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Nine and Zooey
by ALEX CARNEVALE
He said, "It connects thematically with the transient nature of things, and the permanent nature of institutions." He always preferred to start a sentence with a vowel. His tears, extended over time, were icicles, but just now they were anguished droplets, patterning the piece of paper.
It was awkward to see him crying in the middle of class, but after a moment, the rest of the group relaxed. A woman named Virginia pointed at the sky. A girl named Jamie reapplied lipstick. He said, "If you establish something, then remove it, you haven't taken it away completely. The absence remains."
He let that sink in, sipped his coffee, accidentally slurped it. He wondered if that undermined his point, but dismissed this insecurity. The only emotion that was worth analyzing was the last, since it contained all others.
Jamie picked up the papers in front of her and shuffled them as if that might rearrange the words into something different. She said, "I don't care for the narrator. He's simply not likeable. If I met him, these are the very last things I would want to know."
Tony nodded, brushing back his long hair. They waited for him to speak but he never did.
Ariana said, "Just because you don't like one facet of a person, doesn't mean you dislike him entirely."
He felt the need to defend himself, but could not imagine how. Instead he told the truth. "It's just a representation of me. You're saying you don't like me."
Virginia said, "Nine times out of ten, I would agree with you. But I just can't sympathize with a smoker. He's giving himself lung cancer after all, and on some level I feel he deserves it."
Ariana said, "If you receive something you ask for, it's a gift, not a disease."
Jamie said, "Cancer treatment can be very expensive. But I don't feel that kind of pain here. Perhaps he could ask someone for money. It's easy to sympathize with an individual who desperately requires what we all need to survive."
Tony said, "I was watching the Yankee game last night. A ball was hit into the crowd. A woman caught it, and gave it to a child. The boy shook his head and placed it back into her hands."
Miguel said, "I found the part about the nuclear reactor distracting."
He directed the conversation to the ending. Ariana said, "You should never end something with a gesture. I read that somewhere, but I knew it was true even before I read it."
Virginia said, "What is the religion of the protagonist?" He answered that he did not know. "I do sketches in longhand for all my characters," she explained to the group. "I need to know everything about them, so if another character asks them a question, I'll have the answer."
Tony said, "I like to find out things about my creations that I didn't know."
He said, "How could you discover a new fact about a figment that is entirely of your own imagining?"
They took a break. Even though he felt bad about it, he smoked a cigarette. Orion's belt shone like an indecent flag.
Virginia said, "Now that you have some time to think about it, what's his religion?"
Ariana said, "When you cried, I did feel for you. Perhaps your character could cry as well."
An older woman who normally did not talk during the class, and who he knew was named Yvonne, touched his hand. He started from it, surprised. She said, "Have you ever read anything by Knut Hamsun?"
Later, Ariana said, "Have you ever read anything by Howard Norman?" She knocked on wood.
Tony said, "Ethan Coen wrote some inconsistent short stories. Your work reminds me of that."
Virginia said, mere minutes after his hand had been so suddenly impacted, "You'd really like Rabbit at Rest. It is my favorite of those novels."
Their instructor was in her late fifties, her long blonde hair adorned with barrettes of the exact same color. Her golden retriever always sat next to her; the dog was named after one of the characters on Babylon 5. At the end of each class, she made her pronouncement on the story up for discussion. Often it contained some repudiation of his classmates, occasionally she confirmed one or more of their views. At first he thought she touched her chin absentmindedly during these lectures, but the more he saw of the behavior, the more convinced he became she was self-conscious about her neck.
At the bar afterwards, Ariana said, "I'm completely frightened by what she will say to me. You're so lucky."
Virginia gave him a cocktail and pressed an index finger to her temple. When he thanked her she nodded and said, "You know how sheets list their thread count on the package? Everything should do that." She headed right for the bathroom after that.
Ariana said, "Your eyelashes are so long. Have you ever read Mavis Gallant?" When he stared at a row of vodka bottles, they shined in his eyes like spanish dubloons. He had never seen such gold.
In class, Tony had said, "I don't personally find it believable when after I'm done reading something, no one has eaten or slept."
He had responded, "So you're saying every work of fiction has to contain eating or sleeping?"
Tony had answered, "There's a difference between hinting at an event occurring, and actually depicting it."
His instructor had said, her left hand stroking her chin, her right hand petting her dog, "Confusing a tiny part of the thing with the whole is a mistake reminiscent of a poor semiotician. We control each and every part of our lives; no one else shares this burden. Tony."
"Yes," Tony said, and looked at him.
Slowly, as if she were surveying a canvas wider than it was high, his instructor directed her attention to the same place, addressing him thoughtfully. "When you meet someone new, do you tell them everything about yourself?" He shook his head. "And why not?"
"Because I don't know everything." The females laughed, the men just shook their heads.
The instructor said, "If you met someone, and you wanted her to know you completely, and you wanted to know her completely... What would be the best way of telling her this?" No one answered. "That's right. There is no good way."
Jamie said, "A hurricane approaches from the southeast. All bow."
Tony said, "When I read the word 'speckled', I feel bile rising in my throat."
Ariana said, much later, "When you come it's like you're apologizing. But I like that."
Virginia said, "What does this have to do with what we've read?" His instructor levelled her gaze like a clothesline.
"Maybe you'd rather get to know her more slowly. That way you could adjust yourself to her, and she might do the same. But at the end of it, you would find the identical result, unless you willfully held something back. Actually doing that is harder than it is for me to say it. You want something of her, and to get it, you have to lie. That's what this art is, and nothing else."
He said, "I have never been a very good liar."
"Alone's Just Fine" - Holly McNarland (mp3)
"You'll Forget About Me" - Holly McNarland (mp3)