Take One Man and One Woman
The following story was chosen by Lauren Groff as the winner of the 2017 Stella Kupferberg Memorial Short Story Prize. The prize is awarded annually by Selected Shorts and a guest author judge. The winning entry receives $1000, a 10-week writing course with Gotham Writers Workshop and publication in Electric Literature. The winning work will also be performed live on Selected Shorts at Symphony Space in Manhattan.
A Guide to Fooling Yourself
Take one man and one woman. Let them be: not that young anymore, and feeling it lately. Give them good jobs, their own places, a little money in the bank. How about a recent move? How about California? Honey light, a bike commute to work for him, bougainvillea on the fence of her bungalow, gold in them hills. Day after day after day of blue sky, and then what passes for bad weather: taking your sweater off and putting it on again every half hour. Let them both think: Hallelujah.
On one of those sweater days, get them to the same backyard barbecue. Christmas lights on cacti, succulents in the gravel bed. Make her way out of his league. Make her feel like smiling at him anyway. Make him feel like it might not be pity. Give them something in common. Paul Simon, the Concert in the Park, 91. No kidding, you too? Then something deeper — dysfunctional families. A father who abused him and a mother who let it happen. A father who left her, a mother she buried at seventeen. But they’re survivors. Thrivers! Bootstraps, he says. She says: Blood, sweat, and tears. Siblings? Can’t stand mine either. Always playing the victim. The details aren’t as important as a preexisting sense, for both of them, that the light around the corner is just about to swing into view. For that matter: make the sun come around the corner of the house and suddenly swing into view.
He’s too skinny, but this needn’t be a dealbreaker. It makes him insecure, which makes him seem kind. She’s had a hard past, harder than his. Make her a fighter. Make her tired of fighting. Make her in the mood for a little kindness.
When they go back to his place, for once let there be no neighbor clunking around upstairs. For once, let the condom be in the drawer exactly where he put it. Give them, please, a little grace. Let the silence afterward seem to hold them, so softly that, if they weren’t both lapsed Catholics, they’d call it holy.
Give her a strong will; give him a lack of direction. He denies his own needs; she needs to take up space. Have somebody break into her bungalow while she’s sleeping at his; give him anxiety dreams about burglars and trouble making the rent.
When he’s just about decided she’s too controlling and she’s just about decided he’s too weak, let her get pregnant. Make him feel guilty, then optimistic; give her a sudden and profound belief in fate. Let them both see forty coming and think: If not now, when?
If you want to keep it going, make sure the kid’s an only child. Make it just smart enough to convince them they’ve produced a genius, but obedient enough so they don’t clash over discipline. He’ll love too much, just to show up his unloving father. She’ll parent too much, to make up for having no parents of her own. When they overdo it, let them bond over the kid rejecting them. Let them stay up at night talking in the dark — should we send the kid to therapy? Reform school? Japanese lessons?
Many times, they’ll want to leave each other. When they do, twist their luck; good and bad both work. She gets promoted. He almost dies of a burst appendix. The value of their home appreciates. Her brother commits suicide. If all else fails, let the kid become an asshole, yell at them, insult them, pull away, move to Japan. They’ll hold each other in the dark, saying if only, and think the problem is the kid.
Now here’s how you’ll pull out the rug from under them. Let the kid move back to the States. Let the kid get a steady job, forgive them, start calling once a week. Let there be a time without disaster. Let a holy silence settle in.
They’ll be reading in the living room. It’s one of those do-I-wear-my-sweater days. He’ll see himself in the window: skinnier than ever. And she’ll realize she’s tired, more tired than she’s ever been. She’ll feel like saying — but she doesn’t know what. And he’ll want to say — but she never spoke.
The silence is a pang, like an honest answer. And they can’t remember what the question is.