When the film with the French actor opened in the valley, I went to the second showing of the night. It was a hip romantic comedy, but it was not memorable in the way his first film had been, the bawdy picaresque that made his name.
More than thirty years ago, my aunt Lauryn had been hired to accompany him on interviews and serve as an interpreter. She was a student at the university in Madrid, taking a junior year abroad from her home in the States in the American midwest.
Lauryn was lively and funny, a passionate girl with evenly tanned skin. The actor remained in character, and when she wrote him a month later to say that she was late, she did not hear anything back.
Amy Hempel is one of those writers who consistently writes stories I’m not sure I understand, but I love them anyway and think about them long after reading because I want to get to the heart, I can tell there’s something important and beautiful there. Stories like this one. On the surface, it’s easy to read, but there’s a huge vein of subtext throbbing through it and I’m not sure I’ve yet tapped into all the power it has to offer.
Every story must be read in a particular present, and by a particular person with real-life experiences. Sometimes the present is immaterial; sometimes it’s a flashing neon light. Reading this story, this week, was a bit surreal. But it’s important, I think, to separate what’s on the page from what’s in the news or what’s in one’s memory.
The events of the story are clear, if intricate and interwoven. The long-ago seduction by a French film star that resulted in a pregnancy and suicide attempt, both of which were unsuccessful; a later marriage to race car driver Macario from Portugal; his transplantation to Middle America (“She wanted an American husband after all”); and a second, successful shot at both the pregnancy and the suicide. All of this took place years in the past.
A chicane, I’ve learned, is a little bend in a road, intended to slow traffic. It’s also found on one of Macario’s race courses. And, of course, many of our lives have little twists that require care to negotiate.
The inciting incident for the story is Macario’s revelation, to our narrator niece only, that he has, courtesy of the Portugal police routinely recording trans-atlantic calls at that time, a tape recording of Lauryn’s last phone conversation with her mother, as she was dying while on a jaunt to Portugal:
I am sure that if Lauryn had wanted a doctor to come and pump her stomach, she would have phoned the front desk of the Ritz Hotel and told them to send one up to her room. She wanted to talk to her mother, and hear her mother tell her from thousands of miles away that James was sleeping in the guest room in his crib, and that it was hard to make out what she was saying – could she speak up? – and that she would feel better when she woke up in the morning, and then ask her mother to stay on the line while she sang herself to sleep.
While the events are laid out plainly, the motivations are not. I find aeons of mystery in this scene. Was the phone call a passive-aggressive act on Lauryn’s part, or was she truly looking for a little comfort as she lay down to die? Or, was she hoping for rescue as before, but the reprised suicidal gesture turned tragic? Does the niece hold Mom accountable for not knowing something was wrong and taking some action? Does Mom hold herself accountable? Is she accountable? Why did Macario reveal this to the niece, and no one else? Did he need company in his misery, or was it some kind of confession? We see only his surface in the story; is that to hide something, or to reveal it? The psychology of these people is a depth I can’t plumb, but it’s fascinating to speculate.
What the niece does with the information about the tape is another twist laden with possibilities. She visits the film star from the first affair. Is this a transference of blame and resentment outside the family? Or does she somehow hold him accountable for Lauryn’s later troubles?
The encounter is incognito, and makes a wonderful scene:
I introduced myself as Lauryn, and spelled out where the y replaced an e. Did I expect him to flinch? With his arm around my shoulders, he narrated what we looked up and saw. I would not have known if he was right about the constellations. His accent almost worked on me. But when he stopped talking, and leaned in for the kiss, I ducked, and said, “You can remember me as the girl you showed the new moon to.”
“But darling,” he said, “there’s a new moon every month.”
The last paragraph in many ways extends that scene, and, you might say, carries on the family tradition. There are those who will insist that for writers, the trappings of grammar are unimportant, that all that matters is to tell a compelling story. Here, we see the other side: tense and punctuation, the tools of a writer, are everything.
Hempel’s Contributor Note only adds more poignancy. It seems there is a cassette tape in her life, and she has been waiting decades to write the story, to find the way to put it together. “I felt a particular weight of responsibility to get it right.” I wonder if that sense of purpose came through the words, made me want to understand more than I do, made me willing to think longer and deeper about these people and their motivations.