Please explain how this can be true:

That I've always wanted to go to Niagara Falls, and that I've been to Buffalo, New York, and have never seen Niagara Falls.


House Across the Street

The house across the street is small and white and shuttered.  There are six cars parked in two rows in the driveway, though I have only seen one of them working.  A slight young woman and a tall young man live there.  I assume that they are renters, like we are, but I could be wrong about that, like I am about many things.  I assume they are married because sometimes after the man has left the house letting the screen door slam, the woman pushes the door back open and stands on the top step with her hands on her hips and speaks harsh words to him.  I can’t actually hear what she says, but I know she is not happy with him because I do the same thing to my husband when he leaves the house and I am not happy with him. They have a young child, a boy it seems, since he wears clothes meant for boys, and since these seem like the type of people who wouldn’t dress a girl in boy clothes just to make a point.

I’ve never caught their eye, so I’ve never waved, though I would, I would learn their names and call out hello and wander across the street and ask about the boy, every time we were outside at the same time, which is probably the exact reason why they never let me catch their eye. 

They both wear t-shirts and jeans and neither seem to have a job, though they do come and go, and sometimes the man is carrying a small cooler which may or may not be the lunch he takes to a job he may or may not have.  Every so often, the man’s friends come around, usually late in the evenings.  I recognize the fat one.  They work together on electric scooters which seems to be the young man’s passion which makes me like him.  The young woman is not invited to join the men or doesn’t care to because she doesn’t come to join them on the sidewalk.  But once, when the young man was testing one of his scooters, she did come out and watch, which makes me like her too. 

In the spring, her belly was fat as a beachball and one day, I saw her carrying a car seat into the house, the little boy jumping up and down beside her.  I thought I should cook her a meal or bring her some old clothes that my kids have out grown or buy her a box of diapers.  But I never did any of these things, and now it seems too late. 

Not long ago, the fat friend backed a trailer over the curb and dropped a pontoon boat in the side yard. 

One night when my husband and I are sitting on the porch in the dark drinking beer, we watch a car drive up and the young man trot out of the house and fold himself into the car that promptly squeals away.  I suddenly feel bad for him, imagining how he was just trying to get a little action with a girl at school and then she got pregnant and now his life is so complicated he's got to do all kinds of acrobatics just to go out drinking with his buddy.  Then, a few minutes later, the young woman comes out of the house with the kid and the car seat, wearing the same t-shirt and jeans she always wears but with a lightness about her that isn't usually there.  "Well, well, well," says my husband, as if that explains everything.  Which it does.  


Hard Cover

I thought it was rude that my husband was sitting and reading, making notes in a blank book, when our friends were there, sitting so close to him, under a tree looking bored.  I told him so, and he got angry and said something to make me feel foolish, and to cover my embarrassment, I told a mean little story about him meant to get a laugh.  And when our friends laughed on his account, I was satisfied.
Later, after a long day of telling more mean little stories about my husband, some of which got a few laughs, I felt weary of socializing and went to sit on a blanket in the shade and read a book I was very taken with and had been thinking about all day, like a lover hidden away in my purse, a book I couldn't help thinking about even when my friends were telling sad stories about wayward family members.  I nodded sympathetically hoping they didn’t know that my mind had accidently wandered to this book I was in love with, not only the words in it, but the weight of it in my hands, the way the pages were so creamy, the way the chapter titles were italicized, the way the type face made me feel like I was walking the narrow streets of an ancient city.
I sat on a blanket in the shade and held the book, slipping into the dream between the pages when my husband pointed out, in a voice loud enough for me to hear, that he apologizes for his wife’s rudeness, distracted as she is by a book when friends are so close at hand.


Story Telling

Some stories I still haven't figured out how to tell, so in the many attempts of trying to figure out how to tell them, I get bored and rush to finish the telling without care, just to get the task over with.  So I wonder, have I never figured out how to properly tell them because I have tried too hard to figure out how to tell them?


The Gift

I have a friend who has a cousin she used to play with as a child and while cleaning out some old stuff came across two photographs, one of her with her cousin when they were kids, and one of her with her cousin as adults.  She thought the photos were lovely, encapsulating so many heartwarming things about their relationship.  She had a wonderful idea, since they were already framed together, to give them to her cousin, who she didn't see very often but who happened to be coming to town the very next week.  She wrapped the photos in some beautiful handmade paper selected from a drawer of paper saved over years of unwrapping gifts at many celebrations, a lamentable habit she acquired from her mother.

She was so excited about the gift that she had a little trouble falling asleep the night before they were to meet, imagining her cousin's delight.

Naturally, her cousin was embarrassed since she hadn't thought to bring a gift, but my friend insisted that it didn't matter one bit.  Seeing her cousin take the gift in her hands, it suddenly struck my friend that the paper she had chosen was from her own wedding and that the gift her cousin was about to unwrap was the very gift that her cousin had given her in that exact wrapping paper, ten years ago as a wedding present.




The first Paris Review* I ever held was at the public library.  I had no intention of picking it up, but there, on the shelf among the other magazines, it cast a spell on me.  In my hands it fell open and I read this quote by someone named Saul Steinberg:

“Even a conventional painter who paints in a photographic manner unwittingly begins to work a little like Van Gogh when he reaches the ear.”

How could a girl not resist falling for this man of intrigue?

Meanwhile, a friend of mine, having no clue of my encounter at the library, was at a used bookstore, 2000 miles away, selecting a book for my 40th birthday.  It came in the mail a few days later, something he saw and thought I might like, a book of drawings by Saul Steinberg.

Dear Saul,

I think you’re the best drawer in the whole world.  Will you please go out to dinner with me even though you're dead?  Maybe that pizza place down in Neenah where they let you scribble on the table covers.  I would like very much to spend the evening watching you draw. 

Truly Yours.

*Not published in Paris.



I tell my friend L., as I sometimes tell people, though never my mother, that I rarely finish reading books.  This shocks L., as it shocks most people I tell which is why I don't tell many people, especially not my mother.  L. says I don't seem like the type of person who doesn't finish books which makes me wonder who she imagines the people to be who don't often finish books.

Similarly, but somewhat differently, L. is shocked to learn that I'm not a drinker since I seem like the type of person who would drink more than I do, given the facts, I assume, that I live in a state known for its heavy drinking and that I dated a beer salesman in college.

It shocks me to hear that L. doesn't know that I don't drink much since I have always known that about her.  It doesn't shock me that over the weekend together, visiting our alma mater, we order only one beer each, though neither of us finish even that one, a fact that would have shocked the guys at the neighboring table who each drank from their own pitcher, if they would have noticed us, which they didn't.

Since L. is so shocked that I don't finish most books I start reading, I try to explain why that is but while explaining find that I don't have a very clear explanation to offer.  She says she always finishes books and is sure to add that it doesn't matter that I don't, that she doesn't think the worse of me.  When she thinks about it some more, she realizes that her husband is always reading many books at once and perhaps he doesn't finish them all either.  Though she doesn't say it, it seems to be more okay that I don't finish books, now that she realizes her husband might not either.

At some point, I ask her about a book I gave her for her 40th birthday, Patti Smith's memoir that won the National Book Award, a book I did happen to read in its entirety.  I just knew that L. was going to love it, especially given a particular photo of a young Robert Mapplethorpe since in it he looks just like the type of guy L. went crazy for in college.

I ask her how she liked the book, expecting her to gush about how much she loved it.  Instead, she says, "I liked it," but in that cautious way that warns me not to be shocked that she didn't really like it that much.  She didn't like the writing style, shocking not only because it won the National Book Award, but because the writing style was exactly the reason I liked it so much.

She admits that perhaps her book group tainted her opinion of it.  They didn't just not like it.  They hated it.  They hated the life she led and they hated how she went about living it and they hated how she chose to describe it.  It seems to me particularly unjust criticisms since one of the women in the group was good friends with the ex-wife of the famous playwright that Patti Smith had an affair with.

That's no way to judge the artistic merits of a book, I argue.  L. is shocked at my vehemence.  "Our book group isn't just about judging artistic merits," she says.  "We talk about how the book makes us feel." Which is exactly her problem with Patti Smith's book, that she never writes directly about her feelings.

I couldn't help it.  It made me feel a little hurt that L. did not love the book I gave her for her 40th birthday the way I expected her to love it which is exactly the way L. feels about Hedwig and the Angry Inch, her favorite movie which she expected me to love but I didn't.  Since I watched it with my husband, and since we didn't finish watching it, a rare occurrence when it comes to movies, L. does not accept my negative impression of her favorite film and is always encouraging me to try to watch it again, ideally, when my husband is out of town. 


The Fear

Do you have The Fear?

That you will wake one morning not to recognize the person in bed beside you?

That people will pity you for your unfulfilled dreams?

That you discarded something you should not have?

That you should discard something that you haven't?

That you have neglected to thank those who should be thanked?

That your efforts will never amount to anything more than what they already are?

Did Tolstoy have The Fear?

“It was also during his sixties that Tolstoy learned how to ride a bicycle.  He took his first lesson exactly one month after the death of his and Sonya’s beloved youngest son.  Both the bicycle and an introductory lesson were a gift from the Moscow Society of Velocipede-Lovers.  One can only guess how Sonya felt, in her mourning, to see her husband pedaling along the garden paths.  ‘Tolstoy has learned to ride a bicycle,’ Chertkov notes at the time.  ‘Is this not inconsistent with Christian ideals?’”

Elif Batuman


Sour Milk

I've been having trouble with my writing lately, and the trouble is this. Whatever I write is too stuffy or too absurd or too dry or too flowery or too boring or too silly or too dull or too irrelevant or too raunchy or too childish or too brazen or too bashful or too embarrassing.

Nothing ever seems to come out right, and when it does come out right, I am so enthusiastic that I bounce out of bed the next morning to review the wonderful thing I wrote the day before only to find that in the night it soured worse than milk left out on the counter.

I am now 40, so I know the truth of the impermanence of such things as confidence in one's ability to do meaningful acts. When we were 20 or 21 or even 26, we had an overabundance of confidence that we were bound to do very great acts though we had no idea what these acts were. Now, we know what the acts are that we do, but we also know that they are nothing more than ordinary.

Now that we are 40, my friend L. and I meet in the town where we attended university. We walk around pointing out all the places where we used to consult with boys we liked. Late evening, we stop to watch a gang of fire twirlers on Library Mall. A sickly type with stringy hair approaches us and unfolds his hand, about to reveal, I am certain, a joint. Instead, he asks if we would like to buy some of his jewelry, pebbles entangled with wire. "I made it all myself," he explains. "I didn't even plan it, I just let it flow."

"Yes," we assure him. "We can tell."

We walk around some more, hoping to find a house party, but then realize that even if we do, no one wants gray haired moms at their house party. Instead we sit by the lake and tell stories about people we know and people we don't know and people we wished we knew and people we might have known if we had made slightly different choices.

Finally, I explain to L. the trouble I've been having with my writing. She suggests I start a blog.

"Friends don't let friends start blogs," I remind her. Still, she thinks it's a premier idea.

We go back to the hotel and watch Lady Gaga videos on L's phone. We watch and wonder, how does a person become a Lady Gaga? We like to wear wigs. We like to showboat. "If only we had a little more chutzpa," I say.

"And talent," says L.

Maybe we should have reveled in our foolishness instead of shunning it. Maybe we should have dared to sing show tunes on Library Mall like certain doughy transvestites who always drew a crowd. Maybe it's not too late.