Another day, another strange encounter in an airport. This one with Charles D’Ambrosio, who wound up on the same flight as ours from Portland to Seattle.
My wife had just seen D’Ambrosio read and had lent me his story collection, the most excellent Dead Fish Museum. Thus I was able to tell him—without even resorting to fibbing—that I was reading his book and enjoying the hell out of it, though his stories aren’t exactly of the laugh-riot variety. (They are more of the breakdown-and-sob-at-the-lovely-hopelessness-of-it-all variety.)
They had seated us all in the same row, with D’Ambrosio next to Julianna. He politely offered to trade seats with me, an offer that both my coauthor and I immediately deemed unnecessary, unwanted, and ill-advised.
I don’t mean to imply here that Julianna and I were sick of each other. Indeed, there is no need to imply. As D’Ambrosio could see from our expressions, it was very public information at this point.
A word in our own defense: It is not easy to spend six straight days traveling with another person, let alone another writer, let alone a coauthor with whom you have had some of the nastiest verbal brawls in literary history.
And yet, as we arrived in Seattle and grabbed a cab to our radio interview at KOUW, I felt a surge of camaraderie. I watched Julianna rooting around in her bag for her cell phone and felt that I might even miss her—or at least the memory of her abusing elderly Chinese travelers.
This feeling did not last long. In fact, I can tell you the precise moment it ended. It was about five minutes into our interview, when Julianna’s cell phone began ringing. So this was bad. Live radio. The sound of a cell phone. Bad.
But what made it especially mortifying was that Julianna didn’t seem to know what to do. Six days on the road with me had somewhat dulled her reaction time. And thus her phone rang four times—clearly audible to the listening audience—before she could turn it off. Then it issued a final ring a minute later to alert her to the arrival of a new message.
Now, I know a lot of coauthors who, in this situation, would have gotten upset and possibly even confiscated the cell phone in question. But I am a gentle man by disposition, and more than a little frightened of Julianna, and thus, I kept my mouth shut.
Besides, this was our last night! Why bicker over something petty like being made a fool of on the radio? It happens to me all the time.
Instead, I took a cab back to the hotel, driven by a nice fellow named Ahmed who, in addition to displaying a dazzling disregard for Seattle’s vehicular laws, informed me that he was a writer.
“I have been working on a book about my experiences in this country for eight years. I drive around and all the time I’m thinking about how I want it to go. The problem is getting them from here,” he said, tapping his forehead, “onto the piece of paper.”
I tried to say something sympathetic, but all I could think of was: “Yes, it really is hard, Ahmed. Fortunately, I know a truly excellent novelist who would be willing to tutor you for as long as you need—for free.”
Again, I kid.
I would never think to subject Ahmed to Julianna’s abuse.
From the hotel, I headed over to see my pals Clay and Robin and their insanely cute one-year-old hellion, George.
Then it was straight to the University Bookstore for our closing performance, which was, if I may say so, the best of the whole tour.
It wasn’t just that we chose good passages to read and answered the questions well. It was that we both had a great time.
All joking aside: I know that the tour was tough for Julianna. Even though she didn’t say this to me outright, I could tell that she missed her family quite a bit. It’s impossible for me to understand how hard the tour must have been for her, given that I got to see my spouse and that I don’t yet have kids to miss.
And if it means anything, I’m incredibly proud of how well she read, how sharp and funny she was, not to mention how lightly she packed. Of course, I would never say this to her face, as she would probably bite my head off for being cloying and/or condescending.
One more thing I wouldn’t say to her face: She’s a bit of a role model for me. By which I mean that I hope I’m able to be even half as productive as she’s been, while supporting my family. (Actually, upon consideration, I would settle for a third as productive.)
All of which brings me to the final scene of our little Tour-That-Sort-Of-Could-And-Did, which took place in the Seattle Airport.
Julianna was flying Continental. I was on American.
Unbeknownst to me, I would spend the next five hours trapped in the Seattle Airport because of foul weather in Chicago and would eventually have to catch a flight to Hartford, via Charlotte, thus arriving at my home outside Boston at three in the morning.
But all that comes later.
The moment I’m thinking of was one of those quiet, embarrassed times when two world-class loudmouths suddenly find themselves short on words.
“Well,” I said, “I guess this is it. Safe travels.”
“You too,” Julianna said.
“Right,” I said. I shuffled my feet a bit. “All things considered, I think things went pretty well. With the tour, I mean.”
Julianna nodded. “No broken bones, no broken egos.”
“None that I can find.” Before the moment could gather too much maudlin momentum, she added, in her best smartass tone, “Still, let’s agree to never, ever do this again.”
“Right,” I said. “Deal.”
Then we hugged and went our separate ways.
Now officially flying solo,
At this point on a typical book tour, authors don’t smell so good—especially authors who are dedicated to carry-on luggage. Steve admits that he might be a little ripe. I stink of sour wine and mint shampoo, and not in a good way. Did I mention that I poured a full glass of pinot grigio on myself two cities back? Soaked down to the underwear. (Note: A padded bra can absorb a lot of alcohol.)
It turns out that I can spot an author on tour at about twenty paces. Telltale signs? The face is wearing a shocked expression, simultaneously wired and exhausted, and depending on how long he’s been on tour there’s the aforementioned odor and/or a lingering hopefulness around the eyebrows.
Waiting for the flight to Seattle at the Portland airport, I spot one. I estimate he’s on day three. His eyebrows are perked and he still looks fresh. I walk up to him and ask. I should mention that it’s one of my dreams to have someone come up to me in an airport and ask me if I'm an author. I’d prefer they recognized me from the book jacket of their favorite book instead of just picking me out of the crowd based on my facial expression, but still.
“So, are you an author on tour?” I ask. He replies, “Um, yes. How could you tell?” I should confess that I had heard this guy on his cell phone talking about “reading shorter next time” and “maybe funnier stuff” too. So I’m not exactly clairvoyant, but still and all—some credit, please. I tell him it’s written all over him.
The author turns out to be Charlie D’Ambrosio, author of the story collection Dead Fish Museum, which Steve has recently started reading and admires. I like D’Ambrosio from the get-go. He seems sincere and ironic.
It is at this moment in the terminal when I’m hit by one of the attacks—the weird attacks that have been coming and going for a few years during this collaboration with Steve. It’s this overwhelming feeling of being misunderstood.
If I had to pick one person in the entire world who might think I’m capable of, well, not evil, but some word implying bad intentions, it would be Steve Almond. I don’t quite know why the attack hits when I meet D’Ambrosio. I doubt he can tell I’m having one—the attacks have no outward symptoms, as far as I know. (Then again, damn, could I have been twitching?) This feeling is always quickly followed by a wave of homesickness—even when I’m at home. Basically, I want to be with people who know and trust me.
As if Continental Airlines can feel the current vibe between Steve and me, we are seated in a row at the back of the plane, separated by D’Ambrosio. (Steve has joked that our separate seating is an FAA regulation.)
While Steve hammers away at his open letter-resignation for the Boston Globe, D’Ambrosio and I spend the hour in full commiseration mode. I’m missing my family terribly, but restrain myself from going into details about all that I’ve been absent from: my daughter’s bicycle-powered ice-cream churner, my oldest son’s first big stage appearance, my youngest son’s most recent chest-trap give-and-go soccer goal. My husband and I are usually inseparable. I miss how hard we make each other laugh. I miss how we can’t stop talking to each other even when we’re brushing our teeth. Not each other’s teeth—we talk to each other while we’re each brushing our own teeth—we aren’t that inseparable. I miss how as soon as we hug in the kitchen one of our kids comes between us to bust it up like a chaperone at a school dance.
I tell D’Ambrosio that I’m a little stunned to find myself on a book tour. I signed onto a job of solitude and coffee and imagination. How did we end up traveling salesmen? Are we suited to this? Are we selling actual books to people other than our family members (minus my brother-in-law)? D’Ambrosio is on his way to a country music station for an interview. Do they think his book is about fishing? We’re baffled, but, for a moment, we’re happy to be baffled together.
Seattle. The final foofaraw. It’s the sixth city on the tour and it’s like Steve and I finally get it. There are many levels of bullshit to our relationship, but it seems like we’ve both gotten out of the bullshit elevator on the same floor this time.
At the University Bookstore reading, I don’t foul up my words like I did in Portland, where I told the crowd that Steve and I had eaten dozens of pinafores. After some confused looks from the audience, I finally realized pinafores are little jumper dresses. Of course, I meant to say petits fours, the delicious pastry—not to be confused with petticoats.
Steve does it all just right in Seattle too. Playing to his natural interests, he reads only the dirty sections of the book. And the question-and-answer portion is perfecto.
There’s plenty of love and hate in our relationship, and when we err, we err on the side of hate—naturally and rightly so. But for all my blather, do I really hate or even really dislike Steve Almond? Of course not. He’s a man of conviction. He’s passionate about literature and music and politics. He’s a brilliant writer. I also think he’ll make a wonderful father come September.
But I’m thinking about a line in the novel—one of Jane’s lines. “When I’m with you, will I be closer to the person I want to be?” I have to admit that I don’t like the character of Julianna Baggott in Steve Almond’s world. I don’t recognize her. I don’t really want to know her. And after an investment of three years in this collaboration, that’s a pretty tough realization to walk away with. I guess I’d prefer to have put some good in the world—not bookishly, but personally—and I’m afraid I’ve failed.
The next morning, when we get to the Seattle airport, the cab pulls up behind a truck labeled Bomb Disposal Unit. Steve, the cabbie, and I look on with some nervous laughter as it pulls away. Are we to believe it’s hauling off some dismantled bomb that will be disposed of later? This seems like an apt metaphor. There has been no explosion on this book tour either. We’ve made our way through it without blowing each other to smithereens.
I follow Steve into the airport. I’ll remember him this way—talking to his real estate lawyer on his cell phone’s ear piece while walking to the ticket counter, carrying his old-fashion, wheel-less, buckled suitcase, which is crammed with pilfered hotel toiletries.
We give each other a hug that seems congratulatory and then turn in opposite directions. No backward glance, no final wave. It strikes me as a little sad the way we both set off so quickly into the bustle of strangers.
On my way home,
This is the sixth and final installment in a series of Postcards written by Steve Almond and Julianna Baggott, coauthors of Which Brings Me to You (Algonquin Books, 2006), while on tour to promote their book.