Nadine by Stephen Dixon
The third or fourth relationship, and
it couldn’t even be called that it
went by so fast, was with a woman about four years older than Karyn. Nadine, sometime in October, last woman he slept with or even went out with before he met Gwen. Doesn’t remember much about it and has no memory of her body other than that when she slipped off her shirt or he took it off for her she had no bra on and she had big breasts, which surprised him because when she had her shirt on it seemed she had almost no breasts at all. Next morning he even wondered if he had come. She said he did, but she might have said that so he wouldn’t try to make love again to come at least once in her—“Not spectacularly, and mine hardly reached seismic levels either, but I’m not complaining since you were so inebriated I was grateful you didn’t throw up on me.” “Oh, I couldn’t have been that bad,” and she said, “Worse. Feel your side of the bed. Maybe it’s dry now, but after we were done you lost control of your bladder for a few seconds and wet the sheet. You don’t remember grabbing yourself and jumping out of bed to get to the toilet and slipping on the floor? Also from the pee; I had to clean it up. Because this is only a single bed I didn’t feel too comfortable all night sleeping so close to you.” He was a writer in residence for a week for an Ohio university’s creative writing department. He read the fiction of graduate students and upper-level undergraduate writing majors and in a private office had twenty-minute individual conferences with them about their work. There was a huge coffee urn and a hot water dispenser in the office and enough paper cups and tea bags and accessories to serve all the students each day, plus a large tray of doughnuts and sweet rolls. She was a first-year graduate student and by far the best writer he read. Cute, too, a word Gwen hated when he used it to describe an older person’s looks. Frizzy red hair, wire-rimmed granny glasses, bright blue eyes she kept squinting and straining to see with, little pointy ears, freckles and snub nose. So her face he remembers a lot, and though her torso was long, he now thinks she had short thick muscular legs, but he could be imagining that. He was immediately taken with her when he escorted one student out of the room and said “Nadine Hanscom?” —he had a list of conferees for each afternoon and the times they were supposed to see him—and she got off the floor, where she’d been sitting, put her book into her knapsack, adjusted her glasses, which had fallen down her nose when she stood up, and came into the room. “Mind if I shut the door?” he said. “I’ve something to tell you I don’t want the others to hear.” She said “Shut it but don’t lock it, please,” and he said “Never thought to.” She sat across the desk from him. He offered her the beverages and pastries. She said she only drinks uncaffeinated herbal tea and eats nothing with sugar, but she will take a cup of hot water with a lemon wedge in it, and helped herself. When she was settled he said “You say in your cover letter that these three stories are new and haven’t been workshopped or seen by a teacher,” and she said “You’re the first to read them.” “Then tell me, and I’m going to be very hard on you now, how in God’s name did you come to write so well? You’re a budding literary genius, the next who knows what? I hope they gave you a full tuition waiver, sizable stipend and a teaching assistantship if not your own undergraduate fiction-writing class, because you could have got in at the top of any graduate writing program in the country. That’s my opinion, at least, not that I ever taught in any; I’m here strictly because of my three books and lots of published stories. But you, if you have a book-length work of fiction or are deep in to one, could very likely have a book contract by the time you graduate. Wouldn’t that make your department happy? You’d be a walking ad for it. Anyway, if I were your teacher I’d take a hands-off policy to your work. I’d say ‘Don’t even come to class if you don’t want to. Just write, let me see it solely for the pleasure of reading it but not to steer it here and there or to critique it line by line.’ From what you’ve shown me you’re miles ahead of your peers, miles—well on your way,” and he gave her back her stories. “I hope, with what I said, I haven’t offended you or made you feel bad in any way,” and she started to cry. “Good,” he said, “I finally got a smile out of you. What’s with you—why so serious? Jesus, I can’t be telling you anything new, can I?, for you must get praise like this all the time.” She said “Now and then my teachers and fellow grad students have said kind things about my work, but nothing like this; though more often they’ve ripped it apart.” “The students I can understand—they’re competitive and you’re winning, making them question, when they come upon a natural, what the hell they’re in it for. As for your teachers, they’re either jealous of your talent—I kid you not—or have some misguided or misguiding notion about teaching writing. Or maybe their intentions are good and they’re holding back in their praise because they don’t want to take that drive to succeed out of you—you know, because you’re already partly there—so early in your career. But to me it’s ridiculous they wouldn’t just say how good you are. You don’t seem the type to let it affect you adversely. Have I gone overboard, based on reading only three of your stories? No. Don’t tell them I said this—I might want to come back here —but just use them for helping you get a first-rate literary agent and book and magazine editors interested in your work and what magazines to send to, which should be the highest-paying serious ones first, and things like that. When a young writer’s starting out, he has to be a bit selfish and aggressive. Wrong advice? Maybe. But if they can’t or won’t help you, get my address from your chairman—tell him I said it was okay—and write me and I’ll give you some leads. I’d give you the name of my own agent if I were able to get one.” She said she was taken aback—actually used those words: “Really, Mr. Samuels, or should I call you ‘Professor’?” and he said “Call me by my name, ‘Martin,’” and she said “I couldn’t do that so fast. Wasn’t raised that way. But honestly, Mr. S. —that’ll be my compromise for now—I’m taken aback by what you’ve said. I’ve never been this complimented by anything I’ve done, and as a result I’m thrilled. . .overwhelmed. . .I’m obviously at a loss for words—deeply appreciative at what a professional writer I respect said about my work.” “You deserved it, every word of it, every word. So, it seems I’ve run out of things to say. Although I could go on in detail as to what I liked about your stories so much, which would prove to you I wasn’t making all that stuff up to get out of reading them,” and she said “That’s all right; I couldn’t take anymore. It’d stop me writing for a week.” “We still have ten minutes left. Like a refill on your hot water and lemon? We could also cut the conference short. But that might make your friends in the hall suspicious I’ve nothing much to say in these conferences and that I’m getting paid for doing very little—or we could talk about other things. Let’s do that.” He asked her about her family, what her parents do, where she grew up, what college she went to, degree she got, how long she’s been writing—“I doubt it can be more than twenty-five years, which is what I guess as your age” —she said he was right—and what writers she likes, “and don’t say me.” “The chairman had a published story of yours put in all the grad students’ boxes. ‘Violet,’ from On and On. So we’d be familiar with at least one of your fictions, he said, and that if we wanted to read more there were many copies of the collection in the campus bookstore, I liked the story but I don’t think it’ll influence what I write. Maybe the collection will, though, which I intend to buy.” “No, don’t buy, don’t read me, don’t get influenced; go your own way. And what the heck did he choose that story for, out of all the ones I’ve published? It could be the worst story in the collection. Possibly the worst story of mine I let be published. But I still must have thought it had something or I would have torn it up. Ah, you never know. More advice from me is don’t throw away the ones you think aren’t up to your best. Sometimes your fiction is better than you think and it takes other people to tell you. That you might not like the work for personal reasons —it reminds you of some person or experience you want to forget. Though that might be another example of my not knowing what I’m saying. There was a previous one, wasn’t there?” Around then he looked at his watch or a wall clock. “I guess we gotta end this,” he said. “Our time’s more than up. It’s been fun, talking to
you about things not entirely related to your writing. Getting to know somebody, in other words. It was a nice break.” She got up and said “First of all, thank you for everything. Secondly, you probably won’t want to do this. You’ve read plenty of our work the last two days and there’s more to come. But there’s a reading tonight of graduate poetry and fiction writers I’ve been asked to invite you to. It starts at seven, never lasts more than an hour and a half, and that’s with an intermission and post-reading chatter, so if you have other things to do after, there should be time. And the readers always provide exotic snacks and foreign beer and good wine—that’s part of the by-laws of the series. And your being there would be a real treat to all of us. An older adult. Oh my goodness! For we never get our teachers to come or any audience but undergrads and ourselves. Say yes?” and he said “Sure, why not? And I’ve nothing doing tonight. After these conferences are over I was going to go for a run, shower, have a drink—I brought my own—and find some depressing place to have a depressing dinner alone, most likely the school cafeteria, for they serve beer, right?” She met him at the reading. “Martin, Martin,” she called, “over here,” pointing to the seat next to hers she was saving for him. She’d come with another graduate student and introduced them. Charlie, or Jackie, his name was, said “This is an honor, sir. I’m a fan.” “0h, nonsense,” he said. “Nadine must have put you up to saying that.” “Did not,” she said. “In fact, listen to this. Before either of us even knew you’d been invited here for a week, I saw him reading one of your books.” “A story in The Paris Review,” Charlie, he’ll settle on, said. “A story, then, but quite a coincidence.” “Did you read the story too?” he said, and she said “I didn’t, and I don’t know why. I know I wanted to by what Charlie said about it, but he had to return it to the library, I think, which could be why I thought it was a book. What was the reason?” and Charlie said “I loaned the magazine to someone who wanted to read the Cheever interview in it, and it was my personal copy, not the library’s, and I never got it back.” “Well,” he said, “one story can’t turn anyone into a fan, unless it’s ‘The Dead.’” “I read another story of yours in another literary quarterly,” Charlie said, “but I forget the magazine’s name.” “What was the story about?” and Charlie said “That I also forget. I know I liked it. I’m sure it’ll come back to me by the time we have our conference Thursday.” “Was it in a recent issue? Antioch Review? Story Quarterly?” “Neither. Like The Paris Review, it was from far back. I got it off the magazine table in the Writers Room we have here, but I don’t think I told Nadine about it . But it’s still there if she wants to read it and nobody’s stolen it yet.” He didn’t like any of the work read, But after each of the four readers finished, she turned to him with the look “So what did you think?” and he tightened his lips and nodded or smiled and gave a thumbs up. He had a beer or wine during the intermission and a couple of cheese on crackers and some grapes. After the reading several students came up to him and wanted him to sign the photocopies of his story the chairman had distributed and said things like “Thank you for coming. It’s great you could be here.” One said “I hope Nadine didn’t have to threaten to break your arm to get you here,” and he said “Not at all. Lots of talent here, which I knew there’d be from the manuscripts I’ve read so far. As for the poetry, I’m no expert but I thought it was terrific and clear—able to be understood, for my poor brain, first time around.” He said to Nadine and Charlie “Can I buy you guys dinner and a beer someplace? I’m starved.” She said “The refectory in this building is still open and has authentic Sicilian pizza and other delicious goodies and tap ale and beer.” He still didn’t know what she and Charlie were to each other. No touching or endearments or loving looks or coy side glances, so he guessed just friends, or else they had made some agreement before not to show anything like that. When they were at the dining hall table and Charlie had excused himself to go to the men’s room or to make a phone call, he said to her “Nice young man. Are you two serious?” and she said “Oh God, no. I wouldn’t be even if he didn’t have a steady boyfriend. We share the rent and give close and sometimes ruthlessly honest readings of each other’s works.” “He’s still a nice kid and clever and intelligent, so I bet he’s a good writer, though I haven’t read his stuff yet.” “He’s the best, and an ideal roommate. Super cook and housekeeper and bill-payer—all the things I’m weakest at—and he doesn’t smoke and respects my privacy, and is there when I need him when I get frustrated or sad. We’re like a very compatible married couple who don’t sleep together, although he, and not because he’s gay, is more the wife. You’ll see. He’s going to be a major writer of gay fiction. He holds nothing back.” “I’m looking forward to reading him. Listen, can I be frank with you?” and she said “Gay fiction repulses you.” “No.” “You want us to go off together, to dance in the moonlight.” “Close. Is there any way we can be alone? If you think this is inappropriate of me to ask, please say so.” “Just tell Charlie you want to be alone with me and he’ll leave.” “I couldn’t say that,” and she said “Believe me, he’d love to see something happen between us. He’s all for young writers having interesting and different experiences to write about, he’s said. I don’t write that way but he does, and it hasn’t seemed to hurt him. And he’s having his lover sleep at our apartment tonight, so he’ll probably want to get away soon anyway.” Charlie came back and she said “Martin and I want to take a walk together and talk,” and Charlie said “Fine, I was through here, but first let’s scoff down the pizza and beer. James is waiting for me and I want to come to him half-stoned.” They walked a little around campus—she showed him a lake—and talked about he doesn’t know what—his life, hers, writing, writers, her writing program, books—and then he said to her “They’ve given me a room in one of the dorms for a week, but for guests of the university, so a bit spiffier than the ones for students, I’m told. Would you like to see it?” and she said “Does that mean you want to sleep with me? Or are you just bringing me there to show me how well the room’s appointed in comparison to a typical dorm room?” and he said “I’m sorry; I’m being careful. I didn’t know how else to put it. Yes.” “All right. Just wanted to know what I’m in for. And it sure beats going home and hearing Charlie and James through the walls, discreet as they’d try to be, whooping it up for a couple of hours. And you seem like a gentle sane man, not a masher or intimidator or kinky loonybird like some of the male visitors to our program I’ve heard about.” “Any names?” and she said “No, so you can count on complete tactfulness from me, unless I’ve gauged you wrong. But you know you’re quite a few years older than I, but not preposterously older,” and he said “I considered that as a reason for not asking but decided to go ahead with it anyway.” “You look much younger than Charlie said you are, even with a receded hairline and your sideburns turning gray. You must be very healthy and exercise a lot and eat well— flat stomach, muscular arms, no lines or creases except in your forehead, which I romantically think all serious writers eventually have, because it comes from the deep thinking while they’re writing. You’d be my oldest partner by about ten years. How about me? Will the age difference be the greatest you’ve had?” and he said “There was one not too long ago, who was around three years younger than you. This past summer, if you want to know, and my last before you. She dumped me.” “Everybody gets dumped at least once. You? Someone who’s forty-two and has an eye for women has probably been dumped a lot and also dumped a lot of women too. Knowing, though, there was someone younger than I with you makes me feel better about this, for some elusive reason. Was it another guy or just the age difference?” and he said “Both,” and she said “No doubt he was a lot younger than you too. That must have hurt.” “And look,” he said, “I didn’t choose that my last two women be so young. It just turned out that way. She came over to me at an art opening. And I came on to you today,” and she said “I’m not saying anything. But we should get moving, Martin.” “Can I have a little kiss to start off with? I hate asking but it’d seem a bit awkward or cold, going to my room without so much as holding hands or rubbing noses first,” and she said “Let’s wait till we get inside and the shades or blinds or whatever they have in that grand room are down. This campus is excessively monitored and patrolled, supposedly for our protection, so our innocent kiss might get reported. I’m doing this to benefit you more than I, in case you really do want to come back.” “I like you,” he said. “You’re smart and beautiful and considerate and on your toes,” and she said “Well, thank you, kind sir. I said a lot of nice things about you too,” and they went to his room, he had a couple of drinks while she washed up, and they made love. Later in the morning he said “Despite my many mishaps last night, which I swear to you I was unaware of till now, but I’m glad you told me about them, may I see you again? I have three more days and I can even stay the weekend in a hotel, if they kick me out of this room on Saturday.” She said “You can see me, but not for sleeping with. Once was enough.” “Please, I promise to be on my best behavior, and no more furtive drinking or just overdrinking, which I think is what did it to me last night.” “The other thing,” she said, is that what little there was between us is over, and I think our friendship, or the potential for it, will also be over if you persist in wanting to screw me” “Look, just give me a chance to change. I have to read manuscripts now, but later we can have dinner, you choose the restaurant; it’ll be nice. Just so long as you don’t rule anything out,” and she said “I’m reluctant to say this, but feel I have to, that you are, as you continually make clear, pathetic,” and he said “Maybe I am; and maybe I’m an asshole too, if that’s not what you meant. But that doesn’t mean I have to always be pathetic, and what I did last night was the exception. I’m cured.” She stared at him and shook her head as if he were even more pathetic than she’d thought, and he said “Okay, what I just said was stupid. I’m hungover; not the best of excuses, but I’m not thinking or talking or even listening right. But I’ll be better. I’ll get rid of the manuscripts. Don’t tell your friends I’m doing it so fast. And then we’ll meet before my conferences, and talk and everything is ruled out,” and she said “No way. And don’t phone me or try to meet up with me. I made a huge mistake yesterday and I apologize for my complicity in all of this and helping to bring out the worst in you. I know there’s a better side to you, from what I encountered in your office and what everybody’s said. Just, you’re a little oversexed, which makes you do foolish things,” and she rubbed his knuckles, faked a smile, said to herself “Did I leave anything? No,” and left. What am I doing to myself? he thought, getting into bed pretty well loaded that night. No more very young women, that’s for sure. You got the hots for one, jerk off. And why do I get so damn sad every time a woman says she doesn’t want to see me or sleep with me anymore? This one. What were my feelings for her? She was bright and a terrific writer and outspoken and cute. Frizzy hair, button nose, those glasses and knapsack. And very independent and sharp. But was I in love? How could I be? Attracted to a lot I liked about her, that’s all. And seventeen years younger? But when she’s still in her mid-twenties? You got her in bed, that should have been enough, so why go out of your head after just one time with her? She was right; you were pathetic. Pathetic with Karyn too, that time crying. From now on, an older woman, one much closer in age to you, and don’t jump into bed so fast. Never works. Well, he did with Diana—five or so hours after they met they were making love at his place—and that one went on for years. But give things like this time. And for a change, maybe one who’s Jewish, since—no, he’s not kidding; restrict it to Jewish, but not religious Jewish—since that might have been in past relationships—not with Nadine; never came up; doubts she even knew he was Jewish and it was all so quick—a problem too. The different backgrounds, culture, other things. Someone—he’s talking about the future—who knows what he’s referring to and doesn’t have to have him explain it when he makes a Jewish joke or remark and wouldn’t be put off if he exaggerates or overacts in a Jewish manner or accent as Terry and a woman he lived half a year with in California and a couple of others he saw from time to time were. And maybe even a woman who was brought up in New York, which’d mean they’d be coming from, like the Jewishness, and sharing even more things that were the same. Also, no woman who already has a child, even if she’s separated from her husband or divorced, but one still young enough to have kids. And a woman who’s built something like Karyn and Nadine. Sure, the body of this woman probably has changed from when she was their age if she’s five to ten years younger than he, but one with full breasts, a nice-sized rear, thick sturdy thighs, even chubby, but no small or thin body like Diana’s and Eleanor’s and the woman in California he lived with and he thinks Terry’s, except for her chest, although she was so long ago he mostly forgets. He wants a big strong body that can take his. So let’s see, he thought, what’s he have so far? An attractive Jewish woman from New York who’s childless but can still have children and who isn’t more than ten years younger than he and is of course intelligent and cultured and personable and gracious and good and so on, and stacked. Two years later he got a letter from Nadine, forwarded from his old address in New York. It was shortly after he started teaching in Baltimore and when he and Gwen had been together for almost that entire time, other than for when she broke it off and they didn’t see or speak to each other for a month or two. She used to say “two.” He’d say it was even less than one. “Isn’t it in your journal of that year?” he once said, and she said “To my great sorrow, since they had in them how and when we first met and, other than for that episode, our first wonderful year, I can’t find ‘78 and ‘79.” In her letter Nadine asked for a blurb for her first book, which was coming out in six months. “I hate asking this of you,” she said. “I remember you telling my friend James and me—you practically spit out the words, you thought the blurb practice was such sham and bunk—that you never asked a fellow writer for a blurb in your life and you never will. That’s all well and good if you happen to receive, as you did, quotable prepublication reviews for your first book, but in time to be put on the back of the book’s cover, something my editor doesn’t want to chance. She says that blurbs from other writers and prominent personalities are essential for a first-time published novelist. So I plead with you to consider what I don’t think is an unfair request from me, seeing how you were once so positive to my work. You helped me with that encouragement and praise more than you could ever know—I still walk on air when I recall our office conference—and my novel is short, really just a long novella, and clearly written and shouldn’t take more than a few hours to read, and you may even like it. Thank you in advance.” He wrote back saying he still is against giving and receiving blurbs and he especially doesn’t see how an enthusiastic endorsement from a nobody writer like himself could help a book. It might even hurt it. Readers of the jacket copy, when they look over the book in the bookstore, will think how good could this writer be if she had to go to the bottom of the blurb barrel to get one? If I were you I’d only seek out blurbs from writers and critics with big names and hefty stature. No ‘prominent personalities’ though, which I assume doesn’t mean famous writers who can’t keep their mouths shut about anything and so whatever they say is suspect, but talk-show hosts and celebrities like that. They could only help sell rubbish to undiscriminating readers, which I’m sure your novel is anything but.” She wrote back that she doesn’t know any other writers but the teachers she had in her grad program and they’re even less known than he. “Please reconsider. What will my publisher think if I can’t get even one blurb? And in some ways I feel I deserve one from you. And if the book’s a hit—stranger things have happened—you get your name and two of your book titles under your blurb. (P.S.: I didn’t think of that; it’s what my editor told me tell you.)” He didn’t answer her; didn’t know what to say. Now he thinks it was lousy not to blurb her. He could have praised the book even if he didn’t read or like it. She was generous to him—let him screw her when she probably didn’t want to but knew he wanted to a lot—and she was really a terrific young person, while he acted like a pig, so what would have been the harm? His principles messed with? Come off it. He’s given plenty of blurbs, starting from around two years after she asked him for one. So many in fact, for former students of his and writers or their editors or publicists who sent him requests out of the blue —maybe they thought he’d be an easy mark when they noticed how many he gave—that he stopped giving them because he couldn’t come up with anything new to say and was repeating himself to the point where a blurb from him wasn’t worth anything anymore. She sent him an inscribed copy of her book soon after it was published: “Just thanks.” ‘There were three blurbs on it from writers he’d never heard of, nor was he familiar with their book titles and literary awards. From the jacket copy and the forty or so pages he read and the rest he skipped through, her novel, was about a fifteen-year-old Midwestern girl and her family and friends and wealthy suburb during a very hot and boring summer in the Fifties. Then she’s deflowered by a much older motorcyclist passing through, who’s almost pistol-whipped to death by her father and with "the girl ending up being transferred out of her local public high school to an all girls’ boarding school on the East Coast." The novel seemed written more for sophisticated younger readers than adults. The plot, despite the closing fireworks, was uninteresting and a bit dreary, and the writing was only so-so—certainly nowhere near as exciting and adventurous and even original as it was in her short stories from two years before. He wrote back saying how much he liked the book and how well written it was—”You were right; I breezed right through it”— and wished her lots of success with it, which he said he’s sure she’ll have, and a few weeks later sent her an inscribed copy of his new story collection: “Best always and with continued admiration for your work. She didn’t write back thanking him for it. Her book got a short review in The New York Times Sunday book section: “An auspicious debut,” He never saw another review or mention of a book of hers or anything else she may have written or about her in the next twenty-five years or heard from her again. He knows he could have asked Gwen or one of his daughters to search her name on-line. He was curious but he supposes not that curious to find out anything new about her. Sometimes when he was in a bookstore he looked at the front fiction tables and then the shelves for a book of hers. The only one he saw was her first novel without the cover in a used bookshop in Ellsworth, Maine.
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