Joan Shoek is wearing the same grey sweater, black tights, black-framed glasses and bowl-cut that she sports in my memory of her, my only memory of her. That’s pretty shocking, considering this memory of her is from when we were in 2nd grade, and now we are in our early twenties. But there she is, on the A riding downtown, and she’s wearing that outfit.
I didn’t like Joan in 2nd grade, but I think that it’s because I had a crush on her. It wasn’t just the crush, but it was her talent. Joan was a good writer. It was evident even at that age that she was a writer, a damn fine one, and that it would be her career path for the rest of her life. She had the same aura about her that I would imagine perhaps Sylvia Plath, except without all the death. I have no idea if I even have an accurate conception of Sylvia Plath. I have no idea what my conceptions of Sylvia Plath are based on. Some kind of loose archetypal gesture.
I disliked Joan because I knew she was a better writer than I was. I had a list in my head, ranked in order from best to worst writer, of all the people in the classroom. Here is what that list looked like:
3 Everyone else in the class
I guess what I didn’t like about Joan was that she made that list three items long instead of two. But I hated that she was better than me, and I hated that I admired her. And that I was attracted to her. Most likely those are things I’ve attributed to the memory of her long after the fact, although it’s perfectly conceivable that I had all of those feelings at that age, and have only through the glorious lens of puberty acquired the language to describe them.
How Joan recognizes me is a mystery. I wonder if I’m sporting the same outfit as in her memory as well? But this beard, surely I don’t have this beard in her memory. It would be uncanny if I did. Do I? And in her memory are my Fruit of the Loom briefs two days old?
We are sitting across from each other and she seems as excited as I am to be seeing her. She speaks with the same voice as in my memory of her, her words kind of chewed-on and rounded as if she were speaking with the back of her throat and her wisdom teeth.
“Joan, do you remember me?”
“Of course! How are you, Sam?”
“I’m doing alright, how are you?”
“I’m doing fine, thanks.”
“Where are you off to?”
“Nowhere in particular.”
“Would you like to go get coffee someplace?”
“Sure, that’d be great.”
I knew she would like coffee. She’s clutching a black Moleskine and a pen, in which I presume she was about to write something when she got on the train. Most likely something good. Most likely something better than what I would write, given an identical prompt.
When we get off the train, she walks out first. For a moment I’m behind her, and I find myself admiring her figure. She is trim, slender, with milky white skin. Her breasts are small and slightly pointy. Her clothing is not overly flattering. More specifically, it is not contour-fitted above her thighs. I realize that while the plaid shirt under her button-up cardigan and the black shorts she’s wearing over her tights weren’t in my original memory, they fit in neatly under the clothes of the memory and sit quietly as though they’d been there all this time. I realize I am checking her out, and I’m momentarily having sexual feelings for her, which is exciting and also kind of weird.
In the coffee shop, a very generically small and kitschy one with lots of wood and stuff, we are talking. I am fairly different from her in personality, but I tone myself down because I want her to like me. I don’t want to come off as arrogant, or unintelligent, or a bad writer. Because I don’t want to believe that I’m any of those things.
Joan’s hands and fingers are trim and slender like her frame, and I find it difficult to find the warmth and availability in her words that I want to hear. I want to hear a subtext that reads something like, “I’m lonely and sensual, and this chance meeting is the perfect opportunity to show you that I’ve grown up, that we’ve grown up, and that now our bodies do new things that are pleasant. I want to wake up to you on a Saturday morning and you can make tea while I drink coffee. I’ll even let you try to wean me off the caffeine. When we make love it will be gentle and you won’t mind being emotionally vulnerable with me, because you knew me before you ever got hurt.”
Although that subtext isn’t there, the subtext certainly doesn’t read completely adversely.
“Are you a writer?” I ask her. It seems silly to be vague and ask her what she does, because I know Joan is a writer. It’s in her blood, it’s her soul. It’s the only thing she could possibly be doing.
“Yeah, more or less. I mean, I write a lot on my own, but it doesn’t pay the bills. I work at as a proofreader at a book publisher.”
“That’s awesome, I really wanted to try to do that.”
”I didn’t try. Not yet, at least.”
Fuck, I am a failure. Joan knows that I’m a loser and that she’s about to publish some great novel. She thinks I’m an idiot.
“Well, I’d be happy to give someone your resume, if you want to try now.”
Is this a business meeting? I don’t want to have this conversation with Joan! Why am I attracted to this girl? There is nothing here to sustain my passion, my emotion. I don't even think the sex would be good.
“Sure, that’d be great. Make sure you write your e-mail address down for me so I can send it to you.”
She opens up the Moleskine. The room gets louder, as if all of her lovely turns of phrases were seeping out of the binding, and she goes on casually as if she doesn’t hear it. She goes to the last page. She folds it lengthwise, making a firm fold with her silver pen. Then she opens the fold back up and rips easily and cleanly along the fold. A perfect tear.
“Here, I’ll write down all my contact info for you.”
She writes her name, address, e-mail, and phone number down. A surprising amount of information. Three-quarters of the way through writing it all, her cell-phone rings. It’s on vibrate, and she had set it down on the table, so with each vibration it dances a little bit across the table. Then when it stops, it sits silently for a moment in place. Then the dancing, wiggling it’s hips back and forth awkwardly but determined, wiggles another inch, then sits back down.
”Oh, I’m sorry, excuse me for a second.”
I make a gesture with my hands that is meant to say, “of course,” and most likely achieves that goal. I doubt she interprets it as meaning, “here, have some raw grain.”
I don’t really hear anything she’s saying, because I purposely look around and try to block out the conversation. I don’t want her to think that I’m an eavesdropper, that I’m trying to figure out what kind of person she is and whether I’m jealous of something, anything, because I can be a jealous person. I don’t want her to know that, don’t even want her to think it, because I’ve gotten better at it all and I don’t want to make a bad impression.
She gets off the phone and apologizes, “I’m sorry, I have to go.” She slings her bag over her shoulder, I didn’t even notice she had a bag, closes her Moleskine, and hands me the paper.
“You didn’t finish writing your contact information. You didn't even write your e-mail.”
“Oh God, you’re right. Well it’s fine, you can just call me or something.”
“Ok, sounds fine.”
We get up and out, up and out of the table, up and out of the coffee shop and its kitsch. Outside, I momentarily debate hugging her, and then am sure that I shouldn’t. Joan isn’t a hugger, no of course she isn’t.
“It was very nice to run into you, Sam.”
“You too, Joan.” She pushes the hair away from her eyes, and the bangs rest comfortably on top of her black frames and then run around the side of her face, not quite coming to rest at her ear. She turns to walk away, as she gives a soft wave good-bye.
“Would you want to have some dinner with me this week?”
“Yeah, sure, that’d be great.”
“Great, I’ll call you, then.”
”Tuesday should be fine, as long as it’s after seven o’clock.”
“Great, I’ll hear from you tomorrow then?”
The only thing that would make this better is if Joan were carrying a cello in a case. She should be on her way to the Philharmonic for rehearsal. I have no idea why I think that, but I’m still thinking it when I get back onto the subway to finish going home. When the train arrives, I get on. As I sit down, I start thinking about what to cook for dinner.