When I was a young writer trying to come up with ideas for short stories, I felt, always, desperate. Lonely, even, not for characters but for ideas…. Nothing could happen without an idea , I thought then, even though in those days that wasn’t how I wrote. My actual stories – the ones that panned out – arrived in my head as a single sentence in a strangers voice.
Now that I’m middle aged, I think ideas are essential for novels but in some ways besides the point in short stories. My short stories, I mean. My short stories now generally begin with some scraps of material I have scavenged from my life.
…In the case of “It’s Not You,” I’d traveled with my husband, Edward Carey, and our kids to Galveston. (I’d already written a story that took place in Galveston, based on another trip.) On our way home to Austin we stopped at a hotel in Houston that upgraded us to a suite: two rooms, two bathrooms, a dining room table with room for eight, a couple of chandeliers. The hotel wasn’t deluxe, just entertainingly garish. The next morning a lovely man with a Cesar Romero mustache and braces brought free breakfast. On that little trellis of reality I decided to train a story about youth.
Elizabeth McCracken, Contributor Note
When a man breaks her heart, what does a woman do? She has a good cry, trash talka him to her friends for a while, then goes out and find a rebound love.
But what if he doesn’t break your heart? What if you’d only been seeing each other for a couple of weeks, and he just did the “It’s not you, it’s me, I just can’t do a relationship now” mea culpa, and you were fine until you saw him with another woman, necking in public – necking, for god’s sake, adults necking in public – and you realize, it wasn’t him, it was you, all along. What do you do then?
If you’re our narrator (who is, surprise surprise, unnamed, take a shot), you basically do the same thing. Or at least the first part:
Hotels were different in those days. You could smoke in them. The rooms had bathtubs, where you could also smoke. You didn’t need a credit card or identification, though you might be made to sign the register, so later the private detective—just like that, we’re in a black-and-white movie, though I speak only of the long-ago days of 1993—could track you down. Maybe you anticipated the private detective, and used an assumed name.
Nobody was looking for me. I didn’t use an assumed name, though I wasn’t myself. I’d had my heart broken, or so I thought, I’d been shattered in a collision with a man, or so I thought, and I went to the fabled pink hotel just outside the Midwestern town where I lived. The Narcissus Hotel: it sat on the edge of a lake and admired its own reflection. Behind, a pantomime lake, an amoebic swimming pool, now drained, empty lounge chairs all around. January 1: cold, but not yet debilitating. In my suitcase, I’d brought one change of clothing, a cosmetic bag, a bottle of Jim Beam, a plastic sack of Granny Smith apples. I thought this was all I needed. My plan was to drink bourbon and take baths and feel sorry for myself.
And maybe the next morning while you’re feeding your hangover, you run into a local radio shrink, Dr. Benjamin. It looks like he’s there for an assignation with Dawn from Baton Rouge but got stood up, so you both have a drink in his room and you nearly drown in his bathtub – the bath thing was a serious part of the deal – and then you get up and go home. “There isn’t a moral to the story. Neither of us is in the right. Nothing was resolved. Decades later, it still bothers me.”
Time is all jumbled in this story. From the first line, we know it’s told from a future point in time, but it’s told like 1993 was a lifetime ago. Wow – it was, wasn’t it? But do hotels really change so much in that period of time?
The time span is emphasized by using black-and-white imagery in that first paragraph, like the hotel scene would be filmed in black-and-white while the contemporary contemplation would be in warm color. Except, no: “The worst thing about not being loved, I thought then, was how vivid I was to myself. Now I am loved and in black and white.” It’s as if time came forward, then went back.
But that’s just a warm-up for the kind of identity reversals that go on during the story, identity reversals courtesy of the Narcissus myth. Or, rather, myths, because there are several, and they all contribute to a symbolic fluidity that makes the most of metamorphosis. The most common Narcissus myth, after all, is from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a collection of stories about transformations. If you get bored being Narcissus, now you can be Echo for a while. Or Ameinias, from the version by Conon. And to give things another twist, there’s always Dali and Freud. Time to dig in…
From the start, the Narcissus imagery is obvious, but there’s a lot of free-floating stuff as well. The narrator works at a radio station – not the same one as Dr. Benjamin – in Human Resource, so she “lived with voices overhead”. That calls to mind Echo, who faded away from unrequited love for Narcissus until all that was left was her voice. The entire phenomenon of talk radio, for that matter, is disembodied voices, both for the callers and the talent. The narrator even refers to the shrink’s would-be paramour as a disembodied voice after her bathtub mishap.
Don’t forget, both the narrator and Benjamin are spurned lovers. Probably; we don’t actually know for sure why he’s waiting for Dawn from Baton Rouge with a high-end stuffed animal, maybe it’s a therapy session, but an affair seems a lot more likely, particularly since they both seem to have come a significant distance to meet.
But the narrator, with her fixation on baths (she took three the night before she met the shrink), not to mention her self-focus, is clearly identified with Narcissus as well. When Benjamin walks in on her as she’s enjoying his bathtub, it becomes crystal clear:
Then he came in. He was wearing his cowboy boots and slid a little on the marble. Now he looked entirely undone. In another version of this story, I’d be made modest by a little cocktail dress of bubbles, but no person who really loves baths loves bubble baths, nobody over seven, because bubbles are a form of protection. They keep you below the surface. They hide you from your own view. He looked at me in his bathtub with that same disappointed expression: just like you to bathe in your birthday suit.
She doesn’t want to be hidden from her own view. And one other interesting point: there are other versions of this story, just like there are other versions of the Narcissus myth.
Speaking of which, let’s turn to Ameinias from one of those other versions. He’s another of Narcissus’ admirers, but Narcissus gets tired of him hanging around and gives him a sword, which he promptly uses to kill himself at Narcissus’ door. In this version, Ameinias asks the gods to punish Narcissus for his cruelty, and that’s how he ends up falling in love with his own reflection and either fading away to a flower or drowning (versions of a version). What if instead of giving him a sword, Narcissus gave him a bathtub and a few bottles from the minibar, and then checked out of the hotel while Ameinias died in his room? So at the same time, the narrator drowning in the bathtub could be both Ameinias and Narcissus, while Benjamin is also Narcissus. Talk about fluidity of identity!
By the way, amidst all these versions of the myth, we have a narrator insisting “I don’t plan on coming in versions.” We all do, of course. But seldom in the course of a story have I see so many.
Now, what’s this about Dali and Freud, and what does it have to do with the story?
I happened upon a talk (link below) by art historian and Surrealist specialist Dawn Adès that accompanied an exhibit of Dali’s Metamorphosis of Narcissus. It seems the surrealists were big fans of Freud, since they both used the unconscious to get at what they needed: information for healiing neurosis, or artistic inspiration. The fifteen minute talk mentioned a lot of concepts that seemed to relate to the story. It also reminded me that Freud, and psychoanalysts in general, sat behind their patients, unseen. They were disembodied voices. Dr. Benjamin isn’t necessarily a psychoanalyst, of course.
Dali’s painting included two images, one of Narcissus, one of a stony hand holding an egg out of which grew a flower. But his drawings showed the two images combined. Adès thinks it’s possible he was referencing stereoscopes, devices from the mid-19th century that held a card with two images. Viewing the card from the correct distance combined the images into one three-dimensional image. She also calls it his “exploration of critical paranoia, a systematic misreading of the world around you according to an overriding obsessional idea.” It’s possible our narrator has a few of those. In fact, I suspect we all do, to some degree.
I was reminded of the two characters, the narrator and Dr. Benjamin, overlapping, changing back and forth. Of course, if McCracken wasn’t aware of the painting, and this theory of it, as she wrote the story, it would be less about the story and more about my misreading of the world. Still, it’s an interesting coincidence.
Adès sums up Dali’s painting as being about “change, death, and love”, and here we have a story where the characters seem to change into different aspects of the Narcissus myths, between versions of the myth, while despairing about love. And death?
In those days, it was easy to disappear from view. All the people who caused you pain: you might never know what happened to them, unless they were famous, as the radio shrink was, and so I did know, it happened soon afterward, before the snow had melted. He died of a heart attack at another hotel, and Evaline Robinson the Love of His Life flew from Chicago to be with him, and a guest host took over until the guest host was the actual host, and the show slid from call-in advice to unexplained phenomena: UFOs. Bigfoot. I suppose it had been about the unexplained all along. All the best advice is on the internet these days, anyhow. That person who broke my heart might be a priest by now, or happily gay, or finally living openly as a woman, or married twenty-five years, or all of these things at once, or 65 percent of them, as is possible in today’s world. It’s good that it’s possible.
So much of this story raises questions rather than handing out answers and fitting into neat little interpretations. Another hotel; another affair? Was he waiting for Dawn from Baton Rouge, or another caller? Was his wife aware of all this, or did she learn about it at his deathbed?
And, more importantly: Why does McCracken plop this paragraph here? It seems important, a return to the present while still looking at the past (man, the timeline is convoluted), but I don’t see why it’s important we have this information here. I’m sure there’s a reason – writers like McCracken always have reasons – but I have no idea what it is.
Then there’s the ending, which brings more questions, this time about the narrator:
You would recognize my voice, too. People do, in the grocery store, the airport, over the phone when I call to complain about my gas bill. Your voice, they say, are you—?
I have one of those voices, I always say. I don’t mind if they recognize me, but I’m not going to help them.
Has she metamorphosed into Benjamin, becoming a radio personality? Fluidity of character…
I have to go with Curtis Sittenfeld’s take from her Introduction to the anthology: she loved this story “because I underlined the sentences in it I thought were clever or funny and by the end I’d underlined about 50 percent of the entire story.” It’s not just clever lines, it’s the ones that made me wonder, why is this here? Why does she always love the waiter? Why six apples?
And Kindness, which runs through the story. Forgiveness that transforms; forgiveness of self, and of those who hurt you. And yet, there’s a cynicism revealed by the final paragraph. It’s very puzzling.
But she warned us there wouldn’t be a moral to the story.
* * *
Other takes on this story:
Jake Weber at Workshop Heretic: “We tend to think of narcissists as people obsessed with how wonderful they are, but self-loathing can also be a form of narcissism. Whether you’re staring at yourself to see how beautiful you are or how ugly you are, either way, you’re staring at yourself.”
The story is available online at Zoetrope: All-Story.
HENI talk by Dawn Adès (15 minutes; it’s worth it).