As I began to flip through a literary magazine, I was stopped by a photograph of myself as a young girl, standing beside my college professor. I was wearing a striped bathing suit with a shirt thrown over it; he was in cutoffs, a long wad of string dangling down one leg. If I’d ever seen the picture, I’d forgotten it. Beside me stood Gomer, in his big, aviator-style glasses, who, in his thirties, had reemerged in my life, having renamed himself Grover. After he’d dropped out of graduate school, following a disastrous affair with a fellow graduate student in his biology lab (she also left and returned to Korea), Grover – which still sounds to me like the name of a dog – had a heart-to-heart with me and confessed his undying love. When I expressed little enthusiasm, he turned bitter. Not in the moment. When he said this to me, we were finishing lunch at a sidewalk cafe in New York, where I was working as an office temp. The waitress had been flirting with him by bringing more of the good bread and whisking away the basket of untouched, anemic-looking rolls. By then, he’d become almost handsome. He wore contact lenses, and he’d found a way to stop wincing when he made dismissive motions with his hands. As my father would have said, he’d grown into his looks. His nose was proportionate to his face; his hair, longer. And his generally improved demeanor meant that his eyebrows no longer nearly converged at the bridge of his nose, making the listener assume he’d been skeptical of every word that had been said. He’d enrolled in a very competitive (three tries, many recommendations) acting program in Greenwich Village. So when he stated his feelings about me, had he been acting? As we split the check, I’d found myself wondering if everything he’d said had been an elaborate put-on, or perhaps, in some odd way, a put-down. Otherwise, how could I have felt so diminished?
The photograph was an illustration of a long essay. I could see small children in the background, playing on rocks mostly submerged in water, and remembered that Gomer, Grover, had at some point felt one of them was in danger, and had risen to approach the little group, only to be set upon by an enormous woman, who appeared from nowhere, like a bird of prey, and who kept insisting that everything was under control. Where had she come from? She could have been anybody, though no doubt she was someone’s mother. We’d let her contend with a wailing child’s cut foot, forcing ourselves not to look again in that direction.
I leaned against the door frame to my back porch in Maine as I started to read the essay; really, its existence astonished me, though I suppose I might have brushed the cat aside and sat in the rocking chair and taken a deep breath before I continued. I also might have sat in the rattan chair with the very comfortable cushion, or even on one of the benches pushed under the square picnic table, above which dangled a fuchsia plant that dropped perfectly formed but apparently useless flower bombs on its surface. Today was the Fourth of July, which reminded me of the president, and of his intention to have M1 tanks roll down the streets of DC, which wasn’t a visual image that came easily to me.
Neither could I comprehend Gomer’s essay, which ranged from unlikely to untrue, from fallacious to ridiculous. He wrote that he and I – the now-named Grover and I – had once been involved in a folie à trois, with our professor, who had pitted us against each other as a way of retaining our deepest affections. I was apparently ‘asexual’, and Gomer, Grover, had not yet ‘come out’. Oh? I hadn’t heard about that, and certainly hadn’t suspected it when we’d had our long-ago lunch, too expensive for our budgets, at the sidewalk cafe.
What I remembered our having talked about, that day, was death. Now, that subject might logically be on our minds, but back then, we’d simply drifted into it because we’d both suffered losses. My brother had died at sixteen of a terrible cancer. Grover’s beloved hound dog, Maggie May (this was years ago), had been killed by a taxi that jumped the curb in Boston, the day he’d gone to audition for the role of Rosencrantz in summer stock. The death of a dog, that way, was a very unlikely thing to happen. Also, Maria, the twin sister of Initials (our nickname for our professor, since he went exclusively by his initials, RB), had died of dehydration on her honeymoon, soon after the time we left school. Initials had contacted both of us. Dehydration! It was incomprehensible, as was the bizarre way her new husband had acted, needing to be bailed out of jail after a night of drinking, during which time he destroyed . . . was it store windows? He’d bashed in windows? Something. In any case, she was dead and he’d gone mad.
None of this, however, appeared in the essay – which I read rather frantically – and which focused on Gomer’s, Grover’s, inability, then, to understand that he was a pawn in our game, unwanted by either Initials or by me, yet necessary to what we both needed: an obstacle, a human obstacle, to our being together and being a conventional couple. Because, said he – and why not pull out all the stops? – in our triangle, any side that was struck excited the other side with the reverberation, and that, alone, had always been Initials’s goal, as he was a closeted homosexual, with vast amounts of misplaced anger toward both women and men. Reading, I could easily understand why things had gotten to the point where everyone wanted their sexuality to be the first thing anyone knew about them now. But what, possibly, could have been the point of publishing something about our threesome – whatever it might have been – that had taken place in the Dark Ages? I paid little attention to how Gomer segued into #MeToo, so eager was I to see how the essay concluded. Its conclusion: ‘I fell from my heights faster than Icarus to become an Uber driver.’ This was the first sentence of the last paragraph? Was he being intentionally funny? The drivel continued, though I could barely continue reading: ‘All day, I listen to other people’s unsolicited stories and think how necessary it is to people that they take center stage, though the American experiment has ever been one of asserting one’s individuality, even as we vanish into the crowd.’
It was terrible. Ghastly. Also, creepily, the sentence cadences appeared to have been deliberately constructed to echo the way I spoke, about which I’d taken a lot of kidding. What, possibly, could Gomer, Grover, intend? No one even knew who Initials and I were! I’d published one chapbook, thirty-some years before, in an edition of fifty numbered copies (I’d had an affair with the printer), and two short stories (three had been accepted, but only two were ever published) many years before that. I’d rarely thought of Initials, though I’d heard through the grapevine that he was in a nursing home – information so old, it was more likely he was dead.
I sent one of my long-ago classmates who’d for many years worked for the San Francisco Chronicle an email; he was right back to me, with information. He embodied links to the three best-rated nursing homes in the Washington, DC, area – and bingo! On the third call, it was clear, when I asked if Initials was there, that they knew the name, though I’d been right: he was dead. They didn’t say that, but the strained silence gave me my answer.
Next, I called Grover, and was sent immediately to voicemail, where I had the restraint not to say my name, but, rather, ‘I’m sure you know why I’m calling.’ After that – phone hot in my hand – I called the only writer I knew, my friend Gigi, whose mother I’d nursed through her last illness. Gigi’s mysteries were currently in development for Netflix. I’d reached her at a spa in Vermont, she told me. Is this legal? was my question for her. Can you use a real person’s real name and their photograph, then say whatever you want about them? She gave me the answer I expected but also had a good idea: Call the editor and ask what the hell he or she thought they were doing. She asked me the name of the magazine twice. I think the second time she wrote it down. This was a terrible transgression, what they’d done, she said. It didn’t seem possible, though in the age of Trump . . . She apologized for bringing up his name. ‘Obviously, you could sue the writer, or the magazine, or both, but why would you want to get involved in that? Get something from them, instead.’
‘What?’ I asked.
‘I don’t know. Do Harry and David still have Fruit-of-the-Month Club?’
She apologized if it might seem that she hadn’t been taking the situation seriously enough; I told her that even I couldn’t take it seriously, but it seemed like such a violation of my privacy. It was so disconcerting. We hung up, promising to speak the next day.
I cold-called the magazine. I found the number inside the front cover. On the second ring, which did surprise me, a male voice answered. I asked to speak to the editor. ‘You’re in luck,’ he said. ‘If you’d wanted anybody else, I’d have to admit that the whole staff was either laid off, or they quit.’ He said that he was putting out the magazine single-handedly. He’d been feeling sorry for himself because it was the Fourth of July.
I told him he published garbage. I summarized what I’d read in the essay, sounding none too coherent myself. I was shaking his flimsy little magazine in the air; that’s why I couldn’t find the title of the essay when he asked. I demanded to know whether he’d even tried to contact me, or Initials – obviously, not letting on that I knew Initials was dead. Asexual, I thought, indignantly. Asexual! The longer he remained silent, the angrier I became: He could not do this; it was reprehensible, slanderous; there’d be legal action; he was clearly incompetent. I threw the magazine to my feet.
‘Jesus,’ he said. ‘Could we at least have coffee?’