Ellen says, “I was determined to make money. What about you?” I say, “What do you think?” She says, “But you like money.” I say, “People don’t pay much for what I do. A handful of good writers sell enough books to support them. Most writers I know teach at universities.” She says, “As soon as I got married, I wanted a baby. I can’t imagine anything more interesting than watching a brand new being develop, watch them discover their hands, play with their penis, watch their fingers become dextrous enough to pick up a Cherio and put it in their mouth, see them understand that, ‘Lay keppie’ means the same thing as, ‘Lay your head on me’. I really don’t know about your life. When you say, ‘I don’t like babies’, it feels like hitting me with a wet noodle.” I say, “I can see having an interest in their development, but I have no interest in the things you have to do for these tiny humans.” She says, “Does that mean you’re selfish?” I don’t answer. It’s okay she doesn’t understand my life. Who understand their life? My life looks like one of the long walks I take through the city every morning, arriving at a corner and deciding which way to turn, just to see what will happen along the route. Ellen says, “I have lived according to two things Daddy said: ‘Money is only good for one thing: To make your life easier’. And, ‘If money can fix it, it’s not that important’.”
Ellen and I are on her bed. She says, “Mom and I were fighting in Macy’s, and I got on the escalator up. I thought she was behind me, but she was still at the bottom, and we were shouting to each other, as she got smaller. She said, ‘I want to sit on a park bench talking to Sartre’. I said, ‘You cannot make a decision. “Should I buy a sock? Should I sell a stock?” Why would Sartre want to talk to you?” She said, “That is a good question.” I say, “When I’m walking, I often think of calling Mom. It’s like a phantom limb.” I walk by the Time Warner Center every morning, near where she lived. If I called her, she would say, “Do you think I’m smart?” I would say, “Yes.” She would say, “You don’t really think that.” I would say, “Yes, I do.” Ellen says, “Keep me in your pocket when you walk.” I say, “Okay.” She says, “When I was transferring from Boston University to NYU, Dad gave Mom a check. I got on the elevator, and the door closed before she could get in. I went to the fourth floor and waited. People streamed in and out. When she found me and looked at the check, she saw Dad had forgotten to sign it. She said, ‘Oh my god, what should we do’? I said, ‘Sign his name, Ma’. She said, ‘You can do that’? I said, ‘Sign his name’. A week later the bank called Daddy to let him know someone had forged his name. He said it was okay. It was his wife.” She says, “After Daddy died, I would drive to the city to see her once a month. She would cook my favorite foods to take home, flanken and lima beans.” I say, “That’s what Grandma would cook for Mom.” She says, “I would balance her checkbook. She would say, ‘I’m going to run out of money’. I would say, ‘If you live to be 400, you’ll run out of money’. She would say, ‘Are you sure’? I would show her the deposits the same way each time. We’d walk to the Lower East Side and go to the Second Avenue Deli. We’d share a bowl of matzoh ball soup and a tongue sandwich on club with fries. The fries had to be extra crispy. She would say, ‘Oy, this food is grabbing me’. I would say, ‘East slower and talk less’. She complained when the tongue sandwich went from $12 to $18, but she always paid.” She sits up a little taller and says, “She made me get out of the house and go to work. She said, ‘Ellen, take any job, work any hours, but get out of the house’. It changed my life completely.” She leans back. I massage her feet. Chemo has caused neuropathy. She says, “Mom would come out to help me when the kids were small. I once had three children with chicken pox. I called her, and she said, ‘I’ll be right there’.” She sips selzer. It helps with her cough. She says, “Mom had the weirdest color sense, greens and browns.” I say, “She always looked great.” Ellen says, “Yes, with her blond hair and coloring, everything looked good on her. If I wore green, I would turn green.”
Below Mom and Dad young.
Ellen says, “I wish we had been close all our lives.” She squeezes my hand and smooths my hair. We are on her bed. She is breathing okay if she doesn’t move much. She says, “It’s hard to get up from the toilet. My arms are weak or maybe it’s my quads.” I say, “Try using your abdominals.” She says, “Mom kept us apart.” I say, “She did and she didn’t.” Ellen says, “She needed to be the center.” Our mother talked to me about books and to Ellen about family. My sister got married at 21, moved to New Jersey, and had her first baby nine months later. I was 15. In the hospital, my father smiled as if she had invented fire. The year before the family shrink, André, had taken me into his bed and touched me. I had stopped him from going further and told no one. I remember looking through the window at Ellen’s baby, pretending to be happy. Ellen says, “I fought with Mom. You left.” Neither of us wishes we had had the other’s life.
Ellen says, “We are connected by strands of DNA. I can see them, squiggling in different colors, like electricity.” I worshipped her as a child. She was beautiful and slender. Everyone loved her. I can see how my mother found her easier to be with. In a recent interview I told the writer I was a wolf and gave this example: “If there is a pie with unequal pieces, I will take the biggest, even if I don’t want to eat it all.”
I say to Ellen, “You were interested in having children. I have given more thought to friendship than family, and I’m as confused as ever.” We joined forces 13 years ago when our mother became ill. Our mother needed the care of aides all the time, and Ellen and I never fell out. I say, “Maybe we needed to become friends before we could become family again.” She says, “You said something that still bothers me. You said, ‘If Mom leaves all her money to you, will you share it with me?’ How could you think I would take it all?” I say, “I thought I should put it out there. She was capable of anything.” Ellen says, “She was a shit, but she could laugh at herself.”
I say, “Richard says there are waves moving in all the time, and then there are tides. Tides are longer periods. You move out and away. The land and sea part but are still in touch. This is when our tide is coming in.”
She says, “The first six months I saw André, I didn’t say anything, and he didn’t say anything. It was a tug of war to see who would speak first.” She was 18, going to therapy five times a week at $50 a session. She was attending NYU and Parson’s School of Design, and she would see André after her classes. Four months later, our mother began seeing him, too. Two years later, I began. At the time, André was also treating my father’s brother, his wife, and their two daughters. It would turn out he was having sex with dozens of women and female children. On the phone, Richard says to me, “What did you think you were going for?” I say, “I was going to meet André. His name was on everyone’s lips, like the Wizard of Oz.” He says, “But it was therapy. You must have organized a problem.” I say, “I was going to enter the fold. It was bathed in a gold light. Or maybe a green light. The green light of money.”
Ellen says, “After I was married, André would call me. I had one or two kids by then. Someone had cancelled an appointment, and he would say, ’Don’t you have $50?’ I thought, ‘He doesn’t care about me. He cares about money.’” I say, “I think it was both.” I prop myself higher on a pillow and say, “Supposing everyone felt alone and trapped, and they were all carrying around this secret. Supposing they were all as secretly unhappy as André, and everyone was pretending things were fine. This thing they were doing. This man they were trusting they didn’t really trust. He was the manifestation of the way the world can be dark and chaotic and wish to destroy hope.” She says, “I did not cry when he died.” I say, “I wish I knew more about his life.” She says, “He was born in Russia and had nine sisters.” I say, “I wish I could ask what he was thinking.”
Yesterday I spent several hours with my sister on her bed. She has terminal lung cancer, and these are her last months. We talked about sex. She likes thinking about the parts of her life she has loved. She is bothered by a cough and shortness of breath. She has begun a new round of chemo that, best case, will extend her time here.
She has been writing letters to the people she wants to say goodbye to, and they are neatly stacked in a drawer. She said, “I became obsessed with writing. It was focusing to think about my relationship with each person.” She looked off at a small statue of a horse that used to sit in the living room of our parents. She said, “When you read my letter to you, promise me you won’t correct the grammar and spelling.” I said, “I’m a lousy speller.” She said, “The grammar. You will find an ‘ly’ missing.” I said, “I promise.”
This morning I called her and said, “What do you think about posting comments on this stage of your life? Death is a private experience, but it is also a social one, and the way you are dying, as a resolutely secular person and with the benefit of excellent health care, now threatened, are public concerns.” She said, “Okay.” I said, “You will read everything before I post it.” She said, “Fine.” I said, “People will say you are ‘brave’, and I will tell them, ‘No, she is living her death the way she lived her life: eyes open, determining her fate as much as is possible.'”
She is extraordinary, and I have no words for the feelings stirred in contemplation of her exit. So I am not imagining that stage. We are together, and we are living in the moments we have. She is sharing her weed and Xanax with me. She is a good sister.
We have a few requests. Please do not recommend treatments, however well-intentioned your suggestions. Please do not invoke religion or spirituality in any form. Ellen is a cultural Jew who does not believe in god or religion. I am an atheist. We think metaphysics promotes much of the destruction in our world now.
We are comforted by this collaboration and welcome comments of support and other responses to what we share. We like reviewing the past. We recently learned more facts than we had previously known about Andre Glaz, the psychoanalyst who treated us both, sexually molested me, and has turned out to have been a sexual predator on a vast, culty, Jim-Jones scale. Ellen wants to know everything she can while she is here. I love her so much for this and a zillion other reasons.
My Life as an Animal
By Laurie Stone
Northwestern University Press
Reviewed by John David Harding
Have you ever been in the presence of someone who has seen, accomplished, and learned more in his or her lifetime than you have? There is something special about being in close proximity to such a person, as if, through some kind of creative osmosis, her or his brilliance might rub off on you. I experienced this feeling recently, but not with a person; rather, with a book, Laurie Stone’s newest story collection, My Life as an Animal. Formulating my thoughts, I returned again and again to the book’s central concerns: life and death, identity, friendship, art, love. But what seems like familiar territory at first blush is made remarkable by the main character’s singular voice, which renders these common subjects in ways both surprising and heartrending.
The stories in Animal are told from the point of view of Laurie, a first-person narrator who, you might have noticed, shares a name with the author. While some of the stories in the collection are traditional length, many are as short as a paragraph. My mind immediately went to the microfiction of Lydia Davis, and the narrator anticipates this connection by referencing Davis’ story “Happy Memories” in a story replete with unhappy ones. But the Davis reference is only one among many. Laurie alludes to a host of other artists and authors, including Susan Sontag, Joni Mitchell, W. G. Sebald, Gertrude Stein, and Jean-Luc Godard. These references are not made in the interest of being clever, but because each one establishes Laurie’s cultural milieu and illuminates some aspect of the story or the collection as a whole.
Take, for example, the reference to the French philosopher and writer Georges Bataille, whose erotic works Laurie admires for “their lack of affect.” The Bataille reference performs significant work in the book. First, it reflects the visceral lust Laurie feels for Marco, an acquaintance from the writing workshop circuit. Also, the reference provides insight into Laurie’s controlled narrative style. Admiring Bataille’s matter-of-fact narration—wherein the “narrator’s containment allows the reader to enter the story as if the story is about the reader”—Laurie nods to the French writer as an inspiration. She writes, “The events in Bataille’s stories unfold as if they were ordinary life, without apology or interpretation.”
Though her stories do not replicate Bataille’s hyper-erotic subject matter, Laurie adopts a similar approach to narration by offering details and events to the reader with little commentary on their greater significance. These stories allow us to make of them what we will. This is especially true of Laurie’s depictions of illness and death. Three important characters in My Life as an Animal experience life-threatening medical trouble, but Laurie does not sentimentalize her grief surrounding the demise of her loved ones. This style likewise marks her portrayals of life as a writer, which is of course extraordinary, but which she describes unpretentiously. For example, she casually mentions her assignments for the Village Voice and her time at the famed artists’ colony Yaddo. Whereas some writers spend a great deal of time devising a mythos about themselves and their art, Laurie inhabits the role of the writer without affectation.
Laurie’s stoicism might also be understood as a byproduct of the denigration she endures at the hands of her mother. Among the book’s large ensemble of characters, two characters stand out as especially significant: Laurie’s partner Richard, and her mother, Toby. By turns referred to as “Toby” or simply “my mother,” anecdotes about Toby are often disquieting. For example, when Laurie is preparing to marry a man at the age of nineteen, her mother expresses disapproval by saying, “Go get killed.” The love-hate tension forged between Laurie and Toby underwrites their relationship’s complexity. They quickly lose all resemblance to what we expect of a mother and daughter, which is to say that they seem authentic. From a narrative point of view, Toby’s unpredictability brings her character to life, inspiring the reader to cringe and laugh in equal measure. Of course, the humor is tempered by Laurie’s struggle to process her conflicting feelings about Toby, whose presence looms large in her life even after Toby’s death. “I am glad we will not meet again,” Laurie says, adding, “I wish she were alive.”
By contrast, Richard might represent the yin to Laurie’s yang, though to say that Richard “completes” Laurie would be a misstep, and an affront to Laurie’s autonomy. Richard does, however, contribute to greater balance in Laurie’s life. He accepts her—flaws and all—and the feeling is mutual. “Last night I had an insight,” Richard says to Laurie. “You are on the spectrum.” (Laurie elaborates, “He means the OCD spectrum.”) Richard continues, “I mean, think about it: the cleaning, the organization, the ability to spot a speck of dust on the floor or a coin on the sidewalk, the willingness to rewrite and rewrite until you are satisfied with the words. I am going to be more understanding.” And how does Laurie respond to this assessment? In typical fashion, with brevity: “Okay,” she says. Another example of the unceremonious way in which the couple dispenses affection for one another occurs in “I Like Talking to You.” When Laurie tells Richard that her life would be measly without him, he says that his life would be measly without her. When she asks him why, Richard says, “I like talking to you.” Laurie replies, “I like talking to you, too.” Herein lies the basis for their relationship: a deep intimacy grounded in acceptance, something Laurie could not share with her mother.
What’s more, recognizing that her relationship with Richard might not last forever, Laurie meets the possibility of losing him head on. “You could find someone younger,” she tells Richard. He responds, “I could, couldn’t I?” “Do it soon,” she says. “I’d rather have my heart broken now than later.” Richard responds, “Why?” As is typical of this collection, no answer, no interpretation is given. This particular story ends on a question, and we are left speculating about Laurie’s reasoning.
Though sometimes opaque, Laurie’s motives are typically consistent. Case in point, a story where Richard’s sister-in-law Ann lies immobilized in the hospital after experiencing a series of strokes. As the family gathers around Ann’s bedside, Laurie feels restless and in the way. She reports, “I said to Richard, ‘I’m going for a walk.’ I had been with the family for five days. He shot me the look that says, I love you for who you are, but do you have to be her all the time?” Laurie does not respond. Of course, she has no choice but to be herself. She is who she is.
And now, I have to remind myself that Laurie is not a real person—she is a character. But there is something so authentically real about her and her thought process laid bare in these stories that I have come to think of her as a living, breathing human being. As a reader, I am glad to have met her.
In the writing of Patrick Modiano, the narrator is in continual motion, drifting from one temporary location to the next. Streets and buildings are more vivid in memory than the people with secret agendas who gather in bars to drink but not reveal themselves. The absence of connection creates in the author a feeling of permanent longing. It’s what a writer needs to remain in search of love. When I read Modiano (most recently “The Hat” in the current Paris Review), I feel the despair of the abandoned child, deserted by his actress mother who wants a life of her own. She seldom seems to recognize she has a son, like the mother in 400 Blows with her lover and sullen irritation with things domestic. I identify with the females wanting freedom, although these mothers in particular are vain, foolish, and heartless as portrayed by their neglected sons. I imagine if I had had a child, I would have kissed and hugged the person regardless of my sense of entrapment. I flatter myself, perhaps. What I can more easily see is the sorrow of the abandoned child, the sons Patrick and Francois. I see the child I did not have, longing for his absent mother. He is a son, and I am elsewhere. The pain of imagining this feels as if I really did it.
One day at the health food store, my brother-in law came up to my mother. She was working in the front, selling vitamins, She knew every vitamin in the store and what they were for. My brother-in-law said, “Tobe, you’re gonna have to change what you wear. You’re gonna have to wear jeans and boots and a shirt without a bra.” She came to the store in tailored skirts and matching jackets tapered at the waist. She wore character shoes from Easy Spirit with a strap across the top. She laughed. There was an old, manual cash register she learned to work. It was on its last legs, and when it died my brother-in-law replaced it with a more complicated, electronic kind. She said, “I will never learn to use it.” He took her in a back room and taught her to work it. She wasn’t the kind of person who, after she learned something, made mistakes. She had not worked in all the years I knew her, and I wonder what it took for her to decide one day to go to the store. The nine years my brother-in-law owned the health food store were the happiest of her life. People asked for her when they entered. She was nicer than she really was. We are all nicer than we really are serving people, listening to their stories, feeling useful, hearing our names called out. Off stage she was shy.