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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Odd Woman and the City

A Memoir

Vivian Gornick

Farrar, Straus and Giroux


Leonard and I are having coffee at a restaurant in midtown.

"So," I begin. "How does your life feel to you these days?"

"Like a chicken bone stuck in my craw," he says. "I can't swallow it and I can't cough it up. Right now I'm trying to just not choke on it."

My friend Leonard is a witty, intelligent gay man, sophisticated about his own unhappiness. The sophistication is energizing. Once, a group of us read George Kennan's memoir and met to discuss the book.

"A civilized and poetic man," said one.

"A cold warrior riddled with nostalgia," said another.

"Weak passions, strong ambitions, and a continual sense of himself in the world," said a third.

"This is the man who has humiliated me my entire life," said Leonard.

Leonard's take on Kennan renewed in me the thrill of revisionist history-the domesticated drama of seeing the world each day anew through the eyes of the aggrieved-and reminded me of why we are friends.

We share the politics of damage, Leonard and I. An impassioned sense of having been born into preordained social inequity burns brightly in each of us. Our subject is the unlived life. The question for each of us: Would we have manufactured the inequity had one not been there, ready-made-he is gay, I am the Odd Woman-for our grievances to make use of? To this question our friendship is devoted. The question, in fact, defines the friendship-gives it its character and its idiom-and has shed more light on the mysterious nature of ordinary human relations than has any other intimacy I have known.

For more than twenty years now Leonard and I have met once a week for a walk, dinner, and a movie, either in his neighborhood or mine. Except for the two hours in the movie, we hardly ever do anything else but talk. One of us is always saying, Let's get tickets for a play, a concert, a reading, but neither of us ever seems able to arrange an evening in advance of the time we are to meet. The fact is, ours is the most satisfying conversation either of us has, and we can't bear to give it up even for one week. It's the way we feel about ourselves when we are talking that draws us so strongly to each other. I once had my picture taken by two photographers on the same day. Each likeness was me, definitely me, but to my eyes the face in one photograph looked broken and faceted, the one in the other of a piece. It's the same with me and Leonard. The self-image each of us projects to the other is the one we carry around in our heads: the one that makes us feel coherent.

Why, then, one might ask, do we not meet more often than once a week, take in more of the world together, extend each other the comfort of the daily chat? The problem is, we both have a penchant for the negative. Whatever the circumstance, for each of us the glass is perpetually half-empty. Either he is registering loss, failure, defeat-or I am. We cannot help ourselves. We would like it to be otherwise, but it is the way life feels to each of us: and the way life feels is inevitably the way life is lived.

One night at a party I fell into a disagreement with a friend of ours who is famous for his debating skills. At first, I responded nervously to his every challenge, but soon I found my sea legs and then I stood my ground more successfully than he did. People crowded round me. That was wonderful, they said, wonderful. I turned eagerly to Leonard. "You were nervous," he said.

Another time, I went to Florence with my niece. How was it? Leonard asked. "The city was lovely," I said, "my niece is great. You know, it's hard to be with someone twenty-four hours a day for eight days, but we traveled well together, walked miles along the Arno, that river is beautiful." "That is sad," Leonard said. "That you found it irritating to be so much with your niece."

A third time I went to the beach for the weekend. It rained one day, was sunny another. Again, Leonard asked how it had been. "Refreshing," I said. "The rain didn't daunt you," he said.

I remind myself of what my voice can sound like. My voice, forever edged in judgment, that also never stops registering the flaw, the absence, the incompleteness. My voice that so often causes Leonard's eyes to flicker and his mouth to tighten.

At the end of an evening together, one or the other of us will impulsively suggest that we meet again during the week, but only rarely does the impulse live long enough to be acted upon. We mean it, of course, when we are saying goodbye-want nothing more than to renew the contact immediately-but going up in the elevator to my apartment, I start to feel on my skin the sensory effect of an evening full of irony and negative judgment. Nothing serious, just surface damage-a thousand tiny pinpricks dotting arms, neck, chest-but somewhere within me, in a place I cannot even name, I begin to shrink from the prospect of feeling it again soon.

A day passes. Then another. I must call Leonard, I say to myself, but repeatedly the hand about to reach for the phone fails to move. He, of course, must be feeling the same, as he doesn't call either. The un-acted-upon impulse accumulates into a failure of nerve. Failure of nerve hardens into ennui. When the cycle of mixed feeling, failed nerve, and paralyzed will has run its course, the longing to meet again acquires urgency, and the hand reaching for the phone will complete the action. Leonard and I consider ourselves intimates because our cycle takes only a week to complete.

* * *

Yesterday, I came out of the supermarket at the end of my block and, from the side of my eye, registered the beggar who regularly occupies the space in front of the store: a small white guy with a hand perpetually outstretched and a face full of broken blood vessels. "I need something to eat," he was whining as usual, "that's all I want, something to eat, anything you can spare, just something to eat." As I passed him I heard a voice directly behind me say, "Here, bro. You want something to eat? Here's something to eat." I turned back and saw a short black man with cold eyes standing in front of the beggar, a slice of pizza in his outstretched hand. "Aw, man," the beggar pleaded, "you know what I..." The man's voice went as cold as his eyes. "You say you want something to eat. Here's something to eat," he repeated. "I bought this for you. Eat it!" The beggar recoiled visibly. The man standing in front of him turned away and, in a motion of deep disgust, threw the pizza into a wastebasket.

When I got to my building I couldn't help stopping to tell Jose, the doorman-I had to tell someone-what had just happened. Jose's eyes widened. When I finished he said, "Oh, Miss Gornick, I know just what y'mean. My father once gave me such a slap for exactly the same thing." Now it was my eyes that widened. "We was at a ball game, and a bum asked me for something to eat. So I bought a hot dog and gave it to him. My dad, he whacked me across the face. 'If you're gonna do a thing,' he said, 'do it right. You don't buy someone a hot dog without you also buying him a soda!'"

Copyright © 2015 by Vivian Gornick