?
I’m still working on my collection of stories; I’ve recently undertaken a few new additions to it that might change the tone of the book, or the way it’s received by readers, e.g., a story from the perspective of an orca in captivity, and the possibility of expanding the title story into a novella.
What is particular about the short story form that you’re interested in?
Short stories have a much shorter (and, ostensibly, more manageable) arc, certainly, but my favorite thing about reading, and writing, them, is that when you finish reading a very good short story, you have the sense that you have just finished reading a novel: they’re that full, that lush. Short stories contain multitudes, yet they are condensed, distilled, like the purest water. No words can be wasted, no murkiness left behind. Sentences must be both sharp and rich. These are challenges unique to the short story, which is much less forgiving of excess and obscurity.
There's an expectation that a short story writer should graduate from short stories to novels. Is this actually the case, or a pressure?
The idea that short story writers should inevitably one day write a “real” book (i.e., a novel) has everything to do with the marketability of novels versus short stories, and nothing to do with how much more “real” one form is over another. The majority of the reading public is used to reading novels, and their expectations and standards stem from that habit. Personally, I’ve found that writers of one form are not particularly good at the other; usually they know it, and stick to what comes most naturally to them, to what they do best. As to the question of whether or not short story writers (not novelists) are “real” writers, I answer: Alice Munro.
There’s a professionalisation of the fiction writer that comes (partly) out of writing programs. Does it feel that there is a proscribed route to becoming a writer now?
I don’t think there’s a proscribed route to becoming a writer, no, though there are certainly benefits to attending an MFA program, or to studying writing some other way. Writers are often asked if writing can be taught – i.e., is it a skill, like carpentry or computer coding. My answer, like the answers of many others, is yes and no. The most useful things my writing program taught me were ways to talk about writing and the language to use; ways to identify problems or achievements, and how to talk about those things. Writing programs can teach you to pay attention, which is not something that comes naturally to many of us. What writing programs cannot teach you, however, is what the author Rivka Galchen calls “the unteachable dark:” the deep reservoir of creativity and imagination sparked by some mysterious force inside you, the storytelling impulse whose first appearance is so faint, so light, that it cannot even be called an idea, not yet – more like a nudge between the shoulder blades, a turning of the mind from which you are unable to turn back: that, you cannot teach.
Regardless, when people ask me how they can get better at writing, my first piece of advice is always the same: read. Read voraciously, omnivorously, and (to a certain extent) indiscriminately. Nothing and no one is a more patient, more forgiving, more constant teacher, than reading.
Are there goals (publications, nominations, residencies)?
Publication is certainly a yardstick by which almost every writer measures some degree of success, and it’s definitely one of mine, but I write equally because of other things. I had a writing teacher tell me once, when I professed a feeling of inadequacy and failure, that were things I had to say that needed to be in the world, that would enrich it; and that these things would not make it there, unless I was the one who wrote them. I think about that, when I see all those thousands of books in the bookstore, or when I think of all the writers more successful, more prolific than I am: none of them are trying to say what I am trying to say, and none of them can say it the way I can.
You have a directness in Cleveland which keeps the piece clean as you expand away from the present moment - an oncoming storm. There’s a liquid sense of the relationships, in how the women are set as mothers, daughters, widows, carers. April, as the fulcrum, is defined by the position she finds herself in, not through her own will or desire?
“Cleveland,” like most stories in my collection, asks the question of its characters: how are we ever able to tell the difference between what we think we want, and what we actually want? Is that even possible? Or are we to end up, one day in a snowstorm, realizing that we never knew those were two separate things until it was too late? The characters in Cleveland are being forced to remember, or forget, their painful connections to one another – and none of them, in my mind, is really able to decide which of those two paths they want to take. So yes – April especially is an example of someone who has lived her life thinking she was making choices about how to live, based on what she wanted (or what she thought she wanted) – only to be blindsided one day by feeling as though she’s never actually made a choice in her life.
Not Now But Soon, Colorado Review