Some people hoard matchbooks, candle stubs, hotel soaps, cats, even donkeys. I keep newspapers. My sister does too—we were raised without them. Our parents were anti-newspaper-industrial-complex. My sister’s newspapers are architecturally stacked, chest-high, beside the woodstove in her living room. She crumples them sheet by sheet to get the fire started. The woodstove is as efficient as a butler.
I was at a dinner party with a woman who got retweeted on CNN about the Michael Dunn case. Someone passed an iPhone around the table and each person was supposed to add a single from the first album they ever bought to the playlist. Suddenly I remembered how attentively I selected The Beastie Boys’ “License to Ill” for a boy in my class when I was improbably invited to a 7th grade co-ed birthday party. The cassette was $9.99 from the wire racks at the supermarket.
The hostess, one of my oldest friends from motherhood, is Indian and cooks exquisite Indian food. There were dozens of sumptuous, saffron-colored dishes on the table. Then the hits of the 70s and 80s came back to us over the hardwired sound system. Someone sent the music down to the basement to let the kids know the grownups had other lives before they were grownups. We weren’t all the same age, we were all from different states, originally, we were officially diverse, racially, but everyone had been an American teenager.
Sometimes when I get going at a dinner party I sound like I live through my entire autobiography every single day. I tell my story over and over again. The childhood, the adolescence. When I get home I’m so embarrassed; brushing my teeth, I avoid the mirror. I wonder how I’m ever going to get anywhere if I’m still taking into account all that material?
A few Christmases ago at a neighbor’s cocktail party I found myself sort of eddied into a group of men talking about Ferraris. I aspire to open-mindedness, and I’m always on the lookout for details, but my mind goes “cars,” and then shuts down operations. Or did I shut down because I felt noticeably invisible in their circle? A contradiction in terms. Then they were talking about Russia. I’ve been to Russia. How Putin got it right in terms of capital punishment. “A man’s gotta do what he has to do.” Were they kidding? I was drinking too-warm Malbec from a glass the size of a bowl but it turned out the sofa in the great room had been sprayed with stain-guard, a 3M product. Invisible with shame because I said nothing.
More recently I was trying to tell a podiatrist—we were balancing paper plates of carved lamb but we had found spots for our wine glasses on the mantelpiece—that I had read in the paper about the Christmasification of Buddhism in China. Meditation that delivers success at work, jackpot-sized end-of-year bonuses, a built-out 900 BC temple with architected alcoves for scrolling sutras on iPads. “It stands to reason that the old religions need upgrading,” I shouted into the din of the party.
Another one of my oldest friends from motherhood died when she jumped off the Tobin Bridge and I have spoken of her at every single dinner party since then. I feel as if I’m speaking for her, in a way I don’t feel when I speak, say, of one of my dead grandmothers.
Who will speak for the teenagers in the car in the Dunn case who didn’t want anyone telling them to turn down the music? Their car swerved into a gas station, shaking with bass from their SUV loudspeaker. Old news now. A couple of the younger kids came bounding up from the basement (AstroTurf, ping pong): “Turn down the music! We hate that grandpa music!” Then they froze in their poses, standing side by side like gingerbread men with guilty smiles. An older sibling must have told them to say it.
“It’s not grandpa music,” said my Indian friend’s husband. He picked up his air guitar and threw his pelvis forward. His imaginary long hair flung across his face.
I heard myself laughing the whole evening like a tap dripping. I heard myself tell, again, about my friend’s suicide, and as I spoke I felt myself walking over the Charles River at Mass Ave., facing a wall of wind, imagining her little feet on the edge of the upper deck of the bridge, her minivan behind her, abandoned.
Kirstin Allio is the author of a short-story collection, Clothed Female Figure (Dzanc), and a novel, Garner (Coffee House), a finalist for the LA Times Book Prize for First Fiction. Honors include the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 Award, a PEN/O. Henry Prize, and fellowships from Brown University’s Howard Foundation and the MacDowell Colony. Her fiction, essays, and poems appear most recently in AGNI, The Common, Prairie Schooner, Seneca Review, The Southern Review, WebConjunctions, and forthcoming from Fence and Juked. She lives in Providence, RI.