By Caitlin Horrocks
Featured Art: Steps in Swimming Pool at Main River, Badeanstalt, Frankfurt by Ilse Bing
I originally read this story in the 2006 Summer Fiction Issue of The Atlantic, a magazine whose student writing contest I had won the previous winter. I was wandering the aisles of a grocery store in a strange city, where my boyfriend had just abandoned me to run an errand to an ex-girlfriend’s house. I perused the magazine rack, scanned the table of contents of The Atlantic. My winning story had been considered for publication, but had not made the cut. The famous authors listed I could forgive for bumping me, on grounds of their fame. But who was this “Lauren Groff”? I’d never heard of her. A newbie, like me. Surely, she was the one who had taken my spot.
Of course, editing doesn’t work like this. I knew that even then. But my jealous, shriveled heart still commanded me to buy the magazine, take it to the seating area of the grocery’s little coffee shop, and sniff out the supposed inferiority of this Groff-person’s fiction. I am not proud of my attitude. Writers hope that readers will approach our work with excitement, with patience, with a willingness to be moved. My state of mind, when I began Groff’s story, was instead darkly, nakedly adversarial.
But the opening of this story is so good, I quickly had to swallow both my objections and my pride. “He is at first a distant wave, the wake-wedge of a loon as it surfaces,” I read. An arguably risky opening, because I paused at “wake-wedge,” piecing together my mental image out of its component parts. I savored the w’s of wave and wake and wedge, as the swimmer crept closer. Why “loon”? Presumably some other bird could also make a wake-wedge, but the loon felt irrefutable, the sentence exuding an authority that makes the reader feel she is in good hands. Then the strong ending of the sibilant “surfaces,” a word ultimately echoed in the very last moment of the story.
“The day is cold and gray as a stone,” the paragraph continues. “A stone,” not just “stone.” I am from Michigan; I have seen many words deployed to describe cold, gray days, and deployed many myself, but few as bluntly appro- priate as these.
“In the mid-distance the swimmer splits into parts, smoothly angled arms and a matte black head. Twenty feet from the dock he dips below the water and comes up a moment later at the ladder, blowing like a whale,” the paragraph concludes. “Splits into parts,” “matte black head,” “blowing like a whale”: the inventive precision of the language continues, giving such potentially dull subjects as weather, or a distant, anonymous swimmer, the sheen, not quite of beauty, but of something more intriguing. I was hooked, even though I’m a ter- rible, uninterested swimmer, even though nearly nothing had actually happened yet in this story: no conflict, no violence, no falling in love.
Scratch that, someone has fallen in love: “She sees him step onto the dock: the pronounced ribs heaving, the puckered nipples, the moustache limp with seawater. She feels herself flush, and, trembling, smiles.” The “pronounced ribs” suggest our hero’s hunger and poverty. His nipples, moustache, the flush, suggest both his attractiveness and our heroine’s awareness that she should not be noticing such things. She’s already fallen in love with him, through his book of poems. Soon enough he’ll fall in love with her, too. Her blush could perhaps belong to anyone, in any era, but we soon learn it’s the ladylike blush of a girl from another century.
“It is March 1918, and hundreds of dead jellyfish litter the beach. The morning newspapers include a story, buried under the accounts of battles at the Western Front, about a mysterious illness striking down hale soldiers in Kansas.”
By this third paragraph, the twin tragedies of the story—the doomed romance, and the deadly flu pandemic—are slyly introduced. Either could have been presented with flashing lights, LOOK HERE warnings. The date could have been indicated through overly-precise descriptions of antique automobiles or bathing costumes. Instead we get a simple statement, “It is March 1918,” and the author’s willingness to let the reader begin to understand for ourselves just what that means.
Groff also lets the reader come to understand in our own time, in our own way, that “L. DeBard and Aliette,” is a retelling, a refraction, of the historical romance of Heloise and Abelard. At whatever point in the story readers piece this together, or if they never do (or if I’ve just spoiled the surprise for you), Groff’s story is undiminished—it will still break your heart.
“L. DeBard and Aliette” is one of my favorite stories, ever, by anybody. That winning story of mine, that took first place but was not selected for the issue? It is absolutely not the equal of Groff’s story, and I admit that with admi- ration, not rancor.
I loved “L. DeBard and Aliette” so immediately that I lost track of how much time was passing in that Seattle grocery store, so that when my then-boy-friend, now-husband, raced in and threw his arms around me, I was nonplussed. He’d gotten stuck in bridge traffic with a dead cell phone, and had left me so long he’d imagined me assuming that I’d been abandoned, thrown over for the ex-girlfriend. But I hadn’t been thinking this. I’d been in 1918 instead. I’d been picturing the wake-wedge of a loon.
A year later, I was teaching a fiction class where we were voting on which stories from that year’s Best American Short Stories anthology to assign ourselves, based only on the first paragraphs. The opening of Groff’s story had won her admirers, but there were many strong contenders, and we were running out of slots. I was inwardly rooting for the story, but unsure how much I should insert myself. I’d promised the class an experiment in pure democracy. Finally a student who had already read the story in full, in the same issue of The Atlantic I had, raised his hand: “I don’t even care what you think about the opening,” he announced to his classmates. “We will all be poorer human beings if we do not read this story.”
Amen, I thought. Amen.
Caitlin Horrocks is author of the novel The Vexations, named one of the 10 best books of 2019 by the Wall Street Journal, and the story collections Life Among the Terranauts (forthcoming 2021) and This is Not Your City. Her stories appear in The New Yorker, The Best American Short Stories, The Paris Review, and elsewhere. She lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Originally published in NOR 15