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Third Conversation With Emily

Neal, sixty-two, arrives home in suit and tie from the community college where he is an English professor, and is greeted by his dog Niko, a big friendly five-year-old mutt. Neal’s daughter Emily, thirty, is in the kitchen making supper. Emily and her son Andre have lived with Neal for five years now. Andre is about to turn seven and Emily is in her final year of training to become a marriage and family therapist.

Emily: Hi Papa. You’re home early today. Just in time to chop vegetables for the chicken soup.

Neal: Oh joy. But first allow me to dispense with my briefcase and change into more appropriate sous-cheffing garb.

Emily: You are allowed.

Neal: (bows to her) I shall return.

Emily continues cooking while Neal deposits his briefcase in his office and goes to his bedroom to change into old trousers and sweatshirt before returning to the kitchen where he gives Niko a good petting before sitting down at the counter.

Neal: Much better. Unharnessed. Where’s the boy?

Emily: (serves Neal a bottle of beer) He went to Joshua’s after school today. Should be home any minute.

Neal: (has a swig of beer) How was your day?

Emily: Good. Got lots done. Saw two clients with Amy supervising, and she said I did very well considering how intractable they both were. Mired in existential dread. She’s always so complimentary, says I’m a natural, as opposed to Ramon who says I either talk too much or don’t talk enough. (hands Neal a cutting board, cleaver, onion, and carrots.) And I got lots of reading done, mostly Winnecott and Klein, and then I went to yoga, which was glorious, and then I spent a fortune on groceries. A good day, all in all. How about your day?

Neal: Not bad. Somewhat bittersweet as many of them are nowadays.

Emily: Why so?

Neal: You know… one of those days when I was frequently aware that the vast majority of my students would rather gaze into their phones than listen to me or to each other. But I did have a rousing discussion about A Tale of Two Cities with the three of my students who are actually reading the book, the other thirty-seven present in body only. And I had lunch with Karen, which was fun. So… like that.

Emily: How about we invite Karen for supper on Saturday. Yeah?

Neal: Well… um… I don’t know. Seems… not sure.

Emily: You’re not sure or she’s not sure?

Neal: Oh I’m sure she’d love to come. I just… I’m… I’m enjoying having lunch with her a couple times a week and that feels like enough for now.

Emily: You know you don’t have to marry her if she comes for supper. I just think it would be fun to meet your new friend. I know Andre would like to meet her.

Neal: Well she’s not really new. I mean… having lunch together, that’s relatively new, but…

Emily: Never mind. I don’t want to do anything that makes you uncomfortable.

Neal: (begins chopping onion) And you’re sure I wouldn’t have to marry her if she came for supper?

Emily: Not right away.

Neal: Well in that case… I’ll think about it.

Emily: I hope you will because I want to invite someone for supper and I think it would be a good idea to have more than a few of us here the first time. 

Neal: (stops chopping) Oh really. Anyone I know?

Emily: You used to know him, and he certainly remembers you.

Neal: Are we speaking of a former student?

Emily: We are.

Neal: Age?

Emily: Thirty-five.

Neal: So let’s see, that would mean he was a student of mine fifteen or sixteen years ago.

Emily: Both.

Neal: I had him for two years? I probably do remember him. What’s his name?

Emily: Before I tell you his name, I want you to remember he is not who he was when he was nineteen and twenty.

Neal: Oh really? He had an identity transplant?

Emily: No he grew up. Unlike my father.

Neal: Sorry. Of course he isn’t the same person. But he has the same name?

Emily: Yes.

Neal: And that name is?

Emily: (hesitates) Michael Bernstein.

Neal: (frowns) I’m sorry, I must have misheard you. You didn’t say Michael Bernstein, did you?

Emily: That’s what I said.

Neal: You’re kidding.

Emily: No.

Neal: (sets down the cleaver) You’ve fallen in love with the most difficult student I’ve ever had?

Emily: I have not fallen in love with him. I just like him. A lot. He’s charming and funny and…

Neal: Hold on. Charming and funny? We can’t possibly be talking about the same Michael Bernstein. The Michael Bernstein I suffered with for two years was in every way the antithesis of charming and funny.

Emily: You saw no glimmerings of promise in him?

Neal: All he ever wanted to do was deride everything I said… when he was good enough to show up for class.

Emily: Until the last semester of his second year with you.

Neal: Is that what he told you?

Emily: No. That’s what I remember.

Neal: What are you talking about? You didn’t know him then. You were only fourteen.

Emily: And fifteen. And you’re right, I didn’t know him, but I will never forget the night you were marking up essays in the living room and you finished reading one and said, “I can hardy believe what just happened.” And I said, “What, Papa?” And you said, “Michael Bernstein, my nemesis for the last two years, has written one of the most beautiful essays I’ve ever read, and appended a note of apology.” I asked if could see and you handed me the essay. And on the last page he’d written Sorry I have been so horrible to you. Rough times. You helped me make it through.

Neal: (amazed) I’d completely blocked that out. I remember now, but… I’d only retained how difficult he was. But you’re right, those last few months he turned things around and wrote a series of brilliant essays and got into Cal. (starts to cry) Yet I only remembered the bad Michael.

Emily: He says he became a writer because of you.

Neal: He’s a writer? (crying) To be continued. I gotta blow my nose.

Neal goes to the bathroom, washes his face, and returns to the kitchen.

Emily: Onions. They always make me cry, too.

Neal: Yeah. So where did you meet Michael?

Emily: In my yoga class.

Neal: A great place to meet women. Or so I’ve heard.

Emily: He’s been in the class for three years and didn’t seem interested in meeting anyone, women or men. I’ve only been going for four months, but I was intrigued by him so I asked the teacher about him and she said he was incredibly shy, always unfurled his mat at the back of the class as far from anyone else as he could, and rarely spoke. So I took it upon myself to break the ice.

Neal: You asked him out?

Emily: I spoke to him one day after class. We had a scintillating ten-second conversation. I said something like, “That felt great.” And he smiled sheepishly and whispered, “Yeah.” And then a few classes after that we had another thrilling exchange. I said, “Do you take yoga every day?” And he nodded. And I asked, “With Beth?” And he nodded again. So you can see how eager he was to get to know me.

Neal: So…

Emily: So finally one day I followed him outside where he was unlocking his bicycle, and I said, “Hi. Would you like to go for coffee with me?” And he turned red as a beet and replied so quietly I only know he said Yes because he was nodding.

Neal: Reminds me of me.

Emily: In so many ways.

Neal: What other ways?

Emily: He’s brilliant and funny and very sweet.

Neal: How did you find out he was my Michael Bernstein?

Emily: When we exchanged names, his name rang a bell, though I didn’t know why, and when I said Emily Ramsay, he did a double take and said, “Daughter of Neal Ramsay?” And I said, “Yes. How do you know my father?” And he said… (hesitates)

Neal: What? What did he say?

Emily: You might cry again, Papa. Those damn onions.

Neal: No, I’m done crying. I’m onto the carrots. What did he say?

Emily: He said, “He saved my life.”

Neal: Wow. You’re right. I might cry again.

Emily: He said you were the first adult who ever treated him as an equal and praised him when he did good work.

Neal: What a crazy society we live in. I’ve been told that same thing by many other students, and every time someone says that to me, I have the hardest time believing it, though I know it’s true.

Emily: He’s really nice. I think you’d like him, assuming either of you could get up the nerve to talk to each other.

Neal: Have you kissed?

Emily: Oh God no. We shook hands for the first time after our last lunch date, which was our fourth lunch date.

Neal: How was it? The handshake?

Emily: It was the most erotic handshake I’ve ever had.

Neal: Say no more.

Emily: Can I tell you one more thing he said about you?

Neal: Oh why not?

Emily: He said you were reflexively kind, and it made him want to be that way.

Neal: I’m astonished. So what does our Michael do for a living?

Emily: He has a show on YouTube.

Neal: A show on YouTube? And he gets paid for that?

Emily: More money than I’ll ever make, and he also makes lots of money from his books and merch.

Neal: Merch?

Emily: Merchandise. T-shirts and mugs with things he’s said printed on them.

Neal: He’s a published writer?

Emily: Yeah. Three books so far.

Neal: What are they about?

Emily: Two of them are short story collections, and one is a novel. They’re contemporary, funny, sweet, sad. Mostly about teenagers. You might not like them. They owe a lot to television, but I think they’re quite good.

Neal: And people buy them?

Emily: Yeah, they sell like hotcakes. He has almost a million subscribers.

Neal: Subscribers to what?

Emily: His YouTube show.

Neal: What does he do on his show?

Emily: He tells stories and reads stories.

Neal: And a million people watch him?

Emily: More or less.

Neal: Incredible. You wouldn’t think someone so successful would be shy.

Emily: Oh I think his shyness is a big part of why he’s successful. Lots of people identify with him.

Neal: So I can just go to YouTube on my computer and watch him?

Emily: He’s been on for five years now. I prefer his more recent shows to his old ones, but they’re all charming. He was almost too shy in the beginning and he has a much better camera now, the audio much improved. Each episode is about ten to fifteen minutes long, six days a week. Hundreds and hundreds of episodes to watch.

Neal: Forgive me, but I don’t think I will.

Emily: It’s okay. He’s definitely not speaking to your generation. Or even to mine. But young people love him.

A car horn sounds announcing the homecoming of Andre. Emily goes and opens the front door and Niko rushes out to greet Andre.

Emily: (calling to Joshua’s mother) Thanks Terry. We’ll have Joshua after school on Thursday.

Andre, almost seven, enters the house, sheds his jacket on the floor and races over to Neal.

Andre: What are you making Poppy?

Neal: I’m chopping vegetables for the soup. But only people who hang up their jackets will be allowed to have any.

Andre retrieves his coat and hangs it on a hook by the door.

Andre: Is there going to be sausage in the soup?

Neal: We must ask the chef.

Andre: (to Emily) Is there, Mom?

Emily: Would you like sausage in the soup? I was going to use chicken.

Andre: Oh that’s fine. Just so long as there’s some meat. We’ve had vegetarian for two nights in a row and I could really use some meat.

Neal: Me, too. Did you have fun with Joshua?

Andre: (wanders into the kitchen) Kind of. Only he doesn’t like to play outside so we just mostly watched television. Mom, can I have a snack?

Emily: Didn’t you have a snack with Joshua?

Andre: We had potato chips but I’m still very hungry.

Emily: How about an apple and some nuts?

Neal: And then we’ll take the beast for his constitutional before supper.

Andre: Good idea. I am feeling pretty antsy.

Emily: How unlike you.

Neal: I wonder why Joshua doesn’t like to play outside.

Andre: He says it’s boring.

Emily: But when he comes here you play outside.

Andre: Well we don’t have a television and I have a fort and we have a dog and we have a pond and we have a rope swing and we sometimes go to the beach.

Andre sits at the counter beside Neal. Emily serves him a bowl of nuts and slices of apple.

Neal: How was school today?

Andre: Good. But I think I might have to skip a grade.

Emily: Why is that?

Andre: I already know all the arithmetic and spelling and science and things she gives us because you and Poppy already taught me those things.

Emily: Would you like to skip a grade?

Andre: No, because then I wouldn’t be with my friends.

Neal: But then you’d make new friends.

Andre: But I’d be the youngest and they’d tease me. The kids in my class already call me Brainiac.

Neal: That’s a compliment.

Andre: I don’t think so, Poppy. They say it kind of mean.

Neal: Why do you think they tease you for being smart?

Andre: I don’t know. Fortunately I’m also a very good athlete, so they can’t tease me about that.

Neal: Speaking of athletics, how about a walk?

Niko hears the word walk and rushes to the door where he spins around in a circle.

Andre: Cool your jets, Niko. We’re coming.

Emily: Wear your jacket, please. It’s getting cold.

Neal: We will wear our jackets.

Andre and Neal go to the door, put on their jackets, and Andre clips the leash onto Niko’s collar.

Andre: Aren’t you coming, Mom?

Emily: No, I’m quite content tending the soup and making the salad. Have fun.

Neal: Á tout de suite.

Emily: Á tout de suite.

Andre: Á tout de suite.

fin

What You Do

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