Afterword: The New Quarterly

Last year The New Quarterly published two of my stories, “The Perfect Man for My Husband” and “An Exact Replica of the Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.” They also asked for an afterword commenting on them both. It’s not online, so I thought I would include it here. I’ve made some edits to the original essay, because I was trying too hard to sound smart. Other than that, below is as it appears.

An Afterword

My therapist knew both of the stories published in this issue, though she hasn’t read them. It was our habit that every so often she would pause in the middle of a session to ask what I was working on, and I’d give her a brief rundown. She was a good Freudian, so she’d interpret the plots of my stories the way Freud interpreted Oedipus Rex, tracing associative leaps and analyzing their twists like the fabric of a dream.

For “A Perfect Man for My Husband,” she asked if I was ever attracted to someone of the same gender and, if not, why I felt compelled to write a story from the perspective of a woman who loves a man who loves men.

(Answer: I once fell in love, Chasing Amy-style, with a girl who loved girls).

For “A Reproduction of the Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel,” she asked if I was ever exposed to sexual predators in any capacity during my childhood.

(Answer: Sort of. Once, during elementary school, the police came around looking for the driver of a creepy white unmarked van who may or may not have flashed a classmate of mine).

When it came time for me to write this afterword, I asked my therapist how I might sum the two stories up, given their disparate subject matter and what I thought to be completely unrelated thematic concerns. The conversation went like this:

Me: They’re nothing alike. I have no idea what to write.

Her: You have a hole inside you, Andrew.

Me: I have a hole. [Beat] Wait, what?

Her: It gets worse. That hole inside you is never going to get filled.

Let’s explore the implications of that. Say I have a hole inside me and it will never get filled. In that case, what was the point of therapy? What was the point of anything? And what the did that have to do with my stories?

She went on to explain that we all have holes in ourselves, big gaping psychic wounds, and that we’re always trying to fill them. Some of the things we try to fill the holes with are good: family, friends, romantic love, a sense of vocational purpose. Other ways are not so good: compulsive sex, alcohol, cocaine, violence, whatever.

Your stories,” she said, “are all a way to fill that hole.”

Thinking on this, I wondered what it said about my hole that one of the stories I wrote is about the wife of a terminally ill gay man who accidentally comes out of the closet, and the other is about the best friend of a pedophile’s son. Neither of those scenarios are autobiographical. But they both felt, to me at least, emotionally honest.

They’re both about fraught love,” my therapist said. “They’re both about loving someone and hating that love and not knowing how to manage that love.”

Things began congealing. She reminded me that someone close to me had a mental illness, that growing up, I probably felt many of the same emotions that the characters in my stories felt.

“One day you’ll probably write about that experience, but right now, you’re just scrambling to make sense of the experience through a series of fictional stand-ins.”

ie: Wife of gay husband.

ie: Son of pedophile.

I don’t know how other people read the stories—the author is dead, etc.—but to my eyes, the two stories I wrote for this volume end with a bizarre kind of redemption. It makes me feel optimistic that my fictional counterparts can experience that sort of grace, however delicate and fleeting the moment might be.

Speaking of redemption, these stories, and their life between the pages of this literary journal, constitutes a kind grace. I’ve been trying to get published in The New Quarterly for more than half a decade. “The Perfect Man for My Husband” was an unsolicited submission; the other story found its way to publication through a contest. Combined, they earned me enough money to pay for a single month’s rent.

It’s the first time writing has been able to ‘pay the bills’ like that.

And this sense of competency is nice; feeling competent will fill that hole. But not forever. In a few weeks it’ll be back to writing, back to creating characters who are me-but-not-me.

In fact, this very second I’m thinking I’ll write a story about two estranged brothers who re-connect at their father’s funeral. They wonder at how their troubled mother will react at the event. [Note: Taddle Creek ended up publishing it; you can find the story here] My father died five years ago. My brother and I haven’t spoken in almost a year. At our father’s funeral, we asked some of the same questions I imagine the brothers in the story will ask one another.

I knew someone who, after years of therapy, found out some pretty disturbing things about himself and his past.

“Aren’t you happy about it?” I asked. “Isn’t it better to know? Now you can move on.”

“Hell no,” he said. “Ignorance is bliss.”

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