Ten seconds, that's all you've got. Ten seconds before I go online and tweet everyone I know that I just heard the craziest thing ever in my entire thirty-two years of life. Jilly pretended to look at the watch she wasn't wearing.
You don't even have a Twitter account.
I'll open one special. Don't change the subject. The countdown has started. Seven-six-five.
What's so crazy anyway? You once broke up with a guy because of his name.
Jilly put her arm down. Well, Roland is an impossible name. I simply couldn't go through life saying Good morning, Roland. She made a face. Besides, he wasn't the perfect man.
Who said Jake was the perfect man?
You did. Last week. Ah, Jake. Now there's a name a girl can wake up to.
I did not say he was the perfect man.
Well, words to that effect.
I still don't understand what you find so crazy.
Breaking up with a guy just because of a little literary squabble over Grace Paley.
It wasn't a literary squabble. It was a defining of positions.
Still. To end a relationship with Mr. Right over a feminist writer dead for a decade.
He wasn't Mr. Right.
You said yourself he was.
Then I was wrong.
We were sitting in the park that Grace Paley routinely used as settings in her short stories. Jilly was eating a big pretzel bought from one of the oppressed proletarian vendors working the lunchtime crowd. I was not. I'd already had my full of pretzels. It was the same park where I'd had it out with Jake only the day before.
That day, as it happens, I was eating a big pretzel. Me, and the pigeons. I was sharing.
Don't encourage them, Jake said.
He was right. They were beginning to crowd around us on the bench. They were getting pretty aggressive. But I broke off another piece all the same. Disgusting as they could be, I tried to remember, the pigeon is the proletariat of birds. I tossed the chewy, nearly indigestible chunk into the center of the burbling squalid ever-growing boil of sharp beaks and dirty feathers that threatened any moment to overwhelm us. Like the Russian Revolution.
You're reading her? That's how Jake started it. He was looking at the book on my lap. Later the Same Day by Grace Paley. Why, if you don't mind me asking?
I didn't mind him asking; it was the way he asked to which I found myself taking particular exception. Why not?
She was a rabid communist for one thing.
So? Jesus was a communist. Or he would be, if he came back today. Have you read the Gospels, by the way? Did you ever hear him asking for a health insurance card before he healed some cripple or made the blind to see? Did he ever bark at some hungry beggar, Take a hike! Go and get a job instead you lazy bum! You people tend to forget that.
Us People? What do you mean Us People?
You know what I mean.
No, I really don't.
The same thing you mean when you give me that superior look and say, You People.
From that point the conversation traveled, as they say, from bad to worse.
Okay look, Jake said, forget the politics. Although I don't know how you can. It's practically all she ever writes about. It's in just about every story in one guise or another. All that radical leftist hoo-ha. Old news even before they rolled the sod over her.
Bull. Ever hear of the Occupy Movement?
Jake waved his hand dismissively. Just dumb kids reviving a trend. Like hipsters going in for their dad's old fedoras and cardigans. Retro-protest. Dress-up. Playacting for the pampered. Like spending a weekend at a dude ranch. Someone should open a theme-park: Protest USA. Be a hippie for an afternoon. Probably make a fortune. None of it to be taken seriously.
What I said is forget the leftist rant. You people never can, though. But humor me. Put the message aside for just a moment. Take the medium. The style. Everything elliptical, clipped, oblique, telegraphic. As if she were too smart and clever to finish a scene or a point or a conversation to it's end. Shards of meaning. Intimations. Like all the cool people are in on this together. They get the lingo. She doesn't even use quotation marks when people speak. I mean, how cool is that, right?
He was being sarcastic. I'm not one of those people who claim they don't like sarcasm. Actually, I love it. Sarcasm adds something to a conversation, like a fiery spice. Some people just can't handle; they like it bland. Not me. Brevity is good enough for Raymond Carver.
What's Raymond Carver got to do with it?
You like him as I recall. Or did. When you still read beyond the Wall Street Journal and the Kiplinger's Report or whatever it's called. Loved him, in fact.
I repeat: What's that got to do with it?
Well, I guess its okay for a male author to be elliptical, oblique, telegraphic, laconic. It's okay for a male author to be smart and clever and to expect a reader to be just as with it as he is and not have to spell everything out and if the reader isn't sharp enough than the hell with them. Right? But for a woman, it's a different story.
He grinned. Is that a pun?
Jake had a killer grin. But I wasn't falling for it. Not this time. A woman is expected to drone on and on instead. I guess so you guys can roll your eyes and grin and elbow each other, give each other the look, the look that says, Well, there she goes again. God forbid Paley's characters had been as big a bunch of adulterous booze hounds as Carver's were. I shudder to think what you'd have called Grace Paley then. You what to know what I really think? I think you just discount what Grace Paley is really writing about as unimportant. Because she's writing about a woman's experience, about woman in full. She's not just writing about a woman vis-a-vis men, which is about all you men are interested in hearing about from a woman. She's writing about about motherhood, about friendships between women, about family, about children. What's more, she's writing about politics and the environment and a woman's sense of being a caretaker of the earth. She's writing of a woman as a multi-faced human being. And that just doesn't interest you Jake, why don't you admit it, instead of just nitpicking that her sentences jump around.
Jake laughed, though uneasily, I thought. Listen, I think you're making way too much of this, he said.
Don't tell me what I think.
Jeez, Jilly echoed Jake's sentiments exactly when I finished. So you broke up with him right then and there?
No. Later. When he called that night as if nothing had happened. I'd had some time to think it over. I still wasn't sure what I'd do, but when he acted as if nothing had happened, that tipped the balance. I told him that I didn't see a point in going on. I couldn't continue seeing a man whose fundamental attitudes towards life and society and women and gender relations as revealed by his position on the stories of Grace Paley are so diametrically opposed to mine. The fact is, I feel I've wasted too much of my life already not being informed by the work of Grace Paley. From here on out, Grace Paley would be an important person in my life.
Wow. What did he say?
Pretty much what you said.
About telling everyone on Twitter?
About me being crazy.
Jilly looked thoughtfully at what remained of her pretzel. I see. Then she looked up. Do you mind, she said, if I explore the possibility of Jake myself? After a respectful period of mourning in consideration of the end of your relationship of course.
Of course. I said, spicing the words with sarcasm. Be my guest.
Do you mean it?
I shrugged. Why not? But I don't think I really meant it.
I've got to say one thing for you Liz, Jilly said.
You sure do take your literature seriously.
Someone has to.
Jilly did just as she said she would. When it came to men, if nothing else, she usually did. She hooked up with Jake, although I beg to differ on what her idea of a respectful period of mourning for the end of a relationship might be. I didn't think a week showed a lot of respect for our relationship. Or grief, either, for that matter. Anyway, I didn't give their relationship much of a chance of lasting. I was right; it didn't. But it lasted longer than I would have thought, or liked.
Jake and I circled around the idea of getting back together again, but I think it was clear to both of us that it just wouldn't work. Our basic positions were just too entrenched, too opposed. Grace Paley had made that clear to both of us. And she was still, just as I had foreseen, a big part of my life.
Instead of getting back with Jake, I hunted down the rest of Grace Paley's books. Her smart lucid prose. Her political engagement. Her ethnic Jewish earthiness. They were like a tonic to me. Not just for my broken heart. But a tonic for something I hadn't even known was ailing me.
There is something about the way Grace Paley looks in the author photo of Later The Same Day. It's hard to define. But whatever it is, I decided I couldn't live without that quality. I defaced library property to remind me of it.
In this photo I stole Grace Paley appears to be in later middle age. Her broad face is open, clear, and simple. Her eyes are dark and level, the brows cut straight across. It's a serious, no-nonsense face, a peasant's face, an immigrant's face, a yenta's face; it radiates down-to-earth wisdom. She seems to be in attendance at some kind of women's conference but she looks like she could be sitting across from you having coffee at a cafe or, better yet, at her kitchen table on the Lower East Side. She is sitting there intently listening as you spilled your heart out. Her chin is propped on her hand and she is gazing with such benevolent interest at whatever you're saying that you know that no matter what your problem, it's going to be okay. You're both going to be laughing about it in about five minutes. Just her presence is enough to calm you. Her intelligence, her integrity, her conviction, and, yes, her courage.
Her expression says, Don't worry darling.
It says, Stand up for what you believe in, but don't be ashamed to sit down every once in a while.
It says, Everything is going to be okay, even if it isn't.
It says, A single life can matter but only if you act like it does.
I keep the photo in my purse. She's there whenever I need her. She's like a mom-in-the-pocket. But in some ways even better.