What’s in a Name?

It has been said that art represents humanity’s collective attempt to reconcile its own existence against an otherwise cold and uncaring universe. To strip away artifice, to obliterate pretense — to provide a context through which we may hope to define, at its core, exactly what it means to be a person. Which explains why art is so often heartbreakingly, unyieldingly, sad. Because, loathe as we may be to admit it (and despite all of our attempts to the contrary), ours is a conclusively lonely existence — one fraught with sorrow, doubt, and, ultimately, disillusionment. That’s the torment heard in Juliet’s deathbed soliloquy, the longing behind the chords of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” the anguished panic pulsating through Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.” And that’s the reason why, every Spring, I make sure to stock up on extra-soft, triple-ply, Kleenex-brand tissues in anticipation of the season’s most gut-wrenchingly devastating artistic offering: the premier episode of the ABC network’s hit reality television series “The Bachelorette.”

For those who may be unfamiliar, a brief synopsis: “The Bachelorette” is a televised dating competition wherein twenty-five presumably eligible men vie for the affections of one woman — the aforementioned “Bachelorette” — an America’s-Sweetheart type generally plucked out of the pool of losing contestants from the latest season of “The Bachelorette’s” identically structured, appropriately titled, gender-reversed sister program, “The Bachelor.” Over the course of ten weeks these men will compete in a series of ingeniously constructed trials-by-fire (“dates” in the parlance of the show) — all designed to prove one’s merit, one’s worth, one’s essential spouse-ability, so that ultimately one contestant may emerge victorious to claim the hand of his Bachelorette-No-Longer, a presumably consenting, presumably love-struck, presumably gushing, Trisha, Kaitlyn, or, most recently, Jojo.

However, it isn’t this rose-tinted notion of storybook romance that reliably brings me to tears every May. It isn’t the helicopter rides, the horses on the beach, or even the valiant attempt at poetry (wherein the “Artistic Contestant” will inevitably rhyme the phrase “My Jojo” with “My Mojo” in a metered application for entry into the coveted Fantasy Suite.) It’s the fact that, of the initial twenty-five contestants selected to participate in the show, ten will be immediately turned away at the door.

For these men there will be no helicopter rides, no beachfront equestrianism, no opportunity to show off a recently acquired mastery of iambic pentameter. Not only will they never enter the Fantasy Suite — they’ll never even enter the second floor of the Bachelorette Mansion. They’ll arrive in a limousine, have a twenty second conversation with their season’s Bachelorette-De-Jour, be flatly and publically denied one of the fifteen roses meant to signify Jojo’s ever cursory interest in getting to know them any further, and then be sent directly back to whatever part of the country it is they flew in from. And then they will be instantly forgotten.

All while I watch. All while I cry.

Because these men very clearly did not expect this to happen. (In fact, they very clearly expected the opposite to happen.) Why else would they have flown into California — abandoning their careers, abandoning their lives — if not because they were fully convinced that what they brought to the table — their accomplishments, their personalities, their comically inflated pectoral muscles — would be sufficient to not only satisfy the romantic ideals of one starry-eyed young enchantress, but also those of an adoring American public? These men flew into California a group of self-perceived Prince Charmings. They flew out of California a broken cluster of Le Fous.

(For those who may be unfamiliar, “Le Fou” is a bumbling, bizarrely-proportioned secondary character in the animated version of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast,” one whose primary function appears to be absorbing the vitriol spewn at him by his domineering master Gaston, in what hints at an only-slightly-sanitized version of sadomasochistic role-play.)

I cry for these men not out of embarrassment, but out of a genuine sense of empathy. Because these men bear the collective burden of embodying what may be the single harshest truth underlying our shared human experience: that the image of ourselves that we think we’re projecting onto the world is often so comically divorced from the reality as to merit its own television show on the ABC network.

We all think that we come across better than we do — we have to. It’s a necessary byproduct of our own self-preservation. If we were ever forced to honestly acknowledge the way that the world truly thinks of us as individuals — how visible our deficiencies, our flaws, our cartoonishly bizarre proportions truly are, we would never be able to muster the simple strength required to get out of bed in the mornings. That’s the reason why the phrase “The Kind Of Place Where People Don’t Even Lock Their Doors” holds such great currency in today’s real-estate market. If we never need to lock our doors — so follows the logic — then we never need to re-enter the party we’ve just exited in order to retrieve a forgotten set of keys, thus eliminating the all-too-real risk of inadvertently stumbling into the cacophony of terrible things that everyone has been saying about us starting the second we left their apartment.

Look — it isn’t as if we’re wholly unaware of the image that we present — we generally have the basic outline down. But the devil, as they say, is in the details.

For example, I am generally aware of the fact of my whiteness. Which is to say that it doesn’t tend to take me by surprise as I stare into my bathroom mirror in the mornings — fraught with a crippling sense of internal anxiety as to the question of whether or not an open second shirt button projects an image of bravado that I can’t possibly be expected to live up to — that the face staring back at me is textbook definition Caucasian. I own a seltzer maker, I have a “tea connection” in Connecticut, and I’ve started more than one conversation with the phrase “You know, if you really stop and think about it, Matchbox Twenty is actually a pretty underrated band…” I’m white. There isn’t a lot of ambiguity surrounding that fact.

And yet, despite the overwhelming empirical evidence to the contrary — evidence suggesting that the image I actually present is that of a “bookishly approachable stranger you can rely on for accurate directions to Banana Republic” — I simultaneously maintain the completely un-founded illusion that I also project a palpable sense of danger.

For example, I recently started wearing a bandana on my forehead in an attempt at a look that can only reasonably be described as “newly-unemployed-adjunct-professor.” Last weekend, on a jaunty stroll to my favorite neighborhood cheese shop, Vampire Weekend in my ears, America’s first Haagen-Dazs to my right — the thought honestly occurred to me that someone might see me wearing my blue bandana and worry that the tree-lined streets of Brooklyn Heights had been infiltrated by a street gang. (More specifically, I thought, “I’d better take off this bandana before someone sees me and thinks that I’m in The Crips.”) Never mind the fact that my very next thought was “I hope this place sells a more spreadable Brie than the unpasteurized Somerset I’ve been buying recently…” I was legitimately worried that someone was going to see me in a headband and draw the immediate conclusion that I was a member of the most feared and repudiated prison gang in the history of American criminology.

(Look — I’ve been in gangs over the course of my lifetime. But they’ve been gangs of people who look like I do. Also known as “improv groups.”)

Which brings me to my own personal moment of devastating self-realization — the moment when the entire façade-of-delusion that I’d spent years carefully crafting for myself came cascading down in a crushing avalanche of reality. The moment when, confronted with the complete set of options available to her, Jojo looked me in the eyes — squarely, deliberately — and mumbled, simply, “Nope.”

I was in the beautiful city of Charleston, South Carolina, touring with a show I’d written and absolutely confident in every aspect of what I was bringing to that particular Southern table — my accomplishments, my personality, the New York City residency that I assumed would have everyone I met throwing themselves at my feet begging to be regaled with tales of “life in the big city.” The night before the show the cast and I decided to hit the town — experience some local booze-culture, meet some native Charlestonians, and hopefully muster up a small sense of hype surrounding our ensuing comedy performance. Several hours (and as many drinks) later, we found ourselves in the company of Brittany and Elena — two beautiful young HR Recruiters from Raleigh, North Carolina, fellow travelers in town for a consequence-free Girl’s Weekend. (Which was, it should be noted, exactly the experience that I assumed I was providing for them.)

From the moment I inserted myself into their conversation (a conversation which was, I could only assume, severely wanting for some fascinating insight into “the time I saw Joaquin Phoenix on the subway because, you know, I live in New York City, and that’s the kind of thing that happens all the time in New York City, where I live, in New York City…”) I could tell that Brittany and Elena were little short of enchanted. I was witty, I was charming — the banter between the three of us bouncing seamlessly between the kind of flirtatious repartee and respectful intellectual challenge that would have Aaron Sorkin openly weeping with envy.

(In fact, I was so convinced of the effect I was having that, while walking over to the jukebox in order to queue up my go-to Matchbox Twenty playlist, I actually thought about taking off my wedding ring and hiding it in my pocket. Not because of any inclination towards infidelity, but because I was sincerely concerned that Elena might be thrown into a fit of actual hysterics were she to realize that I had a spouse back home in Brooklyn, which is part of New York City, where I live, in New York City.)

So engaging was the conversation, so ripe with potential, that, fifteen minutes in, I realized that I’d never even found a window in which to properly introduce myself. Of course, as a long-time resident in the kill-or-be-killed word of long-form improv comedy, I decided to take this glaring omission as a moment of unique opportunity. “Here,” I said, smiling smugly, “I’ve got a great idea. Instead of me telling you my name, why don’t you try and guess what it is based on everything that’s happened over the last fifteen minutes.” I leaned back slowly against the bar, a cocky Rumpelstitlsken waiting to be anointed with the moniker of “Pablo,” “Jean-Luc,” or perhaps even “Ryan Gosling” — some name evoking mystery and adventure and the type of forbidden dalliance heretofore confined to the pages of the ancient Kama Sutra.

The name that I was actually given (and given, it should be noted, with a deliberateness and speed in defiance of everything I thought I knew about the physics of sound)…was Gary.

Fucking Gary.

I ask you: has there ever been a name that connotes an image of a more sexless, amorphous, broken sack of human desperation than Gary? Gary isn’t the name of a person you flirt with at the bar; Gary is the name of a guy who wears sweatpants to The Olive Garden. Gary isn’t the guy who fulfills your romantic fantasies; Gary is the guy who still gets hernias as an adult. You never ask a guy named Gary “Hey, how’s it going?” because you just know that his answer is going to begin with the phrase “Well, it’s been a rough couple of months…” and end with the phrase “…and that’s how I got my latest spider bite.” I don’t care what small town you live in; if there’s ever a headline in your local newspaper reading “Area Man Falls Into Yet Another Sinkhole,” the name of that Area Man is Gary.

If Gary was an instrument he’d be a used tuba. If Gary was a book he’d be “Everybody Poops.” If Gary was a band he’d be — I can now say, with the benefit of hindsight — Matchbox Twenty. Here are a series of phrases that have never been uttered in the presence of anyone named Gary: “Well Gary, the results are in, and it isn’t terrible.” “Congratulations on not getting caught up in that Ponzi scheme.” “Please Gary, just a minute. My body can’t handle another orgasm.”

And lastly, perhaps most devastatingly:

“Gary, will you accept this rose?”

There would be no rose in the offering that night in Charleston, South Carolina. No sun-drenched evening horse rides, no walks along the beach. I tried to comfort myself with the thought that perhaps Brittany and Elena were simply compensating for their intimidation at being in the same room as someone who might be in The Crips, but even I couldn’t maintain that illusion for more than the minute it took for the final notes of “Smooth” to fade away from the bar’s sound system. (And though I can’t say for certain, I distinctly remember that the song that came on next was Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”)

And yet, though I stood in that moment alone, I can honestly say that I wasn’t lonely. Because somewhere, at that very moment, there was a man boarding a plane for California, on a one-way ticket to the Bachelorette Mansion. And to that man I say this: “It’s nice to meet you, Gary. My name is Gary too. I live in New York City, although I suspect you already knew that.”

Hotel Manager

Nahid Rachlin

Lynn turned the pages of Tehran Daily as she sat behind the counter at Hafiz Hotel. Day after day, for a year now, she had been waiting for the news about the arrest of the person who put the bomb in the station wagon her husband was driving. What had Babak done to be the target of such a crime, had he been mistaken for someone else, who was it who put the bomb in the car?  It seemed her life was on hold until she knew the answers, until punishment was inflicted on the guilty. The bomb had been very small, the kind that the police described to her as a “sticky bomb” because the bomber could just attach it to something, but it had been powerful enough to end her husband’s life.

She was engaged with those thoughts when a man came to the counter. “Do you have a room available?” He was wearing Iranian-made imitations of American clothes, a T-shirt with a fake LaCoste label, and jeans with fake Gap label. He kept shifting in his place.

“Yes, we have a single room available on the second floor,” she said after checking the reservation book. 

The man kept his gaze averted as he said, “That’s fine.” 

“On weekends we rent for two nights only.”

“I’ll take it for both nights then.”

“It’s 2000 toomans for both nights.”

“No problem. I’ll pay by cash.” He took out his wallet, counted the toomans and put them on the counter. 

She gave him a form to fill out. He did that quickly and gave it back to her. 

“You have an address in Tehran, what brings you to the hotel?”

“I had some problems in the apartment. There was no water and I couldn’t get anyone to come and fix the pipes at this time of the night.”

“Couldn’t you have found a relative to put you up?” She was aware that her questioning was making the man uncomfortable, but she couldn’t stop herself.

“I have no family and no real friends in Tehran,” he said. “I’m from Tabriz, I came to Tehran to attend university.”

“I see. The porter will be here any minute and will help you with your luggage.”

 “I don’t need help. I only have this.” He pointed to the fake Gap knapsack slung over his shoulder.

 “Go ahead.” She took a key out of one of the little boxes lining the wall behind her and gave it to him. “The stairway is that way.” She pointed to the corridor stretching behind her.

As a part of coping with her grief she had made many improvements in the hotel. Instead of artificial flowers, she had fresh bouquets delivered regularly for the lobby. She put in motion repairs of whatever was old and seedy. The faded and chipped marble floors were repaired, the canopy replaced, the doors painted. She aimed to keep the hotel’s old charm along with modernizing it. She went to shops in the labyrinthine grand bazaar and found bronze and copper items with intricate designs on them, and miniature paintings with ornate frames, and had them hung on one of the walls in the lobby. Then just a few days ago in an antique shop she had found a poem by Hafiz, the 14th Century Sufi Persian poet in English translation and had it framed. Now it was hanging on the wall behind her. Many of the people staying in the hotel knew English.

Leave the familiar for a while.

Let your senses and bodies stretch out

Change rooms in your mind for a day.

All the hemispheres in existence

Lie beside an equator in your heart

That is what she had done, having left the familiarity of her home in Iowa and coming to this country. The night receptionist, a burly young man with a twisted mustache, came back, interrupting her thoughts. “Lynn Khanoom, you’re so kind to have covered for me,” he said.

In a moment she left for her apartment, just a few blocks from the hotel. Now past midnight, the streets were freer from the maddening Tehran traffic. In the relative quiet she could hear the gurgle of water in the wide joob that ran along the street and the rustling of sycamore tree leaves as a breeze blew through them. The heavy pollution that hung in the air like a dark cloud during the day had lifted and some stars were visible in the sky, a crescent moon dangling among them. 

Close to her apartment building, teenage boys stood under streetlights or doorways, talking and laughing. One of them began to whistle softly: 

I’m only fourteen, full of dreams. Bright dreams like stars against a black sky. 

In the lobby of her building a few male tenants were sitting on the sofa, talking heatedly about the inflation, blaming America’s sanctions for it. Lynn didn’t always approve of the policies of her native country and a rush of guilt swept over her, hearing the men. 

As she entered her apartment she was struck by loneliness. Photographs of Babak and herself were everywhere, making her keenly aware of his absence. One, taken at their wedding three years ago stood on her dresser. They had their arms around each other and were looking into each other’s eyes.

After taking a shower she went to bed, pulling up the patchwork quilt that Babak’s mother had made for them. But sleep wouldn’t come to her too easily. 

Her mind floated in a hazy area between the present and the past. For close to two years she and Babak had shared this bed, lain under the colorful quilt, and talked about their future dreams. They would have children; she would go to America to give birth, so that the children would be citizens of both countries. 

On the wall across from the bed was a miniature painting that Babak gave her as a present when they just started dating. It had the picture of a man and a woman in an embrace sitting by a stream in the shade of a cypress tree, holding goblets of wine. Babak had said to her, “That was the Iran that celebrated life.” He recited poems by ancient Iranian poets who approved of drinking wine and dancing, who believed in pleasure on this earth, rather than waiting for paradise to fulfill their desires. 

Finally she fell into a dark sleep. 

As she went about her work at the hotel more scenes of the past paraded before her eyes. She had come to Tehran on a six month appointment to work on an exhibition in a gallery that had just opened up and its aim was to introduce modern European and American painters. She had seen the ad for the job on the bulletin board of the college from which she had just graduated with an art degree and then started working in its art shop. The job advertised was arranged through an Iranian cultural organization collaborating with an American one. The organizations were promoting Iran’s then-president Khatami’s dialogue among civilizations, and president Clinton was going along with it, in an effort to mend the strained relationship between the two countries. 

Her college in Pella, Iowa emphasized exposure of students to other cultures. Writers, scholars, historians from different countries were invited to the college to give talks. International literature and art were emphasized. The exposure had filled her with a travel thirst. This was her chance to see another part of the world and at this particular time she really needed to get away. Her boyfriend, Eric, had left her. She had other, more immense losses and tragedies too. Sally, her only sibling, a-year-and-a-half younger than herself, had gone into deep depression during her junior year. She had been drinking and was promiscuous during that period. Then she had jumped off a rock ledge into a lake; whether she had done that in sobriety or drunkenness had never been established.  Her parents were sinking into alcoholism after her sister’s suicide and then moved to an assistant-living community. They weren’t welcoming of Lynn as if she reminded them too much of the daughter they had lost. They had always been difficult parents and now they had become worse. 

Leaving her own country for another one seemed like a road to freedom and happiness. On one of the first days of her arrival, when she was working in her office in the gallery, a man came in and asked her questions about the upcoming exhibition she was working on. She liked his friendly and sensitive aura. She told him about some of the art that the gallery was borrowing from American and European museums for a short period: a Matisse, a Picasso, a Van Gogh, a Winslow Homer. She showed him a catalogue of Homer’s work. He said he particularly liked the one that depicted a group of boys, seemingly on a school break, playing together in a prairie.

They drifted to a more personal conversation. He worked in a Food Bank, he said. She told him her appointment at the gallery was for six months. They exchanged names and phone numbers. That was how it started between them.

“You have such pretty hair, like a gold waterfall. I love your eyes too,” he said the first time she went to his apartment. “They’re like the blue sea.” He was talking like men in soap operas but nothing could make him ordinary for her.

After work she usually went to his apartment. One evening, three months after they met, he proposed. “Oh Lynn, the moment I saw you I was stung.”

“Babak, that’s how I feel about you.” 

He didn’t mind that she had previous boy friends, that his future bride wasn’t a virgin. “Everything about you is good,” he said earnestly.

 She didn’t say they had known each other only for three months. 

“The only marriage that’s accepted here legally is one performed by a Muslim priest. I’m sorry about it Lynn.”

She was a little hesitant to commit to that. Not that she had anything against Islam; she wouldn’t like to marry in her own Dutch Orthodox religion either. Why did love have to be sanctioned by religion, was her main objection.

“It’s just for practical purposes,” he said.

His parents were observant Muslims but they welcomed her, expressed gratitude that she was willing to go along with the Muslim ceremony. It was clear they would approve of almost anything Babak decided on. Their house was in an old section of Tehran with mosques and public baths and rose gardens visible on almost every block, creating a mystical atmosphere that she found soothing. A Muslim priest and a notary came in to perform the legal ceremony. They had a reception in a garden restaurant where Babak’s friends and numerous relatives and the friends she had made, came to celebrate. His family brought generous gifts — jewelry, silver filigree tea glass holders, a tray engraved with trellis design, hand-made quilts, a tablecloth and napkins with embroidery at their edges. 

Living with Babak and all the companionship she had with his family members and friends, and friends she made with women, some of whom had married Iranian men too, gradually helped heal her feelings of loss back home.

But then one evening Babak came home, looking preoccupied.  “I have to deliver something tomorrow, will you come with me?”

“What is it?”

“Canned food from Food Relief. I have to deliver it to some people; they will send it to the families most in need. There’s so much poverty.” He said Food Bank had lent him a large station wagon for the purpose. 

In the morning they drove on roads outside of the city for two hours and then he stopped the car in front of a house on an empty, quiet street. He got out and rang the bell. A few men came to the door; Babak said something to them and the men helped him carry the large package out of the car and into the house. He came back shortly but he looked flushed, shaken. 

“Babak, what happened, what’s wrong?”

“I just wonder if these people really deliver the food to the needy. There’s so much corruption.” He put his arm around her.  “Lynn, what you and I have together is more important than anything else.”

A few nights later he was late coming home.Hours went by and he didn’t return. She called his phone but he didn’t pick up. She left a message. She turned on the TV to a news channel and watched with trepidation for reports of any accidents. 

Finally she called one of Babak’s friends, Fereydoon, he spent most time with. She reached Fereydoon’s answering machine and left an urgent message for him to call her back. Then she called Masood, another of Babak’s close friends. A message on his answering machine said he was out of town for a week. She decided not to call Babak’s parents since they would be really upset; anyway he rarely visited them late at night. 

She was about to call one of the couples she and Babak socialized with but just then the phone rang. It was Fereydoon. “I’m sorry, Lynn… terrible news…” His voice cracked.

Her heart skipped a few beats. There was silence, then sounds of weeping. 

“What’s wrong, you’re frightening me.”

“Babak… explosives went off in the station wagon he was using to deliver food.”“Explosives?” The world began to swim around her.

She heard him sob. “Is he injured,” he said brining out the words with difficulty. 

“I hate to be the one…. Lynn, he didn’t make it alive to the hospital. I had a call from the police. They found my phone number in his address book, in his pocket…”

“Where is he now?’ she asked, hoping she hadn’t heard him correctely. 

He sobbed again. Finally he said, “They’re on the way to the morgue near Rey.”

She started to sob too.

“We can’t go to the morgue right now. The policeman said we have to wait until we hear from him. I’ll come to your apartment.”

 She was frozen in her spot; she had a strange, painful sensation that she was looking at her life in a blurry mirror. Fereydoon lived only a few blocks away and arrived quickly. They kept talking, speculating, crying. 

Near dawn the phone ringing interrupted them. She dragged herself to the side table and picked it up. It was the police station. They wanted her to identify Babak’s body in the morgue. In a few moments a policeman arrived to take her there. He allowed Fereydoon to come along. She and Fereydoon sat in the back of the police car as they raced through the sparse dawn traffic.

At the morgue the policeman took both of them inside. Seeing Babak lying in the ice cold room, his face shattered, made his death all too real. “Yes, that’s him,” she said. Fereydoon repeated the same thing. The policeman took them to the station. Another policeman joined them and began to question them.

“Do you know if he was involved in any political groups or organizations?” the second policeman asked. 

She shook her head no, so did Fereydoon. After asking a few more questions the police let them go. No details were told to them, no arrests were made yet. It was already nine in the morning and the offices were open. She and Fereydoon went to an office to file a death certificate.

The hardest part then was her calling Babak’s parents and telling them what happened. She had waited this long because she couldn’t bring herself to. But now with the finality of his death sunk into her, she had to make the phone call. In the midst of crying, his father said, “I’ll offer an award for anyone who’d lead us to the murderer, who put the explosives in my son’s car.” At the funeral she, along with his parents and all the relatives and friends, cried hysterically, the sounds of their weeping mingling, creating a dark chorus. She was aware of how this communal mourning lightened the weight of grief somewhat. When her sister died, she had few people to share the grief with. 

For the days to come Babak’s parents, relatives, and friends all tried through their connections in the mosques, the bazaar shops, different offices, to find a lead to who and why the bomb had been put in the station wagon. 

Finally, coming out of her stunned state, Lynn wondered if there were things about Babak she hadn’t known. Had he been acting strange, not himself lately? Were there things he was hiding from her? But no, he was always so straightforward, rarely late, rarely opaque. 

One morning, arriving at the hotel, the beggar, Hadaghe, a middle aged, scrawny looking woman, wearing a soot-covered coat, was sitting across the street with her bronze bowl on the ground in front of her. She often came into the lobby and asked Lynn for charity. Lynn always gave her some money.

“Lynn khanoom, a man was prowling around the hotel’s basement. He ran away as soon as he saw me. He looked very suspicious.”

Lynn did not know if she could believe the half-crazed woman who often talked to herself, who was often incoherent. Then she felt a dread in her heart as she thought of the strange, suspicious looking man who had checked into the hotel. Could he be the man who had put the explosives in Babak’s car and now was perhaps going to put some in the hotel, for reasons she couldn’t comprehend? 

She went into the lobby and looked at the reservation book and saw that the man had checked out after the two nights and hadn’t returned. Still she had to contact the police, in case. She asked the policeman who answered the phone if someone would come and inspect the basement. 

Within the hour three policemen arrived and went to search the basement. They came out and said, “We searched every corner, there’s nothing suspicious there.”

Later that day, on the way home, Lynn felt a rush of homesickness for the sights and sounds of Pella, for the time before things became difficult and painful for her there. She had thought by now Iran was her home. Sights of Pella went before her eyes. The town had main-tained the architecture from the time of the original Dutch settlers — bold curving forms and rich ornamentation, yellow sandstone and red brick buildings. There were windmills at almost every corner, their blades going round and round. In May as tulips burst into bloom in public gardens and parks, a festival was held there with parades, stage performances. Dutch street organ music, dancing, were a part of the festival. The Dutch bakery served coffee to visitors. The fall was the harvest season with a flower and quilt show. I should return home, she thought with urgency. 

Then her mind revisited the day when she and Babak sat in the shade of the wide sycamore tree hanging over the café, discussing their future together. 

“I feel you saved my life,” she had said to him. 

Alas, she hadn’t been able to save his. 

On Reserve


Eleanor Pincus looked everything I did not. Her typical attire: a smartly tailored suit, skirt ending sensibly just above her knees, and a fitted coat tapered perfectly to the end of her skirt. With that precision, you knew you’d never catch a glimpse of slip or, God forbid, a frayed hem. Stockings covered her legs, pumps her feet, and, like Bette Davis or my grandmother, she never left the house without her hat and gloves.

I can see those white gloves, their flattened fingers crossed carefully beside her at the checkout desk. With even, careful script, marked an A for penmanship 50 years before no doubt, she addressed one side of the reserve card to herself, the other side with the bestseller du jour, her phone number to call her when the book arrived.

That was our policy: For a dime, patrons filled out a card to place any book on reserve. Then, as soon as the book was returned, the computer alerted us and we phoned the patron. Our patrons did it for all the bestsellers, because even though we bought endless copies of those inane books and they circulated for only 7 days at a time, there were never enough for our clamoring masses. The stack for The Bridges of Madison County must have been 2 inches thick that year. John Grisham, Mary Higgins Clark, they were the perennial favorites. Nothing highbrow you can see, but Eleanor Pincus read it all. Whatever was on reserve, there was her name.

The patrons of the library were wealthy. Not the muted kind of wealth that wears torn jeans and drives a Volvo, but a louder kind, the kind that argues a 25¢ overdue fine while sporting a 2-karat diamond ring and clutching a Prada bag.

Eleanor Pincus wasn’t like that. She never argued a fine—but then again she never had a fine. And she always had the dime ready for each reserved book. Oh, there was a rock on her finger when she removed the glove but it wasn’t one that shouted at you or got caught on anything. It was just there, as perfectly put together as Eleanor Pincus herself.

I was three years out of college that summer, three years that had moved far too fast. Working, checking out books at your local library when you went to an Ivy League, how do you explain that one to the mothers of long-lost friends from elementary school who exclaimed when they saw you: You were so smart, why don’t you go to law school or medical school. The summer after college, even six months later, a year is ok. But three years later?

Naturally, I was very good at checking out books. A quick study when they instituted a new computer system, easily answering the confused questions of the befuddled old ladies I worked with. But three years later with nothing grander on the horizon? What’s wrong with her?

That summer, that summer I remember as sweat, skin that glistened and cotton t-shirts that clung, relieved only by my hours inside the gloriously air-conditioned library. My parents’ house had no AC of its own so after I peeled myself off my sheet in the morning and found life again beneath the cold spray of the shower, the last thing I wanted to do was cover my legs with nylon, cotton, denim, anything. I remember pulling on the nicest pair of shorts I had—only to be sent home to change as soon as I arrived. The no-shorts policy. It never occurred to me to wear a skirt.

I wore jeans throughout that heat. Jeans and shapeless oversized t-shirts that broadcast my college’s baseball team or a city my parents had visited. I tried to brush my hair loose, but a ponytail beckoned as soon as I stepped out of the car. By the time I entered the refreshing refrigerator of a library, there I was, ponytail hanging, and jeans, t-shirt, and sneakers, ready to pick up your reserves for you and check out your books.

Randi Cooper’s parents recognized me. Randi Cooper, with whom I’d played regularly in fifth grade, but never since. I remembered her with bug eyes and yellowed skin relieved only by red blotches, living in an empty house that smelled of kitty litter. By the time high school rolled around, she had developed a persona of maturity far beyond her years, and she and I would never speak. Later I would find out that her parents were first cousins, her flaky skin and vision troubles the direct result of too many common genes. A revelation that would stun me since this wasn’t Kentucky or West Virginia, but the upscale Northeastern suburbs. But what are two kids in love to do?

You might hope nothing.

But not the Coopers. Which, I can only hope, explains the nastiness with which they eyed me.

Hope, this stranger said. Hope Freeman?

Yes, I looked blankly at the bespectacled woman who now was nudging the portly man, it’s Hope Freeman.

All we ever heard was Hope, she was saying.

I continued to stare blankly, and so she caught herself‚ Sue and Sy Cooper, Randi’s parents.

Ohh…paste on the fake smile, paste it as fast as you can, and eliminate (now!) that image of Randi and her equally preternaturally mature friend Lauri in the lockerroom in their satin bras discussing wrinkle cream. (Now I find out that maybe Randi did really have reason to worry at 17.)

Gosh, Mrs. Cooper is saying, when Randi was 10, that was all we ever heard, Hope, Hope, Hope. Hope’s reading on a ninth-grade level, Hope does her own math problems…

She falters for a moment, and then Mr. Cooper pipes in.

So what are you doing now, Hope?

With a helpless shrug, I gesture around me. What’s Randi up to, I manage.

And then I hear it. Randi’s at med school.

Dr. Cooper. Could it be? If so, it had to be a second-rate med school.

I remember Randi crying when you were chosen over her for the spelling bee, Mrs. Cooper is saying.

Ok already, I was the teacher’s pet that year, I admit it. She thought I was Shakespeare, Einstein, Michelangelo—all rolled into one. I did have my own math group, and reading, and spelling. I read Charlotte Bronte that year, and Jane Austen, and I participated in the math Olympiads and the spelling bee, ok already.

We’ll tell Randi we saw you, says Mrs. Cooper as she and her incestuous husband head out, her eyes lingering one more time on my greasy ponytail, the t-shirt that hides the real semblance of a woman’s body that I have.

I wish I’d known then that they were first cousins.

Angelina was a long-divorced Italian lady who worked the desk with me. Unlike most of our other co-workers, she had both a brain and a sense of humor. But even they couldn’t help when it came to the Coopers. She just rolled her eyes at their departing backs. The ridiculousness unspoken. But it would have been more ridiculous if I weren’t sleeping in the same bed I’d slept in at 11, the yellow-flowered comforter warming the bones of the fast developing girl who was the smartest in her class. Opportunity before her.

It wasn’t as if I squandered it. It wasn’t as if my full breasts at 12 had transformed me into the class slut as they did in so many cases. It wasn’t as if I suddenly got embarrassed about my brains, and hid them beneath a layer of make-up and flirtation with the boys. It wasn’t as if I found alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, any of those pitfalls or paths open and beckoning to many a lonely girl, smart or not, tiptoeing through the minefield of adolescence. I did none of that. I was a high school success story, graduating at the top, heading to the Ivy Leagues. Maybe that’s what made my current circumstances all the more delightful.

Grown-up schlub.

No man, no career, no child, no home of her own.

Maybe the Coopers were right to gloat. It’s easy to shine in childhood. Not so adulthood.

But to go back to earlier that year to springtime when the world is beautiful, and so was the park. The library perched atop a park that incorporated a WPA-built duck pond at its top, a natural lake down at the other end. Cherry trees lined the duck pond, their blossoms raining down on mothers strolling with children, tossing the crumbs of crusts into the water beneath signs warning against feeding the water fowl. Mallard ducks and Canada geese, long since given up on migration in this golden Eden, sailed up, pecking at the bread like overstuffed tourists who’ve already satiated themselves on the city’s finest.

A small brook meandered its way slowly from the duck pond down the hill to the lake, while a long expanse of green was interrupted only by a small playground full of laughing children and resting mothers, library books tucked under their strollers. Beyond all that was a boardwalk overlooking the natural lake where willows wept and two swans mated in the rushes and raised a family of cygnets each year.

Was it any wonder I was still hanging around?

My vigil would start in April or May when the parents, the cob and pen, took turns guarding the nest. You’d see a lone figure across the lake, each silent glide savored, as if the last before the babies came, while closer to home the pen sat on the eggs, ever alert, her muscles moments away from drawing themselves up to her 6 feet, beating her wings, and striking. The swans were ever protective of their young.

Around Memorial Day, the cygnets hatched, about six or seven fuzzy gray balls bobbing on the water. As the days and then weeks passed, nature culled them so that only a couple reached adolescence and fewer still adulthood. I’d watch each year, a silent mourning for the lost ones, no doubt forgotten as the survivors’ necks stretched out, their bodies expanded, and wings grew through the summer months straight into the fall. At some point over the winter, the newly grown swans would have to leave, strike out on their own before finding a mate and a pond, but I never saw it happen. It would get too cold, I’d stop going down to look, and by the time I returned in the spring, I would just have to assume that they had shed those last mottled feathers, assumed the pure white grace of their parents, and taken off into the world. Either that, or the cob drove them out before mating season rolled around—something I found out he did when I began to wonder what would happen if they never left.

It was early in the cygnets’ lives, when five or six were still alive, that I saw Eleanor Pincus outside of the library. We weren’t the only ones enjoying the view from the boardwalk: it was also a favorite spot for gulls to perch. As picturesque as that may be, what accompanied them, and indeed all the ducks and geese of the park, were of course their droppings—which left me walking warily along the boardwalk, zigzagging to keep my sneakers clean, and eyeing all the seats for big white splotches. Leave it to Eleanor Pincus to find an area absolutely free of seagulls and their crap.

She maintained a suit in the early June weather, but then it was linen. If it wrinkled while she sat I never saw it. She wore her trademark hat, this one more wide-brimmed to deflect the early summer sun than her winter ones, and still the gloves. A large pair of Jackie O sunglasses shielded her eyes, and I had the distinct impression that if I were to run into Jackie O in Central Park she wouldn’t look nearly as smart, composed, and downright classy as Eleanor Pincus.

I was there on my lunch hour to enjoy the swans, but if Eleanor Pincus was there for the same reason, she wasn’t at the moment. She was absolutely absorbed in her library book. Back straight, ankles crossed, she turned each page with a gloved hand—and I contrasted her figure with my own, back curved and feet sprawled across the bench, when I gave myself over to the world of reading. But stop: there was no comparison. My own figure next to Eleanor Pincus’s? It was laughable.

She didn’t look up as I approached, didn’t stir as I picked my way around the droppings. I knew she would never walk like this—chin down, shuffling her feet in a fruitless dance of avoidance. When she stood and strode away, the crap would fade before each step, her feet sailing across the same unspoiled clapboards that she sat on now. Crap was only there if you looked for it.

I’d also brought a book to read, and I pulled my knees up to my chin as I found a relatively unscathed bench to sit on, half the boardwalk away from Eleanor Pincus. Beneath the fleeting blue-skied, 70-degree day of perfection I pulled out the library’s battered copy of Jane Austen. Could any library worker be more of a cliché? And yet, like the day itself, her prose is pure perfection, and where better to be taken when you’re an immobilized Ivy League graduate working check-out at the very library you first checked this book out of at the tender age of 11 than to the Netherfield Ball?

A single glance had told me what Eleanor Pincus was reading. I couldn’t have missed the small hardcover. It was a publishing phenomenon, only then, what, 52, 62, 72 weeks into its mind-boggling 162-week run on the NY Times’ bestseller list, 38 weeks at #1 no less. The Bridges of Madison County hit some kind of nerve in the nation and women swooned while men fantasized, I am Robert Kincaid, the peregrine, the last in the evolutionary chain. Oh Eleanor Pincus, how long ago had you filled out your reserve card? Even with our record 50+ copies of the book, we couldn’t keep the pace. The demand far outstripped the supply.

For pure fun I read it. You read it in a day, an hour. Eleanor Pincus should’ve been able to finish it before her back stiffened too much from leaning against that bench. But oh what drivel! What pure unadulterated crap! I am a peregrine indeed. Dream on, Mr. Robert Kincaid.

Was Eleanor Pincus’s reading eye like her feet? Could it steer clear of crap wherever it roamed or did it stride right in? Did it revel in it? Was she Francesca alone on the farm, ravished with love, bearing her passionate secret to the grave?

Perish the thought.

But who knew what Eleanor Pincus thought. Her face was a mask. These were the days before Botox, but even then there were plenty of knives. Back at the desk I told Angelina whom I’d seen down by the swans. “Zhoop,” she called her, as she sucked in her cheeks and pulled an imaginary string up from the top of her head.

Eleanor Pincus’s perfect presentation to the world: not a wrinkle in her clothing, not a wrinkle on her face.

She returned The Bridges two days later when she had two more reserve books to pick up. I don’t remember what they were, but they were all of a kind. Sue Grafton, James Paterson, those were the staples back then.

Oh Eleanor Pincus.

Oh Hope Freeman. Twenty-five then, you could hear 26 galloping toward you. See that summer, some old, old—literally old—friends of your parents out for a barbecue. They were mathematicians and as a child you used to delight in sharing problems with them. The word problems from your math Olympiads, puzzles they would save for you. They enjoyed it because you were so sharp—she’s a mathematician they told your mother, and still your mother sighs that you didn’t take any math classes in college. And even they smile and shake their heads, you never did anything with your math? But it isn’t like the Coopers, there’s no glee in their voices. Nothing mean, just, perhaps, surprise, and maybe a little sadness. And then Grace, who has aged noticeably, both of them have, you get the feeling you might never see them again when they drive tentatively off long before dark—and you’ll be right as Alzheimer’s and heart disease creep up with general old age—then Grace whispers in your ear, how old are you?

Twenty-five, you whisper back, and she smiles a warm and soothing smile. Twenty-five, she says, that’s a good year. And it was the best thing that she could have said. Twenty-five was a good year. It was the year you woke up, stopped moping, and started doing. It was the year you left the library.

But all that was later.

Beneath the humming fluorescent lights I peered out at the patrons. Don’t let the Coopers return. Don’t let my classmates come in here. Don’t let my old teachers use these facilities. My parents’ friends, my neighbors, my friends’ parents, oh no. Paula Berger. There she was, as imperious as I remembered her from kindergarten when she threatened to call my parents for not asking to be excused from the table when we were eating lunch. I had a puzzle to finish—I’d been interrupted when we’d been called in to eat—and my friend Samantha had told me to go finish it. But oh her mom was angry. And oh she was every bit as formidable when I was 25 as she was when I was 5.

Well you know Samantha’s at law school, she was saying.

Yes I knew Samantha was at law school. Yale Law School to be exact. If I was one of the smartest kids growing up, Samantha was the other. If she’d been in my fifth-grade classroom, I might not have been the teacher’s pet. Or the only teacher’s pet. We were a formidable team when we put our brains together, and we were friends when little and then vaguely, passing friends as we grew. I always had the sense that Samantha was in a competition with me—but it was a one-sided competition because I wasn’t running the race, at least not intentionally back then. It was as if I’d been galloping at my own rhythm and somehow found myself not only on the racetrack, but in the lead. How much easier it is to not participate when you’re actually winning.

I graduated slightly higher, and I went to a better Ivy than Samantha. But she went to Yale Law School. Then she clerked for a Supreme Court Justice. Before long she would marry, land a professorship, and have a child. I still fully expect to see her on the Supreme Court one day. So if Paula Berger had any doubts about her daughter that day in the library, my presence checking out her Barbara Kingsolver—she was no Bridges reader!—should have told her loud and clear: the race is officially over. Samantha has won.

After Paula Berger left, Eleanor Pincus came to the desk. A simple green dress today with a white linen jacket. And still no wrinkles. How did anyone not get wrinkles in their linen? I had wrinkles in my cotton t-shirts. Snapping open her purse, a gloved finger reached inside for a dime.

I’m afraid it’s late, she said, her eyes shielded behind her Jackie O’s. She’d tried something new, tying a scarf around her head, her super black hair visible at the edges. Maybe she was headed to the hairdresser next, because I saw a few strands loose.

Surprised, I took her dime. Eleanor Pincus was human. She was human. She let a book go overdue. What a relief to be human. But oh, how sad. Perhaps it’s a relief in some, even most cases, to find out that others are human when you feel only too human. But not in all cases. Sometimes there’s nothing more reassuring than the Eleanor Pincuses of the world. The perfect perfect people.

We should have all had an inkling then. The tiny pebble landing beside the swans on the crystal lake. A beating of wings, concentric circles of peace disturbed. She didn’t fill out any reserve cards that day.

We all had our own lives to live. At one whiff of Sue Cooper squinting her way in, I ducked inside the little office and hid until she left. On my break, I slipped into the career room, and tried to compute the life options lined so neatly on the shelves: how to get into graduate school, film school, careers in publishing, business, law. Could these be the only choices? I checked out travel books, and calculated the expenses. Southeast Asia, Australia, Eastern Europe, the West. Maybe I could do it.

Then one morning, before I even had the chance to realize I hadn’t seen her in a while, Angelina turned to me and, sucking in her cheeks and pulling her face taut with that invisible string above her head, said, remember “Zhoop,” she passed away.

She what? She died.

Suddenly, impossibly, Eleanor Pincus was gone. The lady who was always turned out turned in. Some stomach pains had led her to the doctor, where subsequent tests indicated pancreatic cancer, a swift and unstoppable killer that left her dead just four weeks after her diagnosis. Like that. Death, prompt and efficient, like Eleanor Pincus herself.

The library had called to say her books were in. She hadn’t filled out any new reserve books the last time we saw her, but she had old postcards in the pipeline. Abruptly, a man—we presume her husband—had said, she’s very sick, she won’t need her reserves. Not knowing what exactly “very sick” meant, and in consideration of Eleanor Pincus, patron extraordinaire, the reservist carefully marked down the names of all the books she was still waiting for—for the day that she came back. Who would have thought she wouldn’t?

Pancreatic cancer. It conjures up images of aged barflies hacking up half a lung as they down another scotch. Eleanor Pincus, a smoking, drinking barfly? Please! But didn’t she have to be? How else to explain pancreatic cancer? I tried to imagine her with a cigarette—Bette Davis, Myrna Loy, it was a part of those smartly dressed women. Hats, gloves, and cigarettes. Eleanor Pincus too? And drinking? Those women liked their cocktails certainly. Fasten your seatbelts and all that. But if Eleanor Pincus drank too much, she had to have done it quietly. She couldn’t have become suddenly loud, talking out of turn, laughing for all to hear, causing heads to turn, destroying marriages and lives. Not my Eleanor Pincus.

I didn’t even know how old she was. Couldn’t hazard a guess. With the saran-wrapped face and jet black hair it was impossible to tell. Was her life cut short at 55, or had she at least made it to 70? Who knew. She could have been one of those, or anywhere in-between. It didn’t matter though. Whatever her age, she was gone.

Was her husband weeping, were there children to mourn? She’d had a life, she had to have had a life. But I didn’t want to know about it. She was Eleanor Pincus.

I went down to the boardwalk after work. It was September by then, but still it was a sticky, hazy, dying day, and I wished I had shorts on rather than my clinging jeans. There were just two cygnets left, swimming with their parent swans. They were almost as big as the stunning white creatures, their elongated necks curving as if to say, look at us, we’re graceful too. But still they were gray and mottled. Still not quite there.

Seagull crap, and more seagull crap. I leaned against a small clean section and shook my head at the gull perched to my left. Why did they have to make such a mess? So picturesque, and then them, making us watch where we walk. I turned my eye back to the swans, and as I did so, I felt some tears well up. I tried to laugh at myself, to speak out loud, c’mon Hope, you didn’t even know the woman. But as I stood on the boardwalk, shedding a tear for a well put-together stranger, the pieces of the equation were coming into focus, and I could sense the sky darkening, the shadows lengthening, and the cob approaching the cygnets, beating his wings as they float still on the lake.


Charlotte Warren has been awarded fiction honors by the Michigan Quarterly Review and Emrys Journal. Her fiction has also appeared in such journals as Calyx, The Brooklyn Review, and New Millennium Writings, as well as the anthology Juncture: 25 Very Good Stories and 12 Excellent Drawings. She lives with her family in New York.