October 24: “If I Loved You” by Robin Black

What’s up, Story366? Coming at you on World Series Eve (a new holiday I just named and will honor), just biding my time until 7 p.m., CT, tomorrow. Sure, I have responsibilities like taking care of my family and teaching classes, but really, I’ve been just watching the hours go by in anticipation. By tomorrow, the pure elation from the NLCS will have reverted completely into nerves and, well, we’ll see.

I was planning to start another Bowling Green alum week today, as I have well over seven books by folks who went to my MFA alma mater (I already did one of these weeks back in February and fans are demanding another). Thinking about it, though, I’ve decided to put that off for a week or two, as I’ll be focusing my pre-story banter on the World Series and want there to be plenty of banter left for my BG compadres. I’ll continue on with other books until the Series is over, then hit those Falcons hard.

Today’s other author and book is Robin Black and her collection If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This, out from Random House around 2012. I remember that because I met Black when her book was coming out at the One Story Debutante Ball, where I presented my friend Seth Fried to the world when his collection The Great Frustration came out. I remember chatting with Black at the event. Really nice person, really talented, and I’ve been enjoying her book all day.

Enjoying is a relative term, I guess, as I’ve been enjoying her writing and skill, though her stories are kind of a bummer. In all three pieces I read, the death of a major or secondary character is at the front and center. Death is a pretty common point of conflict in stories, if not a climax or denouement, but when a writer renders her characters so closely, so expertly, it’s hard not to feel the connections, to empathize with them as real people. All three stories are pretty great, but I’ll write about the (mostly) title story, “If I Loved You,” which is the most tragic of the three, and unless I’m mistaken, one of the saddest stories I’ve ever read.

“If I Love You” is about Ruth, a woman who’s talking to a you, making it a first-to-second-person story. At first, it’s not really clear as to who the you is, who Ruth is talking to. What we do know is Ruth begins her story like this, “If I loved you, I would tell you this …”—Hey, the full book title!—and then goes on listing things that make a reader’s heart break. Ruth talks about her own cancer, which has spread to her lymph nodes, which will kill her in a matter of months. She talks about her adult son, who was born with brain damage (after having a stroke in the womb), who needs twenty-four hour care, often beating his mother up (even during chemo) when she tries to give him a bath. Her husband, Sam, is a rock, but is about to lose his job because he spends too much time taking care of—aka, loving—his sick family. Sad yet?

We soon find out that the you who Ruth is talking to/about in her narration of this story is her next-door neighbor, a guy she doesn’t love, a guy she can’t tell all of these horrible things to, as he’s not a friend and they’re none of his business. Amidst all of this, he’s being a major ass, wanting to build a six-foot concrete fence around his property, which, after a survey, is revealed to be much closer to Ruth and Sam’s house and driveway than was thought. It’s going to be so intrusive, this concrete fence—which sounds a lot like a wall—will make it so Ruth and Sam can’t open their passenger-side door when they pull into their driveway. They’ll have to park further back, which will make for a harder walk for Ruth to get in the house; soon she’ll be in a wheelchair and it will be make things logistically impossible. The neighbor won’t budge, not even when the couple gets a lawyer: His wall’s going up.

In the spirit of the title, of that first line of the story, Ruth won’t tell the neighbor guy her problems, why it’s so important this wall not go up, why her family doesn’t need this thing to happen. They just want to walk out of their house in the morning, see the trees they’ve seen for years, the trees that will have to be cut down to accommodate the fence. Ruth does not love this man, so she doesn’t have to share the horrors of increasingly ineffective chemo or a son who beats on her when she hugs him. That’s just her excuse, though, this fact that she doesn’t love the neighbor. Ruth just wants him to be decent, to not do this thing, and doesn’t want to have to share her horrible tragedies to make that happen.

I won’t reveal what happens to Ruth’s family, let alone if this wall goes up or not. “If I Loved You” is about a woman who’s taking an interesting route in telling her story, ironically revealing the facts of her life to total strangers, when the premise of the story is how she doesn’t want to reveal the facts of her life to a total stranger. It’s exactly what it sets out not to be, turning into a woman finding relief by telling her story, by sharing. It’s horribly sad, as noted, no matter what happens, Black finding the soul of this poor woman in this unorthodox way.

I like the stories I’ve read in If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This, sad or not, as Black’s got a unique style, a casual voice that invites her readers into her incredibly complex worlds. Black makes it look easy. She’s written a good book.

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