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  • Note about the photo:
    The photo was taken Thanksgiving, 2013, in Oregon by my friend Debby Goldenberg - not in New York, where the story took place. I placed this photo with this story by way of contrast, or paradox: how I'd like to feel rather than how I did feel in New York, where the doublespeak luncheon occurred. The photo shows how I feel when I'm having a meal among friends. Or, as they say here in the UK where I now live "amongst."

    I shared Thanksgiving with Debby, Gary Whitehouse, her husband, Debby's cousin Barb, and several friends. I was the honorary carcass-nibbler.

    Here is the story:

    Luncheon at Doublespeak
    I’m seated at a table in a restaurant on 8th Avenue, where Hell’s Kitchen has been razed to make way for sleek new monuments to captalism. Shiny glass and granite clad apartments and office buildings face the street. Inside the restaurant where I sit, Pastis posters and burlesque-hall Mistinguet prints cover the dark wood walls. Banquettes upholstered in red and yellow cloth curve around a mirrored bar, some decorators idea of upmarket, I guess, but to my gaze, a bizarre union between colonial India, Provence and 1950s Los Angeles.
    I’m trying to find a relic of something I can relate to, something gritty, that bears signs of its past, its present, perhaps its future.
    The last time I was in this neighborhood was at least twenty-five years ago. Back then, vacant boarded-up storefronts lined the unlit street. Armies of cockroaches lurked in every doorway. The listless and forgotten loitered on corners. The tarmac was rutted with potholes so large they could swallow a car.
    Now, however, the street is in such a fine state of repair I could roller-skate down it blindfolded and not fear disappearing into a crevasse.
    The reason I’m here is to meet with two women whose careers depend on being able to usher something that comes out of my brain and fingertips seamlessly through a process which, when it emerges on the other side, has an allotted place on a bookstore shelf – and a pre-identified demographic guaranteed to purchase copies. In its own way, this meeting represents a kind of denoument, one of the reasons I came to New York from the far-away mountains of rural central California in the first place.
    The editor I’m meeting, Karyn Marcus, works at Doubleday. She has brown hair and wears a sleeveless dress which reveals a green tattoo of an arrow near her shoulder. She is thirty or so and unmarried. My agent, Kate Lee, who works for International Creative Management is also thirty and unmarried. Karyn explains to me how it’s impossible to find a husband in New York. People don’t marry, she asserts. I myself am divorced from what I would now characterize as an anachronistically conventional marriage. These women would probably not believe how well it worked, while it did.
    Karyn starts to speak about my book. The problem with my book, she says, is that the material is too difficult. My fissiparous family of origin is too difficult. Is there any way, she wants to know, I could make it less difficult?
    “It’s difficult because I’ve had a difficult life,” I reply.
    She flips her brown hair, cocks her head to one side, balances a thoughtful forefinger on a cheek.
    “Why do you want to write this stuff now?” she asks.
    “Because of my sister’s death. My sister died because of this, and I feel I need to write about it.”
    She nods, sedulously. Kate, I note, is staring blankly out the window.
    “Would it be possible,” she asks, “for you to see your parents not as monsters, not as people who did only bad things?”
    Kate, who has not commented up until now says: “That’s a good idea. There must be a reason,” she says, “for your parents to have behaved the way they did. I mean, they’re human too.”
    I look from one to the other. The two glance at each other, then look back at me, each raising an eyebrow.
    “Have either of you ever been raped?” I ask.
    Kate blanches. Karyn turns crimson, and shakes her head. Then Kate shakes her head. It’s as though the two women are synchronized in a carefully choreographed minuet.
    “Okay,” I say, “what about the poor rapist? Poor, misunderstood guy who doesn’t know how he got the way he was. He probably needs to be understood. Don’t you think the victim ought to really try to understand him? Try to speak to him and see how he’s human too? Forget about the rape, hell. He’s the victim.”
    Karyn stares at me. Kate looks away.
    “Do you understand,” I say, “what a ludicrous psychological stance that is? My poor abuser? He must have abused me for a reason. Maybe the reason is that he hates women.” The two of them are still silent.
    “The point is, if he’s an adult, he’s culpable for his behavior. As I am for mine. To answer your question, maybe he’s schizophrenic. Maybe he’s just a sadist. I have no idea. It’s not my job to have an idea.”
    Then our food arrives providing a lacuna. I have ordered crab cakes. Piercing one with a fork, I see they’re not really made of crab, but little gobs of doughy substance I can’t identify. They don’t taste much of crab. They are lying in a little heap on a huge plate – a charger, in fact. In circles of people like those who used visit my former husband’s parents’ house with regularity, where I learned about real manners – serving lunch on a charger is a mistake no one would have ever made. Beside the mass masquerading as a crab cake, the chef has placed a wilted slice of zuchini, and an avocado sliced into a little fan. I spear the avocado. Amazingly, underneath it, I find carmelized onions. I scrape away the avocado, trying to figure out what the carmelized onions are doing there, perhaps it was a mistake. Perhaps the sous chef grabbed the wrong plate from the line, and dumped the avocado and the crab cakes onto the plate that was really meant to for someone’s hamburger.
    I can feel Kate and Karyn watching me. Kate crunches her salad. Karyn gestures with her fork.
    “For today’s market,” she says, “a book has to have a take-away, a message like…” she searches.
    “Like what?” ask.
    “I don’t know,” says Karyn, “but a takeaway. Like a message. How about... something about sisters.”
    “Sisters would be good,” says Kate encouragingly. I reach into my purse and pull out a framed photograph of my sister, who died two years ago. It was because of my sister’s illness and death I started writing about my life and the sequence of events that led me from our bizarre childhood to this moment here in this restaurant forty-odd years later.
    In the photo – taken six months before she died – my sister stands on a little bridge in front of the condominium development in California where she lived. Her hair is thin and short because of the chemo, but she smiles the way she has always smiled, a smile that encapsulates her whole personality. She was a person given to mirth. In the same frame, I have placed a small photo I have from our childhood – my sister as a toddler of about two standing next to my paternal grandfather in front of my grandfather’s car – a 1961 Buick with tail fins. They are both smiling broadly, my sister has the same broad smile she has at the end of her life.
    I put the picture on the table.
    “What’s that?” asks Karyn.
    “That,” I say, “is my sister, and my grandfather.” The two women peer at the picture for a few moments. “This is real to me,” I say.
    “A book can’t just tell the story,” says Karyn. “It has to...” she searches for words “...mean something.”
    “It does mean something,” I say. “It means that love of one’s sister transcends the horrors of one’s childhood.”
    “There has to be...” she thinks. “Redemption?”
    I glance at the Pastis posters, then back down at my plate, the incongruous lunch of crab cake, avocado, carmelized onions, ingredients each of which would be fine had they been served in the right context: the onions with a burger, the avocado with a tostada, the crab cakes at least made out of real crab – with tartar sauce. Together, they are inedible.
    “You mean a happy ending?” I ask.
    “Well, some sort of redemption,” says Kate. “I mean, your parents have to be redeemed. For the reader to empathize with the book. Otherwise….” she trails off, unable to define the ‘otherwise.’
    “But she died.”
    “Maybe you could downplay that part,” says Karyn.
    “Then why would I be writing the thing in the first place?” I ask.
    Kate looks at me blankly.
    “The redemption is I lived to tell the story. I’m telling the story.”
    A pained expression crosses Kate’s face.
    I excuse myself and go to the restroom. When I return, the two are chatting away about book deals which eluded them – million dollar book deals.
    Then the conversation ends and Karyn and Kate stand. The upshot is Karyn is not offering a me contract. I can rewrite the proposal, and resubmit it, if I like. I ask how she would like me to rewrite it. She says “I don’t know, really.”
    I walk out onto Eighth Avenue with Kate.
    “What did you think?” she asks.
    “I’ll have to process this experience before I’ll know what I think.”
    I turn to go. Kate punctuates our leave taking by kissing the air beside my cheek. I turn and walk down the glowing white sidewalk. There are no mangy stray cats, no one loitering, no vacant lots filled with broken glass and bits of drug paraphernalia. People walk beside me purposefully. Every single person here is absolutely clear about his or her destination. I don't think one of them doubts they'll get there. As I walk downtown, wonder what has happened to the neighborhood’s gritty and difficult past. For a moment, I think I’m being mawkish, yearning for the olden days which were not that good at all. Maybe the only difference between then and now is that I experience ‘then’ like a member of the audience at a classical Greek drama. I’m already familiar with the story; I can recite it along with the players.
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