Literary Yard

Search for meaning

By: Fran Schumer

            Some time ago, when I was a young mother, a woman in my neighborhood told me that every day at about 2 p.m., before her daughter came home from school, she would masturbate. If her husband, a doctor, could leave work, he would come home, and they would have sex. If not, she’d manage things on her own and then nap for an hour before her daughter came home from school. I had insomnia at the time, which was how we got on the subject. I had tried to nap, and to masturbate after speaking to her, but I was not very successful at either. The woman wasn’t a close friend, but I loved her candor; also, that she was able to take care of herself, just pop down for an orgasm and a nap, and then get back into the busy task of mothering.

            I write about this incident because it reminded me of a time when I satisfied a need too. If the need were sexual, that aspect of it didn’t occur to me then, but later I decided that the way in which I satisfied the urge did feel like an orgasm; it was unstoppable, overwhelming, and satisfying. It made me feel in touch with who I was and what I wanted.

            I was working part time as a copy editor at a major Boston newspaper; I’ll call it The Telegraph. It was not a productive period for me. I had gotten the job as a favor from a former editor on the copy desk.  ‘The desk,’ as we called it, was a place for me to recover from burnout as a reporter at my previous job. The Telegraph was still evolving. The staff consisted of mostly men who hadn’t finished high school but were gifted reporters by virtue of having grown up among policemen, firefighters, gangsters, and politicians in the fiercely ethnic and often violent neighborhoods of Charlestown and Southie. Some were great writers. Yeats and Joyce were in their blood; alcohol too. When sober, The Telegraph editor I dated wrote poetry. Most of us smoked, and few took their marriage vows seriously. I was ashamed of my bad girl behavior and hoped it, and my indifference toward work would end when I was ready for them to end. Or maybe they wouldn’t.

            The first sign that they might came with the arrival of a new editor on the desk. That she was a woman was an omen. The first anti-discrimination laws were being enforced and newspapers were scrambling to hire women. Another sign was that she came from a better newspaper than ours. Along with the new copy editor, a new managing editor had arrived from the same paper to clean up our desk. His mission was to hire professional copy editors instead of people like me, who were merely slumming until they found something better to do. In my defense, I wasn’t a bad copy editor; I just didn’t care. The name they had for us, alluding to our part time status, said it all: we were ‘spares.’

            The new copy editor’s name was Margaret. We noticed her first because she looked different from the rest of us, less slovenly in suits and silk blouses, the occasional scarf around her neck. Flashes of gold from the tiny earrings she wore shone through her dark blond hair. The book she brought to read on her break was To the Lighthouse, the same book that was making my commute from Cambridge to Dorchester bearable. We quickly became friends.

            In between deadlines, we traded facts. Margaret preferred the newspaper where she had worked, but her boyfriend, Sam, a gifted photographer, could not find a job in that city. As a result, they applied as a team to The Telegraph, where they were snapped up, largely, it was said, because of Margaret. Physically, she and Sam made an odd pair. Sam was dark and tall and towered over Margaret, who was pale and blond, a perfect ballerina from a small town in Missouri. I laughed when she told me that her mother was the local sheriff. The women in her family had always worked, she said. “I was warned not to be dependent on anyone,” she said.  The package presented by Margaret, a doll-like figure who walked with tiny bird-like steps, was surprising. She was tough and cynical. I adored her.

            I liked Sam, her boyfriend, too. We all did. He told great stories about all the boxers and politicians he photographed. Together, he and Margaret rented a small house in Winthrop, an ocean side suburb that was too near the flight paths at Logan Airport to be costly.  They planned to get married at some as yet unspecified time. In contrast to my own messy social life, I viewed theirs as impossibly romantic. One night, after a lengthy, post-deadline discussion in my car in which I complained to her about my long string of romantic failures, she fixed her steady gaze upon me, and said, “We’re all alone, really, always.” In the brief period I knew Margaret, I never learned why she was lucky enough to have so few illusions.

            Other more ‘professional’ women began to appear, also in suits, and I grew less satisfied with my ‘spare’ status, and torn jeans. In my former job, I had been a reporter, and a good one. I didn’t know if I was ready to subject myself again to the pressure of writing, but I was tired of slumming; also, of the mostly married men I saw after late nights of editing and carousing. Boston had blue laws at the time, but our crew was well known at the local Chinese restaurant where long after it was illegal to serve alcohol, we drank beer from a procession of porcelain tea pots brought to our table.

            In February, more than 27 inches of snow fell in a record two days. Added to the 21 inches that had fallen a few weeks earlier, Boston was paralyzed. Later, the storm became known as the Great Blizzard of 1978. The first casualty I’d heard about was the house rented by Margaret and Sam, a block from the ocean and nearly ruined. When the roads were finally passable, they invited me to admire the damage. Outside, the porch had collapsed. Indoors, the rooms reeked of heating oil that had gushed from a broken furnace. Water stains were everywhere, along with piles of sodden furniture beneath blue tarpaulin tents. None of it stopped Margaret, a terrific cook, from making dinner. She once taught me that if you leave a heel of parmesan in the bottom of the pot while your minestrone cooks, it will impart its deliciously funky essence to the soup. That night, that essence all but eclipsed the stench of mold and heating oil. She and Sam spoke of plans to move inland, but even battered, the house had its charm. After dinner I walked outside. The ocean was twenty feet from their back door, and everywhere was vast and endless sky. I felt a strong pull that I now see as a yearning. Dinner was so good; Margaret and Sam seemed so happy, and I so badly longed to have their life.

That was the need or the desire that pulled at me the next morning or whenever it was that I woke up in my own modest but drier apartment. At the time, I lived in a garret on the top floor of a five-story walk-up. Lying in bed, I felt the feeling, but I could not figure out its source or what to do about it, although it seemed to demand that I do something.

From my bedroom, I wandered into the living area and then into the large and sunny kitchen. Was I hungry? No. Did I feel like seeing anyone? I worked at night; few people I knew were available during day-time working hours. For lack of a better option, I wandered over to my desk, which was in a corner of the kitchen. On it were a typewriter and notebooks. The notebooks were from a fiction writing course I’d taken a year after my arrival at The Telegraph. It was the first creative writing course I’d taken. I enjoyed the rich, interior world the course allowed me to open and explore. I liked the teacher, too. Her name was Eliza. An older woman, she was tall and wrinkled, her most noticeable feature a shock of white-blond hair that hung down to her broad shoulders. A year after the course ended, I saw her at an A. A. meeting I attended in Harvard Square. I was not an alcoholic but had wandered into the meeting in search of answers to habits I had that I could not control and that made me unhappy. I felt awkward at the meeting, where I did not belong. Before I left, however, I spotted the shock of white hair, and then Eliza, who sat on the other side of the room. Of course, I never said anything, or returned.

 Not long after seeing Eliza, I enrolled in another course with more experienced writers. The teacher was better known, her book having been reviewed favorably on the front-page New York Times Book Review. I’d read the review and then the book, which I loved. Her class met in the living room of her old Victorian house on Francis Avenue. There, I spent many hours, reading the exaggerated accounts I wrote of a flirtation I was having with an older man in the class. He and I had gotten drunk a few times, and on one of those occasions, I woke up beneath the clothesline he had strung across his bedroom. Newly divorced, he was trying to make a go at housekeeping. We laughed a lot and drank. I knew the relationship was ridiculous, even embarrassing — he had children my age — but our flirtation yielded fictional stories that we each wrote and took turns reading to the class. The teacher, an incurable gossip, always seemed to want more, one of the reasons our weekly sessions in her book-lined living room was the highlight of my week.

           Because of this course, and the earlier course with Eliza, I was in the habit of writing short stories, or at least thinking about them. This new interest probably explains my behavior the day after my visit to Margaret and Sam’s. All that day, I felt restless, disturbed. The disturbance felt like a weight inside me, but the pressure of it wasn’t physical. It wasn’t a pain or a stomachache. It was some other kind of ache, a pull, or a tug.  It led me to my desk, where I opened one of the notebooks I had kept as a kind of journal during one of the classes. I read the first sentence. It was powerful and disturbing. I couldn’t imagine having written it. I put a clean sheet into the typewriter and typed the sentence. An hour later I became conscious that I’d written most of a story, only it wasn’t finished; it needed to go somewhere. I couldn’t think of where, and then I could. When I finished the last page, I pulled it out of the typewriter. I knew it was a story. I’d never written a complete and made-up short story – I had only worked as a journalist — and I wanted validation. If my writing teacher was annoyed to see me that afternoon, she didn’t show it. “Here,” I said and handed her my typed pages. She took the pages and while both of us stood there, she read.  When she finished, she looked at me. It was a serious look, different from the way she had ever looked at me before. “Yes,” she said, and handed me back my pages. “This is a story.”

           In the spring, I signed up for a writer’s retreat in upstate New York. I only had the one story, but I had nothing else to do during my two weeks off. I took my story and a few of my old newspaper clippings. There were a lot of famous writers at the retreat. One edited a small but well-regarded literary magazine. He flirted with me, with many of the younger women, but I let him know I wasn’t interested in him, or anyone. I was no longer in the mood, far more interested in the real purpose of the retreat, to learn about and think about writing fiction. One night at dinner, he asked me if he could see some of my writing. I gave him my story. The next morning, he loped down the hill from the cabin of the young writer with whom he was sleeping and asked if he could publish it. I’d bought a book of poems he had written and liked them. I also knew he published many established writers. I said yes. When I left the conference, one of these writers paid me the ultimate compliment. She said “we” hope to read more about the character I had written about in my story. “We” never did.

            The story was published that fall, but I never quite found my way to writing another that I liked as much or that came so effortlessly. I’m not sure why. When the magazine showed up at the newsstand in Harvard Square, I bought a few copies. One day, I showed a copy to an old boyfriend. He was passing through Cambridge on his way to his family’s summer home in upstate New York. He knew me and my family as well as anyone. All through junior high and high school, he had been the person who mattered most to me outside of my family. We had spent many happy hours at my family’s kitchen table, having milk and eating cookies before or after our classes at the local high school we attended in Brooklyn, where we lived. He liked my mother; everyone did. As he read, his brow furrowed. I remembered that look. It was one of disapproval. He was seriously displeased. “That’s not what your mother’s like,” he said. I felt as if he had struck me. It never occurred to me that the person portrayed in the story was my mother but once he said it, I felt terrible guilt and shame, an urge to shrivel up, and disappear. There were aspects of the character that were like my mother. Even years later, I marvel that his disapproval affected me as it did. He and I had been very close for years during the crucial period of both our adolescences, and his opinion mattered greatly to me. I felt the old feeling I had when he disapproved of how much makeup I wore, or of my various political views that weren’t as well articulated as those of his more enlightened family. His parents were college graduates and educators. They had marched against the War in Vietnam and belonged to various liberal organizations. My family was more working class in its aspirations. My father hadn’t graduated from college and both he and my mother were interested in acquiring a middle-class status, more than they were in disowning one.

            My friend left, I put the story away and largely forgot about it. I tried to write other short stories over the years, but none flowed so easily or seemed to want to come out with the same unstoppable force that that one did. It was a good story; the best I ever wrote, and the only one worth publishing. It occurred to me the other day that I couldn’t even remember where I had put copies of the magazine in which it appeared, but then I searched and found two copies in a file cabinet in my attic.

Not long after I knew Margaret, my life surprised me by taking the same shape as I had imagined hers as having; I recovered from whatever malaise I’d had, my ambition rekindled. I graduated from ‘spare’ to full time editor at The Telegraph and eventually moved on to its magazine. I bought a new wardrobe and was surprised at how many compliments I received on my appearance. I hadn’t known anyone had ever noticed. Eventually I left Boston, where I felt I never really did belong, and moved to New York, where I had grown up and where I realized I  did belong. I had worked in Florida, North Carolina, Colorado and then Massachusetts but never realized who I was. Now, in my tiny studio off Riverside Drive, I admitted it. I was a New Yorker. This was home.

            I taught, wrote many articles and even a few nonfiction books, and became among the five percent of writers who, I read, supported themselves through writing, most of it journalism. I wrote a few cover stories for magazines and wrote frequently for the better newspaper from which Margaret, long ago, had been lured. I never stopped trying to write fiction, but never really succeeded. Back in my Telegraph days, I would’ve been shocked to learn other details about my life, that I had gotten married, and to a man I knew immediately I loved; had children and lived in several comfortable houses in which I sometimes cooked wonderful dishes, like Margaret’s minestrone, always with the heel of the parmesan in the pot, lending its funky pungency to the broth while it cooked. My plate, so to speak, was full. Still, I always remembered what Margaret had said about being lonely. I never was as lonely as I had been on the day I came back after visiting her and Sam, when I wrote that story.

I thought about it recently when, one morning, I woke up from a dream. I had had surgery a few months earlier and had been instructed not to have intercourse with my husband until I recovered. I must have felt the urge during the night because the next morning when I woke up, I knew that whether for real or in a dream, I had had an orgasm. When I told my husband, I thought of my old neighbor and her funny afternoon habit of having sex with her husband, or herself — how she pleased herself, took herself out of all that was otherwise consuming busy parents like we were then, and yielded to some great, unstoppable, overwhelming pleasure. It reminded me, again, of the sensation I’d had when writing the story, and of the past, and of everything.

            Of course, my life turned out different from the one I might have expected. But that is what it was. I became fulfilled and happy in so many ways although not in one of the ways in which I had hoped to be. It may be that you cannot live intelligently, or as fully, without feeling a sense of longing for something you don’t have, or that you won’t give yourself.


Fran Schumer’s poetry, fiction, personal essays and articles have appeared in various sections of The New York Times; also, Vogue, The Nation, and other publications. Her first short story was published in the North American Review. She was the winner of a Goodman Loan Grant Award for Fiction from the City University of New York and, in 2021, a poetry fellowship from the Creative Writing Institute of Martha’s Vineyard. She has a poem forthcoming in Bryant Literary Review; fiction in Avalon Literary Review, and nonfiction in Paterson Literary Review. She studied political theory in college but wishes she spent more time studying Keats.

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