Talk Show 18 with Chris Bohjalian, Joshua Henkin, Perrin Ireland, Aryn Kyle, Kelly McMasters
Chris Bohjalian is the author of eleven novels, including the New York Times bestsellers Skeletons at the Feast, The Double Bind, and Midwives. His work has been translated into 22 languages and twice become movies. Visit Chris at www.chrisbohjalian.com.
Joshua Henkin’s first novel, Swimming Across the Hudson, was a Los Angeles Times Notable Book of the Year. His second novel, Matrimony, was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, a Book Sense Pick, and a Borders Original Voices Selection. He lives in Brooklyn and teaches writing at Sarah Lawrence College and Brooklyn College. Visit Joshua at www.joshuahenkin.com.
Perrin Ireland’s most recent novel is Chatter (Algonquin Books). Her work has been published in AGNI Magazine (fiction and poetry), The Boston Globe (book review), and Post Road (nonfiction). Visit Perrin at www.perrinireland.com.
Aryn Kyle’s award winning first novel The God of Animals (Scribner) was a national bestseller and has been translated into nine foreign languages. Her short fiction has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Ploughshares, The Georgia Review, Best American Short Stories 2007 and elsewhere. Aryn lives in Missoula, Montana, with her boyfriend (writer Kevin Canty), two neurotic cats, and the cutest corgi puppy in the world. She is currently completing her short story collection, You Belong To Me. Visit Aryn at www.arynkyle.com.
Kelly McMasters grew up in Shirley, Long Island, also the subject of her new book Welcome to Shirley: A Memoir from an Atomic Town. Her essays and articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post Magazine, Newsday, Metropolis, and Time Out New York, among others. She teaches writing at mediabistro.com and in the undergraduate writing program and Journalism Graduate School at Columbia University. She is also the co-director of the KGB Nonfiction Reading Series in the East Village. She lives in Manhattan and northeast Pennsylvania with her husband, the painter Mark Milroy. Visit Kelly at www.kellymcmasters.com.
––Where did you go on your first date, and with whom?
Bohjalian: My wife and I have been together since we were eighteen years old. We met when we were just beginning the second semester of our first year of college. It was February 2nd, a Friday night. She went to Smith, a women’s college, and I went to Amherst. Amherst had once been all-male but had become coeducational a few years before I arrived. Nonetheless, the college was still figuring out what it meant to be a school with women as well as men, and not merely a massive fraternity with scholarly grownups encouraging us to read a little Pushkin and Frost once in a while.
Henkin: I was in a high school graduating class of eighty, and many of us had known each other since kindergarten, and I had the good fortune, subsequently, to spend the vast majority of my years as a single person living in college towns, where people don’t go on dates. You just hang out, and well… your intentions are made known, if often too drunkenly. All of which is to say that I’ve never really been on a date in my life. But if pressed, I’d say my first date took place freshman year of college, when the girl I had a crush on was brought back to the dorms by my roommate, who also had a crush on her. Trivial Pursuit was played, and deciding that I cared more for this young woman than I did for my roommate, I chose to stick around. So our first date, of a sort, was a date for three—me, my roommate, and this girl playing Trivial Pursuit (a game I hate!) in the dormitory common room. Our real first date (also of a sort) took place a week later when, the Friday afternoon of freshman parents weekend, I ran into her outside her dorm. “What are you doing tonight?” she asked. “I’m having dinner at Hillel with my parents,” I said lamely. “I’m Jewish, too,” she said. Or some such thing. So. My first date. Me, this girl, and my parents at Harvard Hillel.
Ireland: We walked to the outdoor movie theater on the naval base at Pearl Harbor where we lived. I wore a green and blue muumuu and bare feet; he wore a yellow and red aloha shirt and bare feet. He was the boy next door, or, technically, the boy one room over, since we lived in a two-family, L-shaped duplex and our bedroom windows were catty-cornered where the wings of the building met. The sounds of his wars with his younger brother offended my pacifist sensibilities.
Kyle: It was a pretty big deal: I was in seventh grade, and Randy Scotting and I met at the mall. We had a romantic dinner of Sbarro pizza and Orange Julius under the florescent lights of Café Court, then went to see King Ralph at the mall’s movie theater. Afterwards, my mom picked us up in her minivan and took us to the Dairy Queen drive-through on the way home.
McMasters: His name was John and I can see his face perfectly. Curly black hair, brown eyes fringed with dark lashes, and translucent white skin with a smudge of freckles across his nose (funny, now that I think about it, he looked a lot like the man I married). He was a bit of a toughie, whatever that means for a third grader, and I remember clearly trying to impress him by being as much of a tomboy as possible. This included not crying when I walked straight into a steel rung on the jungle gym at recess, which cracked me so hard across the face I blacked out. Apparently, it worked. We went to the Halloween dance at our public school.
Bohjalian: We met at a real “Carnal Knowledge” anachronism, an honest-to-God mixer at her house (or dorm) at Smith. In theory, it was a wine tasting party. That’s how old I have suddenly become: When I went to college, they actually encouraged first year students to drink. At the house, I saw a lovely blonde woman near the fireplace chatting with an acquaintance from my dorm, and he was clearly trying to pick her up. The woman was wearing a V-necked white linen blouse that fell untucked to just below the waist of her jeans, and her small feet were bare. Around her slender neck and her collarbone—a neck and a collarbone that struck me as both elegant and a just tad wanton—was an antique silver necklace with moonstones that matched her eyes. I decided I would help this fellow’s cause. I put my arm around his shoulders and asked how he was doing. Before he could respond, the woman asked if the two of us were friends. I said we were. “Well, then” she observed, “you’re a bigger idiot than he is if you’ll admit that in public.” Then she walked off. And I was entranced.
Henkin: Oh, who knows. Maybe she did. Except she didn’t know it was a date. I’m not sure I did, either. “Hello, Mom and Dad, this is Laura. She’ll be joining us now for the motzee.”
Ireland: He asked his friend to ask my friend to ask me if I would go with him, and I told my friend who told his friend who told Next Door Boy, Yes.
Kyle: I’m a little fuzzy on this part. What I remember is that I thought that Randy was the cutest boy in the whole seventh grade. He played the cello and had a hyper-color tee-shirt (it was orange, but when you touched it, it turned yellow) and when we were paired together for the dance unit in gym class, I would have had to be blind not to notice his natural abilities involving the Virginia Reel. Also, my best friend was “going out” (that’s what we called it) with Randy’s best friend and it seemed an obvious choice that Randy and I should “go out” as well. Our flirtation started slowly—Randy made me a Valentine out of a paper bag and I went to his house after school to jump on his trampoline. Eventually, it just seemed natural that we take things to the next level and consummate our relationship with mall pizza and Orange Julius.
McMasters: I don’t remember exactly, but I imagine he must have asked me. Most of my memories with John involve me chasing after him and trying to impress him and planning out possible scenarios in my head involving things to say and do. But overall I’m sure I was pretty passive. I imagine he probably asked through a letter, since that’s how most of my romances were initiated until about eighth grade, when girls and boys started actually talking to each other. John was on the macho side, usually in a sweatshirt with his sleeves rolled up to his elbows, a look I still happen to love. Based on the evidence and my foggy memories, I am guessing our love was of a very traditional flavor and he asked me.
Bohjalian: Technically, that wasn’t our first date, of course. That would occur the next night, a Saturday. We went to dinner at a restaurant in Amherst, a swank place called Plumbley’s that’s now long gone. The night before we had been pretty caustic with one another; later she would tell me that she had expected me to stand her up on our first real date. She worried that I had asked her out, in fact, simply so I could stand her up.
Henkin: It went as I’d planned it, in that once Mom and Dad were deposited at their hotel, Laura invited me to hang out at her dorm. But I have a terrible sense of direction, and a couple of hours later, when I departed, I was left to wander aimlessly around Harvard Yard, not sure how to find my way back to my dorm. In fairness, it was only October, but when I asked someone how to get to Canaday and the person wanted to know whom I was visiting, I was forced to say I live in Canaday, and for a second I thought the person would call the police.
Ireland: I expected to be murdered on the dark walk home beneath shadowy palms, which is why I asked my older sister to follow 15 paces behind, but gargantuan DDT-resistant mosquitoes posed the only threat. The kiss (Big Sister hiding in the hibiscus-dripping bushes with their protruding yellow pistils) was unexpected, and led me to write I love him that night in my baby blue plastic diary with the raised figure of a sophisticated teenage girl on the cover.
Kyle: Pretty much. We held hands during the movie, and that was hot. Literally. Our palms were sweaty and Randy let go of my hand a few times to wipe his own on his pants. I don’t remember that the movie was anything exceptional, but it hadn’t actually been our first choice. We had wanted to see something that was rated R, but blew our chances by trying to get the Twelve and Under Discount.
McMasters: If by planned you mean showing up at the elementary school gym and slow-dancing to every song and him falling madly in love with me and us fast-forwarding to our wedding day then…well, no, it didn’t go as I’d planned. I can’t remember being in costume but we must have been, which is never a good thing for a first date—that was our initial mistake. The next mistake was having his mother drive us to the dance. We both sat in the backseat of her chipping gold sedan (my mother remembers the car as green) not touching. Then when we got to the dance we immediately split up and stayed on opposite sides of the room for the whole night—boys on one and girls on the other, of course.
Bohjalian: At Plumbley’s we were both on our best behavior. We tried to be the erudite adults we had seen around us throughout the 1960s and the 1970s—grownups pulled straight from a novel by Richard Yates or John Cheever – and so she ordered rye and I ordered scotch, and we both ordered an angioplasty-inducing death meal called the Webster’s Plate: Steak and crab legs smothered in béarnaise sauce.
Henkin: Of the date itself, I remember not quite letting on to my parents that I knew this girl no better than they did. Also, I apparently made an idle comment about the comely appearance of another girl in the Hillel cafeteria, in response to which comment my father later said to me that it was impolite/unwise to say such things in front of one’s female dinner guest. To which I responded that my father was backward/uncool/fifty years behind the times, all of which no doubt was true. Though it also could be argued that I was simply being a lout.
Ireland: After I closed my diary and locked it with the tiny, looks-like-gold key, returning it to its hiding place in the drawer with my retainer, I heard The Boy talking to his brother through the aforementioned catty-cornered bedroom window. “I kissed Perrin,” he said.
Kyle: I wore my favorite pink tee-shirt and my stone-washed denim skirt, which I thought was the height of fashion and hoped made me look both older and taller. After the movie, Randy and I stood outside the mall, sharing a Dr. Pepper while we waited for my mom to pick us up. Just as I was taking a sip, Randy made some large, sweeping hand gesture, hitting the Dr. Pepper can, which then smashed into my mouth, cutting my gums and causing blood to spill down the front of my pink tee-shirt. Years later when we were graduating from high school, I would write a note to Randy in the Senior Memory section of our yearbook, something along the lines of, “Fond memories of our first date. Remember the blood?” The yearbook committee must have thought I was referring to something more lascivious than a soda can to the mouth because when the yearbook was released, my note to Randy would be replaced with the word, “Censored.”
McMasters: My strongest memory from that night is actually of John’s mother. She was the kind of blonde that I would later come to recognize as out-of-a-box, and kind but hard. She was thin and a smoker and I remember her in a short skirt with tanned legs, toned from constantly being on her feet rather than jogging. She sold flowers at a kiosk in the middle of a strip mall parking lot in town near our favorite Chinese food restaurant and the Shirley/Mastic train station. I don’t think there was a father in the picture and looking back I realize they were probably really struggling. When she came to pick me up John came to the door and she stayed in the car. She was distracted and John was slightly uncomfortable because she was clearly pissed in a toe tapping, wired movement kind of way. Some kids from her neighborhood had egged her car and then slathered it with shaving cream, maybe toilet paper. Some eggshells and a thin layer of grease was still visible by the time they came to get me. I didn’t understand why she was so upset, although now of course I realize she was concerned because the eggs would eat at the paint on the car. This incongruity sticks in my gut—on a night when I was imagining a fairy-tale first date here was this scrappy yet still beautiful single mom dealing with more than I could have imagined at the time.
––How did your relationship/contact with your first date end?
Bohjalian: Five and a half years later, we were happily married – and we have been ever since.
Henkin: We ended up going out for a year, arguably two, depending on how loosely one defines such things, college relationships being slippery, nebulous affairs. Suffice it to say that things turned frosty between my roommate and me, and I never spent another night in my dorm room. And since Laura was one of four suitemates living in a double, we spent the rest of freshman year sleeping on the common room floor, and woke in the morning to roommates and other strangers walking perilously close to our heads. On the principle that what goes around comes around, Laura ended up marrying her roommate’s ex-boyfriend a few years after graduation. The last time I saw her was at our tenth-year reunion, which is eleven years ago now. Though, weirdly, I gave a reading a few months back at the Larchmont Public Library, and since Laura grew up in Larchmont, I made some off-the-cuff remarks about my own history in Larchmont—sneaking around late at night while your girlfriend’s parents are asleep, setting the alarm so you’re back in your designated bedroom at six in the morning. Afterward, the librarian who organized the event asked me the name of my college girlfriend, and it turns out Laura’s parents are her landlords: the librarian, her husband, and their kids rent the very house I snuck around in when I was eighteen! How truly odd….
Ireland: Soon after, The Betrayer’s family received orders back to the mainland, and I was required to attend the traditional going away party in the ship’s cabin, carrying the requisite lei. I avoided eye contact, staring steadfastly at the ocean pulsing at the porthole. When it was time to go, the group stood on shore as the ship pulled out of the harbor, waiting until the vessel grew small, waving until our arms ached, waving until we no longer knew what we were waving at. I’d agreed to care for his parakeet, Kiki, until it was my turn to abandon the island. Pale blue and white, with black flecks—his beauty took my breath away.
Kyle: The relationship was, alas, doomed: I needed too much attention, and Randy was gay. At the time, though, we saw things in more complicated terms. I thought that we needed to advance beyond hand-holding to kissing on the mouth, possibly with tongues. Randy did not. We broke up over the phone and the next day in school, Andy Thatcher (a boy I barely knew) told me he was glad Randy and I had broken up because Randy was too good for me. I was devastated and rushed to the girls’ restroom to weep uncontrollably while my friends fretted around me, petting my hair and promising that everything would work out okay. My friends were right, of course. In eighth grade, Randy and I would travel to Washington DC together; after high school, we would go to Italy. For a few years in college, we would live together, talking each other off various relationship-induced ledges, watching Fame over and over again, eating Boston cream pie on elementary school swing sets at three in the morning. And while Randy and I were never destined to have a relationship based on sharing saliva, it turned out that the kind of deep, familial love I now have for him didn’t require that we ever kiss with tongues. But I still hate Andy Thatcher.
McMasters: The dance cemented our relationship as boyfriend and girlfriend. He was the first boy I held hands with and I remember them as a bit pudgy, his fingers and palms gummy as if he’d just moisturized. Later, in ninth grade, my first French kiss would be similarly jarring—again, it took place at a Halloween Dance, and my boyfriend at the time was diabetic and his tongue felt strangely swollen and soft in my mouth. Back in third grade, though, my romance with John was cut short when he moved at the end of the school year. The flower kiosk was turned into a photo hut where they sold cigarettes and film, and I never saw John or his mother again.
Jaime Clarke is the author of the novel WE’RE SO FAMOUS, editor of DON’T YOU FORGET ABOUT ME: CONTEMPORARY WRITERS ON THE FILMS OF JOHN HUGHES, and co-founder of POST ROAD, a national literary magazine based out of New York and Boston.