Pushcart 2021 XLV: Colleen O’Brien, “Charlie” from Gettysburg Review,Summer 2019

I am a little mystified when I hear about people who are friends with their college professors. They exist, these people, who correspond regularly with scholars decades older than they are, some famous in their fields. As students, they celebrated Thanksgiving at these professors houses, house set for them whole summers, took care of their pets, their lawns, their kids. Years after graduation they invite them to their weddings. How did these friendships form, I want to know. ….There was one professor I stayed in touch with after college.

I connected with that first paragraph right away. I’ve always assumed I never earned any interest – or was even noticed – because I showed little promise. Then again, I went to a commuter school that was mostly a place for non-traditional students (that means older than usual) to finally get their degrees, so I suppose no one took any of us seriously.

In any case, I started out with great interest in this story, but that kind of faded as I kept reading. The narrator was something of a wild child, getting drunk and falling into bed with whoever was handy. Her connection to Charlie seemed as haphazard as the rest of her life. She reads one of his stories, they have one in-person meeting, and then she follows him from a distance as he ages and dies, by which time she’s settled down into the twelve steps, marriage, and motherhood. I was left wondering, so?

When I read it a second time, I started to recognize something: again, it’s this tension between irony and sincerity, between being flip and light and quick with a joke to deflect anything real, and being introspective and thoughtful and feeling things. And this is her attachment to this professor: he is the matter to her anti-matter.

The story she reads almost by accident – it’s the first time she picks up a literary magazine – becomes the tether that binds her to him, or to the idea of him at least.

It was the loneliness in that story, the vivid, articulate loneliness, I’d been so moved by. I couldn’t say that without sounding like a naïve kid, romanticizing the loneliness of a self-absorbed academic. But I wasn’t. There are a few things in my life I don’t have to laugh at scornfully, and this is one. Anyway, the story wasn’t about Charlie. … The character right away is bitter and defensive, addressing the world as if he knows its tricks and won’t be taken in. He deals with loneliness and social awkwardness by trying to sanctify his solitude, like some kind of monk, when he’s really a guy with a cube job, a crush on a coworker, who watches a ton of TV. He knows this too — the cube, the crush, the TV embarrassed him, as do his fantasies about solitude, which, when he comes out of them, he calls pathetic. Reading it had felt like reading about myself. The anger, which had no end, and the worthless ways I tried to give it dignity.

And there it is, that rift between being too cool to care, and caring anyway then feeling foolish about it.

One point in the story impressed me: a sex scene between the narrator and her boyfriend. I’m not a prude – truly, I’m not – but I’ve never been a big fan of sex scenes in books. Maybe I’m missing some psychosexual perceptive sense, but it seems to me they rarely add anything that couldn’t be accomplished by a brief descriptive sentence, or even a single adjective: “We made businesslike love” is something I read somewhere, and that conveys a lot more than any description of who put what where.

Here the scene uses positioning to convey the kind of relationship the two have. It starts out with breakfast and a computer.

When I got Charlie’s email, I was using todd’s computer , sitting cross legged at his desk in just my underpants while he made morning coffee.
“Aw,” I said , as he such a Cup in front of me. “My old professor.”
He leaned over and kissed each of my breasts. “You look so sexy like that,” he said.
“He’s going to be in town,” I continued.
Todd turned the swivel chair so I was facing him and got on his knees so he could kiss my belly, slide my underwear down, give me head. Then he stood me up, bent me over his desk, and fucked me from behind. I stared into the multicoloured fractals of his screen saver, the outline of my reflection in the black behind it.
“He’s a really good writer,” I said later, clothed, drinking coffee at the tiny folding table in the corner of his studio.

Todd seems a bit competitive here; sure, you’ve got a professor interested in you, but look what I can do for you. That he never seems to actually be face-to-face with her during the sex – it’s not really intimacy, is it – makes her seem more connected to Charlie’s email, via her reflection in the computer screen. She returns to the subject of Charlie once she’s clothed and in a less fuckable position.

Compare that with her later meeting with Charlie, at which she tells him she’s read his story:

“I loved it,” I said and then had to look down. “I’m glad,” he said. I gathered myself to look up again, and when I did, Charlie looked down, and I could see I’d made him happy.

Although the eye contact has its limits, there’s more intimacy, more feeling, in those lines than in above. Ill forgive her need to look away; this sincerity thing is new to her, so it’s going to take some time for her to get it right.

It’s interesting how I missed this  restatement of the recurring theme I’ve notice through this volume, in the first read. I was waiting for something to happen. And something did happen, but it was more subtle than I’d expected.

* * *

Audio of O’Brien reading this story (38 minutes) is available online at Thisthisthispod.

2 responses to “Pushcart 2021 XLV: Colleen O’Brien, “Charlie” from Gettysburg Review,Summer 2019

  1. I’m a little ambiguous about this one, too. I had a bit of that “so?” reaction. I guess I am happy for her that she’s straightened her life a bit, is not drinking herself unconscious regularly, sleeping with anything that moves, but she is not exactly a likable character. Of course our protagonists don’t have to be likable, no, I am not suggesting that at all. But it’s a little hard to feel much for her. The theme you are saying you are picking up in the volume is a need for intimacy or community? Am I getting that right? I will go back and reread the Ruralist essay which has stuck with me, and then perhaps tie my thoughts in with this.

    • I’ve seen several themes in this volume. The one here I stated in the above paragraph: “this tension between irony and sincerity, between being flip and light and quick with a joke to deflect anything real, and being introspective and thoughtful and feeling things.” In this story, the professor is the introspective, feeling one, and the narrator is the flip, ironic one, but she seems drawn to him, and seems to move towards his pole as she grows older.

      The other theme that crops up is grief.

      Both of them kind of come together, but subtly, in The Ruralist: trading in the city way of doing things (always being on the Next Cool Thing, having lots of friends, lots of activities, then in the country learning to be content with onesself and nature, Blake’s thing about “the world in a grain of sand” instead of needing constant stimulation. But she comes to it slowly, and is pretty dismissive of it along the way – yet is dismissive of alternate means of community as well.

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