Dear Superstorm Sandy,
I am well aware, self-centered pre-adolescent though I may be, that of all the millions of persons on the Eastern Seaboard affected by Hurricane Sandy, I am the least of these. Your swirling superstorm essence flung its obese corpus upon our fair coast like some kind of meteorological opera diva throwing herself down on the rickety wicker chaise longue in her dressing room after a particularly disappointing performance, the chaise longue then of course collapsing, at point of impact, into nothing more than a pile of matchsticks. The destruction thou hast wrought is vast, the people you have displaced countless, the images crowding the jammy pages of my father’s New York Times more than a little disturbing. These splintery heaps of timber, as densely packed as the sticks in a beaver dam or a game of Ker-Plunk, which only last week had been intact ribbons of boardwalk, two-story vinyl-sided vacation homes, amusement parks, bandstands; these charred ruins of Brooklyn by the sea; these unelectrified skyscrapers standing sentinel in the dark, as quiet and empty-eyed as the statues of Easter Island. I have been dreaming of black rivers of sea-muck coursing down Euclid Street here in Albany, my brother and I opening the front door to leave for school and finding the whole Hudson River rushing by our doorstep.
All that being said: while the victims of such widespread and devastating physical destruction should be at the forefront of our national consciousness, I do think it bears noting that apocalyptic events such as these tend to have much more far-reaching consequences than are ever noted by FEMA bureaucrats or the liberal news media; I speak, that is, of consequences of the heart, of the invisible damages done to the inside of a person, rather than to the outside of his home.
Sandy came crashing into my own life in the form of my Uncle Harry, whom I love. Uncle Harry lives on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and decided, after considering the rather dire weather forecast concerning the approaching hurricane, as well as the mandatory evacuation orders for neighborhoods merely a stone’s throw from his own particular brownstone walk-up, that this would be the perfect excuse to take a visit to his big brother (my father) in the relatively safe and dry upstate. Upon hearing the news of Uncle Harry’s impending arrival, my brother and I jumped up and down and clapped our hands as if we were young children who had just been promised a visit to the toy store or the candy shoppe. (Of course, my brother is still a young child, but such unbridled behavior is rather unbefitting a young adult such as myself.) Harry is an economics professor at one of the city universities, and is very tall and ungainly and messy and seems to take up much more space in any given room than the average human being. I can always hear my beleaguered mother grumbling under her breath about “that slob Harry” or “Harry’s goddamn wet towels on the bathroom floor again” for the duration of his visit, and yet his company is so charming and fun that mother is always laughing to the point of tears by the end of every meal or swatting him with the newspaper, in a good-humored kind of way, when he drinks the last of the coffee in the pot. He always arrives bearing a bottle of some kind of noxious brown liquor that has a bird on its label (as well as strange presents for my brother and me) and during these visits my father stays up much later than he normally does, drinking and debating politics with his brother in increasingly loud voices until my mother comes downstairs at some witching hour and tells them to just shut up already. My brother and I like Uncle Harry because he tells wild stories over dinner, and because he also performs magic tricks. For a man of such presumably powerful intellect, he can be very silly.
Unfortunately, for a man of such presumably powerful intellect, he also has quite wretched taste in women.
“He’s coming early tomorrow morning,” my mother said on Saturday afternoon. “And he’s bringing Shoshanna, so I need you to clean your rooms.”
My brother, who had swiftly returned all his attention to his hockey video game after our brief spasm of hand clapping, said from his slumped posture on the living room floor, “Who’s Shoshanna?”
“You remember Shoshanna,” my mother said, turning toward me. “Uncle Harry’s girlfriend. We’ve met her a few times. Last time we were in the city—we met her for bialys, remember?”
I rolled my eyes and sighed, perhaps a bit over-dramatically. “Yes, of course I remember Shoshanna,” I said. “Ugh. What an imbecile.”
My mother pressed her lips into a thin line of aggravation. “Matilda. You’re going to be polite to her. None of your little comments. No lip. I don’t want to hear it. She will be our guest, remember. And Harry told your father that her parents live way out in Brighton Beach, which is one of the mandatory evacuation zones. So she’s very, ah—” here my mother paused, and shook her head—“of course, she’s very worried about them.”
I know perfectly well that my mother is not looking forward to Shoshanna’s company any more than I am, but I bit my tongue for her sake. Shoshanna is a drop-dead gorgeous political consultant of Russian-Jewish descent who is no less than fifteen years Harry’s junior. She is not particularly friendly, seems to be offended by nearly everything, is always proclaiming food terrible, décor tasteless, art overblown. As Lady Catherine in Pride and Prejudice put it: “she gives her opinions very decidedly for so young a person.” The last time I had the misfortune of enduring her company—when we met Harry and her for bialys—we later went to the recently-remolded Museum of Modern Art, and for two hours listened to her decry the architecture and then watched as she waved an airy hand in the direction of Starry Night and moved swiftly on to the deKooning room. “My grandmother’s credit card has Starry Night on it. Van Gogh’s so commercialized. So plebian. He’s basically absolutely irrelevant to contemporary art at this point.” I recall at this moment my mother placing a tender hand on my shoulder, for I had just read a 400-page biography of Vincent van Gogh, and had spoken to her a number of times in the preceding week about my barely-contained excitement to see Starry Night for the first time. (I have a lot of empathy for van Gogh. I feel we are similarly misunderstood.)
And so Uncle Harry and his tartlet Shoshanna arrived on the early-morning train from New York in all their big-city glory, Harry coming in our front door in corduroy pants and a coat with leather elbow patches and a fedora, a paper bag full of wine bottles and newspapers in the crook of one arm. Shoshanna came in behind him in an all-black outfit of no little sophistication: a black leather coat, skinny black jeans so snug they could have been the bottom half of a Catwoman costume, knee-high black leather boots, and, trailing all this, a waft of pleasantly spicy, vaguely masculine, very exotic perfume which followed her in the door like an invisible footman. (I can safely say that no woman in Albany wears perfume like that.) Her long nearly-black hair was so silky and straight that I couldn’t help staring; God, what I wouldn’t do for hair like that. I think I would almost be tempted to renounce all my intellect forever just to have Shoshanna’s hair for one day. It seemed to swing in a liquid curtain around her shoulders as she surveyed our entry hall with barely concealed disdain.
Despite a few minor incidents that were only to be expected, such as Shoshanna’s remarking on Albany’s “utter provinciality,” and my mother giving my father a particularly sharp elbow in the ribs when she noticed him standing rather helplessly agog behind Shoshanna as she bent over to take another pita chip from the bowl on the coffee table, Sunday seemed to proceed quite enjoyably for all parties. Harry brought me the second volume of the Modern Library’s Complete Novels of Jane Austen, and I thus passed most of the day curled up in an armchair reading Persuasion, half-listening to my father ramble on about drone strikes, a warm fire crackling away in the grate. I was so absorbed in the heartbreaking travails of Anne Elliot (trapped inside one’s home with an intellectually inferior family! Imagine that!) that I didn’t even hear the house phone jangling in its holster. My mother then stuck her head round the living room door and announced that I had a phone call.
I assumed it was Laurence calling to ask if he could e-mail me his history paper for edits or wanting to discuss some new iteration of Doctor Who fan fiction (the worthlessness of which, and Laurence’s devotion to it, never cease to amaze me), so I went into the sunroom and picked up the cordless telephone in the sunroom and said, “Yo yo yo,” in the jaunty, faux-Ebonical manner with which Laurence and I sometimes address one another.
I heard a snort on the other end of the line, a flutter of gasps. “Uh, hey Matilda,” an unfamiliar voice intoned.
I could feel myself blushing deepest crimson, and said, too sharply, “Who is this?”
I sat down on the couch in the sunroom. “Shane?” I said, too dumbly.
“Yeah, Shane McManus. From school.”
“Oh! Shane! Shane, right. Hi, Shane!” I said, far, far too brightly.
“Yeah, we were just, uh, I was just wondering if maybe you wanted to hang out.”
“Um… me? You want to hang out—um…” My heart was thumping in my ears and my brain was running around in useless circles like a panicked rabbit in a paper-lined cage. “Yeah, sure, um, okay, great! What are you doing? Who are you with?”
“We were just gonna go to the mall—” he began to say, but then a noisy clatter on my end of the line drowned out the rest of his utterance, and Shoshanna’s voice cut in. “Hello?” she said. “Hello—is someone on the phone.”
“Yes,” I said. “Yes, I’m using the phone.”
“What the hell—” I heard Shane say. Explosive laughter bloomed behind his voice.
I at least had the dignity to say, “Am I on speakerphone?” before I heard him hang up.
Shoshanna, of course, was still on the line. “Oh, sorry,” she said in an unhurried way, as if she had actually called me, and now we were having a leisurely telephone chat. “But I do need to use the phone. I have to dial in to a conference call on a hard line. So let me know when you’re through.”
“Well, you’ll notice, Shoshanna, that I’m finished, now. But thank you for ruining my conversation, in any case.” I wanted to slam down the receiver as hard as I could, so as to make an unpleasant noise in her ear, but unfortunately it is impossible to violently hang up a cordless.
I pressed the heels of my hands into my eyes. These are the collateral damages of which I speak, Superstorm Sandy. No storm, no Shoshanna; no Shoshanna, no interruption of the most important phone call of my young life. Why, why, why can’t just one thing go right for me, socially speaking? Here was my one opportunity to hang out with Shane outside of school—here was my chance to escape the dreary métier of my low social echelon—here was the deus ex machina for which I had been waiting—I began to be transported on the wings of a fantasy in which Shane had all but forgotten his crush on Madison Lauren and had fallen deeply and irrevocably in love with me, had wanted to squire me to the mall and spend hours in thoughtful conversation with me—we would pass by the Bon-Tons and Cinnabons and Finish Lines without noticing, so absorbed in each other, in our perfect first date—he wanted to be my boyfriend and hold my hand in the cafeteria—everyone would gasp, heads would turn—Madison Lauren would be stunned speechless, would call me that night, all apology, with the hope of renewing our acquaintance—
I shook myself out of my reverie. The fact remained that he wanted to hang out, and, in pacing up and down the length of the narrow sunroom for the next forty-five minutes, I resolved that this was simply too excellent an opportunity to ignore, and I used the time granted to me to work up the courage to seize it. I went upstairs to pace instead in the hallway outside the guest room, listening for Shoshanna’s sign-off, and also to retrieve from my desk the note that Shane had given me last week to pass to Madison Lauren, within which I knew was printed his phone number, though my dialing it was certainly not his intended purpose of penciling it there, but no matter.
Finally, after what seemed like hundreds of hours, Shoshanna finally got off her conference call and I darted back down to the sunroom, snatched up the receiver, and hastily dialed Shane’s number with trembling hands. And—miraculous act of God—he answered.
“Uh, hi, Shane,” I said, the lines I had rehearsed in my head scattering like the aforementioned spooked rabbit at the sound of his voice. The rapidity with which I descend into idiocy when speaking with the opposite sex! It is really quite mortifying.
“Who is this?”
“It’s me. It’s Matilda.”
“Oh—no way.” He sounded as if he were moving around in a public space; there was the low rumble of ambient noise under his voice.
“So, um, did you want to—did you want to, um, hang out?” What had sounded so chipper and friendly and brave in my head now sounded desperate and clinging.
He laughed. “Ha, no, Matilda, we were just prank calling you.”
“Yeah, no, we’re at the mall now. But uh—” It sounded like he was walking at a brisk pace, or distracted by something—“Sorry, just trying to get to a quieter place, you know—the mall is, like, packed—you know, I’m glad you called back, because—” my heart leaping up—“I wanted to ask you about, you know, what we talked about last week.”
“What,” I said, now dead inside. “Madison?”
“Yeah, yeah, that, have you had a chance to talk to her?”
“No, no, I haven’t. Sorry.”
“Oh, that’s okay. Just, try to talk to her for me, okay? Will you? You know, when I asked her to the dance, she said she didn’t want to go with anyone, that she just wanted to go with her girlfriends. Can you believe that?”
“Yeah, that’s crazy.”
“Matilda, were you—were you, like, waiting for me to call you back, or something?”
“Me? No, no, I just, you know, I got bored, sitting around my house. You know. Sunday. I got antsy, so I called you back—my family’s in town, that’s who picked up the other line before—”
“Yeah, what was up with that? I can’t believe you actually have a landline at your house.”
“Yeah, it’s crazy.” That seemed all I could keep saying.
“Okay, well, let me know about Madison, okay? Don’t forget me.”
“I won’t,” I promised.
And after we hung up, I went up to my room and shut the door and cried my own little hurricane into my pillow.
Liz lives and writes in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.