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[Readings]

Fiber Optics, Holy Places

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By Amie Barrodale, from “Night Report.” The story appears in You Are Having a Good Time, a collection of Barrodale’s fiction that will be published next month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

After they made love, he said, “Ema, I’ve been reading a new book. Well, it’s an old book, but no one knows about it anymore. It’s a great book, though writing it ruined the author’s career. She’s a fascinating woman — or she was — Sloane Newam, do you know her?”

“I’ve heard the name,” Ema said.

“You would like this Sloane Newam. She’s funny. She reminds me of you.”

“What do you mean?”

At the airport the next day, he gave her a copy of Sloane Newam’s memoir and said, “Read it and you will see.”

She began reading in the check-in line. Halfway through the novel, while flying over Missouri, she came to a fight between Sloane Newam and her boss. Midsentence, Sloane Newam wrote, “This may be the wrong time to say that I loved him. I did.” Ema pressed the book to her chest.

“Are you all right?” the woman beside her asked.

Ema wiped her cheeks and nodded. She turned away from the woman. She’d drunk several small bottles of Scotch. She didn’t want to be rude, so she turned back to face the woman and said, “It’s pretty, huh? Out the window. It’s Missouri. Get it? Mis-uh-ry? Misery. It’s like — I’m so happy, I’m over misery — Missouri.”

The woman seemed embarrassed and turned away herself.

Sloane Newam had written two novels. They were out of print. One was on sale on Amazon for a penny, plus shipping, and the other was priced at $109. Ema ordered both.

The books came the day before Christmas. Ema made her special champagne sorbet. It involved pouring two bottles of champagne into a bowl and putting the bowl in the freezer, then stirring every half hour. She ate the champagne sorbet in bed while reading.

The first of Sloane Newam’s novels was about her lifelong affair with a married man. Sloane Newam had captured what Ema could not. She had captured the way loving someone who wasn’t there made the world seem funny and enchanted.

Was Ema’s own married man trying to tell her this? Ema didn’t think so. She didn’t think he had read the novels, and if he had, it was unlikely he would understand them. For him the affair was an escape valve. For her it was poetic. She had once tried to tell him, “You are in the fabric of everything I see. When I see three young men in denim jackets, I am already describing it to you. Before I describe it to myself, I am in a dialogue with you.” He hadn’t been able to make it out to L.A. for a few months after that.

But Sloane Newam expressed it, because she barely talked about her married man at all. Instead, she described scenes from her life. She described being stranded at an airport in France, in the ticketing area outside of the terminal, and having to spend the night sleeping on a long bench with a group of French hobos. One offered her apple wine, and told the others, “She is normal. She is normal. Nothing happens to her.” She told a story about a bat that flew into her bedroom and perched on the exposed-brick wall, and how she took him out by hand. Her novel was a defense of adultery, and a rejection of the commonsense stuff everyone spouted — that he had to get a divorce, that she had to leave him. Sloane Newam did neither. At the end of her novel she asked the married man, “Do you ever wish I were the one with you?” He said, “You are.”

Ema completed that novel at 3 a.m., and she wrote a long text message to the married man. When she clicked send, her phone’s screen went blank. She flipped from the main screen back to the message screen. It had lost her text!

Then the first two sentences rolled up. They had gone through, she guessed, but the rest of the message was gone. Horrified, she reread the two lines. They were weirdly alone-looking: “I have been up reading Fiber Optics, Holy Places. I just finished it. It has this beautiful passage where she describes a kitten — she is Joan”

Ema was confused. Two more lines from her text rolled up: “Newam — on the streets of Varanasi. It is so incredibly amazing — she’s there on assignment, and she’s just been to prayers at the”

Ema understood. The married man’s old phone was cutting her single long text into twenty-two parts. She was powerless to stop it. She watched as another fragment from her long text to the married man in France rolled through.

In a panic, she turned off her phone to make it stop. She went to the oven, opened it, and leaned against the door. She could see into the bathroom and contemplated dropping her phone into the toilet. She turned it on, and waited.

She watched the screen as it loaded. She said, “Please. Please. Please.”

Then the texts really started to roll.

“Ganges River, which she finds completely boring, and she’s just been coughing in the incense smoke and body odor, and then she”

“sees this adorable homeless kitten, like a stick with some fur, and she’s with the married man, and they look at each other and”

“know they have to take it — even though that’s completely crazy. And the kitten is so skinny and it’s actually in a puddy? so”

“they don’t even realize till they get it back to the very expensive room which they splurged — and they’re in this five-star”

“hotel, and have to bribe the man at the door, because they don’t think to hide this mud-covered CAT — that the kitten’s arm”

“is broken in three places. So they take it to the veterinary college the next day, and each of these darling, sweet Indian medical”

“students comes to feel the kitten’s broken arm, you know they’re students right, and you can tell when they’ve found the break because”

“the kitten goes, ‘Mewl mewl mewl melw mewl mewl mwl mewl’ and cries! So after about the fifth medical student squeezes the poor”

“thing’s arm, Sloane steps in and tells them to stop it, absolutely enough, and of course it stops. And there are all these diagrams of cows”

“right there on the wall, and a surgical theater, harness for the cows. But the diagrams are like colored in by a kid, and most rudimentary”

“things, but she realizes these students actually use them to navigate inside a cow. That these young men in coats go inside and surgeons”

“and so they have to shave her cat to the skin to amputate its arm because it’s an old broken. And to shave it they ask her to hold the kitten”

“down, and he’s terrified. She has him by his back, and the scruff of this is the worst thing that has happen, and when they’ve shave”

“the animal of his fur they ask if he has eaten any food at all in the past twenty-four hours, and Sloane and the man she is in love”

“with do not know, of course, so the cat can’t have his surgery, and they take him home to the hotel, but he won’t let them hold him”

“any longer. And then his arm removed, and he can make it through that, and she sneaks him home in this case, and he can make it”

“through that, but when**a month lateR**she has to go on assignment to Haiti, it is the last thing the poor little animal”

“can take, she can’t just leave him ALONE< and he goes off into the woods to die. Like Jesus into the dessert, she writes, and I was just crying,”

“crying, crying, and all this time there’s the mouse in my house, chewing the stove, the one I told you about, so it’s like sometimes life can be so”

“beautiful.”

In the morning, Ema woke up on the sofa. She had her shoes on. She woke up innocent, then remembered the night before. She lunged for her phone.

At 5:15 a.m. the married man had answered all of her texts with two words, “Good times.” And then, several hours later, he had texted: “While I’m out of the country, email is best. I’m sorry. Roaming rates are insane. x.”


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June 2016