This essay was originally published at The Nervous Breakdown, along with both versions of Oscar and Veronica. Here’s mine; here’s Jeff’s. I’d like to thank Gina Frangello and Leah Tallon, two women made of all things magic and awesome.
The OMG We’ve Got To Write About This Look
When I found out my story collection was being published, the first person I called was Jeff. He’d been there from the beginning: the writing and rewriting; submissions and rejections; and, most importantly, all of the living that inspired the stories in the first damn place.
We met up to celebrate. We drank champagne. “What did your editor say?” Jeff asked, and then, gleefully, “You have an editor!” We giggled, drank more champagne, and talked about the stories. Jeff had been my first reader on all of them—all except one.
“So,” I said. We’d killed one bottle and had ordered another. Celebration! “There’s a story. In the book. It’s about… us.”
This is a tricky moment in the life of a writer. Let’s call it… The Talk. Historically, The Talk has referred to asking whomever you’re dating whether or not they want to be exclusive, but for a writer, it’s what happens when you’ve written about somebody close to you and you want their permission to publish it. It’s a nerve-wracking thing: You squeezed your heart into this story! It’s a great opportunity for your work! You changed the person’s hair color and made them from Novia Scotia!—still, you care enough about the relationship to discuss it first.
For the record, I knew Jeff wouldn’t care that I’d written about him. Not because I’d done it before (I had), and not because I’d disguised him enough that he’d never be recognized (I hadn’t); rather because hegets it. He, too, has done it. He, too, is a writer.
See, my friend Jeff is also J. Adams Oaks. J. Adams Oaks, author of Why I Fight with his speaking engagements, his YA awards, his Author Page at Simon and Schuster, but just then? Sitting across from me, pouring champagne? It wasn’t J.Adams Oaks. It was Jeff, and when I told him I’d written a story about us he said, “Okay. Which part about us?”
“It was forever ago,” I said. “We were living in Wicker Park, and we played that game called—“
He cut me off. “Oscar and Veronica?”
“You wrote the Oscar and Veronica story?” There was something nervous about his voice, like how he sounded back when we were both interested in the same guy (this happened a lot). Or when he told me that the guy I was dating was actually gay (this happened three times). Or when he told me that he was gay (this happened once, fifteen years ago, back when I was hopelessly in love with him).
“Is there a problem with the Oscar and Veronica story?” I asked. “You know I’ve written way more personal things about you, like the time—”
He cut me off. “It’s just weird, that’s all.”
“I wrote the Oscar and Veronica story, too.”
Here’s how it worked: If Jeff called me Veronica, or I called him Oscar, it meant there was a cute guy within earshot so we had to pretend to be brother and sister. The act was to appear natural, but be loud enough for the cute guy to overhear. “Did mom call you?” “Dad called last night.” “Remember when we were six and our cousin Johnny ate that lightbulb?” It was silly and ridiculous and an absolute necessity because wherever Jeff and I went, everyone assumed we were together, thus contributing to all sorts of awkward situations and complicated emotions—the stuff that makes good stories.
To hear Jeff tell it, some ten+ years ago we made a pact that each of us would, someday, write the Oscar and Veronica story. I’m sure it could’ve happened that way. Jeff and I have made pacts to write a thousand different things: the time I told off his ex-boyfriend at a hotdog stand; the time his very fabulous roommate used a loaf of French bread to teach me proper blow job technique; and on and on. The thing is, over all these years, all these stories, all these seemingly secret moments when we’d give each other the OMG we have got to write about this look—up until now, we’ve never actually done it.
When I think of literary friendship, I think of the heavyweights: Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Tolkein and C.S. Lewis. Emerson and Thoreau. Their relationships are full of inspiration, of arguments, of jealousy and letters and reading and late-night talks about life and literature. Are Jeff and I like that? Sometimes. I hand him drafts of stories I’m sure are done, and then he asks a single fucking question that keeps me awake for weeks. He’s the one who put Gabriel Garcia Marquez in my hands, to this day my favorite writer. When his editor asked for yet another rewrite, we spent hours in front of my bookshelf, trying to figure out how exactly writers pull off this whole writing thing.
Every week, we sit in restaurants around Chicago, drinking champagne or coffee, depending on the hour, and typing from opposite sides of the table. Sometimes we talk—I know Jeff’s fictional characters better than I know some of my real-life relatives,—but, more often than not, we work. We type. We Ass in Chair. If I feel stuck, if I feel like walking away from the computer, I look up and he is there, hard at work, and I will not let him beat me! I will order another coffee and keep at it. Whatever it takes.
If I’m really being honest? All his literary influence is, to me, secondary. Forget literary friend—he’s myfriend. He’s my son’s godfather. He gave me away at my wedding. He and my husband, Christopher, have weekly movie nights.
In another lifetime, we’d stay up all night drinking bourbon while one of us cried and complained (me) or spoke very elegantly and poetically about how our current misfortunes influenced our growth as human beings (Jeff). When I’d introduce him to guys I was dating, he’d say, “What about that guy Christopher?”
In a lifetime before that, we sweated over grad school and paying bills. When I’d introduce him to guys I was dating, he’d say, “He looks like a troll. You know those troll dolls? With the … hair?”
Before that was the fateful night where, after he walked me home from a late night class, I took a purposely long time looking for my keys, drumming up the courage to look up at him and say, “Would you like to have dinner with me?” I was twenty years old. I’d recently broken up with my high school boyfriend. I was brand new to the big city, brand new to my adult life, and Jeff had walked me home after class every night for months.
“I’d love to have dinner with you!” he said. “You know I’m gay, right?”
Looking back on it, this was the moment where I learned that there are different kinds of love. It’s a long, complicated novel, not a three-minute pop song, and, for me, that’s what Oscar and Veronica is about: letting go long enough to move on to the next chapter.
I recently read that Emerson owned the property at Walden Pond, and gave it to Thoreau to build his cabin.
Jeff? Are you reading this?
Hurry up and buy some land so I can build a cabin.
I’d prefer this land to be in Spain.
But I’m not picky.