The astonishing phone call from the National Endowment for the Arts came when I was in a state of research rapture. I'd become obsessed with a historical figure, a woman who came to this country at age 15, in the late 1800s. She was fiercely independent and talented, and at a pivotal point in American medical history she landed in deep trouble. The writing wants truth in detail, as well as emotional truth, and that requires study, and travel. A chapter of this novel was part of my application, and I am deeply grateful for the show of faith in unfinished work; for the research and travel now made possible; and for the heightened sense of responsibility brought on by this extraordinary gift.
From the short story collection Normal People Don't Live Like This
It rises to completion like a sun within the egg.
Some scientist wrote that. Leopold Auerbach, like a million years ago. Eighteen-something. Leah sees him storklike, rabbinical, the ocular of his microscope imprinting a ring around his eye. Muscle cramps to stone between Leopold's shoulders as he presides over holy union of sperm and egg.
Leopold forgets he is thirsty. He forgets he is married. He hears cytoplasm ticking. He walks the labyrinth of the thumbprint of God. For ninety lost minutes he watches the pronuclei fuse. Vacuoles, he calls them--they didn't have pronuclei then. He gropes for a gold pen, gift from his father, and his handwriting travels off the page as he stares at the dawning nucleus. It rises to completion. Leah has read it. She reads a lot of stuff they don't assign.
But this is not a thing to say, not now, with Angeline weeping on the edge of the tub. Angeline is a junior and Leah is a nobody. Angeline is the most silvery person Leah has ever known. Her voice, her hair, her skin, even the narrow light of suspicion she casts from her eyes, all silver. Angeline is the moon.
"Why won't it just die?" says Angeline. "How do I make it die?"
Leah wonders why she has been brought here, into the locked bathroom of some guy named Jay, to answer this specific question. Maybe it's a trick question. She says, "Have an abortion?"
Through the bathroom door she hears the twelve ringing strings of Jay's guitar. Jay can play everything Neil Young plays, and he has Neil Young's hair, too. He has a ladderback chair hanging crooked on the living room wall. Leah couldn't believe no one was bothering to fix it, so she straightened it on its nail. You yardarm, said Jay, you don't get it, and made her tip it to the left again. It felt like she was pulling her own rib out of skew. She has no idea what a yardarm is.
"Look, I don't have anyone else to ask." Angeline's face is a crumple of peony, disarranged from crying. She touches Leah on the hand and looks right into her. "You're my best friend." Her fingertips streaming light. "You couldn't loan me a hundred and fifty dollars, could you?"
Leah's hand burns where Angeline's fingers rest upon it in a light chord. "I wish."
This is five-sixths a lie, because she has a hundred and eighteen dollars, right now, in her backpack. It has taken more than a year to save, all ones and fives snicked from her mother's polished purse. She keeps the money rolled in a makeup case--untouched, because most of what she wants, she steals. Earrings, cigarettes, magazines. It occurs to her that placing the bills in Angeline's palm would constitute an unforgettable act of rescue, allowing Leah to rise to completion in this very bathroom.
"What about the father?" she says.
"It's Graham," says Angeline, morose.
"Oh," says Leah. Graham is the Central Park boyfriend. He was hanging out at Bethesda Fountain, dealing a little pot and watching Angeline sunbathe. Leah waits for enlightenment, but Angeline just smokes. "Why can't Graham pay for it?"
"Don't you remember anything?" says Angeline. "I told you. His best friend is a talent scout."
Leah remembers something about an audition. It keeps not materializing. It's a sensitive subject. She doesn't get the connection but she better not ask. After a respectful moment she says, "What about Jack?"
Jack is a New York City truancy officer. He always uses a rubber.
"Jack's got three kids," says Angeline, waving her cigarette dismissively. "He never has a hundred and fifty dollars. What're you, kidding?"
Leah loves Angeline. But occasionally she feels as if Angeline has backed her up to a wall and is siphoning air out of her lungs with a rubber tube. This is one of those times. She can't yank the tube out because she is Angeline's best friend. She shouldn't even want to yank it out. For one wild second she imagines bolting into the street and getting hit by a cab. But then Angeline would notice she wasn't in school. Angeline would stand too close to the hospital bed, making challenging statements that end in "What're you, kidding?" and fingering the intravenous line.
Dylan Landis's debut novel-in-stories, Normal People Don't Live Like This (Persea Books), was published in September 2009 and was a finalist for the Grace Paley Award for Short Fiction. Her stories have appeared in Tin House, Bomb, the Santa Monica Review, the Colorado Review, the New Orleans Review and other literary magazines and in anthologies such as Best American Nonrequired Reading (Houghton Mifflin). She is the recipient of a Poets & Writers California Writers Exchange Award, a National Endowment of the Arts-funded Fellowship at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and other awards. A former newspaper reporter and magazine writer, she has covered medicine for the New Orleans Times-Picayune and decorating for the Chicago Tribune, and has written six books on interior design.
Photo by Don Coscarelli