October 8: “When She Is Old and I Am Famous” by Julie Orringer

What’s going on, Story366? I’m in Chicago now, getting some work done and biding my time until I have to leave for tonight’s Cubs game. Last night’s game was about as intense as a game can get,  a pitcher’s duel, both starters hurling a shutout until the bottom of the ninth, when Javy Baez ripped what would be the game-winning home run into the basket in left. By that time, I was on my way out of the stadium—I missed the homer by one pitch—and watch the end at a bar down the street. The energy around Wrigley was, of course, electric, and that energy is flowing through me now. Really, if I think about—as I am while typing this—the excitement and anticipation is almost too much to bear. I feel a combination of sick and nervous and anxious; 7:08 p.m., CT, can’t come quickly enough.

This, remember, is after a Cub win. Imagine how I’d feel if they’d lost? That’s happened before—I was at Game 1 of the 2008 NLDS when the NL-best Cubs got marooned by the Dodgers—and the feeling of disappointment, dread, and flat-out sadness hung in the air, around the stadium, and inside my gut. It’s an awful feeling, almost making me wish the Cubs had gone 65-97 instead of 97-65. That’s the price you pay for success; losing is, by nature, anti-climactic. The Cubs didn’t win a game in that playoff series, then spiraled downward for years until their recent resuscitation, for which I am of course grateful—in the end, I’ll take the dread, the anxiety, the possible disappointment, the possible bliss over disregard. To be dramatic, this is living, to feel these things, to experience such intense emotional hysteria. Much more preferable than moving  on to football, anyway.

I’m glad I have things like short story blogs and papers to grade to fill the time between now and first pitch. What I need is a few vivid and continuous dreams, and today’s collection, How to Breathe Underwater by Julie Orringer (out from Knopf) provided such diversions. It’s a collection that I remember starting years ago, when my oldest son—who’s 10 now—was an infant. In fact, he had just been born and I knew nothing about child care. I had this idea that caring for this tiny baby would somehow involve me sitting around and reading a lot, that an infant would allow for such things to happen. I had a bunch of story collections and I was going to hold this sleeping baby, or perhaps a cooing, awake, docile baby, and I was going to read the hell out of books I’d never read. Maybe that was an early attempt at Story366? In any case, there were times when I did get to read a little, a story here, a story there, but for the most part, Karen and I were just so tired all the time, from morning until night, that it was hard to stay away, a sleeping baby on our laps, no more than a couple of hours of uninterrupted sleep for either of us.

But I remember Orringer’s collection being one of the first books I picked up, and its first story, “Pilgrims,” being a story I read with my son on my lap, sleeping peacefully. “Pilgrims” has been oft-anthologized since then, including in the Martone/Wiliford Scribner anthology, and I’ve taught that story many times (especially around Thanksgiving … which you’ll know to be morbid, if you’ve read the story). After reading “Pilgrims” and being blown away—it’s truly a wonderful and frightening story—I also remember falling firmly asleep, my son in my arms, and being woken shortly after, his baby radar sensing me asleep and having none of it. That was the beginning of the end, I’ll say now, as I got more and more tired, more and more behind in my classes, and reading short stories was limited to my work for my classes and for Mid-American Review. I didn’t pick up Orringer’s book again until today.

And this is another oversight that Story366 has helped me correct as the other stories I read from How to Breathe Underwater are just as good, just as intense as “Pilgrims.” I read “Note to Sixth-Grade Self,” which is a second-person story, written as advice from an older woman to her younger self, and is heartbreaking, a woman reliving her tragic past as an unpopular and oft-maligned youngster. I then read “When She Is Old and I Am Famous,” which I’ll write about now.

“When She Is Old and I Am Famous” is about Mira, a young artist from Indiana who is spending a holiday in Florence with two of her artist friends, having an artist experience. This sounds like paradise—I want to go to that—with only one hitch: Her super-famous supermodel cousin, Aïda, needs a break from her supermodel life in Paris, so Mira’s mom makes her let Aïda sleep on the floor of her bedroom, hang out with her and her artist friends. This still doesn’t sound so bad, but Mira isn’t overly fond of Aïda, especially since she has a lot of body image issues; Mira is heavyset while Aïda is typically supermodel, 5’11”, perfect alabaster skin, long, unrealistic hair, and 113 pounds. So, the setup for this story provides some pretty basic, yet still uniquely conceived tension in the form of this tension, a couple of tropes, a wallflower and the pretty, popular girl that she envies/despises.

The animosity between Mira and Aïda isn’t concealed, either, as the two argue openly, call each other names, clearly detesting each other and what each represents. Mira believes her cousin is dumb and lazy but incredibly lucky for her physical gifts, while Aïda simply discounts Mira’s existence. The tension and the plot rises when Aïda first arrives and Mira has to explain to her artist roommates—both males—what is about to happen, that this extremely famous beauty—who graces a billboard right outside their apartment—is coming to stay with them. One of them, Joseph, a photographer, takes to Aïda right away—likely through natural selection—and soon the pair is off causing problems, leaving Mira and her contempt to stew.

I’ll not go too much further into the plot, only reveal that it has something to do with a vineyard, a break-in, and Aïda’s fame coming to her aid, which as you will guess, does not sit well with Mira. Orringer provides a satisfying and beautiful ending—see the story’s title for some hints (though it’s not as simple as all that)—one that ties these two women, connected by blood, but not much else, together forever. “When She Is Old and I Am Famous” is a story about jealousy, self acceptance, and maturity, but for me, it’s a classic clash of characters, the author first creating two memorable people, then throwing them in a bag, shaking them up, emptying them onto a flat surface, just to see what happens. I like this story very much, and maybe I’ll start assigning it to my students (though perhaps during Fashion Week instead of before Thanksgiving).

So, over ten years later, I finally read more work by Julie Orringer, an author whom I’ve admired, whom I’ve taught, whom I’ve dubbed a great talent. There’s a lot of books, a lot of authors, a lot of stories out there, and sometimes, that’s how things pan out. That’s why I have Story366, though, another slash in the victory column.

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