THAT OF WHICH WE CANNOT SPEAK
Earlier that evening, under the pale streetlamps, Bradley had sat on a park bench and watched a row of trees carefully gathering snow. It was as if they were beckoning it, as though the snow were something they’d been wanting to say.
Now, speeding down Fifth Avenue in a cab whose driver seemed unaware of his own mortality, Bradley wished he were back on that park bench. Or in the diner they’d just passed. Or that police station. Anywhere but on his way to a party where strangers with cardboard hats and noisemakers always made him feel as if he were on the wrong planet.
It was 10:15 New York time, which meant it would already be 3:15 a.m. in Islington. Probably too late to call your ex-wife, even if she was most likely still out somewhere, sequined, laughing, ice making music in her glass. Besides, what would he say? “I’m sorry” was so easy and generic. Gail hated lack of specificity; in fact, this was one of the qualities that had drawn him to her in the first place. Whenever he used to overhear her on the phone with one of her sisters, she was always begging for details. “What were you wearing? What did he order? Did he leave a nice tip?”
Unfortunately, this need for particularity would later work against him. Toward the end, a therapist had pressed him to try to describe what was missing in their marriage. “It’s ineffable,” he’d said, at which point Gail stood up and shouted, “Well why don’t you try effing it!” before she began to cry, softly, into her hands.
A professor once told him: “You must perpetually fight against the inexpressibility of it all,” in a voice so solemn it gave Bradley a chill. But his deepest experiences always left him mute. Mute with appreciation, mute with anger, mute with awe. Consequently, even when he was in a wonderful relationship—a wonderful marriage, in fact—some part of him remained fundamentally alone. Once or twice, when there were still worlds of tenderness between them, he had lain awake after he and Gail made love, and while his wife slept beside him he shed silent, inexplicable tears. If Gail had awakened and discovered him, he wouldn’t have known what to say.
As soon as he slammed the cab door, snowflakes began to speckle his head and coat. One hour, he said to himself, looking at his watch. His sole reason for coming to this party, given by a friend of a friend of a friend, was the affection and respect he held for Oscar. Oscar, whom he often thought of as irrational exuberance incarnate, also happened to be his financial advisor, and had stopped just short of bribery to enlist him. So against his better judgment he’d agreed to make an appearance.
On the eleventh floor, even before the elevator doors opened, he could hear the noise of the party. In the invitation, the music had been described, mystifyingly, as “post-funk sexycore yacht rock.” At the end of a short hallway stood a tall blonde in a red sweater.
“Well, hello!” she said. “Do come in.” Bradley knew that in spite of his bookish exterior he was, generally speaking, easy on the eyes. He followed her into the foyer. She was wearing black velvet pants, the tops of which were covered in bright red fuzz, as if her sweater were molting.
“You can put your coat in the back bedroom,” she said close to his ear, in a party shout-whisper. She gestured, and for as far as the eye could see men and women bedecked in jewels and bow ties were sipping translucent drinks. They all looked to be in their mid- to late thirties. “I’m Evelyn, by the way,” she said, extending her hand. “Kiki’s sister.”
“Oh, you’re English!” she said. Bradley smiled and excused himself. After placing his gift of Champagne on the only unoccupied countertop space, he deposited his overcoat in the bedroom, then began navigating his way back to the living room—Excuse me, so sorry, beg your pardon. In front of a large bay window overlooking the park stood a table blanketed with an array of foods. Each dish had a little calligraphied label: rosemary-rubbed chicken tenders, French ham and aged cheddar biscuits, duck-stuffed ravioli, truffle-kissed mini-pizzas. There was a gigantic chocolate torte in the center, which the host’s uncle—he overheard an enthusiastic guest remark—had made by hand.
He pulled a china plate from the stack and would have begun to help himself but for the brunette standing in his way with her back to him. Not wishing to be rude, he waited for her to move, or turn sideways, or in some way reposition herself. Finally, he tapped her shoulder.
“Trying to decide what looks best?” he said. “It’s all right if you sample them all. I won’t tell.”
The woman smiled and said nothing. Her eyes were smoky brown, and her hair was held back with two tortoiseshell combs. She continued to stand silently for a second before he noticed the clipboard hanging from her neck by a piece of brown packaging string.
I can’t speak, it said at the top of a sheet of paper. I have laryngitis.
“Terribly sorry,” he said. “I didn’t realize.”
The woman took up her clipboard and wrote with a pen tied to the end of the string: No need to apologize. Her handwriting was pretty, rounded and small. Bradley reached for the pen—May I? his raised eyebrows asked—and she let him have the clipboard. The fact that she was writing made him want to write. Monkey see, monkey do.
Shouldn’t you be home drinking tea with honey? he scrawled, his left-handed cursive barely legible.
Please, no more tea, she wrote back. No voice for 9 days. You realize how much tea that is?
9 days? he wrote. Perhaps you should see a doctor! He handed her the pad.
I am a doctor, she said, and he blinked. She resumed writing. What’s your name?
“Bradley,” he said out loud, his voice awkward and unfamiliar to his own ear.
She nodded and turned away. She was wearing a strapless black dress and had a simple mother-of-pearl bracelet clasped about her writing wrist. But by far her most striking feature was her neck—long, bone white, flawless. Who knew what a throat like that might be capable of saying, if only it worked. She turned quickly and caught him staring at her. Taking the clipboard, she flipped to the final page, which was covered with prewritten words and phrases:
NOT SINCE 1979
KIKI AND I WENT TO GRADE SCHOOL TOGETHER
I KNOW JUST WHAT YOU MEAN
CAN’T SAY I EVER HAVE
HUMAN BEINGS ARE SO PREDICTABLE
She pointed to the first word.
“Well, hello there, Samantha,” he said, offering his hand. He indicated the last entry, HUMAN BEINGS ARE SO PREDICTABLE, and gave her a quizzical look.
We say the same things over and over, she wrote.
Love never repeats, Bradley thought, but couldn’t remember where he’d read the phrase, and thought it best not to speak of love. “With so many words to choose from, you’d think we wouldn’t perpetually use the same ones,” he said in her ear, but with the noise of the party all around them, he couldn’t tell if he was speaking inaudibly or assaulting her eardrum. Samantha apparently couldn’t make out what he’d said; she moved closer to his mouth. Her head smelled powdery, like vanilla. Her ear was less than an inch from his lips; he could have kissed it if he’d wanted to. He repeated himself.
She nodded. There used to be far fewer words, in primitive cultures. Past civilizations counted 1, 2, many. She looked up at him. Kind of how I calculate drinks, she wrote.
“I assume you were a hieroglyphics major before you turned premed?” he said, wondering where the drinks were.
Art history. Premed = after college (late bloomer). You?
Studied botany. Now botanist.
As soon as she read this, Samantha stamped her foot, grabbed the pen, and began writing excitedly. She had a lot more enthusiasm than you’d think just from looking at her.
You help me! her clipboard proclaimed. I furniture shopping, comparing diff. types wood. Salesman said pine = lots knots, oak = smoother grain, but couldn’t say why.
“Why?” Bradley said.
Why, she wrote again, and as he read the word, she leaned in to underline it. Why.
“Well, a pine branches in tiers, all the way up, whereas an oak sort of grows and then blooms at the top. A knot is where a branch meets the trunk,” he said. “Like a shoulder,” he added, touching two fingers to her collarbone.
Samantha’s lips parted. You have cast yourself as the bearer of wisdom, she wrote, which made Bradley think: If I’m the bearer of wisdom here, darling, we’re both in a bucket of trouble. “You might think less of me if you knew that earlier today it took all my wit and cunning to open a jar of pickles,” he said, and her svelte torso jostled, but she made no sound.
"A sense of vulnerable restlessness is betrayed by the otherwise pragmatic characters of Black's strong debut collection. Many of these well-meaning, serious protagonists are middle-aged and seized by a paralyzing personal crisis. British botanist Bradley of 'That of Which We Cannot Speak' is reeling from the split with his wife back in Islington when he meets a comely laryngitis-stricken doctor in New York; the father of a troubled teenage son in 'The Only Way Out Is Through' attempts a perilous camping trip with him to 'reconnect'; and a single late-30s schoolteacher, frustrated by her career choice, tracks down her favorite high school teacher for advice in 'Good in a Crisis.' Big, perhaps unwelcome, surprises lurk for all. For the lawyer protagonist of 'The Thing Itself,' it is the ecstatic realization that he no longer wants to practice law. For the struggling young New Yorker of 'Mollusk Makes a Comeback,' it is the example of the resilient mollusk in the Museum of Natural History, 'barnacled and determined,' rather than the dodo bird, 'complacent unto extinction.' And, finally, for the young woman of the title story, it will be hitting on the perfect present for her longtime love interest whose attentions have started to wander. A charming tentativeness rattles the polished foundation of these straightforward tales. (June)" Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
Alethea Black's deeply moving and wholly original debut features a coterie of memorable characters who have reached emotional crossroads in their lives. Brimming with humor, irony, and insights about the unpredictable nature of life, the unbearable beauty of fate, and the power that one moment, or one decision, can have to transform us, I Knew You'd Be Lovely delivers that rare thing—stories with both an edge and a heart.
I. That of Which We Cannot Speak
1) “You may never be 100% understood,” Samantha says. “I’d settle for 55%.” To what degree do you feel understood by the people in your life? To what extent do you think it’s possible for us to truly understand one another?
2) How different do you think this relationship would have been had Samantha had her voice when they met?
II. The Only Way Out Is Through
3) Fetterman appears to try earnestly and often to bond with his son. What do you think is the reason for their lack of connection?
4) At the end of this story, we are given a glimpse into the future. Do you like knowing what will happen to Derek? Would you rather it remained a mystery?
III. Good in a Crisis
5) Ginny claims to not want intimacy. “Why label as fear what is simply a choice?” she asks. Do you believe her, or do you think she is commitment-phobic? Are there clues in the story that point to why she might be afraid of relationships?
6) Why did she become a teacher? Do you think she has changed her views about herself by the story’s end?
IV. The Thing Itself
7) What is happening with Janet at the end (did you know without reading the Author’s Notes)? Would you have interpreted it differently without knowing the author’s intent?
8) Is this a happy ending? Why or why not?
V. The Laziest Form of Revelation
9) The narrator’s friend asks: “[W]hy do you surround yourself with people who can only give you carrots?” Do you think that Ruby is intentionally choosing people who are unavailable? Based on your own experiences, are artists and other creative people more likely to be emotionally unavailable than others?
VI. The Summer Before
10) How significant is the parents’ divorce to the events of this story?
11) James believes everything happens for a reason. Do you agree? How is that idea reflected in his actions?
12) How bridgeable is the distance between the two sisters at the end? What do you think their relationship will be like in the future?
VII. Mollusk Makes a Comeback
13) What do you think Katie’s struggle is really about?
14) If people are in a downward spiral, as she seems to be, should we let them continue to fall and “hit bottom”? Do you think it’s possible to influence another person’s self-love or self-worth?
VIII. I Knew You’d Be Lovely
15) Imagine what would happen in a sequel to this story. Would Hannah’s well-intentioned gift backfire?
16) Sydney does not approve of the “possessive” aspect of love. But what would a world characterized by her ideals look like? Do you think monogamy is necessary for a society to run smoothly?
IX. Proof of Love
17) Why does Kelly feel so compelled to share her faith?
18) Is proselytization inherently insulting to the person on the receiving end? How appropriate do you think it is in this context, and in other situations you may have experienced?
20) How much do math and magic have to do with this story?
21) What is the role of the absent sister?
XI. The Far Side of the Moon
22) What is it about Mandy that makes the narrator still miss her after all these years? Is it simply because she was the one that got away?
23) Could there have been something in the box?
XII. Someday Is Today
14) What is the relationship in this story between faith and family? How does it compare to your sense of family, and your experiences of faith?
25) Do you think what the narrator does in the hospital is wrong? How would you have reacted if a similar incident happened to you and your loved ones?