Table for Four

by Sarah Eisner

We don’t always eat together—a necessary downside to our dual entrepreneur, Silicon Valley household—but we try to often, and tonight we do. We eat in the faded drape of winter evening light, all of us returned to each other from our busy days, at the dinner table. We eat in the same seats as always: ten-year-old Wilson across from me, eight-year-old Ben across from my husband, Noah.

Wilson is eating oiled broccoli with his fingers. Noah wipes his hands on a paper towel and says, “Hey buddy, use your fork please.”

Wilson is mid-chew, and Ben giggles and says to his dad, “You didn’t.” Ben is jolly, and right—we all love to eat with our hands. We take an irrational pride in not being formal, and we don’t dine so much as heartily consume.

Noah picks up his fork and spears a floret. “You got me,” he smiles at Ben.

“Hey,” Wilson says. “Let’s play thumbs up, thumbs down.”

We nod and Wilson starts. “Soccer,” he says. Our thumbs go up. We’re all on teams. Noah and I play in the co-ed adult league, our version of church, on Sundays.

“Donuts,” Ben says. He often dreams about chocolate glazed. I like apple fritters and the other two just eat plain.

Technically, it’s Noah’s turn next, but Wilson interjects.

“Divorce,” he says.

I look at Wilson across the table, surprised, though maybe I shouldn’t be, while getting my thumb in a low down position.

***

Until I was twelve, my family ate dinner together. I don’t mean usually, or on most weeknights. I mean every night. In our suburban family room in Concord, California, we sat in the same seats—Rick across from Mom, and Dad across from me.

With a classical music record on low and the TV off, we ate slowly, with our utensils, and we discussed our days as we listened to each other, just like studies—not yet conducted—now recommend.

Dad got home from San Francisco every night at five-thirty. At six o’clock, give or take five minutes, Mom would call Rick and me to the table by clanging her oversized, festive wall-mounted dinner bell, though our little house hardly called for such fanfare. We were usually just a few feet away doing homework or playing Chinese Checkers. Once seated we were not, under any circumstances—aside from the threat of death, destruction, or bladder emergencies—to get up, especially not to answer the telephone. That was fine with me, until boys started calling in junior high. I loved dinnertime and moved toward it like a sanctuary throughout my days.

The only part I didn’t like was saying grace. At six-o-five-ish, we held hands around the table, four voices together, and said thank you God for our food, Amen. I had no use for the flimsy promises of church or God and Jesus. I had faith in dinnertime, and the reliable calm of Rick, Mom, and especially Dad.

Every night we sat at the monumental oak table Dad had restored from a cast-off Boeing office desk, once used for blueprints of warplanes, jets, and cruise missiles. The surface was smooth enough to bowl on. Its deep drawers now held decks of cards. In California, earthquakes came, and the table sheltered us, Dad leading us with controlled urgency to duck, cover and hold on beneath our breaded veal cutlets and his single nightly Anchor Steam beer.

Then one September evening in 1986 after a dinner I don’t remember, the earth didn’t move, but Mom told us Dad was going to.

“We love you both very much,” she said, somber but composed, “but your dad and I have decided to get a divorce.”

Dad didn’t say a word. I suspect he couldn’t. He bowed his head and brought his white cotton handkerchief to his eyes. We’d given it to him, Rick and I, for Christmas.

I looked at Rick. Rick looked at Mom. “Can I go to Craig’s now?” Rick asked.

Mom told him to be home in an hour. She understood the disorientation, his nine-year-old desperation to escape. I sat there a bit longer, watching Dad try to lower the handkerchief, breathe, and raise it again, but Rick’s anxious exit marked the last time we all four sat at that table together. It’s the last thing I remember until I watched Dad labor to heft the table—that amber altar of my childhood—into a U-Haul six days later.

My dad’s wedding gift to us was the worn, oatmeal-crusted table we sit at now. I plan to keep it always.

***

“So,” Wilson says. “You and Dad won’t divorce, right?”

I don’t think Wilson is overly worried about Noah and me. But, with Noah’s divorced and remarried side too, Wilson has eight grandparents. He has three close friends that split their weeks even-steven, and not always amicably, between Mom and Dad. Over the years he has asked me questions: “Did Grandma ever love Grandpa?” and, “Does Ethan’s mom hate his dad, now that they’re divorced?” And I wonder how often he imagines what he could lose.

I’m not overly worried. My relationship with Noah is good. We are devoted to each other, our kids, and also to our soul-crushing business affairs. Our love and care for our startups, our employees, and to some extent our investors, is intense and heady. What makes us solid is that we have our own lives while loving one another without omission.

We’ll be mulling around making peanut butter and jelly for school lunches—I assemble, Noah cleans up—and he’ll say to me in front of the kids, “It’s amazing how many cities you’ve launched,” or to the kids in front of me, “Boys, Mom’s in the news again.” And I will pull him into my chest and promise myself to make more than five minutes to lay with him that night.

But lately, in what has seemed like a series of small misfortunes I couldn’t control, it’s become clear that I will lose my company. Now that it’s in jeopardy, I’m surprised to find myself wondering about the permanence of everything else. When my business fails—when I lose one of the routine mirrors I rely on to see myself—what else might I lose?

“Right Mom?” Ben says. He smiles at me, raises his eyebrows.

I reach across my near-empty dinner plate to rearrange the decaying nectarines in the bowl at the center of the table and look at Noah. He crosses his eyes at me and sticks out his tongue.

“Nope,” he says. “No divorce for us.”

“No,” I say. And I mean it.

While I don’t say it, I also mean “probably not,” and “I will work hard to prevent it.” Because a parent cannot say to a child: “We are a family. Husband, wife, brother, sister. This is our home. We live together, love each other, and we are forever. Thank you God for our food Amen.” Then say: “Actually, no. We are not a family. Ex-husband, ex-wife, part-time son and part-time daughter. Together, we have no home, Mom and Dad don’t love each other, and we will take turns with you. Let’s eat at the counter.” Or, a parent can say these things. Mine had. When they did, they taught me things about permanence and faith.

They taught me that the spoil of a marriage can be a gradual mellowing, a plum that goes soft inside before the bruise appears on the surface. It can sit protected in the silver coiled fruit basket for days before the small flies circle and one or the other of you finally reaches over, feels the rot, and says oh! And in this knowledge I am lucky, even thankful for what I gained, by the breaking of my home.


Staff Pick at The Paris Review: Justin Taylor's "So You're Just What, Gone?"

"So You're Just What, Gone?" in The New Yorker. 2015.

My preparation for the Q&A with Justin Taylor that will feature in our Warzone issue has involved a substantial amount of research. I've read and reread his two story collections (Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever and Flings) and his novel (The Gospel of Anarchy). I've also dedicated many a midnight Internet rabbit-hole to devouring his digital archives, which I'm both proud and terrified to report I've nearly exhausted. They're quite extensive.

My favorite piece of Taylor's is his most recent short story, "So You're Just What, Gone?", which appeared in the May 18, 2015 issue of The New Yorker. You can read some of my thoughts on it here, at The Paris Review Daily. I'll be interning (and staff-picking) at the Review for most of the winter/spring.


Letter from the (Web) Editor: Assignment's Winter Reading at The Old Court

During the past year, what I've noticed most in the writing submitted (accepted or not) to Assignment is the haunting presence of place-as-character in nearly every piece. We're still a small, local publication with traffic mostly in northeastern New England. Our contributors are primarily based out of the Massachusetts-New Hampshire area. We've had contributions written about the backyards of Manchester NH, the marinas of Newport RI, the barcrawled thoroughfares of the Merrimack Valley in central MA. In each piece, there's this overwhelming sense that the story's keystone character is not the narrator's consciousness, but the setting through which it travels. This is true for our first print issue as well: post-9/11 Manhattan (more specifically, a Portugese restaurant), the slums and suburbs of Pittsburgh, and the changing neighborhoods of Brooklyn dominate their respective stories.

Because of this, we had the idea to unite Assignment's Bay Area (Boston's Metrowest) writers for a small reading at someplace local. There, we'd celebrate some of the mag's Massachusetts-infused writing. I'm thrilled to report that myself, Online Only contributor David Moloney and good friend of the magazine Ted Flanagan will each read from some of our work on December 30, 2015 at 7:00PM at The Old Court (upstairs) in downtown Lowell, MA. The three of us are, also, either a current student or graduate of Southern New Hampshire University's MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction, which most notably saw two of its faculty members nominated for 2015 National Book Awards. Assignment's editor and SNHU MFA's director, Benjamin Nugent, will moderate the event. Admission is free, but we'd love it if you'd buy a beverage from the bar to support the venue.

Whenever I'm at a reading, I'm reminded of the last lines of Ben Lerner's 2011 novel, Leaving the Atocha Station. It is my favorite paragraph in all of American literature (it's also my favorite novel). The story chronicles the various relationships and artistic misgivings of its protagonist, Adam Gordon, an American poet, during his time abroad in Madrid on a prestigious research fellowship. In the final scene, Adam is preparing to read some of his recently published poems to a large audience in a skylit art gallery owned by one of his peers. Earlier in the story, he read at this same gallery, but did so while battling a crippling episode of panic.

Much of the novel's conflict is anchored in Adam's anxiety, as well as his warped perception of himself and how others in turn perceive him. Each of these internal tensions is at times exacerbated and mitigated by the language barrier between he and his Spanish friends. He often leans on his inability to translate English thought into Spanish speech as a conversational exit strategy when things get awkward. It also functions as the excuse he uses to rationalize why he can neither communicate with nor understand the depths of the several Spanish-speaking lovers he takes during his tenure abroad. The concepts of both concrete and abstract translation--literal and figurative--thus factor heavily into Adam's character arc: he struggles to translate the inner workings of his soul into his physical self, into the physical moment, into his relationships with others, into thought, into speech, into English, Spanish etc.

One of Adam's friends/lovers, Teresa, spends a great deal of the novel translating the poetic contents of his notebook into a cohesive Spanish chapbook. She eventually uses the press at the art gallery to publish the finished product. It is, arguably, the grace with which Teresa shuttles between her Spanish and Adam's English--her world and his previously inaccessible internal one--that has ushered the novel to this conclusion. Teresa is at Adam's side in Atocha's final scene, as the two of them prepare to read to the audience at the release party for the chapbook. The last paragraph is only two lines:

'Teresa would read the originals and I would read the translations and the translations would become the originals as we read. Then I planned to live forever in a skylit room surrounded by my friends.'

In those penultimate moments before the reading begins, the barriers that once separated Adam from Teresa and his other Spanish-speaking peers shatter with absolute finality. Perhaps, too, this helps bridge the gap that disassociated Adam from himself. In that gallery, he experiences some form of self- and communal love, and so the novel ends.

Whenever I attend readings I am, without fail, transported to Adam's skylit room described here. It is (and readings are), above all, a place of profound and unfiltered community. And so at the end of Assignment's setting-heavy year, there's no other environment where I'd rather celebrate our publication and its supporters than at this reading, in that figurative skylit and eternal place.

We at Assignment hope to see you at The Old Court on Dec. 30. We'll be upstairs, in a barlit room, surrounded by our friends.

- Daniel Johnson

We would like to thank The Old Court for hosting us. If you’re attending, please be sure to buy a beer and tip the bartender.

Please contact Daniel Johnson,
Assignment's Web Editor, with any questions. For more details, refer to the event's Facebook page here.